“They were [traditionally] used when you have a cold, you put them in hot water and smell it – it’s a bit like Vicks, I suppose,” says Daniel Motlop of wild green ants, which have a flavour reminiscent of fresh lime and coriander. Motlop recently began harvesting the ants in the Northern Territory – he’s the owner of Adelaide-based Something Wild, supplying wild game meats like magpie, goose, wallaby and camel, as well as fresh and preserved native greens and fruits, such as karkalla and muntries. The ants are his latest project, being infused into a new gin in collaboration with Adelaide Hills Distillery, and topping a goat’s cheese made by cheesemaker Kris Lloyd.
Wild foods are indeed having a moment. Local chefs such as Ben Shewry, Jock Zonfrillo and Kylie Kwong (chef-patrons of Melbourne’s Attica, Adelaide’s Orana and Sydney’s Billy Kwong restaurants, respectively) have long championed the use of native Australian ingredients. Couple that with the after effect of Sydney’s Noma pop-up following chef René Redzepi’s months-long tour of Australia in search of the best edibles, and the fervor for foraging and cooking with these hyper-local ingredients is topping out.
But what exactly does it mean when you spot “wild” on a menu or a label? And what does the emerging interest in these ingredients mean for their long-term viability?
The ingredients gaining momentum lately are those that are wild and native. Truly wild plants and animals are not formally cultivated, and can be native (like samphire) or introduced (like rabbits); native ingredients, such as finger limes and quandongs, can be either wild or farmed, and are endemic to Australia.
While these wild and native ingredients have only come to the fore in Australia in recent years, Indigenous Australians’ traditional knowledge of native edible flora and fauna is vast, stretching back tens of thousands of years. “Being Aboriginal myself, I’m Larrakia… we want Aboriginal people to reap the rewards from it, because obviously they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years,” says Motlop on ensuring that Aboriginal Australian communities are offered work opportunities and due recognition of their native foods expertise through his business. “Nine times out of ten, it’s Aboriginal people harvesting our stuff, so it’s exciting for us because we created a lot of jobs.”
He’s keen to establish best practice through his products, making sure they’re sustainable, traceable and respectful. In order to harvest the wild green ants, Motlop approached the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission to obtain a formal license, as well as consulting with traditional land owners – there’s a permit number displayed on each bottle of the green ant-infused gin.
The recent surge in cooking with wild and native foods might mean their harvest for commercial sale is building, but the fledgling industry still has relatively limited frameworks when it comes to protecting the environment. Plus, there are currently no labelling laws specifically related to the use of the term 'wild' for either packaged or unpackaged foods sold in Australia.
“We’ve gone out to places where we know there’s Kakadu plums growing and seen branches cut off, rather than taking just the plum, which is really disappointing. It’s just taking advantage of people and there’s no respect,” says Motlop. “There’s a lot of stuff going on where people are buying something for $5 and selling it for $100, so that’s where I think people are getting ripped off.”
Considering that only a dozen or so flowering plant species make up around 80 per cent of the food consumed globally (thanks to hundreds of years of domestication), working with species that have yet to be cultivated through modern, conventional agriculture (or, worked with to a limited extent more recently) means better nutrition – a 2009 Australian government study showed a selection of native species have “superior antioxidant capacity” compared to blueberries; the Kakadu plum alone has 900 times the vitamin C of blueberries. Meanwhile, with the growing global population and climate change already taking a toll on farming, the breadth of wild plants could help diversify crop production with new, useful genes.
These wild ingredients also present a spread of novel flavours in the kitchen, but eager foragers should be mindful. “Everything we pick when we go out as foragers is ecologically connected. You can’t just go out there and pick willy nilly because it’s available – there is a way to do it right,” says chef Nick Blake, owner of Sunshine Coast-based Wild Forage Australia, supplying the likes of foraged sea lettuce, beach mustard flowers and native raspberries to local, high-end restaurants. “[Some] people are going about it in the wrong way. They’re going out and clearing whole catches of warrigal [greens] or samphire and that’s where it’s unsustainable.”
Whether foraging for personal use or commercial sale, Blake says that there’s no one standard or regulation to establish how and what can be collected. As a general rule, he’ll only harvest a third of the specific area where a particular plant is growing; picks just the tips of plants and always leaves the roots in the soil; and clips the plant from where a bud is sprouting in order to encourage regrowth.
That said, the rules governing wild plant collection vary from state to state, species to species, and might provoke hefty fines. A New South Wales National Parks spokesperson explains to SBS that it’s an offence to pick or possess a protected native plant on any land in New South Wales without a license, with penalties of up to $11,000, and an additional $1100 for each plant picked and/or imprisonment for 6 months; picking or possessing a threatened native plant on any land incurs variable fines, for instance for an endangered plant species there is a fine of up to $220,000 and an additional $11,000 for each plant, and/or imprisonment for two years.
Blake will only ever pick plants from public land – “I’m really conscious about how I cross dunes and access land, so I don’t trample on things; I keep out of [areas] where there’s revegetation and rehabilitation, small things like that” – and undertook a rigorous process with the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection to review the species he was interested in collecting. His operation is ultimately small-scale, supplying a handful of restaurants with a couple of punnets each per week.
“There’s no use having a restaurant right by the ocean if you can’t create a menu around that. As a chef, I want to go out there and deliver a holistic experience for people – sustainability has to be a key part of that,” says Blake, who interned at the Noma pop-up in Sydney. “I learnt [there] to reconnect with the food and how small and important these little ingredients are – it’s a resource we should treasure.”