The lamington gravy train

The lamington, which I’ve long believed to be the quintessential Queensland cake, may not actually be our own. It’s true the town of Toowoomba smashed the 2009 Ipswich world record for the biggest lamington in 2011, but the cake’s origins have also been claimed by the New Zealanders, who call them lemmingtons, my own forbears the French and Scottish, and the Croatians. I know that rolling sponge cake in chocolate and covering it in coconut isn’t rocket science. If we don’t know who pioneered the lamington, does it matter? Yes! The lamington is a national icon. Truly, if we understand the lamington, we understand ourselves.

Historian Katie McConnel, curator of Old Government House in Brisbane, believes there’s no debate. The first lamington was made at the house by Armand Galland, French chef to Charles Wallace Baillee, second Baron Lamington and Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, making the lamington a French creation, albeit in Queensland. It was Galland who took the lamington on a Royal Tour of New Zealand, after the Governor had departed Australia, explaining the New Zealand claim away. The Scottish claim was always weak. An outback woman originating from Lamington, Lanarkshire fed hungry shearers a cake she told them was a lamington; the recipe spread through Queensland on the sheep’s back. As for the Croatians, their cupavci, spookily identical to the lamington, appears to have entered the culinary landscape independently of events in the southern hemisphere. Snap!

Other histories of the lamington involve a temporary Governor’s cook or maid in either Toowoomba or Ipswich and accidental chocolating, but these may have started as a joke, with the humour failing to survive repeated telling. According to the Australian National Dictionary Centre, the original reference was from a 1977 Nation Review story in which a chunk of cake dropped in gravy at a Cloncurry banquet for the Governor was hurled over the diner’s shoulder. It landed in a dish of coconut, witnessed by a maid who was inspired to substitute chocolate sauce for gravy. I made a cake with gravy once and so I rather like this version, even if it’s a furphy.

I was a keen cook growing up and my favourite recipe was the devil’s food chocolate cake on page 505 of Miss Schauer’s cookbook. Miss Schauer herself, who led Brisbane’s culinary life at the turn of the 20th century, had taught my grandmother to cook. I can still recall Nana’s crumbed pork fillet and chicken wrapped in bacon. I loved Miss Schauer. And in the way that everything a writer writes is connected to everything else – what I like to think of as the great pulse of connection that lies underneath, that makes us (and our lamingtons) Australian – Miss Schauer turns out to be a possible inventor of the lamington. Goosebumps.

But first the gravy cake. Those who know Gravox may recall that its yellow-brown box was exactly the same size as the orange-brown Cadbury Bourneville cocoa box. Both were filled with brown powder. Yes, at age 11, I picked the wrong box and put 4 tablespoons of gravy powder in my batter. The resulting cake was congealed in texture and on taste reminiscent of roast beef. No one would eat it except my father, not known for a sweet tooth, who said it wasn’t bad, tongue literally in cheek to remove the glug from his molars.

Miss Schauer wouldn’t have made a gravy cake but it is possible she authored the first lamington which had less to do with the Governor than with his wife, Lady May Lamington, who was patron of the cookery school at the Brisbane Technical College. Lady Lamington officiated at the school’s opening in 1900 where she was treated to a demonstration by none other than Miss Schauer, instructress at the school, who with Lady Lamington or on her own may have produced the lamington, naming it for her patron. I like this version best because it places at the centre of an icon’s origins the woman who through my grandmother’s hands gave me the most exquisite gourmet childhood moments. With gratitude Miss Schauer, to you and to Nana Lynch.

 Miss Schauer

Miss Schauer