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Posts Tagged ‘australian food history’

A 19th Century German Cottage in Hahndorf, South Australia

Traveling in Australia one expects Vegemite, or a burger “with the lot” which includes, depending upon whom you ask, pickled beets, a fried egg, and a slice of fresh pineapple. But a lunch of homemade mettwurst and sauerkraut, washed down with rich German beer, and finishing off with a nice slice of apple struesel? That’s exactly what you’ll find if you visit Hahndorf in the state of South Australia

Most people have heard that the nation of Australia began as a British penal colony when the First Fleet bearing some some 750 convicts landed at Botany Bay in 1788. While the first settlers in the colonies which would become the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, and Victoria were primarily convicts, South Australia was founded in 1834 as a colony of free settlers. As might be expected, most of these settlers immigrated from England, Ireland, and Scotland. However, there were a significant number who came from Germany.

In the 1830s the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III forced the union of the Calvinist and Lutheran churches and any community which continued the old Lutheran practices found its pastor jailed and its land confiscated. In 1838 a group of 54 families fled this persecution by embarking on the ship Zebra and sailing for South Australia. They negotiated for the use of 240 acres of uncleared bush land about 16 miles outside of the city of Adelaide and founded the town of Hahndorf, which was named for Dirk Meinhertz Hahn, captain of the Zebra.

Hahndorf is the oldest non-British, European settlement in Australia. Other communities with German roots include: Grunthal founded in 1841, Lobethal founded in 1842, and Bethany, also founded in 1842. In addition to introducing some tasty German cuisine to the local, primarily English colonists, the German settlers in South Australia were quite influential in Australia’s burgeoning wine industry. They planted the first vines in the of the now famed Barossa Valley wine region where some of the world’s best Shiraz grapes are now grown.

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Photo by Wikipedia user tristanb - used under CC license

When visiting Australia it is impossible not to encounter Vegemite, that mysterious black goop which many Aussies spread on their toast every morning and hold in a special place in their hearts. As a recent commercial attests, “Australian made….internationally misunderstood.”

I can report that while it looks like sludge left over from a secret experiment gone wrong, when eaten properly it is quite tasty. Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract. I know, that really doesn’t make it sound any more appetizing, but it’s true. It’s made from the yeast that remains after the beer brewing process. Since Australians are unlikely to stop drinking beer any time soon, that means it’s quite sustainable and a good re-use of something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Vegemite is also one of the richest sources of B vitamins in the world. Oh yes, we’re piling up those exciting reasons to try out yeast spread on your toast aren’t we? Well, here’s something that should tantalize food lovers everywhere. Vegemite has a very high concentration of glutamic acid. So what, you say? Glutamic acid is what we taste when we experience umami or the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami’s prized, savory flavor is found naturally in many foods including Roquefort cheese, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, grape juice, tomatoes, human milk, and beef. Vegemite nearly tops the list however, with over 1400 mg of glutamate per 100 grams; it is literally yummy.

As is customary around here, let’s have a brief look at the history of Australia’s favorite sandwich spread. Vegemite was invented in 1922 by, Dr. Cyril P. Callister, a chemist at the Fred Walker Company. The name was chosen in a nation-wide contest which was judged by Mr. Walker’s daughter Sheila. The winner, whose name has been lost in the mists of time, received a prize of ₤50 (about $2600 US today). The new product debuted 1923.

It was not a hit.

The next chapter in the history of Vegemite gives some insight into the Australian sense of humor. In 1928, after lackluster sales, Mr. Walker tried renaming the product Parwill. Australians were familiar with a similar yeast extract made in the UK called Marmite, so Walker created the tag line, “If Marmite . . . then Parwill” (try saying it with an Aussie accent). Whenever I groan at one of my Australian husband’s pun-filled jokes, he reminds me that it just might be genetic. Walker first tried selling Parwill in the state of Queensland as a test. It did about as well as you might expect . . . terribly. So the name was changed back.

In the end, Vegemite’s reputation was rescued by science. Just before WWII, the British Medical Association gave Vegemite its official endorsement as a product to be recommended by doctors to their patients as a source of B vitamins. During the war there was actually a shortage because the Australian military was buying every jar they could get their hands on to boost the nutrition of their soldiers. As often happens, when people can’t get something, they want it more, and the fact that it was helping their soldiers fight the good fight was great free marketing.

After the war Vegemite solidified its position on the brekkie table of the nation as it was fed to all the new members of the baby boom generation to ensure their good health:

How to Eat Vegemite Like an Australian

This is a case where less really is more. I think the reason so many non-Australians have tried Vegemite and hated it, is because, as they say on the Internet “You’re Doin’ It Wrong!” Follow these instructions and if you still don’t like it, well then you’re just a weirdo because it’s really good:

  • Toast some simple white sandwich bread
  • Spread the hot toast with a good amount of soft, unsalted butter and allow it to melt nicely.
  • Dip the tip of a clean knife into a jar of Vegemite and make a squiggle of it across your buttered toast. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, put more than this amount of Vegemite on your toast the first time you try it. Later, you may want to experiment with more, but start with just a tiny bit.

Some Australians enjoy horrifying visitors to their country by telling them they should just eat Vegemite from the jar with a spoon. For shame! Don’t believe anything they say about drop bears either.

Once you’ve mastered the art of eating it on toast with butter you might consider some of the other myriad uses Vegemite has been put to over the years including:

  • It’s a great addition to sauces and soups to give that savory umami taste.
  • Some pregnant women swear by it as a cure for morning sickness. Oh, and it contains a ridiculous amount of folic acid which is essential for women of child bearing age.
  • Mix with water and use as a marinate for chicken.
  • Add a little to your meatballs or meatloaf.
  • Vegemite is supposedly a great hangover cure (the Aussies should know!) and hey, the vitamins certainly won’t hurt.

Finally, no discussion of Vegemite is complete without the song that piqued listeners’ curiosity about it around the world:

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