Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Letter From Down Under 3

I wonder when I'll next get to eat muntries chutney, wattleseed shortbread and bunya nuts? It's been far, far too long.  

Cann River, a dreary logging town on the Pacific Highway was a hitchhiker's nightmare.  We had begun to despair of ever escaping Victoria.  Then our luck changed, with a series of rides with a forester followed by an abalone poacher and finally an environmental protection officer, who took us straight to our destination - Candelo, New South Wales, a small town in the Bega Valley.

I wanted to learn more about indigenous food plants and how they are used, so it was fortuitous that we found ourselves staying with the appropriately named Jenny Garden.  Jenny is setting up a bush foods garden and education facility and has planted a wide variety of native food plants.  To date, Australia has only produced one crop of world importance - the delicious macadamia nut, but there are many others worthy of international attention. 

Jenny also acts as an agent for a commercial producer of bush food jams, chutneys and preserves.  When we were not tree planting, weeding or chasing errant cows up and down hills, we were able to indulge ourselves.  Quandong jam, muntries chutney, lemon aspen jelly - we managed to empty all of these jars.  Also on the menu were crushed seeds of the mountain pepper bush (hot) and wattleseed shortbread (which disappeared with remarkable rapidity).  It was good to discover, after 200 years of European settlement, a cuisine based on native food stuffs was developing.  Led by innovative restaurants and producers, the bush foods industry is now worth millions of dollars per annum and is expanding rapidly. It seems that the Australian staples of meat pies and fish and chips may yet get their come-uppance.  Some people have questioned the ethics of exploiting these traditional foods and aboriginal knowledge without consultation or adequate financial return to hard pressed indigenous Australians.

These native plants are, as you might expect, well adapted to Australia's climate and many will grow in areas unsuited to European crops.  The quandong (Santalum acuminatum) is a good example.  A bush or small tree producing tasty cherry sized fruits, it grows in dry inland areas with sparse rainfall.  The kernel is also edible with a high oil content and is a good source of protein.  The quandong is a root parasite that taps into the food and water supply of other species which aids its survival in a harsh climate. The selection and propagation of superior varieties is now under way and the Americans and Israelis are also interested in the commercial possibilities of this crop.

Wattleseed is also seen as an important food source of the future. Wattles (Acacia spp) are found throughout Australia and many (though not all) produce edible seeds which can be roasted and ground into a nutritious protein rich flour or used to make beverages.  Aboriginal communities are particularly prone to developing diabetes when traditional eating habits are superseded by western overprocessed and sugar-laden foods.  Wattleseed, a traditional aboriginal food stuff, seems to help reduce the incidence and severity of diabetes and could be harvested and processed on a commercial scale.

Among fruits and berries, one of the most highly regarded is the midyim (Austromyrtus dulcis).  The white fruits are speckled with purple and have a lovely sweet aromatic flavour.  Too bad that Jenny's bushes had yet to bear fruit.  There are many other closely related myrtle bush fruits known collectively as lillypillies, which produce tasty cherry sized fruits. We had our first taste at a scrumping session in the botanical gardens at Wagga Wagga, but that's another story.  Another well known fruit is the Davidson's plum (Davidsonia pruriens), a beautiful rainforest tree with large ginger haired pinnate leaves and bearing grape like clusters of damson sized fruit.  The pulp is particularly tangy and makes a wonderful jam. Once again Jenny's plant was not yet fruiting. 

Perhaps the most impressive nut tree is the bunya nut pine (Araucaria bidwillii).  A close relative of the monkey puzzle, it produces huge cones containing fat, leathery shelled nuts with a delicious starchy flavour. They are usually eaten after boiling or roasting.  They were an important aboriginal food source in parts of southern Queensland, but they will grow elsewhere and are certainly worthy of cultivation, although you wouldn't want the cannonball sized cones dropping on your head.  A few weeks later and further north we were treated to our first bunya nut feed and yes, they do taste good.  Not so impressive was the candlenut (Aleurites moluccana). We were warned by our host not to over indulge in this hard shelled oily nut due to its purgative properties, but to no avail - we spent a day feeling somewhat queasy and rather anxious. We have yet to try the red bopple nut (Hicksbeachia pinnatifolia), a close relative of the macadamia nut with a bright red husk and reckoned to be another commercial possibility.

What of vegetables?  Jenny mentioned the exotic sounding warrigal greens which she had growing in her garden.  When I saw the plant I instantly recognised that it was none other than New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides) whose seed pods floated over to New Zealand at some unknown date to be discovered by Captain Cook.  If only he had gone to Australia first, maybe we would be calling it Sydney spinach instead.

copyright  1997

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