Dan Hunter’s yam daisies have been misbehaving. The chef and owner of 44th-ranked World’s Best Restaurant, Brae, in Birregurra, planted several hundred of the indigenous root vegetable – once widespread on the plains of south-eastern Australia – on his restaurant property in March last year.
Hunter is on a mission to promote a “truly Australian cuisine” by using indigenous ingredients, preferably native to and grown locally in the Victorian Otway Ranges. But the problem is his soil – like much farmland in Australia – has been compacted by years of grazing. The daisies, also known as Myrnong and similar in taste to a slightly salty potato, only thrive in light, aerated soil.
Hunter estimates that indigenous ingredients make up about half of his menu. He’s been having success with muntries, a shrub that bears a green, red-tinged berry with the flavour of spicy apples. “It’s quite delicious,” says Hunter, who uses them for flavour and crunch in a sauce for dry-aged duck.
Hunter substitutes Australian native ingredients when he can, using finger and desert limes whenever citrus is called for and, for dessert, there’s a red flowering eucalyptus ice cream with quandongs. Restaurant diners are also likely to taste the unique flavours of locally harvested mountain pepper, King George whiting, rock flathead and lemon myrtle.
“We have two-to-three tables a night and at lunch of international guests,” says Hunter. “They’re like, ‘We’ve never tasted this flavour profile, ever. It’s just blowing my mind’.”
But indigenous ingredients have a battle ahead. Five years ago, the industry’s peak body, Australian Native Food and Botanicals, estimated farm-gate sales at around $125 million (most of which was lemon myrtle). ANFAB chair Amanda Garner says the industry has a long way to go but, thanks to interest and publicity from chefs such as Hunter, Attica’s Ben Shewry and Billy Kwong’s Kylie Kwong among others, the market has increased 30 and 40 per cent.
“Two to three years ago, you would have used the term ‘niche industry’ – not even ‘industry’,” she says. “You’ve got this increased public perception and we’re slowly pushing that witchetty grub-type sour taste in people’s responses to intrigue.”
Supply and quality control is the main issue, especially for wild-harvested ingredients such as those mountain peppercorns. And, until we start regularly seeing warrigul greens and native herbs on our supermarket aisles, it’s difficult to see indigenous ingredients playing a significant role in the home kitchen very soon.
In the meantime, innovative chefs such as Hunter continue to toil in their gardens and experiment with ingredients that they hope, one day, will be on everyone’s shopping lists, at the same time defining a new, uniquely Australian cuisine.