“AUSTRALIANS are the first bread makers in the world! The discovery of several 30,000 year old grindstones at Cuddie Springs in northern New South Wales shows strong evidence that the Aboriginal people were milling seeds nearly 15,000 years before the ancient Egyptians started using flour to bake bread,” claims Timothy Gray who conducts the Aboriginal Cultural Tour at Sydney’s Barangaroo Nature Reserve.
Pointing towards a lush clump of native grass heavily laden with yellow pin head-sized seeds, Gray elaborates that historical records show that early European explorers often witnessed indigenous grains being harvested, ground into flour and baked in many parts of Australia.
“That makes us the world’s first bakers!” declares Gray, who has Gumbaynggirr heritage, adding that these grains are a godsend for the Australian agricultural industry if they can be turned into commercially-viable food plants.
“These grains grow profusely even in nutrient-deficient soil and under extremely arid conditions. When properly researched, they could just be the missing link to help scientists and various organisations solve famine and starvation worldwide!” he adds, excitedly.
RICH CULINARY HERITAGE
Over the next hour, Gray captivates us all in his group with other interesting anecdotes that reflect Australia’s rich culinary history. Among the many, he tells about how pioneer explorer Captain Charles Napier Sturt and his starving and exhausted men stumbled upon an Aboriginal village in the Australian desert in 1845.
Treated with genuine hospitality, the visitors, many of whom were already at death’s door, were given abundant water and feted with generous helpings of roasted ducks and cakes by their generous hosts.
Nursed back to health by the nutritious food, the men regained their strength to return home safe.
Our tour ends with an insightful demonstration of the different Aboriginal hunting and cooking techniques.
While watching Gray illustrate finer points of fire making, I overhear a few people, presumably locals judging from their familiarity with various destinations in the area, discuss about a unique and highly popular restaurant that serves Aboriginal-inspired cuisine — fine dining style.
CAVEAU IN WOLLONGONG
They happily volunteer more information when I express a keen interest in their topic of conversation.
According to the Sydneysiders, award-winning Caveau is located just two hours away by road in Wollongong, on the scenic south coast of New South Wales. Although not explicitly mentioned in its tasting menu, the restaurant incorporates a good representation of native plants and animals that are part of the Aboriginal culinary heritage.
“They close on the first two days of the week and today, being a Tuesday, will be business as usual for the restaurant. Since it only opens at 6pm, you should first drop by at the Australian Museum in William Street after lunch before making your way down to Wollongong. The excellent exhibits there will surely further your understanding of how the Aboriginal natives share a special relationship with the land around them,” one of them suggests before our group part ways.
OLDEST LIVING CULTURE
Located on the ground floor, the First Australians galleries are home to two contemporary exhibitions that provide visitors with a very comprehensive understanding of the world’s oldest living cultures. Both the Garrigarrang (Sea Country) and Bayala Nura (Yarning Country) exhibits showcase the captivating history, spirituality as well as diversity of the different Aboriginal clans living in Australia.
Combined with audio-visual storytelling and personal narratives, the displays provide a good representation of the museum’s 40,000-piece collection of indigenous Australian tools, artworks and adornments.
The item which is most identifiable to me, as a foreigner, is the boomerang. Recognised as one of Australia’s most unique and distinctive emblems, this throwing device has the shape and elliptical flight path that makes it useful for hunting birds and small animals.
Aboriginal hunters usually work in pairs where one of them skilfully throws his boomerang to lightly clip the leaves of a tree and, in the process, startle the birds roosting on the branches and force them to fly out into the open where his partner is waiting to take as many down as possible with his lethal strike.
Other foragers make their boomerangs hover over flocks of ducks in flight and make the frightened birds dive down low towards the ground where their fellow hunters, armed with nets or clubs lay waiting.
Apart from food gathering, boomerangs are also used for recreational and combat purposes.
Another divergent usage sees the boomerang taking on the role of a musical instrument during various ceremonies where it functions quite similarly to clapsticks.
The Aboriginal heritage is so interesting that during the drive towards Wollongong,I constantly find myself relating to things seen along the way with the information gleaned from the museum earlier. I find their simple but yet balanced diet of meat and fish supplemented by a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts most fascinating.
SEARCHING FOR HONEY
The sight of shop fronts advertising fresh honey immediately reminds me of how the Aborigines gather this popular sweetener from beehives hidden among rocky crevices by the hill sides and muddy river banks.
The most common technique to pin point these honey repositories is to catch a bee and carefully attach an object like a tiny feather fragment or a small grass blade to the insect’s abdominal section.
This new addition increases visibility and significantly slows down the insect, allowing the foragers to successfully keep track of the bee as it makes its way home.
My epic journey for a taste of modern Australian cuisine that has been thousands of years in the making reaches its last few steps when I reach Caveau’s doorstep.
Handed a single sheet menu by a very attentive help staff, I finally get the opportunity to see what bush tucker or bushfood is all about. Bush is the Australian term for natural territory or wilderness while tucker is another way of calling food in this country.
INTRODUCTION TO BUSH TUCKER
While guiding me through the menu listing, the help staff patiently offers a brief overview of the different types of native ingredients used in the cooking process.
Her detailed clarification proves useful in helping me understand that bush tucker availability depends on many factors, including region, climate as well as season.
Kangaroo, emu and possum are available all year round and are popular meat choices among the Aboriginal people while other meat sources such as lizards, frogs and turtles are primarily enjoyed during the summer. At the same time, seafood is a common feature in meals enjoyed by people living along the coast.
Natives living in the mountains of New South Wales consider moths, which are rich in fats, a delicacy while their cousins in the central Australian desert favour the protein-riched witchety grubs and larvae that live in the roots of acacia bushes.
Other insects that make regular appearances in native diet include bees, ants and termites.
Apart from animal products, the Aboriginal people also consume native edible plants like yam, onions, spinach, tomatoes, berries and even grass seed.
The seeds and flowers of the acacia tree, which are found in abundance in the bush, are ground into a fine powder and then mixed with water to make a simple cake.
EUROPEAN AND NATIVE FUSION FOOD
By the time she reaches the dessert listing, it becomes obvious that one-hatted restaurant Caveau is doing something few have attempted before — to successfully create a delightful fusion between European and native Australian cuisines.
Among the more interesting items on the menu are kangaroo tendon and bush tomato, green ants and magpie goose ham as starters while the mains include barramundi cooked over coals with paperbark and lemon as well as emu cooked to perfection with Warringal greens and pepperberry sauce.
The highlight of the evening, however, must be the braised wallaby tail main. This succulently lean portion of muscle protein is a popular seasonal dish that fans of Caveau look out for in the menu.
Served with just the right proportion of lightly seared slippery jack mushrooms, pickled muntries and blackberries, the combination of exotic flavours and unique textures is delightful.
Just before dessert makes its much anticipated appearance, diners are pleasantly surprised to see co-owners, Tom Chiumento and Simon Evans, making their rounds to make small talk and also to ensure that everything served is up to mark.
The young pair took over Caveau from Peter and Nicola Sheppard last year, and through sheer hard work and determination, managed to keep tradition running by retaining the eatery’s prestigious Chefs Hat award in the annual Good Food Guide for the 13th consecutive time.
Admitting that it was a massive achievement, Chiumento shares: “Our menu is a social statement where we encourage diners to embrace native-inspired dining experiences and understand how the many different ingredients are sourced from the wild before they’re cooked to produce a sum which is definitely much greater than its parts.”
Like most things in life, Caveau’s seasonally variant menu depends heavily on the locally sourced ingredients that are in abundance during that particular time of the year.
“We may offer an entree of smoked black lipped abalone if they’re easy to find during a specific month or incorporate the extremely delicious and creamy bunya bunya nuts in our servings when Aboriginal foragers find their harvest to be exceptional,” says Evans.
NEW TASTES AND TEXTURES
When asked about the decision to use native ingredients in their cooking, Chiumento excitedly reveals: “Endemic products have numerous benefits. They provide a whole new spectrum of tastes and textures that our diners have never experienced before. Unlike the commonly used meat like beef and chicken, we’re not bound by any hard and fast rules when using native ingredients. Therefore, the possibilities are endless when it comes to the types of native-inspired meals we can create here.”
My experience concludes when I spoon the last bits of the dessert from the plate. The interesting combination of persimmons aged in beeswax, strawberry gum and camel milk provide the prefect ending.
Caveau has definitely given me the golden opportunity to fully understand what native-inspired meals are all about.
The restaurant’s representation of Aboriginal culture on a plate is more than commendable and the glowing accolades I’d heard at the Barangaroo Nature Reserve are definitely justified.
While taking the menu from the table to serve as a memorable keepsake, I noticed a short statement mentioning that the restaurant mills its own wheat to make flour for the bread served at its tables. That immediately reminds me of the fact that Australia is the first country that invented bread.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to return to Caveau and dine on bread made exactly the same way and with the same ingredients as the ones made thousands of years ago by the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Details at www.caveau.com.au.