Finding the right bush tucker
December 03, 2007 11:00pm
MORE than 200 years ago the first ships arrived from England stocked with plants and seeds from the UK to propagate and provide food for the new settlers.
Not only did the representatives of the king declare "terra nullius" on his behalf, but they claimed the land to be empty of food too.
It was even said by some settlers that the Aborigines "didn't eat anything at all". Over the past decade or so, we've started to respect the native owners of the land and their understanding of bush tucker and to acknowledge that if we don't take an interest that expertise is in danger of being lost.
"There's so much we don't know," says horticulturist Joanna Roberts.
"For example, there are plants that are toxic, but indigenous people knew ways of leaching out that toxicity and making them edible. As yet we don't have that knowledge but I hope there is someone out there who still does; I would love it if they came forward."
Roberts, who teaches about bush foods at North Brisbane TAFE's Grovely campus, is originally from the UK, having arrived here 30 years ago, via South Africa and the US. She was once a teacher of English and drama but discovered a love of plants in America and, with this, a new career path.
These days it is native plants, particularly the ones supplying food, that excite her. "I don't really understand why there hasn't been the interest before. I guess it's because it was a hunter-gatherer society we ousted, but things are changing and people seem really interested," she says.
This year Roberts introduced her bush tucker course at the college where she taught a wide demographic, ranging from horticulture students to those who are simply interested in the propagation and identification of bush tucker in the Brisbane area. The course proved popular and a second intake is scheduled for next year. "Bush food is very interesting, particularly locally as we are in the Macleay McPherson Overlap Zone, an area of exceptionally high biodiversity," she says. The overlap is where the northern and southern faunas and floras of Australia meet and literally overlap, allowing us to grow both temperate and tropical plants. "We are so lucky with our vegetation. Just here in Brisbane we have as many species as in the British Isles in total," Roberts says.
Her interest in bush tucker was first ignited when she began to research the history of her adopted city. "I began to wonder what the traditional owners had eaten before cropping and farmers, so I started to research. I began with Wild Plants in Australia, by the Cribbs, local authors who experimented with all sorts of bush foods," she says.
"One used to eat it while the other used to observe."
With books such as the Cribbs', the interest in wild native plants in Australia took off in the '70s and '80s but, Roberts says, the knowledge was "very uncritical". "We didn't really know very much at all. We have much more understanding now."
Roberts has restricted her own study to the area around southeast Queensland and the edible bush plants of Brisbane, in particular. Take a walk, she suggests, and we will discover a veritable fruit and salad bowl at our doorstep. "Wombat berries, for example, are everywhere. They are little climbers with orange berries and edible tubers. The berries are not that great, but the tubers you can eat raw as part of a salad. You just dig them up and cut up as part of a salad. It's a bit like a mild-tasting radish. You can find them in most of the eucalyptus forests in Brisbane like Brisbane Forest Park."
Even our own back yards can be a source of bush tucker, Roberts says. "Native violets are edible, the leaves and the stalks are very pleasant in a salad and look very pretty. Lemon myrtle grows in a lot of back yards too and are even used as street trees."
Growing in popularity both as an ornamental plant and for its edible fruit is the lilly pilly. "At the moment the lilly pilly are just coming into fruit, with a pretty pink fruit that is completely edible. You can make a jam, stewing them with sugar. I chill it then add to champagne for an adult flavour. You can eat the berries raw, too, in a rainforest salad."
The hibiscus flower is another plant she recommends for keen native cooks. "The more common ones we are used to seeing are Hawaiian, but the native hibiscus has a really huge flower. I do all sort things with them. I take the petals off and press between paper then freeze and use just like vine leaves to wrap things. If I'm doing a real southeast Queensland dinner, I might mix macadamias with bunya nuts and a bit of cooked Moreton Bay bug or prawn, wrap them up then pop in the microwave for 20 seconds to 'shrink wrap' them."
Roberts also uses the blossom from the wattle to make a wattle blossom cake. "Wattleseed cake has become popular but you can also use the blossom," she says. You can freeze the flowers for up to a year, Roberts says, and simply substitute for the quantity of flour in the recipe.
She doesn't have far to travel to fossick for ingredients for her exotic salads either, with 16ha largely planted with natives and bush tucker plants.
While she claims to not be "an expert", like the Cribbs, Roberts' knowledge allows her to identify bush foods that are safe to eat, often species the inexperienced layman shouldn't touch – like puff ball mushrooms, some of which are poisonous. Roberts recently made a salad with the common little fungus so beloved of children for the puff of spores it releases when kicked.
"When I knew it was good, I put it raw in a salad with cubes of tofu, fetta, a few leaves and a handful of lilly pillies. I didn't tell the family what it was until later but they all thought it tasted very good.
"They are usually very obliging."
She does stress, however, that there are many highly toxic plants in nature and it's vital for the layman not to eat anything they can't identify and be sure is safe.
While most of us take our local flora for granted, Roberts says the southeast Queensland area is a "magnet" for horticulturists from overseas.
"A lot of people in horticulture come here from abroad. People here think it's normal but for us, it's a rich and extraordinary environment."
For more information on Joanna Roberts' bush tucker courses, the next of which commences in February,ph: 3354 5561