Far away from the harbour of Sydney, a new book from Sydney living Museums has us dining in the shadow of the pyramids!
Edited by Edith M Ziegler, ‘Darling Mother, Darling Son’ is a new publication from Sydney Living Museums and NewSouth Publishing. It is drawn from the extensive correspondence between Dora Sheller and her son Leslie Walford – one of the leading figures in Australian interior design until his death in 2012. The letters are part of the Walford archive held in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.
Off to Egypt!
The 1920s was a Golden Age of travel; while it could still be fiendishly expensive compared to travel today, steamships and rail made getting about a relatively easy business. In 1929 Dora Walford, a glamorous Sydney socialite, married Eric Sheller, and late that year set off an a combined honeymoon and voyage to England for Eric’s work.
With Leslie, Dora’s young son from her previous marriage, they stopped off in Cairo from late December, 1929 until the first week of January 1930. Among Dora’s personal papers are photographs and menu cards from two iconic Egyptian hotels that catered for the well-healed traveler – the Mena House hotel at Giza with the Great Pyramids practically in its back yard, and the glamorous Shepheard’s hotel in Cairo. Here is Dora on the steps to the tea gardens at Mena House:
Baedeker’s Guide to Egypt for 1929 (there has been some amusement around the office that I just happened to have a copy of this at hand), the year the Shellers visited, has this to say on the hotels in Cairo:
The leading hotels at Cairo are excellent; at most of them evening dress is de rigeur at dinner. Even the second class hotels are well fitted up, nearly all having electric light, baths etc. As all the hotels are frequently full especially in Jan. Feb. and March it is advisable to wire for rooms from Alexandria or Port Said, if they have not been engaged even sooner. In summer many of the hotels are closed in the interior of the city
Grill rooms featured at most hotels. Shepheard’s boasted “350 rooms 150 with bath, suites of apartments, large terrace (concerts), garden restaurant and grill room, bar, post and telegraph office etc.” In his blog [details below] dedicated to the great hotels of Egypt, Andrew Humphreys wrote of Shepheards:
Everybody stayed at Shepheard’s from Mark Twain and Arabian adventurer Richard Burton to Noel Coward and Josephine Baker. Its parties and balls were legendary, its barmen the souls of discretion. When the hotel was burned to the ground in rioting in 1952, it marked the end of an era.
Dinner at Shepheard’s Grill
The printed and tassel-corded menu for Christmas Eve at Shepheard’s Grill room is quite wonderful . The cover shows a masqued ball in full swing:
As was typical, the menu is written in French, and sounds rather rich and delicious. I’ve translated the dishes as:
Blinis with caviar;
A velvety tomato soup (served in a cup);
Chicken breast in a rich cream sauce garnished with mushroom, diced tongue &c. (‘Russian style’);
‘Indian salad’ (lettuce, cress; a dressing of red wine, vinegar, spices; often served with eggs and prawns);
Quail in puff pastry (named for the writer George Sand);
Mandarin (or tangerine) sorbet with Chantilly cream;
And being Christmas Eve, ‘Chocolate shoes’ – a novelty chocolate biscuit shaped like a shoe that recalls the French equivalent of leaving out a stocking to be filled with Christmas treats;
…and a chocolate Yule log to finish.
…and at Mena House:
A few days later the family was dining just to the south of Cairo at Giza on St. Sylvestre’s feast day – New Years Eve – at Mena House which was built practically in the shade of the Great Pyramid. Another photograph in the archive is of the ‘alabaster sphinx’ at Memphis, just a few miles further south. There is very little to see at Memphis, so they were likely there to visit the adjacent Saqqara with its famous Step Pyramid. As with the Shepheard’s menu, that for Mena House makes no concession to its Egyptian location and could be at any stylish hotel or restaurant in Europe – though its cover does have the face of the sphinx!
The tassel-bound menu purports to feature mostly imported ingredients – fish caught off Ostende, asparagus grown in Paris, chicken from Bresse in eastern France…
Consommé garnished with finely diced carrot, turnip, green beans, truffle &c;
Turbot (a rather large fish) with a tomato sauce (?);
Roast premium cut of lamb (the rump and sirloin cut referred to as a ‘baron’) cooked with sage;
Asparagus (though I’m having trouble identifying the sauce Neigeuse…);
Bresse chicken in a very rich (Lucullus being a very OTT Roman gourmand) casserole sauce;
An ice cream bombe;
Fruit basket (possibly fruits served in a chocolate basket);
The Italian (rather than French) spelling ‘Moka’ is a reminder of the strong Italian presence in Egypt.
The early advertising for Mena House also noted their own herd of dairy cows, so guests could rest easy over the fresh source of milk in their tea and the cream in their deserts! Donkey-drawn ‘sand carts’, with wide wheel rims for desert excursions, were also on offer to guests, and this is likely what we see in this desert picnic scene, of the young Leslie with his step father in the shade of a sand-cart stood up on its end:
In the background a horse with a chaff bag is enjoying its own lunch. The family left within a few days, and continued on their voyage.
A few years earlier, and a very different clientele…
Dated 1915, a wartime postcard in the collection at Susannah Place also has a link to Mena House. At that time many of the major hotels in Cairo, including Shepheards and Mena House, were turned into hospitals for the ANZAC troops during WWI. The very large and airy dining and entertaining rooms were easily tuned into wards. A substantial base for training troops prior to the disastrous Gallipoli campaign was built near the pyramids, and called Mena Camp, with Maadi camp just beyond.
Written to his parents in Sydney, the postcard shows a group of men with blacksmithing tools, and is inscribed in Vinton Gallagher’s hand ‘Our Black Smith’s Maadi Camp Egypt’. The verso reads:
Mena Camp / Egypt / 22/2/15. Dear Mother & Dad / Just a few lines Hoping you are all in the best of health as this leaves me Remember me to Frank Fred and Girlie I have seen Harold Will write you a letter in a few days. I remain your loving son and step son Vinton.
This postcard is from an album compiled by, and previously belonging to, Mary ‘Girlie’ Andersen. It was then a treasured memento passed down through three generations of the Andersen/Gallagher family, the residents of number’s 58 and 64 Susannah Place.
The website ‘Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel’ has wonderful stories and images of Shepheards and the Mena House.
‘Darling Mother, Darling Son: The letters of Leslie Walford and Dora Byrne, 1929–1972’ is available from Sydney living Museums online shop. Details here.
As part of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection’s ‘Recorded for the future‘ series, dedicated to recording significant interiors and gardens, Leslie Walford’s penthouse at Double Bay in Sydney’s east was photographed prior to its contents being auctioned in 2012. You can see more here.