Saturday, September 5, 2009

Not So Posh Nosh

Lawyers, as the Bard wrote, "strive mightily but eat and drink as friends".

The tradition of barristers eating dinners is as old as the Inns of Court in London. All young English barristers, called Readers or Pupils, were required to eat a number of dinners at Inns, such as Grays Inn or Lincoln's Inn, or the Inner Temple, before being accepted at the Bar. But my God, as the picture above depicts, the spin off from that practice can be stuffy and boring. Moreover, as (and we will see) clothes maketh not the person, so too fine surroundings do not make a meal. Or at least a good meal.

Many of the clubs at which I have eaten have elderly diminutive stewards and oversized, aged silver cutlery - which prompted one of my witty mates, now a Supreme Court Justice, to once quip that they were places where the waiters were small and the soup spoons were large.

I went to Launceston in northern Tasmania to serve my articles of apprenticeship in 1974. While the Deed of Apprenticeship I was obliged to execute admonished me to wear clean underwear and not to steal my Master's pencils and stamps, nonetheless Launcestonian lawyery types were amazingly liberated. Unlike Hobart, Launceston apprentices were permitted to eat Bar Dinners - known as Circuit Dinners with qualified barristers. These bar dinners were given for visiting "Circus" judges, as Rumpole dubbed them.

These dinners were however, notable more for their drunken speech making, joke telling, singing and "passing the Port" than they were for their food. I am sure that the good souls in their antiquated scullery kitchens also strove mightily that we might eat and drink as friends but somehow they never quite made the grade. So much was the emphasis on carousing that one gentleman's club banned Bar dinners for some years after an altercation occurred between two gentlemen. A difference of learned opinion that apparently was witnessed by no-one, all 100 odd attendees having gone to the Gents at the same time.

So it was, that from 1974 until recent years when I stopped attending, I ate an estimated 120 odd of these not so posh noshes. The menus rarely varied. Frequently one started with floury Brown Soup, moved to overcooked Roast Beef and finished with anaemic Apple Pie. There were no doubt variations on the theme but if there were they were not so memorable that I do - remember that is.

One one notable occasion, a rare one where barristers partners were permitted, Mary lost a perfectly useful old filling in a rather older piece of Boeuf Roti (the posh name for the ubiquitous roast beef). She discreetly headed for the Powder Room and in the best traditions of the bar and the three wise monkeys apparently missed no fisticuffs - or not any she saw anyway.

Perhaps the finest meal I had at one of these black tie gentlemen's club dinners was the occasion some years ago when Tom Samek was brought in as guest chef and served Crow and Native Hen. Believe it or not they were excellent.

Interstate, things have not been so grim in my experience. Tribal gatherings such as the NSW Bench and Bar Dinners held every year in May are attended by as many as 800 barristers. No doubt there are economies of scale as these dinners are held at venues such as The Westin Ballroom and the Hilton. Usually alternate drop service, the modern Australian food presented on these nights is surprisingly good and the logistics of getting 2,400 plates to the table within such a short space of time as to allow for the numerous speeches to be heard in relative silence, leaves me in awe.

Barristers and food have thus had a symbiotic relationship for several hundred years. It was never more obvious than in the 1980's when we frequented restaurants every working day for lunch. I distinctly recall one well known and much loved Launceston restaurateur wringing his hands and telling me and my party, near to tears for fear of my displeasure, that, as with the previous day, his only special was the prawns flambeed in Pernod. He was very sorry Mr Estcourt.

And so he was, but not nearly as sorry as Mr Estcourt was when months later the Federal Treasurer decided that the restaurant industry should no longer be propped up with taxpayer's dollars in this way, no matter how many jobs might be lost as a result of doing away with the relevant tax deduction.

That Christmas, it was 1986 - the year is burnt into my cerebellum alongside the year of the great Fernand Point's untimely death - Mary's late mother Monica presented me with an odd present. It was a brown paper bag inscribed with the words
"Keating's Business Lunch".

These days I have chambers in Hobart and in Melbourne and I usually opt for a light lunch at places such as Dev'Lish, Pidgeon Hole or Tricycle in Hobart or Nicks, Demi Tasse or Hanabishi in Melbourne. Light on the waist and light on the pocket. A trip to the Victorian Bar's own Essoign Club in Owen Dixon Chambers or to the Melbourne Club with it's beautiful walled garden is now the exception rather than the rule - but I am happy to report that the food is rather good in both places. After all one does crave Lamb's Fry and Bacon sometimes!

RIP 5 March 1955


  1. Hi Stephen, again what a rollicking read.
    What an archaic, 'Tomkinsons Schooldays'( C/O Ripping Yarns)and almost Hogworts account of the traditions & ceremonies of a certain practice that is SO not a part of the everyday right of passage backyard barby LOL!
    I am encouraged though, that at the last two or so of these high-collared-kneees-ups the food has been good. That a big call coming from your broad experiences. Either way its a good call. Glad you found George Birons link.

  2. Thanks Mate. glad you enjoyed it. I have just done a review of Gay Bilson's On Digestion for Justinian and will post it and the link as soon as it goes up on Richard Ackland's site!

  3. take 100 lines boy:

    the occupation of proprietors of eating establishments is known as restaurateur not restauranteur

    one would think a wannabe 'foodie' with a real job as a professional wordsmith would know that

    oh and why all the name dropping? You claim this to be your personal passion; surely a senior member of The Melbourne Bar is not so insecure as to need the constant self serving buzz created by dropping names all the time.

  4. Hey Sam, are you the blog police or something? Go find another blog to write report cards on will you? I enjoy reading this blog, if you dont, then dont read it

  5. Hey Samuel.
    Thanks for the heads up on the typo. Have corrected it.
    Not sure I get you about the name dropping. Wasn't conscious of it except maybe for Tom Samek who is a close friend.

  6. Hi Steve
    Thanks for the spirited defence.
    Samuel is one of my own I see.
    The good thing about Web - Stat is it tells you where your visitors come from, Melbourne in this case, who they come through - Justinian, their IP address and when they return:-)


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