The taste of the river mint is difficult to describe. Words I call to mind seem inaccurate, and the harder I try to interpret the bright, fresh and slightly bitter taste, the lazier my attempts seem. “A bit like spearmint but … deeper, edgier, more herbaceous.” As I flail around like a novice sommelier I’m increasingly intrigued: What am I eating?
To describe this plant I’d never encountered, I leaned on known and foreign flavours, and I’m not the first to do so. Names given to Australia’s indigenous plants are full of references to introduced species with which they share a passing similarity – the taste of desert lime, bush tomato and strawberry gum linger in the memory of anyone who tries them. Of course, Indigenous Australians harvested and ate them for millennia before limes, tomatoes and strawberries were cultivated elsewhere. Yet the native foods industry remains juvenile, with challenges around the provenance of plants, their harvesting and the ethics around their use. Now, however, the industry appears on the verge of a revolution.
These flavours are unique, says Brendan Carter, founder of the Adelaide Hills-based distillery Applewood, and the man who sourced the river mint, or poang-gurk, that I tried. “Imagine being a painter and discovering a whole new spectrum of colours. When it comes to food there are combinations that we know: tomato and basil, rosemary and lamb. But what goes with kangaroo? There are recipe matches we just haven’t discovered yet.”
By highlighting individual native botanicals in gin, Carter has given many Australians their first taste of these plants. Using alcohol with native ingredients is a divisive issue, but distillation can preserve an ingredient and increase its value over time, making it economically viable. He has also spent the best part of the past decade working to convince South Australian farmers to replot their farms to grow native botanicals, arguing that many are nitrogen-fixing, flourish without the need for irrigation, are climate change-resistant and avoid supply chain issues.
Native botanicals range from the pleasingly familiar finger lime (gulalung) to the moreishness of the chocolate and vanilla lilies (gitjawil matom) and the mouth-implodingly citric Kakadu plum (gubinge). With chefs leading the charge and the pharmaceutical and wellness industry close behind, there have been countless attempts to commercialise native foods, or exploit their constituents, few of them driven by Indigenous Australians.
A 2018 study found that just 1 per cent of Australia’s $25 million native foods industry is generated by Indigenous people. Federal government support for the industry has focused on non-Indigenous organisations established to commercialise native foods or their constituents, typically via research grants or in conjunction with the industry’s peak body, Australian Native Food and Botanicals.
Bunurong and Yuin man Bruce Pascoe founded Indigenous social enterprise Black Duck Foods, a farm near Mallacoota in Victoria dedicated to growing Indigenous grains and other native foods.
“It’s Australian farmers who have shown the most interest in native foods,” says Pascoe, who wrote the book Dark Emu, an exploration of pre-colonial Indigenous agriculture. “I’m grateful for it but I say to those farmers, ‘You’ve got the land, you’ve got the economic opportunity to rejig your farm to grow these plants, but where will Aboriginal people benefit in this? Is it just more colonialism, or is there going to be a genuine attempt to make sure that Aboriginal people are invited and given opportunities to be involved?’”
At Black Duck Foods, Pascoe prioritises the employment of local Aboriginal people with ties to Country. Brendan Carter’s Applewood employs Aboriginal staff, but working with local Kaurna and Peramangk communities has presented challenges.
“We’ve tried,” he says. “We would love to employ more Indigenous people, but we don’t know how. We are in deep need when it comes to that. It’s daunting as a white person, even though we want to work with mobs and we have the budget for it.”
He says Indigenous-owned company Something Wild acts as a conduit for some of their local relationships.
Pascoe agrees that a working relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the industry can be difficult to establish, no matter how sincere the intent. “Non-Aboriginal Australians have enormous trouble beginning a conversation with Aboriginal Australians, and that’s because we don’t talk the same history. We don’t talk the same economy, even.
“Aboriginal Australians got so little from non-Aboriginal Australia in regard to sovereignty, and that’s a real impediment. Where did you find that botanical? What ground were you on? Wherever that was, go to your Aboriginal community. You won’t always meet with success because you might meet someone whose life has been so torched by non-Aboriginal Australia that they don’t even want to talk to you.”
Earlier this year, Woolworths announced they would stock products from Indigiearth, founded by Ngemba Weilwan woman Sharon Winsor. The business is the first owned and operated by an Indigenous Australian to supply native foods to a major supermarket chain.
Winsor says she has been supplying native goods commercially for 26 years, and there’s a number of reasons why Aboriginal businesses can take longer to grow. “I refuse to sell out my culture for the purposes of financial gain. I had opportunities where I could team up with a non-Aboriginal person and that supposedly gives us more credibility and means we could achieve a lot more. But I refused to do that as well. This was something I didn’t want to do unless it was on my terms, my business and [in] the interests of native foods as well.”
Pascoe describes Winsor as a “genius” in the way she has grown her business, but the native food pioneers differ on several issues. Pascoe is happy to provide grain from his farm to a nearby brewery for beer. Winsor says she won’t combine native foods and alcohol. She uses non-Indigenous names to make the foods more approachable, such as bush tomato instead of kutjera or akudjura. Pascoe sees using a word such as “yam” to describe murnong as inaccurate, but a concession to being “understood by white Australia”.
Language, both Pascoe and Winsor agree, is a contested area for Indigenous-led native foods businesses, and one of the most important ways in which governments could support the industry.
“There’s a lot that can be done around protecting our cultural and intellectual property with native foods,” says Winsor. “Companies have trademarked Aboriginal words so that traditional owners can’t use them. Government supports farmers in different areas like wheat and cotton and the coal industry; they should be supporting the native food industry as well.”
The Indigenous Procurement Policy was established to encourage projects such as Winsor’s and Pascoe’s, and Pascoe is hoping that using Aboriginal names strategically can ensure the native foods boom benefits Indigenous businesses and communities.
“If Australians deliberately go out and prefer the Aboriginal product, then that will help us enormously. On our packaging we’re going to tell the story of that plant … It’s a good Australian story, environmentally and economically, and flavour-wise. Chefs like Ben Shewry are just raving about the food that we supply, so it will start out in the boutique restaurants but eventually, as Sharon has done, it will be on the shelves in Woolworths.”
Before launching Indigiearth, Winsor spent years building relationships with communities around the country. When it came time to launch, she could tap a steady supply of ingredients, understand their provenance and how best to introduce them to new customers.
“I predominantly work with other Aboriginal women in the industry, and that’s because what we’re doing with native foods is women’s business,” she says. “I find that when you’re trying to help share knowledge and education with people, they can get a bit defensive. Food is a lot less threatening for people. It opens a conversation. Aboriginal Australians have been ripped off by people obtaining cultural knowledge for their own purposes, taking it back to develop products and then not recognising or sharing where they got that knowledge from. But I’m finding that most people are willing to share.”
Winsor says she sources gubinge from a family in the Kimberley, and her supplier, Aunty Pat Torres, doesn’t mind that she calls it Kakadu plum. “It’s just having that balance of respect and acknowledging where that comes from or what community you’re working with, because obviously that grows in Kakadu and their language is very different to the Broome area, where it grows too.”
On the other side of the country, Pascoe is optimistic about the industry and the appetite among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians for learning about, and consuming, native foods.“We’ve got a salad vegetable we use here called cunjim winyu, which I know is going to be really successful,” says Pascoe. “And one of our tubers, I’ll tell you what...” he trails off.
“How does it taste?” I ask.
“It tastes like champagne. It is beautiful,” he says, his voice full of awe before snapping back to reality. “But we’re going to use the language name. And people get a bit shirty with you, they say, ‘Well, we don’t know what that means.’ Well, it means that. That’s its name, and we’re staying with that because we want you to acknowledge us and acknowledge the way we look after those plants.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "The taste of Country".
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