FRESH FISH HERE

The history of fish­ing in Aus­tralia is one of peo­ple and place, for those who’ve been here longest, and for those putting down roots, writes ALECIA SIM­MONDS.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tion DANIELLE LEEDIE GRAY

Fish­ing in Aus­tralia is about place and peo­ple – those who’ve been here longest, and those putting down roots.

At dusk, Syd­ney’s Lit­tle Bay has a spir­i­tual qual­ity. Un­like the crash­ing waves of nearby Maroubra, the wa­ter here is eer­ily still, silken, pro­tected by an am­phithe­atre of lofty boul­ders. Re­nais­sance sun­light streams through streaky clouds and sets the un­der­side of gum trees aglow. I’m perched on a rocky out­crop, tug­ging gen­tly on my fish­ing line, hop­ing that noth­ing tugs back. Anna Clark, Aus­tralia’s most prom­i­nent writer of fish­ing history and self-de­clared “fish­ing tragic” stands be­side me. “This is the best time to catch squid,” she says. My heart sinks.

Fish­ing is a para­dox. One that en­cour­ages con­tem­pla­tion of the forms of life that quiver and dart in the ocean, but also presents the very real prospect of killing and eat­ing them. “Fish”, says Hem­ing­way’s Old Man in The Old Man and the Sea, “I love you and re­spect you very much. But I will kill you be­fore this day ends.” Clark tells me freshly caught squid is sweet and crunchy, but the hooks and knives of fish­ing turn my mind to butch­ery more than plea­sure. As a sport, it seems less a med­i­ta­tion than a the­atre of cru­elty; an at­tempt to claim do­min­ion over the ocean. His­tor­i­cally speak­ing, Clark says, I couldn’t be more wrong.

“See the pool over there?” she says, point­ing to what looks like a nat­u­ral rock­pool. “Ar­chae­ol­o­gists think that Eora peo­ple might have orig­i­nally made that as a fish trap – well Eora women most likely. The fish would come into the bay and at low tide they’d stay there, con­fined by the rocks.”

In her lat­est book The Catch, Clark de­scribes how Eora women would pad­dle out in their bark ca­noes, called nowies, and drop hooks carved out of shells, while men would spearfish. Joseph Banks de­scribes peer­ing from the deck of The En­deav­our one night to see “many mov­ing lights” bob­bing in the waters of Botany Bay, which would have been Eora women night-fish­ing, us­ing fire­sticks to at­tract fish. And when these women went fish­ing they turned the har­bour into a vast

au­di­to­rium. French nav­i­ga­tor Louis de Fr­eycinet recorded

“un chant par­ti­c­ulier des femmes qui vont à la pêche”, a pe­cu­liar song the women sing when they fish, which was low, sonorous and in mi­nor keys.

There was also the cer­e­mony of mal­gun. In this prac­tice, a length of spi­der web would be tied around the first two joints of an in­fant girl’s left lit­tle fin­ger, where it would stay un­til the fin­ger mor­ti­fied and fell away. The black­ened flesh would then be taken out to sea and dropped to the fish as an of­fer­ing.

For these women, fish­ing was an act of mu­tual sac­ri­fice. There was no claim of own­er­ship here, rather a bond to the ocean that was rev­er­en­tial.

We can also for­get that Syd­ney Har­bour was mapped by mar­itime men, whose eyes strained sea­ward more than to the land. They called land­marks af­ter their own ap­petites: Cockle Bay, Oys­ter Bay, Chow­der Bay – the lat­ter named for the briny stews that whalers would cook on its shores. Food his­to­rian Jac­qui Newl­ing notes that Botany Bay was orig­i­nally named St­ingray Har­bour by Cap­tain Cook, who hap­pily feasted on skate from its waters.

For them, fish­ing was of­ten a ne­ces­sity, but it was also a plea­sure. In the shad­ows of mo­men­tous oc­ca­sions like Gover­nor Philip scout­ing Port Jack­son as the po­ten­tial set­tle­ment for the new colony, were men like Ja­cob Na­gle, one of his oars­man, who ca­su­ally dropped a line while he waited and was re­warded with a large black bream. The First Fleet sailed with 8,000 fish-hooks and 576 lines that were to be used by women and men alike. El­iz­a­beth Mac­quarie fa­mously out-fished both her hus­band and son at Wat­son’s Bay in 1821. And fish was a sta­ple of the early colo­nial diet, eaten in soups and pies, cur­ried, crumbed, and served au gratin.

As the Euro­pean nets brought in larger hauls and har­bour stocks di­min­ished, though, fish­ing be­came much more about pre­vent­ing spoilage. Fish­ers needed to both trans­port their sup­ply and keep it cold in the process. “The history of fish­ing is partly a history of re­frig­er­a­tion,” Clark says. Un­til the 1920s, when en­gines on boats be­came the norm, there was no power for a re­frig­er­a­tion sys­tem, which meant most boats threw out more fish than they kept. For any­one who didn’t live di­rectly by the sea, chances are the only fish they’d eat in their life would be cured or smoked. Or po­ten­tially spoiled, given that it was of­ten sold by hawk­ers go­ing door-to-door with­out any ice.

Even for those who did have ac­cess to fresh fish, their culi­nary blink­ers of­ten meant they over­looked the most de­li­cious morsels of the ocean. One ad­ver­tise­ment from the 1920s rec­om­mended squid, roasted oc­to­pus, crabs and even lob­ster as bait for snap­per. In the early 1940s there were com­plaints that Al­bany’s har­bour in Western Aus­tralia was “nearly choked” with bluefin tuna. ”They were con­sid­ered a pest by lo­cal fish­ers,” says Clark, “be­cause they chomped through the fish­ing nets.”

“So what changed?“I ask. ”Ital­ians,” she says. ”And all the other mi­grants – more than a mil­lion – who came to Aus­tralia in the decades fol­low­ing World War II.” Ital­ian im­mi­grants taught An­glo-Sax­ons about the plea­sures of charred oc­to­pus, just like Ja­panese mi­grants pop­u­larised raw tuna in Amer­ica in the ’80s. Many post-war mi­grants came to Aus­tralia from small fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Si­cily or Cal­abria, and in their ef­forts to keep these fish­ing traditions alive they ini­ti­ated a rev­o­lu­tion in Aus­tralian cui­sine – a whole host of ne­glected species, ones we now cher­ish, went from bait to plate.

Some im­mi­grants also fished to sup­ple­ment the food they were served in mi­grant work­camps; Clark’s book abounds with sepia-coloured im­ages of dark-haired women in three­quar­ter-length skirts hold­ing a line on the banks of the Mur­ray, or bare-footed Ital­ian men clean­ing nets on the piers of Wool­loomooloo. “It’s not that dif­fer­ent to­day,” she says. “Look at the peo­ple fish­ing now.” I glance up to see a line of Viet­namese men traips­ing down from the rocks car­ry­ing buck­ets and rods. “You still see the old Greek men ten­deris­ing oc­to­pus on the boat ramp at Botany Bay.”

Night has started to blot the air and the wa­ter at Lit­tle Bay is inky. I’ve been toss­ing the line over my shoul­der for al­most an hour now, lis­ten­ing to the whoosh as it reels out to sea, feel­ing the tickle of salt wa­ter at my an­kles. With­out the com­pli­ca­tions of a catch the ex­pe­ri­ence has been deeply re­lax­ing. A bit am­phibi­ous. It’s a mo­ment where you stand on the border of the non-hu­man world and feel your own small­ness.

For Clark, it’s a way of con­nect­ing with Aus­tralia’s past.

“It was only in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury that women re­ally started to be mocked for fish­ing, and un­for­tu­nately fish­ing cul­ture is still like that to­day,” she says. “It’s con­sid­ered a man’s sport, a way of get­ting away from the wife and kids. But I love to imag­ine those Eora women out there in their nowies, bal­anc­ing their ba­bies and children in the ca­noe, catch­ing tonight’s din­ner.”

For me, it’s Joseph Banks’s vi­sion from win­dows of The En­deav­our that re­mains: Syd­ney Har­bour lit up with bob­bing, flick­er­ing lights and the sounds of the women singing their odes to the ocean.

One ad­ver­tise­ment from the 1920s rec­om­mended squid, crabs and lob­ster as bait for snap­per.

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