Monday, June 3, 2013

Tasmanian edibles

There is so much food in this landscape, if you know where to look....

Last week I was invited to talk to the inspiring and knowledgeable group of gardeners who make up the South Channel Garden Club.  I’d previously run a workshop with them on the propagation of Tasmanian native plants, which had been organised through the Understorey Network. This time around I was to talk about growing and cooking with bushfoods. I decided to focus on the plants that I grow and use regularly, and those that are plentiful in the wild. There are a huge range of wild edible plants out there, both native and introduced, and it's up to us to experiment with them and help shape a truly local food vernacular. There is a lot of intellectual knowledge about wild foods, and many wonderful restaurants are using them on their plates, but it seems that few of us are making use of these plants in our home kitchens.

Sea celery, Apium prostratum
Perhaps the most familiar tasting and approachable of the wild foods from our end of the country is Sea Celery, or Apium prostratum. It grows right on the edge of the sea, usually in damp soil. I went to collect a sample recently in an area where it was plentiful the season before only to discover the shoreline where it grew was entirely eroded away. It has a refreshing, earthy, parsley-like flavour, and if you harvest a little from the wild you’ll get a beautiful coating of sea salt on the leaves. You can use it anywhere you’d use parsley, my favourite use is to top a freshly caught flathead or a pot of pippies cooked on the beach. We sell plants of this on our market stall, and it grows quite easily in fertile soils, protected from severe frosts and in full sun. Up here at Neika, 300m above sea level, it is a sluggish grower in winter, but takes off in spring.

Island Sea Celery, or Apium insulare is a closely related plant found in the wild in the Furneaux Islands and on Lord Howe, somewhere I heard a theory that it was moved from one place to the other by sealers. It is aromatically reminiscent of Chinese celery, but with a surprising hit of mandarin to the nose. It’s a beautiful addition to a clear broth, fragrant and cleansing. I have collected seed of this one and hope to have it available for your garden in spring.

Kunzea ambigua
Kunzea ambigua is a Tasmanian plant close to my heart. Much of my childhood was spent on the East Coast of Tasmania, and as you journey North along the coast the landscape changes from dolerite to the granite lands of many endless summers. The Kunzea thrives on these well drained granite derived soils, where it can dominate the understorey. It blooms with incredibly sweetly scented, white flowers in spring. We use the leaves fresh, when they have a thymey/floral/citrus/menthol aroma, or dried, when the menthol dissipates. It lends itself to sweet or savoury applications, the gardening chef loves to season a joint of lamb with generous handfuls of it. I’ve used it to flavour cheese crackers, and it makes a refreshing and delicious cup of tea. I wouldn’t recommend it as a garden plant, unless you are well away from bushland or in its natural habitat, as it produces thousands of seeds and can quickly colonise and spread into bushland and displace native vegetation. We have decided not to sell plants of this one, due to its nature of environmental vandalism, but we do have bunches of fresh herb available on our stall most Sundays.

Baeckea gunniana is a native alpine plant. I have a beautiful memory of being on a bushwalk and sitting, exhausted, on a fallen log. I plucked a stem from a flowering Baeckea plant that was growing out of a pretty hummock of sphagnum moss, and popped it into my mug with hot water to make tea. The sweet, spicy, floral, menthol aroma wafting from my cup into the cool forest air was a truly beautiful thing. I have a few of these extremely slow growing plants in my garden and we often include it in gingerbreads. Since this plant grows at a snail's pace, so we don't have any available at his stage, but watch this space!

Baeckea gunniana
Baeckea gunniana

Seablite, Suaeda australis, is a common coastal succulent. Its young, fleshy tips give a refreshing, salty burst of flavour when used raw. It is a prolific grower and is easily propagated by cuttings.

I spoke of others on the night, Pigface, Carpobrotus rossii, Round Leaf Pigface, Disphyma crassifolium, Native Thyme, Ozothamnus obcordatus and Native Pepper, Tasmania lanceolata and the list of edible Tasmanian plants is far longer than you may imagine.

Black lip abalone and samphire. One of my favourite wild foods.

I am a nervous speaker and so I sought to butter up my audience by feeding them, also it's a really great way to elevate the idea of eating wild foods to a practical, rather than just an intellectual, exercise, so I took along some cheese crackers flavoured with Kunzea, and some shortbread flavoured with the Baeckea. I am absolutely terrible at sticking to (and writing!) recipes so here is an approximation of what I may have made….

Baeckea and molasses shortbread

I warned you that I can’t follow recipes, so please find a ‘proper’ recipe below, but I’ll often add slivers of candied ginger or cumquat to mine as the mood takes me. Also our girl's school has an allergy policy that doesn't allow nuts in their lunchboxes, so I substitute the almond meal with half ground sunflower/pumpkin/flax seeds and half ground buckwheat and/or oats to make their snacks as nutrient dense as possible. We try to minimise our intake of refined sugars so I substitute 100g of rapadura for the 80g of conventional sugar. This won’t ‘cream’ as well as castor sugar but I love the way it melts as you bake the biscuits, forming tiny, caramel chunks. Baeckea may be almost impossible to find but you can substitute any gingerbread spice or some dried Kunzea, which we often have in bunches on our Farm Gate stall.

100g almond meal
80g sugar (I use rapadura but you could use 50% brown sugar and 50% caster sugar)
100g white flour
100g spelt flour
2tsp ground ginger
1tsp freshly ground cinnamon
½ tsp Baeckea gunniana leaves, stripped from their stems.
25g molasses
130g cold, cubed butter

Sift together the flours, almond meal and spices and set aside.

Combine the sugar, molasses, Baeckea and butter in a food processor and blend until pale and creamy. Add the flours and pulse until it comes together. You can shape and bake these immediately but I like to make a double batch, form it into logs about 4cm in diameter and wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate. We’ll take on out of the fridge about 10 minutes before we want to bake it, then slice into 5mm(ish) slices and bake at 170Âșc for about 15 minutes. And this leaves you with a few in the fridge to bring out and bake fresh when the need arises, as it often does around here…

Kunzea and cheese crackers 

Adapted from Belinda Jeffery’s ‘Cheese and Nigella Seed Biscuits’

Kunzea ambigua, when fresh, has a minty, mentholy note which I think is a beautiful foil for the richness of the cheese in these crackers. I’ve also made these with sea celery or Mediterranean/European herbs like lovage or lemon savoury.

2 ½cups plain flour
1tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
black pepper
2tsp Kunzea leaves stripped from their stems, add a little more if using the dried herb.
40g grated parmesan, we use Elgaar’s version, a delicious, local organic cheese from a farm that treats its cows beautifully.
200g cheddar, we’d use Elgaar’s ‘Meadow’
250g cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1½tbs lemon juice

Sift together the four, salt, pepper and baking powder, add to food processor with the Kunzea and cheeses and process until combined. Add the butter and process until it looks like bread crumbs, then add the lemon juice and process until it comes roughly together. We chill the dough and roll it out so the girls can cut out whimsical shapes for their lunchboxes, or form it into logs and slice and bake as needed. Bake in a moderate oven for about 15 minutes.

I recently held a foraging workshop for Channel Living where we spoke about edible weeds and native plants as well as the perils and ethics of harvesting them. There is another workshop in the offing that I am running, together with botanists and sustainability experts, I'll let you know more when it's official. I would love to do more of this work, especially over the winter when the garden is a little quieter. If you're interested please get in touch with us via to discuss rates and logistics. We can identify native trees, shrubs and flowering plants and weed species and teach you about their edibility and other uses, and also offer advice on propagation and cultivation.

Or you can find us at Farm Gate Market every Sunday from 9-1 with a huge range of potted edible plants, both native and exotic, and produce from our garden.