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Category: Plants

John Wrench 

In Aboriginal practice, beverages were essentially simple, and water was often gained from the ingestion of fruits. Water was drunk directly from streams, lagoons or (sometimes secret) holes, or drained from vines or roots or from frogs. At the most, sweet drinks were prepared from nectar-laden inflorescence by soaking in water.

European settlers, on the other hand, maintained their traditional habits of preparing hot drinks, having the utensils to boil water, a custom not in Aboriginal culture, but adopted following assimilation.

Traditionally, hot drinks are made by infusion or decoction. Decoction is the process of boiling up a substance with water, as in the earliest tradition of making coffee, whereas infusion involves pouring boiling water on the material, as in making a pot of tea. 

Infusions

A tea infusion may be prepared from Asian tea (dried processed leaves of Camellia sinensis) or other dried or flesh leaves, flowers, etc., or a mixture of both.

Some native bush materials suitable for this process (with or without Asian tea) are listed below. Early settlers used various flavoursome and aromatic plant materials to bolster exhausted tea leaves (or totally replace them) in times of shortage, or just for fun.

The choice of native plant material to use for teas is quite wide but the most suitable/palatable are: 

Backhousia anisata, Anise Myrtle: Anise flavour 

B.citriodora, Lemon Myrtle: Lemon flavour (citral - as in Lemon grass)

B. myrtifolia: Cinnamon myrtle, Carrol: Sweetish cinnamon flavour

Cymbopogon refracta, Barbwire grass: Lemon/ginger flavour. Our native Lemon grass

Jasminium aemulum, J. racemosa, J. volubile, J. didymum, J. simplicifolium,

Native Jasmines: Jasmine perfume

Many other plants have been used with enjoyment. Try various species with and without Asian tea for your own experience. For instance - Riberries and other Syzygiums.

Decoctions.

Throughout the world, the substitutes for coffee are legion: these days, even the methods are numerous.

Strictly speaking, the word "coffee" applies to the roasted seeds of several species of Cofea (a genus of the family Rubiaceae) which are small trees native to North Africa, with attractive shining foliage and masses of sweetly-perfumed flowers.

When seeds or dried storage roots are roasted at 160-1800C, several important physical and chemical changes occur. The material becomes dry and brittle, facilitating pulverisation. At the same time, carbohydrates are caramelised causing darkening and flavour changes, and other oxidation processes occur (e.g., in the oils), contributing to the development of flavour. In the process, however, some volatile compounds are mobilised and lost, and progressive oxidation leads to rancidity and spoilage. For this reason, all such products ought to be stored in sealed packs and chilled or frozen, especially if already pulverised.

Very few native seeds have been used for decoction, although almost any would suffice. Kurrajong and wattle are the most common, with the wattle far and away the leader. 

Kurrajong Beverage. (Refer to Australian Bushfoods Magazine Nos. 3 and 5).

Well-roasted kurrajong seeds can be used alone or with wattleseed for a brew. The most economical strategy however, is to save the rejected seedcoat material after pulversing roasted kurrajong seeds and sifting the flour. Use it alone or with wattleseed. 

About Wattle Seed

Across Australia there are about 900 Acacias or wattles (Family Mimosaceae), 124 in Southeast Queensland. Of this 900, only about 30 were used as food by Aborigines. The seeds are impressively nutritious, containing, on average, carbohydrate 50%, protein 25%, fat 6%, as well as B group vitamins and minerals.

The roasted and ground wattleseed now sold through many outlets is prepared from about six species, including Acacia coriacea. A. cowleana. A. dictyophleha, A. holosericea, A. stenophylla and A. victoriae (which has the delightful vernacular name "gundabluey".)

Prepared wattleseed produces a delicious beverage in any of the ways used for coffee, except that only about half a teaspoonful is adequate for a small cup: at the price of about $60/kg that is just as well. There is a cost benefit, however, in the fact that the solids can be used as food and must never be wasted, but used in bread, scones, biscuits, pastry, cakes, sauces, dips and desserts (especially ice cream).

Note also that wattleseed does NOT contain any stimulant xanthine alkaloid such as the caffeine, theophylline and theobromine contained in coffee, tea and cocoa respectively.

If wattleseed is to be used directly as an ingredient, it helps to boil it briefly (or soak it) to permit swelling and softening before mixing.

Further Notes on Wattleseed (Acacia species)

The preceding notes on wattleseed refer to the dry, ripe seeds. The green pods can be used for food when the seeds are large but not hard, by lightly roasting to self-steam. When gently stroked out, they can be eaten like (and taste like) green peas. Beware of the bitterly astringent pod tissues!

In Northern Australia including Western Queensland, a common wattle is Acacia kempeana or Witjuti bush. In the roots it hosts the larvae of the giant wood moth, several species of Endoxyla. The name of the shrub has extended to the larva, often phonetically expressed as "Witchetty".

Kurrajong Seeds

Refer to the article in Australian Bushfood Magazine No. 5 by the author. 

Further notes on the Backhousia species (Family Myrtaceae).

Backhousia anisata  Anise myrtle

In ideal conditions over a long period, it grows to a large, spreading tree, but is mostly seen in cultivation as smaller and shrubby. It also differs from the other Backhousias in having longer leaves with wavy margins. All parts of the plant have a strong odour of anise.

The volatile oils in the plant are required by the bushfoods industry to contain high levels of transanethole, responsible for the sweet, aromatic flavour.

Like lemon myrtle, the anise myrtle can be used fresh or dried to flavour teas (with or without traditional tea leaves) and a comprehensive range of dishes. It is available in a powdered form as a condiment.

The plant is suitable for commercial and garden cultivation, responding to sun, ample moisture, good soil and drainage, plus mulching.

Backhousia citriodora  Lemon myrtle, Lemon Ironwood

Shrub or tree up to 15m.

Rainforest or rainforest fringe coastal Southeast Queensland.

Commercial cultivation. 

Leaves contain up to 3% volatile oil, which contains up to 96% citral, responsible for the very fine lemon odour and flavour.

The leaves can be used fresh or dried to flavour teas, (with or without traditional tea leaves) and a comprehensive range of dishes: soup, fish, game, meats, sauces, desserts, etc. The powdered dry leaves can be used readily like all powdered condiments.

It is one of the most widely used bush flavours. The plant is suitable for garden cultivation, requiring good, well-drained soil, sun, moisture and mulch.

Hackhousia myrtifolia  Carrol, Grey myrtle, Cinnamon myrtle

Shrub or tree up to 15m. in various types of rainforest in the eastern parts of Southeast Queensland. The leaves are often shorter, broader, and more pointed than the other Backhousias. Velvety in new growth. The flowers are characterised by hard, persistent sepals. The leaves and stems possess a gentle, fragrant smell and taste, resembling that of cinnamon.

Like the other two Backhousias described, this one lends itself to use with teas, with or without traditional tea leaves; but the application to various dishes is strictly restricted in consideration of the gentle cinnamon flavour.

In cultivation, this is an obliging plant, requiring only reasonable soil, sun, moisture with mulch and enough space to encourage bushiness.

Other Beverages

It is interesting to soak heads of nectar-rich blossoms in water in order to produce a sweet drink. The results are often disappointing, the liquid proving to have too little sugar and too many insects and bits of plant debris.

Some quite delectable fruit drinks can be made by boiling with sugar some of the well-known jam species and several others not widely known as useful fruits. Most of the Syzygium species (Lillypilly group) can be used for jams, desserts and fruit drinks, especially the most famous, the riberry (Syzygium luehmannii) which produces a brilliant red-coloured drink, with a sharp taste and aromatic flavour.

A quite new preparation, introduced by the author, is based on the ripe fruits of the Cooloon (Elaeocarpus grandis) and other species of Elaeocarpus. The shallow layer of greenish flesh under the bright blue skin and surrounding the large, rugose seed, contains sugar, acid, some interesting tannins, and some intriguing flavour principles.

If the fruits are boiled whole with sugar, a pale green syrup is produced, recalling granny smith apples and clove.

If the fruits are stripped of flesh (by fingers or grater, etc.) and the whole mixture is boiled with sugar, the resulting syrup is coloured reddish-brown, and the flavour recalls cooked guava as well.

John Wrench, 14 Ennerdale Street, Chermside West 4032