In my last blog post I outlined the context of developing a native food industry for Australia
Here are the top 4 issues facing the native food industry in Australia – and of course potential solutions:
- Being introduced: Getting to know and appreciate native foods and flavours
A discerning customer base, hungry for native flavours is still not developed in Australia. Cultivating a taste and demand for native foods, that is more than just a curiosity or low key BBQ rub, is essential to reach national and global markets.
In tackling native foods we need to recognise that we already eat a wide range of native fish and seafood ( tuna, barramundi, lobsters and native oysters) and to a lesser extent game (kangaroo, emu and crocodile) and fowl (native duck, geese and pigeon). When we refer to native foods we are generally referring to plant based products.
But here in Australia we haven’t always been immune to the value of native foods.
Obviously indigenous communities have lived and thrived off a broad range of native foods. It is estimated by Philip Clarke, affiliate at the South Australian Museum, that of the 35,000 plant species in Australia, some 1,500 have been used widely as food, and many more for their medicinal qualities. And some estimates of the number of native food species are as high as 4,500.
A new project to produce a Native Food Database for Australia is about to be delivered and is a partnership between The Orana Foundation, University of Adelaide, State Herbarium of South Australia, South Australian Museum, and supported by the South Australian Government (Primary Industry and Regions SA). In addition, to collating known records of food usage, the project brings together information on the nutrient profile, culinary preparation and best horticultural practices for these products. The project aims to help make available information on our delicious native foods – and to help cultivate and grow a discerning local and global customer base.
During early European colonial and settler times there was also a much closer relationship with native foods. Hunting for food was a popular pastime during this era, and as described by Barbara Santich in her book Bold Palates (Wakefield press), some of the most prized foods were fowl, including the wonga pigeon, black duck and magpie goose, which might still make their way onto formal banquet menus today. But there was also a healthy incorporation of native food plants into cuisine, including muntries, quandong, native berries and currents to name a few. But slowly over time, and with an increasingly urbanised population, the relationship between modern Australian cuisine and native foods has waned.
A recent re-appreciation of native foods has been lead by chefs and restaurateurs.
This avenue is perhaps the best way of driving a new wave of native food support, as native flavours and textures can be combined by gastronomic experts to create delicious dishes that can be enjoyed, and stimulate interest and desire within a discerning public.
Restaurants such as Edna’s Table in Sydney and Red Okra in Adelaide were the quintessential high end bush tucker destinations. But a more recent serious reintroduction and reincorporation of native foods into Australian cuisine has arguably been lead by Rene Redzepi the chef and inspiration behind Noma. This two-Michelin star Danish restaurant has been voted best restaurant in the world multiple times and touts new Nordic cuisine which combines native regional ingredients and preparation methods into inventive and clean flavours. Redzepi opened a pop-up in Barangaroo, Sydney, incorporating Australian natives into high end dishes.
But Redzepi isn’t the only player in this new wave of native food appreciation. Multiple restaurants around Australia are now dabbling or mainstreaming native foods for their flavours and increasingly ‘hero of the dish’ focus.
Award winning chef, Jock Zonfrillo, who runs Orana restaurant (named by Gourmet Traveller as the top Australian restaurant), has taken up the native food mantle with gusto and his restaurant specialises in creating a delicious degustation from Australian native and local ingredients. Over the last decade, Jock has travelled around Australia learning about native foods and their preparation from indigenous communities. He brings this knowledge vividly to life through his cooking.
So for customers who have tasted and appreciate native foods, how do they start to use them at home and help grow the consumer base for these products.
- Getting familiar: Knowing what to do with them – use and preparation of native foods
Australia as a continent can be a pretty harsh place to live, with long droughts in many places. Plants growing in such environments need to take on a range of adaptations, including the ability to cope with drought conditions, poor soils and strategies to avoid being eaten by the local wildlife. These features can mean that many native plants are poisonous, or at best unpalatable, to humans.
To overcome these toxins or unpleasant flavours, many indigenous communities have developed sophisticated preparation methods, including washing for long periods or cooking in ash water, where the carbon binds up the toxins. In addition, a sophisticated knowledge of when and where to harvest the best native foods has been essential community knowledge passed down through generations.
Knowing what to do with and how to prepare native foods is an essential step to growing a discerning local and global consumer base.
Paul Baker, Head Chef at the Botanic Gardens Restaurant, Adelaide, knows a thing or two about using native ingredients in this cooking. Since 2015, this awarded chef of the year has been incorporating foraged produce from the Adelaide Botanic Gardens into his dishes, including many native foods such as warrigal greens and finger limes. Popular dishes in his restaurant include karkalla (a salty native succulent), meso butter, barilla bower spinach (endemic to Victoria) with barramundi, or samphire (similar to a salty asparagus) with quails eggs.
Paul has developed a food calendar, to highlight when ingredients can be harvested and used in his cooking. He has also developed a range of preparation techniques and recipes which combine these ingredients and flavours into delicious dishes. But for native foods to become mainstream these ideas and inspiration need to be available so that native foods can be experimented with in our kitchens. Paul has plans to publish this useful knowledge, and others such as Maggie Beer have published on cooking with native ingredients.
But for me one of the key barriers to using native foods is actually their names. Many plants have names which are difficult to fathom, and may either come from their traditional or botanic origins. In some cases it is difficult to understand even what they are, never mind what you can do with them. For example have you any idea what you are supposed to do with Geraldton Wax, pig face, youlk or quandong. The answers are grind it and use it as a sauce, cook as a thick spinach, boil and serve as a root vegetable, or eat as a fresh fruit or preserve as a jam. For some species the term ‘bush’ or ‘desert’ has been added to the name which give clues to usage – e.g. bush tomato or desert plum. For others a description of their appearance or region of origin combined with a familiar fruit of vegetable name are helpful, like Kakadu plum or finger limes. But at the end of the day broader usage and engagement with native foods and their increasing inclusion in Australian gastronomy is likely to see a broader understanding of the product, their tastes and potential.
Once we start to like and understand how to use native foods, where do we get them from?
- Going stead: Knowing where to get native foods and developing a sustainable supply base of natives
Even if there is consumer interest, developing a consistent, secure and safe supply base for native foods to meet current and future demand requires significant growth. Seasonality and low volumes are key issues to solve, along with transport and access to markets.
For me native foods need to be able to pass the ‘Uber Eats’ test – i.e. tonight I feel like … (market awareness) from … (supply chain provision).
Several suppliers have taken up the challenge and have been building over time.
Something Wild provides a range native game and fowl, along with a range of fruit and vegetables and has seen their turnover double every year for the last 3 years. As Daniel Motlop, Managing Director told me, they source 90% of their products from indigenous communities, most of it through government permitted wild harvest. The products of Something Wild featured recently on Master Chef, in a pop-up Something Wild Supermarket exhibiting the companies top products.
Buoyed by success, Something Wild has branched out into other product lines. Last year they released what has become a hugely successful collaboration with Adelaide Hills Distillery to produce Green Ant Gin. Something Wild are the only company in Australia that have a licence to wild-harvest green ants and this product retails for around $100 and is highly prized by gin connoisseurs. The product has also featured in the most recent series of the Bachelorette, aiming to broaden its appeal.
Another collaboration, this time with the Fleurieu Milk Company, has seen the creation of a Kakadu plum yogurt. This product has been helped by a recent cooperative agreement between around 80% of the indigenous Kakadu plum producers and harvesters in Australia. Brokered by the Indigenous Land Corporation, the agreement allows a price to be fixed and producers to combine together to service orders for the product, which allows highs and lows in supply and demand to be smoothed out.
With increasing interest in native foods, some food producers not usually associated with native foods are also taking the plunge and embracing natives. Burger Theory, a small but popular burger producer, now uses kangaroo in all its meat burgers (comprising approximately 90% of the meat content, with the other 10% made up of beef). Customers can hardly notice the difference and the low fat and high iron content of kangaroo helps achieve a relatively healthy profile for these burgers.
Outback Pride offers a similar model but the product range for vegetables is broader.
Developing a native food industry also provides an opportunity to support indigenous communities and an opportunity to return the benefit of the millennia of knowledge surrounding native foods back to these cultures.
Many of the players currently in the market are aboriginal owned or operated, and some, like Something Wild, aim to return a significant proportion of their sale price back to indigenous communities involved in wild harvest.
However, and here lies a fundamental issue for the industry, much of the native food produce is wild harvested at the moment, but as interest builds, some form of enrichment planting or plantation will be necessary to keep pace with future demand. That planting will need to be started now, if there isn’t to be a major supply failure in the near future and potential overharvest of natural populations.
This path to major commercialisation presents a potential problem for the native industry and its relationship with indigenous communities currently undertaking wild harvest. If the enrichment planting or plantations are established on traditional lands or within the native range of the species and the supply chain involves indigenous communities then the harvest can be considered to be undertaken in a culturally appropriate way. However if wide cale planting of the crops occurs outside of indigenous involvement then that link with aboriginal cultural values and beliefs is broken.
In the same way that halal or kosher food is prepared in a particular way honouring the cultural beliefs of the community that values this food, so indigenous harvest practises honour the food that is produced. Mass production outside of indigenous involvement will break this link but may be required to bring the product to a global audience at a competitive price.
Another consideration is that almost all successful global crops have been through a range of intensive breeding and selection cycles. To improve the crop potential of native plants, which have received only limited selection and breeding focus will require this focus and the research to be undertaken. Traits such as production (e.g. growth, fruit size), ease of harvest (e.g. harvest characteristics, not so spiny, larger fruit size) and taste and texture characteristics (reduced bitterness and fibre content) are essential characteristics to get right for crop plants.
As pointed out by Amanda Garner, cochair of the Australian Native Food and Botanical Limited, this development will require public and private investment and development. But there is an opportunity to develop a benefit sharing framework which returns revenue back to indigenous communities and native food research and development, from the profits made through new and improved varieties via plant breeders rights licensing agreements. Which would see value returned back to aboriginal communities for the wide-scale commercialisation of select Australian native plants.
- Announcing to the world: Growing a local, national international market
The promotion of native foods to national and international markets will be essential to growing the native food industry. Clearly customer awareness is needed along with stable supply chains, but Australian native foods will need to be able to compete in a global market against more established crops and sophisticated marketing campaigns. But with an increasingly adventurous and burgeoning global middle class, keen for the next quinoa, there are opportunities.
Indeed some Australian companies have started to penetrate global markets with native foods.
Macro Meats, the largest internationally seller of kangaroo and game meats overseas has well established markets in the US and Europe and Red Centre, specialising in a range of native food flavourings has had recent success in China.
Christine Pitt, CEO of the Food Futures Company and a Director of Rocket Seeder, thinks that the appeal of native foods internationally are likely to two fold.
The first will be by honouring the traditions, story and indigenous origin of native foods. Whilst not necessarily only from wild-harvest, Australian native food produce which have cultural integrity, like halal or kosher produce, have a unique globally selling point. These markets are likely to be in Europe and liberal US states.
The second market is likely to be a more mass market where large scale production will be required to produce products at volume and are produced for their health value. For example the high vitamin C and antioxidant qualities of Kakadu plum will sell well into such markets and largescale plantations of this product will be needed to meet the anticipated demand. This demand is likely to come strongest from Asian countries, particularly China.
However as identified for native food breeding, market development will require significant support from government and private funds, and access to start up funds particularly for small scale companies trying to make it in this space will be important.
Featured image from https://warndu.com/resource
This blog post is the second part of a longer version of a feature article in the Australian Financial Review
Info from recent HIA report into the market potential of natives (https://horticulture.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Hort_105325_Native-Foods-12pp_06-low-res-1.pdf) and ANFAB top native species list (https://anfab.org.au/main.asp?_=SPECIES)