Forget lamb and rosemary meat pies and deconstructed pavs. If you’re hanging to taste a modern Australian cuisine that’s been thousands of years in the making, head two hours south of Sydney to Wollongong for bush tucker with a fine dining twist.
It’s here at Caveau – a one hatted restaurant nestled in the centre of the beachside destination – that a national culinary experiment is taking place: one which attempts to respectfully fuse European and native cuisines.
Expect white tablecloths, linen napkins and mood music as you feast on a seasonally variant menu sourced from Indigenous producers, that – depending on Mother Nature’s mood when you visit– could offer an entrée of Nannygai (red snapper) cured in native botanicals, garnished with a few tiny green ants that add salt to the dish. Or if yabbies have been easy to catch that week, indulge in the sweet seafood meat served with paperbark, charred butter lettuce, the pop of finger lime and creamy local bunya bunya nuts.
“The food that we’ve always labelled ‘Australian’ is not truly real Australian cuisine,” Caveau co-owner, Simon Evans tells SBS. “That’s because ‘real’ Australian cuisine uses native ingredients.
“The thing is, native ingredients offer the chef so many benefits. Diners want tastes and flavours they haven’t had before. But right now, we don’t have any boundaries in the ways we should use native ingredients: that’s really quite exciting. So we want to make our wild and native meals a dining experience you can’t have anywhere else.”
The menu on offer the night we dined featured the earthy tastes of lemon myrtle with smoked black lip abalone and sea lettuce as a starter; and emu cooked over coals, purple yam, bush tomatoes and Warrigal greens.
The highlight of the evening, however, was the wallaby main – which Caveau’s co-owners say is ‘the’ most evergreen and regular seasonal dish to look out for on the menu. The seared protein (sourced from Indigenous-owned South Australian company, Something Wild) is coated in wattleseed, presented with pickled muntries and coastal greens, collected locally in partnership with Indigenous foragers.
“The wallaby is lean,” says Evans, “served super rare and succulent, featuring juicy bits of meat that also taste slightly sweet as well. But the main ingredient is wattle seed. We make it into a powder – to give off coffee and dark chocolate notes – and that brings the whole dish together.”
The menu also featured something you don’t see at every high-end restaurant: a statement declaring that the venue “acknowledges the traditional owners of the land in which we meet: the Wadi Wadi people of Dharawal Country”.
...it’s time for us to all jump on board and share our culture with non-Indigenous people in a way that we want to show it and everyone wants to see it: before we lose it.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between serving native foods and over-commercialising Indigenous culture for the sake of a new food trend. But local Indigenous food expert, Fred (who's known by his first name only) says that’s not the case here. The fellow diner tells SBS he helped the Caveau staff forage for most of the ingredients presented at dinner.
Fred says that both the native-inspired meals and the representation of Indigenous culture on a plate have earned his expert bush tucker tick of approval.
“I’ve honestly never had a dining experience like that, ever before,” the owner of Fred’s Bush Tucker tells SBS, recalling the wallaby dish at Caveau.
“From my exploration, I’ve never known bush tucker to be served like that. I do know other restaurants are doing it. But this meal was one of a kind.”
Fred explains that in his perfect Australia, bush tucker and native ingredients would feature “in most restaurants”. “We’d also have bush tucker on everyone’s plate at home,” he says.
“The fact is, over 20 years ago, people didn’t really want to know much about Aboriginal culture. But in the last few years, everyone wants to know. So it’s time for us to all jump on board and share our culture with non-Indigenous people in a way that we want to show it and everyone wants to see it: before we lose it.”
Caveau co-owner, Tom Chiumento, agrees. Although he’s not aiming to make a political statement with the menu, he might be hinting at a social one as he encourages diners to really embrace native-inspired dining experiences like the one on offer at Caveau.
"...with European settlement, we lost a lot of information about what grows well here, how to source ingredients and cook native foods."
“Some of us are looking at the relationship [between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people differently], thinking that Indigenous Australians - they had a lot of things right and with European settlement, we lost a lot of information about what grows well here, how to source ingredients and cook native foods.
“So now, we are trying to rediscover it. Now, we are becoming a bit more open in talking to Aboriginal people about where to go to get native ingredients, where to eat and in how we should explore Aboriginal culture without feeling too disrespectful about asking [for advice].
“I think it is really special that we are at that point of communication. Hopefully we can embrace that with our food.”
The writer was a guest of Caveau.
Caveau is open for dinner from 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday and opens on select Sundays for lunch.
22-124 Keira Street Wollongong, NSW.