The History of Food Hints at Its Future

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The history of food hints at its future Jennifer Marohasy reviews Australian Agriculture: Its History and Challenges byTedHenzell (CSIRO Publishing, 2007, 308 pages)

Agriculture began in Australia with the arrival of the first European setders in 1788. In the early years, wheat was grown in coastal New South Wales, with the flour produced rationed along with a fixed quantity of beef, sugar and tea. Many early settlers considered fruit and vegetables a healdi hazard-indeed, a Dr Johnson suggested that cucumber should be well sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar and then properly thrown out, as it was good for nothing.

Over the last two hundred years much has changed-including not only where and how our food is grown but what we like to eat. This history is detailed, commodity by commodity, in a new book by Ted Henzell with the deceptively bland title Australian Agriculture: Its History and Challenges.

Henzell's book contains much of interest for food buffs on the history of different products and their methods of production. It is surprising to learn that it was Chinese migrants who grew most of the vegetables for Sydney at the turn of the twentieth century and that they practised one of the most sustainable organic farming systems in the world-the use of nightsoil (human manure). This perhaps explains why recipe books back then recommended that carrots be boiled for two hours!

There are also stories for those interested in wine, including material on some of the colourful characters who pioneered wine-making in our hot climate before the advent of mechanical refrigeration. Interestingly, the Forster brothers in Melbourne were using refrigeration to make their lager beer 50 years before Sourh Australian wine producers realised how important refrigeration was for the production of light white wines. Furthermore, fortified wines are remarkably tolerant of hot oxidant conditions during fermentation, which perhaps explains why they accounted for about 85 per cent of Australian wine sales during the 1930s and 1940s.

Henzell puts the modern animal liberation campaign in some context, when he describes just how many cattle thed on the early sailing ships on their way to Botany Bay. Nearly all the early introductions were financed by the government, as live importation was such a cosdy and risky business. …