Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.

Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.


(The flag of the Nasrid Dynasty, the last to rule in Moorish Spain)

In 711, not 90 years after the birth of Islam, black clad Berber tribesman and their Arab allies crossed what are now called the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa to the Iberian peninsula with their wiry horses, and galloped north, conquering all before them, destroying the decadent Visigothic rulers and laid the foundations for modern day Spain.

They called it Al Andalus, and it began as it was to continue for the over 300 years of the first Umayyad dynasty, with tolerance for the other ‘people of the book’ as they called the Christians and Jews they found there.

But the hero of this story, a hero who deserves his own epic film, is the adventurer and statesman, Abd al-Rahman, the Falcon of Al Andalus.

Abd al-Rahman’s family, the ruling Umayyads, were slaughtered by their rivals, the Abassids in Damascus in 750.


He and his brother Yahiya, his son Suleyman and his Greek servant, Bedr, escaped and found refuge in a village on the banks of the Euphrates on the edge of a deep forest.

But the Abassid troops found them and they dived into the Euphrates. Al-Rahman, a strong swimmer, held onto his son. Together with Bedr, these three made it to the opposite bank. But not so Yahiya. Here, in al-Rahman’s own words, is what happened:

“No sooner had I set my feet on the shore, than I began anxiously to look about for my brother, whom I saw in the hands of the soldiers, and whom I expected every moment to see put to death. I was not mistaken ……having dragged him to a spot not far from the river, they beheaded him and marched triumphantly away with his head. My brother was then thirteen years old.”

After five years of adventure, intrigue and wandering from refuge to refuge, and the prophesy of a Jewish seer that he ‘shall in time become a great conqueror’ and that ‘he shall found in Andalus an empire for him and his posterity’ he crossed, with his son and servant into Andalus.

There, employing a combination of guile and diplomacy, he eventually became Abd al-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordóba, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty which, over the next 300 years, would transform the Caliphate of Cordóba into a world centre of scientific, philosophical and agricultural innovation and attainment, a beacon for musicians, poets and writers in the Muslim and Jewish worlds.


(The Great Mosque of Cordóba, begun  by Abd ar-Rahman I

Cordóba was, at that time, the shaft of light cutting through what in the West were called the Dark Ages. All this was possible because these desert Arabs, the Umayyads, in conquering the peoples of the Iberian peninsula, had been confronted with a universe of languages, cultures and peoples.

Their response was to define their version of Islam as one that rejoiced in dialogues with other traditions, other cultures, and other religions. This was an Islam that translated the long forgotten Greek philosophers into Arabic, and appointed Jews as advisers.

The Jews, especially, flourished at this time, the two languages, Hebrew and Arabic the dominant ones in the land. Latin was abandoned by ambitious young Christians who flocked to learn the far more sinuous and poetic Arabic, much to the dismay of their Bishops.


(The Santa Maria La Blanca Syngogue, also built in the Moorish (or Mudéjar) style)

The arrival of these new settlers also brought about a green revolution in Spain, a revolution which ran on water: these desert dwellers were geniuses at irrigating crops and filling their fragrant gardens with the sound of running water.

They brought with them oranges, lemons, limes, apricots, and bananas, rice from Asia, sugarcane from India – some say they invented caramel, in Arabic kurst al milh.

New vegetable crops planted were artichokes, aubergines, celery, spinach, and carrots. Most important of all, hard durum wheat. Did the Arabs invent dried pasta, which can only be made with this hard wheat? One of the first mentions of dried pasta dates from the twelfth century and the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, who wrote that it was being manufactured in Sicily – by Arabs.

The usual diet for rulers and commoners alike in Christian Spain was based on the trilogy of meat, wheat, and wine. Arabs were accustomed to a more sensuous mix of fruit, vegetables, and legumes, a cuisine low in animal protein. But at banquets roast lamb was often served, stuffed with chopped meats fried in sesame oil, with crushed pistachios, pepper, ginger, cloves, mastic, coriander, cardamom and other spices, sprinkled with musk-infused rose water. It was not only their language that was more appealing. Life, generally and food specifically was more luxurious, more pleasurable.

And Al-Andalus soon filled with luxuriant flower gardens, planted with ornamentals imported from the Orient: tulips from Turkey, narcissi, lilacs, yellow and white jasmine and roses from China arranged along walkways under canopies of orange trees and sweet-scented almonds and everywhere, the cooling sound and sight of running water.

Cordóba became the urban garden centre of all Spain, if not the world, with an estimated fifty thousand private gardens gracing the villas of that city at the time it was recaptured by Christians in 1236.

Living in Mallorca in the early 1970s, I met a man who claimed to have travelled through time and offered to teach me the technique. Not your usual nutter, Ben Wright was a poet who also lectured on the Nordic Saga Beowulf. He claimed that another resident of our village, the English poet Robert Graves, had also time travelled to write the I Claudius series of books. I declined his invitation because back then, there was then no other time I wanted to visit. If offered that chance again today, I would happily travel back to that golden period of Moorish Spain.

But this year you can come with me and explore the material and culinary remnants of this remarkable period. I will be conducting a tour of Andalucia in October: Moorish Spain: Architecture, Culture and Cuisine.

It will follow the route of the caliphates and will visit out of the way villages (including the only Jewish city in Moorish Spain) and explore the Islamic, Jewish and Christian legacy of that time in such world heritage buildings as the church of San Simón in Toledo, the Alhambra in Granada, the Mesquita and the Madinat al-Zahra in Córdoba.

The food chosen for this tour will explore Moorish, Sephardic Jewish and Spanish culinary traditions. There will also be a tasting of the wines of the little known (outside Spain) region of Montilla-Moriles where winemaking practices date back to the 8th Century.

To find out more about this tour, go to:

San Roman

(The Church of San Román, built as a Christian church but in the Mudéjar style partly Gothic partly Moorish)



What is or was Mod Oz? A love-song to our mongrel selves


images-4It turned up like a surprise guest at a dinner party. It was analysed and codified and even taught. And then, bam, it was dumped. But it refuses to die. Type Modern Australian Cuisine into your favourite search engine, and you’ll get around 1.25 million results.

So what is this strange animal that everyone knows but no one can define? Is it just something that we love to argue about? Food historian Ken Albala writes in Food Cultures of the World: ‘…the slippery nature of food and eating in Australia and the debate itself, probably is the essence of Australian food culture.’ But it’s more than an argument. Its trajectory can be tracked. And for that we’re going to need to look at a little Australian food history.

Incidentally, in this piece, I’m not going to talk about Australian native produce. Needless to say, we virtually ignored it for over 230 years. If you want to read that story, read my book The Oldest foods on Earth.

Until the end of the Second World War, what we ate, with a few exceptions, was Anglo- Celtic food. And then between 1950 and 1970 one and a half million ‘New Australians’ landed, bringing with them their recipes their ingredients and their food cultures. At first we grumbled about them and ignored their food. (For a history of that process read my book Wogfood)


But it was what happened next that changed what we put on our plates. Between June 1960 and June 1970, we got richer. Our disposable income rose by 700 per cent. That coincided with the arrival of the Boeing 747-238B ­– the Jumbo Jet – in 1971. Everybody who could afford to, and in 1974 that was around 770,000 of us (a figure that shot up to 1.4 million in 1984) took off to see and taste the world.

When we came home, we’d eaten something more than steak and eggs, and washed down our meals with wine instead of beer. Now we understood what our new neighbours had been eating and drinking. And we wanted some.



This hunger for new kinds of food spawned a restaurant boom. In September 1970, The Sydney Morning Herald published a story by Margaret Jones, ‘The Dining Out Boom.’ It is, Jones ‘probably the biggest thing which has happened to Australia recently outside uranium shares.’ So we began eating out at the new restaurants that were springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. And if we needed help in choosing, it arrived in 1974 with the first edition of Leo Schofield’s Eating Out in Sydney and then in 1980 with The Age Good Food Guide, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald version – edited by Schofield – in 1984.


If Australians took off to see the world in the 1970s by the 1980s they wanted to conquer it. It was the decade that our much admired egalitarianism gave way to nationalism. We elected the Silver Bodgie – Bob Hawke – as prime minister in 1982, and in 1983 we won the America’s Cup. Our business entrepreneurs, including Cup winner Alan Bond along with others like Christopher Skase soared like eagles before plummeting like Icarus. But while they soared, our national pride knew no bounds. We had to have it all. And that included a national cuisine.


At the time, a young Neil Perry was at Bluewater Grill.The 1988 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide called his food ‘a more modern kind of food, somewhat Californian in style, involving lots of grilling and a slew of oriental influences.’

imgresThis is a close description of the cuisine was busy being born. And its birthplace was in the newly minted food guides. Although the phrase first appeared in the 1985/86 edition, the style wasn’t officially christened until 1994, in the last edition of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide to be edited by Leo Schofield and Michael Dowe when it was given a category of its own in the index. Melbourne had to wait until 2003. So there it was. Whatever it was.

In 1994 it was codified and then taught at TAFE colleges around NSW under the name of ‘Australian Contemporary Cuisine’. Just six years later, a victim of politics, it was dumped from the curriculum. It got worse. In 2006 it disappeared as a category from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide because, according to Simon Thomsen, editor at the time, “Modern Australian didn’t seem to me, I recall, to mean that much in the sense that it was being used in the Guide for so many different cooking styles.” The following year it was dumped equally unceremoniously from The Age Good Food Guide.

So what is or was Mod Oz. Australian academic and writer Ghassan Hage wrote:

‘For let there be no mistake. Australia’s future culture will be plural. And there is no other way forward but to think about how all of us can learn to embrace its plurality.’


And that is why it is futile to search for an Australian cuisine, or Modern Australian cuisine. As our best chefs are showing us daily, we have a multiplicity of cuisines, just as we have a multiplicity of cultures. To search for a defining Australian culture or a definition of Australian culture amongst the clamour of competing tongues, ways of life, ways of worshipping, eating, living and seeing in an increasingly globalised world is regressive. To be Australian is to be multicultural and multiculinary.

In an essay in The Monthly called ‘Does Writing Matter?’, Richard Flanagan comes to the same conclusion for literature.

‘There isn’t and there doesn’t have to be a single united national project linking Benjamin Law to Tim Winton, that seeks resonances between Helen Garner and Omar Musa, that demands continuities between John Coetzee and Alexis Wright.’

French food historian Jean-Francoise Revel makes the same argument: ‘there are no national cuisines…The basic unit in gastronomy is the region, not the nation.’

But if I have to define Australian cuisine, the common element that links all our great chefs, from Peter Gilmore to David Thompson, from Kylie Kwong to Tony Bilson, I’ll quote another writer. In Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie writes of his book, Satanic Verses that it:

‘…rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and that, is how newness enters the worldchange-by-fusion, change-by-co-joining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves…Perhaps we are all, black, brown and white, leaking into one another, as a character of mine once said, like flavours when you cook [my italics].’

This is a fine definition of what the best Australian chefs are doing. Australian food is, as Rushdie writes of his book, ‘a love-song to our mongrel selves’, flavours, ingredients and origins leaking into one another.


Stands to reasons. We are mongrels and therefore so is our cuisine. Or so are our cuisines.

Finally, a definition that raises more questions than it answers. In his foreword to Australian food: in celebration of the new Australian cuisine, philosopher gastronome the late Alan Saunders wrote ‘The flavour of Australia is the flavour of change, adaptation and – in the very best sense of the word – compromise.’

Compromise? Between what and what? Between 200 years of sticking to a boring Anglo-Celtic diet, and the late flowering, cultured culinary imagination of a generation of chefs set free to roam the world of techniques and ingredients and plunder mercilessly, like gastronomic pirates. Between the two, the shadow of truly modern Australian cuisine (no capitals), set free from all the restrictions of the past.

So what is modern Australian cuisine? Simple. Anything we bloody say it is. You got a problem with that?



A list of ingredients culled from dishes on the restaurant menus of thirteen of Australia’s most adventurous chefs: organic Korean green rice, silken tofu, garam masala, aerated passion fruit, paper bark, foie gras, red cabbage granita, sangria jelly, Camargue organic red rice, mojama, kim chi, wallaby, Pedro Ximénez prunes and forbidden rice.

Bear in mind this eclectic list, which includes some indigenous ingredients, is used by chefs in a country that, until even thirty years ago, was suspicious of the use of garlic.


 The relevant modules in the curriculum of the now defunct Australian Contemporary Cuisine Course devised by an industry panel (disclosure: I was a member of that panel)



Malay, Nonya & Indonesian Skills

Japanese Skills in Australian Cookery

Native Australian Cookery

Indian Skills in Australian Cookery

Guangdong Skills in Australian Cookery

Thai Skills in Australian Cookery

Italian Skills in Australian cookery

French Skills in Australian Cookery

Middle Eastern Skills in Australian Cookery


There are many more skill modules than that. But those are the cuisines that the panel  agreed t the time were at the core of modern Australian restaurant food. I must admit I do like the term Australian Cookery.

















A short festival on Spain



This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”


Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.


Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.


But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.