Camp tucker nights in the Top End

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

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, black­o­, 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 (out­back­ 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. ay­er­srock­re­­rufeast­i­val

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.

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