Shore way to feast on the wild frontier
ALMOST every weekend, weather permitting, I wander Sydney’s eastern shores between Bondi and Maroubra, scavenging for wild food among the rocks. I can’t reveal my exact spots, although some areas around Bondi, Clovelly, Coogee and Lurline Bay are particularly productive, both in and out of the water.
It’s a therapeutic ritual, especially after a busy week, which usually yields a couple of plastic bags brimming with a few kilos of purslane (pig’s foot), watercress, dandelion, warrigal greens, nasturtiums, rocket, dandelion and rock samphire, all rich in vitamins and minerals.
Back in the kitchen, the vegetables have to be thoroughly washed before being promptly turned into satisfying soups, salads and stews.
Soup is made with the watercress, a few potatoes and stock, and a French bistro-style salade tiede (warm salad) created with the dandelion leaves, nasturtiums, rocket, pan-fried diced pancetta and croutons drizzled with an unctuous mustard vinaigrette.
The warrigal greens (also known as New Zealand spinach) need to be blanched to rid them of their oxalate compounds before sauteeing in olive oil with a little onion, homemade sugo (tomato sauce), pot herbs and sea salt collected on my travels in the Aegean.
I’m still working out how to raise some hens in my tiny back yard so I can have freshly laid eggs for my purslane omelet, and the next time coffee prices surge I’m going to try boiling some dandelion roots to create my own ersatz coffee essence.
I first discovered rock samphire (kritamo) growing on some coastal cliffs in Evvia, the second-largest Greek island, two hours northeast of Athens, where I held an annual cooking school in the late 1990s.
During the week-long course, which attracted Australians and Brits alike, we joined in the rituals of collecting horta — wild greens such as black nightshade, mallow, hop shoots, fat hen, mustard and sorrel — for filling savoury pies and boiling with lashings of olive oil and lemon juice. We picked kritamo for pickling in vinegar, using the aniseedflavoured seeds and yellow flowerheads in potato and caper salads.
We fished for octopus among the rocks and laid nets every night, collecting our often meagre catch at dawn. Then we would toss the skorpios (scorpion fish), hiloutsa (wrasse) and skaros (parrotfish) into a blackened pot over a driftwood fire on the beach to create an impromptu kakavia, the classic Greek fisherman’s soup made with sea water, potatoes, onions, olive oil and lemon juice.
Once I’m in the water in Sydney, there’s nothing to stop my speargun except the catch limits. There are cuttlefish to be stewed with warrigal greens and slivers of garlic, sea urchin roes to add to pasta dishes, and the odd abalone, luderick, black reef leatherjacket and kingfish waiting to be caught.
There’s nothing better than freshly caught sashimi kingfish or a leatherjacket pan-fried with some thinly sliced onions, rosemary and homemade vinegar in the classic ensaor style of Venice.
And if you can’t be bothered spearfishing, there are limpets galore on every rock waiting to be prised off with a sharp knife. Just bring a lemon to squeeze over them if you eat them raw and take the larger ones home to grill on a barbecue with garlic, as they do in the Azores, where they’re called lapas, or try them the way the Hawaiians cook their famous black foot limpet, opihi, pounded like an abalone then rolled in egg and flour and fried.
In fact, there seem to be so many here that I’m thinking of exporting them to Hawaii, where they’re such a popular pupus , or appetiser, that stocks are endangered.
Of course, Mediterranean peasants have been foraging for centuries. Last year I saw an old man by the road in Burgundy picking wild ramps (young garlic shoots) to turn into a heady soup, and islanders in Alicudi — the smallest and most remote of the Aeolian islands off Sicily — rushing out to pick the funghi that suddenly sprout all over the steep volcanic cliffs after the first winter rains, for pickling, sott’oliostyle, with olive oil, bay leaves and dried chillies.
If that’s not enough inspiration to encourage a spot of foraging, consider the celebrity chefs who are fascinated by the subject.
Septuagenarian Italian cooking maestro Antonio Carluccio started it all in 1989 when he published A PassionforMushrooms (Pavilion Books). He now makes a decent living out of teaching the world all about mushrooms, and is often summoned to Balmoral by his mate Prince Charles to go funghi foraging with HRH’s weekend house guests.
You can also blame British journalist Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall, who abandoned London’s bright city lights for a tumbledown farmhouse in Devon in the late 1990s. The cult of his River Cottage television shows has become hard to resist. And he has been joined by Tommi Miers and Guy Grieve (in the new British TV series TheWildGourmets ), scouring the British Isles for edible delights.
There is no need to succumb to supermarket ennui; get the penknives out and start foraging on your next Bondi to Bronte walk. Andy Harris is editor-at-large of AustralianGourmetTraveller and GourmetTravellerWine magazines.
Three indispensable books for earnest foragers are: WildFood by Roger Phillips (Pan Books); WildFood inAustralia by A. B. & J. W. Cribb (Fontana) and WildFoodPlantsof Australia by Tim Low (HarperCollins).