A Colonial Antipodean Dinner, Vaucluse House

An impromptu night out with a twist. A friend of mine had told me Historic Houses Trust were running a food week. The opportunity was to experience what convicts ate 150+ years ago or what graced the dining tables of the landed gentry. It was an easy decision to choose the later. Obviously it came with a price tag, but it promised an unusual night out, so happy to take the plunge.

The dinner sort to emulate a dinner held in 1846 as reported by Godfrey Mundy in his diaries. It started with a tour round the grounds of Vaucluse House, one of these gorgeous colonial houses that dot the Sydney area. I’d yet to get round to visiting this fine example, so it offered a handy excuse.

We have a couple of guides to tour the beautiful grounds, describing the local fauna. It’s an opportunity to showcase their knowledge and there’s some lively debate regarding the origination of hibiscus…. (“when I was in Egypt I met a tribe….”). It was also novel to see the source of much of our impending dinner in the kitchen gardens. Farm to plate is just so in right now….

We’re also able to see the main house by candle-light. It’s nicely atmospheric and offers  a real sense of how the wealthy lived many years ago. It’s interesting to think about how living was so much more social then before TV, with a decent dinner the perfect conduit. I had been party to some gloriously wanky research a while ago that surmised that sofas had become the primary signifier of socio-cultural mobility in the 21st century. I suspect if this was the case it would have been in the 19th.

After a good hour we feel as though we’ve earnt a glass of champagne (hibiscus optional). The champagne is generous and we get a few glasses before we sit down for the dinner. We’re seated in tables of 8 and get to know our fellow diners. We’re the youngest by about 20 years. They settle in with a glass of wine. We get stuck into our first bottle at reasonable pricing.

The first course is wallaby tail broth with baby turnips, sauteed baby gem & garden herbs

Consomme like in style, served warm it’s a nicely balanced fresh soup. The wallably tails are gamey and tender. It’s not a hard eat. I love a bit of turnip for body and the whole is almost sweet. It’s very pleasant.

The next dish is a stand-out: escabeche poached snapper with smoked oyster relish & dill

The escabeche is subtle and adds real flavour to what I consider not the most exciting of fishes. However it’s a good textural fish that holds up well to the saltiness of the oyster, which comes through in a lengthy finish. It’s a dish to savour.

The ‘mains’ give an opportunity to crack open another bottle of red. First up is roasted squab with watercress, lemon & eschallot salad & bread sauce

The colonial palate is easy to spot here and nothing says ‘institution’ like bread sauce. It’s far better than it sounds – an oniony bechamel. Another pleasure is the baby pigeon which demands to be gnawed at. The eschallot salad completes the dish with a bit of freshness. It reminds me how much I love autumnal food in the UK. Would have loved seconds.

The final main is roasted kangaroo rump, white yam puree with native spinach, port jus & lilly pilly jelly

With so many kangaroos around at that time, of course this was going to be on the menu with the yams probably the only nod to indigenous culture that the guests presumeably cared so little about. It’s a good lean, flavoursome substitute for beef. Under-rated in my opinion. The yam is essentially sweet-potato and the port gives everything a bit of body. No real great shakes in terms of skill, but decent flavours, but we are talking about a period of time when “what can we eat?” was more prevalent than “where shall we have lunch?”

The dinner finished with: Tropical fruit plate with loquat, mandarin, pomegranate, custard apple & guava ice

The purpose of this was more to showcase the quality and variety of local fruits brought up-to-date with guava ice. Loquat & custard apple are an interesting discovery. It’s perfectly pleasant, but you’re no friend of mine if you can get excited about fruit salad.

It’s always good when food is an excuse to learn. Most of my motivation is based around decent eating, so it’s continuing a trend. It was a decent night out with surprisingly good food. I’ll be up for a repeat at another place and time (just don’t make it the 1980s….)

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