Sydney’s colonial-era summers were awash with peaches. They were so plentiful, ‘growing spontaneously in every situation’, as William Charles Wentworth put it, that they were heaped into piles and used as pig feed. The pigs especially enjoyed them fermented. The locals fermented them too, converting peaches into gallons and gallons of good times.
So how did peaches go from being the ‘most abundant and useful fruit in the colony’ to a fruit rarely seen in a Sydney backyard? This is one mystery food historian Jacqui Newling is yet to solve. Newling is the ‘resident gastronomer’ at Sydney’s Living Museums and knows an awful lot about what people in Sydney have grown, cooked and eaten over the years. The fate of the backyard peach is so far unsolved, though she does have a theory about all that peach cider. She reckons mutant fruit, caused by incomplete pollination, was tossed into the ferment barrels. Most peaches are self-fertile and will fruit without help, but pollination is much better with bees. (Commercial growers use bees at a rate of 2.5 hives per hectare.) Honeybees weren’t successfully established in the colony until the 1830s, suggesting many a mutant peach in Sydney’s early, cider-swilling days.
Newling’s new book, ‘Eat Your History’ shares food stories and recipes from our past and busts a few myths along the way. The olive, for instance, often assumed to have arrived with post-war migration, was a part of 19th gardens and its juice was usually referred to as ‘salad oil’. It hasn’t been simple to establish exactly what leaves that salad referred it, but Newling thinks it must have bitter greens like endive, chicory and cress.
Our renewed interest in growing food has seen these three re-incorporated into the backyard, along with other colonial era crops, such as artichokes, both Jersualem and globe, asparagus, rainbow chard, and all manner of kales. While our choices are driven by curiosity and flavour, colonial choices were formed, at least in part, by storage considerations. Without refrigeration vegetables that stored, or could be harvested leaf by leaf, were favoured. Likewise fruit that could be preserved had a much higher priority than it does in the modern garden.
Popular in Sydney’s early days, and worth rediscovering, is the rosella, Hibiscus sabdariffa. The scarlet calyx that encases the seedpod of this West African annual shrub is tartly edible. Dried rosella is the ingredient that flavours hibiscus teas, and we also see rosella sold as ‘wild hibiscus flowers’ preserved in syrup and designed to be drowned in a glass of sparkling wine. The young leaves are also edible. Their sorrel-like tang will tart up a salad, and they become milder if stir-fried or steamed. Newling includes a recipe for rosella jelly in her book that she says is delicious as either a sweet spread or an accompaniment to roasted meats. I bet it’s also good with her ‘kangaroo steamer’, which is a kind of roo rillettes. Peach cider optional.
You can read more of Jacqui’s research and recipes on The Cook and Curator. She is the Cook and Scott Hill is the Curator.
‘Eat Your History: stories and recipes from Australian kitchens’ by Jacqui Newling, published by Sydney Living Museums and NewSouth, $50.