GO WILD DIET

Kakadu’s food fes­ti­val will be a feast of beast and the bush

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION NORTHERN TERRITORY - RE­NATA GORTAN THE WRITER TRAV­ELLED AS A GUEST OF TOURISM NT, KAKADU TOURISM AND PARKS AUS­TRALIA

Crocodile tail cooked in an un­der­ground oven, crocodile dumplings, pick­led crocodile – Aus­tralia’s most fear­some car­ni­vore is firmly on the menu when vis­it­ing Kakadu.

But our first taste of one of the wildest re­gions of the land is a lit­tle more se­date. Pulling in at a truck stop just out­side Kakadu, Dar­win-based in­dige­nous chef Zach Green in­tro­duces us to an­other lo­cal del­i­cacy, Pauls Iced Cof­fee. The bev­er­age is so beloved by Ter­ri­to­ri­ans that it made the NT News when there was a short­age ear­lier this year. When it’s 33C and 85 per cent hu­mid­ity, the cold caf­feine kick goes down a lot eas­ier than a flat white.

The rest of our diet – as part of a trip ahead of A Taste of Kakadu food fes­ti­val in May – is much wilder. Kakadu Kitchen, a break­out suc­cess of last year’s in­au­gu­ral fes­ti­val, will be back this year. It’s run by Kylie-Lee Brad­ford, 36, and Ben Tyler, 37, skin cousins who grew up in Kakadu and whose mothers are tra­di­tional own­ers of the land.

“Kakadu Kitchen is a taste of cul­ture and food,” Ben says. “It comes out of the bush, hunt­ing and fish­ing. It’s fam­i­lies go­ing out to­gether and get­ting the bush tucker and cook­ing to­gether ... there’s lots of work by every­one that goes into it.”

On the menu will be cul­tural walks, a visit to the out­sta­tion’s com­mu­nity gar­den, damper with black­cur­rant jam and billy tea, buf­falo stew, a tra­di­tional cook-up of wal­laby and bar­ra­mundi as well as crocodile tail cooked in a ground oven. If you’re lucky, dessert will be a bowl of vanilla ice cream with black­cur­rant sauce and green ants, which gives you a mouth­ful of cold, creamy, sweet, sour and crunchy in the one bite.

“It’s like wizz fizz,” ac­cord­ing to Zach, re­fer­ring to the green ants.

He didn’t lead us astray on the iced cof­fee, so when he plucked the ants from their nest in a wat­tle tree ear­lier, we fol­lowed his lead. Be care­ful to grab the head so it doesn’t nip your lip and bite off the bum which tastes sharp and sour, like green grapes. Luck­ily, Kylie freezes hers be­fore adding them to the ice cream, mak­ing it less of a strug­gle.

Ben gives us a tour of War­rad­jan Cul­tural Cen­tre, ex­plain­ing how Abo­rig­ines live off the land. While western cul­ture has four sea­sons, in­dige­nous Aus­tralians recog­nise six and use them as a guide for when to hunt and where, what bush foods to col­lect, when the an­i­mals are nest­ing, when the wa­ter is com­ing and when it’s time to burn the land to en­cour­age

new growth. “It’s tak­ing what you need and com­ing back a year later to see it mul­ti­ply,” Zach says.

When the flow­ers on the bank bloom, they know it’s time to har­vest crocodile eggs; when the mag­pie geese have be­come fat from eat­ing wa­ter ch­est­nuts in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber only then are they hunted; while the top of the spear grass in­di­cates when geese are lay­ing eggs.

“The flood plains are a pow­er­house of food,” Ben says. “Fam­i­lies have come here for goose and pig-nosed tur­tles for over 65,000 years.”

The knowl­edge that has been passed down is in­cred­i­ble. The cheeky yam must be boiled, sliced and left in a bag in a run­ning stream for 24 hours to leach the tox­ins be­fore it is safe to eat. Ben says it tastes like a sweet potato and last year he made a hum­mus out of it with gar­lic and served it with damper at Taste of Kakadu. On the other hand, the river yam is safe to eat straight away; just pull it out of the creek shal­lows, cook it and you’re good to go.

He points out a grind­ing stone dat­ing back 20,000-30,000 years. “Abo­rig­ines were mak­ing bread be­fore the Egyp­tians,” he says. “The wa­ter lily seed, you can peel it and grind it to make a damper then wrap it in lily leaves or pa­per­bark and bury it un­der coals to cook.”

Sea­son­al­ity is a strong cul­tural con­cept. Even though most lo­cals vote mag­pie goose as their favourite, it’s out of sea­son so we can’t try it. But to give us a taste of coun­try, Ben and Zach cook up a black bream stuffed with na­tive lemon­grass and sweet red gun­durn berries. It’s wrapped in pa­per­bark, which gives it a smoky flavour, and tied with pan­danus leaves be­fore be­ing cooked over coals. Bar­ra­mundi, caught in Jim Jim Creek that morn­ing, are put straight onto coals and cov­ered in pa­per­bark leaves. It’s fresh, smoky, de­li­cious. Then there’s warm damper with a black­cur­rant jam that’s as thick and tacky as honey, which Ben makes from black­cur­rants he for­ages.

On a for­ag­ing tour, Mandy Muir and Patsy Raiclar point out green plums that grow just be­fore wet sea­son, black plums used for dyes and Kakadu plums which look like olives and con­tain more vi­ta­min C than or­anges. As well as host­ing for­ag­ing tours for A Taste of Kakadu, Mandy runs Bil­l­abong Sa­fari Camp. She plans to take tourists out bush for three days, camp­ing and for­ag­ing for a real taste of coun­try. The ex­pe­ri­ence will cul­mi­nate in a din­ner of crocodile tail cooked in an un­der­ground oven. I ask her how she’ll catch it, ex­pect­ing a story about a croc trap and some sharp spears. “Just shoot it,” she says.

We don’t get to see the croc tail in an un­der­ground oven but ranger Fred Hunter gets up at 4am to pre­pare lunch. A ground oven is tra­di­tion­ally used to cook whole kan­ga­roo or wal­laby, but he’s cook­ing the front shoul­der of a 700kg buf­falo. Buf­falo were in­tro­duced from Ti­mor in the 1820s and when the set­tle­ment was aban­doned in 1845, 50 were set free and have since mul­ti­plied. They’re con­sid­ered a de­li­cious pest – a whole buf­falo feeds about 1000 peo­ple and is usu­ally cooked for spe­cial events.

Fred starts the fire at 5am, burn­ing it to coals un­til 7am, then adding rocks cooked un­til white hot. He takes the rocks out, puts in meat and ve­g­ies , lays the rocks on top so air can cir­cu­late and seals it with five lay­ers of pa­per­bark so the meat is steam­ing be­fore cov­er­ing it with dirt. The re­sult is game meat as soft as a fil­let steak and yams the best I’ve eaten.

To those who say Aus­tralia doesn’t have a na­tional cui­sine, I say what a load of crock. It’s only been 65,000 years in the mak­ing.

WARM DAMPER WITH A BLACK­CUR­RANT JAM AS THICK AND TACKY AS HONEY ...

PIC­TURES: SUP­PLIED

Kakadu’s Twin Falls is spec­tac­u­lar, par­tic­u­larly from the air; the re­gion is a pow­er­house of tasty del­i­ca­cies.

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