Europe - Mirka Mora

Europe - Mirka Mora

By
Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702865
Photographer
Mark Roper

France

Mirka Mora is a compact woman, but her robust love of life seems to fill up a room. Her smiling face with its fire engine-red lips has been captured in film and in print, while her glorious pieces of art, many which crowd the chaotic and eclectic apartment that also houses her studio and warehouse, are immediately recognisable thanks to their use of bright colours and sensual imagery.

A renowned artist, restaurateur and bon vivant of Melbourne’s bohemian scene, her exploits over the years with some of the city’s cultural luminaries are writ large in many Melbournian minds. But sitting alongside her at her kitchen table, talking about food, love and loss, she resembles not so much an icon but more a wonderfully, laughingly happy grandmother sharing memories from her past.

‘I’m sure I wouldn’t be the painter I am if I wouldn’t have had such a beautiful childhood. Childhood is your garden for when you grow older,’ she says.

Mirka was born in Paris 1928 and lived in the Fifth Arrondissement with her parents and two sisters, enjoying all that the city had to offer her before the outbreak of World War II. By her own account, it was an enchanting time to be a child.

‘When I was eight years old I got a beautiful bottle of French champagne and my father said, “That’s very rare for a little girl to have a bottle of champagne, but I want you to have it for your birthday.” That’s what’s beautiful in France; you have access to luxuries, even if you’re poor.’

Mirka particularly enjoyed her close proximity to the city’s famous patisseries, recalling her love of caramel and cakes. ‘When I was little girl, you grow up on the way to school passing the most beautiful patisseries in the world. I could talk to you about cakes for days!’

Her mother was Romanian and religious, while her father took an open-minded approach to his children’s religious education. Mirka recalls going to Hebrew school with her sisters and learning the alphabet, but notes that there were no Sabbath dinners at home ‘because there was too many choices, too many good things to eat!’.

Despite synagogue not being part of her daily life, Mirka says religion was still an influence through the food and celebrations that surrounded it. And after when Mirka befriended her Catholic neighbour at a young age, Catholicism also played a significant role in her upbringing.

‘We lived in the same street in Paris and I used to wave at her through the window, and she used to wave at me from the other side,’ Mirka recalls. ‘She asked my mother one day if she could take me on the weekend and school holidays and my mother, who was a very possessive mother, said yes, which is remarkable, because it was fantastic for me, it widened my universe.’

It was with this neighbour, who Mirka refers to as her ‘second mother’ that the young girl attended Mass, learning about Easter and its corresponding prayers and also having her first taste of pork, a food not eaten in her own Jewish home.

‘It was two different ways of eating … I enjoyed both, I was no fool! I had double holidays and double presents,’ she says. ‘I often wonder what it did to me, it’s intriguing. It never disturbed me because it was very mysterious … I had a very entertaining childhood! I was very loved by both sides, by both people.’

When World War II broke out, life took a dramatic turn. Mirka stopped attending both school and Hebrew school and recalls the family’s culinary standing changing too. Champagne became a thing of the past, with Mirka’s mother crushing eggshells for her children to eat when there was nothing left to consume.

When Mirka was 14, she was transported to a concentration camp along with her mother and sisters, while her father stayed behind. Mirka has spoken about how this would have resulted in her death if she hadn’t thrown a note to her father out of the moving train with details of the passing train station, which somehow miraculously found its way to him. Mirka and her family were rescued from the camp and spent the remaining war years hiding in a French village.

After the war, life seemed to return relatively to normal, with good food and wine. Mirka recalls some items being difficult to come by, but as she explains it, ‘Food is a way of life [in Paris], its culture … it was back to good taste, good style.’

It was here in post-war Paris that she met the famous mime Marcel Marceau, as well as her future husband Georges, both of whom had been in the French Jewish Resistance. Her husband had come from a wealthy and cultured family in Germany and it wasn’t long before they were married and setting up a home in Paris, where her first son Philippe was born.

Married life in Paris suited Mirka, who recalls going out for dinner to beautiful restaurants that were her husband’s favourites from his bachelor days.

But it wasn’t long before people became concerned that another war would break out between Russia and America. So in 1951 at the age of 23, Mirka, her husband and son left France, leaving her parents and sisters behind.

Mirka and her young family headed to Melbourne, a city that had stayed in her mind since her father disapproved of her reading a book about it when she was 16 years old. The book was called La Vie de Bohème and showcased beautiful photographs of the city, depicting a culturally exquisite life featuring painters, musicians and writers. But when Mirka first stepped onto Melbourne’s shores, she found it dramatically different from what she had imagined.

‘Melbourne was a desert,’ she says. ‘It was a surprise. Such a beautiful city, but six o’clock there was nobody in the street, except outside the pubs.’

But each city has its bohemia and Mirka soon became acquainted with artists like John and Sunday Reed, John Perceval and Charles Blackman. She opened her own art studio at 9 Collins Street, which became the meeting point for friends looking for night-time adventures after the city had gone to sleep. And soon enough, Mirka was cooking for them.

‘I remember John Perceval always liked to eat duck for breakfast after we’d been dancing all night,’ she recalls. ‘And being a good hostess I would go and find a duck and cook it. I don’t know where I found duck but I did.’

She describes Melbourne food at that time as being ‘very English and square and dull’, with the general population unknowledgeable about the foods she had eaten in France.

‘In Melbourne, they didn’t even know what chervil was, or asparagus, or rocket. But John and Sunday Reed did and they had it in their garden. So John and Sunday would bring me baskets of their beautiful fresh fruit and fresh herbs and I’d cook because it’s natural to me to cook.’

Mirka soon opened her own restaurant, partly to ensure her husband left his job in a noodle factory, which he hated, and partly to move her friends out of her studio and into a new space so she could re-focus on her art. But mainly it was so she could cook the French meals she adored from her youth.

Mirka Café was a completely new concept for Australians, who had never eaten traditional French dishes featuring béchamel sauce and lobster mayonnaise, which Mirka says was a favourite of her husband’s and a particular skill of hers, claiming ‘if you do a good mayonnaise, you’re a good cook’.

Mirka Café later moved to East Melbourne so it could acquire a liquor licence and was renamed Balzac, which opened with its own French chef so Mirka could concentrate on her art.

The Mora family, now consisting of three sons, soon moved into St Kilda’s Tolarno hotel, which Georges had originally bought so Mirka could have her art studio at the base of their family home. However this was soon turned into his art gallery, with Mirka moving her studio space to a higher floor.

But while Mirka’s art flourished, her marriage floundered and in 1970 she and Georges divorced. Her three sons were to stay with their father and Georges was to eventually remarry and guide his son William to run the family restaurant and gallery. Today he manages the William Mora Gallery, which Mirka visits every day.

Now 83, Mirka has seven grandchildren and continues to paint religiously. Today, she still enjoys dining out but does it less and less, admitting her body has become more fragile with age but that also, ‘it’s very good for your soul to cook things ... I love cooking, as much as painting.’

Whether she’s cooking for her grandchildren or dining out in Melbourne, Mirka’s age and experiences do not seem to have stemmed her innate passion and desire for a life filled with happiness and love.

‘I cook with my mood … If I’m in love I’ll cook beautiful things, if I’m not in love I’ll go to a restaurant and get someone to cook for me so I’ll fall in love again,’ she says, with a hearty laugh that fills her body and resonates through the room. She may have slowed down somewhat, but she hasn’t lost her ability to live her life in technicolour.

Recipes in this Chapter

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