Stoneage Larder

Martin Gillam - July/August 2006

An Australian chef mines the aboriginal larder and gives new meaning to eating local.

In the never ending search for inspiration, chefs like to reach back into history—to Grandma's recipes, Escoffier, or even ancient Rome. But Australian chef Andrew Fielke is reaching further back than most.

About 40,000 years further.

That's how long Australia's Aborigines have known the secrets of the country's unique wild plants. Ingredients like quandongs, lemon myrtle, prickly wattle, and bunya nuts might not be everyday items readily available from your local purveyor, but Fielke is trying to change that.

"I'm amazed that Australia's white community has ignored them for so long," he says. "There are dozens of fabulous ingredients growing wild in the bush here that you won't find anywhere else. It's a treasure trove for chefs."

Fielke, based in Adelaide, has been championing what he calls "creative native Australian cuisine" for two decades, and now he's working with Aborigines, farmers, and botanists to bring it to the wider world.

Although Fielke is Australian born and bred, the idea of using his country's indigenous flora did not occur to him until after he left his home shores. In 1983, at the age of 24, Fielke set off for Europe to take up restaurant placements he'd earned as a young award-winning chef in South Australia. It was while he was working in Switzerland, Austria, and England that a lightbulb went on.

"As you move around Europe, you're keenly aware of how each country and each region has its own culinary traditions, its own signature dishes. I thought, ‘What have we got back home that's really ours? Roast lamb and two veg? A meat pie at the football?'

"Australians' love for fine dining was only in its infancy at this point. When I got back home, I was keen to start exploring."

Fielke came home in 1985 to cook at a Relais & Chateaux establishment in the Adelaide Hills, Mount Lofty House. And that's when he heard of an orchard owner named Brian Powell, who'd begun planting quandongs—a wild desert peach—at an outback property in South Australia.

"When I heard about the quandongs, it really struck a chord with me," remembers Fielke, "because I used to play marbles with quandong stones as a kid. But for some reason, we never ate the fruit. Brian sent me some samples, and I started experimenting with them right away.

"I stewed the quandongs and served them with kangaroo meat—two outback foods together. The customers were knocked out, and it became the most popular dish on the menu."

His appetite whetted, Fielke then contacted agricultural scientist Vic Cherikoff, who had begun researching native foods for their nutritional value. Cherikoff had become so enthusiastic about their myriad flavors that he founded a company called Bush Tucker Supply.

"Vic was the first to realize the commercial possibilities of native foods," says Fielke. "He did the pioneering work, talking with Aborigines about the things they collected and how they used them. He sent me a sample box full of produce I had never heard of—kakadu plums [small, green, and acidic], lemon myrtle [evergreen leaves fragrant of lemon], riberries [a pear-shaped fruit with cinnamon and clove overtones], and lemon aspen [a spongy fruit with tropical and citrus flavors].

"The flavors blew me away. Up until then, a couple of restaurants had used a few of the ingredients, but basically white Australians—including me—knew nothing about them. Here was a whole new world."

Given that the English had begun settling Australia in 1788, why had these native plants gone virtually undiscovered by Anglo-Australians for two centuries? Fielke believes it was cultural snobbishness.

"There was that British Empire attitude of, ‘We'll make this place a part of England. We won't eat what the natives are eating because that's not good enough for us. We'll eat pork chops and gravy.' You even had some of the early explorers here dying of starvation within a hundred yards of edible foods because of blinkered thinking."

Fielke became a distributor for Bush Tucker Supply, and in 1987 he and his wife, Kaye, opened the first of their own restaurants, experimenting more and more with native ingredients. By 1992 Fielke was ready to go all out on the concept—he opened the Red Ochre Grill in Adelaide, specializing in native foods like kangaroo pepperoni and Tasmanian opossum with native pepper glaze. Red Ochre was an instant hit, not just with Australians but also tourists wanting to try Down Under tucker.

"I wanted to make a statement, to cook genuinely Australian cuisine," he says.

Red Ochre was so popular that soon Fielke and his partners opened sister establishments in Cairns, Alice Springs, and Melbourne. But expansion came too quickly. There were financial troubles; the Melbourne site was closed, and in 1998 Fielke severed his ties with the Cairns and Alice Springs restaurants. In 1999 he relaunched the Adelaide Red Ochre at a new site but decided to hang up his apron in 2001.

"I'd been a full-time restaurant chef for 26 years," he explains. "I wanted to take this concept to a bigger stage." He launched Andrew Fielke Enterprises, with his own line of ingredients (including lemon myrtle pickled squid, sticky bush tomato in balsamic dressing, and desert lime/dill mustard) and is now a frequent visitor to the United States, Asia, and Europe as a guest chef and consultant. One of the messages he's intent on spreading is that native Australian ingredients are not a fad or a curiosity—that they can, and should, be used to augment all kinds of mainstream cooking.

"They're perfect for cross-cultural cooking, which is what we do in Australia. For example, when I worked at the London Savoy, I made the classic lobster bisque. Now, I make it with yabbies [an Australian freshwater crayfish], lemon myrtle, and Asian influences like lemongrass. This way, you can have something that not only tastes complex and exciting but you can be sure it's never been done before."

At a recent backyard barbecue in the Barossa Valley wine country, Fielke cooked a range of dishes that showed how he likes to combine strands from the New World, the Old World, and the very, very Old World (40,000 years is about as old as it comes). Here's a sampling of the menu:

• Oysters with a "caviar" of finger limes (a thorny rainforest fruit whose crunchy quartzlike granules gave a searing citrus cut to the richness of the oysters)

• Goat's milk curd with semi-dried tomatoes marinated in rivermint (a pungent bush mint leaf)

• Wood-smoked octopus with soy, aniseed myrtle, and chile, in which the rainforest leaves of the myrtle imparted a subtle, ouzo-like flavor

• Snapper baked in paperbark (an aboriginal tradition) with lemon myrtle (for its strong citrus character), desert lime, ginger, and beurre blanc

• Fillets of kangaroo and beef with a mushroom/pepperleaf (a leaf, not a peppercorn, that gives pepper flavor without the residual heat) compote

• Fresh mango sorbet with coconut and lemon myrtle

"The idea is to blend native ingredients with other influences to produce a great dish," Fielke explains. "They don't have to have the words ‘bush' or ‘native' attached to them. At the end of the day, they are simply great ingredients, and there are hundreds of them."

Fielke is well aware that in marketing something so aligned with the Aborigines, he has laid himself open to accusations of ripping off Australia's native people. But he's gone out of his way to make it a win-win situation. He's chairman of the Australian Native Food Industry Steering Group, including both Anglo and Aboriginal Australians, that's been created to develop standards and marketing for the fledgling industry.

"Most of the commercial growers of native ingredients, so far, are white people, but some are working closely with Aboriginal communities to farm, gather, and sell these foods," says Fielke. "We want Aborigines to be closely involved, not just because it's the right thing to do but because no one knows the land like they do, and they're our teachers on this."

One of the group's priorities is to get official recognition for the hundreds of native plants. "If you want to sell an onion or a capsicum internationally, they have registered names and numbers. But if you want to sell lemon myrtle, some official will tell you, ‘Sorry, it doesn't have a number.' Then there's the naming issue—the ‘bush tomato' has dozens of aboriginal names, so what official name should we give it? All this has to be worked out before the industry can expand."

Australia's scientists are also helping. The government-funded science research unit, the CSIRO, is working with Aboriginal communities to blend cultural knowledge with modern methods. Because the plants naturally thrive in Australia's arid outback, they offer the possibility of turning desert areas into farmland. The scientists are planting small experimental orchards across the country to find optimum sites. They are following a winning precedent: this is how things started with the macadamia nut tree—a native Australian plant. "And just like the macadamia nut," says Fielke, "the potential for other Australian native foods is unlimited."