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“That puts Australian baking way beyond anything that’s ever happened anywhere else in the world,” says author Bruce Pascoe. He’s talking about 36,000-year-old grindstones discovered in New South Wales, used by Aboriginal Australians to turn seeds into flours for baking. That’s well ahead of other civilisations that started baking early on, like the Egyptians, who began making bread around 17,000 BC.
Pascoe, who has Bunurong and Tasmanian heritage, combed through early colonists’ records to write his latest book, Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?. Explorers’ detailed accounts of packed piles of hay, grain surpluses, and three-meter wells contrast with the widely held, skewed view of Aboriginal people as “mere wanderers across the soil” (as Pascoe mentions in the book), revealing instead a sophisticated approach to cultivating and storing food via agricultural methods alongside hunting and foraging practices. According to Pascoe, the diffusion of the simplistic hunter-gatherer image served to justify the dispossession of Aboriginal people.
Pascoe isn’t only keen to spread awareness of Indigenous agriculture – he’s reviving it. “The idea was that local Aboriginal people would get involved in growing these foods again,” Pascoe says of the Gurandgi Munjie collective he’s formed with several other Indigenous Australians living along the NSW south coast and in east Gippsland in Victoria. Over the past few years, they’ve been trialing native millet, kangaroo grass and murnong crops with the view to increase their harvests and begin selling soon. “One of our aims is to make sure our people earn a living out of it, as well as helping Australia learn about a natural Australian diet.”
We love making the breads simply because it tastes so good, but also because it makes the kitchen smell good as well.
While murnong – also known as yam daisy – is a tuber that can be eaten like a vegetable, the seeds of native millet and kangaroo grass make for nutritious, gluten-free flours when milled. “The bread we’ve made rises like a rye loaf,” says Pascoe of Gurandgi Munjie’s baking experiments so far, using a sourdough starter and a blend of wheat flour with the native millet or kangaroo grass flours. Some they’ve been working on with chef Ben Shewry of Melbourne’s Attica restaurant. “Ben came down and ate almost the whole loaf himself! He was really thrilled by the texture, flavour and the smell of the bread,” says Pascoe. “Kangaroo grass flour has got a really beautiful smell and a nutty flavour. We love making the bread simply because it tastes so good, but also because it makes the kitchen smell good as well.”
Though Pascoe’s loaves use more modern baking know-how, there are plenty of clues about breadmaking in Indigenous Australian food culture before colonisation, beyond those ancient grindstones. “There are stories and songs around the baking of the flour from all different parts of the country,” says Pascoe. While breads may have once been cooked directly on hot coals, ovens were also used. “Many loaves were actually found still in the oven after the Aboriginal people had been killed or sent off the country, so there’s evidence there [that’s how they] were baked.”
Bringing those traditions back to life isn’t the only benefit of cultivating these native crops. “Environmentally it’s a pretty good deal,” says Pascoe. “They’re perennials, so once you get your crop established you don’t have to plough the land again or add fertiliser or pesticide. Your CO2 emission levels are going to drop dramatically because you’re not turning the soil over and releasing carbon into the atmosphere.”
The flours are all out for the time being, but the next grain harvest is set to take place in January in Mallacoota, Victoria. “These are our foods and it’s our culture, so we want to be involved in it,” Pascoe says. “For us, it’s a political and a cultural activity as well as an agricultural activity.”
Pascoe told an enthralled audience at a Time Out Talk on The Politics of Bushfood Now in Sydney this week that "within three years, we'll be eating breads made with 50 percent Indigenous flour". Pascoe was joined by fellow panelists Jody Orcher, an Ularai Barkandji woman from Brewarrina, in north-west NSW, and the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney’s Aboriginal Education Coordinator; Jade Santo, who has Kudjulla, Bindal, and Mitakoodi heritage, and is an apprentice chef who worked at noma australia; Time Out's Freya Herring; Lennox Hastie of Sydney restaurant Firedoor, where Indigenous ingredients often appear on the menu; and NITV channel manager Tanya Denning-Orman (read her thoughts on the importance of the stories behind Indigenous ingredients here).
While the title of the talk may have suggested dry political discussions or fiery debates, the evening was about neither. Instead, the audience learned about the crucial links between food and country, and respect for the land; and the fervent hope of the panelists that the Indigenous food industry did not follow the difficult path of the Indigenous art industry.
Those attending the talk also got a taste of how Indigenous flavours are being used, with award-winning Aboriginal-owned and operated Indigiearth selling tasting plates that included lemon myrtle arancini balls, bush tomato quiche and wattleseed cheesecake. Indigiearth assisted noma australia in sourcing local ingredients during the restaurant's pop-up this year - an event that has been a key part of the groundswell of interest in Indigenous ingredients and foodways.
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Photographs courtesy of Bruce Pascoe.