By Vivienne Pearson
Lemon myrtle, bush tomato, Davidson’s plum, finger lime, Kakadu plum, riberry, quandong, mountain pepper, anise myrtle, wattleseed, mutries, lemon aspen, desert limes. How many of these have you heard of? How many would you recognise growing? How many have you tasted?
Don’t feel bad if your answers are: ‘some, not many, only one or two’. Despite their being part of our landscape, our knowledge about native foods is generally low.
I went along to two recent events focusing on native foods with the aim of increasing my knowledge, and I share what I’ve learned.
Then, now and next
australian native foods evolved along with the geological evolution of Gondwana and have been used since people first lived upon this land.
They were initially shunned by white settlers, but growing interest in the 1980s led to the first wave of commercialisation of bush foods. The initial success didn’t last, partly owing to the difficulty of balancing demand and supply that is shared by many new industries.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Peter Hardwick, now the forager for Harvest in Newrybar, speaks of being laughed at for the first 10 years when he talked about bush foods. Strong personalities dominated – unsurprising given how much boldness is required to go against the crowd. Certain television stars tended to introduce native foods in a way that made them seem unpalatable and more suited to an episode of Survivor than a restaurant kitchen or your plate at home.
Australia’s cultural cringe has affected our uptake of and interest in native foods. Clayton Donovan, Australia’s only ‘hatted’ Indigenous chef, found his use of Australian native foods was accepted and celebrated more in the UK than at home. This is despite the fact that, as he aptly says: ‘When my mates from Italy come here, they don’t want to eat risotto or pasta – they want to taste what’s from here’.
Restaurants are now leading the second wave of the commercial use of native foods. ‘I call it the Noma effect,’ says Rebecca Barnes of Playing with Fire, a native-foods farm at Tintenbar, speaking of the Danish restaurant that ‘popped up’ in Sydney last year. ‘They would put something on social media and our phone would start ringing.’
This time around, there is a greater acceptance and celebration of difference. ‘In the 80s we wondered about how to breed Davidson’s plum to increase its sweetness,’ says Peter Hardwick. ‘Now we simply celebrate its unique flavour.’
Knowledge of native foods is often part of the customs and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and increasing appreciation of this connection has led to many modern native-foods businesses being collaborations or partnerships between white and Aboriginal Australians.
Export of native foods is growing, boosted by Australia’s ‘clean and green’ image, our deserved reputation for high food safety standards and a global appreciation of different foods.
Research into native foods, into their properties as well as their uses, is driven both by universities (such as the University of Queensland’s Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences) and private business (such as Native Extracts).
The education sector is another sector leading our understanding and acceptance of native foods. Locally, Federal Community Children’s Centre and local Aboriginal custodians have created a Bush Food Living Classroom, along with signage and a book.
Schools, such as Brunswick Heads Public School, have bush-tucker gardens and use the knowledge as one way of considering Indigenous perspectives, an aspect of learning that is part of the curriculum across all subject areas.
At the tertiary level, Wollongbar TAFE is currently running its third intake of a horticulture certificate with a specific focus on bush foods, open to all Aboriginal people. Some students have land and are hoping to produce native foods for industry; others are seeking employment or currently work in the field or for an Aboriginal land council.
These approaches to education will help ensure that Indigenous knowledge and practices in relation to native foods are always recognised and celebrated. ‘Bush foods can be reconciliation on a plate,’ says Clayton Donovan.
I wonder how long it will be before our children’s ABC books feature quandongs and finger limes more often than apples and bananas, and we routinely pack Davidson’s plums in our picnic baskets?
Of the 13 bush foods selected for commercialisation (the list that opens this story), half are native to the northern rivers area. ‘The commercialisation of native foods started in the northern rivers,’ says Rebecca Barnes of Playing with Fire.
You can enjoy native foods at:
Harvest, Newrybar: Each Wednesday evening, Wild Harvest dinners explore and showcase foraged and native ingredients.
Town, Bangalow: You will find native foods on both the upstairs and downstairs menus but not at every visit. ‘We use native foods as much as we can depending on the flavour and season,’ says Karl Kanetani.
Sample Food Festival: Happening this Saturday at Bangalow Showgrounds, Sample includes native foods in a variety of ways. First Food Co will offer tasting plates (the $5 plate is pavlova with berry coulis and wattleseed cream and their $10 plate is kangaroo nachos). Playing with Fire have a stall and Clayton Donovan will incorporate native ingredients into his cooking demonstration at 10.30am.
Janning Tree, Catering: The catering business of Clayton Donovan, with menus seamlessly integrating native ingredients.
You can see native foods growing at the The Bush Tucker Living Classroom in Federal. The garden is signed and the signs are reproduced in a book, available for purchase at the Federal Store or via the garden’s Facebook page.
You can buy native foods – fresh or in jams and other products – at local farmers markets, other retailers, or direct from growers (such as Playing with Fire). Don’t forget to check out your backyard!
Though we tend to think of native foods as eaten fresh or in jams, other food applications include teas, supplements and the ‘food science’ side of food: glazing agents, natural preservatives and colour fixers. Plants are also being used in medicine and cosmetics such as soaps, shampoos, scrubs and essential oils.
This makes good business sense. Diversification means more income streams and lower risk.
It also makes good sense in terms of the maximising the use of a plant, meaning less wastage.
In acknowledgement of these wider uses of native plants, the peak industry body – who, out of interest, has one of the best logos around – has just changed their name to ANFAB (Australian Native Foods and Botanicals).
This way of using plants is, of course, not new at all. Traditionally, Indigenous people would always use a plant for fibre, tools, oils and other uses as well as for their food offering.
What’s in a name?
Native foods v Bush foods v Bush tucker: Bush foods and native foods tend to be used interchangeably. Bush tucker is evocative and is used but is sometimes associated with the more tokenistic approach to native foods that was common in the later decades of last century.
Plant names: Individual native plants have botanical names but, as for all plants, common names have developed. ‘It is part nickname, part strategy,’ says Peter Hardwick. ‘We could have called lemon myrtle citriodora instead, but having lemon in the name gives people an idea of what to expect.’
Native foods v foraged v wild harvest v cultivated: Some native foods are wild harvested – picked from naturally growing plants – even for commercial use. One example is Kakadu plums that grow wild around the community of Wadi in the Northern Territory and are picked according to traditional harvesting practices, but in an organised way with commercial aims.
Other native foods are cultivated and grown using agricultural practices. Unlike many crops, there is little selective breeding that happens and because they are growing in their natural environment, there are fewer issues with pest control.
Foraged foods are picked from wherever they grow. This term can include species that are not native but, after being introduced, now grow wild – Peter Hardwick calls these foods feral.
Lunch at one of the recent ‘native foods’ events was open sandwiches but, as it was a native-foods roadshow and the lunch was being served by Harvest, they were no ordinary open sandwiches. The bread was wattleseed and rye sourdough, topped by a macadamia paste with Davidson’s plum ketchup. The main topping was beetroot smoked with paperbark wood and marinated in pandanus vinegar. For the non-vegetarian option, there was a topping of ‘kangaroo floss’ – made from cured, smoked and dried kangaroo loin. The sandwiches were garnished with slender celery (which is not native but grows wild).
This is a perfect melding of native foods, foraged ‘feral’ foods, and other ingredients.
This lunch was a step above what you might whip up at home – pandanus vinegar is yet to hit the shops – but some of the elements are easily in reach. You can buy macadamia spread and native fruit chutneys at local farmers markets, and I might start taking what I now know is slender celery to the kitchen rather than the green bin when I weed the garden.
The gradual adoption of Italian cuisine by Australian households started with a small number of dishes – the good old spaghetti Bolognese and pizza – and only over time did the general population become familiar with the regional differences and other nuances. There was then a blending of Italian into other traditions (leading to the good old pineapple-on-pizza debate).
Native foods will likely follow the same trajectory. Using myself as an example, I know that I am comfortable with chocolate-covered macadamias (I prefer mine dark-choc coated, thank you) and am happy to try out a different jam from the market, but I’m a long way from being up with the 70 varieties of finger lime or the idea of using tea tree instead of other herbs.
The truth is that most of us don’t know much about native foods. ‘My kids know more about native foods than most chefs,’ says Clayton Donovan.
At one event, I stood with two others, umming and ahhing about what a riberry looks like. Once we admitted that none of us knew, we were happier and went off to find out.
We all need to acknowledge our lack of knowledge and feel inspired and motivated to ask questions and learn (and taste) whenever we have an opportunity.
• There are eight native raspberries in Australia, three of which grow in this area – they are botanically related to European raspberries and look and taste very similar.
• Aeroplane Jelly offered native fruit flavours from 1988 till 1992. The range included lilly pilly, midjinberry, quandong and mountain raspberry.
• Pig-face makes a great margarita (according to Clayton Donovan!)
• One of the newest foods to be given a common name is the ‘Cumin Eucalypt’ (named by Peter Hardwick)
• I found out what a riberry looks like, but am yet to find out what they taste like!