Flinders foraging

Author: pat nourse
Photography: james knowler

"Welcome home, brother," says Terry Coulthard. Coulthard is a cultural interpreter, an Adnyamathanha man who works to show visitors the meaning and value of his people's land in South Australia's Flinders Ranges. The kin in question right now is René Redzepi. He's arrived here at this particular rock shelf by these particular rock paintings after flying to Australia from the other side of the planet where he runs Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant recognised by some pundits as the world's best. Redzepi has kept up a cracking pace since arriving in the country 48 hours earlier to give an address at the Sydney Opera House, but now the toll of the jet lag, and quite possibly culture shock, is starting to show. Or maybe it's the setting, the sun dropping behind hills and a low breeze in the gums. Either way, this expression of kinship, this beatific moment, seems to strike Redzepi almost physically.

"For me, you're family, René," says Coulthard, "you're just coming around full circle to touch base." Coulthard talks about the rock art, its ochres freighted with ancient but still pertinent meaning. It's a place of initiation, but also one that contains directions to sustenance. He talks about how this region is where the oldest animal fossils in the world have been found, how his people regard this place as the origin of life. "What goes around comes around; it's circles of life, and mother earth has something bigger planned for us all."

For Redzepi, it's an unlikely homecoming in a place he's never been. Noma, his home base, is something he considers as much a project about Scandinavian identity as a restaurant. Noma's located in a former maritime warehouse that is now a centre dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the art and culture of Denmark, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and Redzepi's cooking is intimately concerned with time and place. He trained in some of Europe's most technique-focused restaurants, El Bulli included, but it's perhaps more what Redzepi chooses to cook than how that has catapulted restaurant and chef to international recognition in just seven years.

In working to celebrate Scandinavia, Redzepi scours the region for its best and most inspiring ingredients, turning from the olive oil, tomatoes and citrus of the Mediterranean to the butter, vinegar and wild herbs of the Baltic. In a culinary context where the local and the seasonal are the new religion, Noma's success seems like a fait accompli, but believers were in short supply when Noma opened in 2003. As thin on the ground, perhaps, as champions of native Australian ingredients are now. Redzepi likes to reference the whale-penis and blubber jokes that were made about Noma when the restaurant first opened . "They called us seal-f***ers," he said at the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in London in 2009. "Look who's laughing now!"

His message is that if he and his fellows could stay true to their vision and forge a world-beating cuisine from the unlikely seeming foundation of horseradish, rye bread and cucumber, then there is no reason it can't be done anywhere else.

It's difficult to think of somewhere less Scandinavian than this particular patch of the South Australian outback, about nine hours' drive north of Adelaide. Record rains mean it's relatively green right now, and hardy little flowers dot the gullies, but still "fertile" isn't the first adjective you find yourself reaching for. We're here to talk about food, and the idea of this landscape fostering a rich cuisine seems absurd. Or at least it does until you start to walk around with the Coulthard family. Then every turn reveals something new: quandong fruit, tart around a large nubbly seed; a leaf of rocket-like pepperiness; and other leaves that, when crushed, reveal scents of lemongrass, of curry, and of things that are harder to attach a familiar name to. If you were looking for a connection between this place and the land of the fjords, it might be in the life-and-death understanding people have forged with nature in deeply unforgiving landscapes, whether they're of schist and ice or sun and scrub.

Back at the Iga Warta camp, the Coulthards and their friends have been busy. A kangaroo is pulled whole from the coals, swathed in eucalyptus branches. There's a succulence and a textural complexity to the meat that's reminiscent of a well-spitted lamb. The spread includes wattle-seed biscuits, quandong dip, kangaroo rissoles and a relish made with the piquant bush banana. Andrew Fielke, a bush food expert, has brought some yabbies in a bucket, and they're cooked quickly and simply over smouldering embers. Redzepi tastes them under the close scrutiny of the deeply amused Adnyamathanha kids.

Talking later over a "feral feast" of emu, smoked kangaroo and camel sausage at the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna (population seven), Redzepi says he doesn't understand why truly Australian ingredients aren't a bigger part of Australian cuisine. "The talk I gave at the Opera House was about the restaurant," he says. "How we did it, what we thought was difficult. And then we talked about Australia and its native ingredients." He'd asked around for a selection of the plants he'd found while foraging with Ben Shewry, chef at Melbourne's Attica, when he was last in Australia in 2009. "I'd spent two days in Sydney before asking for these things and everybody said 'can't, it's not there, it's too difficult, we don't have it'. But they were all things I'd seen in Australia before, with Ben, and I wanted people to taste them - sea succulents, sorrel leaves, different plants and seaweeds." Shewry came through with the goods again, bringing an impressive haul. "He came up with a variety of foraged plants, which I thought was exceptional," Redzepi says. "He had 29 varieties with him. Twenty-nine."

"There was a plant Terry Coulthard showed me this afternoon - a bit like pig's face - that I would use if I was a chef in Australia," he says. "I'd have it in a meaty broth, this sort of sea succulent, and that would be enough for a dish for me."

As chance would have it, one of the most recent converts to the Australian-native-ingredient push is also here. Damien Styles is the chef at Melbourne's Charcoal Lane; the restaurant's charter is to provide opportunities and education for Aborigines and disadvantaged young people interested in the hospitality business. Native ingredients are a defining element of Styles' menus at Charcoal Lane, he says, but he has to work hard to overcome the prejudices of some diners who have been scarred by the previous generation of chefs' experiments with lemon myrtle coulis and emu prosciutto. Such is the resistance to incorporating bush food into our best restaurants' menus; nobody is being called a seal-f***er, but the witchetty grub and Crocodile Dundee jokes persist. Somewhere along the line, it seems, top chefs and diners decided that native Australian ingredients had become a déclassé remnant of the '80s and '90s, something as shunned by three-star restaurants as sun-dried tomatoes and sweet potato mash. And yet there are notable exceptions - finger limes are a hot property, for instance, while the likes of marron, Murray cod and angasi oysters are in demand precisely, perhaps, because they're not marketed on the strength of being native.

Noma is the restaurant Australia's young chefs are scrambling to work at, and as a result, our own chefs are more interested than ever before in wood sorrel and malt, wild herbs and foraging. What will be telling will be how many of them see past Redzepi's shopping list to his real message. The notion of more of our nectars and gums, the truffles of our deserts, the wild oranges and grains and herbs of our plains returning to our menus in force is on the table now, and its adoption by the big guns will likely be a matter of when and not if. Talking to Redzepi back at a gorge in the Flinders, Terry Coulthard says it: "We need to look to the old ways to prepare for the future."

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