PRO­DUCE

An un­ex­pected gift from a cur­ra­wong finds a happy and grate­ful re­cip­i­ent, writes

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Oct - PAULETTE WHIT­NEY.

Paulette Whit­ney on the joys of cur­ra­wongs.

Areal pho­tog­ra­pher would be hor­ri­fied, and hy­giene freaks would have apoplex­ies. In fact I sus­pect most nor­mal peo­ple would be quite dis­gusted, but who wants to be nor­mal when there is fun food to grow?

I’d been walk­ing in­no­cently up a hill one au­tumn, pho­tograph­ing plants and oc­ca­sion­ally pluck­ing a wild snow­berry or cheese­berry (spoiler alert: they don’t taste like cheese; they ap­par­ently looked like a wheel of Edam to the starv­ing botanist who named them) when I found my­self in a stand of na­tive pep­per plants. They’re lush things, but ap­par­ently so low on the evo­lu­tion­ary tree that they can’t with­stand pro­longed drought or in­tense heat, so they linger in the wild only where it’s cool and damp. The odd tourist has been tricked into nib­bling on the “Tas­ma­nian su­gar bush” only to have their head blown off by the un­ex­pected heat of the leaves.

That heat mel­lows with cook­ing – we love to slow-roast a joint of mut­ton on a lit­tle nest of pep­per branches and make a warm­ing gravy with the juices – but the real prize is the ber­ries. Fruity, flo­ral and herba­ceous all at once with a quick, minty heat, they give your cook­ing a pretty pink tint. One na­tive pep­per plant only bears male flow­ers – the fe­male flow­ers and ber­ries are borne on a sep­a­rate plant. The se­ri­ous prop­a­ga­tor — chas­ing a good yield of fruit in a min­i­mum amount of time and a per­fect ra­tio of fe­male to male plants for good pol­li­na­tion — would grow from cut­tings, lit­er­ally choos­ing the sex of their ba­bies. Sure, they take a few years to grow and be­come pro­duc­tive, but you’d be se­cure in the knowl­edge of a sound in­vest­ment in plants with the de­sired traits.

But bug­ger that.

I’m perched on a rock eat­ing a sand­wich and lis­ten­ing to the cur­ra­wongs when I no­tice one of them has de­posited a lit­tle gift on a stump be­side me. I know that not ev­ery­one sees bird vomit as a gift, but please bear with me.

Ber­ries are Mother Na­ture’s parcel­post sys­tem. Plants have their ro­man­tic way with one an­other, spread­ing pollen via in­sect, wind or bird, as is their wont. But plants also don’t want the kids hang­ing around spong­ing off them, so they pack their ba­bies up in de­li­cious, fruity pack­ages and wait for some­body to eat that fruit, wan­der or fly about while they di­gest, then ex­crete, or in the case of my cur­ra­wong mates, vomit the seeds in a new lo­ca­tion. Af­ter I’d fin­ished eat­ing I scooped up a few of those cur­ra­wong re­gur­gi­ta­tions, wrapped them in my sand­wich pa­per and stuffed them into my cam­era case, as valu­able as any lens or fil­ter, to carry down the hill to home.

Back in the gar­den I spread the pel­lets of spewed seed onto trays of com­post, buried them with an­other layer of com­post and left them out in the el­e­ments.

Seeds, be­ing smart, have meth­ods to de­lay ger­mi­na­tion un­til favourable con­di­tions ar­rive. These pep­per seeds, adapted to sting­ingly cold win­ters, wait un­til they have with­stood a pe­riod of cold, and, when they think the worst has passed, they thrust their tiny seed leaves to the light. The fol­low­ing spring I picked each plant from their tray of com­post, giv­ing each their own pot to grow in and two years later they were ready to plant out.

As luck had it, two of my best mates, fel­low cooks and plant nerds, were get­ting mar­ried that sum­mer near the hill where I’d gath­ered the re­gur­gi­tated seed. I wrapped lit­tle male and fe­male pep­per plants as a wed­ding gift, to be tucked into the gar­den of their fam­ily home. It seemed a per­fectly ro­man­tic ges­ture, as long as I was cir­cum­spect about its ex­act ori­gins, and I hope, some­day soon to be in­vited over for a joint of lamb roasted on a bed of leaves grown from that long-ago cur­ra­wong’s gift.

I know that not ev­ery­one sees bird vomit as a gift, but please bear with me.

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