In January next year Noma will open in Sydney for ten weeks. For that time it will likely be the only restaurant in Sydney entirely inspired by Australia’s native ingredients, landscape and climate. When he was here in 2010, Noma’s visionary chef Rene Redzepi said this: "I think this is the essence of great cuisine. I think that in any city they should have all the ethnic and multicultural cuisines, but I think that it's a poor culture if it doesn't have its own true, unique expression that can only be represented right there at the place."
He was making a comparison between the restaurant food he’d eaten in Sydney and Melbourne and the indigenous feast he'd had in the Flinders Ranges. Redzepi was surprised that, given the incredible variety of native produce we have, no one outside of indigenous communities (and a tiny pocket of restaurants) were using them.
A lot has changed since then. "After listening to Rene Redzepi's keynote address at the Sydney Opera House, I was completely inspired and left that night on a mission to track down Australian native produce which I could weave into my Cantonese cooking," says Kylie Kwong, owner and head-chef at Billy Kwong — the only restaurant in the world making traditional Cantonese food with Australian ingredients. At the moment, their latest menu includes wallaby cakes with Kakadu plum, crispy saltbush parcels and stir-fried spanner crab with a trio of native greens.
Elsewhere, Adelaide's Orana has a dish of emu, plum pine and mountain pepper, while at Attica in Melbourne you'll find salted red kangaroo with pepperberries and bunya bunya, a starchy Queensland nut roughly comparable to a chestnut. With the exception of the above restaurants and a handful of others though, the use of native ingredients is rarely more than an occasional flourish — a few wattle seeds here and there, a lemon myrtle infusion or maybe a sight of warrigal greens. Finding a native vegetable, fruit or meat is an extreme rarity. You get the impression that Australia's portfolio of native ingredients is simply a short list of easily substitutable herbs and greens.
REVOLUTIONISING OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH NATIVE FOODS
John Newton's been researching native ingredients for his book The Oldest Foods on Earth. The history of native Australian food, with recipes. Australia has around 6000 unique edible plants and, in South East Queensland alone, there are more than 1500 different fruiting trees, he says. "We have the most fantastic native game birds. I've tasted the magpie goose — I love duck, and it's ten times better than duck. There's the bustard, there's scrub turkey, which tastes like pheasant. Beautiful."
Even if only a tenth of our native ingredients tasted any good, it would be more than enough to completely revolutionise a green grocer’s shelves or an entire restaurant menu. But that particular revolution will have to wait, as there's not nearly enough farms or even knowledge of how to farm the vast majority of those ingredients. A lot of that information was lost after Europeans first arrived and started terraforming Australia for the production of beef, wheat and wool.
FARMING NATIVE FOODS
Picture this: you're an enterprising land owner who wants to start a farm. Given the resources and knowledge out there, you're more likely to start growing blueberries, cabbage or some common vegetable, rather than spend several years fiddling with native ingredients that have little to no backlog of info on how to actually cultivate or propagate them. Well, this has been the life of Mike and Gayle Quarmby. The owners of native food farming and distribution initiative Outback Pride have dedicated the best part of two decades to figuring out how to grow various native ingredients on a commercial scale. "We've done an enormous amount of research, development and horticultural work to actually domesticate these native food plants to get them to perform in a sustainable way," says Mike Quarmby.
When they started, the majority of native produce farming consisted of simple wild harvesting, now their business is the biggest general supplier in the native food industry. Their clients include some of Australia's most innovative restaurants, chefs and grocers — and in January they'll be supplying almost their entire range of 65 ingredients to Noma Australia.
Scallops with beach succulents at Orana.
SO, WHY THE STIGMA?
It’s been a tough slog for the Quarmbys to get here. Aside from their trials in horticultural adventure, Quarmby says the duo has had to battle against an entrenched negativity against indigenous produce. "Australians have an inferiority complex about everything and anything related to food. ‘If it comes from overseas it must be good’. That has had a major effect,” he says.
When we talked to John Newton about this, he mentioned the experience of three of Australia's early native produce pioneers: Jean-Paul Bruneteau and his restaurant Rowntrees, and Jennice and Raymond Kersh with Edna's Table. Interestingly, this first wave of restaurateurs made a big noise about using Australian native ingredients. Newton, who was working as a food critic in the '80s when the restaurants were operating, says the restauranteurs regularly faced criticism from customers solely due to the fact that they sold indigenous ingredients. "I don't know why. You could explore that in terms of racism all that you like," he says.
But Newton says the worst thing to happen to the industry was a TV show called Bush Tucker Man. "Every time he puts something in his mouth he screws up. He hated it." Quarmby gave a similar review: "All due respects to Les Hidden, but he gave the impression that you only ate bush tucker if you were starving, and it tasted like shit."
Quarmby says Redzepi has proven so influential because, as a Dane, he didn't come to Australia attached to any cultural prejudice or inferiority complex around Australian ingredients and the idea of a national cuisine. And now, despite a rough past, both Quarmby and his competitors in the native food industry are witnessing rapid growth. "We can't believe the number of new restaurants — we have nine exclusive distributors around Australia and our phone is running hot. They're saying things like 'this is the easiest thing we've sold all our lives'."
WHERE TO EAT NATIVE INGREDIENTS
Orana 1/285 Rundle Street, Adelaide, South Australia