Lessons in eating for migrants

Been thinking a lot about inauthentic cuisine, those so called traditional dishes that are actually more recent inventions—like the ploughman’s lunch. In fact I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and inauthenticity more broadly, as we seem to be living in an age obsessed with certain notions of authenticity. Perhaps this is my innate perversity—what a playwright colleague described as me always wanting to look though the other end of the telescope—but I’m more interested in the inauthentic, in part because that’s often where different cultures, different tastes, and different understandings of history mix and marinate.

In any case, that’s all for another post or essay.

I’ve been awarded a Visiting Research Fellowship from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences for the latter part of this year to work on Lessons In Eating for Migrants. I’m not yet sure exactly what form my findings will take—performance, audio, print, or maybe some combination of platforms … but here’s a brief description of what I’ll be looking at.

Teaching migrants the Australian way to eat was a challenging job—according to a 1949 newspaper article. Authorities at the reception camp were trying to wean the newcomers from their goulash. How did those postwar refugees and displaced persons from continental Europe, Ten Pound Poms and other migrants deal with the Australian menu? How did their recipes, their market gardens, their ideas about cooking and eating change Australian foodways? And in return, how did Australian produce and attitudes towards food modify those immigrants’ culinary practices?

Stroganoff. Schnitzels. Strudels. Stories filled with poppy seeds and smudged with buttery fingerprints. The dishes we chose and serve offer insights beyond the kitchen. Lessons in Eating for Migrants will take an inventive, interdisciplinary approach to the MAAS collections and resources. Chasing down obscurities, shedding new light on the familiar, my research looks at how postwar migration shaped Australia’s tastes, and suggests ways we might add some more missing voices to the archive.

More information here.

Black and white photograph of George’s Restaurant / Café Espresso, Double Bay (Sydney). Photo by A L Guildford, Sydney, 1958. Interior design by Hungarian brothers Imre Soos and Gyula Soos. Powerhouse Collection.

Eating in solidarity

Our screens are awash with footage of Ukrainians made suddenly  homeless, and we’re mourning this senseless disruption and destruction of human life. I’m in awe of the Ukrainians’ resilience and determination to defend their country. And I’m inspired by food writer Olia Hercules, not only the project she’s launched to raise funds for her besieged homeland, but also her 2020 book Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from every Corner of Ukraine. It reminds us that to live is to plant and harvest and cook and eat, that history lives in kitchens and markets and on bakery shelves, even as Putin’s artillery would reduce them to rubble.

Ukrainian food is more than borscht. More than chicken Kiev, a dish strongly associated with Ukraine but which is, I think, an early twentieth-century creation. In any case, whatever its origin story, let’s now call it chicken Kyiv. Sometime after 2018 Kiev became Kyiv. Reclaiming the city’s original name was a desire by Ukraine to disentangle itself from its Soviet past and assert an independent identity away from the shadow of Russian dominance.

Ukrainian cuisine is rustic, is home-cooking, is sour and honey-sweet, is dumplings and mushrooms, is cabbage stuffed, is hearty and earthy and profoundly grainy. Buckwheat, rye, potatoes, beetroot and berries. There’s an obvious overlap with Polish cooking, but at the Ukrainian table you’ll also find echoes of Jewish culinary practices. As well as tastes from Turkey, Hungary and other Slavic and Central European countries.

In solidarity with the people of Ukraine, last night’s dinner featured—amongst other things—potatoes, pickled cucumber and a beetroot salad with rocket, dill and a mustardy olive oil dressing.

I’m going to end this post with a few lines from Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka by Nikolai Gogol, published in 1831 – 32. Gogol grew up in Ukraine and the stories in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka draw on his childhood memories.

… the same table on which they had left vodka when they went out to dinner was now, as though by some magical transformation, covered with little saucers of jam of various sorts and dishes of cherries and different kinds of melons … the old lady became more disposed to talk and, of her own accord, without being asked, revealed a great many secrets in regard to the making of apple cheese, and the drying of pears …
   But Ivan Ivanovich was more talkative and active than any­one else. Feeling secure that no one would snub or contradict him, he talked of cucumbers and of planting potatoes and of how much more sensible people were in old days.
From ‘The Dinner’, in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow. Translator uncredited.

PS. After receiving an official request for assistance from the Government of Ukraine, the World Food Programme has launched an emergency operation to provide food assistance for people fleeing the conflict. To donate click here.

’tis the season for … fruitcakes

Another strange and constrained year draws to a close. Another slice of fruitcake. And another dive into the history of dried fruits in Australia. In connection with a project I’ll be doing in the latter part of 2022, I did some research into the relationship between migration and the dried fruit industry.

A 1922 newspaper explained that the South Australian Premier, Henry Barwell, was brokering a deal—or perhaps more accurately, a swap—with the British government for an ‘immigration settlement along the Murray Valley as a substantial quid pro quo for an Imperial preference for Australian fruits’. You buy our dried fruit, we’ll take your immigrants. It’s tempting to point out that a century later, Australian politicians’ international diplomacy skills have not greatly improved.

Stollen, Christmas cake, Dundee cake, sultana cake, golden fruitcake, simnel cake, Caribbean black cake … I’ve yet to meet a fruitcake I don’t like. I totally don’t understand the American antipathy to fruitcake—but then I don’t share their fondness for the sugary blandness that is red velvet cake.

Recipes for Christmas cakes get passed around in families and communities. Get modified over the years to fit the tastes and lifestyles of successive generations. We have my partner’s grandmother’s recipe, copied out in spidery handwriting on blue paper, blurred by buttery fingerprints and with a pencil X beside ‘figs’. (Neither of us much like figs so we replace them with dates.) A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald asked if baking your own Christmas cakes (and Christmas puddings) was a dying art. Are we over the Covid-fuelled home-bakathon?

This year I composed my own adaptation for our Christmas dessert: fruitcake ice cream. I soaked sultanas, raisins and dried citrus peel in hot tea for a few hours to soften and plump up. Then I drained them, added glacé cherries to the bowl and soaked the whole lot overnight in brandy. The following day I partially melted a tub of good quality vanilla ice cream, mixed in the dried fruits and put it back in the freezer.

Although I didn’t make a traditional cake, our friend Iqbal did, and he gave us a present of his dark, rich, delicious Christmas fruitcake, along with a Sri Lankan love cake.

Back to the history of dried fruit cultivation.

The Australian Dried Fruits Association (now Dried Fruits Australia) was formed in 1907 from the amalgamation of the Mildura Raisin Trust and the Renmark Raisin Trust. The aim of the organisation was to protect the interests of growers, regulate prices and promote their produce.

This excerpt comes from a Victorian newspaper in 1932.

‘In the Palais Theatre last Friday afternoon over 300 people were treated to a most instructive and enjoyable two hours’ entertainment … Moving pictures were screened depicting the work that goes on in the irrigation areas where dried fruits are grown, processed and packed … Comedies and other pictures of educational interest were shown and everyone was given a Sunshine Cookery Book.

The article continues: ‘The objective is to stimulate interest in, and increase sales of, Australian sultanas, currants, lexias, apricots, peaches, pears and nectarines … Besides the necessity of supporting a great national industry on the grounds of patriotism and sound common sense there is one very convincing reason why every housewife in Australia should make it their duty to embody dried fruits in some shape or form in the daily diet of the home. It is a question of health.’

The early dried fruit industry in Australia drew on the expertise of Greek migrants. In 1948 The Age announced that ‘Migrants from displaced persons camps in Europe will help to save the dried fruit crops in Victoria and South Australia. Mr Calwell, Immigration Minister, said today that 400 men travelling in the General Stewart, due to reach Australia next month, would be taken immediately to the Victorian and South Australian irrigation areas on the River Murray … To supplement this force, 200 Balts [sic] now at Bonegilla camp would be sent to Mildura.’

Where do most of the fruits in fruitcake originate? The Arab world. Where did the art of mixing dried fruit into cake batter begin? In Europe, starting in ancient Rome. Proof—if you need it—that fruitcakes are life-affirming and cosmopolitan.

 

This sugar business

After the lull and languishing of lockdown, November has been a busy month. I have an audio work in production (Mrs C Private Detective), a theatre show opening early 2022 (The End of Winter) and I’ve started research / creative development on a new piece (Flying Saucers Over Fairfield.) So this month’s post is a short one.

Sugar gets a heap of bad press, but I have a soft spot it it—well, for its history. Perhaps because it was an important crop in Australia. Perhaps because I live in an apartment on the (redeveloped) site of the old Pyrmont CSR refinery …

I picked up The Story of Sugar, published in 1932 by the Queensland Bureau of Economics and Statistics, in a Brisbane charity shop. The booklet starts with a Summary:

‘The Australian sugar problem is part of the world’s sugar problem and has much the same origin. It is a problem of over-production and of sales on the world’s market at much less than the sugar costs to produce.’

Now of course, if you talk about the ‘sugar problem’ you’re likely to be talking about consumption rather than production, about diet and public health, about sugar as the villain in the pantry.

I bought The Story of Sugar for the bits and pieces of historical information it contains. And when I flick through the booklet’s yellowed pages, I gloss over the tables and economic data, and picture instead the cane fields of north Queensland ablaze.

Fire runs through the history of sugar. ‘By a fire at Pyrmont this morning the refined sugar store of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company was destroyed.’ That’s where I live, and that report is from an October 1918 Sydney newspaper. ‘The fire was remarkable for the velocity with which it spread and for the magnificently picturesque spectacle it provided. It was the biggest fire that Sydney has had for years.’ The account continues:

‘Immense geysers of flame shot into the air, and then after the fashion of a rocket, broke into myriads of sparks and spray. There was not a puff of wind. The flames leapt directly upward, illuminating the sky for miles, and casting brilliant reflections into the water. The walls burst with explosions which were heard a long distance off. From the effect of the breaking geysers, the moon was coloured a beautiful dark blue, and the stars above and around it were paled and surrounded with reddish and blue tints. The atmosphere was permeated with the odour of burnt sugar.’

I suspect I’ll be returning to this sugar business at some point, but that’s it for now.

Go pine nuts

There they were in Queer Plants, an 1894 article in a weekly newspaper from regional Victoria.

The article continues: ‘ … in California the … Indians collect pine nuts, which are the seeds of certain species of pine, sometimes called “pinions,” by kindling fires against the trees, thus causing the nuts to fall out of the cones’.

Pine nuts aren’t nuts, botanically speaking. They’re the edible seeds of those pine species (genus Pinus) whose seeds are large enough to be worth harvesting. European pine nuts come mostly from the stone pine (Pinus pinea), which has a super-long history of cultivation, and an even longer one of gathering from the wild. Russia, Korea, China and—once upon a time, Afghanistan—are major producers of pine nuts. I checked out the pine nuts for sale in my local supermarket, and they’re all, including those labelled ‘organic’, imported from China.

Many cuisines—European, Asian, Middle Eastern—make use of pine nuts. They enliven green salads; you can use them instead of almonds in a Spanish romesco sauce; they add a bit of crunch to pilaf and other rice dishes. And you can use them to stuff mushrooms, tomatoes, marrows—or capsicums, which is what I’m doing today.

There’s more to the pine nut than the classic pesto alla Genovese. But in a sobering 2015 article in the New York Times, Jonathan C  Slaght suggests the pine nut industry may be contributing to the crash of an ecosystem in the Russian far east. Commercial over-harvesting by Homo sapiens along with myriad disruptions caused by climate change is depriving other species of their vital food source.

Pine nuts are rich in oil and the smell of them toasting is irresistible. I always add an extra handful to the pan—and enjoy snacking on them as I put the recipe together. Pine kernels have a short shelf life—that’s my justification for this indulgence.

In the kitchen I toast my pine nuts over a low heat. Mix them with (dark rye) breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, salt, black pepper and a teaspoon of za’atar. Then add the finely chopped onion, garlic and zucchini that I’ve fried in olive oil. I bind the stuffing with a beaten egg, but you could leave it out and use olive oil instead if you want to make your dish vegan. I blanche the capsicums or give them a minute in the microwave to start the softening process. Once filled, they’re ready to go in the oven on a medium heat for about half an hour.

Pine nuts connect us to a world of remote villages and vast coniferous forests, to the world of fairytales and ancient foraging traditions. I’ve always liked the stark beauty of those northern forestscapes, with their understories of fungi, foxes and misfit children. While in Australia, in places like Oberon and surrounds, we’ve got acres of plantation pines—an environment I find unsettling, slightly spooky even. All those fish-bony firs, all those trees in straight lines …

Turnips—the village idiot of vegetables?

Sydney’s Covid lockdown has brought roots to the fore. Hairdressers have been closed for months so everyone’s roots are showing. Cafés and restaurants are take-away only. Keen to support our local favourites, and desperate to get off the hamster-wheel of planning, shopping for, and preparing home-cooked meals, we’re indulging in take-away big time.

It’s no secret that I’m very fond of root vegetables. I have a chapter in The Book of Thistles called Forgotten Roots. It was a take-away dinner last week that got me thinking specifically about turnips. (Chinese turnip omelette from the Blue Eye Dragon in Pyrmont was the curiosity-provoking dish.) I wondered if there wasn’t more to the turnip than a synonym for dopiness. More to the village idiot of vegetables.

The Blue Eye Dragon’s Chinese turnip omelette

I started making notes.

The turnip, Brassica rapa, is one of the earliest cultivated vegetables. In the fourth-century BCE turnips were one of the foods that sustained the poor of ancient Athens. And they were an important food for the Romans. From the classical world the turnip spread east to China—and elsewhere.

Turnips taste better and are more versatile when they are picked young and small in late spring or early summer. There’s less you can do cooking-wise with the bigger, older ones.

A German cookbook published in 1485 gave recipes for preparing turnips and other vegetables. Less than a century later turnips—along with carrots and parsnips—were introduced to England by Flemish weavers. Initially grown as livestock fodder, they made the transition to the table, but were—perhaps still are?—associated with farm labourers, immigrants, and consumers of low socio-economic status. Although peasant cuisine is now fashionable, I’ve noticed that turnips are rarely on the menu.

From John Gerard, Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, published circa 1597

In 1776 the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (of The Wealth of Nations fame) noted that staples—like turnips—which had until then been produced largely by individual workers in allotments and garden plots, were now being farmed on a large scale.

Yes, turnips may be considered a peasant food, but the association with dirt and poverty seems unfair. Turnips, after all, helped make Britain wealthy. In the eighteenth century, Charles, Second Viscount, Townsend championed crop rotation, agricultural reform and the cultivation of Brassica rapa. It was the start of an agricultural revolution and earned him the nickname ‘Turnip’ Townsend.

Turnips will crowd out or smother weeds, are cold-tolerant and an all round easy-to-grow crop.

The swede, a.k.a. rutabaga, is a kind of turnip, possibly originating from a cross between the turnip and the cabbage, and a late arrival on the culinary scene. In 1916 – 1917 swedes helped save a substantial section of the German population from starvation.

In Forgotten Fruits, Christopher Stocks describes turnip varieties called Snowball and Orange Jelly.

I would not go so far as to say that winter turnips are useless. They have their place in soup and stocks …  But unless you are prepared to lavish attention and butter on them, I would suggest waiting until the spring and early summer.’ Jane Grigson was not a great fan of the turnip—and she actively disliked swedes. When it came to turnips, the French, she wrote, had the right idea. Their turnip dishes used young, spring-harvested vegetables. Whereas in England, ‘we stick too much to the agricultural view, regarding the turnips as a coarse, cow-sized vegetable, suitable for the over-wintering of herds, schoolchildren, prisoners and lodgers.

In Digging the Past Frances E Dolan introduces chapter 2 (Knowing Your Food: Turnips, Titus, and the Local) with a couple of instances of turnip-related violence. The accidental death of an infant in 1651 from a turnip tossed over a church wall, and a wife murdered by her husband who couldn’t stomach the prospect of turnips for dinner.

Dolan points out that some historians and food writers have dismissed the turnip’s story as one that is not worth telling. Unlike say, tomatoes, apples, or potatoes. A point of view echoed—or prefigured—by Jennifer A Jordan in Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Vegetables. A heritage turnip sounds like an oxymoron. Does such a thing exist? Yes, it does. There’s a Japanese heirloom turnip known as hoekurai. And no doubt somewhere out there are more lost varieties waiting to be rediscovered.

Everyone knows about heirloom tomatoes and the history of apples. They’re the A-listers. Turnips don’t even make the B-list. They’re at, or close to, the bottom of the celebrity vegetable hierarchy.

There’s nothing glamorous about the turnip. It’s an unprepossessing vegetable. Unlike strawberries or tomatoes, it’s not freighted with nostalgia. Nor a reservoir of youthful memories—except perhaps in Scotland where mashed ‘neeps’ are a traditional side-dish. Unlike strawberries, apples and tomatoes, turnips usually need cooking, or some kind of pickling or preserving.

The Turnip Princess is a fairy tale collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. It fuses the magical and the mundane and when I read it I see elements of a reverse Sleeping Beauty. A bear tells the hero (a prince, of course) that if he puts a rusty nail under a field turnip his reward will be a beautiful wife. The Gigantic Turnip is a classic, much retold Russian folktale in which a farmer grows a turnip so large he’s unable to uproot it by himself, and has to enlist the aid of family members and a procession of creatures. Together they succeed in pulling up the massive turnip.

Turnips were apparently thrown by Roman audiences at unpopular orators and during plays and poetry readings that did not meet with their approval. The ancient world’s equivalent of rotten tomatoes. On a more positive note, in some translations of her verse, the poet Sappho, writing in the early seventh century BCE, calls one of her paramours ‘Turnip’.

Turnips play well in tagines and soups. Roasted with cumin and paprika, or with garam masala. Shavings of young turnips add crunch and pepperiness to salads and stir-fries. I cook very finely diced swedes, serve them seasoned with nutmeg, white pepper and extra virgin olive oil, or use them as the basis for a vegetarian Cornish pasty. And I like to think that buying turnips from farmers’ markets or organic providores is helping support biodiversity.

Riff on a green tomato

Like a lot of us, I’m finding Sydney’s current lockdown more of challenge than the one last year. My mood goes up and down and writing has become a frustratingly slow process. As someone who works mostly from home I know that my professional life is far less disrupted than many people’s. And it’s not as if the projects I’m working on aren’t enjoyable, aren’t ideas to which I’m deeply committed …

Times like this, I remind myself that the counterpoint to ‘work from home’ and ‘stay at home’ orders is the outsourcing of risk—to supermarket staff, to those delivering our Uber Eats and online shopping orders, and to others in the food supply chain deemed ‘essential workers’.

To combat low spirits and what I hope is a temporary lack of application, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. And I’ve also set myself a food-related task: to write 100 words a day  about any vaguely culinary experience, idea, or mash up thereof, that happens or pops into my head that day.

The piece below – Riff on a green tomato – was written on 29 July, when there were a bunch of cops patrolling the park and harbour foreshore.

How it got there
body half buried

in the mulch
whose it was

nobody knows
not the solo picnicker

who scoffed a sausage roll and left
a snow of flaky pastry

not the essential worker
who blew some leaves

cut up some fallen limbs
and scooted off

looks to me like
it entered the earth

at some point
in the last few hours –

an accident, perhaps a fall
from someone’s shopping bag

was it a deliberate act
abandoned for its unwelcome colour

or how about this for a plot
the green tomato is the offspring

of a plant seeded
from the discarded

scraps of someone’s last summer barbeque.
Case closed.

Epic tomatoes

Sydney is battling Covid-19’s super contagious delta strain. We’re in deep lockdown and advised to do all our shopping online. I don’t have a car, so I’ve used online shopping for years. But only for certain things—bags of kitty litter, laundry powder, rice, tinned tuna, etc—bulky or heavy goods I can’t carry home, and non-perishables. I like to pick out my own fresh fruit and vegetables. And I always check ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates on milk, tofu, yoghurt and other fridge items.

The current restrictions have changed that; I’ve added fruit, vegetables, dairy and other chilled foods to my online orders. With mixed results. Sometimes the delivered produce are fine, half a butternut pumpkin, almost three weeks in which to use a tub of ricotta; but sometimes the ‘use by dates’ are ridiculously short for a household of two adults. I’ve also received squishy sweet potatoes, badly bruised apples—and green tomatoes. To be clear, I hadn’t ordered green tomatoes, they just came that way.

Johann Wilhelm Weinmann, Phytanthoza iconographia,1737 – 1745

Tomatoes aren’t always red or round. They come in many shapes and in every colour from daffodil yellow to near black. Some varieties, like the well known Green Zebra, stay green even when fully ripe.

By coincidence, not long after my unripe tomatoes were delivered, I came across green tomatoes during a walk along the harbour foreshore. (Lockdown restrictions allow us to leave home for exercise.) Three irregular green tomatoes lying on the mulch in one of the park’s raised borders. I concoct a narrative to explain their presence. I imagine them semi wild, tomatoes of character, the offspring of a plant seeded from the discarded scraps of someone’s barbeque or picnic.

What can I do with green tomatoes? (I left the three in the park to become compost. I’m talking now about the ones the supermarket sent me.) Do I put them in the fruit bowl next to a banana and see if that will coax them to redness? Or do I use them as they are?

The first recipe that springs to mind is invariably green tomato chutney. Hmm. A couple of maybe nots. One. Years ago when we were living in the Blue Mountains, my partner burnt the bottom of my big Le Creuset pot trying to make green tomato chutney. The memory of that disaster—the smell, the scraping, the forever-after scratched surface—lingers. Two. Green tomato chutney can be a hit or miss affair; it can turn out tasty, but it can also turn out not very nice. And realistically, how much homemade chutney will we eat in a year?

Green tomatoes need longer cooking than their red counterparts. A little sugar, a little spice. Could I use them in a tagine? With leeks, chickpeas, a handful of raisins. Or how about a South Indian green tomato dahl …

When is a plum a greengage?

I’ve just ordered a book I’ve long lusted after: The Plums of England by Harold V Taylor, published in 1949.

I’ve bought my copy online, from the wonderful Hard to Find Books NZ, the largest secondhand and antiquarian book dealers in New Zealand and the largest online secondhand bookstore in Australasia.

As they say on their website, as well as offering an online service, they are also a real, bricks-and-mortar bookshop—two in fact, one in Auckland and one in Dunedin. A few years ago I spent a happy late August afternoon browsing in the Dunedin store on Dowling Street. I can’t remember exactly what I bought there, but I know I came away with several purchases. Books I’d been looking for—and books I didn’t know I ‘needed’ until I plucked them from the shelves.

By Alois Lunzer, Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalogue, 1909

There’s a brilliant passage—an interior monologue—in A S Byatt’s 1985 novel Still Life about how to describe the colour and bloom of plums:

Do we have enough words, synonyms, near synonyms for purple? What is the greyish, or maybe white, or whitish, or silvery, or dusty mist or haze or smokiness over the purple shine? How do you describe the dark cleft from stalk pit to oval end, its inky shadow?

It’s the end of June, winter in Australia; fresh plums are out of season, and won’t be back in supermarkets and for sale at farmers’ markets until summer. Black plums, red plums, mirabelles, cherry plums, plums with yellow flesh, maybe even greengages—a group of cultivars popular in Britain and other parts of Europe.

What makes a plum a greengage? It’s not the colour. As well as the usual yellowish-green fruit, there are purple greengages and greengages the colour of amber. The greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica) was originally a sixteenth century French varietal named Reine Claude after the wife of King François I. A couple of centuries later an English baronet by the name of Gage, imported them into England. 

Louis Glowinski (The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia) writes that gages ‘are the elite of the plum world’. ‘Ripeness is all,’ says Edgar in King Lear. And a ripe greenage is a sublime thing—sweet and fragrant with a slightly tart subtext. They’re also delicious cooked or candied. Jams, cakes, crumbles, or simply stewed and served with Greek yoghurt or labneh. And plums of all varieties play well with ground almonds and frangipane.

I like cooking with plums—every kind from small, midnight-dark damsons to big red-skinned Victorias—but I also like their common names and the mico-stories behind those names. Here are a few of my favourites from The Plums of England:

Rivers’ Early Prolific

Kirke’s Blue

Warwickshire Drooper

Laxton’s Goldfinch

Denniston’s Superb

Prosperity

Late Transparent

Dittisham Ploughman

Goliath

Coe’s Crimson Drop

Angelina Burdett

Purple Pershore

Passion fruit

I’ve been writing about a (fictional) character who has a tattoo of a passion fruit vine that winds around her left arm from wrist to shoulder. So no surprise, I’ve had passion fruit on my mind the last couple of weeks.

Passion fruit is the best known of the fruits of the various species of the genus Passiflora, a tropical/subtropical perennial that produces a purple-brown or yellow fruit and striking flowers with deep violet-blue centres.

Introduced to Queensland some time in the late nineteenth century, this South American native, is now both a year-round commercial crop in Australia and a popular garden plant. You’ll find passion fruit vines climbing up trellises and trained over pergolas in many a suburban backyard.

For anyone interested, there’s plenty of botanical and horticultural information about Passiflora species available online.

Passion fruit was given its name by missionaries in Brazil around the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were trying to convert the indigenous inhabitants to Christianity and used the distinctive flowers to teach the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. (There’s a lot about that too on the internet.) So the plant’s early association was with religious rather than romantic passion. The romance came later.

In her Fruit Book, Jane Grigson is scandalised by the exorbitant prices charged for passion fruit in Britain and France. And the only specimens I saw when I lived in England were small with old-man wrinkled skins. Not so here in Australia, where yesterday for just over $5 I bought three large, deliciously fresh examples of this fruit I think of as a quintessential Australian ingredient.  

It is the most aromatic of fruits; cut open a passion fruit and its sweet, slightly tart fragrance fills the kitchen. It speaks of laughter and laid-back lunches. It speaks of poetry and promise and late afternoons when the sun fights its ever-losing battle with the rotation of the earth and gives way to night.

I most often eat passion fruit spooned over unsweetened Greek yoghurt mixed with a teaspoon of lemon curd. I’ve also enjoyed it strewn over ice cream, pavlova and cheesecake, but my favourite use is probably in a passion fruit sponge of the kind you find in country towns and at CWA stalls. Last week I went looking for for a slice of this classic. Without success. Inner Sydney cafés and bakeries have shelves of cakes and baked goods on offer, but passion fruit sponge is off the menu. Perhaps, like many foods deemed old-fashioned, it will have a comeback at some point? Here’s hoping.