Camp tucker nights in the Top End
WITH WIDE SPARKLING EYES gazing from under his Akubra, Geoff Mark (better known as Marksie) avidly recounts a story as though it’s the first time he’s told anyone. “My grandfather, Bill, was a professional rabbit trapper in Rainbow, Victoria, and my father, Brian, was also a keen bushman,” he says as dusk falls behind him. “As a young boy, I earnt pocket money from trapping rabbits, dressing them out and selling them to my neighbours.” A vast, clear sky dotted with countless stars is spread above us, and the warm glow of several campfires flicker in the fading light; it’s an infinitely peaceful night. We’re seated at a long trestle table with three other couples; another table seats two families. Bonnie (one of four adorable rescued wallabies with a penchant for bush tucker) also competes for our attention as she potters around our table, but we’re engrossed in Marksie’s story about how he came to host camp tucker nights up here in Katherine. Despite some initial reservations, we quickly learn this is not just a well-executed Australiana spectacle for tourists; Marksie has a genuine passion for using native herbs, spices and fruits in cooking, and his journey from rabbit-trapping youngster to a man adept at working with bush foods is a long and interesting one (and one he is remarkable at telling). His interest in bush ingredients began when he was a young boy surrounded by ‘bush men’, but he says he didn’t have the knowledge to use them properly until a visit to the Northern Territory in the 1970s, when he was in his twenties. “I got the chance to meet some Aboriginal people, one woman in particular who helped me.” [She has passed away so her name cannot be mentioned for cultural reasons.] Seemingly the secrets of bush food cannot be passed on to just anyone – Indigenous people are, after all, the custodians of bush food and of the knowledge associated with its use – so it took several trips over seven years before she agreed to help him. With elder Indigenous women the experts in this field, Marksie tells us, “I was white and a male. But after returning to Darwin year after year, she eventually let me spend 10 days out bush with her – this changed everything for me.” Years later in 2001, after meeting Katie Young – an Aboriginal woman who has an associate doctorate in tropical horticulture – Marksie moved to Katherine and set up the Stockman’s Camp Tucker experience, during which Katie would conduct bush food demonstrations for his guests. She has since moved to Alice Springs, but 16 years on, Marksie continues these cook-ups along with his wife, Penny, a local midwife and part-time bush tucker assistant. Penny serves our entrée, which consists of three canapé-style dishes: crocodile and beef sausage roll with
These Australian flavours are ironically more exotic to us than, say, the dragonfruit, guava, or chipotle.
bush tomato seasoning and desert quandong sauce; wild barramundi with lemon myrtle and rainforest spice; and camel sausage with mountain pepper and sweet chilli sauce. Jugs of ‘Jungle Juice’, a homemade drink of native mint and forestberry herbs, accompanies the food. I’ve tasted crocodile before (the sausage roll is delicious), but I hesitate with the camel sausage. After some positive feedback from my fellow diners, I take a bite, hoping it ‘tastes like chicken’ as all foreign meats do. It doesn’t. Setting it aside, I appreciate the fruits, herbs and spices used in these dishes – desert quandong, also known as desert peach, a sweet fruit that is tart and high in Vitamin C; lemon myrtle, found on the east coast, similar to zesty lemon verbena; and the aromatic mountain pepper, made from dried berries found in Tasmania and south-east Australia. These uniquely Australian flavours are ironically more exotic to most of us than, say, the south-east Asian dragonfruit, the Central American guava, or the Mexican chipotle. And it is this unfamiliarity with native food that sparked Marksie’s desire to teach other Australians how it can be used in everyday cooking – and to showcase a beautiful “marriage of white and Indigenous Australian culture” to his many overseas guests. With a menu that changes to suit what’s in season, around 14 different types of herbs, spices, and fruits are used on any given night – many of which are collected by Marksie himself when he goes bush with local Indigenous ladies who he calls his close friends. But it’s not just the foraging that’s finicky work. To prepare for every camp tucker dinner, Marksie lights the first fire around 5am and by the time the last guest leaves and clean-up is complete, it’s almost midnight. (I suddenly appreciate my camel sausage a great deal more.) There were around 120 people running similar experiences when he began, but now there are very few: “It is sad to say that many of the old-timers that used to do what I do are no longer with us. It’s a very timeconsuming and slow business, so not many people want to take it on,” he says. Yet the growing appreciation for native flavours, their beauty and versatility, has taken bush foods in a whole new direction, and they are appearing increasingly in top-notch restaurants across the country. Hatted establishments such as Sydney’s Billy Kwong and Melbourne’s Vue de Monde, and Adelaide’s Orana have embraced native ingredients on their menus, with respective dishes such as redbraised caramelised wallaby tail; Davidson plum sorbet with sorrel and flowers; and riberry, native juniper, muntrie and mango. Our main course for the evening is a little more humble, comprising roast beef with native pepper berry; roast potatoes with aniseed myrtle (which has a subtle liquorice flavour); and peas with native mint (originally used by Indigenous Australians for medicinal purposes). A delicious hot-from-thecamp-oven damper with roasted wattle seeds is served on the side with creamy butter, and we finish the evening with homemade scones, fresh jam and cream, while watching two of the younger diners go head-to-head in a billy spinning competition. Sure, it’s a far cry from the award-winning fare served under city lights, but the hearty and homely dishes we’ve tasted tonight perfectly complement this very Australian setting under the outback stars. And more importantly, what’s a campfire without a colourful story or two? Marksie’s outstanding ability to tell a good yarn in between courses, if a little irreverent and exaggerated at times, has us utterly entertained. Indeed, this is a stockman’s dinner after all, where in place of a chef ’s hat is a top-notch Akubra.
AND WHILE you’re in the NT, why not see how NATIVE CUISINE is prepared by a master? QUENTIN LONG meets MARK OLIVE.
Mark Olive, aka the Black Olive (pictured right, blackolive.net.au), is a fierce advocate of Australian cuisine. Yes Australian cuisine, not fusion-Asianmodern-Australian, but the truly unique food comprised of the flavours from our equally unique flora and fauna. “We have a cuisine in this country and we just don’t utilise it. We have embraced every other food in the world but our own, the one we have right here,” he says as he explains the various herbs spices, ants and other produce spread out on a table in a conference hall at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort. “We are lucky in this country. We have these flavours that you just don’t get anywhere else in the world.” He is here for the launch of the Uluru Feastival – a quarterly foodie event that celebrates the native foods of Australia. It is part of the ongoing renaissance of the Rock and forms the signature event of the Bush Tucker Journeys program. For 30 years Mark has passionately tried to change the perception of our Indigenous produce and ingredients by educating kids, for instance. And he has some startling examples of our remarkable apathy towards native ingredients. “We ship two tonnes of kangaroo to Europe every month yet we can’t sell that amount here in Australia.” The barriers to this Indigenous food being used in more kitchens are more mental than anything else. “You don’t walk into a butcher’s shop and ask for a kilo of cow or sheep, we disassociate the food from the animal. The problem is how we look at it; yes Skippy is cute but tastes so good. What’s wrong with that?” For Mark, the first steps are simple ones: stocking the pantry. “We all have Chinese five spice in the cupboard, and a curry. Why not add some lemon myrtle? Sprinkle some lemon myrtle on watermelon or pineapple and the kids will love it. Add some wattleseed for that smoky coffee flavour to stews, biscuits – it’s great in Anzac biscuits particularly.” But if you are unfamiliar with the ingredients, how do you make sure you are finding good produce? “Be careful, look for what is being added. If there are things like pepper, salt, almond meal, it’s probably not the authentic thing. I source everything I can from Outback Pride (outbackpride.com.au) who I know stock the quality produce and ingredients.” Uluru Feastival is a two-day celebration of native ingredients on 18-19 August, 3-4 November and 9-10 March, including a foraging walk , a masterclass with Mark and dinner under the stars. Packages are from $705, including three nights’ accommodation. ayersrockresort.com.au/ulurufeastival
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Dinner is made using native ingredients; A camp oven; Cooking with a billycan; Take a cruise down the Katherine River. OPPOSITE: Still waters in nearby Nitmiluk Gorge; Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp Tucker Night takes place near Katherine.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Team your camp tucker experience with a cruise of Nitmiluk Gorge; Make friends with a rescued wallaby at Marksie’s; Marskie spends all day preparing for his Stockman’s Camp.
A platter of native ingredients including (clockwise from top left) rosella, finger limes, pigface, mountain pepper spice; lemon myrtle, rainforest spice and roast wattleseed.