1870 “Colonial goose” canned in Melbourne

“Colonial goose” had nothing to do with poultry. It was a joint of mutton, boned, stuffed and rolled, to be roasted in the same way as a goose. It is often held to be a dish of New Zealand origin and is still well-known in that country. However the earliest mention of the dish in NZ is in a Rudyard Kipling story from the 1890s while, in Australia, canned Colonial Goose was among many wares offered for sale by the Metropolitan Meat Preserving Works as early as 1870.

In Britain, roast goose was a dish associated with special occasions. It was traditionally eaten at Michaelmas, a Christian feast that occurred in September, harvest season in the northern hemisphere. In the antipodean colonies goose was rare and expensive, so local cooks devised an alternative.

Bill of Fare, 1874

Whether the dish first gained its quirky name in New Zealand or Australia remains moot. Relationships between our two countries were so close in the late 19th century that many thought New Zealand would become a state in the newly federated nation. In fact, the Australian constitution still allows for that to happen. What can be said for certain is that Colonial Goose was an Australasian invention, supposedly given its name because the stuffed mutton joint, with a protruding bone at one end, could be roasted and dressed to resemble a goose.

There was some confusion about the term. The Leader (Melbourne) in 1872 wrote that: Colonial goose is an article on the bill of fare at some cheap eating houses in the city, which has puzzled their frequenters. They find it rather like very young veal, and extremely toothsome as cheap feeding goes. Colonial goose is another term for black swan, which somehow does not look inviting on a carte.

We can assume, though, that the version canned by the Metropolitan Meat Preserving Works was the more conventional mutton. Colonial Goose was appearing on the menu of eating houses like Sydney’s Crown & Anchor by the early 1870s, along with other solid English fare such as corn beef and carrots, boiled fish and rice pudding.

Early Australian recipes specified a shoulder of mutton, although many modern recipes use a leg of lamb. The earliest recipe I can find, from the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser in 1878, reads:

One way to cook a shoulder of mutton is simply to roast it ; but a far more tasty dish is to make it into a colonial goose, which is done in the following manner : Take out the bone, then make stuffing of onions and sage, as for ordinary goose, put it in place of the bone and sew it up, then roast.

Other, later recipes include a more substantial stuffing that included ham or bacon, suet, onions, breadcrumbs and a wider range of herbs. Colonial Goose apparently enjoyed a revival in the 1980s in New Zealand. The modern version involved a leg of lamb stuffed with honey and dried apricots and marinated in red wine. Rather too exotic for their colonial forebears.

Unrelated to Colonial Goose, but with a similarly bizarre name, is the little-known Australian dish of Burdekin Duck. Supposedly developed by the early settlers along the Burdekin River in North Queensland, the dish consists of slices of corned beef dipped into a wet damper dough and fried in boiling fat.

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