Travel Classics home Travel Stories Library Travel Classics Writers Conferences Travel Classics Media Newsletter Contact Travel Classics

Stylish Melbourne, The Queen of Australia
by Fred Ferretti

The conversation, over tea and pumpkin scones one afternoon in Melbourne's century-old Hopetoun Tea Rooms, danced about. It alighted briefly upon such topics as the arcane processes of organized cricket, Melbourne's sport of choice; the happy circumstance of a quixotic climate that has preserved the city's thickets of full and healthy elms; our previous evening at the Victorian Arts Centre watching the splendidly athletic Australian Ballet dance "The Sleeping Beauty"; and the wondrous quality and quantity of vegetables in the Queen Victoria Market. In the midst of these ramblings, my companion, a Melburnian, suggested that by having tea and scones there we were indulging in one of Melbourne's latest culinary trends. How, I wondered, could a pot of Earl Grey contribute to a movement, however slight?

"It is not the tea," she replied, "but the scones. Pumpkin scones. Flo, wife of the former premier of Queensland, Sir Jo Bjelke Peterson, baked pumpkin scones. Flo and Jo are a rather raffish couple, and Flo's scones have become a fad. Everybody bakes pumpkin scones now."

Thus are trends created in this most English of Australian cities, a stately place that alters its habits only after considerable thought and—though it is Australia's fastest-growing city, its financial center, and a haven for immigrants—that takes much comfort from and insists on preserving vestiges of its Victorian years. Melbourne is, in fact, the capital of the state of Victoria, and Melburnians are convinced that the namesake queen, who was known to have particularly admired the city as an adornment of her empire, would be content with today's Melbourne, and it with her.

Schooling, social caste, financial achievement, heritage, history, respectability—all of these are vital to Melbourne. With forbearance, Melburnians let you know that theirs is a city founded by English freemen and entrepreneurs, not by convicts, as was its chief rival, Sydney; that it was Australia's capital from 1901 until 1927, when the national government moved to Canberra; and that it is a city that has always set aside time for gentler, cultural pursuits. After all, the Melbourne Symphony can be traced back to the Victorian Orchestra, which performed in Melbourne as early as 1880. Much of Melbourne, to this day, husbands its Englishness.

Conversely, it is at the same time a most open city, one that has welcomed waves of immigrants and continues to do so. Melbourne was founded in 1835 by John Batman, a scout for a Tasmanian settlement company that bought the site from an aboriginal tribe for a quantity of blankets, knives, tomahawks, handkerchiefs, flour, and promises, largely unkept. Initially its settlers, who poured into Melbourne's mud flats off the Yarra River soon after the city was established, were from England, Scotland, and Ireland—gold seekers and city planners, professionals and artisans. Later, in the 1850's, came Chinese immigrants, who were lured by the gold fields at Ballarat, west of Melbourne, as they had been to San Francisco. Europeans from Croatia and Hungary, Malta and Italy followed, and after World War II entire Greek communities flocked to Melbourne. Still later Lebanese and Turks arrived, and recent immigrants include Vietnamese. For decades the clothing and fabric businesses along Flinders Lane have been dominated by Jewish refugees from Europe. The most recent foreign presence to be felt in Melbourne is Japanese, a significant manifestation of which is the huge Melbourne Central, a development of Kumagai Gumi, with office towers, the Daimaru department store, boutiques, and restaurants.

Melbourne has accommodated the newer settlers and become enriched by them—socially, economically, and gastronomically. Their influx has added ethnic spice to this place of Presbyterian heritage. Within the city center, along a narrow lane called Little Bourke Street, is Melbourne's Chinatown, and along Lonsdale Street is Little Athens. In its spread-out suburbs, along Lygon Street in Carlton, lies Melbourne's Little Italy, and, in Richmond, Victoria Street has become Little Saigon.

The Queen Victoria Market, a vast complex of more than 1,200 roof-shaded stalls that have been selling Howell and Pakham's Triumph pears, Jonathan apples, "bintje" potatoes, huge red peppers, and lamb and beef to Melburnians since 1884, now also offers fennel, kiwi fruit, Chinese cabbage, coriander, litchis, unusual gourds, and lemongrass. Similar variety is to be found in other local markets, such as those in South Melbourne and Prahan.

Melbourne today is ricotta gelato made by Ottorino Pace in his Casa del Gelato on Lygon Street; thick cappuccino sipped among the literary bohemians at the Black Cat on Brunswick Street; baklava in the shop called Diethnes on Lonsdale; Hungarian whipped-cream cakes along Acland Street just off Melbourne's St. Kilda Beach; and noodles in broth from behind the counter of Heip-Loi Mi-Gia in Little Saigon.

Richard Frank, president of Melbourne's Restaurant and Caterers Association, is most optimistic about what he calls "this new dimension in Australian food." Over lunch in his French restaurant, QUARTER SESSIONS, near Melbourne's law courts, he suggested that these tastes "recognize that we are European and that we are part of Asia. There is a great deal of combining and many different flavors. In our better restaurants, however, we serve basic French. Once upon a time in Australia, everything was overdone. Let us hope that we do not go to the other extreme."

During our visit we were able to sample the efforts of two of the best restaurants operated by inheritors of Melbourne's immigrant tradition. Gilbert Lau came here from Hong Kong and with his FLOWER DRUM has set a standard by which every Chinese restaurant in Australia must be judged. As we ate with him one evening he explained that when he arrived in Melbourne the state of Chinese cookery was "black water, pots of cabbage, bean shoots, and noodles, and that was it." These days his fashionable cooks use crayfish gathered near King Island, off Tasmania; mud crabs from Queensland; prawns from South Australia; and scallops from Western Australia—all of which are prepared with a skill surely the equal of the finest cooks in Hong Kong. One dish Mr. Lau prepared for us was bean curd in a Szechwan sauce of minced pork, mushrooms, garlic, chilies, and scallions cooked together until thick and served over a mound of noodles.

More than a quarter of Melbourne's acreage is given over to parklands, virtually all of it studded with gazebos and bandstands.

Vladizslav Gregurek came to Melbourne from Croatia—"from Zagreb; it was Yugoslavia, now it is Croatia again"—thirty-two years ago. Five years later he opened VLADO'S, where ever since he has been cooking his specially raised and selected grass-fed and grain-fed beef. His restaurant is unique. There is no printed menu. One is served a roasted pepper, or sliced tomato, with grated cabbage and vinegar. This is followed by one of his beef sausages personally made "with just a little pork"; one of his steaks, which he calls his "diamonds"; and, for dessert, strawberries. No other vegetables are served, not even potatoes, and there are no substitutions, ever. Vlado, a round and rosy man, cooks everything on a small grill at one end of the dining room, handling his steaks with white cotton gloves. "I am not a cook," he says. "I am just the instrument. I am happy to be in a profession where I never know enough."

The city that offers this kaleidoscope of flavors is also a place of exceptional beauty and quickly changeable weather, not unlike London. Melburnians say that on any day their city may experience all four seasons. Winters, in June through August, can be clear and crisp or rainy and windy. Summers, December to February, are often tropically hot, which in large measure accounts for Melbourne's legacy of green. More than a quarter of Melbourne's acreage is given over to parklands, virtually all of it studded with gazebos and bandstands.

A park such as Fitzroy Gardens invites you to its paths among the elms and palms; to the cascades of flowers in its conservatory; and to Captain Cook's Cottage, the birthplace of James Cook, the English sea captain who claimed Australia in 1770 for the English crown. This ivy-covered house was bought by a Melburnian, dismantled, shipped from its original site in Yorkshire, England, and reassembled in these gardens.

In this spacious city, there are great green patches with names like Treasury Gardens, Carlton Gardens, and Flagstaff Gardens, but revered more than any of these is the Royal Botanic Garden, planted in 1846 along a bank of the Yarra River, a preserve in which it is possible to experience the grandeur of a sculpted English garden as well as a tropical rain forest. The city has even established a park in the suburb of Templestowe called Petty's Orchard, in which more than two hundred varieties of "antique" apples are grown, most of them no longer found in commercial orchards.

Melbourne's trams, too, are vintage, some of them true antiques, many given by their city to civic groups to paint and decorate at whim. Along streets called Queens, King, Wellington Parade, and, of course, Victoria and Albert, sit enormous sandstone and limestone piles such as the Treasury, the Old Mint, and Parliament House—grand buildings that were erected stone by quarried stone during Queen Victoria's time and have been preserved with care or restored with affection. Scattered amid them are fetching small, narrow terrace houses with railings and balconies of exquisitely wrought lacy ironwork. The city's lone remaining gaslight stands, preserved as a certified historical landmark, on Collins Street (which courses west to east through the heart of the city)—one among the more modest relics of Melbourne's century and a half of history.

Melbourne is where Nellie Melba (née Helen Mitchell) was born and sang; where Robert Menzies, perhaps Australia's most famous politician, and Rupert Murdoch, the publishing magnate, were born. Its Flemington Racecourse is the venue for Australia's richest horse race, the Melbourne Cup. On warm Saturdays it is not unheard of for 1000,000 people to file routinely into Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch an afternoon match, and just across a broad stretch of greensward is the National Tennis Centre, where each year the Australian Open is held.

Those bewildered, as we were, by cricket might, as we did, go to South Melbourne to view instead the fascinating precision of the weavers in the Victorian Tapestry Workshop. (Tours can be arranged: tel 699-7885). One of only three such workshops in the world, along with Aubusson in France and Dovecote in Edinburgh, it is housed in a former Victorian glove factory. The weavers at their looms were duplicating in massive scale the paintings of Australian artists, and they have produced hundreds of decorative tapestries for clients throughout the world. More than two dozen of their works hang in government buildings, in the National Gallery of Victoria, and in office buildings in the center of Melbourne. Two particularly striking tapestries are suspended on opposite walls of the high-ceilinged lobby of The Regent Melbourne hotel, both soft abstract—one of the wattle, Australia's national flower, the other of the pink heath, the state flower of Victoria.

The weavers at their looms were duplicating in massive scale the paintings of Australian artists, and they have produced hundreds of decorative tapestries for clients throughout the world.

Our pleasant interlude at the tapestry works prepared us for the art of two brilliant interpreters of Australian cookery, Stephanie Alexander and Mieta O'Donnell, both still important in the Melbourne food universe, though not in their original restaurants. Too bad, for these two culinary outposts were extraordinary and, even now, worth remembering.

STEPHANIE'S RESTAURANT was housed in a colonnaded Italianate mansion that is on the country's National Trust register. It was a rich retreat, all varnished paneling, and burgundy velvet draperies, with thick linens and heavy silverware and in its kitchens Stephanie produces some of the finest food in Australia. Many contend hers is the country's best kitchen.

Her cooking is fundamentally French, yet "Victorian in every sense," she says, with great reliance upon Australia's native food—Tasmanian salmon, lamb from New South Wales, Fremantle anchovies, and local butters, cheeses, and olive oil—but she is deeply influenced by Australian tradition, by the need to have a proper meal. We were served bowls of what Stephanie calls "Mother's Day Kitchen Garden Soup," a thick puree of onion, celery and potato garnished with peas and her "bread omelets," tiny cakes of sourdough bread crumbs, garlic, and parsley fried in duck fat.

This was an apt introduction to the rest of our dinner: roasted marrons (crayfishlike creatures from Western Australia) with sautéed apples; roast leg of lamb complemented by roasted garlic; and duck, grilled, the parchment skin of the leg crisp, quite like Peking duck, and its flesh moist. Extraordinary cooking, and without undue adornment, taken with a Yeringberg Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, the vineyards of which we had visited one afternoon. We concluded our meal with an Amaretto semifreddo, which Stephanie served between chocolate wafers as a "sandwich." Wonderful!

The other of Melbourne's truly grand restaurants was MIETTA'S, a place devoted, unabashedly, to classical French cooking, served in a vast, pale blue Victorian room with bronze statuary, crystal chandeliers, and damask cloths. Mietta's was owned by Mietta O'Donnell and Anthony Knox, outspoken advocates of what they call "purity of the kitchen." Their definition suggests that differing cuisines cannot and therefore ought not be mixed, nor produced from a single kitchen. The restaurant was reached by a wide and impressive interior staircase and was once the Deutscher Verein, Melbourne's German Club. Later it was the Naval and Military Club. A former chef now has his own well-regarded place, Jacques Reymond's Restaurant, in Melbourne. The present chef is Romain Bapst, from Strasbourg, France, who is a very good cook indeed. At one superb lunch an eel terrine with caviar mayonnaise was served with pistachio bread. This was followed by cold Tasmanian oysters in an aspic of oyster juice, which was called "seawater jelly." These were followed by a chartreuse of pheasant, the meat molded smoothly around a mousse of crépes, along with a chou farci made of John Dory layered with and enclosed in cabbage, steamed and served with a caviar beurre blanc.

Over coffee Mietta did acknowledge the increasing importance of Asian food in Melbourne and in Australia generally. She did not, however, respect all of its practitioners, particularly those who attempt to mix Western and Asian influences without thought or skill. "They don't make proper sauces, classical sauces. They chop peppers and make salsas," she said.

For our afternoon stroll, we headed to Collins Street, along which are to be found the boutiques of Gucci, Dunhill, Vuitton, Ungaro, and Cartier, as well as the Royal Arcade, a virtual clone of London's Burlington Arcade. The Melbourne Club (members only) is also on Collins, once Melbourne's street of physicians, its Harley Street. At its eastern end is the Treasury building, where a century ago the gold from Ballarat was stored. Opposite are the twin towers of the Australia New Zealand Bank and Collins Place, a complex that includes THE REGENT MELBOURNE, where for a portion of our visit we were guests.

At the Regent we ate at both the CAFE LA and LE RESTAURANT—the former during the day and the latter at night—both excellent, both on the hotel's thirty-fifth floor, both affording us remarkable views of Melbourne. Particularly enjoyable were two dishes: grilled tiger prawns served with pasta and blanched vegetables and dressed with a Thai green curry sauce; and roast loin of lamb that shared a plate with a flaky "Pithiviers"—there a pastry filled with shallots, garlic, and a mixture of vegetables.

ROCKMAN'S REGENCY HOTEL, an unobtrusive but luxurious place between Chinatown and Little Athens, is adjacent to the city's theater district and favored by the Australian film community. Our suite, appropriately called "The Apartment," was a delight, with a sauna—the better to relax before dinner in the hotel at IAIN HEWITSON'S MEMORIES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN.

Hewitson, a large, rambling fellow who has owned a number of restaurants in Melbourne, was asked by the Rockman's Regency to take over the hotel restaurant, and he made it his own, cooking foods of the Mediterranean rim—such as marvelously roasted eggplant, peppers, artichokes, fennel, leeks, and celery dressed with garlic and olive oil and served with prosciutto and salami—from Italy, Greece, and Spain. It was most difficult to wrench ourselves away from what he called "my antipasto" and sample his other efforts—among them braised oxtail with glazed shallots, a fragrant joy.

On the south bank of the Yarra River sits the Victorian Arts Centre, a complex encompassing the Theatres Building, a modern oval topped by a needle-like spire that resembles the Eiffel Tower in miniature, and the Concert Hall, home to the Melbourne Symphony. We visited the concert Hall early one afternoon and to our surprise and pleasure happened upon a rehearsal of Brahms' Fourth Symphony being led by the orchestra's conductor of many years, Hiroyuki Iwaki.

The National Gallery of Victoria is right next door. Composed of a series of long, airy, naturally lighted exhibition halls, it contains, along with an obligatory but choice group of French Impressionists, a fine collection of Tang Dynasty figures and other Asian porcelains as well as a marvelously mounted array of English furniture of many periods. The museum's strength, however, lies in its collection of paintings by masters of the Heidelberg school; Australians—native, such as Frederick McCubbin, and immigrant, like Tom Roberts—who painted scenes of the countryside and of Australian settlers in Heidelberg, now a distant suburb of Melbourne.

It is claimed that the National Gallery has the finest collection of art in the southern hemisphere, and after several visits there who would not agree with that assertion? Its very location and its bluestone construction provide an echo of strength to the solid, square granite Shrine of Remembrance—a bit farther up St. Kilda Road—a memorial to all of Victoria's war dead, set, like so many of the city's monuments, amid greenery. Between our visits to the National Gallery and to the small but sublime W. R. Johnston Collection—Georgian and Regency furniture and decorative objects left as a legacy to the city and displayed in a terrace house in East Melbourne (for an appointment call 416-2515)—we dined in Armadale on High Street, the renowned avenue of antiques shops.

Eating at BROWN'S was like being a guest in a French country house. Greg Brown, student of the Roux brothers and of Raymond Blanc in England, was at the stove. His wife, Merran, sees to the dining room from behind an eighteenth-century writing desk. An open cupboard holds a set of English bone china, and sofas are grouped around a fireplace, there for guests to indulge in an apéritif—or, later, a brandy. We sat at a table in the parlor and enjoyed an intense consommé, an essence of lobster and carrots. We had lamb ribs stewed with shallots, lentils, and smoked bacon served in a copper cocotte; and roasted chicken, off the bone, accompanied by zucchini and carrots that had been dressed lightly with vinegar from Jerez. Fine cooking, the memory of which is enhanced as I recall the dessert, a house-made bitter-almond ice cream.

The following day, our last in Melbourne, we went out to the Dandenoung Ranges, fern-covered mountains about twenty miles east of the city. These forests are favored by campers and hikers. We are neither, but we wandered through tulip and rhododendron groves, spotted galahs (cockatoos) and rosellas (parakeets) in the eucalyptus and mountain ash, and looked in the many crafts shops set in the clearings.

Later we stopped at a little roadside tearoom called Miss Marple's, where, among photographs of Margaret Rutherford, peering through a magnifying glass searching for clues, we enjoyed scones, large and dense, some plain, some with currants or raisins. They were just fine, as was our pot of Earl Grey—a proper way, the English way, to conclude our visit to Melbourne.


copyright 2000-2017; all rights reserved.
web development: Dia Misuraca