One place you are guaranteed to find someone whinging about the food is at a sports stadium. I disagree with this in principle because it simply adds to the atmosphere, and is often a hot mess that you are so happy to get that it makes standing in line worth it. I have had wonderful experiences eating hot dogs at Fenway Park where the Red Sox won in a blinder, chowed down on hot dogs at Madison Square Garden where the Knicks played their hearts out, and stuffed myself on hot dogs while the Eagles almost made it to the Superbowl. Come to think of it, I can only remember eating hot dogs, including as the main part of a three-course dinner at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Dreamtime round – the entrée was a serving of chips and for desert it was a Snickers. That is living.
I love Aussie Rules and I married into a Richmond family in 2017, perhaps the wisest decision I have ever made, given that this was when they won their first premiership in thirty years. My father-in-law is a horse trainer and he had a winner the evening before our wedding. Judging by the number of whiskey and cokes he put down on the big day itself, I think it made his top five days of that year – coming just behind all the finals the Tigers played in. The football is one of the reasons to go to Melbourne, along with the pizza at Kaprica, the shelves at Books for Cooks, and the borek at the Vic Markets.
Melbourne, after all, is a great town to eat in. The quality is high across the board with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. You get the variation of a big city like New York, but the attention to detail that comes from being close to farms like Redgate. It has wonderful markets and produce, a discerning and agreeable palate, great service with hospitable people, and there is a lack of pretence, charlatans and rip-offs. You can eat almost anything, anywhere and have it be an enjoyable experience. But, what makes Melbourne unique is how this sits side by side with culture and sport. And that might be why it is the magnet for Australians, drawing people from country towns and smaller capitals to come and live there for a while. Whereas Sydney with its flashy beaches, its spectacular harbour, its sunny days, projects the image of what Australia is to the overseas market and expatriates, Melbourne is a not a place so obviously for tourists. This is the difference between Bill Granger and Andrew McConnell. Its charms are more embedded, take a little while to get used to, harder to find, like those gems of restaurants down back allies, like rooftop bars that have no signage, like suburban pubs that are a cut above, like all the cafes where intellectuals spend time hanging out, like the malls that have fantastic food courts.
This is to say nothing of hidden pleasures, such as Tamil Feasts, which happens at a local environment centre. Tamil Feasts is run by asylum seekers who have been released into the community after many years in detention. They are there to share their culture and their cuisine, and I think, they do the best South Asian curries in the whole cityFor several months, I volunteered there every Monday, dutifully cutting onions for hours on end to make hundreds of bhaji for supportive people who were doing something good with their dining dollars. It makes you feel good and it suits the city in which it takes place. Melbourne cares.
But, to me, Melbourne is equally blessed because it is the home of Aussie Rules; this fact alone makes it a mecca for Australians from all over. The Grand Final is part of that appeal, just like souvlaki, sourdough and Szechuan. But, what do I want to eat when I am watching the footy?
It has to be a meat pie. And it has to be beef. It cannot be lamb or chicken or kangaroo, though those have all had a look in. It has to be beef for the Grand Final. I love a good pie, or even a bad one – coming home drunk walking past a servo I am lured in by Mrs Macs, despite the morning regret and the burning my mouth will get. I will have a go at any pie – scallop in Tasmania, muttonbird if they had it; emu on the drive between Redgate and Perth; blueberry, pecan, pumpkin in American diners. I only have one rule – no curry pie. Give me bacon and egg, give me cheese, give me custard, but no curry, please. But, for the footy it has to be beef.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the best way to eat beef is as a steak. And surely that has its merits – a proper steak done medium rare is surely a thing of beauty and delight, juicy and with a crust, pure, unadorned. Then you might like to highlight all the ways that mince makes a entry – meatballs with spaghetti, a hamburger a little bit pink in the middle, dan dan noodles with a sprinkling of scallions, a mountain of nachos with chilli con carne, or even just a rissole served with horseradish and bush tomatoes. Then you could be drawn into thinking about other cuts and dishes that appeal – beef wellington, casserole, brisket.
I have eaten a side of fresh beef sitting by the Fitzroy River, with traditional owners having shot a killah (steer) just for the occasion. They reasoned, as any reasonable person would, that this was their land so why not eat what was on it? But I learnt one very important piece of information – that when you are rustling cattle you only take only half of the beast, so that when you lie it back on the ground, it looks like it has simply died rather than being hunted down on purpose. From the air, or driving past, the cow will look like it has simply fallen over and died, and while this is a waste, if that is your traditional country then you can do it anyway you like. Pay the rent, I say.
That night, I was just thankful to join people and learn some stories. We also ate a crocodile that we gutted before stuffing it with hot rocks, several barramundi including a little one I was a bit too proud to have caught, and handfuls of cherubin (freshwater prawns) that I loved charred over the coals. There was damper too and a cup of tea with powdered milk. And, I, for some reason, had a big tin of peaches in the back of my car and simply needed to put them on the table. That was one of the best meals I had on my drive around Australia, and certainly one of the most memorable times I have eaten beef.
My father has a story of something similar when he was visiting my uncle on his station on the Gibb River Road. From a hundred yards away, my uncle shot a cow before racing over and ripping out its liver, biting into it as steam rose in the morning mist. All his mates had a go as well. My uncle used to spends months out bush at a time living side by side with people who knew the country well. And though it was mainly bush tucker, every now and then they would get a killah too.
Beef up north tastes different, just like it does in America or France or Argentina. I have enjoyed beef in Havana, eating ropa vieja while the band played all your favourite Buena Vista Social Club songs, only to follow this with a hand rolled cigar and mango juice. I have loved carne asada in Veracruz, watching families tuck into tacos and speak of the day at school. And, every now and then, I crave a steak tartare like I had in Montpellier with a side of salad watching the summer rain pour down like I experienced with my younger sister.
But the beef you get in the cities of Australia will do just as well. I love a steak, I love bolognese, I love rendang. This is not to say that I eat a lot of meat, but it is part of my community as much as the vegan, raw and vegetarian meals that I have with friends and old housemates. But a good pie is what you need come Grand Final day.
To make a pie, you have to start the day before. That might sound hyperbolic, but it makes the experience relaxing rather than rushed and you can taste that feeling when you come round eating. Start by sweating equal parts onion, celery, carrot in a mix of butter and olive oil. While that is browning cube some beef – marbled is best but any thick cut will do. Remove your mirepoix. Toss your beef lightly in flour or potato starch, and place some duck fat in your pan. Fry a little pancetta, bacon or lardons before adding in your beef. Brown it, add your mirepoix, and now comes the crucial decision – what liquid do you stew your beef in? Wine? Red, white or rose? Dry or sweet? Stout? You can use any of the above, but it will determine the taste.
In any case, add it to the pot until half the meat is covered. Boil this quickly for a few minutes to release the aromas and get a start on cooking off the alcohol. Stir occasionally, then add in the same amount of chicken stock. Put on last year’s Grand Final replay or listen to your favourite opera (Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni) or play a boardgame. And wait. A good pie filling takes time.
Cook this down until you get the right consistency – the meat should be stringy, tender, melt-in-you-mouthy, and the mirepoix incorporated into it. If the gravy is thin, simmer it off even if that means the meat falls apart more.
That is the basic recipe, but you can customise it any way you wish – add in potatoes or peas at the end after cooking them separately, a bay leaf in with the stock or some whole pink peppercorns or a cup of mushrooms or a single anchovy, a spoon of tomato paste or BBQ sauce or miso, some native peppercorns, or, once it has all cooled, a big handful of fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, lemon verbena roughly chopped). You should not need to add salt because of the chicken stock. When it is room temperature put it in the fridge and let it sit overnight.
The next morning, you have a new challenge – pastry. Pastry is a precise art and as you may have guessed from these essayistic recipes, precision is not my strong suit. Often K will take care of this, or I will follow a strict recipe as though my life depended on it. But I always go puff – filo is great for spinach and feta, shortcrust for a quiche, and variations on butter for the rest of it. But puff is the best for the kind of beef pie I like – it has the right loft, the right crunch, the right chew too. I bake the bottom layer blind for a few minutes, never more than five, and then I add the pie filling in cold. Put on the pastry lid, wash it with egg and cook it until it is crispy, golden brown. Remove from the oven.
You are almost done, but you need to choose what kind of sauce to go with it. Some like tomato chutney with sultanas and spices; some like BBQ; others prefer ketchup. And, all of them are valid. It is no use being doctrinaire about people adding little variations at the end. Put them all out, but if anyone reaches for the mayonnaise take their plate away.
I have dreams of strawberries and cream with champagne at Wimbledon, or a whole suckling pig at the final of the World Cup, and maybe gravlax at the opening of the Winter Olympics. But all that pales in comparison to a beer and a pie in an MCC Box when the Fremantle Dockiers win their first premiership. Until then, I will happily make do with baking my own at home and watch the game when the time comes.