Members enjoying a typical Melbourne Cup Day picnic in the car parks in 1974. (National Archives Australia)

Members enjoying a typical Melbourne Cup Day picnic in the car parks in 1974. (National Archives of Australia)

Carnival in the car parks

BY CELIA PURDEY

TRAVEL INTO FLEMINGTON RACECOURSE BY TRAIN ON ANY DAY OF THE MELBOURNE CUP CARNIVAL AND YOU ARE GREETED BY A SIGHT THAT IMMEDIATELY EXCITES – THE NURSERY, THE RAILS AND THE DOMAIN CAR PARKS, BUSTLING AND FULL OF LIFE. COLOURFUL UMBRELLAS, PEOPLE, FLOWERS AND FOOD CAN BE GLIMPSED, INDICATING A GREAT DAY AHEAD. SO HOW EXACTLY DID THIS UNIQUE IDEA EVOLVE? WE LOOK BACK AT THE HISTORY OF CAR-PARK CULTURE AT FLEMINGTON, A PRACTICE STILL UNMATCHED IN THE WORLD.

Along with enjoying the quality horse racing, it's a long-standing tradition to entertain and be entertained at the Melbourne Cup Carnival. Since the VRC’s earliest days in the 1800s, Flemington during the four days of the Carnival has been the place to wine, dine and celebrate. This reputation of it being a place of revelry can be traced back to the initiative of Robert Cooper Bagot, inaugural VRC secretary in 1864. Believing that patrons’ comfort was essential for a great day out at the races, and to attract repeat visitors, he initiated venues such as a new grandstand, opened in 1873. As pleased as people were to have somewhere comfortable to eat, there were those that preferred to dine in the Carriage Paddock, enjoying picnic lunches. This first iteration of what would eventually become the car parks that we use today had a water supply with taps every 25 feet, a large bottle department and refreshment bar in the centre offering fresh oysters, sandwiches, cakes and ice. It also carried six brands of iced bottled champagne.

In 1892 under Bagot’s successor Henry Byron Moore, these dining amenities were offered as part of the Official Cup Day Programme. Glass and china could also be hired, and the course caterer was able be employed to supply lunch.

The Elms was also a popular place to enjoy these luncheon parties, and members were able to book undercover bays under the great trees. Parties ranging from small family affairs to big groups of more than 65 guests were held, with hired staff serving white-gloved style. The Hill also hosted many parties, described as ‘the place of cake and wine, of ham sandwiches and bottled beer, of apples, oranges and lemonade, of family parties on the grass beneath the trees’.

After a massive redevelopment at Flemington in 1922 when a new members stand was built, a new era in Carnival celebrations began and luncheon parties started to appear in the members car park. These ‘boot parties’ usually involved pulling up the car, unpacking card tables, folding stools, crockery, tubs or eskies for ice, drinks and finger food, usually made by the hosts. This simple way of entertaining was embraced by many members and their families, and traditions began. Families and friends would look forward to the car-park party each year and it became an institution for many, one which still lives on today.

In the late 1980s The Birdcage was still awash with cars and picnic tables, when the arrival of the first marquee changed the landscape forever. The brainchild of Lloyd and Suzie Williams, it had its own kitchen, was catered by Peter Rowland and was decorated with flowers. This lone structure spurred The Birdcage of today – grand marquees erected by businesses to wine and dine their customers that set new standards in design and hospitality year after year.

With The Birdcage now reserved for the corporate marquees, The Nursery, The Rails and The Domain still remain as members car parks where the car-boot culture is alive and well. With facilities such as onsite catering, small marquee structures, super screens and bars on offer, the standards have risen and comfort levels have never been higher. But at the heart of it all the car parks are still places where you can open your car, pull out some chairs, put your champagne on ice and enjoy a relaxed and informal day at the races with family and friends.

Cheese platter

BUILD THE ULTIMATE CHEESE PLATTER

  • Choose an attractive board. Present your platter on a rustic wooden board or even a marble slab.
  • Display is key. Keep all the cheeses in large blocks and let people carve their own. There is romance in the tradition of such rituals.
  • Offer choice. Include a cream, semihard and blue cheese. This ensures everyone’s tastes will be covered. Some recommendations are a Berry’s Creek Riverine Blue, Powlett Picnic Prom Country Cheese semi-hard style, and a Tarago River Triple Cream.
  • Dress it up. Add some fresh fruits such as grapes or strawberries to your platter. Include some pickles or chutney, or try peppered marinated figs which pair wonderfully with cheese.
  • Include charcuterie. Depending on the occasion and time of service, you could add a small amount of good, local charcuterie or smoked meat. A jamón-style ham is always a hit.
  • Give it some crunch. Offer an array of artisan breads, lavosh, fruit bread or grissini.