The Cook and the Curator standing by the well at Vaucluse House.

The Cook and the Curator at Vaucluse House. Photo © James Horan

The Cook and the Curator, brought to you by Sydney Living Museums (SLM), invites you to explore our food heritage. Each month we’ll visit one of our extraordinary properties, introduce you to its past residents and look at what, where and how they ate. We’ll comb through old cookery books, decipher handwritten recipes, experiment with heirloom produce, rediscover lost culinary arts, and reveal family stories. We’ll also show you how to blend exotic spices, whip up apple snow, make gelatine from calves’ feet (if you dare!) and lay the perfect Regency table – and this is just a portion of what’s on our menu.

Eat Your History: everything food at SLM

Here at Sydney Living Museums we love our food! For years we’ve enjoyed sharing our kitchens and vegie gardens and running special food programs for children and adults alike. Now, to bring you more, we’ve started the Eat Your History project, which brings together unique public programs, hands-on experiences and how-to workshops supported by collections research, online resources and exhibitions. The Cook and the Curator blog is just one way we’ll share our stories, places and recipes with you – so look out for upcoming events and programs.

About the authors

Jacqui Newling – the Cook

The Cook making ginger nut biscuits in the kitchen at Vaucluse House.

Jacqui Newling in the kitchen at Vaucluse House. Photo © James Horan

I’m a gastronomer.  I explore the world of food with an inquiring mind and a deep curiosity – not simply about the food itself, but about why it is a food. How did that item become acceptable as a food and how did it arrive at our tables? In fact, to me, gastronomy is about people – what people do to and with food to make it a part of their lives.

As Sydney Living Museums’ resident gastronomer, I’ve taken a hands-on role to investigate the type of food that was served in our historic houses – from the dreaded ‘hominy’ served to convicts at Hyde Park Barracks to the feasts found on the finer tables of Sydney’s elite. Immersing yourself in a heritage environment gives a real sense of time and place, and, more importantly, a sense of the people who inhabited these spaces – those who dug the gardens, gathered the firewood, walked the floors. Their time has passed but their legacy remains – and while I can’t meet them for a chat, I can get a taste of their lives!

I’m a curious cook. I experiment with recipes and ingredients that have somehow dropped from our repertoire or become lost in time – or perhaps their relevance has simply been overlooked. Testing, tasting, sharing – hit-and-miss at times – but also learning when things go terribly wrong! This blog gives me an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about our food heritage and to share some of the rich stories – and recipes – that sustained those who helped to create our history.

I’m hoping that you will join me on this culinary adventure.

Let’s eat!

Scott Hill – the Curator

 The Curator in the kitchen garden with a pineapple at Vaucluse House.

Scott Hill in the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House. Photo © James Horan

Pull up a seat!

I first joined Sydney Living Museums (then known as the Historic Houses Trust) as a guide at Elizabeth Bay House and Vaucluse House – once home to rival colonial families – which between them boast sprawling cellars, a rare surviving colonial kitchen and service rooms. A decade later, I’m the Curator for Meroogal, Elizabeth Farm and Rouse Hill House & Farm, three remarkable properties with their own distinct stories and collections.

Though I work in these astonishing museum environments every day, I still use the principles I learned 20 years ago when I studied architecture. The means to fully understand a house or a landscape is exactly the same as the way I comprehend a suite of furniture or a historic menu: it is a process of ‘reverse designing’, of paring back and revealing the factors that went into its final design. I also draw on my past experience with styling, where objects are combined and arranged to tell a story.

From a curatorial point of view, any object or document contains multiple stories, and those that involve food and dining are among the most engaging. A table setting says as much about production methods, fashion and style as it does about evolving customs and social change. An account of sitting down to dinner after sunset in 1830 gives clues about a family’s work life and economic status but, in reality, may owe as much to the invention of an ‘improved’ lamp wick. A note for a tasty vegetable dish also tells a story of social aspiration and a desire to impress your guests with the produce of a well-managed kitchen garden and the skills of its gardeners. The division of a grand villa into bedsits goes hand in hand with the rise of inner-city takeaways and cafes where the villa’s residents will eat.

And in all of this we have the personal. While a simple recipe for melon jam carries a backstory of migration and trade, it might also simply remind us that ‘Great Aunt Edith’ had a taste for ginger and always made extra jars to give away to visitors.

In this blog we’ll tease out these multi-layered stories – and hear yours in return. So pass the gravy and tuck in – but pace yourself, there are many courses to come!

A recipe for success

The Cook and the Curator is the result of an inspiring collaborative effort from our colleagues at Sydney Living Museums (SLM). Now that it feels like the canapes have finally made it to the table (with many courses to follow!) we want to thank the staff at SLM, from our fellow curators to the teams of gardeners and guides at our houses, who have supported this project. We value their enthusiasm and encouragement – and thank them for cleaning up their kitchens and staff rooms when we left them in chaos!

In particular, extra slices of pudding go to Beth Hise for her vision, web gurus Tim Girling-Butcher, Ondine Evans and Jay Smith and designer Sarah Christensen; and to Alysha Buss for her calm demeanor and tireless patience in the eye of the culinary storm. Thank you all!

Jacqui and Scott

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