The headline reads well but it’s rather misleading. At the moment, bushfoods hardly have a ‘tag’ at all. If you were to do a quick street survey, you’d probably find many people would think of bushfoods as some sort of Des Hiddens’ invention, wriggly things found under rocks and beneath bark. A few might class them with Billy Tea and other staples enjoyed by those living ‘in the bush’. Some may have enjoyed bushfood cuisine at an upmarket restaurant or roo-burgers at an outback barbie. Even fewer would be familiar with more than a handful of our native foods and you’d be pressing your luck to find anyone who knew that bushfoods are ‘those native foods eaten by the indigenous people prior to white settlement.’

Gourmet? In the strictest sense, the word means a person who is ‘a connoisseur of table delicacies and a judge of good eating’ but the word is now used to describe any item which is expensive, enjoyed by people with ‘good taste’ and, more likely than not, difficult to find on your normal shopping rounds. Many would agree this describes bushfoods as we now know them, but is it really true? Gourmet can mean different things to different people. One grower suggested that the ‘gourmet’ tag was advantageous in that it would encourage culinary and management research into bushfoods. A consultant suggested that remaining gourmet would hinder innovation in both production and use of bushfoods. 

To determine if bushfoods deserve the ‘gourmet’ label, perhaps we should look at where bushfoods can be found. Or it may be easier to look at where they can’t be found. 

You won’t find them crowding the shelves at Woollies or Coles or any of the major food chains. Exceptions to this include a Kakadu plum Ice Cream from Norco, Riberry Aeroplane jelly and a Lemon Scented myrtle tea - however not many of the stores I visited were stocking them.

You won’t find them as ingredients in fast food outlets. Witjuti on a sesame seed bun hasn’t yet fired the imagination of the eater of fast and common fare.

You’ll seldom find them in fruit and vegie shops - this may have as much to do with palatability as supply (many of our native fruits are a little on the tart side!) Exceptions to this are some of the nuts - Bunya and (of course) Macadamia, the native Raspberry and some of the Lilly pillies. These can all been found, in season, in small, local shops but seldom in larger stores.

You’ll rarely if ever find them in suburban restaurants and it would be an exceptional household which served bushfoods regularly, if at all. This is has more to do with education than anything else. Although bushfoods tend to be hard to find (and a little above the average household’s budget), there are ample free pickings to be found - often in the back yard or on the street. The Riberry is a common street tree but, come fruiting time, the tangy berries are seen more as a footpath staining nuisance than a delicacy.

You’ll find Emu Bottom’s Wattleseed Anzac Bisquits on both domestic and international Qantas flights and, interestingly, the company is making good sales of this product through Amway.

Bush Tucker Supply have a long list of national distributors servicing both the food service industry and retail outlets. A

It’s impossible to tell exactly how many restaurants around the country are serving bushfoods. There are only a handful of speciality bushfood outlets (Red Ochre, Flaming Bull Bushtucker restaurant and Top End Bushtucker come to mind. Riberries in Sydney no longer concentrates on bushfoods). However, an increasing number of restaurants are featuring one or more bushfood ingredients on the menu - this may be as simple as wrapping the barramundi in paper-bark, substituting native spinach for the European variety or adding one of the distinctive bushfood tastes to a conventional meal (bush tomato, native pepper and lemon aspen all stand out in the flavour stakes).

Wherever and however you find them, bushfoods are certainly not a commodity. They’re a delicacy. They could be compared to exotic foods which have been introduced. You no doubt remember paying a hefty price for mangos when they came on-stream. Increased production has lowered the cost to the point where they are now an affordable delicacy. Sun dried tomatoes were (and still are) something like 15-20 times the price of canned tomatoes. Lychees are still too expensive to waste on the kids but here again, growth in production may bring this price down.

Some ‘gourmet’ foods have slipped into the mainstream with hardly a ripple. Olives, asparagus, pate, a range of nuts and anchovies are just a few of the foods our grandparents would have seen as highly exotic.

With only two major bushfood processors (Bush Tucker Supply and Red Ochre), the majority of bushfood products still come from cottage industry.  Few of these ‘cottage’ producers have marketed their product outside their local region.

So how does a delicacy become a commodity?  Do foods necessarily follow a pattern of gourmet, middle market, mainstream?

A small survey of  industry players turned up some interesting answers. There wasn’t universal agreement, but that’s what you’d expect from a group of people involved in an emerging crop which is striving to give itself an image.

Vic Cherikoff of Bush Tucker Supply sees bushfoods as more ‘middle market’ than gourmet. If they are still seen as gourmet, he believes that this is a stage they’re moving out of and that large volumes at a marketable price will give them the spur they need to penetrate the market. 

A grower in Northern New South Wales, Margaret Bailey believes that most new products start at the small volume/high value end of the market and increase to mass production - but she doesn’t see this happening in the bushfood sector at present. In fact, she doesn’t believe there is anything yet to call a ‘sector’.

Larry Geno, a grower with a mixed plantation of bushfoods, is also involved in direct selling of his product. He made the comment that the ‘commodification’ of bushfoods can only happen to those species which are mechanically harvestable. Ken Dyer, another grower, echoed this with the comment that some of our bushfoods would go down the traditional monoculture route (macadamias have already done this). Both of these growers agreed that one of the strengths of the sector lay in the origin of the food itself - small scale, fresh, clean, green and unaltered.

Rob Fletcher of the New Crop program at Gatton maintains that bushfoods are reaching the plateau stage of their life cycle (see diagram) but others believe the industry is yet to enter its first major growth stage. In some areas (export for instance) growth has been substantial over the last 12 months while in others, there has been little change.

There is a ‘push-me pull-me’ syndrome within the industry at present - demand is largely unquantified and thus there are no pressing incentives for supply - and, while supply remains limited, exposure and demand also lags behind its true potential. The ‘demand side’ is still being met, in part, by wild harvest and this keeps prices above the ‘commodity’ level. Without a true, national distribution network, growers and harvesters can’t be assured of adequate annual returns. Without adequate supply, an effective, national distribution chain is unlikely to eventuate.

While Larry maintains that mixed plantings can produce the quantities needed to make bushfoods mainstream consumer products, there is some disagreement over the next stage of growth for the sector.

Monoculture or polyculture? Organic or non-organic? Wild harvest or plantation? 

A mixture or firm guidelines to keep bushfoods in one defined category?

Can we compare bushfoods (which ‘came into being’ without market demand) with something like hemp, which is slotting into a well defined market segment? Can we use the old terms or even the old models to describe them?

Larry Geno offers an interesting old model/new model for the industry:

Old Model                               New Model

wild harvest                       plantation production

inadequate quantities                       increasingly substantial quantities

erratic quality                       reliable quality control

degradation of native ecosystems                      restoration of agro-ecosystems

limited marketers                      diverse distribution chains

part time, loosely organised harvesters                     organised producers

few species available in commercial quantities              plantation grown in commercial quantities

high per unit costs                      dramatically lower costs/prices

The result of this change would be the production of sufficient quantities of raw material to enable penetration of mass  markets in common foods and the widespread purchase of bushfood by a large and discerning market. Larry maintains that the bushfood industry is leaving the old model and moving to the new - but it’s not there yet.

Perhaps, until the dust settles and the fruit ripens, bushfoods will have to remain a ‘new crop’ without a distinctive label. The future progress of the industry will certainly be based on the faith and vision of the participants - producers and consumers alike.