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Tasmania's wild foods

By LIZ McLEOD and BERNARD LLOYD | A country's cuisine, like its culture, emerges from its forests; from the things that grow in that place and the way they grow, especially the things that grow only in that place: the endemic ingredients.

Together with the many seafoods (which Europeans generally do not consider native—but of course are) and game like possum, birds and wallaby, and foodstuffs like honey, Tasmania has hundreds of edible plants. Berries, fruits, herbs, roots, tubers, sap, shoots, leaves, pollens, flowers, nectars and seeds.

The Pallawa people developed … a highly detailed culinary knowledge of the what, where, when and how of finding, harvesting and preparing these plants to eat, as well as medicines.

The common names of many plants suggest their edibility: Native blueberry, carrot, sea parsley and sea celery, potato, cherry, and Native 'bread', apple berry, snowberry, kangaroo apple, and currant bush, coffee berry, alpine raspberry, and also mint, tea tree, sweet rush, pepperberry and so on. The Pallawa people developed, over thousands of years, a highly detailed culinary knowledge of the what, where, when and how of finding, harvesting and preparing these plants to eat, as well as medicines.

Many were eaten fresh (singly or mixed), some were roasted on coals, others baked on stones, and others again stuffed into meats for flavouring. Fruits were gathered and buried in sand heaps to ripen out of sight of birds. Clay dishes (covered by heavy stones) were left under the trunks of incised trees to gather the alcoholic sap, salt was stored, seeds ground to make flours, and gums chewed like mild sweets.

Without doubt, the worst event in Tasmania's culinary history was during the British colonisation period when, like the people themselves, comprehensive knowledge of Tasmanian plant foods was suppressed, lost, or deliberately extinguished.

Fortunately, not all was lost. Some knowledge was retained and some knowledge was passed on. Within two years, after the stores of English foods had been eaten, rotted, failed to sprout or withered, came the first flirtation with Tasmanian plants, and during the first two decades of British occupation, when black and white people all lived off the land,

many indigenous plants were gathered by bushrangers, stockmen and explorers, and eaten as the Blacks showed them.

Newspapers in the 1880s report on ladies going to the Mountain (Wellington) to gather snowberries for their summer pies.

Others were tried steeped in teas, for example, or made into chutneys, jellies and jams, baked in pies, tarts and cakes, and brewed into beer, wine and spirits. It was a period of great culinary experimentation; new dishes were created and old British ones adapted to Tasmanian ingredients. Newspapers in the 1880s report on ladies going to the Mountain (Wellington) to gather snowberries for their summer pies. Throughout Tasmania, bushwalkers, hunters and the Pallawa people themselves continue the tradition of eating bush tucker.

Today a new period of culinary experimentation fusing native, colonial and contemporary knowledge is underway. New dishes and old flavours are being revived, reintroduced, created and fused.

Oils, liqueur, wines, ice creams, biscuits and dampers are all flavoured by the pepper of this versatile plant.

The best known Tasmanian edible plant today is the Mountain pepperberry. 'Tasmania's shrub of the decade', native plant expert, horticulturalist Kris Schaffer calls it. Many restaurants include dishes flavoured with the dried berries or leaves of this alpine bush, and both the leaves and the fruits of the pepper shrub can be bought. Oils, liqueur, wines, ice creams, biscuits and dampers are all flavoured by the pepper of this versatile plant.

A second well-used native plant is Kunzea, a coastal shrub, restricted in range, but widespread and quick-growing. Kunzea leaves may be dried or infused green with boiling water to make tea or used as a flavouring in game and chicken dishes. Again, this plant is sold commercially.

A third widely used plant is the wattle. Its seed are crushed and used to flavour ice-creams. A fourth is kelp, of which several are eaten: bull kelp and sea lettuce among them.

Wild experiments

But this is just the beginning. Kris Schaffer has a native plant farm in Ferntree, in the shadow of Mt Wellington, and together with interested chefs, cookery teachers, and native plant experts, is at the forefront of experimentation with Tasmanian native ingredients.

Kris drinks Tasmanian flower nectars, tosses into salads succulent native leaves, garnishes with delicate violet and Grevillia flowers, adds pollen to pancakes, blends teas, makes native spinach pies, flavours stews and roasts with Tasmanian herbs, and mixes into her cakes various wattle seeds.

Altogether, Kris cultivates over fifty native Tasmanian plants for eating. She also grows Cider gums for their alcoholic cider, and is particularly excited about the potential for the 'salt-fig', creeping strawberry pine ('great with marinated quail'), Kangaroo apple, and, most of all, a highly aromatic alpine lemon leaf, which she uses in scones, as well as to flavour roast meats and fish. And all these may be just the bottom shelf of the native larder.

'the natives seemed filled with joy when they met with a description of fern tree called rully, which is pleasant eating; this is far superior to the other called Lar'

Historic records of explorers speak of many plants, some still to be precisely identified, eagerly sought by the Pallawa. In George Augusta Robinson's diaries he notes a fern called by the Bruny natives 'Rully', of which he writes: 'the natives seemed filled with joy when they met with a description of fern tree called rully, which is pleasant eating; this is far superior to the other called Lar'.

Robinson also speaks of a 'pleasant berry' named pur.rar, a wild fruit resembling a greengage, various fungus 'which are all known to them by the different qualities which they possess, and are all known by different names, and which they eat heartily of,' one having 'a sweet flavour not unlike mushroom.'

Another fungus he was given had 'a fruit vessel nearly half full of a liquid of pleasant taste', and also a tree-centre that tasted 'very like a roasted chestnut', seeds 'like the french bean', 'poorner, which resembles a young shallot, and of which the Bruny women appeared to be very fond'.

Such entries, together with sketches, sprinkle Robinson's diaries, and those of other journeys among the Pallawa by the likes of Bakehouse, Walker and others.

Other indigenous plants are mentioned by botanists, explorers and bushworkers as tasting variously of: onion, potato, sweet potato, asparagus, beetroot, carrot, cress, rice, leek, peas, chestnuts, arrowroot, rhubarb, yam, groundsel, sugar and banana. It should of course be recognised that tastes change.

Some are known to be poisonous; some contain both edible and poisonous parts; others are at times poisonous but when ripe not poisonous

Foods once described as 'sweet' we find somewhat dull on our sugar-cane saturated tongues; we find some foodstuffs enjoyed by our own forefathers no longer pleasant, nevertheless, there are also amongst these Tasmanian plants, Kris is convinced, completely new tastes to be had.

But before you run out into the bush to eat the first colourful native berry you see, Kris has a few words of warning. Firstly, while some plants are edible, not all native plants are edible. Some are known to be poisonous; some contain both edible and poisonous parts; others are at times poisonous but when ripe not poisonous. Allergic reactions are also possible for some people.

Scientific research into the edibility of native plants is negligible. Even among aboriginal people knowledge is far less than it once was, so: eat cautiously. Unless you are absolutely certain of the identification of a plant, don't eat it. Secondly, we are not the only animals that eat native plants. Native animals rely entirely on bush tucker to live. Harvest lightly—and note that State and Federal regulations exist to protect rare and endangered flora from any form of human harvesting and some plants require you to have a permit to collect. Thirdly, be aware that plants in the wild can vary greatly in potency from season to season and even place to place. ¶

Click here to see the Wild Foods gallery by Kris Schaffer


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