IT’S A CLICHÉ that the New Year is a time for fresh starts. The coincidence of the New Year period with time off work brings the opportunity to get away on one of Sydney’s scenic drives and find reflection and recollection time.
There was a time when Newcastle, a two hour drive north of Sydney, was brimming with activity. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Newcastle coal business was booming and attracting skilled industrial labourers who, in establishing it as a port with a sound natural harbour, found the right balance between a bustling industry hub and casual seaside home. Wealth came in all kinds of mining when copper and steel added to the mix.
Fast forward to the 1990s and fortunes dramatically changed with the departure of some huge mining companies. When the coal business shut down, so did the city, and economic depression followed. The last time I visited Newcastle CBD back in those days, it was a ghost town – offices closed down, abandoned buildings and skyrocketing unemployment.
Which brings us to the picture: have I decided to turn this into a food blog? No. Far from it. The freeway between Sydney and Newcastle starts and ends in awkward locations in both cities that are tedious to reach, leading holidaymakers out for a long weekend to bypass it altogether on the way to more scenic locations.
The local fare in Newcastle had, for a long time, been typical of a blue collar, hard-working industrial town. Which made this meal, in our return to Newcastle after 15 or so years, somewhat symbolic. They may look like ordinary schnitzels, but their toppings: arancini. Thai squid. Hollandaise sauce. Aioli. You’d think you were in Sydney – and for a pub, maybe even the chic neighbourhoods of Surry Hills or Newtown. But until today, I would never have used the word ‘chic’ to describe anything in Newcastle.
The odd international joint has always been around the city. But it sure has been a trend to see more of these pop up, especially on the increasingly cosmopolitan Darby Street in the Newcastle CBD, in what has heralded some form of renaissance from the economic decline of the latter half of the 20th century. Perhaps it comes down to the University of Newcastle’s increasing competitiveness attracting more young people. Or the fact that many of these blue collar workers are now mingling with retired Sydneysiders in a mass sea change. Or it’s just plain gentrification. Whatever it is, it is a time for new beginnings in Newcastle.