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A fork in the road

TRAVELLING ACROSS MOST of Western Europe, up into Scandinavia, around the countries encircling the Mediterranean, down through the Americas and over to India, South-East Asia, China and Japan is a diaspora of foodies, seeking the sensory pleasures of exotic flavours and extreme recipes prepared by revered chefs.

The world's top chefs are now superstars with incomes to match because, in the world of marketplace demand, they really count. Food tourism is big. When Pellegrino hit upon the idea of its annual World's Fifty Best Restaurants, a new travellers' map was charted for the food conscious. Travelling far and wide for dinner is the new nomadism. It is now one of the key magnets of 'high end' global travel – be that Slow Fooding-it through Italy or pilgrimages to megastar chefs such as René Redzepi at Noma (Copenhagen), Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck (Berkshire, England) and, until recently, to Ferran and Albert Adrià at elBulli (outside Barcelona). Add to this list The French Laundry in the Nappa Valley, Asador Etxebarri (foothills of The Pyrenees), multi-restaurant destinations such as the Basque country of Spain, most of France, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and you have people travelling the globe on the trade wind scents of their next meal.

Having been a professional food journeyman with cooking stints in London, Los Angeles, Pago Pago, Tortola (the British Virgin Islands) along with my own pilgrimages to international food fairs or to pay homage at the altars of world-famous restaurants, the question that has to be asked is, 'Why aren't the world's gastronomes beating a track to Australia's shores?'

Our chefs are considered so excellent that they are regularly headhunted by highly respected restaurants in the world's style capitals. We have the freshest, most extensive supply of all things currently called food and an untold diversity of plants and animals that deserve the mantle of 'gourmet' and may, in a nutritionally impoverished world, provide highly valued nourishment. At home, we Australians readily embark upon domestic food tourism, be it to the food festivals of Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, our favourite interstate restaurant or to specific regional food and wine routes.

But where is the international gourmet set? Why aren't the food glossies and food writers of Europe and the US touting hunting and foraging tours to Australia's north to sample freshly caught barramundi and mud crab dressed with a piquant wild plum sauce (Davidsonia pruriens)? Why aren't visitors lured by the smoky fragrance of foods wood-roasted over the embers of acacias, eucalypts and pepperinas rather than that of imported hickory and mesquite chips? Why do we have a deer industry in Australia when macropod meat is at least the equal of venison? Why are we growing wheat over thousands of square kilometres of Mitchell Grasslands where a far more nourishing native perennial grain (that of Microlaena stipoides) used to grow? Why do we Australians hunt for or hunt down enormously expensive truffles when we know so little about our own indigenous edible fungi? Why will Australians cross hemispheres to experience the local indigenous foods -including native ants – served at Noma (judged as the world's number one restaurant) when they have never bothered to try their own native honey ants?

After forty years in and around the food industry I am embarrassed by the way Australia's food cognoscenti worship the foods from everywhere else in the world but here. The exception should of course be our seafood which, by anyone's standards, is exceptional, but it is now trendy for our tapas restaurants and their influx of Spanish chefs to put North Sea cod, bacalao, on their menus. This coarse-fleshed and coarse-flavoured 'fish of the masses' was nearly fished out more than a century ago – but as a gourmet experience served up against our schnapper, barramundi, nanagi, red throat emperor? Never! Yet it is on the menu in some of our trendiest restaurants. Why? – because it comes from Over There.

What we have here is an extension of our cultural cringe, typified by a lack of self-belief or pride in Australian artists, actors, architects, performers, musicians, singers, writers...until someone from Over There says 'Wow, isn't he, she or it good.' Then we believe; then we claim our excellence.

So it took someone from Over There, René Redzepi (of Noma), the recent winner of a third consecutive Pelligrino Best Restaurant in the World award, to make the observation at the Sydney International Food Festival 2010, that Australia had no cuisine of its own. In other words, despite our many excellent chefs there is no 'signature' cuisine based on Australia's own incredible, edible bounty – no specifically Australian food style or food movement worth travelling for. Prior to his most recent win in April, Redzepi's restaurant had a minimum three-month waiting list, which will have now stretched to six months. This means that gastronomes (and there are a lot of them) will be tailoring their global travel around when they can get a booking. After Redzepi's comment in 2010 there followed a whole lot of huffing and puffing and self-justification and one of our most noted chefs of indigenous foods, Raymond Kersch prepared a banquet in the Native flora section of Sydney's Botanic Gardens. But one feast does not a food fashion make. This is not to say that there aren't skilled indigenous, professional and home chefs who haven't explored, experimented with and served up excellent, naturally Australian foods, it is just that the harnessed energy needed to create an Australian food movement, let's call it 'Naturally Australian', isn't there. The source of this energy lies with the food-as-fashion creators: the print media (newspapers and magazines); the TV chefs and their cookery shows and radio cooking hosts. But these champions of gastronomy appear to be in awe of the foods and cuisine styles of everywhere else but here. If this coterie don't support and promote a concept then it won't happen.

A brief run through of those at the helm of cuisine in Australia reveals chefs from the British Isles, Greece, France, Canada, Spain, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Italy, the Middle East...all excellent at delivering great food reminiscent of their background culture but few willing to adopt and adapt to Australia's manifold indigenous offerings. What has happened instead is a top-down effect whereby Australian consumers are taught to revere these exotic foods, to travel overseas to the source of these exotic tastes and, on returning, create a market demand to which our horticulturists, farmers and agriculturists then respond. Thus native biota lose their homes as the globally peripatetic food plant and animal species from countries as far flung as South America, North America, France, Italy, the UK, North Africa and Asia take up residence. Meanwhile, Australia's food offerings are ignored and their sustainability threatened. There is now an established two-way flow – Australians heading overseas to sample foods native to foreign places while these foods travel back here to colonise Australian landscapes. To add insult to this injury, Australians are prone to deriding and ridiculing their own native foods without having first properly experienced them. When prepared by master chefs such as Raymond Kersh (ex-Edna's Table, Sydney) and David Pugh (Restaurant Two, Brisbane), there is no way we wouldn't celebrate 'Naturally Australian' with as much gusto as the locavores of Italy and Spain do their regional dishes. Put very basically, we have no national cuisine because we have taken no pride or ownership in Australia's native food and because we aren't believers, no one is.

 

THE TROUBLE IS that the cuisines so many Australians revere and ape come with a history, a pedigree of slowly evolved, handed-down recipes based on making the most out of local plants and animals. These may have been as humble as thistle flowers, animal entrails and snails but, out of necessity, they were made edible by experimentation until they attained iconic regional status, often becoming nationally recognized dishes such as escargot bourguignonne, haggis or black pudding. With globalisation and the elevation of food into an art form and its best practitioners into megastars, the culinary classics have been imported and exported, tweaked, adjusted, smoked, pressed, freeze-dried, foamed, vacuum-poached and adapted until they achieve the status of 'signature dishes' that attract travelling foodies like filings to a magnet. There are trends in food as in all other haute disciplines and the one that is current is out with the old standards and in with regionally novel foods. So while Redzepi has started to think like his hunter-gatherer forebears and experiment with ants, lichen, bark, wild game from the comparatively limited palette that is Scandinavian biota, we should be doing the same in Australia. No country has as many diverse, untapped food resources, so this should be our moment in the sun. Now is the time for 'Naturally Australian' cuisine to start its long awaited journey of discovery and development.

The question remains, why haven't we already developed a cuisine? Why didn't our nation of immigrants, many skilled at living off their native lands, look to the unique flora and fauna they encountered here? Why didn't we learn from the Aborigines – Australia's original locavores? For that is how national cuisines evolve, on a needs-must basis of living off natural providence. If we remember that the first white arrivals were people who poached wild game and fish, or lived off extremely poor Industrial England diets, one would think they should have been willing to give anything that moved or grew a go.

Or was it that Australia's geologically ancient native biota was thought just too strange, too weird, to eat?

 

LET'S FACE IT, Australia, this massive old shard of Gondwanaland, is to most of the world of gastronomy just a tectonic plate of unwanted leftovers – with some scraps two hundred million years old. Way back then this huge land mass sat like a breakfast bowl cupping the bottom of planet Earth. After fifty million years cracks started to appear around the bowl and if you could have looked down from a satellite and you would have seen that these cracks limned the rough shapes of India, South America, Africa and us – Australia with its blue heeler – New Zealand. These were the jigsaw pieces of Gondwanaland linked, in a geologically slow dance, around a central core – Antarctica. Fast forward 125 million years and Africa, South America and India had spun off to head north leaving Australasia behind, still waltzing with Antarctica. Then New Zealand slipped its hold eighty million years ago leaving Australia, Antarctica's only dance partner for another forty million years, slowly evolving life forms in what was then a steamy tropical environment. When Tasmania lost its grip on Antarctica, raft Australia could finally head north – like a waiter carrying a tray of Gondwanaland plants and animals – until it collided with New Guinea. Then ensued millions of years of melee as Australia's offerings mixed it with that of the Malay Archipelago, a huge melange of animals and fruits and spices and greens – a little bit of old time with the fresh flavours of the new. So the Australian menu was diversifying.

With the last Ice Age melt flooding the lowlands to Australia's north and creating Torres Strait, Australia was again on its own. That was, in geological time, a blink away of some twenty to thirty thousand years.Australia, lying below the southeast trade winds and now without a land bridge to Asia was effectively in isolation. For thousands of years it missed out on the toing and froing of human migrations that carried plant seeds and animals from native lands to new lands. Being geographically out of sight and out of mind meant that Australian fauna and flora made no contributions to the ever-evolving globalisation of human food choices. Australia missed the great oceanic explorations of the fifteenth to the early eighteenth century. It missed out on the passion for new eating experiences that saw sampling and savouring of exotic foreign foods result in these foods becoming travellers as homeward berths were found for animals, plants, seeds and spices.

And while we celebrate the outbound exploits of these empire builders we forget the impact of these rebound colonizers travelling back home with them. Animals and plants now travelled further and faster than animal legs, wings, wind or water could have naturally taken them. Thus Italy adopted the tomato as its own (can we even imagine Italian cuisine without the tomato?); the stone fruit of China and the Middle East became the orchards of Britain and France; the citrus of Asia travelled via the Silk Route to every country that had a long summer; the butter of South America's cacao nut was transformed into the world's favourite confection; the plains turkey of North America become everyone's Christmas dinner served up with roast potatoes all the way from South America; the leaves of an Asian camellia became that quintessential of British beverages – tea; and the spices of islands from the East Coast of Africa to South-Eastern Asia become the fragrance of fine cuisine. Australia, glimpsed at by the odd off-route voyager, appeared too barren to entice further discovery and thus missed out on this epoch of global food colonisation.

But Australia's food offerings had been discovered, about fifty thousand-plus years previously, when small tribal groups of hunter gatherers followed the Malay Archipelago east and then south across the land bridge with New Guinea. As travellers new to a place their first thought had to have been 'So, what's for dinner?' On the menu for animal protein were: macropods, bentongs, bilbies, echidnas, bandicoots, wombats, possums, all manner of fresh and saltwater fish, crustaceans and shellfish, dugongs, seals, beached whales, possibly dingo pups, all manner of birds from the delicious magpie geese and black duck to mutton birds – along with an extraordinary range of eggs from both ground and tree nests; then the reptiles – snakes, goannas, lizards, turtles, tortoises, crocodiles. To this rich variety were added insects such as grasshoppers, Bogong moths, honey ants and larvae such as witchetty grubs. The salad, fruit and vegetable menu was more regional but still diverse. Tim Low lists 1800 edible plants in his book, Wild Food Plants of Australia (Harper Collins, 1991). The higher rainfall areas of Australia served up a broad range of South-East Asian derived fruit, yams, tubers and their vines; coastal regions offered ferns, portulaca and starchy vegetables such as breadfruit, while across Australia were highly astringent to very sweet fruits (lollyberries, appleberry, currant bush, wild tomato, Davidson's plums, Burdekin plum, lillypilly berries, quandong, midgimberry, finger limes, bush limes, bush raisins, wild figs) along with the excellent tangy buds of the native hibiscus, the rosella. In the temperate zones among some 1,600 native legumes are those that offer both edible peas and leaves, while Australia's resilient native grasslands supply a huge diversity of edible leaves (e.g. warrigal greens, so much better than vapid spinach) and grass seeds – most notable being the seeds of Microlaena stipoides, a perennial grass that produces grain more nutritious than wheat. For the arid to semi-arid regions the plant foods are much more rugged and sparser. Here the seeds of drought-resistant grasses such as woollybutt and native millet provided nourishment when all else failed. For something sweet there was sap from various grasses, fruits, ants with syrup-filled bellies and the honey from the hives of Australia's stingless native bee. Across most seasons and regions this old piece of Gondwanaland offered wattle seeds, nardoo, pigweed, purslane, pigface, plantain, samphire, cresses, nuts, berries, ferns and fungi. One food that eventually attained rightful world renown is the nut of the Bopple or Macadamia tree – not originally as a food but as a windbreak in Hawaii.

This cornucopia was all but ignored by White Australia. When Europe finally laid claim to Australia there was no welcoming banquet of a culturally specific, developed cuisine in keeping with a long-established civilisation– just groups of nomadic tribes living expertly off a land that was too vast to incorporate one common language or one common culinary heritage. Perhaps Marco Polo could have seen the culinary possibilities had he managed to get here in 1280, but the world of the late eighteenth century had moved on from discovering and incorporating frontier foods with their own. The foods that had nourished Australia's Aborigines so well remained off world menus and out of human consciousness.

 

BUT NOW, WITH panic spreading around the world about climate change, Australian native foods could supply answers for the increasing human population. Australia has evolved plants and animals that can survive whatever the climate throws at them. There are food plants, animals and insects in our vast deserts; food plants that enjoy a good bushfire along our coastal fringe while local wombats sit-out such infernos in their burrows; plants, birds and aquatic species that celebrate floods that cover landscapes the size of France, Germany and Belgium combined. The iconic grazers of Australia, the macropods, have evolved species that can survive the long cold winters of our southern high country while their distant cousins hide in the rocks of our deserts for months without water – and they can all put their unborn babies 'on hold' until the return of a good season. Whether our planet warms or chills, Australia's ecologically clever plants and animals have found the answers for survival. And yet we ignore them.

Australia, despite being characterised as the driest inhabited continent with salt-laden, shallow soils, is now one of the world's great food producers and one of the greatest food exporters. Hundreds upon hundreds of shipping container loads full of cereals, meat, fruit and vegetables travel from Australia's shores bound for the dinner tables of tens of millions of high-end consumers in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Australia is a major food trader – but not of its own native foods. Australia grows and sells the foods from everywhere else but home.

Are other cuisines even remotely interested in foods that are older than their countries? Has Australia even been able to convince its own most recent human arrivals that those old Gondwanaland leftovers are at least the equal of the travelling foods they welcome here from all points north, south, east and west? Is drought-ravaged northern Africa pleading for the drought-canny (and highly nutritious) kangaroo? Are the fine restaurants of the world hanging out for just a few kilos of the delicious magpie goose or black duck? Are the cocktail bars of New York waiting to dust their cocktails and little neck clams with the tart, caviar-sized pearls of finger lime? Have we managed to convince the French to abandon snails (inedible without the garlic butter) for creamy witchetty grubs? The answer is no. The question is, why have the foods of the world travelled to Australia but not the foods of Australia to the rest of the world?

I blame the English. When the forebears of Australia's Aborigines crossed from New Guinea into Australia their first and ongoing task was to find out what was edible. The rule of thumb for hunter-gatherers being that 'if it doesn't kill you then it is food' these first human settlers used tens of thousands of years of trial and error to find a huge range of food in the most obvious and the most bizarre of plants and animals. So why couldn't the colonizing English do likewise? History suggests the English were neither adept at living off any land other than their own nor experimenting with new foods. Perhaps it is because the British Isles have never had enough sun to develop a complexity of flavours or a sense of food adventure that their food heritage is limited. Despite all the scientific efforts of Heston Blumenthal, the natural enthusiasm of Jamie Oliver, the environmental sensitivity of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or the charisma of Marco Pierre White – British food (comforting as it may be) has been tamed for far too long. It needs wild flavours that come from wild places to become wildly interesting.

But then none of the other waves of migrants – the Chinese market gardeners left from the Gold Rush, the Italian cane cutters, the Greek diaspora, the Croatians, the Vietnamese, the Lebanese, the South Sea Islanders, the Thai and the Indonesians could see the food in front of their faces. They all brought their foods with them as if going on a picnic. Hitching a ride with these new Australians was another set of 'new' Australians: the cattle, sheep and horses of the British Isles; hunting game such as deer, fox and hare; other domesticated grazers such as goats, alpacas, pigs and camel; domesticated game birds and poultry; carp, trout, honey bees, domestic pets and stowaways such as rodents, fleas and ticks. From the plant kingdom in came cereal seeds, sugar cane, Asian and European vegetables, berries, exotic grasses and legumes, nut and fruit tree seedlings and ornamental plants.

We know better than this now. We now understand about disease transmission and about feral animals and invasive weeds. Not everything can get in nowadays but, given time and due precautionary diligence, we continue to sponsor the trip and provide billet to the plant and animal foods of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, Melanesia, India, the Middle East and all parts of Asia. With few exceptions, there are none of our native foods booking the return journey. So, onto this old worn-out landscape with its meagre supply of both water and soil described so poignantly by A. D. Hope as 'the last of lands', arrived all manner of exotic northern and southern hemisphere foods. Australia's patiently evolved indigenous foods didn't stand a chance as these foreign 'foods-that-travel' were planted, protected, husbanded and released to run amok across its fragile landscapes and ephemeral waters. But what the world should realise (and doesn't) is that Australia covers all environmental impacts – twenty-year droughts, vast dust storms, massive slow-flowing floods, cyclones, monsoons, soil erosion, salinity, sodicity, acidity and fires that consume whole bioregions. These events aren't stochastic or unexpected; they are part of Australia's extended, decade-long, seasonal cycles. But what is quite amazing, almost magical, is the tenacity with which life hangs on here. For no matter what the ocean currents, the winds, the floods and the droughts wreak upon it, Australia can still sustain its rare and highly adapted flora and fauna. So why, given the current global panic about climate change, isn't the one ancient land mass that has travelled through so many changes of climate _ with landscapes stretching from cold to temperate, across hot to arid and steamy to tropical, all while evolving living answers to everything any climate can throw at it to produce something edible for its inhabitants – paid more attention?

 

SO HERE'S AN idea. As this publication is all about travel and this article is all about travelling for food and foods that travel (everywhere except from Australia that is) can we create a modern-day journey of discovery that will bring the world's attention to the huge potential of native Australian produce? It could be surprisingly easy. First step would be to procure the services of some world-famous chefs from Over There to bring their finely attuned palates and encyclopaedic cooking skills to Australia to explore the best of Australia's native foods. If we convinced chefs like René Redzepi, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the brothers Adria, or Jamie Oliver to escape a northern winter by spending a laid-back working holiday in Australia hunting and gathering from Australia's north to Tasmania, we would kick start the 'Naturally Australian' food movement. Obviously food media will need to be involved but by enlisting the famous from Over There the media will follow like hounds on a scent. Now, rather than buying expensive overseas holidays to dine at the restaurants of these chefs our own global gourmets will jump at the chance to don their khakis and empty their pockets for the experience of rubbing shoulders and grubbying hands with such idols as they all go on an ultimate food hunt.

Next step would be to collect food samples and send them to Australia's many Schools of Gastronomy for culinary forensic analysis and experimentation – a modern 'fast tracking' of the thousands of years of food discovery and development that Australia missed out on. Then, as we wave goodbye to our visiting chefs, we will send them back with food packs and seed stock for them to experiment with and put on the menu, just like in the days of Columbus, Cortez and Marco Polo. The global followers of 'high-end' gastronomy will change course and head to Australia to experience our vast landscapes, our ancient interior, our diverse tropics, our beaches, our unique fauna and flora knowing that the journey doesn't stop there for at the end of their days of adventure they will be dining on excellent foods the like of which they will have never tasted before.

As our many excellent chefs become enthused by this cuisine, they will become 'Naturally Australian' food ambassadors as they take this frontier food cuisine to the rest of the world. Our food media will trumpet the message to all Australians who, no matter what their heritage, will be happy to have a cuisine they can call their own.

Only then will Australia become the food destination it should be.

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