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going native

Posted by Simon Bryant

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There is a little strip of soil in my driveway that I couldn't be bothered with when I started planting fruit and vegetables at home. The soil has never been "improved", it rarely gets watered and it gets absolutely hammered with northern sun, yet it is one of the most productive growing areas I have. Why? Maybe because it's planted with native Australian foods. There is sea parsley, warrigal greens, samphire, saltbush, muntries, native thyme (and a not so native prickly pear).

What amazes me is the total lack of love I give these plants, however they continue to yield year after year. I can't help comparing this with my vegetable patch which produces well enough but requires constant soil improvement, adequate water and a careful eye for common pests.

Now this is really just an anecdotal observation but it doesn't take a scientist to verify that the foods which have been growing in Australia for centuries would be perfectly suited to the climate. The mystery is why we don't eat them?

There are a few possibilities why these foods have been so undervalued on our tables. I guess the first is the trickiest to tackle and it is with trepidation that I say it has its roots buried somewhere in the controversial nature that this land was "settled" by Europeans. Without getting into a discourse of the legitimacy surrounding this issue, I think it is fair to say that livestock, crops and eating patterns were pretty much teleported to this country without too much thought in regards to suitability for the entirely different climate that was being settled. In a nutshell there was little interest in the traditional food culture that existed in this land before Europeans arrived.

It seems that 200 odd years on, there is finally recognition politically, artistically and culturally of our country's Indigenous history, and hopefully now a culinary recognition of Indigenous foods that had been largely ignored on our daily tables.

Some of this mainstream acceptance can be attributed to chefs like Vic Cherikoff and Andrew Fielke, pioneers in the use of native foods on restaurant menus for the past 20 to 30 years. Spearheading the modern charge, Mark Olive has been joined by chefs on the East Coast like Kylie Kwong, Neil Perry and Mark Best to name but a few. Having high profile credible chefs using these ingredients certainly helps introduce and showcase these flavours to a broad audience.

This coupled with our more adventurous palates mean that these brash bold flavours are becoming not only merely accepted but actually embraced as part of our country's shared heritage.

Another key factor for the popularity of these foods could be related to some interesting research that is surfacing from the past few years. The paper "Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999" * might not make fascinating reading for every home cook but the general gist of the paper is that in the 50 years from 1950 there has been a marked decline in the nutritional values of commercially grown fruit and veg. The research tracks levels of 13 key nutrients in 43 commonly grown commercial varieties. The overwhelming conclusion is that there is a large trade off between modern high yielding varieties (larger and faster growing and often more "visually appealing" ) and intensive farming methods (pesticides and fertilizers), and the nutritional value of our food.

Mike Quarmby from Outback Pride is a believer that "old food" is nutritionally superior. The 60 odd species that Mike and partner Gayle have selected from over 100 000 miles spent in the bush collecting species primarily for palatability not yield. Mike, a trained horticulturalist has never crossbred, never bred seed from selection and never inbred; what is produced in the Reedy Creek Nursery is basically the best most edible varieties that existed in Australia before intense clearing and grazing knocked them on the head (e.g. many variety's of natives like saltbush were over-grazed leaving the most palatable variety's stock levels threatened; likewise wild harvest has declined the stock levels of some species). This means it remains "old food" and along with the resurgence of Heirloom varieties of fruits and vegies which can be a bit gnarly and ugly - if you believe the research- are part of a nutritionally superior basket of foods.

The Outback Pride project has also set up over 25 native food nurseries in Indigenous communities, the profits from the sale of these foods are directed straight back to the communities so that's a win for Indigenous people when you buy these products.

The final challenge to the industry has probably centred around availability. Some of the seasons of these crops are incredibly short so the product cannot be supplied fresh all year round. Now, I am not a huge fan of shipping food all over the country via cold chains but when you total the inputs used to raise these crops (e.g. water and oil for farm machinery) they are minute. So in total, I for one, am happy to use a frozen (or dried) product on my menus knowing that the overall energy and resources used to grow and harvest them is nominal.

Having said that, three of my favorite varieties are now available fresh in 100g and 50g packs, so to cook this recipe (Outback Pride warrigal and saltbush tart with B.-d. Farm Paris Creek fetta), there is no need for you to raid my driveway or go bush!

*Dr. Donald Davis, Melvin Epp, and Hugh Riordan Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, Austin 2005

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