EPISODE 1 | WILDFOOD FROM THE RANGELANDS Part 1

I spent two years helping to run Edah Station, a quarter of a million acre sheep station 50 kilometres east of Yalgoo in the heart of Midwest WA . From 2015-2017 I was in partnership with three men, Geoff, my then boyfriend and Angus and Toby, two brothers from down south.

 Scene from Edah Station, Yalgoo Shire, image by Ralf Mulks 2016

Scene from Edah Station, Yalgoo Shire, image by Ralf Mulks 2016

It was a blast: an absolute privilege to live in this wide-open land with its huge sky days, velvet still nights and a full complement of interesting human life. The homestead was a generous size; four separate buildings positioned around a central courtyard and all enclosed by verandas. The buildings had a lovely feel to them – it was a pleasant and easy place to be with vistas of red dirt and granite rocks as far as the eye could see.

FOR THE LOVE OF PLANTS
When I moved to Edah in August 2015 it was the plant life that spoke to me. On the very first day when the four of us arrived at the station as prospective buyers, I left the three blokes talking shop with the owner and wandered down to the winter creek that ran behind the homestead. It was February, and I had an inkling that some of the wattles I had spied earlier on a trip across the creek to the shearing shed were Acacia victoreae. They were. This was exciting. In bushfood terms the Acacia vic, also known as prickly acacia or bardi tree, is the seed used across Australia to create ‘wattle’ flour. I started picking the seed.

LOCAL PLANT BIBLES 
When we moved to Edah in late winter I had a few local books to guide me: one by Estelle Leyland called Wajarri Wisdom and another by local Wajarri woman, Dora Dann, called Digging it Up. Both invaluable resources for Midwest bush tucker. Another useful book is Arid Shrubland Plants from WA by A. Mitchell – good for I.D.ing purposes, but geared to the needs of pastoralists, so any judgements made tend to be more about stock use.

ACACIA SEED AS FOOD
I read up what I could about the Acacia seed as human food. There are hundreds of acacias and it took most of my two years at Edah to even identify the ones that were generally agreed to be edible. It seems that Aboriginal people would have been snacking on acacias year round – the trees produced seeds according to loose seasonal patterns, but rain is certainly one of the true arbiters of growth. Some of the seeds hang on the branches for months and I even came across tidy little piles of seeds assembled by ants next to their nests – the elders were onto that one. The Acacia vic is the one wattle that has a definite season, affected by, but not kickstarted by rain, seedpods seem to make their appearance around December and to hang around into late summer.  

 Acacia victoreae

That first spring I targeted the Acacia tetragonaphylla, known locally as curara (apparently from the walpiri language from Central Australia) and the Acacia ramulosa (bowgada in Wajarri language) as edible and easily available. 

 Curara seed (Acacia tetragonaphylla)

I was to learn 2015 was a huge season for curara – by comparison, in the following spring of 2016 the seed load was literally tonnes less.  Curara is one of the most common in the Rangelands. It is known in scientific terms as an ‘increaser’ – one of the first plants to establish itself in areas that have been eroded through the actions of overgrazing, drought, fire and infrastructure. While it has potential to be a graceful small tree, it usually presents as a twisted, mean, drylands survivor with needle leaves that can inflict real pain and deep reddy brown curly seed pods.

ACACIA SEED COLLECTING
At first I picked on foot, then set up a quad bike and went further afield with big plastic carriers attached to the bike. If I had a companion picker, we went out in one of the Toyotas with tarps and sticks. Some trees were free enough of undergrowth that it was possible to lay down a covering on the ground and whack the trees with sticks so the seed hit the fabric - the method advised as the best by the seed-buying outfits (I had had a chat with Jack from Red Dirt Seeds, one of the businesses who bought kilos of seed to be used in rehabilitation work in mining areas). While this worked well in terms of volume with the Curara, the trouble with this method is that it brought a lot of the needley leaves into the mix and when it came to separating the seed from the pod the needles became a too painful aspect of the labour. 
 

CLEANING THE SEED
Doing the cleaning by hand rather than via machine, I worked out by trial and error that it was easier for the end product to gather the seed using gloves by directly stripping the branches into buckets or sacks – less needles and less handling. Cleaning seed is hugely time-consuming. The most fun was to sit down with women who visited the station. To sit on blankets under a tree surrounded by buckets, sieves, shallow bowls and heaps of seed material - sharing stories, talking, taking turns making tea, is to be aware of being part of a long tradition. 

In the time BS (Before Sheep) it would have been Aboriginal women and kids sitting under a tree – old and young women and children and babies from the local Badimaya mob talking and laughing as they handed on stories and knowledge to the kids old enough to join in: probably with a lizard or some tubers cooking in the coals. Twenty-first century style, not being blessed with a permanent and handy tribe, I did a lot of seed cleaning on my own – hours of summer afternoons sorting, sieving, yandying, winnowing while listening to Test cricket on the radio.

Cleaning seeds is a beautiful process. Winnowing - using the wind to blow the chaff from the heavier seed and yandying, which is the technique of separating the seed from the discardable material by manipulating it in a shallow bowl are both absorbing and satisfying occupations. In one of the sheds at Edah I had found a flattish concave dish with ridges that I used in my yandying efforts - eventually someone told me it was a miner’s tool used to separate grit from precious metal. Perfect!

I did experiment with using a seed cleaning machine in Geraldton to clean the Acacia victoreae. This was time consuming, noisy and not nearly as social as doing it by hand in a mob. Also I had to wear a mask at all times as the dust from the process had a horrible choking quality…where’s the romance in that? But while saying that – if the market for seeds grows, the seed cleaner will be the way to go for some species.

USING ACACIA SEED
It seems that most native seeds are roasted in some way before being ground and made into a flour. This gives the seed an even crunchiness and removes some of the potential toxicity. I found that the Acacia victoria seeds were extremely hard –when roasted they could be ground to produce an aromatic dark flour – but even roasted they were so hard that they needed several passes through my electric stone mill to get into a flour-like state. 

The native flour idea had been inspired by the previous few seasons when I had immersed myself in the world of agriculture by growing a few experimental crops of spelt on land just east of Geraldton – I was delighted by the idea of introducing locally gathered and processed flour into my sourdough bread-making sessions, but really, I lacked the cooking nous to push the flour experiments and switched to the less exacting culinary task of using acacia seeds, baked and cracked, in a homemade dukkah. With ground sandalwood nuts they added local interest to coriander, cumin, almonds, walnuts, pepita and sunflower seed mixtures. In trendy cafes this seems to be how people are currently working with native seeds – so I was right on trend .

THE GRANOLA IDEA
A woman friend, delighted by the prettiness of the curara seeds, as most people are, had a brainwave about introducing it into granolas. This struck me as genius! Granola was clearly a growth industry and this seed a perfect fit in any muesli for both appearance and nutrition as the curara seeds are dense little black rocks surrounded by a bright orange aril – as well as looking gorgeous, the black seed is full of protein and the aril is a source of fat.

I followed up a few leads in Perth meeting local producers in emerging businesses and leaving them samples, and then talked to a Geraldton local, Robbie, long-time maker and champion of granolas who was on the verge of launching a line of products under the name RedLimeJones. Interest was high - enthusiasm for the local product was high– but somehow action has not followed. 

This is an idea that hasn’t quite found its feet – and at least part of the problem is the lack of nutritional information about the seeds. Yes, we know it is a legume and can say it is 13% protein – but the info is crude and aimed at sheep producers – more needs to be known about what other elements count in its nutritional makeup. 

It took me another season to realise that the bowgada, a type of pea that sits in a long dangling pod, is actually better when eaten green straight off the bush than when harvested as a rather greasy mature seed. Could this be a new green pea sensation? Would they freeze well? Could I interest Bird’s Eye in adding bowgada’s to their list of frozen goods?

Again, how the hell to talk consumers into eating them, not to mention how to deal with the logistics of gathering and distributing the fresh peas into main population centres? They could possibly be called ‘superfood’ – this was the ‘superfood’ moment in time; but in truth, I couldn’t make claims for their nutritional value because I couldn’t produce the studies that would feed into a marketing strategy. I could also not guarantee supply – and not to be able to guarantee supply seems to be THE number 1 no-no in the world of food. My experience with plants in general and the Acacia tetragonaphylla (curara) on Edah over two seasons showed me that feast and famine might well be the natural way of it. 

MARKETING THE SEED
I did end up taking samples of the seeds and seed pods – in the case of the Acacia ramulosa, gorgeous works of art in their own right – to Perth’s premiere restaurant Wildflowers in the Como Hotel precinct in the centre of Perth. The executive chef, a nice young man called Jed Gerrard never got back to me, but I did have a go at him for calling things ‘wattle’ flour rather than naming the wattle. Sensitivity to different tribes is still coming. Bread in Common in Fremantle were also enthusiastic, but didn’t get back to me. Clearly my strategy needs work. One thing I did get – people have no idea of the work involved in collecting and cleaning the seeds.

  Bowgada seed with pods Acacia ramulosa


Landline, the peak ABC TV rural show has had a few stories of enterprising people experimenting with farming acacia seeds: the problem is with the market – there isn’t one. This rang true for me on another subject, that of sheep versus roo meat… At Edah I argued with fellow pastoralists about the stupidity of us growing sheep for wool and meat considering the vast problems the industry is facing (that is a separate story) rather than utilising the local meat that is hopping around in vast numbers under our noses (another story there too). 

One of the brothers explained it to me patiently: it is the difference between having the infrastructure and the market all geared to the production of certain commodities – as distinct from having to create not only the legal conditions for a profitable enterprise, but also adapting or building the infrastructure and developing the market for your commodity as well as the actual commodity. I get it. 

HUNTER GATHERING vs AGRICULTURE 
Theoretically, the growing of acacia could be an agricultural, as distinct from pastoral, pursuit – down to the old farmer versus hunter-gatherer division. But could agricultural mean the beginning of the end in terms of (the suspected) nutritional advantage? I had read enough about wild food - thanks to Vic Cherikoff grand old man of wild food in Australia - to understand that as soon as you take the ‘wild’ out of ‘wildfood’, you might lose the elevated nutrient content. 

In his book Wild Foods, Vic uses Kakadu plums as an example. This tropical fruit has been touted as having a vitamin C content 100 times greater than that of oranges.... poor oranges, they are always being found wanting in comparison to some new superfood. But by the time an experimental crop of plum trees had been grown in neat agricultural lines, irrigated and pruned, fertilised and coaxed towards profitable production targets the nutrient load of the plums measured disappointingly low – it seems that intense growing conditions in a harsh climate might be the key to increasing the good stuff in food stuff. 

In Vic’s words: While we are slowly unravelling the mysteries of antioxidants, anti inflammatories, enzyme regulators, adaptogens, micro-sugars and more – we still can’t answer some basic facts about wild foods. To put it another way:
the point about wildfood is that it is wild.

WILDFOOD AS MEDICINE
It makes me wonder about Scavola spinescens, known as the cancer bush, used by a surprising number of souls in the Midwest as a general tonic for wellness and widely believed to have anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory qualities.     This is one of many prickly, non-glamourous plants that the Rangelands excels in producing. Would it have any value as a medicine plant if it wasn’t exposed to the baking sun and freezing easterlies of the desert? Cells forced to survive in tough conditions might unleash the kind of chemical responses that could be the very ones that benefit people and animals. 

WILD WEST STORY
It feels like I am on the Wild West Edges of a Wildfood story that has barely begun. Plenty of people and ideas are hovering in this zone but Bushfoods still feel like a niche that has yet to break through to mainstream consciousness. I would equate it with the idea of passive solar and other energy saving ideas in housing – plenty of people get it, but it hasn’t quite tipped consumer demand to the point where planners, builders and lawmakers are forced to adjust their business models to a new market reality .  
The state of the bushfood industry is such that anyone looking on would think Aboriginal people lived in bountiful health for their 60,000 years in the Rangelands on a pinch of lemon myrtle seasoning and teaspoons of rainwater. More on this later….