Australian bushfoods - is it fusion, frisson or a true Australian Cuisine? The Bush Tucker man is seen to have started it all - but his culinary expertise rarely rose above bush-basic. In fact, Les Hiddens didn’t really initiate the great white interest in bushfoods - there were many pioneers who preceded him with lower profiles, more sensible hats and an eye for haute cuisine. Odd sorts who ran around the bush tasting and talking and testing, bothering chefs with weird and unheard-of foods, sampling, cooking, blending and spreading the word to a largely uninterested world. Wild food, bush tucker, bushfood, Oz tucker - call it what you will - the unique flavours, textures and aromas of our Australian native plants are finding their way out of the bush and into restaurants around the country and the world.
The witjuti grub doesn’t rate a mention in this burgeoning phenomena and the end product is more likely to be found in Double Bay than the outback. Some of our bushfoods bear more than a passing resemblance to cultivated foods (Wild lime is one of these and it leaves the tamed version for dead), some are almost impossible to categorise (the Muntari is such a glorious mixture of tastes that it deserves its special descriptor - perhaps apple-something-peach-yum?) Stop someone on the street and ask them to name a bushfood and they’ll probably come up with the said ‘witjuti grub’ or possibly ‘macadamia’ (this is one which has well and truly escaped from the bush!)
A few might know of the Bush tomato, the Wild lime or even perhaps the Quandong. Few would realise their are literally hundreds of Australian food plants which are now being researched. grown and used in kitchens from Esperance to Mallacoota. Technically (but quite inappropriately) bushfoods are termed a ‘new crop’ - ‘new’ foods which are deemed to have commercial potential.
The fact that these ‘new crops’ have been appreciated and utilised for tens of thousands of years doesn’t change their status - but it does effect their market potential - both export and domestic. Bushfoods differ from other new crops (such as the olive or hemp) in that they carry with them not just culinary and commercial potential but cultural importance. With the Olympics racing towards us, the focus on ‘things Australian, things green and things unique’ will gain momentum - and our highly edible and quite distinctive bushfoods will doubtless find themselves in the long awaited spotlight. So what are they? What do they taste like?
Can we add them to dishes we know or do we have to learn a new culinary language? Many of our wild fruits have a tartness rather shocking to our sugar-saturated palates. Even the most avid bushfoodie will admit that they’re not all suitable for picking from the bush and popping into the mouth. However, this very tartness (often combined with an underlying flavour which is quite unique), makes them a magic ingredient in the hands of a skilled chef.
Jean Paul Bruneteau (Riberries Restaurant, Sydney) was one of those chefs ‘bothered’ by the pioneering bushfoodies back in the 70’s. These latter day explorers kept bringing him new ‘discoveries’ from the bush and asking him to experiment. His exposure to our wild foods began a gastronomic love affair which has culminated in a delectable cookbook, ‘Tukka’, filled with dishes which wed wild foods with classically tamed ingredients.
The ‘pucker up’ qualities of the Lemon Aspen are used to perfection in his Lemon Aspen Mayonnaise, while the less daunting (but still sour) Davidson Plum finds a new life in a jam which has to be classed collectible. The leaf of one of the most planted species - the Lemon Scented Myrtle - imparts a warm, lemon-vanilla flavour to sweets, vinegars, dressings, yoghurt, sauces, in fact, almost anything. The myrtle falls into what I call the ‘backyard bushfood’ grouping - an attractive, well behaved plant with little or no processing needed between pick and platter. The bulk of our bushfoods make their way to the table in fusion cuisine - Wattle Seed Anzac cookies, Kakadu plum ice cream, Bunya nut and mushroom pet-de-nonne, Carpaccio style emu, Native spinach pesto, Lilly Pilly Cordial, to touch the surface.
With some of our native foods, the flavours are too strong, with some they are too subtle, with most there is a ‘western recipe’ in which they shine. Chefs, not lacking in imagination but pressed for time, are more comfortable adding Australia’s original staples to well known dishes. No doubt the eating public are more likely to sample ‘Bogong fricassee’ than an unadorned plate of these large and reasonably furry moths. The wonderful bush tomato has an interesting taste which can grow on you slowly. However, add just a sprinkle of sun dried bush tomato flakes to a salad, sandwich, dip or soup and - what a difference! The slightly tart, tomatoey-woody taste of the dried bush tomato imparts an intriguing, very more-ish quality to almost any savoury dish. Les Hiddens took us out into the bush and showed us the ample ‘tucker’ to be found there. Now a (relatively small) group of people are bringing the bush to town and creating foods which may one day constitute a national cuisine.
Are bushfoods just a talked-up culinary fad? A short-lived cuisine for the jaded palates of those who endlessly do lunch? A fine romance for chefs with an eye for the emerging taste? I think not. At the end of the day, the joy of discovering and devouring something no one else in the world has will give Australian bushfoods their rightful place in the sun.