Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Foraging for wild foods: Phillip Island
As I look around me here on Phillip Island I see an abundance of wild foods and plants. The Aborigines who moved along this chain of islands ate wallabies, Cape Barren geese, blue-tongued lizards, eggs and chicks found in rookeries containing thousands of mutton birds, penguins and seagulls, echidnas and bettongs -- as well as abundant fish, crabs and shellfish. Judging by the bone and shell remains found in middens scattered around the island, it's obvious these people feasted on a wide variety of delicacies.
Australian Aborigines (and also the Indians of America) did not adopt agriculture as a way of life. Instead, they chose a free, roaming lifestyle, feasting on whatever they could hunt and find.
In 1904 Tom Petrie wrote, "To them it was a real pleasure getting their food; they were so light-hearted and gay, nothing troubled them; they had no bills to meet or wages to pay. And there were no missionaries in those days to make them think how bad they were."
The Australian explorer Major Mitchell held a similar view. (The town of Mitchell was named after him, because he was the first white man to explore the area, following the Maranoa River upstream.) In 1848 Major Mitchell wrote, "Such health and exemption from disease; such intensity of existence, in short, must be far beyond the enjoyments of civilised men, with all that art can do for them; and the proof of this is to be found in the failure of all attempts to persuade these free denizens of uncivilised earth to forsake it for tilled soil."
A bit wordy, I agree! However, I find it interesting that a white explorer in the mid 1800s considered Aborigines better off without agriculture.
Although some wild plant foods are dangerous, most are not. The Australian bush harbours a bounty of wild plant foods -- from tangy fruits to seaweeds, to seeds and leaves, tubers and mushrooms. On Phillip Island, the coastal scrub and shore-line grows many edible plants. Some of these include: New Zealand spinach, sea celery, pigface, sea berry saltbush, grey saltbush, boobialla, coast-wattle and grey mangrove.
Sea celery was first eaten by Captain Cook at Botany Bay, and was used to add flavour to food. New Zealand spinach was one of Captain Cook's many famous discoveries. It was cooked and eaten by the crew to prevent scurvy. It's the only Australian plant to be cultivated internationally as a vegetable, and can be eaten cooked or served raw in salads. Pigface fruit is said to taste like salty strawberries or fresh figs.
Another source of wild food comes from domesticated plants gone wild. Every now and then we find an apple, plum or peach tree growing wild. The fruit is usually very small, but packed with extraordinary flavour. When gathering wild foods, care needs to be taken that no herbicides or pesticides have been used in the area.