Pickles in the Victorian and Edwardian diet

Since I came back from overseas I’ve been back working on the Dow’s Pharmacy documentation project.

And one thing that has struck me is just how many late nineteenth and early twentieth century pickle jars have been reused to store materia medica.


In one sense this is not surprising. Pickle jars very nature would have been easy to clean and resterilise, and are usually made of fairly heavy glass making them ideal for reuse.

But why pickle jars?

Before the advent of home refrigeration, pickles, chutneys etc were an important way of preserving produce so it could be eaten out of season.

In Australia this was important, not so much over winter, but over summer when many vegetables would spoil in the heat.

So just as you used to be able to get bottled carrots, asparagus and other goodies, not to mention the bottled gherkins, capsicums and garden salad from Poland and Hungary, in Victorian times this spawned a whole industry of local bottlers and picklers. – Victoree, John Sutherland, Jonathan Reeve, etc in the agricultural areas producing and bottling pickles on a commercial scale.

Now, as all the pickle jars have had their labels removed I can’t tell you what the original contents were as one late nineteenth century jar looks much like another, but they are relatively easy to identify as most of the bottlers used jars embossed with their logo.

Now it’s possible that the old boy just liked his pickles, but I suspect that there’s more to it than that. For example, it’s always puzzled me why, in Victorian detective stories, mysterious substances were always transferred to a pickle jar for forensic analysis.

It’s simple really. Most people, as well as buying some bought products pickled and bottled vegetables at home meaning that most houses would have a stock of clean pickle jars hidden away somewhere, just as we still hide away some jars for homemade jam.

It’s also possible that the substantial nature of the pickle jars that made them attractive to old Mr Dow to store his materia medica also made them attractive to the housewives and housekeepers of Federation period Australia – something in a jar you could reuse several times was probably a more attractive purchase than something in a lighter jar that might crack when being sterilised for reuse …

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Singapore …

So, Singapore.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Singapore. Both my father and his brother lived there during colonial times, and even when he was too old to travel, my father always wanted to see our photos of Singapore whenever we’d had a stop over there, not just to see pictures of the colonial remnants, but pictures of the new city and how things had changed.

However, the journey:

Lisbon is not the easiest place to start from to get to Australia. Our journey went something like this:

Evening flight from Lisbon to Frankfurt, arriving just as the airport shuts down – this is actually a hassle as they start turning off the power to escalators, which made walking through the airport with luggage to our overnight hotel above the airport train station a minor drama.

The next day have a morning flight to Singapore arriving just after dawn, but actually, after immigration, getting our bags back, finding a cash machine, getting a taxi it was more like 0830 by the time we got to our hotel.

We’d emailed the hotel in advance about the possibility of an early checkin, and while they never committed to one, we’d obviously been put on a list as there was a room for us if we’d care to pay an extra SGD70, well worth it for a couple of hours sleep, and a shower.

Singapore is not the cheapest but it’s easy, westernised and efficient. The MRT train system is cheap and fast, takes you to most places you are likely to want to go, and while eating out can be expensive, and shopping is no longer the bargain it once was, Singapore can be as cheap or as expensive as you want.

The first evening we ate somewhere classy but not extortionate as a treat. We’d had to borrow an umbrella from the hotel as October was starting out to be wetter than usual.

Being on the equator Singapore doesn’t have a wet season or a monsoon, it can rain anytime, but some times are wetter than others, with October and November being wetter months.

The next day we did our tourist thing, and then decided to eat dinner at the hawker food court at Newton circus – it had been about five years since we’d been there, and it had been revamped, so we thought we’d give it a try and it was only a stop on from our nearest MRT station.

When we left the hotel it was pouring with rain again, so we borrowed an umbrella and set off down Orchard Road, only to find the station closed – flooding had knocked out the MRT, and while the police were directing people to replacement buses one look at the queue told us we were going to have a long wait.

We thought about walking, but given the rain, gave up on that idea and settled for an overpriced hotel buffet instead.

The next morning, the MRT was still partly out of action, but the trains had been restarted from Orchard Road to the city so we took ourselves down to the Asian Civilisations museum to look at the pottery from the Tang ship – a trading dhow that had gone down off the coast, laden with Tang pottery for sale in the Gulf.

While we were in the museum the heavens opened, but the rain had cleared by the time we had lunch, so off we set up Boat Quay, only to be caught in another squall, and forcing us to take cover in the cat cafe.

Despite being cat tragics, we didn’t spand any time with the cats as they were all fully occupied in being stroke by other clients or sleeping, and moved on. Amazingly we found a dollar shop and managed to get ourselves a couple of cheap umbrellas.

Unlike other Asian cities, street hawkers don’t appear spruiking umbrellas and plastic ponchos the moment it rains – being clean and regulated does have some disadvantages.

That evening it was the hawker market at Lau Pa Sat, now cleaned up and no longer a little piece of anarchy in the financial district with men grilling satay at the kerbside and cheerful beer ladies bringing jugs of tiger to your table, and bowls of food ordered from the various stands appearing as if by magic.

No, nowadays you need to order the food and collect it yourself and the beer has to be bought from a concession stand, and satay grilling takes place in a designated area.

That said the food’s still good, even if things are not as anarchic as they once were. And it’s still excellent value.

And that was it – the next morning it was a cab to the airport and home. Our European trip was over.

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Evora, Lisbon and Sintra

For some reason our car’s GPS decided to ignore tollways and took us an interesting way to Evora through wooded countryside and then on to the old main road north before branching west across wheat growing country that increasingly looked like the plains of inland Spain, and likewise dotted with small towns and white churches.

Evora is a medieval town on a Roman foundation – a dense and nearly car free network of twisting alleys and cobbled streets. One of its main attractions is the Temple of Diana which is the remains of a Roman temple that almost certainly wasn’t dedicated to Diana.

In theory spectacular, but on the day we visited swathed in scaffolding and plastic for emergency repairs and inaccessible.


It had however inspired some great graffiti

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The other major Roman site in Evora is the baths, which is accessible through the council offices. Totally unsignposted, you go into the main council building, through people either waiting for appointments or using the public access computers to file health and social security claims and there it is – the remains of the hot room.



Definitely worth a visit, but be aware that as it’s in the council offices the site’s only accessible during the week when the council building is open to the public, and of course closed on public holidays as well as weekends.

Despite being a world heritage destination Evora is not yet desperately touristy besides the Roman sites, there’s the cathedral – well worth a visit for the rooftop view alone and a few other buildings. If you visit by car the sanest thing to do is park in one of the large free public carparks outside of the walls, and given that the town is ‘a maze of twisty passages, all different’ I’d recommend a phone with Google Maps as a location guide, especially as some of the squares and streets have names different to those in some of the tourist guides.

Outside of Evora there’s also some fairly spectacular megaliths if you like that sort of thing and it’s only a short detour on the way to the main freeway to Lisbon from the north side of the city.

After that it was a simple drive back to Lisbon to return our car, including another battle with a recalcitrant self service petrol pump and then on to a rented apartment.

Not counting our overnight on the way south the last time we’d been in Lisbon was fifteen years ago when it was still low key and desperately untouristy,

Not any more – the Praca do Commercio was a sea of polyester trousers and the streets around it having with tourists and hucksters, including the men, who taking advantage of Portugal’s relaxed drug laws, try and sell you ziplocs of dried nettles on the basis that it’s something stronger.

But for all that Lisbon was relatively cheap, with dinner at an Angolan restaurant costing around the same as we paid in rural Portugal and a beer in a street cafe in the Praca do Rossio costing a bit more but at only EUR2,50 for a glass of Sagres draught, not outrageously so.

Last time we went to the castle. From memory it was either free or a fairly nominal fee. This time we didn’t – the sight of a 500m long queue for tickets put us off. Instead we wandered around, went to take a look at the underwhelming but none the less interesting remains of the Roman theatre – these you can see for free, the museum on the other side of the street charges for entry and has a small collection, but nothing that’s unique or unusual.


We also had a day in Sintra, taking the suburban train from Rossio station. As always, leave early to beat the crowds.

When we got there, there was already a queue of tourists lining up to buy tickets from the manned desk and ignoring the bank of ticket machines. We took one look at the queue and thought ‘bugger that’ and decided to try the machines.

They are of course in Portuguese, but there’s a big British flag in the bottom corner – tap on that and the machine flips into English. Most of the options are about recharging travel cards or buying multi zone tickets, but at the bottom there’s an option for a return ticket to Sintra. Tap that, insert a five euro note, and you’re sorted. No need to stand in line.

Sintra is big and confusing. You can’t do it all, but if you’re a walker you can do a couple of things – we tried the old Royal summer palace, the National Palace, and the Castle of the Moors, walking the whole way up through the villa Sassetti gardens and ignoring the guys spruiking tuk tuk rides to the top who tell you that it’s hard (it is but not that hard – just take water and pace yourself) and it will take an hour – it will but you’re on holiday, not a schedule. The walk is good, with spectacular views back to Lisbon.

And then it was home via Singapore …

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Portugal–the Algarve

So there we were, heading down the tollway in our rental car.

The tolls weren’t a problem, we’d filled in the paperwork for electronic tolling and agreed to settle the bill with the rental company when we brought the car back, but cars do need petrol and it’s a reasonable distance from Lisbon to Tavira, our first stop.

Being seasoned travellers, we picked a quiet looking servo on the tollway for our first adventure of putting petrol in the car – which side is the filler cap on, does the hose reach, and how do you open the damn thing etc.

Well. we’d had a Renault before, we guessed correctly the side the filler cap was on, found the cap release lever easily enough, and the we came across the dread Portuguese self service petrol pump.

Basically, you can pay in advance, or you put your card in a cardreader in the pump to preauthorize it – and yes the instructions are in one language only.

As well as our usual cards we had a Travel Card from our bank – basically it functions as a multi currency debit card and it’s nicely integrated with our bank’s online banking solution so you can track your spending.

The only tricky bit is that you occasionally come across machines that recognise the card as an Australian card and helpfully offer to bill you in Australian dollars rather than Euros, Pounds, Singapore Dollars or what have you. When this happens you need to go through the rigmarole of declining this option (usually twice) to get them to bill you in local currency.

So anyway, in with our card. Enter the pin. Card declined. Catch card as it’s spat out and clean it on shorts and try again. Same result.

Reverse out of bay and try a different pump. Card, Pin, and this time it works. Card authorized. Fill car, card returned, only for the printer in the pump to jam. No receipt. Well we can live with that.

And on to Tavira.

While a lot of the Algarve is spoiled by mass tourism, Tavira, retains much of its pre-tourism charm. There are the ruins of the old castle, the old convent where we stayed, which is nowa ‘Pousada’, and the general ambience and charm of what is still fundamentally a fishing town.

There’s a nice old bridge in the town centre, which still has Roman stonework in the piers even though it has been rebuilt several times over the centuries, firstly by the Arabs and lastly after the great earthquake, which not only flattened Lisbon but did terrible damage to the coastal towns of the Algarve.

It wasn’t all pousadas, ruins and churches – there’s a major wetland reserve and one morning we took a boat trip through the wetlands out through the oyster beds to the Ilha de Tavira, and saw flamingos taking off from a roosting site across a lagoon


Next stop, a week in Monchique, in the hills behind the Western Algarve, staying at a property with spectacular views of the coast, owned by a German couple.

Our original plan had been to do some walking, but the weather was unseasonably hot for the end of September, so mostly we explored the rocky and beautiful western Algarve coast by car. Our favourite spot here for swim and lunch was Salema, a relatively quiet fishing village with a good swimming beach and only a few tourists. We visited the stunning west coast at Odaceixe, a wide sweeping bay with a river, a bit of a mecca for surfers.

I also did some totally unsuccessful hunting for Roman ruins. I did find the fishponds in Luz, but they were behind a locked steel gate next to the Euromoney cash machine on the sea front and there is an ongoing German Portuguese excavation at Boca dos Rios – a surf beach not far from Salema.


The day we were there they were pulling bits of amphora out of one of the excavation pits.

The other great thing we did, at the suggestion of our hosts, was go to the local bar restaurant – something which involved a walk down lanes through oak forest. When we got there, the place was heaving, not surprisingly because, apart from quarry workers and local farmers stopping by for a drink they served the best piri piri chicken, chips and salad we had – big old charcoal grill out the back and the food just kept coming. Cash only of course, and what they had is what they had as far as wine went, but excellent value, and fun.

On the way back we realised that the sun had set, and it was getting dark, and perhaps not time for wandering about rural Portugal, especially given the habit of some of the locals to hurtle down the back roads in old Renault 4’s and Peugeot 205’s without headlights.

Fortunately, for all it’s old world charm, the bar had wifi, and I downloaded a flashlight app for my phone which was surprisingly effective, even if it drained the battery. A nice unintentional plus in the app I chose was that it didn’t darken the screen while it was running, meaning you could hold the phone out to see the way ahead but anyone coming behind could see the glow of the phone.

And then we were done.

Not quite. We’d planned a few days in Lisbon before going home via Singapore, and I was feeling Roman ruin deprived so we decided on a loop with an overnight in Evora to see the temple of Diana.

So off to Evora it was …

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England and Portugal part 2: Porto

So, on to Porto.

We skipped breakfast, checked out and caught the Gatwick Express, as irritatingly that’s where TAP flights to Porto go from.

Actually the whole business was pretty slick and seamless leaving us plenty of time for a late breakfast and cause total confusion when we tried to get rid of the last of our old style pound coins, didn’t have quite enough to avoid breaking another note, which led me to ferret round my backpack and come up with what I thought were a couple of new style pound coins, but were in fact the new style bi metallic Singapore dollars which, apart from looking a bit more glossy, are almost the same size and thickness as a new style pound, and even though they’re round, have an octagonal ridge on the rim that makes them look as if they’re not.

Confusion over we boarded our flight, where the promised in flight catering turned out to consist of weird plum drink, a strange fish paste sandwich and a glass of red, and we were on our way to Porto.

Everything continued to go smoothly, our Mozio driver met us at the airport, took us to our hotel on the river.

The hotel was slightly odd – touted as an aparthotel where you get a studio apartment with a basic kitchen so you can self cater if you want, this one was more like a sparsely furnished (ikea bed, sofa, dining table) single bedroom apartment. Our Mozio driver had said there were a number of failed apartment redevelopment projects in old warehouses along the river, and I’m guessing someone decided to turn the failed apartment project into a riverfront hotel.

That evening, we had an excellent meal in a riverfront restaurant that seemed cheap after London, but in retrospect was overpriced for Portugal, and then sat in a bar on the quay with a glass of port watching the sun go down.

The next day we did tourist things – walked over the two level bridge one way and back on the higher level, a lunch of fresh sardines in a city centre bar while listening to a student group sing medieval folk songs with great style and verve.

Later we walked up to the totally underwhelming National Photographic Centre – there’s a reason it’s free, but you do get an excellent view out across the city from the car park of Ministry of Justice building opposite – and being Saturday no one seemed worry about tourists traipsing round the car park.

The other good thing is that you end up in the university area surrounded by student bars and cafes plus some pretty good restaurants – cheaper and more lively than the tourist area down by the river.

Sunday we took a tourist boat cruise down the river – and staying in a riverfront hotel that meant we could grab the first boat of the morning before the tour buses started bringing the hoards in, and then watched the last stages of the Porto half marathon, and then a glass of port or two as the day wound down.

The next morning we were off to Lisbon on the AlfaPendular high speed tilt train. I’d managed to snag a couple of discounted first class tourist tickets by booking online the day bookings opened.

We’d booked an Uber which didn’t turn up in time so we ended up flagging down a regular taxi who got us to the station with minutes to spare. Fortunately the AlfaPendular was late so we made the train.

What I hadn’t bargained on was the train being packed with people from Lisbon who had made the weekend trip north, just as trains in and out of London used to be packed on Sunday evenings.

But we had our seats, and our luggage was stowed. I’d expected something sleek, smooth and elegant like the Virgin Pendolino, but this train was distinctly tatty, with peeling exterior paintwork, battered though clean toilets, scuffed upholstery, and a row of old style glass tv screens in the ceiling – like you used to see on old Qantas Boeings in the outback – which played a bizarre selection of Portuguese cooking shows.

The train itself started smoothly enough but as it picked up speed lurched and swung and tilted with gusto rattling along at over 200km/h through the Portuguese countryside. That said it got us there exactly on time and the whole experience was comfortable enough – more comfortable than many discount airlines, even if a little odd.

Our plan was to overnight in Lisbon and pick up a rental car the next day to drive south. We’d judged there wasn’t quite enough time to do it all in a single day.

So a night in an excellent boutique hotel converted from an old convent and a walk round the old town and our day was complete.

The next day we picked up a Renault Clio which came with a truly amazing number of parking scuffs and scratches, but drove well enough. Just as years ago in Crete we’d ended up with a battered Fiat like all the locals drove, and got better treatment (including free parking at a bar next to Knossos in exchange for lunch), this car looked like almost every other small car in Lisbon – it didn’t scream ‘rental’, and you could probably park it just about anywhere without fear of being broken into.

And then we were off down the tollway to the Algarve, crossing the incredibly impressive Vasco da Gama bridge…

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Travels in England and Portugal: part 1–England

This is a somewhat belated post, really to explain the lack of blogging over the last few weeks

We spent the best part of six weeks in Europe, leaving in early September, so early that the day we left there were snow flurries, and when we got back in October everything was in leaf, the street trees covered in blossom and the back lawn was higher than the cat’s navel.

Our first port of call was Manchester, where J wanted to catch up with her cousin to discuss family history and old documents.

When we booked the flight, we’d originally planned to have a few days in London to ourselves, and then loop through Manchester and go on to Portugal, possibly on the train.

Well, we had to change that. J’s cousin had to be in Austria the week we’d originally planned to be in Manchester, so we decided to swap things around and go to Manchester first. We’d got one of these no changes whatsoever tickets to London, so we bought ourselves a BA flight from London to Manchester that afternoon, because (a) Singapore Airlines is almost never late, and (b) if we gave ourselves a generous margin stuffing around in Heathrow we should be able to cope with any minor delays.

Of course, and you guessed it, our flight from Melbourne was late into Singapore, we missed our connection to London, and the next available option meant we’d miss our BA flight to Manchester.

Now, strictly speaking, Singapore could have said that, as the Manchester booking was a separate ticket, it was our problem not theirs, but we whinged, and argued, and they got us onto a flight to Frankfurt and a connecting Lufthansa flight to Manchester at no extra cost to us.

Yes, it did mean we arrived six or seven hours later than planned, but we were there on the day we intended. All good (or so we thought).

So after a night in an airport hotel, we picked up our rental car which handily had a GPS, and set off to the Trafford centre to buy supplies for our stay in Hebden Bridge – we’d booked a cosy little AirBnB stay for a few days.

I couldn’t (after 15 years) remember the way to the Trafford Centre – so I flipped on the GPS, typed in Trafford Centre, hit the Go icon and set off, only to be rewarded by a stream of instructions SwissGerman. Fortunately with J looking at the map on the screen for me and listening to the road numbers -’jetzt an die aa funf zero sechs’ – we got there.

So after a quick language reset we did our shopping and set off to Hebden Bridge. J did her family history thing, but we didn’t get all the planned site visits done – the weather was bloody awful and not ideal for trekking over the moors to search for the location of eighteenth century farmsteads, so we did a few tourist things instead – like visiting the Bronte museum in Haworth in a deluge more reminiscent of the wet season in Queensland than an English autumn.

But we had fun, and J even found a few family graves to add to the story. All good.

And then it was back to London.

Which wasn’t as easy as we thought. When we went to check in online BA told us our booking was canceled. We’d asked Singapore to ask BA to hold our return Manchester London leg, but the message had obviously never got there, and we’d been bumped off the flight as ‘no shows’.

It was absolutely no use being upset about things, so we took the mature view, we had travel insurance, we had credit cards, we could claim a refund later, but for the moment we needed to get to London.

Ten minutes later I’d got us a pair of last minute first class train tickets to London. Despite my egalitarian urges it had to be first class as all the standard class tickets at times you actually wanted to travel had gone, so it was a case of suck it up and do it.

The cost wasn’t that eye watering – a 120 pounds or something like 200 dollars for the two of us for a fast, smooth journey on one of the Virgin pendolino tilt trains, free and fast wifi, complimentary tea and biscuits, a glass of wine if we wanted it. A flight would have been more, and not as much fun or as comfortable.

And I was quietly amazed at how good the journey was, I remember travelling the same journey on British Rail at the end of the seventies when it was ok, and in the early days of post privatisation rail travel when it was bloody awful – dirty overbooked trains, chronically late, and rolling stock that was as battered and antiquated as V/Line’s country services.

And then we were in London.

The weather was still terrible, cold, wet and generally off putting but we did have good day visiting the Alma Tadema exhibition at Leighton House – which is worth a visit for the building itself.

Lord Leighton was connected with the pre Raphaelites and various of their associates and furnished much of the downstairs in a manner reminiscent of a Moroccan riad from Marrakesh, even though the stunning blue tiles were acquired from Syria and points east to create a bit of exoticism in suburban Kensington.

One pleasant surprise was that our Oyster cards from 2010 still worked, still had credit on them, though not enough to be useful, and after topping up let us ride tube and the buses.

The other fund discovery was a wonderful food court in the hulk of old Barker’s department store on Kensington high street – excellent food at a decent price.

But despite these pluses, and the weather helped reinforce this, London felt like increasingly like an old museum stuffed with past glories and statues of unremembered generals and long forgotten conquests – like Vienna, living on past glories.

And then, we were off to Porto …

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Lady Macbeth of the Western district

Earlier this week I was on a plane, and given that flying is a fundamentally boring experience I whiled away the time watching a movie.

The art house movie on offer was the wonderful, spare elegaic Lady Macbeth, beautifully photographed and incredibly dark.

I won’t rehearse the plot, but one device that the director had used was to have all the servants and socially inferior characters as persons of AfroCarribean or mixed heritage, and the property owners as most definitely white north of England characters.

The film was filmed on a property strangely reminiscent of how we found Hume’s cottage in Yass  when we visited on a winter’s day some years ago.

And that got me to thinking that you could have made an equally powerful version set in one of the squatocracy properties in the Western District, and where the socially inferior characters could be aboriginal, or part aboriginal, which would certainly have given it some edge.

And from there it was a short step to wondering what could be done with the stories of Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton who wrote equally harsh stories of life among the farmers and miners of colonial Australia ….



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