There’s a new suite of flavours sweeping across the food industry that’s actually really, really old. Australian bush foods flavours extracted from our native foods are the source of much culinary excitement. Baking Business finds out what the flavours are, how you can use them, and why you haven’t heard about them until now.
Everyone knows baguettes are French, black forest cake is German and Viennoiserie ‘things of Vienna’ speak for themselves. But ask someone what Australia’s cuisine and, by extension, baking staples are and they’ll probably scratch their head. They might mention the lamington or pavlova, but even their origins are debated with our mates across the ditch. Australian baking just hasn’t had its own flavours, its own culture, its own history of people interacting with their native plants and grains. Or does it?
Anthropologist and writer Bruce Pascoe says it most certainly does. His research points to a rich tradition of agriculture and interaction with native plants going back tens of thousands of years into Australian history. Contrary to what you might have learned in school, Aboriginal people were harvesting and grinding grain at least 30,000 years ago.
Bruce’s research, based on accounts written by European explorers and found artefacts, reveals Aboriginal people were growing and storing grain, damming water and living in villages made up of stone houses at colonisation. This settled life didn’t suit the terra nulius or nobody’s land status that allowed the British to claim the land as their own, so this history was forgotten, along with the knowledge of native grains, fruits and seeds, and the processes used to grow and consume them.
In a Conversations podcast with Richard Fidler, Bruce said, “These plants and the growing systems Aboriginal people employed are good for the country. They’re environmentally sound, economically sound—you don’t need extra water, you don’t need extra fertiliser. These are things which are going to be an economic boon for our country, but we also have to remember that there’s a cultural and spiritual side to these plants.”
Bruce has been sowing and harvesting kangaroo grass and native millet to figure out the lost processes, an endeavour in which Michael James from Tivoli Road Bakery has also been involved.
“We’re working with Bruce Pascoe in Victoria trying to get the native grain thing going. Trying to work out how Aboriginal communities did it way back hundreds of years ago,” he says.
“It’s really hard to harvest [the wild grass] and extract all the seed so we spent hours to get only a small amount. It made nice bread though—really tasty.”
Growing alongside the popularity of native grains are native fruits and seeds. Quandongs, riberry, wattle seed and Davidson plum are just a few native flavours resurfacing.
Michael’s been chalking up some hours at Tivoli Road working with the ingredients, tasting and trialling them in different products.
“I find the flavour of whatever I’m trying quite surprising. Strawberry gum is amazing. When you make it into a powder you get a strawberry flavour you could use on a strawberry tart,” he explains.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work because the flavours are really quite strong or tart, so you just play around with it until it works.
“We do a chocolate and wattle seed éclair. We do a Davidson plum Monte Carlo. The Davidson plum is a little plum from around the tropical region. We make a jam with it and put it into the Monte Carlo. That’s what we’re trying to do with the classics, kind of make it our own—make it Australian.”
Other native-inspired creations he’s tried include finger limes on friands, muntries in bread (it adds a spicy apple flavour), and a macadamia, red gum and toasted macadamia bread.
Where can you get your hands on these flavours?
“It’s tricky,” he adds. “You’ve got to go and find it, find the guys who are doing it. It’s early days so it’s interesting to see how it grows and where it goes.”
One company making headlines for their native food is The Australian Superfood Co (TASC), who won three gold awards for their products at the Australian Food Awards.
Owner of the company, Hayley Blieden, was working as a dietician at North Melbourne Football Club when she first came across Australian native foods.
“We were working with indigenous players and they would go home for pre-season and come back in better physical shape than when they left. They were talking about these bush foods I’d never heard of, so I started looking into the nutritional profiles of these bush foods and the quality was exceptional,” Hayley says.
Kakadu plum, for instance, has the highest vitamin C content of any food. Then there’s wattle seed, which is high in protein and has a low glycaemic index.
“They’re planting it in Africa to feed starving people and yet, in Australia, most people have never heard of it,” says Hayley, who has spent years researching native bush foods, working with food technologists and liaising with Aboriginal communities.
“Wherever possible we work with indigenous communities: getting ingredients from indigenous Australian communities to give back to indigenous communities and we’ve done that along the two years we’ve been working.”
They’re constantly meeting new growers, many of them farmers diversifying their crops.
“A number of our fruits and herbs are still wild harvested,” Hayley explains.
She points out wattle seed as a must for bakers (“It gives such a beautiful nutty flavour to bread”) and also recommends the Davidson plum.
“It’s got this beautiful colour and this delicious sour flavour. When it’s combined in a danish, the sweet and sour juxtaposition is delicious.”
Because native ingredients are only grown in Australia, many have a limited season. TASC gets around this by freeze and air drying the ingredients as well as dehydrating some of the fruits.
“We want to see native Australian ingredients sitting next to turmeric and cinnamon in the pantry,” Hayley says.
“We want Australia to recognise these ingredients, be proud of them and, in doing so, increase the demand.”
In the bakery, Michael says he’s enjoying exploring the flavours.
“For us it’s great and the feedback from customers is always good.”
Bruce continues to grow kangaroo grass and yam daisies, while putting the puzzle of these bush foods and history back together.
He told Richard Fidler, “People are going to make money out of this, there’s no doubt about it. Some of them will be non-Aboriginal, some of them will be Aboriginal. I just hope everyone remembers these grains evolved in Australia with Aboriginal participation, and that it should be respected as part of Aboriginal culture.”
AUSTRALIAN BUSH FLAVOURS
Milled leaves add a distinctively sweet anise liquorice flavour to sweet and savoury products.
While the mature yellow fruit can be eaten fresh, bush tomato is usually used in dried form. It has a distinctive raisin/caramel introduction with a strong spicy aftertaste.
Davidson plum is dark blue purple on the outside and a deep reddish-pink on the inside. It has a juicy pulp and sharp acidic taste that is not often eaten fresh. The tart flavour and deep colour work well in jams, chutneys, sauces and yoghurt.
Use anywhere ‘normal’ limes are used; however, the intense flavour means only a fraction of the volume of other limes is needed. Desert lime powder is gaining a place as an attractive additive in herb and spice mixes and as a coating for nuts such as macadamias.
The attractive colours and caviar-like appearance make finger lime popular as a garnish, while its refreshing citrus taste also sees it used in restaurants in seafood dishes and desserts, paired with Asian food or added to salads.
Given its fibrous consistency and sour taste, Kakadu plum is largely used as an ingredient in jams, sauces and juices. It is important not to eat too many of the seeds, as they contain some toxins.
Its strong lemon and grapefruit taste lends itself to use as fruit Australian flavouring in both sweet and savoury products. In its dried form, lemon aspen can also be ground into a spice mix.
Milled leaves are often used to impart a distinctively clean and crisp citrus flavour in teas, drinks, syrups, glazes, cakes, biscuits, dressings, mayonnaises, sauces and ice creams. Lemon myrtle contains the highest amount of citral of any plant known. It’s flavour and aroma show refreshingly intense citrus notes, and is often described as lemonier than lemon.
Fresh mountain pepper leaves on sprig are used as a fresh herb, a garnish or in the manufacture of pastes and purees. The leaf is most commonly dried and milled and develops heat on the palate.
Muntries are traded fresh, frozen or dried. Fresh fruit can be used in salads or deserts. Like most berries, refrigeration is required to prolong shelf life. Adds a spicy apple taste to products.
Although the fruit has a visually appealing red colour, marketing and consumption as a fresh fruit is limited due to the tart taste and dry texture. The flesh of the quandong is suited to as jams, preserves, sauces, relishes, juices, deserts and ice cream toppings and liqueurs.
Riberry is strongly clove- and spice-flavoured, and makes an excellent processing and culinary fruit. The fruit can be eaten straight from the tree, but is not generally consumed fresh. It suits sweet and savoury products.
Once wattle seed is harvested it is usually roasted and can be ground or sold whole. Roasting the seeds brings out the nutty flavour and if roasted longer it produces a chicory flavour.