FINDING FOOD IN NATURE SHOULD COME NATURALLY, BUT IT HAS ONLY ENJOYED A VOGUE IN THE PAST DECADE – A WAVE PETER HARDWICK IS RIDING.
Peter Hardwick was very young when he discovered bushfoods. This was both a revelation for a fouryear-old, as he could eat things out of his garden, and a health hazard. “There used to be a nurse living across the road from us and I was down the back of her yard one day eying off the black nightshade,” Hardwick tells WISH. “I was looking at these berries and she knew what was going on and she started yelling at me ‘Don’t you eat those berries, Peter, they are poisonous!’ I remember thinking, how do grown-ups know what I was about to do? That was my first warning call.”
Hardwick is now a professional bushfoods forager working for restaurant Harvest Newrybar, gathering plants from the bush around his home in Byron Bay. He was hired by executive chef Bret Cameron in April last year to help provide new experimental ingredients for his menu. It is an appointment that could not come soon enough for Hardwick, who has dedicated a 40-year career to bushfoods – and now hires biochemists to do what the nextdoor neighbour did for him all those years ago.
The Queenslander studied horticulture after school to learn what he calls basic botany. He has since owned a nursery, spent decades conducting research, held talks and tours and worked to commercialise the field by identifying plants and renaming others (New Zealand spinach became warrigal greens, for example). “People have been interested but they were also pretty sceptical, especially in the early days,” he says. “I have also had to have day jobs to pay the bills.”
Hardwick credits the Copenhagen restaurant Noma (four times voted the world’s best restaurant) and chef René Redzepi’s techniques of foraging and only using local ingredients as the game changer for him and bushfoods. “What happened was, Australian chefs went over and studied under René and came back to Australia with those ideas so now I can get a job working with restaurants and working with chefs,” he says. “It is what I have been waiting to do for so long, basically since the 1980s.”
But where exactly does Hardwick forage? “We have some private properties that we can access and there are council parks and pockets of public land,” he says. “If there has been a level of neglect, that is actually ideal – you may find a patch of unsprayed weeds and you can forage those edible weeds. Back roads are also really good because there is no pollution. But first and foremost you have to see yourself as custodian of that plant. When you harvest, you harvest the tips of the plants. Especially with native plants, you have to be really aware of your impact.”
Once Hardwick discovers a plant, he researches its uses by indigenous people and settlers. He then sends it to a biochemist for the all clear. “Once we know it is safe, we start playing around with it, working with the chefs about how we put it on the menu,” he says. “One we recently started using is the coastal tea tree [Leptospermum laevigatum]. I made it into vinegar. When you see these ingredients go from total obscurity to being part of a dish and everyone loving it, it is a real joy.”
Peter Hardwick, left, and Bret Cameron, executive chef at Harvest Newrybar