After a long-ish gap, here at last is the first of the quarterly editions. I hope you enjoy the extra 6 pages!
This has seemed a very patchy year, things happenings in fits and spurts and then dying down again. One week, my email would be flooded with requests for bushfoods or information, the next a relative silence. For days on end, the discussion group would tic-tac back and forth with messages and ideas, then a lull, as though someone had turned off the tap.
On the whole, however, I feel that the post-Olympic period could be one of positive growth for the industry. Some interest and demand has been set up through our exposure to the world and bushfoods (all too) small part in that. Now the time for some commercial planning and planting, greater cooperation and information sharing and, dare I say, a serious look at how we would like the industry to evolve.
I feel that the greatest problem we face is the relatively small number of truly commercial growers. Perhaps with the demand side firming up, this will change. I hope so.
Although this is the Spring Edition, it feels as though summer is well and truly here. I wish you pleasant planting and bountiful harvests.
How do you sex a plum?
I must thank Col Walpole for the following. Whether it's accurate or not, it's a delightful theory and the best I've come across to 'sex' the sexy Podocarpus elatus.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us that 'aroma' comes from the Greek arõma-atos - spice. The Chambers Essential English Dictionary (essential? More essential than Oxford's?) declares that aroma is a noun denoting 'sweet smell', while Rogets Thesauraus gives such delightful variants as odorament, effluvium, nidor, redolence, spicey, balmy, muscadine and ambrosial.' So now you know.
In fact, we all need little explanation of aromas for we are (almost) all quick to detect them and classify them as good, bad, devine or perhaps 'peeuw'!
Aromas, smells, fragrances and odours are linked with both culinary and non culinary experiences. There are perfumes which are so yummy you want to eat them but there are also yummy food smells which you would prefer not to wear as a body odour enhancer (excuse me, aren't you wearing Parmesian cheese?). There are delightful and appetising aromatic leaves which linger seductively when you brush against them but don't translate to the stew pot. There are leaves which can raise a humble soup to sublimity but smell frankly mundane in the wild.
Our own noses tell us much about a food before we have eaten it - for some a smell may elicit anticipation, for others, repulsion. The sense of smell seems more deeply embedded in us than that of sight - the most delicate waft of a perfume or a flower can evoke memories more vivid than any picture.
There are smells for every purpose in the plants of the world and Australia has some of the most striking (though not always the sweetest) of them all. We are blessed with a wildly diverse range of aromatic plants - from the well known Eucalyptus citrodora to the frankly rank Stinking Hakea (Hakea rubriflora). Our brown boronia (Boronia megastigma) contains a heady and highly prized oil used in perfumery here and overseas.
Most, if asked to name the fragrance that typified Australia, would likely search for words to describe the lemon pungency of our citrol laden plants or the musky warmth of some of our melaleucas.
From Wrigley and Fagg (Aromatic Plants), we learn that 'pleasant aromas... are mostly attributable to volatile essential oils. These are complex mixtures of odourous organic chemicals known as esters, alcohols, aldehydes and ketones.
The literature I was able to obtain concentrated almost exclusively on the non-culinary uses of our fragrant plants, no doubt due to lack of research and a scarcity of toxicity studies.
However, an increasing number of our natives are being used for flavour and aroma in dishes as wide ranging as cheese-cake to coffee.
Currently, the most popular aromatic leaf is that of the Backhousia citriodora - our Lemon scented myrtle or Lemon ironwood. I'm not a chemist but my nose tells me that this is a warm, almost spicey lemony leaf with a slight sharpness. A friend of mine who runs a spice business has created some nearly indescribable curry dishes using just a small amount in his blend.
Lemon myrtle is an attractive garden tree which can grow to 15m but can be pruned to any height you desire with no ill effect (in fact, it seems to flourish under hard pruning). It has a stately form and dark green glossy leaves. These can be harvested and used fresh in a refreshing tea (one to two leaves per cup is all it takes) or the leaf can be dried, ground and stored. I have found that my dried leaf loses its aromatic qualities with storage and tend to dry small amounts only.
It is found along the Queensland coast and as far south as Melbourne but should do well with low frost conditions and ample water.
The prostantheras are a much under-rated genus of highly fragrant shrubs which flower prolifically and yield up fragrance in both leaf and flower. Prostanthera incisa (pictured), the Cut leaf mint, is the most commonly used in bushfoods. This attractive, rounded shrub grows to 1.5m and has small, toothed leaves which, even with the softest touch, exude a strong and minty aroma. The small purple flowers which appear in spring should be enough in themselves to recommend this plant as a hedge or a welcome at your entry. Prostranthera ovalifolia, the Oval leafed mint bush, has a similar size and form but a slightly less 'biting' fragrance. It also flowers profusely and suits a position in which you can brush up against it as you pass. The leaves make a minty tea and, dried, can be used as a flavouring.
Eupomatia laurina or Little Bolwarra is a very handy shrub or small tree which is reasonably hardy, very attractive and has the distinction of flowers which are described as either ether-like and unpleasant or seductively fragrant! There is no argument about the fruit, termed native guava which look a little like rose hips and taste rather like guava.
Some may be a little wary of the gingers - it's fair to say that, in the right position, they can certainly dominate! However, for those gardens with a shaded, wet area, our native ginger (Alpinia caerulea, pictured) is both a robust 'set and forget' sort of plant and also highly fragrant when flowering. The small blue seeds which develop can be eaten. They have a slightly tart, refreshing tang and are high in Vitamin C but I would rate them as only 'interesting' on the bushfood scale as they have only a small amount of furry flesh around the many seeds of the fruit.
The Acronychias get points on looks, fragrance and fruit. There are 15 different species of this rainforest tree, most of them having a common name with 'Aspen' in it somewhere. Acronychia acidula is the one you'll find on most of the bushfood lists, but, for my money, Acronychia oblongifolia, Yellow Wood or Common aspen (pictured) takes the prize. This is a medium sized tree with small, white and reasonably fragrant flowers in Autumn and cream-coloured, marble-sized fruit in winter. The tart, almost piney fruit have a flavour which adds a unique pungency to drinks, ice cream and even mayonnaise!
The dryer regions have so many aromatic plants it's hard to know where to begin. One of the more interesting genus is Capparis - commonly known as Caper bushes. Our Capparis spinosa is actually a sub-species of the better known Mediterranean caper but Capparis mitchelli is the more widely used. Known as the Wild orange, it's an untidy shrub when young but becomes a handsome tree with maturity and has an edible fruit which is much sought after. Capparis lucida or Coast Caper (pictured) is one of the few found outside the interior. Its flowers are knock-out aromatic and its small, purple fruit are edible.
And what can we say of the wattles? Their perfume ranges from intense to subtle-beyond-perception and they have a representative in every part of the country. The wattle pictured - Acacia amblygona - is a most unusual prostrate form with spiny leaves and a rather gangly habit. The small yellow ball flowers have a faint and very evocative smell of the bush and, one imagines, it is an ideal form for harvesting of the pods!
With a little planning and some hard work in tracking down the right species, almost any garden around Australia can have native fragrance year round. Tea tree and Eucalypts are certainly the 'big guns' when it comes to scents but there are literally hundreds of lesser known aromats which add much to the senses - and the menu!
When anyone is onto something that they believe is 'hot', then it is natural to expect a certain level of self interest to manifest itself along the traditional lines of "it's MY loaf of bread and NO you cannot have any". If this runs unchecked, then where is the perspective in regard to the bigger picture? Such as feeding the masses or having a job or an occupation to come back to next Monday?
The jump from a few dozen food bearing trees and schrubs scattered around in the bottom paddock, to a sustainable industry, is far greater than the simple dream or self interest allows. If we don't keep the blinkers on, then we might see those who would steal this loaf from under the nose, heaven forbid.
So, the oscilation between head-down and head-up now sees a number of list subscribers sharing their limited, but very valuable, knowledge. For example, say a comment is made whereby a particular fruiting tree likes morning shade and a bit of dew, is proven at harvest time to have a 20% better yeild of a higher quality fruit - this is strategic information that is of real value longer term.
Any agri/horti activity takes a naturally longer time to improve as it takes a full season to see the results of any management or practice changes. As manipulaters of crop performance, mankind has achieved such a result that what took 200 hundred farm workers to acomplish in a season, less than a dozen are required now. Along with this is the cropping densitites now utilised these days. Improved breeding, planting, fertilisers and pest management sees Australian farmers 'needing' to export around 75% of their handy work as they produce four times as much as we need domestically.
I had spent 9 years researching native food plants (muntries and wattle in particular) before I decided to go into our agri business Muntari Wild Food Plants and have been trading for 6 years. In that time little has changed in my enthusiasm for the potential of the industry, my opinions however,have.
Some of us have had experience with the 'ANBIC' promise and it's eventual failure and do not wish to see that kind of fiasco repeated again.
I am sure the "Umbrella group" have the best intentions and will not be able to please everyone all the time but I would ask a simple question.
If this proposed association is to represent all interests, should the proposal not be posted to this list for all to see? This list I am sure was created for just this kind of discussion and it is capable of reaching a wide audience quickly. It need not be political nor ego driven discussion just plain old truth and facts should do, then everyone will know where they stand nationally.
There are many factors and market niches that make up what we call "the Bushfoods Industry" and that's the great thing about it I guess, people from all walks of life can become involved with it. However,this can also work against the industry, what with wildly different prices for the same product,unreliable supply and food safety aspects still not completely convincing main stream markets we need to be very aware of just how young the industry is and give it all the help we can. No one has all the answers just yet and it is a leap of faith to invest hard dollars and plenty of time for some native food crops. We certainly need grower groups & associations at regional levels to give strong local support that will then give a solid foundation on which to build. We also require government to get serious and realise the potential of this industry and not just wander around the peripheral. I know there is research funding, CSIRO & RIRDC involment etc but a few hundred thousand dollars here and there for an industry that RIRDC estimates should be valued around $100 million per year within 5 years? Who is setting the adgenda for Bushfoods in this country? Do you want to Know? Do you you need to Know? Do you want to have a say? How will you be able to voice your opinions? What safety or quality procedures do you need to follow? If you are a member of an association eg: the Quandong Association, questions like the above could be answered and your opinions no doubt heard.
Government will usually listen to a collective well organised group more readily than any individual. Marketing produce is generally easier and the experience of a collective can be tapped into when required. Research dollars may be more readily available also.
I would like to see the following:
a) Regional grower groups .
Why? Local shared site knowledge readily accessible.Growers with mixed plantings can be a member of one or more associations.
b) Associations for each fruit group
Why? Each fruit etc has it's own set of problems and I doubt 1 national body could fill the requirements of all sector's problems in an effect way.
c) National body
Why? Focal point for research $ and marketing which this industry requires and I doubt if government will like the hassle of dealing with smaller associations when it comes to funding projects.
I strongly believe that for this industry to be both economically and ethically sustainable there needs to be both decicive and timely action on all levels of management, be it production,marketing or research. Failure to respond to any of these things will see our fledgling industry offshore quicker than you may think possible. Israel already is very keen on the quandong and Africa and the US on wattleseed.
Cheers for now
Muntari Wild Food Plants Of Australia
Unique and significant developments in South Australia, in areas such as crop production, public acceptance, government support and private enterprise investment are providing a boost to the State's native food industry.