A history of dining in Melbourne

Food, by its nature, is ephemeral, and so is its history. Sometimes it’s obvious when a trend is happening (see: kale, fancy gelato, complicated doughnuts). Other times, you might look up and think, “Hey, remember the early 2000s, when every sandwich was a focaccia and hardly anyone ate sourdough?” And, the further back in time we go, the greater the challenge.

Which brings us to Flavours of Melbourne: A Culinary Biography by Charmaine O’Brien, an extremely fortuitous find in the local history shelves at the Melbourne Library. It doesn’t just contain history — it contains recipes!

O’Brien starts out with the traditional diet of the Wurundjeri people, including extensive discussion of the murnong (also known as the yam daisy), a carrot-like tuber which was a staple until cows and sheep and white expansion in general drove it almost to extinction. Murnong re-establishment is now underway in various parts of Victoria, but so far it’s not available in sufficient quantities for eating, so all the recipes for this chapter are kangaroo-based.

The next few chapters deal with the early days of colonisation. Or, as the book doesn’t put it, The Mutton Years. For the early decades of Melbourne’s existence, meat (mostly sheep) was much cheaper and more plentiful than wheat or vegetables. Melbourne: Land of Vitamin Deficiences. Fortunately, this had improved by the early years of the Gold Rush. O’Brien describes the working class diet of the 1850s:

Roast or stewed meat, bread, and inexpensive vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes formed the mainstay of their diet.

Le snore.

Fortunately, the Gold Rush attracted people with a taste for more interesting food, and the ability to prepare it, and this was the beginning of Melbourne’s love for Anglo-French cuisine. Sample menu at the Cafe de Paris:

Bouillabaisse, turtle soup, Murray cod, game, tarts and every kind of fruit and vegetable in season.

For the less fancy, the restaurant also served steaks, chops and roasts, “served with generous mounds of mashed potatoes and bread”. Visitors from Europe were appalled at the mixing of the classes — and, worse, the presence of women. In public! Well, I never.

But I appreciate O’Brien’s attention to the working class diet. She records the chop houses that existed along Bourke Street, where, for between fourpence and sixpence, a man (nearly always a man) could enjoy:

…a generous quantity of meat, gravy and bread. The meat was either grilled steak or chops, roast mutton or beef, corned beef, curried mutton, Irish stew, or sausages. Vegetable accompaniments, when offered, were usually limited to potatoes and cabbage, and as vegetables were still relatively expensive compared to meat, these were served in small portions. A pudding, tea or perhaps a glass of beer would be included in the price. Rabbit and fish were luxuries at the time and the occasional availability of them was announced with a placard in placed in the restaurant window.

Writer J. S. James, aka Julian Thomas, aka “The Vagabond” made it his business to “inspect” many of these places — which sounds like a blog series to me — and records, “There are generally, and especially in the summer, more flies in the dishes than refined prejudices might fancy.” I sure do wish he had a Zomato account.

Now, I like large slabs of red meat accompanied by potato, but this all sounds relentlessly boring to me. And that’s not just my fancy-pants twenty-first century palate speaking — Marcus Clarke lamented that Australia was beholden to English cooking traditions, when we really ought to be eating more curries. (Clarke was also very much in favour of the oysters sold from carts along Bourke Street — until overfishing turned oysters from a working class staple into a luxury YES I AM STILL BITTER.)

Luckily, the Gold Rush attracted a lot of Chinese men, many of whom went on to settle in the Little Bourke Street area, import food and establish restaurants. But most white people were afraid to venture so far outside of their comfort zones.

Recipes for the Gold Rush chapter include … well, it’s called a spider, but this is not the ice cream and Coke concoction of our childhoods, instead “a mixture of lemonade and brandy served in either a short or long glass”.

What about people who don’t want their diet to be 90% mutton? Once again, Marcus Clarke recommended a shift, advising readers to eat “frijoles [beans] mixed with a hint of garlic and chilli pepper”.

But by now, we’re into the 1870s, and Melbourne is … not the most exciting of towns. The temperance movement is in full swing, and Melbourne describes the Sunday shutdowns:

Due to the influence of committed Sabbatarians … Sunday in Melbourne became a day of absolute sacrosanct rest; nothing was allowed to open on the Sabbath except places of worship. Train services were limited to those that took people to church … Any entertainment with an admission fee was banned on Sundays until the Sunday Entertainment Act 1967.

But what did non-Christian Melburnians do? By the 1880s — the boom period — Chinese Australians were routinely being fined for working in their market gardens on Sundays. It was regarded as the cost of doing business, and most of inner Melbourne’s vegetables were provided by Chinese Australians. How much were these fines? What did Jewish Melburnians do on Sundays? We just don’t know! Well, don’t know.

But we do know that the costs of matzo and kosher meat were prohibitive for many poor Jewish Victorians, and in the case of matzo, a society was formed to bake and supply it at cost to households who couldn’t afford to pay full price.

Then came the Crash in the 1890s, and the twentieth century emerged, along with vegetarianism. The Sanitarium Cafe — you know, from the same people who brought us Wheet-Bix — opened on Collins Street, but English writer E. M. Clowes thought its patrons looked pale and unhealthy. Clowes is notable for visiting Chinatown, “the only possible hunting ground for ‘something different to eat’.” Her meal:

…a dish of duck accompanied by a series of small bowls filled with mysterious ‘odiferous condiments and eggs of infinite age and tea stirred in fragile bowls’.

But there was already a growing Italian presence in Melbourne, and a couple of restaurants introduced the city to pasta and good wine.

Whereas oysters used to be cheap working class fare, respectable people regarded wine as, well, not nice. Partially because most of the wine available in Australia was rather nasty port or sherry, and while Melbourne had wine cafes, they were not nearly as cute as they sound to the modern ear.

So it was a bit radical when Italian-Australians started serving wine with meals! Only 18 wine licences had been issued in Melbourne in 1911, and most were held by Italians.

As we all know — I hope we do all know! — this began to change rapidly after the Second World War. Immigration from Greece and Italy slowly diversified the Australian palate, a process which sped up after the end of the White Australia policy. O’Brien notes that, whereas it took over a century for Chinese dishes to form part of the Australian diet, pho was nearly mainstream within decades of the first wave of Vietnamese immigration. I have to confess that I skimmed the later chapters, not because they weren’t interesting, but because I knew a lot of what they contained.

(Except that there used to be a fancy restaurant specialising in Indigenous ingredients in Fed Square. That was news to me.)

I scanned a bunch of the less horrifying recipes to try later, but I’m sharing this one just for Stephanie — a 19th century recipe for lentil rissoles:


  • 1 cup cooked brown lentils
  • 1 cup mashed potato
  • 2/3 cup fine breadcrumbs
  • 1 teaspoon powdered sage
  • 1 tablespoon minced onion
  • 1 teaspoon nut butter, dissolved in 2 teaspoons hot water
  • salt


  1. Mix all the ingredients together.
  2. Shae the mixture into hamburger-sized patties.
  3. Rub a little oil on the outside of reach rissole and place on an oven tray.
  4. Bake in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes, or fry until golden

(I have to say, this recipe does not set my life on fire. Needs garlic, maybe. Some cayenne? It’s been so long since I ate a rissole, I can’t remember what they’re like!)

Flavours of Melbourne: A culinary biography by Charmaine O’Brien (Wakefield Press, 2008)

Read this book if you…

  • have a full pantry for mid-book snacks
  • enjoy history and arcane facts
  • want to know miscellaneous things about Melbourne
  • want to lie awake at night, worrying about the fact that your Anglo ancestors had never eaten a zucchini

Four out of five baked oysters!