Jock Zonfrillo on Australia's native ingredients revolution

Author: Jock Zonfrillo, with interview by Maggie Scardifield
Photography: James Knowler (portrait), Scott Hawkins (ingredients), Andre Castellucci (buffalo milk)

There's an Italian side to my family and a Scottish side. I enjoy the simple act of eating boiled potatoes and mince because I understand the Scottish culture. Likewise, I understand the whole ruckus that is a family meal for Italians. I understand why there's spaghetti on the walls and why people are always yelling. This has always been the missing link for me in Australia. If you don't understand the culture of Australian people, and the traditional owners of this land, how can you begin to understand the food? And what it might become?

Lemon and white aspen

The first time I visited Australia was for a year in 1994. At the time, I had been cooking in dark and rainy London, working the three-star grind, 20 hours a day. I'd seen advertisements for Australia and it looked amazing. The beaches and blue sky - it seemed like a holiday every day. I came out for 12 months and worked at Forty One in Sydney. Wherever I'd worked before - including during my apprenticeship - we used the food around us. Back in Scotland when I was an apprentice at Turnberry hotel, my chef de partie taught me how to stalk deer in the forest, for example. He showed me which mushrooms, mosses and weeds you could eat and we'd construct a dish with what we'd collected. My expectation was that Australia wouldn't be any different. There's a culture here that's 60,000 years old and, in my mind at least, Australians were élite foragers.

That first year in Sydney I never met an Aboriginal man or woman. When I went back to the UK, where I stayed for five years, I had a lot of time to think about that. I felt guilty about not having participated in the Indigenous culture at all. It may not have presented itself to me, but I also didn't get off my arse and go out and find it.

Eighteen years ago, in January 2000, I immigrated to Australia. It was my second chance. I went looking for native ingredients straight away. I started getting my hands on wattleseed and riberries and experimenting with them on the menu at Forty One. Then we got a review that absolutely spanked us for using them. The sentiment was that it was a hark back to the bush-tucker era, that it was archaic and rubbish; they disappeared from our menu just as quickly as they had arrived.

Riberries

Fast-forward to the past few years and there's been a huge boom for native ingredients. But let's not ever call it a trend. A trend is something that comes and goes, not something that's been around for thousands of years, and that'll be around for thousands of years more.

It was years after I arrived in Australia that I opened my restaurant Orana in Adelaide. I didn't know what I was starting. I had no fucking idea. But the more Indigenous communities I visited, and the more Aboriginal people I spoke with, the more I realised how little I knew about the culture of the country that I now called home.

The Orana Foundation is trying to change that. For everyone. Together with the University of Adelaide, the South Australian Museum and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, we're building a database of the 10,000-odd edible native ingredients here in Australia. The whole purpose of this resource is to dig into the cultural information on each ingredient: where does it come from? What are its traditional uses? How does it grow? It's all very well for Jock the chef to say that you should eat Geraldton wax because it tastes nice, or because culturally it's been used for thousands of years, but we also need to dig deeper.

From there we want to be able to build an industry based on benevolence. We want to acknowledge Indigenous people and their culture, and create opportunities for communities that are Indigenous led.

Set buffalo milk with strawberry and eucalyptus at Orana

One of the issues that the native ingredients industry has had so far, generally, is that people have tried to own the industry, or have been cloak-and-dagger in their dealings. A lot of early research on these plants also didn't really look beyond whether or not they tasted immediately delicious. Nor did it take into account the cultural significance the ingredient may have had to the first Australians, or the ability of these ingredients to provide a food source (in most cases) without irrigation and other intensive farming practices.

Between Bistro Blackwood and Orana each year we use 700 native ingredients. There are between 40 and 60 on the menu at a time, depending on the season. In spring it's a lot more because we use a lot more blossoms, so the number creeps up by an extra 15 or 20. I don't own any of this. It's my interpretation of Australian food and I encourage everyone - at home, in restaurants - to also interpret it in their own way. Even though I'm not from Australia, I've done a few things that have been easily accepted here: skewering damper on lemon myrtle and cooking it on coals at the table; topping pipis with beach succulents; serving flathead with eucalyptus. These are simple things that people really love and enjoy eating, but why should it only benefit an élite few? I'd love to see mainstream manufacturers using natives to make soy sauce, simple vinegars and oils. Native peppers, herbs and tubers are easy starting points for the home cook, and you can grow a lot of natives in your garden with relative ease.

Desert limes

The Orana Foundation's goal is to do what we've done at the restaurant on a much bigger scale. This month we'll be starting field trips to gather ingredients and meet with Indigenous elders. In the first six months we'll hit every state, and in 12 months we'll have gathered information on a thousand species. We want to work out how to farm these ingredients successfully, in the right climate, under the right conditions and in volume, in order to supply a market.

As a chef I can look at the world of food and say, "these particular natives are going to relate better to gastronomy here and now, more than something else." We'll be hitting that low-hanging fruit first. Things like Moreton Bay fig shoots and mangrove seeds, along with other fruits, seeds, and even a natural form of sugar, are at the top of our list. I understand that these ingredients can be intimidating, but at some point rosemary must have been intimidating, too. And expensive. Native thyme being in the supermarket is great, but at the price it's at it's not going to help anyone. It has to be as easy and affordable to pick up as it is a bunch of basil or parsley, otherwise we won't succeed.

Once we hit a thousand entries in the database it will become an open resource. This information has been shared with me and I plan to share it with as many people as I can. Does it make me nervous trying to commercialise something that's been around a lot longer than we have? No, because I'm not commercialising it for my own benefit; I'm doing it for Indigenous Australians. To get there, we need to keep telling a story of place and people. I can't complete this in my lifetime. But I'll be able to pass this on as something that will keep going on, and giving back, forever.







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