Exploring Australian Home Cookery: a vintage cookbook from the 1930s

Sizzling: Prudence would be proud of this duck liver wrapped in bacon.
Sizzling: Prudence would be proud of this duck liver wrapped in bacon. Photo: David Reist

"Here is a book to meet the needs of the Australian housewife," says Prudence, circa 1930. Whether it's a cocktail, after-theatre, tennis or  children's parties calling for savoury titbits, she says this book provides a host of helpful suggestions, a valuable guide to happy housekeeping and happy home life.

It is so funny what comes your way when you have a penchant for food and the ridiculousness of life. I'm reading Australian Home Cookery, published in England but tested "under Australian conditions" whatever that is. It has more than 850 recipes and illustrations of what food must have been like for our constantly tanked forebears.

Who Prudence was or if she ever existed is a mystery but if ever a name spoke of the person, she is definitely prudent. Australian Home Cookery, published between two world wars and presumably during a depression, goes by the mantra "extravagance is not compatible with good cooking". This is brought to life by a recipe and photograph of a "potato wall", which is a ring of mashed potato, with boiled minced meat thickened with flour. You might say this meal would stay with you a while.

Duck liver wrapped in bacon.
Duck liver wrapped in bacon.  Photo: David Reist

The book has a suburban Mad Men feel about it. The number of references to alcohol is astounding and there is no questioning of gender roles, given the times they must have been sloshed. There are loads of parties: tennis, bridge, something called a fork luncheon and then there's the hobo party. What? Surely not? According to Prudence, it's great fun for young people and should be well thought out and properly carried through with that "hobo atmosphere". Not too strongly of course, you don't want to seem insensitive but come in your most "tramp-like" clothes. To make matters worse – if that's possible – there's the menu for the hobo fest. Crayfish, oysters, shrimps and saveloys. Times have changed, that's the truth, and if hoboes are stuck eating crayfish and potato walls are the norm for the happy home, I know where I'd rather be.

The term "politically correct" seems decades away.  I can't go past the section on hors d'oeuvres and savouries. It seems like anything wrapped or topped with bacon immediately becomes an hors d'oeuvre. Oyster wrapped in bacon, tinned asparagus wrapped in bacon, fried flour and milk add bacon, liver wrapped in bacon. All served on your best china before the potato walls arrive.

Devilling was also at its peak in the 1930s, a process of adding piquancy to everyday foods using cayenne pepper. Eggs get a look in too: eggs and cucumber cups, egg cooked in tomatoes, egg baked in potatoes. The whitebait yachts are a bit more work but they are literally yachts made from little fish. The 1930s are also when the grapefruit arrived as a starter, still used to this day, halved with maraschino cherry plonked into the middle.

There is something special about the little shared food we have before a meal whether it be antipasto, mezze, or the Russian zakuski, which I think translates to "food to eat with vodka". The Spanish tapas, Arabic moqabbelat, which means prophetically "things which make one accept what is to come". The Dutch voorgerecht which, somewhat less beguilingly, simply means appetiser. Everyone wants their little amuse before they tuck into the substantial part of the meal. I think we should bring back some of Prudence's hors d'oeuvres.

One of the most exciting things to happen in this region is the opening of the Pialligo Farm Smokehouse and the subsequent release of their traditional kiln smoked and dry-cured bacon. This is such a good product, thick cut bacon that melts into a crisp rasher of pure joy along with a puddle of smoky fatty goodness. It's addictive for sure and the closest I've seen to the brilliant bacon made in Britain. Anything, I kid you not, can be made into a work of art with the addition of a little streaky smoked belly. My latest fermentation, sauerkraut, is working splendidly and when paired with this bacon, fried up on the grill, there is nothing better.  You can buy this bacon online but if you can't wait when that urge arrives, head to the Ainslie supermarket. Not only will you find this bacon in stock but a great range of cheese and condiments. This is what all local supermarkets should be like, rather than trying to compete with the big guys on having every soft drink known to man, get them on quality.

To complete Prudence's bacon-laced appetiser you need duck liver or, failing that, chicken. Duck liver is a real treat, much larger and more like foie gras, I know where there is a small supply but unfortunately I can't give this information up, sorry, there is just not enough to go around. Given the number of ducks that go down in any given week it's a mystery why their livers aren't everywhere.

The range of food that can be wrapped in bacon, stabbed with a toothpick and served as an hors d'oeuvre is limited only by your imagination. Thick stemmed poached asparagus, prunes, oysters, poached brains, grilled kidneys. Even puftaloons, which, according to Australian Home Cookery, are fried flour and milk. 

Duck liver wrapped in Pialligo smokehouse bacon

1 packet of streaky belly bacon, use no other!
Pinch cayenne pepper
4 duck livers cut into lobes, and each lobe cut in half. Using chicken livers is a solid back-up.

Cut rashers in half and wrap around suitably sized pieces of liver that have  been sprinkled with just a little cayenne. Tie into little bundles with kitchen string. Heat up a frypan, oil and fry on all sides until crispy, about 6-8 minutes. Cool a little and untie, stab with a toothpick, serve with a Boomerang cocktail: 1 dash of bitters, one-sixth of a gill each of gin, French and Italian vermouth.