A Note of Interrogation

Wine and Cheese Across the Hemispheres

In 1937 a columnist for The Argus in Melbourne, the pseudonymous Oriel, met an English visitor travelling for the chemical giant ICI. A chat revealed that in England, unadorned wine-tasting had been superseded by tasting the wines with cheese. The Englishman was a member of Liverpool’s “Food and Wine Society”. Likely this was an early chapter of the seminal, International Wine and Food Society founded by French-born André Simon, with A.J. Symons, in London in 1933.

The indefatigable M. Simon (1877-1970) ranged the world to set up branches, reaching New York but also for example San Francisco by 1935. It appears some British cities outside London were already in his orbit even before WW II.

Oriel’s account strikes just the right mordant tone, trumping perhaps two American counterparts who tried a similar approach, as discussed earlier in these pages.

Melbourne’s scribbler put it this way:

Wine tasting is one of the pleasantest epicurean pastimes to which a man of sensitive palate can be introduced but yesterday I heard a lot in favour of cheese-tasting as an appetising diversion. It was told to me by Mr Norman D. Lees, an English visitor whose business interests are associated with that vast modern enterprise Imperial Chemical Industries. Mr Lees who is a member of The Liverpool Food and Wine Society told me that besides holding regular banquets the society organises occasional cheese-tasting afternoons. He went on to enumerate the many kinds of cheeses of which the members are connoisseurs but seeing a note of interrogation in my glance he made haste to add that it was customary to sip wine between bites.

In those circumstances ORIEL makes haste to recommend the pastime to those Melburnians to whom plain tea-tasting and wine-tasting produce a sensation of insipidity.

Actually, The Wine and Food Society, now called the International Wine and Food Society (IWFS), already had a branch in Melbourne when Oriel did his reportage. It was established in 1936 as explained on the IWFS’ site, here. 

It may be of interest that the branches I’ve mentioned, and there are many more today world-wide including in Toronto, all continue in fine mettle.

Oriel’s full article may be read here, courtesy Trove digitized newspapers. The reference to tea was no doubt a dulcifying element, perhaps an editor’s addition. Melbourne always was the most prim of Australian settlements. As this was the 1930s one has visions of clubs and lawn bowling, posh homes, lazy fans, louvered ventilators. One part of society takes tea or learns the finer points of wine in soirées; another is resolute on the malt at plain chair and table, as I’ve explored earlier, too.

In one, the restrained, rather English tones of aspirant Melbourne; in the other, the broader twangs of Sydney and the more distant Territories. The salon; the cheery hotel.

That’s an acute observation about insipidity though, I’d never think to put it that way. Maybe he meant insensibility, but had to go with another word given the reference to decorous tea.

Who was Oriel, one wonders, so much is lost to the vaporous mists of history…

Note re sources used: the image above was sourced from an Ebay listing, here. The quotation from the Oriel column was sourced from the 1937 issue of the The Argus referenced in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, and are used herein for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.