We’ve all been told that good things come to those who wait, but nobody likes to do it. In a busy world in which everyone has important things to do, waiting is for losers. It’s for people with nothing better to do with their time. There’s a lot of waiting involved in growing food. Some things like leafy greens, turnips and lettuce offer a quick return on investment while apples, quinces and other fruiting trees might take several years to bear fruit. The time something has taken to grow is not something we as consumers need to ponder at the supermarket as we wait impatiently for the line to move a little faster.
A visit to Gil and Meredith Freeman’s property in south Gippsland last week left me with a different appreciation for the work of waiting and the time of food. The Freemans are busy people who don’t things by halves. They are arguably pioneers of food in Victoria, at the forefront of the significant achievements in sustainable agriculture and activism, from urban food production to farmers markets, long before it was chic to care. Twenty-five years ago, Gil helped established CERES, an urban farm and environmental education centre in Brunswick. In 1993, he and Meredith established Tarnuk Bush Foods and Flowers in the tiny community of Kardella and have been stalwarts of the native foods industry ever since. They were original stallholders in 1999 at Victoria’s first farmers' markets in Koonwarra selling produce from their fledging bush food business. The Freemans transformed a bare dairy paddock into a nine-acre permaculture ‘food forest’ with everything from bush foods and native flowers to artichokes and tamarillos, and now have one of the largest plantations of Mountain Peppery Berry (Tasmannia lanceolata) in Australia.
Their property is no ordinary farm. In a permaculture operation humans, animals and crops co-exist rather being separated into the regimented and rationalised units of production that can make industrial farming so inhospitable to human and animal life. (After all, who wants to live next to a factory chicken farm?) On the Freeman property, food is everywhere if you know what you are looking for. Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonoides), a low-growing plant that looks like spinach crossed with a succulent, creep alongside the pathways, under trees and between the herbs and vegetables. The leaves, blanched (to remove the oxalates) and chopped, are wonderful in an omelette with a little goat’s cheese. It’s so easy to grow that it’s surprising more of it isn’t found in home gardens and at farmer’s markets.
The drought has led many to plant more native trees and vegetation under the assumption they are hardier in dry conditions and more suitable to the Australian climate. This is largely true. But growing native foods is not as easy as the abundance of Warrigal greens makes it look. It takes more than scattering the seeds of a few edible plant species on the ground to create a forest of food, as Gil and Meredith have discovered over the years. Though bush foods have sustained Australia’s Indigenous peoples for millennia, they were never required to feed metropolises or satiate the appetites of an ever-hungry marketplace. As such, they have never been subjected to centuries of domestication and selective breeding for commercial production. Much of the cultural knowledge about them has been lost with the alienation of Indigenous people from their land, their food and each other; the clearing of land for broad-acre farming has meant that many edible native plants are becoming increasingly scarce.
Motivated less by a commercial imperative and more by their curiosity for the foods that sustained Australia’s first peoples before European arrival, the Freemans set out to explore forms of food production that would make use of, rather than destroy, bush foods in Victoria. Without a strongly established industry to draw on for support, every success on Meredith and Gil’s property was an experiment with many frustrations and mistakes along the way. Meredith points to the native raspberry bush that she once pruned as she normally would a European raspberry bush. They took five years to grow back, she tells me with remarkable good humour.
As we descend down the slope, there is a notable change in humidity. Gil and Meredith’s skill as producers is in creating different microclimates on their property that allow diverse species to thrive. It has been a long process, with the young mountain pepper, lemon myrtle and many other edible plants taking the better part of a decade to establish themselves properly as mature trees. On a cold winter’s day, it feels nothing like a subtropical rainforest but, with a little patience and much hard work and perseverance, the temperate and subtropical species alike have adjusted to the environment, in turn, creating their own microclimate that allows the Freemans to plant other native plants that enjoy similar conditions. It’s like a series of friendly relationships that have developed over time to create a productive community.
Gil and Meredith point out a riberry tree, also known as Small-leafed Lilly Pilly (Syzygium luehmannii) to gardeners. Between December and January, it produces a small red fruit with a cranberry tang and hint of clove that makes a tart, ruby-red jam. Only the day before, I had had riberry granita on an oyster at Charcoal Lane in Fitzroy, an icy palate cleanser between courses that lifted the oyster with its light sweetness. The head chef, Damien Styles, had accompanied me to Kardella to learn more about how the bush ingredients he uses in his restaurant are produced. Neither of us would see a fresh riberry that day. We were out of season. Besides, Meredith tells us without a hint of resentment, that that tree has not fruited once since she planted it as a seedling eight years ago. Next to it is another tree grown from a cutting given to her by a friend, which has fruited several times. Over the years, she’s learned that the seedlings (that is, plants grown from seed) grow taller and take longer to fruit, while those from cuttings seem to have a head start on fruiting and produce a lower, bushier tree. All the better for commercial cultivation, or at least for making a few pots of jam. The Davidson or Mullumbimby Plum (Davidsonia jerseyana), native to the subtropical rainforest regions of Australia, is less temperamental. Its fruit grows in abundant clusters along its trunk like a brussels sprout. As with many native fruits, it is not closely related to its European counterpart, the royal purple flesh too tart to eat raw. Cooked with equal parts sugar, it makes an amazing scarlet jam that tastes more like raspberries than plum.
The vital essences of bush foods are at their most intense in their raw state. Squishing up the leaves of the nutmeg myrtle, I was reminded of the spice and warmth of nutmeg but with a slight lemony sharpness. Maybe it was the crisp Gippsland wind and my lingering cold, but I immediately imagined it infused in a hot toddy. Aniseed Myrtle (Syzygium anisatum) is new to me, and a delight for lovers of Pernod. It’s used for teas and essential oils, but I’m convinced that an aniseed myrtle crème brulée is a much more worthy use.
The Freeman’s main commercial crops are lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora), strawberry gum (Eucalyptus olida) and mountain pepper leaf and its berry. The blue-black berries of mountain pepper deliver a fruity, rather than woody, pepperiness that builds in intensity and adds interest and complexity to meat dishes. It can be grown locally, and there is no reason it shouldn’t be in every pepper grinder in Australia. The leaves are similarly fruity and peppery, almost like a very fresh olive oil. Lemon myrtle, also used in teas, has an intense lemongrass character when fresh. I imagined it finely shredded in a fish sauce and chilli dressing served on a minced chicken salad, much like kaffir lime leaves might be used. The aptly-named strawberry gum, Mother Nature’s answer to Hubba Bubba, left me nostalgic for my days as a gum-popping brat. When chewed rather than sniffed, the eucalypt comes through more strongly, and the strawberry flavour is transformed into something strange but alluring, more grown up. Of course, none of these leaves should be eaten straight off the branch, but instead infused in warmed liquids to release the volatile oils that are the secret to their intensity. This makes them quite easy to use, either dried or fresh, in teas as well as cooking. The skill is ensuring the flavours don’t overpower the dish. Less is usually more.
Growing native foods requires one to work to the beat of a very different drum. Their seasons and cycles are as different as their flavours are unique. There is much more uncertainty than with mainstream crops, and even fewer places to find information. Though the Tarnuk Bush Foods now sustains a modest livelihood for the Freemans, it’s much more than a productive property and business. It is now a repository of knowledge about bush food cultivation that has come from years of waiting patiently for things to happen – for the young plants to take root and for trees to give fruit – without knowing how any of it would turn out. It’s a remarkable leap of faith. By bringing their intellect and patience to bear on the world, the Freemans have created a legacy in the form of a food forest. It leaves me grateful to the farmers who wait for my food to grow and serves as a reminder of just how much time goes into every mouthful.
Strawberry Gum Panna Cotta
This panna cotta recipe comes courtesy of Damien Styles at Charcoal Lane. For those new to bush foods, it’s virtually foolproof and a great way to experiment with strawberry gum leaves. When you are feeling confident, you can move into sabayons and other custard preparations with any number of bush food infusions.
1 vanilla pod (split)
5 leaves gelatine
100g caster sugar
10 strawberry gum leaves
Place milk, cream, vanilla, sugar and strawberry gum leaves into a pot. Bring to boil and switch off. Allow to infuse for 15 minutes, and then pass through a strainer to remove the leaves and vanilla pod.
Soften the gelatine in ice water and squeeze out any remaining water. Add to warm milk infusion to dissolve. Place entire mix in stainless steel bowl over ice, and stir until nearly at setting point. Pour into moulds, and allow to set completely. Serves 6.
Try your own hand at cooking with bush ingredients at an interactive ‘taste, touch and sniff’ workshop with Damien Styles from Charcoal Lane, a social enterprise restaurant providing Aboriginal and disengaged youth with meaningful work and hospitality training.
For more information on the masterclass, visit www.charcoallane.com.au
Kelly Donati is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in the School of Land and Environment where she is researching the liveliness and conviviality of food in farms and gardens.
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