Vini Vidi Vinegar
Bottled oysters, soused trout, and tamarillos?
What could they possibly have in common?
It’s the work Christmas party!
Help, do they have them at most people’s work? Dad’s never mentioned having one at his work. But all these people, mostly a lot older than me, seem to take it absolutely for granted that they should have one. In working hours, too right. We’re a government office, does the government actually let you—? Apparently, yes. The desks, huge, heavy scarred wooden things, largely immoveable, have all been covered with plain white paper—you can get ends of rolls from the newspaper printers, Dad used to get them for us kids to draw on—and then piled high with food. I have never seen so much food—not even that time Dad took me instead of Mum (home with the wobblies) to a family wedding. One of his aunty’s boys. Huge course after huge course, I thought that was a tremendous spread, but this!
Fit for a king?
Er... I may only be in my first job after leaving school but it does dawn, as my dazed eyes take in the details of the feast, that possibly a king wouldn’t fancy much of it.
Sausage rolls—yes, I know them. Mum won’t have them in the house—too greasy—but I’ve had them at my school friend Lynn’s birthday party. Oh, yeah, and once at Dad’s aunty’s for afternoon tea when the boys were home. A terrifying experience: I was about eight and they’re all ten years or more older then me, huge galumphing presences with big hoarse voices. Giant boots.
Those things next to the sausage rolls are little pies. Tony, who’s a cadet like me, bites into one hungrily. Oh, meat. Right. I thought they might be Christmas mince pies, given it’s nearly—Um, no. Meat. The same aunty once gave us little pies just like them, only with Christmas mince inside them, but according to Mum she’d used the wrong pastry. Afterwards I incautiously expressed admiration. Honestly! Everyone knows mince pies should have short pastry, not flaky! One more does now, for sure, Mum. (And why are you hissing, since we’re back in our own home and Dad’s lovely aunty can’t hear us?)
Tony and I have nothing in common and he never voluntarily speaks to me and, correspondingly, I can never think of anything to say to him.
Timidly: “Is that nice, Tony?”
He looks lofty. “Nobbad.” Reaches for the giant bottle of tomato sauce. My eyes bulge from my head as he GLOBS sauce onto the remains of his pie. “Ush behuh,” he confirms through it with difficulty.
Um, yeah. The men—and boys in Tony’s case—are starting to eat and the men started drinking beer quite some time ago, in fact before all the tables got covered in paper, the lady who runs the typists’ office got quite narked about that. But most of the ladies—not the section heads, of course—most of the other ladies are still in the tea room or the typists’ office fussing over the food. Maybe that’s where I oughta be. I edge out...
Help, there’s more piles of food out here! Where’s it all gonna go? Most of them brought stuff, like a plate. I now know that you bring a plate to such does, because I was asked whether I wanted to bring a plate or contribute some money, like the men and Miss Hutchinson. Once it had dawned that it was a plate of food, not an empty plate to eat off, I was able to quail at the thought of expressing such an idea to Mum. She won’t let me cook in her kitchen, for a start. She’d insist on making something herself and then I’d never hear the last of it. It’d either be a grudge or it’d turn into her triumph and my shame. Or she might even manage both at once, if really on form. So I contributed some money.
I didn’t have very much, but Shirley from the typists’ room, who was making a list, kindly looked into my purse for me, took out about a quarter of what I’d thought the appropriate amount would be, and told me kindly that was stacks, the section heads always give at least a fiver. They’re all very kind to me—not Miss Hutchinson, of course, but all the rest. They’ve spotted immediately that I’m completely socially inept, you see.
It hasn’t dawned on any of them, except possibly the elderly Bob, who’s extremely bright but ignored by the rest of them because he’s only the storeman, that there’s a chiel amang them takin’ notes... Oh, well!
Linzie in particular is very busy out here with a plate of something. I edge up to her and watch in genuine awe...
Linzie is quite a personality, and the older ladies, like Miss Gruber, who’s second-in-charge of our section, and thus in charge of me and Linzie, don’t approve of her. And of course Miss Hutchinson doesn’t. But she’s been very kind to me.
—With hindsight, Linzie was pretty much the archetypal young office worker, circa 1962. If she sounds like something out of To Sir, With Love, this is because she more or less was—the New Zealand version, anyway.
She’s very with-it, wears her hair very bouffant, kind of with curls as well, the sort of thing you might see on Elizabeth Taylor in a film but don’t expect ever to encounter in real life, at least I didn’t. It’s dark brown with perfectly natural gold highlights, and, young and inexperienced though I am, I do realise quite clearly that the hair, the bouncy self-confidence, the very overblown curvy figure bursting out of tight, short skirts and hugely exotic blouses, and the elaborate makeup that would do Elizabeth Taylor credit, combined with the fact that she’s only interested in her boyfriend, the dances and parties they go to, and synchronised swimming (her great passion), and fundamentally doesn’t give a damn about the office, its entrenched hierarchy and all its doings, all explain the fact that Miss Hutchinson loathes her. The good-natured Linzie is cheerfully indifferent to this, and of course this makes her loathe her more!
She’s digging these little squashed things out of a skinny bottle and it dawns they’re oysters, Dad did once bring home a bottle of them, think it might’ve been the week he got a raise. Mum refused to touch them but she didn’t mind us kids trying them. Yes, definitely oysters, I recognise the smell. She must have spent an awful lot of money, she’s covering this big dinner plate with them. Now she’s pouring something on them... Vinegar?
Yep, vinegar is what it is. Soused in it.
Is this normal?
Well, it must be, in fact extra-normal, maybe I mean ultra-normal—as normal as normal can possibly be—if Linzie’s doing it!
I get it, you pick them up with toothpicks. (What happens if the toothpicks run out?)
She’s cut them in half to make them go further, see?
Yes, I do see, and this means that their horrid-looking yellowish innards are on display, and this does not improve the look of the plate.
Thank God, she doesn’t offer me one, she just totters out with the plate, muscly tanned calves above immensely high heels, today it’s the open-toed black patent-leather sandals. I follow cautiously... Yep, the men are all making a bee-line for them. Well, not good old Bob: he’s just lurking in the background with a beer, looking sardonic.
It was always malt vinegar, of course—good old DYC.
Everybody had a bottle of it in their kitchen cupboards in New Zealand when we were young. Mum only used hers for mint sauce to go with the roast lamb (not apocryphal), or apple chutney—or occasionally tomato chutney, if tomatoes had got very, very cheap in the shops in late summer or someone had given her a whole lot out of their garden. But the great picklers, bottlers, and chutney-makers of EnZed suburbia made jars and jars of piccalilli, pickled onions, tomato chutney, apple chutney, tree-tomato chutney (tamarillo to later generations), you-name-it chutney...
In Australia the vinegar might have been Seppelt’s. Yes, I know you think that’s a brand of wine, but up until the baby-boomers were adults, ordinary people did not drink wine in Australia and New Zealand. Seppelt’s vinegar was very big—huge:
Or it could well have been “The Skipping Girl”. Why the girl was used as their logo or what possessed the firm to call their vinegar that, God knows, but so it was. Don’t believe me? It does seems incredible, doesn’t it? Look up the website “Beside the Yarra: stories from Melbourne’s history” and you can read the history of “Little Audrey”, the skipping girl, a giant neon sign which has become a Melbourne icon:
“‘The Skipping Girl’ Vinegar sign, also known as Little Audrey, is popular enough that it has found its way onto souvenirs, artwork, clothing and was even taken by a local band for their name.”
The brand dates from the beginning of the 20th century. When the neon sign was installed it was set above a wall advertising “pure malt vinegar,” as you can see from a contemporary photo on the website.
Even after they moved to the new new place, Mum’s kitchen cupboard always held a bottle of malt vinegar. For what? They must’ve stopped eating roast lamb, um, well, not long after the move. Because whenever I was there during my leave (way to ruin a holiday, yeah) it was roast chicken, at most, and “Don’t give Dad any skin, he can’t digest it,” if I offered to carve it. Likewise a faint: “I’ll just have a little bit of the white meat.” By this time she’d discovered the roasting bag. Way to ruin a decent chook, yeah. Why did she even bother? Well, kept her busy, I guess.
Ersters Ain’t Oysters
I’ve failed to find an actual recipe for Linzie’s chopped up, malt-vinegar-soused, bottled New Zealand oysters, but I did encounter them again: it wasn’t an invention of her own, they were a standard sort of thing to bring to large parties in the early Sixties.
As for the bottles... Can’t find any trace of them online, they’ve disappeared with the advent of widespread refrigeration and the ubiquitous plastic carton. But it may horrify you to know—it certainly horrified me—that where “Bluff” oysters, as they are called in New Zealand, were commonly sold bottled (pickled in some way) right up until the 1960s, they are now sold, when in season, ready-shucked, in plastic cartons, on ice. And considered a delicacy.
I did find one website that had a go at this practice but this was within pages and pages and pages of encomia of the bloody things.
Hullo-o! You don’t eat DEAD OYSTERS. For one thing, they can kill you.
Gégé and all my friends in Paris would have thrown ten fits at the thought. We couldn’t afford oysters (his part-time job marking English devoirs for some correspondence school thing didn’t pay much, and I was on a scholarship), but nevertheless he gave me a dissertation on the only way to eat them. When in season, of course. They have to move when you squeeze the lemon juice on them.
Sans blague. We tried mussels the same way. Open the shellfish, squeeze the cut lemon on it. If it flinches, eat it. If it doesn’t, throw it away. They were quite small compared to the oversized monsters of the Antipodes. Moules d’Espagne or moules de Bretagne, I think. (Everything was properly labelled, by hand, on little blackboards in the French fish shops.) Mussels eaten that way are indescribably delicious.
When I moved to my scungy 1-room Paris “studio” there was a fish shop directly across the street. I bought wonderful shellfish from it several times. The girl who worked there used to emerge first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, in her shiny red plastic apron and shiny red gumboots (Wellies to some), and hose down the entire pavement and gutter outside the premises. Every day that the shop was open. (It closed in midsummer.) That shop never smelled of anything except the sea.
True! I grew up ten minutes’ walk from an inlet of the harbour. Clean sea water, that was what. Miraculous. I’ve looked in fish shops in Australia and New Zealand since. Looked, period. I can’t bring myself to touch anything in a shell that comes out of them. Or that was in a shell and comes— Yeah.
First, Bottle Your Oyster...
New Zealand wasn’t alone in bottling its oysters: in Australia oysters were preserved in the same way from the late 19th century onwards, and I have read that the practice was common in North America, too. Most of Mrs Wicken’s oyster recipes in The Art of Living in Australia (1894) specify bottled oysters. She does, however, refrain from dosing them with vinegar. They are often combined with other ingredients to make what might still have been classed as a savoury in those days but would probably have been eaten by those families who could afford them as a main dish; thus “Oysters And Macaroni,” which is a casserole recipe, and “Scalloped Oysters,” which is very similar, but uses breadcrumbs liberally: both baked in the oven; or “Oyster Stew,” which is just bottled oysters heated in a white sauce. “Oyster Salad” is another demonstration of what was obviously the contemporary feeling that your bottled oyster had to be well cooked before eating:
1 bottle Oysters—1s. 1 Lettuce—1d.
Half a Lemon; Mayonnaise or Salad Dressing—4d.
Total Cost—1s. 5d.
Strain away the liquor from a bottle of oysters; put it into a saucepan, and when it boils put in the oysters and cook for five minutes; let them get cold in the liquor. Wash and break up the lettuce and put some in the bottom of a bowl. Strain the liquor from the oysters and mix a little with the dressing, stir in the oysters and spread over the lettuce. Cover with more lettuce and garnish with slices of lemon and red radishes.
A whole shilling was a lot, so none of the oyster recipes were cheap to make.
The oyster recipes in my copy of the Edmonds Cookery Book, which tell you “Beard and drain the oysters,” are sheer hypocrisy. The so-called “De Luxe Edition” dates from 1955 and this 1968 printing of it merely adds a coloured cover and some extra coloured pages. The other recipes are still the good old stand-bys offered to the unfortunate New Zealand housewife in 1955, when ninety-nine point nine percent of the country could not get fresh oysters. They’d be bottled: you would not need to beard them! Drain them from the bottle, yes, too right.
Beard and drain the oysters; dip in flour and a little pepper, mixed. Beat an egg; dip in oysters; coat with breadcrumbs. Put dripping in frying pan and when smoking hot put oysters in and fry a golden brown. Serve immediately with slices of lemon. Oysters may be dipped in batter and fried.
Gee, the long ago... Stan the Man and I had deep-fried oysters on one of our illicit trips into the depths of the country (extended dirty weekends—yeah). We were on the outskirts of Taupo, don’t quite know how we ended up there, but anyway, we were starving, and miraculously found a fish and chips shop that was open at lunchtime. He was paying—he always paid, so I let him, why not? Well, my salary was nothing like his, and gee, know what? I figured he owed me something, in return for never having a hope of getting that socially-sanctioned ring on me finger. The man in charge of the big fryers was advertising oysters as well as fish, so Stan the Man decided we’d have some. I didn’t object, why would I?
They must have been bottled Bluff oysters, of course: the town’s as far inland as you can get in EnZed. They were coated in batter, just like the fish. I’m sorry to have to admit this, but they were delicious!
Vinegar with Yer Chips?
Naturally the chips came with the offer of vinegar. Always malt vinegar, in the British Commonwealth. It still is in Australia today, but the chips no longer taste like fried potato, alas: they taste like reconstituted freeze-dried fuzz, extruded in chip shapes from a machine, precooked and coated in grease and salt, then deep-frozen for a millennium—and without any doubt whatsoever, are. The malt vinegar sure does help to disguise the taste, though!
Pickled TROUT? Get Out!
It’s true, it’s true, it’s true! I can just remember my grandfather’s pickled trout. He bottled it himself. He and a mate (this was back when Nanna was still letting him off the leash) used to head down to Taupo, talking of which, where they’d catch what must have been trout monsters, judging by what ended up in the big two-quart jars. It was a pale sort of apricot colour, terrifically coarse, in huge flakes. I don’t remember that it tasted of anything much except vinegar. Mum wouldn’t touch it, of course, but Dad and me ate it. Can’t remember if the other kids did or not—probably not.
Why pickled? Well, you see, they had to preserve it to get it back to town: the roads were frightful in those days, even the main road to Auckland, yes, and they’d have been up a stream in their secret fishing spot, into the bargain. They could have smoked it, I suppose—no idea why they didn’t.
I’d say this recipe from the above-mentioned Edmonds Cookery Book is pretty much what they did, except that they would have used a bottling technique:
Clean the trout well and cut into neat pieces. Put in a casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with pepper and salt and cover with two finely-chopped onions and add flakes of butter. Boil about 1 pint vinegar with a few peppercorns, cloves and bay leaves for 10 minutes. Strain and pour over fish. Cover and cook until fish is tender. Serve cold.
Ordinary people just didn’t get fresh trout in New Zealand. It was never for sale in the fish shops. You had to have a fisherman in the family, and even then, unless you were on the spot when he caught it, the only way you’d get to eat it would be pickled or smoked.
Getting on for forty years after those halcyon days of Grandpa’s giant jars of pickled trout, I finally got to eat freshly grilled trout. It was one of those tarted-up old pubs that you see all over Australia these days, sparkling fresh paint on the Sydney lace of the verandah, nooky booths with faked-up dark brown wood panelling, fake antique brass lamps—desk lamps on the bar, giant lamp-shaded “oil” lamps hanging low from the ceiling—and handsome potted palms, well cared for by a potted-plant supply firm... We were a group of office workers, out for some sort of celebration—it was only a small firm, so we all sat at the same table. We had a new, smart young woman lately returned from New York and given a managerial job by her mate who owned the company. (Sympathy because her mother had just died: understandable in a way, but she knew nothing about what we did, so it was a complete sinecure—paid for, we were later to discover, out of our superannuation—pension fund, to some. Ouch.) She condemned the trout as too dry.
Was it? I thought it was all right. But then, what’d I know? I’d only ever had malt-vinegar-soused trout, before.
Old Favourites: “Treeters”
Pickled trout ranked as boys’ toys, and good-natured members of the distaff side like Dad’s aunty (Grandpa’s youngest sister) would accept some with a jolly laugh. They all knew the proper uses of malt vinegar. And one of the most important was chutney. Chutney was terrifically popular in NZ when we were growing up. Almost every household made it.
It was really weird, if you’d got used to your family’s homemade chutney, to taste someone else’s mum’s or grandma’s version. They all used the same basic recipe, but no two households’ tasted alike.
What did we eat it with? Cold sheep meat, what else? Sometimes mutton, more often hogget. Almost never the young lamb we know today, it just wasn’t sold that young. The butcher did advertise spring lamb, yes. Well, advertise—he’d have a little notice up beside some tiny chops in his glass display case: “Spring Lamb.” Did Mum ever buy it? I don’t think so. It was usually a leg or shoulder of hogget and it always tasted exactly the same. Hot the first day, then there’d be plenty left over to have cold next day, that’s where the chutney came in, and possibly the third day, but more likely that’d be shepherd’s pie. (Very bad shepherd’s pie.) If there really was plenty left over Dad’d get some in his sandwiches to take to work and us kids might, for a treat, get some in our school lunches. With chutney, yes: I’ll say this for her, she wasn’t mean with the chutney, poor old Mum. And she wasn’t intentionally mean with the meat, it was just that we were pretty broke and the bread-winner had to come first.
If both she and Dad hadn’t had pretensions to gentility (keeping up appearances and then some), we might have eaten better. There’d certainly have been less worry about nice curtains and carpet for the sitting-room (which us kids weren’t allowed to play in), sending the girls to school in nice little frocks, smart little shorts for our brother (yes, I have got a brother, makes me sister of the more famous Jack, doesn’t it?), good school sandals for all, and proper winter shoes. She took care of us superbly, yes. And the house was always spotless. Funnily enough that sort of crap doesn’t make a kid happy and Dad’s aunty’s big, untidy, harum-scarum house was a much, much friendlier place to be. Even though, when I first knew it, the house had no lino on its kitchen floor. I think Mum would have starved herself to death rather than go without proper lino. (A horrible splotched yellow shade: vomit pattern, really).
Back to the chutney. Tree tomato was definitely my favourite. You’ll find a modern version, with slightly better instructions, on the DYC website, as “DYC Tamarillo Chutney.” It adds dates or “raisins.” (I think this may mean sultanas, it certainly always used to, actual raisins were far too dear.) Don’t add dates, they’ll be wasted, the flavour of the tamarillos is too strong. Go to:
I’ve had this recipe for treeter chutney so long I don’t know where it came from:
Tree Tomato Chutney
2 dozen tree tomatoes (tamarillos); 1 lb onions; 1 lb apples
1 pint vinegar; 1 lb brown sugar; 1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon curry powder; 1 tablespoon salt
Peel apples and onions, and slice finely or mince. Scald tree tomatoes, peel and slice. Put all ingredients into saucepan and boil until pulped and thick (about 2 hours). Bottle; seal when cold.
This is just a basic chutney recipe, the proportions and method are standard. “Vinegar” of course meant malt vinegar, it didn’t need saying. I’d definitely leave the curry powder out and replace it with more mixed spice, though. When it says “boil” it means bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let it bubble away for 2 hours, not boil its head off. And when you seal it depends entirely on what sort of seal you’re using: if commercial jam covers, they go on hot. The experts say chutney doesn’t keep as well with them: it’s better if you use hot preserving wax. This takes blood, sweat and often tears: the experts can cope but it’s very tricky. In order for the stuff to be safe you must heat it in a double boiler, not on the direct heat. In our house the chutney never lasted long enough for its top layer to start drying out, anyway. (If it does happen, just spoon out the dried bit, the underneath will be perfectly okay.)
No, well, I’ve made a lot of chutney in my time but it meant sacrificing a whole day of my precious weekends. Back in the day, the mums and aunties didn’t go to work, they had plenty of time for making chutney, jam, piccalilli, and in extreme cases, tomato sauce. One aunty actually went to the trouble of writing to what was then NZ’s biggest food manufacturer, Wattie’s, and asking what they put into their commercial tomato sauce. They told her, would you believe? Presumably there was no such thing as industrial espionage, back then. So she was able to make her boys some “real” tomato sauce. Tasted exactly like the bought stuff—yes.
As to why, in a family where there was no more than two shillings and threepence left over at the end of every fortnight, we were making chutney out of such a delicacy as tamarillos...
THEY WERE FALLING OFF THE TREES IN EVERY SECOND BACK YARD, that was why! Like many foods of the Solanaceae, tamarillos (Solanaceae: Cyphomandra betacea) originated in South America. They came out to New Zealand via a very circuitous route, the seeds travelling first to northern India. (David Burton. Delectable Fruits Cookery for New Zealanders. Auckland, Reed Methuen, ) In NZ, where the deep red strain was developed, they proceeded to grow like weeds. Most kids wouldn’t eat them as raw fruit, deeply red, stuffed with iron, and totally tangy an’ all as they were. So the desperate mums had to do something with them: good fruit couldn’t go to waste! Chutney was the obvious answer. –The Depression was seared into the minds of that generation: for at least the next thirty years, nothing got wasted.
Then we entered the Sixties, affluence hit, and everything began to change... For the better? Well, yeah, in my book: we got the Pill.