Eating in Victoria was a different proposition for the Aborigines than for early Europeans. The Aborigines lived off the land. The women, in the main, collected vegetable foods and small animals, whilst the men hunted large game. (Koorie plants, Koorie people, p. 3)  Their vast experience living on the land saw them develop an intricate knowledge of food.

Aboriginal diet included bush tomatoes, berries, wild fruit, fish, possums and eggs of emus, ducks and turtles. (The History of Australian cooking, p.9) They feasted not only on nuts and yams but also on huge hibernating…bogong moth[s], which tastes like a roasted chestnut when grilled. (Guns, germs, and steel…, p. 310)

Kangaroos, wallabies and emus were numerous, the latter particularly on the open plains. (Aboriginal Melbourne, p. 36) The skillful hunting techniques of the Aboriginies, incorporating camouflage and shrewd craftsmanship, enabled them to build traps, spears and baskets.

A stone axe, a basket of the bark of a tree and a wooden sword.

[Aboriginal implements], which includes a stone axe, a basket of the bark of a tree and a wooden sword, 30328102131546/14

Once captured, larger animals were cooked over open fires as well as sand ovens. ‘Kangaroos…would ordinarily be singed all over before being divided into pieces…although they might be cooked in a sand or earth oven, completely covered except for their protruding legs.’ (The world of the first Australians, p. 113)

The Europeans brought with them livestock. By 1836 in Victoria, it was estimated that Port Phillip already had 26,500 sheep and 100 cattle…and by 1839 there were half a million sheep and 15,000 cattle. (Old Melbourne Town, p. 8)  Europeans also ate kangaroo, preferring to cut it into pieces before frying it. The first Australian cookbook, The English and Australian cookery book: cookery for the many, as well as for the upper ten thousand, published in 1864, warns about the strength of kanagaroos:

Kangaroo- Usually mild, inoffensive animals, they are sometimes stirred up to wrath when brought to bay by dogs; and there are two instances on record, in the Bothwell, of “boomers” (forester kangaroos) having seized men in their arms, and carried them for some distance, and then flung them violently down.

The English and Australian cookery book… also includes recipes for calf’s head hashed (p. 24), roast emeu (p. 84) and black swan (p. 90). Other early popular Australian dishes included the colonial walnut cake, burgout (oatmeal pudding without milk), Sorrento pork and veal pudding. (A look at yesteryear: early Australian cooking)

An 1875 wood engraving showing a class of young women in the kitchen of the Melbourne home.
The cooking class at the Melbourne home, IAN03/11/75/172

More Victorian culinary information can be found in the research guide Food in Victoria. The Library also holds other food related resources including community cookbooks, pictures and pamphlets.

Written by Paul Dee, Librarian, Australian History and Literature Team and Jane Miller, Librarian Digital Access

This article has 2 comments

  1. Very interesting blog post. I think that the food history of Australia is woefully neglected in this country. The exhibit that the library held in 2012? was excellent and showed just how deep this history goes. Hopefully more people are encouraged to learn about Australia’s food history going forward. Keep up the great work.

    • Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes the exhibition was called ‘Gusto’ and had some great stories and images.
      Thanks for reading.

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