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Outback cuisine: a lunch at Mataranka



 


A Mataranka Pie – billed as “The Best in Australia”.







It was March, 2010, the end of the wet season, a hot and sultry morning. But there was that promise of cooler weather in the air that you sometimes feel at this time of the year, in this part of the world.


I was on the job. My colleague Matt and I were doing a preliminary assessment of an old cattle station in the Northern Territory, 500-odd km south of Darwin, for possible development as an Indian sandalwood plantation. 


Because the ground was still swampy from the monsoon, and the old station tracks were boggy and overgrown, we made slow progress in our exploration, but thanks to aerial photographs, a vegetation map, the external indicators of soil quality (the species of trees, and the vivid red ant hills) and some long walks through the bush, we were able to get the job done. Later there would be need for a detailed soil survey, but our preliminary evaluation was that while the area was remote, it looked OK.


A further expansion of the sandalwood estate, which in 2010 still showed great promise, looked likely.


On the way back to company HQ at Katherine we passed through the one-horse town of Mataranka. This little outback settlement is famous for its fresh-water springs and for C&W music and bush poetry at the pub on a Saturday night.



Mataranka Springs


But one of us was keen to get back to civilisation, and the other was being paid by the hour, so we had no time to linger or to explore the best Mataranka could offer.


However, in the main drag on our way through, we spotted the town's servo, to which a greasy spoon diner was attached. A large sign outside read:  "Mataranka Pies, The Best in Australia!"



The service station on the main drag in Mataranka, greasy diner to the left.






It proved irresistible. Matt is one of those young bushmen who can consume a bullock for breakfast but remain lean and hungry, while I was the author of a famous monograph on railway pies and consider myself a connoisseur.  We were both hungry after our morning in the bush. Without a second thought we pulled in and entered, intent on a Mataranka Pie.


The place caught my interest before I even left the vehicle. Prowling around on the forecourt of the servo were about six large brolgas. I was entranced, but Matt warned me off. “Don’t encourage them” he said, “they are like seagulls outside a fish and chips shop and will snatch our pies on the way out”.

 






Northern Territory brolgas – on the lookout for a Mataranka pie








I took his advice, ignored the hustling brolgas and pushed inside through the fly door.


As greasy diners go, this one was up with the greasiest. The air was redolent with the pungent aroma of hot cooking fat. There was a magazine rack to the left, catering to truckies and pig hunters. On the right was one of those steel and glass things containing warmed-up take-away snacks. They were mostly yellow, dripped fat, and were smouldering gently under a bright light.


Not promising.


Then our eyes focused on an astounding vision standing behind the counter. She was tall and slim, with blond hair falling to her shoulders. A fair complexion. Blue eyes. Neatly dressed. Early 20s.


Absolutely beautiful.


Matt and I pulled up short and did a double-take. Then she spoke: "Good morning gentlemen" she said, in perfectly enunciated English, "can I help you?"


 And she smiled radiantly.


Afterwards I remembered where I had heard such beautifully spoken English before. It was Audrey Hepburn playing the Princess in the 1950s film Roman Holiday, one of my favourites. It would have been superfluous, but the young woman could have had the words "Swedish Backpacker" stencilled on her forehead. Or perhaps she was wearing a T-shirt under her apron with the message "I learned to speak English at a Finishing School for Princesses in Switzerland".


In fact, for a moment I thought perhaps this was Audrey Hepburn, having a sabbatical in the Northern Territory.


Audrey Hepburn as the Princess in Roman Holiday – was this her in the Mataranka servo?


We purchased a pie and were reluctantly about to leave the shop when the proprietor suddenly emerged from the back room. He was a wizened, bandy-legged little bloke in a greasy black singlet, tatty shorts, and boots with no socks. Maybe a retired truckie or former stockman. Anyway, the product of 40 or 50 hard years in the Territory.


He wanted to cut us a deal.


"D'yuz want a sausage roll?" he asked. Then he pointed to the hot box on the right and inside we noticed a fatty piece of dough, with greyish innards, that might well have fallen within the taxonomic classification of 'sausage roll'. It was 25cm long and was about as thick as my wrist. "If yuz buy one and take it away, it'll cost yuz twelve bucks" he said. "But if yuz eat it here, and finish it within ten minutes, yuz can 'av the bastard for five."


We resisted his offer. Well, we already had our pies, and were still bemused by the young lady behind the counter, still smiling at us as if we were Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday and had come to take her away from all this. As we departed she wished us "Good morning, gentlemen" in her exquisite English. I left trying to imagine her letters home to Stockholm or Berne or wherever, and wondering how she made sense of her Australian experience.


On the road back to Katherine, Matt and I consumed our Mataranka pies. They were OK. Basic outack cuisine. But they were not, in my opinion, in the same league as the pies I used to buy from the railway refreshment rooms on the platform at Chidlow's Wells, a half century or so before when I had myself been lean and hungry and could consume a bullock for breakfast.


On the other hand, we couldn't fault the best that Mataranka had to offer in terms of customer service. That memory will endure far longer than the memory of my Mataranka Pie.

 

 

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