2 minutes with Barbara Santich
Occupation: Writer and culinary historian
Teaches: University of Adelaide
What was your family food culture like growing up?
The standard roasts, shortloin chops or steak and kidney pie, but also a lot of fish during the school holidays. We had a holiday house on the central coast and my father would go out in his boat fishing most days, so I learned to appreciate a variety of fish. Cakes, biscuits and jams were almost all homemade.
You founded and taught courses in food writing, food history and culture at the University of Adelaide. South Australia has such a strong food scene, it’s seems destined to happen there. Tell us about that.
It could have happened anywhere, in any university, and in fact, the University NSW had a general studies elective Gastronomy in the 1980s. But in Adelaide, it just so happened that Le Cordon Bleu was based there and wanted to offer its students masters degrees. LCB staff didn’t have the appropriate skills, so LCB approached the University of Adelaide and suggested a collaboration (they offered another masters degree in association with the University of South Australia).
The University of Adelaide had by then initiated a ‘Centre for the History of Food and Drink’ which was a loose cluster of anyone interested in or researching food and drink history, so this was the starting point. I was asked to develop a curriculum and then started teaching the Master of Arts in Gastronomy in 2002. I initiated the Graduate Certificate in Food Writing, in association with the university’s creative writing staff, in 2007.
Your much-lauded 2012 book, Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage, is a cornucopia of historical information and images as well as recipes – both iconic and quirky. Tell us about that and what would you nominate as Australia’s national dish?
My general aim was to counter the commonly expressed opinion that Australia had no food culture until after the post-war migrant influx. I also wanted the book to be very readable and for people to feel that they could relate to it.
I would hesitate to recommend anything. A national dish is, of necessity, of a particular time; what might be popular and considered representative of national identity in one decade would not be so in another decade. What I would say is that there is an ensemble of dishes, both home-cooked and restaurant, that is considered typical in Australia but does not have the same meaning in other countries. In general, I think Australian food has bolder flavours and flavour combinations that are less common elsewhere.
With numerous books and publications already under your belt, your latest book, Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries: Two Years in France, details living in a French village with your young family. Why does France hold such a mesmerising effect on people?
I think I can only say why I like France, and one reason, as I say in the book, is that in France I speak French, it is natural to speak French, and speaking a different language allows me to be a different person. I had this experience when I was first in France, studying in Paris, crisscrossing the country, learning from the drivers of cars that offered me a ride. So much was new and interesting, especially the food; I sought out the local specialities wherever I was.
What is one of your favourites recipes from the book?
I would probably have to say Boeuf aux carottes – not necessarily because it is my particular favourite, but it’s one that people love, whether I cook it for them or they follow my recipe.
The Food & Words writers’ festival posits itself as a day of storytelling, interesting discussion, delectable food and lots of laughter for book readers and food lovers. The line-up includes a culinary historian, farmer, baker, permaculturist, journalist and more, so you’ll be in great company. What are looking forward to most about the day-long September event?
I’m looking forward to meeting the other speakers – I don’t know who they all are yet – but also the people who attend, finding out why they attend, what they like reading. And I love being in Sydney at any time, it’s like coming home as I largely grew up and went to university there.
In regards to the late Waverley Root, you wrote that there is more to food than recipes and more to recipes than a list of ingredients and instructions. Who are some of your favourite contemporary food writers?
It’s hard to say, but I like Jeffrey Steingarten and Bee Wilson as writers with something to say, and among cookbook authors, I often go back to Rick Stein (Rick Stein’s Spain, for example) and I like the books by Ottolenghi and by Greg and Lucy Malouf.
It’s your last supper – name three guests you’d invite living or dead (not family members) and what would you serve?
I might start my planning with the cheese course, perhaps a good Roquefort accompanied by freshly shelled walnuts and some of my glace quince segments. A salad from the garden. A small wedge of a dense chocolate cake for dessert, with coffee. If it’s summer, a salad of my beefsteak tomatoes to start, or a gazpacho. And assuming it is summer, main course might simply be young lamb cutlets from the barbecue, served with my harissa, or a side of ocean trout cooked in the oven with a tangy herb sauce or aioli.
Guests? Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Keating and Helen Mirren.
You can hear Barbara speaking alongside nine other food writers at Food & Words in Sydney on 15 September, find the details at www.foodandwords.com.au
Interview by Amanda Kennedy. Amanda is an artist currently doing a writing degree. You can find her on Instagram @artbyamandakennedy