How Australia learned to be cosmopolitan

3 August 2016

The 1980s were the decade when Australia began to tell its Shiraz from its Cabernet Sauvignon. As Frank Bongiorno writes in this exclusive extract from The Eighties, the decade also saw new forms of official control, the Guardian writes.

In 1998 the novelist David Malouf celebrated Australians’ discovery of a style he called “loosely Mediterranean”, one he thought epitomised by people eating at pavement tables. But where they dined was only the beginning of it. Australians now ate dainty and stylish dishes, drank wine and dressed up or stripped off for display. They had come to accept their own bodies and were thoroughly at ease in enjoying themselves. Australia, he said, had become a place “where play seems natural, and pleasure a part of what living is for” – a contrast with what he saw as the more limited possibilities in the British and Irish Australia of his youth.

The 1980s was the critical decade in the emergence of this way of living, thinking and feeling and, as Malouf recognised, the country’s foodways were among the most vivid illustration of a new cosmopolitan sensibility. “Do not overload any meal with cream or butter,” the Melbourne chef Stephanie Alexander advised, as she went about her mission of dismantling notions of taste entrenched by almost 200 years of chops, stews and roasts. Alexander emphasised cooking with fresh and seasonal ingredients, a larger number of small courses rather than the piling up of large portions, and the idea of a meal as a “ceremony” that had “a beginning, a middle and an end”.

As Malouf had suggested, restaurant dining had become one easily recognisable mark of the new refinement, a turning of the back on the world of beer, pies and blue singlets. Victorians could from 1987 even buy alcohol in cafés and restaurants without ordering a meal as well; such a community clearly had the world at its feet. The cosmopolitan citizen could tell her Shiraz from her Cabernet Sauvignon and knew how to pronounce both focaccia and roulade. Salad, meanwhile, was no longer shorthand for iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and grated carrot. Alfalfa, chives, snow peas and mustard cress now graced the bowl, which might also include warm duck or lobster.

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