Print
Category: Articles

OK - it's an oldie - but still pertinent...

Back in 1996, the Australian bushfood sector was quoted as being worth between $10 and $12 million per annum. This isn’t large by food standards but, when you consider the very small number of major players, it was a fairly healthy sort of size for an industry in it infancy. Good growth was predicted and the sector seemed set for a glittering ascendance for all the right reasons. A peak industry body was formed about this time but it wandered around in some disrepair before disappearing into the sunset. 

There were also a number of established regional associations for growers of bushfoods, most notably the Southern Bushfood Network, the Quandong Growers, a Queensland co-operative and ARBIA, that group with the long name (Australian Rainforest Bushfood Industry Association).

The Queensland group kept a fairly low profile before disbanding and ARBIA, to the surprise of most, also decided to fold up its newsletter and close.

Despite this, good growth was predicted and many felt the Olympics would be the culinary shot in the arm the sector needed to climb out of the cradle into the mainstream.

There was some disagreement about who and where the bushfood industry was but at least it had its icons - The Red Ochre Grill (still only in Adelaide at that time), Riberrys in Sydney, Edna’s Table also in Sydney and the Emu Bottom Wattleseed Anzac Biscuit, served by Ansett and quite tasty, too.

Alas, over the last two years, Red Ochre expanded too quickly and found itself closing its doors in Adelaide and Brisbane. Riberrys changed hands and its name and took bushfoods from the menu and one of the industry’s major distributors encountered serious cash flow problems in 1999, entering a deed of company arrangement but managing to trade out of its difficulties. Through all this the Wattleseed Anzac continued to wing its way around the country and the industry (whoever and wherever it was) continued to plant, harvest and sell. 

And the Olympics? To date, our second home-grown games have not proven a bonanza for our home grown natives - it appears the world's best athletes will find such Australian icons as Wagon Wheels and lamingtons on the menu. For visitors, there will be no shortage of food, with McDonald's operating restaurants in the Olympic Village, Main Press Centre, International Broadcast Centre and Sydney Olympic Park during the Games.

A number of Sydney restaurants will no doubt be serving our native foods but the feeling still remains that, somewhere along the line, the industry has missed out on a remarkable opportunity. What could have been a debut on the world stage will resemble more of a token offering in the foyer. Thousands of tourists will return home without sampling our glorious Quandong, Riberry and Native pepper. Tens of thousands of Australians will do the same. How did the industry miss this big chance?

There are a number of reasons behind bushfoods’ low profile. Lack of cohesion is one of them. There are growers all around the country; large, small, serious or self-sufficient - but the bulk of these work in isolation, selling locally or to one of the (few) major buyers. Quandong growers stand out as one of the few groups who have got behind a specific product and promoted it. This group has been working with Quandongs for well over twelve years and herein lies the second problem. Bushfoods, on the whole, take quite some time to reach maturity. Large plantings should have been undertaken years ago to ramp up for the Olympics. But who’s game to take a punt on Riberries becoming a ‘must have’ for the games? In a classic Catch 22, supply is waiting for demand which is waiting for supply…

The Quandong growers and a number of others (most notably Lemon myrtle and Native pepper) are able to supply in commercial quantities and this, in itself, is a stumbling block for many of our bushfoods - there simply isn’t the supply to sustain supermarket sized production. The Bunya bunya nut has enormous potential and, in a good year, there may be upward of 700 tonnes readily available. This year hasn’t been a good year and the largest recorded sale was around 800 kg. The majestic Bunya pine takes from 20-50 years to mature so it’s not exactly a quick cash crop. At present, there are substantial numbers of these trees on private and Forestry land and harvesting could be classified as ‘wild’ or ‘opportunistic’. Here lies a third problem for the fledgling industry. 

 

While farmers wait for their bushfood plantings to mature, a good portion of supply is still based on wild or street harvest. Brisbane alone has thousands of Riberries, thoughtfully planted by Council as street trees. Out west, the Wild lime can be found lining the highways and harvested from the fields of all-too-willing wheat farmers. They’ve considered this piquant and delightful fruit a woody weed for years and fight a losing battle to clear it out. Further west, endless stands of wattles fruit prolifically in season and tempt harvesters out for the hot, uncomfortable job of picking and packing. This sort of labour and distance intensive harvesting is not cheap. Neither are the fruits of the harvest. Price keeps many native foodstuffs out of the mainstream.

No one knows the exact size of existing bushfood plantings, much less what is planned. No one can say with certainty the price of many of our bushfoods but most agree that it must come down. Very few want to see bushfoods become a fad but most would like to see some growth in their popularity. While the farmers wait for their fruit trees to mature and the wild harvesters pack their swag for the outback, the industry continues, in its scattered but enthusiastic fashion, to put more plants in the ground and extol the virtues of  the Native tamarind, the Muntari, the Finger lime and dozens of other fine Australian foods. 

The athletes will eat Wagon Wheels and perhaps the odd Macadamia (Hawaiian grown?). The tourists will savour Balmain bugs but few will have the pleasure of Bugs in a Lemon aspen sauce. More’s the pity…

 

Maybe next time.

Some bushfoods

 

Riberry

Syzygium luehmanni

Small tart berry with delightful touch of clove

Quandong

Santalum acuminatum

Well loved red fruit with sweet flesh

Bunya bunya

Auruacaria bidwillii

Large, starchy nut in massive (4-7kg) cones

Wild lime

Citrus glauca

Small, highly fragrant lime - unusual tart taste

Native pepper

Tasmannia spp

Leave or seed ground to produce highly flavoured pepper

Finger lime

Citrus australasica

Finger or sausage shaped lime - can be green, black, pink, red or even crimson - soft lime taste

Native tamarind

Diploglottis spp

Very tart fruit around a large seed - cordials, jellys, sauces

Muntari

Kunzea pomifera

Delectable berry - can be eaten fresh or dried