Thursday, May 19, 2011

Belshaw's World - New England masterchefs ponder regional dish

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 11 May 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

In a moment, I want to introduce you to Armidale’s most luscious blog. I know most of my readers are not bloggers, but this is the type of blog that will make you salivate – literally!

But first, a story.

I was trying to find out a little about traditional New England food. In this case, not the broader way I usually use the term, but The New England, the Northern Tablelands.

The only uniquely New England dish that I could find, one shared with parts of Queensland, was a variant of French Toast. Indeed, this is the French Toast I cook myself. I just hadn’t realised that it was a local variety.

Now the blog. Sophie Masson’s A la mode frangourou - A French Australian look at food is an absolutely superb food and lifestyle blog that ranges from New England to France and presently Russia.

French born, Sophie combines the food from her childhood with excursions into her local garden and beyond. When I tweeted the blog to my fellow New England bloggers Paul Barratt and Denis Wright, their reactions were just the same – mouth watering.

For those who are interested, the web address is

Now in one of her posts, Sophie said of Tasmania that, unlike other parts of Australia, had begun to develop a uniquely regional cuisine. Always sensitive, I thought hang on a minute, what about the New England! That started me searching.

Then I realised after only finding French Toast that there wasn’t anything there in writing. Yet I know that some of the food I have eaten I haven’t seen elsewhere, or at least not in the same combinations.

A uniquely regional cuisine does not mean that the dishes or variants of the dishes are not to be found elsewhere. It’s the use of local ingredients, the combination that counts.

A uniquely regional cuisine also does not mean that every dish is good. Bad cooking is bad cooking. You try travelling around Greece and you will see what I mean!

So, now that I have set this challenge, what do I think of as New England cuisine? Like all of us including Sophie, it’s memories from childhood that are most powerful.

Now the first thing to note is that most meals were two or three courses, not the one of this time poor world.

The meal often began with soup, sometimes made from left-overs. Some soups like chicken broth were light, but most were rich, designed for a cold climate.

The main courses took into account what was available.

Lamb and especially mutton was common and cheap, for this was a sheep area. Steak was very expensive, so the cheaper cuts were used. Chicken, too, was expensive.

Roast lamb or mutton was common, with roast chook on special occasions. This came with wonderful baked vegetables – potatoes, pumpkin, sometimes turnips and Swedes – and with whatever greens were in season. Peas were especially popular, served with mint, but there were various forms of beans.

Most people had household gardens, many had hens. They supplied a much higher proportion of the food we ate.

Beyond roasts, there were a variety of casseroles and stews suited to available food stuffs and to the climate as well as grilled meat. Mind, you some of these were pretty ordinary: TAS mutton stews almost put me of stews for life! But the best were very good.

Leftovers were used – bubble and squeak and lamb pikelets. I loved the last.

Desert and betweens was often fruit. New England had lots of stone fruit. This was bottled and then served later. I loved cold black cherries with cream in the morning before I went to school. I loved raspberries even more.

Fruit might be served with cream, but was often put into pies or other deserts of one type or another.

Then there was the baking. Cakes scones, biscuits, all served in different ways. And the jam!

Now in all this I am not saying that our cooking needs to be stuck in the past.

A limp lettuce leaf does not a salad make.

I am saying that regional cuisine focuses on and draws from its past.

Have we lost that? Certainly, I miss it.

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