Matt champions native foods

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the commercial potential for Australian bushfoods began to be explored. And yet for thousands of years indigenous people had been harvesting native flora and fauna, selecting what was available, eating it for nutritional purposes. Generation after generation passed down local knowledge of which plants were edible and palatable, which times were best to harvest. Sydney’s Botanic Gardens Aboriginal Education Officer Clarence Slockee describes them as ‘the original slow foodies and the ultimate environmentalists… Food was harvested according to traditional laws with communal sharing and and an emphasis on what we now know as sustainability.’

Lillipilli, bush tomatoes, kangaroo apple, molucca raspberry – many of these foods
have never been heard of, let alone tasted, by today’s Australians. A horticulturist called Peter Hardwick began to investigate, in the late 1970s, subtropical native plants like riberries and lemon myrtle which might be suitable for commercial cropping; several years later the University of Sydney’s Human Nutrition Unit conducted analyses of bushfoods from the perspective of Aboriginal health. Vic Cherikoff was a member of the team and it was he who started up a wholesale distribution company marketing Australian ingredients – ultimately playing a vital role in their promulgation throughout the restaurant and food processing industries. By the mid 1980s, Australian-themed restaurants were opening up, such as Rowntrees in Balmain, co-run by Frenchman Jean-Paul Bruneteau who had finally caved in to the purveyors of bushfoods who had been actively pursuing him. Up until the 1990’s only one bushfood, the macadamia nut, had however been farmed commercially; today a variety of them are being exported all around the world (earning, according to CSIRO figures, approximately $14 million a year).

And yet many of these bushfoods have not – nor will they ever – become mainstream, despite the best efforts of people like Les Hiddens the Bush Tucker Man, Bruneteau
and Cherikoff, Raymond and Jennice Kersh of Sydney’s (sadly defunct) Edna’s Table. One chef who is championing their use and whose passion for them informs much of his cooking and recipe-creation is Brisbane-based Matt Clark.

Tasmanian-born, Matt relocated from West Australia late last year, though not before having his own cookbook, ‘The Produce Chef’, published. He tells me that his interest in native foods came about when he was working for the Hilton in Cairns. Given the opportunity there to experiment with a lot of different ingredients, he ‘took this experience to Perth where these foods were not being used often, and it took off really well. I ran a couple of restaurants and created a lot of different dishes with a Native Australian touch.’

With a strong background in French and Italian cuisines he devised his own style of food, incorporating bushfoods, many of the recipes ending up in his book. He doubts, however, that bushfoods will ever become truly mainstream, while allowing that ‘they will eventually become more popular… We are starting to see them more often on restaurant menus… There are some amazing flavours out there that compare to nothing else in the world and they are sitting in our own backyard. The more interest that is created the more readily available they will become.’

Local people such as Scott Foster of Australian Bush Spices and Mick and Thelma at Lismore’s Gunnawannabe cafe are doing their bit to facilitate our experience of bushfoods; Bay Seafoods keep fresh finger limes in one of their big refrigerators; you can buy the coat of arms from Wholly Smoked Butchery, not to mention rather pricey crocodile steaks pressed neatly under clingfilm. And yet the tip of the bushfoods iceberg has been barely tested; hopefully, in this regard, we have much to look forward to.

Matt Clark’s The Produce Chef is published by New Holland, and his website is www.

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