The wild bunch

Australians have long tended to either scorn or simply ignore the country’s wealth of native ingredients. now, thanks to a group of adventurous foodies, the ancient tradition of foraging is back

The wild bunch

Photography James Horan

On a dazzling spring afternoon, Elijah Holland rummages in the rocks around Sydney’s Freshwater Beach, oblivious to the crowds sunning and surfing in this wealthy pocket of the Northern Beaches. From one crevice, he picks out long strands of seaweed and bunches of sea lettuce. A moment later, he’s shucking an oyster.

Dressed in a black T-shirt that shows off his abundant tattoos, the 24-year-old chef goes about his business with purpose, but he is clearly enjoying himself. “People say you have to go to the bush to forage—you don’t,” he says with a grin. “You can go swim and also grab some greens for dinner.”

Last year, Danish chef René Redzepi, who famously raised foraged cuisine to an art form with Noma, launched a 10-week pop-up of the Michelin-starred restaurant in Sydney. As a consultant on the project, Holland gathered enough food to fill three tables, winning the role of Noma forager and chef de partie.

Foraging, of course, dates back to our earliest ancestors, though it had fallen out of fashion until fairly recently. In Australia, chefs and amateur aficionados are spearheading a comeback, drawing on tens of thousands of years of Indigenous culture through harvesting the country’s abundant native animals and plants.

Despite its environmental advantages, Australia might not be the obvious place to launch a worldwide culinary revolution. The country has struggled more than most to define a national cuisine beyond meat-and-two-veg or the suburban barbecue. “Bush Tucker” restaurants, named after food foraged from the bush, rose in popularity in the 1980s. But, aimed at tourists and with cheesy décor and subpar fare, most went bust.

“Australia had that cultural cringe,” says Vanessa Wilton-Whittaker, co-founder of Manly Spirits Co. Distillery, which will launch a series of botanical gins and vodkas made with native ingredients this year. “We didn’t see ourselves as a global player.”

Now all that is changing. Over the last decade, such Australian chefs as Peter Gilmore of Quay fame and Kylie Kwong of Sydney stalwart Billy Kwong have increasingly turned to indigenous ingredients to blaze a new frontier in Australian food. Noma proved to be helpful in this regard, highlighting the range and quality of Australian ingredients in menu items like wattleseed porridge wrapped in saltbush leaves and Albany snow crab with egg yolk cured in fermented kangaroo.

“Australia now is standing on its own,” says Wilton-Whittaker. “We’re setting trends.”

Certainly, Australian chefs are using local ingredients like never before, tapping into 40,000 years of Aboriginal knowledge. Low-key cafes and fine-dining establishments alike serve crocodile and emu, wallaby and kangaroo, paired with native plants and flowers. Some use the services of established foragers like Holland, who also likes to hunt feral game with a bow and arrow in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

And while bygone bush tucker joints channeled Crocodile Dundee, playing on hackneyed notions of life down under, restaurateurs today use native elements more subtly, very often in Asian, Middle Eastern or European dishes that draw on Australia’s multi-cultural heritage.

“We are discovering and defining what Australian cuisine is right now,” says Byron Woolfrey, one half of the Sydney-based mobile cocktail bar service Trolley’d. Woolfrey and his partner Christopher Thomas, formerly a bar manager at London’s Soho House, cater to events with a fleet of upcycled trolleys from the defunct airline Ansett Australia. Their cocktails, such as finger lime and lemon myrtle Negronis, use native ingredients, many hand-picked, hand-pressed and hand-bottled in downtown Sydney. “People are realizing that instead of just buying something that’s made in a package, there is stuff that has grown here for thousands of years and we need to utilize it,” says Woolfrey. “Open your eyes to stuff in the streets—many things around you are edible.”

A lot of native ingredients, adds Englishman Thomas, are “tannic, tart and pucker, which works well in cocktails.” Diego Bonetto, who provides urban foraging tours in Sydney’s suburbs, agrees: “Australian flavors are diverse and strong, as strong as the sun and the dirt.”

Italian-born Bonetto attributes the growing interest in foraged foods to a combination of “environmental guilt” and an increasing demand for healthy dining. “Foraging shrinks the distance between the live plant and yourself,” he says. “Plants start deteriorating as soon as you pick them: the fresher the plants, the more nutrients you ingest.” In the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, Bonetto uses a small knife to eke out edible plants from the soil. To the untrained eye, the grassy banks that line the Cooks River, populated by mud crabs and mangroves, look like a mass of overgrown weeds. But to Bonetto those weeds provide a wealth of textures and flavors.

Among the ingredients found here are the pink pigface, whose leaves can be pickled and brined or, if roasted, used as a substitute for salt. Then there’s spinach-like warrigal greens, and the leaves of the lavender-flowered scurvy weed, used by early settlers to alleviate the ailments caused by a deficiency of vitamin C.

“Three generations ago, foraging was common knowledge,” Bonetto says. “Two generations ago it became uncool. This generation attends workshops to get the knowledge back. We are moving away from the supermarket culture.”

Successful foraging doesn’t only rely on knowing where to look, but also when. Peter Gilmore, head chef of Quay and Bennelong restaurants, both on Sydney Harbour, is finding new ways to improve access to the most stubbornly seasonal ingredients, with an eye toward sustainability.

Gilmore works with farmers to grow wild native plants on a commercial scale, enabling him to put dishes on the Bennelong menu—such as roasted John Dory, served with native coastal greens and umami butter—without having to worry about availability, and without “depleting the natural resources.”

The chef doesn’t quite buy into the idea that the use of foraged foodstuffs is a new trend, however. “We often use native ingredients without even thinking about it,” he says, citing Australia’s diverse seafood and nuts such as macadamia. “So much out there that we use every day is unique to our country.”

For Aboriginal elder Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo, too, native ingredients are more an everyday meal than special treat. A member of the Kamilaroi nation in New South Wales, she grew up eating locally-sourced food. “There was a lot of bush tucker around,” recalls the 74-year-old grandma. Freshwater trout was thrown on hot ash alongside kangaroo meat. The only sweet was honey, straight from the beehive.

In 2012, Aunty Beryl set up the Aboriginal-owned Gardener’s Lodge Café in Camperdown’s Victoria Park to introduce indigenous ingredients to a wider audience—hence the prevalence of dishes like smoky barramundi wrapped in paper bark, and quandong cheesecake. Even those born and bred in Australia, she says, “have never tasted what’s in their own backyard.”

There are still plenty of issues involved in the exploration of native ingredients. Many people continue to look down on bush fruits and flowers. Plus, with an abundance of toxic plants in the wild here, knowledge must be airtight.

For Holland, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. “Instead of buying a tomato to eat from the shop, I have the flowers, the buds, the roots, the leaves, the stems, the fruit and maybe some bugs or insects,” he says, talking over the crash of waves. “I wouldn’t say challenges. I would say opportunities.”

Forager, Noma Sydney pop-up


On going native:
A lot of our native bush foods are completely different from anything you’ll get in the world. Because the climate is so harsh and they grow in places where they haven’t been touched, the flavors are really strong.
A favorite dish of mine was a play on dolmades, which I have been making with my mother since I was a kid. Large marshmallow leaves are blanched and compressed in lemon geranium oil, stuffed and rolled with a mix of brown rice, pickled piper (garfish), chilli, mint, oregano, lemon juice and olive oil.
Favorite native ingredient:
Lemon aspen. It’s this little white berry and has all the tastes and aromas of a lemon, without the harsh bitterness.

Urban foraging tour guide

On going native:
I started this as an art project 15 years ago, setting up self-guided tours of abandoned gardens. I wanted to investigate cultural and environmental identity in a country of migrants.
I love Sydney restaurant Bishop Sessa’s salsa verde made with Bidens pilosa (or “farmer’s friend”).
Favorite native ingredient:
Riberries. No one seems to appreciate how good they are.

Founder, Gardener’s Lodge Café

On going native:
We grew up with bush tucker. There was no electric stove, no microwave, no nothing. The elders knew what to eat and what not to eat.
Fresh homemade scones with wattleseed cream and bushberry jam.
Favorite native ingredient:
Kangaroo. It’s a gamy meat; low in fat.

Executive chef, Quay

On going native:
It’s about letting the ingredients speak for themselves and celebrating Australian produce.
Roasted John Dory, served on the bone with orach, turnips, native coastal greens, umami butter
Favorite native ingredient:
Poached yabby (a freshwater crustacean). We serve them on buckwheat pikelets with lemon marmalade.