yum! pigface

bush tucker

Walking along the sandy cliff face my guide pops what looks suspiciously like a purple jelly bean in his mouth.

Give,” I say, hand out.

Pigface,” he replies, which seems unnecessarily rude.

Turns out he means the native jelly bean plant which belongs to the species Carpobrotus or – as most of us know it – the common old pigface.

Aboriginals for centuries have known the sweet secret of the fruit which appears after the pigface’s mauve flower.

They also ate the young leaves which taste very like crunchy baby pea pods.

In fact the pigface is a profoundly useful plant.

Mixed with water the leaf juice can be used as a mild astringent to treat diarrhoea and stomach cramps and applied externally as a mild antibacterial to treat wounds, bites and burns.

This ubiquitous plant is just one of many indigenous bush foods which are not only flavoursome but also highly nutritious, with high vitamin and antioxidant and/or medicinal profiles.

From the tips of the newest, most tender leaves of the strawberry gum and tangy ribbons of native lemongrass to the delicately delicious chocolate and vanilla lily flowers – a walk in the bush becomes a veritable feast.

Many of these native plants echo familiar flavours like the native raspberry, the spicy apple flavour of the fruits of the Kunzea pomifera, known as muntries, mountain pepper, island celery, native hairy caraway greens.

Yet most cannot be found on supermarket shelves – or at least not in any meaningful volume.

In spite of growing evidence of the benefits of native foods and ever-more compelling environmental reasons to grow them, the bush tucker harvest remains surprisingly small.

A Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation report published last month (July) found production across 12 of the 13 key native food species averaged just eight tonnes a year in 2010.

The exception was the lemon myrtle leaf harvest – the superstar of the native foods industry with an annual estimated production of between 575 tonnes and 1100 tonnes.

Why is it we so undervalue native crops yet pour precious water onto rice crops in areas where no rice was ever meant to grow?

Part of the problem is the image of “bush tucker” which in many people’s minds still falls somewhere between Les Hiddins-types in silly hats, and witchetty grubs.

That we pride ourselves on our “Mod Oz” cuisine infused with the neighbouring flavours of Asia, but largely ignore what’s in our own backyard, is another form of cultural cringe.

Once I asked an American epicurean to describe the true taste of Australia and she said: “Charred! You are known to barbecue everything from crustaceans to cows.”

Yet the rest of the world has not been so slow to recognise the potential of native Australian foods, with the fabulous finger lime now being grown commercially in California, attempts by an American cosmetic company to patent an extract of the Kakadu plum, and the cultivation of Australian native wattleseed in Africa where local varieties of acacia are not edible.

Do we risk repeating the macadamia experience, with production of this Australia native actually greater for many years in Hawaii than it was here?

It’s time to stop just beating around the bush.

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