Long ago, before Melbourne became a melting pot of different cuisines and culinary excellence, two icons of Australian art changed the game.
Mirka Mora was an artist and Georges Mora was an art dealer. Both were restaurateurs. They had migrated from France and settled at the “Paris end” of Collins Street in the 1950s. Their restaurants, including the Mirka Café, Balzac Restaurant and Tolarno French Bistro, were grounded in classic French dishes, such as soupe a l’oignon, bouillabaisse and ratatouille. To Melbourne, their food seemed revolutionary.
“It was a revelation,” says Kendrah Morgan, senior curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art. "People had never seen steak that was pink in the centre before. Garlic was a toxic word.”
Morgan is something of a guardian of Melbourne’s artistic history. Her 2015 book Modern Love: The Lives of John and Sunday Reed, co-authored with Heide’s artistic director Lesley Harding, opened up the lives of Australian art’s original power couple to the public. The duo’s latest, Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair, returns to that world. It's part biography and part recipe book, charting the lives, loves and hospitality of the couple who introduced real French cuisine to Melbourne and left it a richer place than when they arrived.
Mirka Mora passed away on 27 August, aged 90. I catch up with Morgan the day after Mirka’s state funeral, a huge celebration that filled the Palais Theatre, where stories flowed about her legendary career and hospitality. A lively atmosphere of food and drink seemed appropriate – Mirka herself was known for being a vivacious host.
“Food and Mirka just seemed to invite mischief,” says Morgan. “If she thought guests were a bit dull, and things needed livening up, she’d fling chocolate mousse at people.” In the book, Mirka’s children recall one dollop of mousse that hit the ceiling and wouldn’t come down.
Mirka and Georges Mora arrived in Australia in the aftermath of World War Two. Mirka, living in Paris, miraculously avoided Auschwitz as a girl, but her family lost everything. When the couple arrived in Melbourne in 1951, Mirka knew only two English phrases: “the sky is blue” and “the flowers are blooming in the garden”.
“Their early lives explain the joie de vivre that informed their whole philosophy of food, art, culture and hospitality,” says Morgan. “When they arrived in Australia they were ready to embrace life.”
Living on Collins Street, the Moras established themselves at the centre of a bohemian circle of artists, often hosting parties and dinners that Mirka would cater. “They thought since they were feeding everyone, they might as well start up a café,” says Morgan.
The restaurants drew in what Mirka described as “a cavalcade of brilliant people”, including Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Marlene Dietrich. But the visitors weren’t the only brilliant people there. Revered artist Charles Blackman worked the kitchen at the Balzac. Art was always a big part of the restaurants, just as food was a big part of Mirka’s art (accoutrements of eating appear throughout her work, from cups of tea to cutlery). On the restaurant walls were paintings by Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. The ceramics, designed by John Perceval, were frequently stolen; they were pieces of art in themselves.
Mikra consented to the book and assisted with research, giving Heide unprecedented access to her archive. “She said, in her French accent, ‘it is a great honneur’,” says Morgan. Mirka handed Morgan and Harding a scrapbook she’d been compiling since the 1950s full of press clippings, photographs and recipes. “We called it the bible,” says Morgan. “It would be 15 centimetres thick.”
The result is a book full of stories you’d think were exaggerations if it hadn’t all been verified and, of course, the Moras’ own classic French recipes – such as mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise plays an unlikely part in the Mora story, going back to Georges’ time in the French Resistance during World War Two. He worked with a young Marcel Marceau to smuggle Jewish children across borders to find asylum in Switzerland, which involved the pair disguising themselves as nuns and hiding identity papers inside baguettes covered with a liberal slathering of mayonnaise.
Years later, the Mora boys – their sons – would help their parents make this recipe. According to their son Philippe, use emu eggs for the “full Mirka”, and if you want Marcel Marceau’s advice, use tarragon vinegar.
Mirka and Georges’s French Resistance Mayonnaise
Makes 1 cup.
2 large egg yolks
Salt and white pepper
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard (optional)
1 cup light olive oil
lemon juice (optional)
Ensure all of the ingredients are at room temperature. Place the yolks, seasoning, 1 teaspoon of the vinegar and the mustard (if using) in a medium-sized porcelain bowl and whisk quickly until smooth. Slowly add the oil and the remaining vinegar drop by drop, taking care to whisk continuously in the same direction and at the same speed. As the mixture thickens, the quantity of oil can be increased to a thin trickle. The mayonnaise is ready when the mixture is thick and glossy. Adjust the seasoning to taste and if a paler colour is desired, mix in a few drops of lemon juice.
Note: for best results hand-beat the mixture; it incorporates air into the emulsion and creates a lighter mayonnaise than can be achieved with a blender or food processor.
Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair by Lesley Harding, Kendrah Morgan is out now.
A retrospective exhibition of Mirka Mora’s work, Pas de Deux – Drawings and Dolls is at Heide Museum of Modern Art from October 27 until March 24, 2019.
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Heide Museum of Modern Art.