Issue 5

CSIRO in West Africa with Acacia - World Food Day


Seeds of Australian dry-zone Acacia species formed part of the traditional diet of Australia's Aboriginal people.

One of these species, A. colei, has proved well-adapted to the West African semi-arid tropics, and is widely planted in southern Niger where famine and malnutrition resulting from crop failures are serious public health issues.

Based on an initial positive response from local people in 1990 and a scientific assessment that a successful outcome was possible, intensive research and development efforts were mounted to develop Acacia colei seeds as a new food source for the region. The main participants in the research were a non-government organisation, the Maradi Integrated Development Program (MIDP) and villages associated with it, CSIRO's Australian Tree Seed Centre and a nutrition research group from Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.

Main lines of investigation included taxonomic revision of the target species, field trials and silvicultural treatments to maximise seed production and a series of nutritional and toxicological studies involving chemical analysis, animal testing and finally human volunteer trials. Research showed that with appropriate silviculture (wide spacing and repeated pruning) A. colei can yield an average of around 2 kg seed per year per tree for at least 2-3 years from age two onwards, and its seed flour can be safely incorporated in millet/sorghum based human diets at rates of up to 25% by modifying traditional recipes.

Cooperation among indigenous communities in harsh environments could be part of the answer to global food security, the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, John Anderson, said today.

Mr Anderson was speaking on World Food Day, commemorated each year on 16 October to draw attention to the problems of hunger and malnutrition in the world. The theme of World Food Day 1997 is `Investing in Food Security'.

In keeping with this theme, the Department of Primary Industries and Energy is collaborating with CSIRO to fund two Aboriginal women from central Australia to visit an indigenous community in Niger, West Africa, to exchange information on the use of acacia seeds as a food source, Mr Anderson said. The people of the Maradi region in Niger have been developing Australian acacia seeds as an alternative food crop for about seven years. Australian Aboriginal knowledge provided the basic idea. It was passed on to West Africa by Australian researchers, through an Australian-led rural development program run by the non-government organisation SIM (Society of International Missionaries)

With this information, local people in Niger incorporated the acacia seed flour into traditional millet and sorghum-based recipes to develop palatable foods.

The seeds became even more attractive when the local people found that no phase of the acacia seed preparation required new or specialised skills or equipment.

The Minister said bush tucker, such as acacia seeds, was already popular in urban Australia and represented a sustainable and potentially lucrative alternative enterprise for people in inland Australia.

In fact, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) is currently developing a research plan to develop the bush foods industry, he said. Mr Anderson said, generally, Australia was pursuing a number of strategies to address the problem of food security. Australia has a long history of investing in food security, highlighted by our efforts in researching and developing sustainable food crops, he said. Australian aid programs, as well as our domestic rural policies, also recognise the fundamental contribution of women in fostering food security.

The Acacia Seed for Human Consumption program is outstanding in that it demonstrates how indigenous Australian and African women have collaborated with scientists to address a local food security problem in a sustainable way.

CSIRO on the Internet: /index.html

The Minister said bush tucker, such as acacia seeds, was already popular in urban Australia and represented a sustainable and potentially lucrative alternative enterprise for people in inland Australia.

Index: 5
From the Editor...
Peak National Body
Research & Development News
The Desert Raisin (Akadjura) - Solanum centrale
Purely Pepper (Tamannia spp) 
Three Bucket Garden
Black fella, white fella
The Good oil on Kurrajongs
CSIRO report - Acacia
Christmas in the bush
Bushfires and bushtucker
Northern Exposure
The bee that 'fishes' for pollen
Fruiting times (N NSW)
Common names
From the papers

Regional Native Cuisine from the Arid Interior

"How I survived in the bush on Freshwater Clam Chowder"

Erica Birmingham

Last year, `Christmas in the `bush' took on a whole different meaning for me. Having decided to skip the traditional celebrations, I threw the Kelpie and the swag in the back of the Holden and set off for the peace and quiet of western Queensland.

Here, by a large inland lake, I found an idyllic spot to camp, a remote site where there was no-one else to disturb me... save for the myriad birds and wildlife.

I camped by the lake for several days in intense December heat. During the day, along with a nearby population of large Eastern Grey Kangaroos, I dozed under the spreading branches of River Red Gums lining the lake, venturing out only in the cool of the evenings.

I'd taken limited supplies with me, hoping that I wouldn't be too far from the nearest shop. The ice in the esky melted quickly, leaving me with soggy ingredients. These certainly didn't lend themselves well to the type of gourmet bush cuisine that I had been anticipating. I soon became faced with a choice: either I could leave the tranquility of my surroundings for a long hot drive into town or I could use my knowledge of Australian native foods to seek out some fresh edibles from my environs.

I chose the bush tucker.

As with most types of eco-systems in Australia, the bush yielded a good supply of ingredients. I started on my forage for food. First, I investigated the hundreds of empty shells (resembling those of a large freshwater pippi) which lay at the lake's edge. These were, in fact, Freshwater Clams (Velesunio wilsoni) and, judging by their numbers, they appeared to be a favourite food of the wading birds. I guessed that they might be good tucker and spent the hot part of the day ducking into the water and feeling around with my feet in the soft mud to locate these bivalves. Pulling them out of the water into the sunlight, I was dazzled by the brilliance of their golden shells. 

Photo: Erika Birmingham



I filled my hat with handfuls and left them to soak in a bucket of fresh water in the shade. At first I was a bit dubious about the quality of these molluscs, as they are filter feeders and oozed out thick black mud from the bottom of the lake. After 24 hours of soaking in repeated changes of water, they started to scrub up and resemble an ingredient which had definite potential.

Meanwhile, I followed the errant trail of the Orchard Butterflies. These butterflies lay their eggs on citrus trees, the native citrus being their preferred host in the wild. They led me to find the unique Desert Limes (Eremocitrus glauca), which were fruiting abundantly in vast thickets. This species of true native citrus varies from a small, thorny, multi-stemmed shrub to a narrow, upright tree with a well-defined trunk of up to 30cm. in diameter. This was the first time I had found these trees in the wild and I was amazed by the size of some of the old trees I found growing there. I rested in the shade of one of these trees, which must have been covered in thousands of limes, each resembling a miniature lemon of up to 1.5cm in diameter. The limes had a porous, almost translucent, yellow skin when ripe and were very sour in taste. Apparently the aboriginal tribes who lived in this area used to eat the raw fruit, but I had other plans. The bark of these trees oozed with a clear sap which also had a tangy citrus flavour. This area of land was used by the early settlers, primarily for grazing and few trees, if any, were ringbarked. The early settlers realised the potential of the wild limes and used them to make drinks and marmalades. Ironically, this species of lime is still regarded as a woody weed in some areas of Queensland. I ducked, as two brightly coloured Eastern Rosellas gorged themselves on fruit in the branches above me, dropping the occasional lime on my head.

I was surprised to find some Warrigal Greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides) growing by the track toward the lake and gathered them in the cool of the evening. I had only seen this plant (also known as New Zealand Spinach) growing on the coastal sand dunes of eastern Australia, but it has a very wide distribution, extending inland to the woodlands and plains of the arid interior. It was rarely eaten by aboriginal people but the early settlers took this plant back to England in the 1800's, where it became the only Australian plant to be cultivated overseas as a vegetable. It has since become a feral plant in Africa, Europe and the USA, where it is found growing as far south as Florida.

In the grasslands, I found a large species of mushroom from the Puffball genus. All the true Puffballs are edible and this particular species (Calvatia lilacina) grows up to 10cm. in diameter. It is good to eat, as long as the flesh still remains white inside. On maturing, the flesh dissipates to a lilac-brown colour, when it becomes bitter to the taste and finally to a brown dust (at which point it has traditionally been used for kicking a `puff `of dust into the air...).

Next, came the condiments.

I searched the area in vain, tasting every small ground cover I came across (at the risk of poisoning myself!), remembering tales of the Native Thyme (Ocimum tenuiflorum) which grew in the arid interior. This was most likely the herb found by the early explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt, who called it a ..."wild marjoram...which imparts its fragrance even to the air..." Leichardt added this herb to his diminishing supplies of tea and noted: "...we also used it frequently as a condiment in our soup." This seemed like a pretty good recommendation to me - however, not knowing how to recognise this species in the wild, I was about to call off the search, depressed at the thought of my culinary masterpiece lacking the essential ingredient. I was beginning to wish that I had at least brought the mixed herbs from home, but by the second day, there was that flavour. I had found it! The wild thyme was growing in my campsite all along and was covered in a profusion of tiny purple flowers.

Now, the ingredients for my feast were starting to show some real promise (after all, this was Christmas...).

I started to prepare the soup, by boiling the billy over the campfire. Then, I threw in the clams with the native thyme and some salt and pepper (yes, I cheated) and boiled them just until the shells opened. Discarding the clams, I retained the stock. I panfried the slices of Puffball mushroom separately in butter until they were tender, then added them to the stock. I then threw a handful of whole limes into the soup and covered the billy, letting it simmer for approximately 15 minutes until the limes were tender. In the meantime, I blanched the Warrigal Greens in a separate saucepan, draining and discarding the water to remove the calcium oxylates. I added the leaves to the soup for the last few minutes of cooking, retaining a few for floating in the bowl as a garnish.warrigals

It was done.

Then, came the serving of the soup. A bottle of Chardonnay had been reserved especially for the occasion, as an accompaniment (a little warm, but never mind). Mmmmm...not bad grub, I thought. Even Rusty the Kelpie ate it! I especially liked the burst of tangy citrus, as I bit into the whole wild limes. The arid bushland had revealed some wonderful and unique flavours.

The sun set slowly over the lake, as waterfowl huddled together in the shallows, settling in for the night. The pair of Red-backed Kingfishers which had been darting back and forth around my campsite all day returned to their nest in the hollow branch of an ancient River Red Gum. A hushed calm finally enveloped the evening as a breeze blew up over the lake. I breathed a sigh of relief as I climbed into my swag to watch the wide expanse of evening stars.

"Tomorrow", I thought to myself, "I must buy some ice for that esky..."

� Erika Birmingham, 1998 Byron Bay Native Produce

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