There were so many “wants” at the Sample Food Festival in Bangalow. My difficulty was choosing between what I “want” and what I “need”. I decided to focus on my new passion for Aboriginal bush ingredients and find out how chefs are using them in their cooking today. And to my delight, there was bush tucker being tucked into so many products throughout the festival—gins, cordials, teas, jams, oils, oats. Oh my!
One of the first people I ran into when I arrived at Sample was Samantha Gowing, our very own local chef, clinical nutritionist and author of The Healing Feeling. (She’s also a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu’s Master of Gastronomic Tourism course.) I asked her if she is incorporating bush foods into her dishes. She answered with an assuring big smile. “Definitely!” she said. A great start!
My husband, son and I first arrived at the Byron Shire four years ago from Sydney. Harvest Restaurant was our local that year. It was a wonderful first impression of Byron Hinterland dining—the restaurant grows most of its own produce in its garden and has a delectable deli and bakery next door.
When I arrived at Sample, I had to ask Harvest’s Scottish born head chef, Alastair Waddell, what the restaurant was up to these days. “Wild Harvest Sessions every Wednesday”, he said in his thick Scottish accent. “A bespoke menu that explores Australia’s underutilised native ingredients.” Waddell’s passion for “root-to-stem” cooking and wild native ingredients is well-known everywhere from Kangaroo Island to Hamilton Island and beyond. And his cooking had its fans at Sample—his curried Jerusalem artichoke dish took home the top prize, the Golden Fork for best $10 plate.
I saw the Aboriginal flag flying nearby and luckily found celebrated Aboriginal chef Dale Chapman, who wrote the cookbook, Coo-ee Cuisine. I asked what inspired her to write the book. “Thousands of questions from everybody over the last 25 years of what do you do with bush foods,” she said. It also inspired her to start her sensational company, Bush Food Sensations, whose motto is “Grow, Eat, Heal, and Educate”.
“My Dad was into bush foods, he would come home with a kangaroo and the kids would have to skin and prepare it”, she told me. She said many contemporary Australian chefs are now experimenting with the same ingredients. “Definitely, they are getting more adventurous. Twenty years ago they really didn’t know what to do with it but nowadays they are really starting to support the industry. … That’s a very good thing.”
Chapman’s company is a one-stop shop for everyone from bush food educators to caterers to restaurants and cafes. She also encourages us to all grow natives in our backyards—and of course, she sells those as well.
I head next to the Brookie’s gin stall and quickly learn about the clever collaboration between the owners, the Brook family, and legendary master distiller Jim McEwan—they won two gold medals for their gins at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirit Competition. I spotted the red-coloured gin and discovered the colour came from being slowly steeped with Davidson plums. It caught my eye, then my taste buds, and, we kind of fell in love. I can see why it won the gold!
After a cocktail, I had the “red gin” courage to interview Playing with Fire founder Rebecca Barnes, who has been in the bush food business for 18 years. She got started after finding raspberries growing in the bush and then began discovering native flavours and eventually started making products like wild raspberry vinegar, bush spices, chai and herbal teas with names like Walk About and Secret Women’s Dreaming.
Barnes is very passionate about getting people to grow native plants in their backyards, as well. I was convinced and decided to buy my first Davidson plum tree at her stall. I’m now going to go home and plant it and look forward to watching it grow 6 metres tall with lots of yummy “Davos” in the next few years. But I will not attempt to make gin with them. Inspired by the wonderful chefs at Sample, maybe I’ll try some jams instead.
This story was produced as a part of “Eat Your Words by Le Cordon Bleu,” an immersive workshop on food and wine writing for new writers.