Thanks to the star power of chef Rene Redzepi and the Noma Aus­tralia pop-up, our in­dige­nous foods have never been so fash­ion­able. And it’s about time

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - JOHN NEW­TON

On July 7, 1864, Mel­bourne morn­ing news­pa­per The Ar­gus ran a long re­port on page four about the se­cond an­nual din­ner of the Ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion So­ci­ety of Vic­to­ria. The so­ci­ety had been formed to im­port into Aus­tralia from the old coun­try flora, fauna and fish that were not avail­able in the new one. But this worked both ways.

It also ex­ported Aus­tralian foods and plants deemed wor­thy of be­ing added to the menus and land­scape of Bri­tain. One such was Mur­ray cod, a fresh­wa­ter fish much ad­mired by the colonists.

Per­haps the pur­pose of this din­ner was to dis­cover more na­tive food­stuffs wor­thy of ex­port. Ac­cord­ing to

The Ar­gus, it was: “To dis­cover what, within the lim­its of the colony, was eat­able — to range the king­dom of Na­ture in search of meat — to test the es­cu­lent ca­pac­ity of many of God’s crea­tures as could pos­si­bly be brought within the art of cook­ery — this was the wider and more dar­ing aim of the din­ers last night.”

The menu, en­tirely in French — as was the cus­tom for large, im­por­tant din­ners of the time — both in lan­guage and for course names ( Le Gi­bier for the game course and En­tremets for the sweet course, for ex­am­ple) — con­tained some dar­ing dishes. For ex­am­ple: “Le frican­deau de wom­bat aux. epinards” (thinly sliced wom­bat served with spinach), “Le bandi­coot en cur­rie” and “Le pate chaud de per­ro­quets” (warm pate of par­rot). In ad­di­tion, there were dishes of kan­ga­roo, black duck, mag­pie goose, Mur­ray cod and other in­dige­nous fare.

All in all, it was well re­ceived, some dishes more than oth­ers: “If among our beasts, we have noth­ing bet­ter to of­fer than a bandi­coot or a kan­ga­roo, we have among our birds the bus­tard or wild turkey which need not fear com­pe­ti­tion with any­thing that flies. The black duck and the mag­pie goose are also wor­thy in their kind to rank with the best of im­ported birds.” ( The Ar­gus)

It’s worth not­ing, but not un­ex­pected, that the only mem­ber of the veg­etable king­dom on the menu was “Les yams de Queens­land”. And even then we can’t be sure that they were na­tive. Even less wel­come than kan­ga­roo and bandi­coot on the early Aus­tralian ta­ble were the fruits, veg­eta­bles and herbs of the land.

The name­less jour­nal­ist summed up by pro­claim­ing that, “The nov­el­ties, ap­proved by the eye and the tongue, re­quire only labour and pa­tience to be­come a fa­mil­iar pos­ses­sion, and a part of the wealth of ev­ery man in the colony.” As we know, this didn’t hap­pen.

Food, as we know, is far more than a ma­te­rial sub­stance which is in­gested and ex­creted. It dis­tin­guishes and de­fines us to our­selves and to our fellows. It can be a pri­mary cul­tural marker of our clan, tribe, re­li­gion, re­gion, prov­ince, per­sonal sen­si­bil­i­ties and coun­try.

Fast for­ward to to­day’s Aus­tralia and Aus­tralians, and there’s one food that could well be the best pre­dic­tor of na­tional iden­tity of any food in the world: Vegemite.

If you eat Vegemite, if you like the black, salty, sticky, sharp-tast­ing in­dus­trial spread, you are al­most cer­tainly Aus­tralian. Un­til glob­al­i­sa­tion, trav­el­ling Aus­tralians would ei­ther take jars with them or have them sent in care pack­ages.

In Tu­nis, the cap­i­tal of Tu­nisia, I met the vicar of the only Angli­can church in that city. He was Aus­tralian, and he in­vited me for a cup of tea — with toast and Vegemite.

Viet­namese peo­ple feel the same deep con­nec­tion to pho, Ethiopi­ans to their spongy bread, in­jera, north­ern Ital­ians to their po­lenta, south­ern­ers to their pasta. And just as the first An­glo-Celts to set­tle in Aus­tralia stuck rigidly to

the foods of their ori­gin, so too did the mi­grants who ar­rived from the 1950s on, bring­ing with them, as did the First Fleeters, their in­gre­di­ents.

Na­tive pro­duce was not en­tirely ig­nored by the new ar­rivals, but their use of it was op­por­tunis­tic or sur­rounded by cul­tural hedges.

It is thought that a drink made from na­tive sar­sa­par­illa saved many from scurvy. The prob­lem of scurvy prompted gov­er­nor Arthur Phillip to make the most of avail­able fresh foods, and in a dis­patch he men­tioned “wild cel­ery, spinages, sam­phose, a small wild fig, and sev­eral berries which proved most whole­some”.

And be­yond the merely medic­i­nal, na­tive foods were used for all man­ner of rea­sons, in­clud­ing sur­vival and even feast­ing (of game meats).

There was, in the early days, a whiff of ad­ven­ture around their con­sump­tion, to do with hunt­ing and ex­plor­ing, be­ing out in the wild.

But, as Colin Ban­ner­man writes in his ar­ti­cle “In­dige­nous food and cook­ery books: re­defin­ing Abo­rig­i­nal cui­sine”, they also “rep­re­sented fail­ure: the de­ple­tion of stores, ex­treme poverty, or sep­a­ra­tion from the so­ci­ety of ‘home’ and were seen as se­cond best.”

Set­tler and di­arist Kather­ine Kirk­land har­vested the tu­bers of the yam daisy or mara­nong (also murnong) and wrote of it: “I have of­ten eaten mara­nong; it is very good; and I have put it in soup for want of bet­ter veg­eta­bles, be­fore we had a gar­den.” Con­versely, some set­tlers ac­tu­ally en­joyed na­tive food plants. In north­ern Queens­land, cook­book writer Mrs Raw­son said of bush yams that they were “not un­like sweet pota­toes when un­earthed, but have a far nicer flavour, more nutty”.

Some­times it’s hard to un­der­stand the at­ti­tudes to lo­cal pro­duce, with­out in­vok­ing that cul­tural hedge.

In 1838, a vis­i­tor, Arnold A. Haskell, wrote of the fish that used to be called schnap­per that it was “very nice though not es­teemed a proper dish for a din­ner party … why I am at a loss to guess; but I never saw any na­tive fish at a Syd­ney din­ner-ta­ble — the pre­served or cured cod and salmon from Eng­land be­ing served in­stead, at a con­sid­er­able ex­pense and, to my taste, it is not com­pa­ra­ble with the cheap fresh fish.”

Even when serv­ing the food of the land, the hedges were built.

In 1846, the gov­er­nor of NSW, Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Sir Mau­rice O’Con­nell, held a ban­quet at which was served kan­ga­roo, wallaby and wonga pi­geon.

Vis­it­ing sol­dier God­frey Mundy wrote of the fram­ing of the ban­quet that “the gen­eral ap­pli­ances of the house­hold, the dress of the guests and the ser­vants, were as en­tirely English as they could have been in Lon­don”, while the in­gre­di­ents of the dishes on the menu were a long way from Bri­tish.

There was wallaby tail soup, boiled “schnap­per” with oys­ter sauce, a haunch of kan­ga­roo veni­son and wonga pi­geon with bread sauce. The sur­pris­ing in­clu­sion of so many lo­cal foods in one menu was ei­ther an early and self-con­scious at­tempt at na­tion­al­ism or, more likely, a culi­nary en­ter­tain­ment. A bit of a lark.

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