A letter from Sydney dated June 30 1813 pointed to a flourishing agricultural and pastoral industry. “The colony of New South Wales is in so flourishing a condition, that a memorial has been forwarded by the principal inhabitants, through the governor, to his Majesty’s Ministers, praying, among other privileges, permission to distil from their surplus grain, and to export flour from thence to Great Britain; and pointing out that there is no farther necessity for any salt meat being sent thither, as the colony can furnish fresh beef, pork, and mutton at a cheaper rate.” (Caledonian Mercury 7 March 1814)
Meat and wheat were two essentials in early colonial days. Initially, fresh meat was scarce. Some cattle arrived with the First Fleet but, during the King’s Birthday celebrations on 4 June 1788, the surviving seven cattle escaped from their yards at Cattle Point (where the Opera House now stands). Fortunately, two bulls were among them and when they were rediscovered seven years later the herd had increased considerably in number. Ships also arrived with new stock and the number of cattle in the colony increased.
Despite this, lack of refrigeration meant that fresh beef remained a luxury. Meat needed to be eaten soon after a beast was killed. Salting was the normal method of preservation and, as Jaqui Newling writes in Eat Your History, on rural properties where an animal was butchered every two weeks or so, after two days the rest of the meat needed to be salted. Mutton, too, was salted or made into ‘mutton hams’.
The land around Sydney Harbour proved less than ideal for growing wheat and, in the early days of the colony, most of the flour was imported. Convicts’ diets were supplemented with ground cornmeal, regarded as inferior fare compared to wheat flour.
As more agricultural land was opened up on the Parramatta and Hawkesbury Rivers, meat and wheat supplies were more readily available. The request to distil spirits from the surplus grain reflects the taste for strong spirits in the colony at a time when ‘rum’ became a form of currency.