In The Australian Ugliness, published in 1960, the architect Robin Boyd remembered a meal in a hotel dining room in Yass, New South Wales, served by ‘a waiter with arms bare to the pits dealing out soup bowls like playing cards round the packed table and responding to my circumspect enquiry about the possibility of a glass of wine with the succinct phrase, “I think you’ll be stiff, mate.”’
If the book is ever reprinted – and it is among the best books about Australian life and culture ever written – one hopes the publisher will not allow this anecdote to stand unrevised. Everyone knows, thanks to the insatiable effusions of newspaper food writers and restaurant critics and innumerable loud television kitchen competitions, that Australia’s cuisine has come of age, and that our sunburnt country’s hotels and restaurants lead the world in culinary excellence, hospitality, etc. Not only that, but they are awash with wine. Had he been travelling today Robin could have floated out the door on it. Whatever may have been the case in 1960 cannot be allowed to cast a shadow over the gastronome’s paradise we enjoy on our lucky continent today.
So I am delighted to reveal that self-defined ‘good-food activist’ Maggie Swill has had the inspired idea of drafting a revised version of Boyd’s story, suitable for inclusion in any new edition of The Australian Ugliness (which she feels should be retitled The Australian Beautiness). In this Speccie world exclusive, here is an extract from her magnificent work:
‘Motoring from Sydney to Melbourne I decided to sample one of the many five-star restaurants listed in my trusty copy of A Gourmet’s Guide to the Hume Highway (ed. M. Swill). I turned off the freeway at Yass, where the historic old Mulcahy’s Racing Greyhound Hotel beckoned with its celebrated menu, much praised by contributors to the Guide, of fresh local ingredients imaginatively presented with Provençale flair, Tuscan brio, Thai subtlety, Lebanese intensity, Japanese delicacy and last but not least Aussie superiority of style.
In response to my quite uncircumspect enquiry about the possibility of a glass – nay, two glasses, three, a bottle, two bottles – of wine, a beaming waiter with nose rings and mauve hair, his arms bare (but artistically tattooed) to the pits and dark blue singlet with the legend “Say Yes to Yass”, produced from the recesses of his “trackie’’ pants a map showing all the “wine regions” into which the district is now divided. Within a radius of five kilometres, he told me, there are no fewer than seventeen thousand vineyards, each producing wines that are the envy of the world. Indeed, so keen are locals on their “drop” that the nearby Botanic Gardens and the backyard of the hotel itself have been turned over to viticulture (my waiter particularly recommended a sparkling light white, “Chateau Gully Trap”, grown, he told me, in the corner of the yard near the drainage facility of that name between the clothes-line and the outside gents’).
For his part, the enlightened patron of the hotel, Phonse Mulcahy, has forbidden the serving of meals without wine and stipulated that as a condition of entry to his dining room all customers must sample a minimum of twenty Yass vintages. Very civilised.
With a cheery “there yer go” from the waiter, the menu arrived (a little stickier to the touch than I am used to; I fancy I detected a soupçon of sweet and sour sauce on it) and I turned to the pleasant task of ordering from a veritable cornucopia of what it called “classic Australian country pub dishes with a contemporary twist”, from pumpkin and eucalyptus soup to emu steak with couscous chips and a wattleseed coulis, tempura bacon and eggs with seaweed, “campfire-grilled” bandicoot kassler with harissa, koala-mince moussaka and prickly pear tarte tatin with sugar ants. What a change from the dreadful old days of Anglo-derived cooking in Australia with its burnt chops and overcooked watery veg. Multiculturalism has done wonders for our food. There was also a sumptuous list of locally made cheeses, from which the waiter suggested as particularly fine a double sheepdip-washed roquefort he said was ripening in the meat safe outside and the aroma of which I was sure I could recognise even at my table.
Gazing around the tastefully rustic dining room with its interesting framed photographs of 1950s football teams, its droll “We don’t cash cheques, not even good ones” sign and a gigantic television over the bar, the latter emitting the traditional mellifluous tones, so beloved of country folk, of a race caller on the verge of apoplexy, I reflected with pride how far fine dining in Australia has progressed from the days of bare-armed waiters dealing out soup bowls like playing cards.
My reverie was interrupted by a dispute at a far table. A suburban-looking little man, who you could tell at once wouldn’t know the first thing about good food, was raising his voice to the waiter. “I said I’d like a cup of tea,” I could hear him say, “with my meal.” “And I said you’ll be stiff, mate,” replied the waiter. “This is a gourmet restaurong. Tea, unless it’s rose hip, wildflower or wattle, isn’t part of Australia’s new sophisticated international cuisine. Yer drink wine here and like it or yer piss off.”
“Bravo!” I called to the waiter in my impeccable Italian, acquired on my many visits to that country with its wonderful history of knowing how to enjoy genuine food. “It’s people like you who are upholding the standards of hospitality and service which make Australian dining so unique. A cup of tea, I ask you.”
The waiter looked across at me. “What d’ya mean a cup of tea I arst yer? Are you deaf or somethink? I said no tea here, grandma. I just told this dickhead. If you want to take the mickey why don’t youse pay yer bill and sod off too before I kick yer out, you old bat.”
I left well pleased with my experience of contemporary Australian hospitality and, as a bonus, a display of sophisticated théâtre de cuisine, a virtuoso performance of a spontaneously choreographed, quasi-balletic encounter between servitor and served, the kind of privileged glimpse into restaurant life, charged and crackling with culinary passion, that uninformed people imagine you can only see in a matelots’ estaminet in Marseilles or at a Chinese street food vendor’s. I think this time Robin Boyd would not have been disappointed.’
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10