It’s easy to be a locavore when you can shop at the Farmer’s Market. It’s considerably more difficult when you have to forage for food in the Australian Outback.
That’s what aborigines have been doing for the past 50,000 years in the enormous and forbidding central region of the country. The area was unknown to Europeans until the 19th century, and remains sparsely populated today. To gather raw materials for dinner, the locals had to compete with kangaroos, feral pigs and dingoes. They also had to arm themselves with the knowledge of which plants and roots were poisonous, and which were safe to consume.
Australian chefs have recently become fascinated with bush cuisine, and this style of cooking is becoming one of the fastest-growing trends in the country. Meat and fish are being seasoned with ground kurrajong flowers (30 species of the kurrajong bottletree grow wild in the Outback); wattle seeds from the Australian acacia, long used to make aboriginal bread, are now transformed into ice cream and used to season cappucchinos; buffalo steaks are smoked over cones from the banksia plant; desserts are crafted from quandong (wild peach) and lilly pilly berries.
Some of the country’s top chefs have become involved with ‘bush tucker”—the generic term for the wide range of native fruits, vegetables, flowers, mushrooms, herbs and spices. Athol Wark, owner of the Walkabout Consultancy and a leading player in the development of recipes from native ingredients, has been instrumental in creating the Bushfood Food Trail in the area surrounding Alice Springs. Bob Taylor, veteran of nearly three decades in kitchens Down Under, now gives tours that feature meals prepared from local raw materials. Rayleen Brown, owner of the catering company Kungkas Can Cook, has been supplying native bushfood dishes since 2000.
Many of these personalities come together in the annual Alice Desert Festival, which runs through October 10 (alicedesertfestival.com.au). Events include the Bushfoods Recipe Competition (a cookoff), and Alice On The Menu, a tour of restaurants in the Alice Springs area that serve native dishes. The Festival culminates in the Bushfoods Gala Dinner held in Alice Springs Desert Park. Alice Springs itself is the third largest city in the Northern Territory, accessible by air or train.
It’s a long way to go, but where else can you enjoy dukkah crusted filet of beef tagliata, or seared lemon myrtle scallop and prawns served on native mint pea puree with raspberry vinegar syrup?
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, which will be published in November by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to www.iconicspirits.net.