foraging Feed

Bunya nut bounty: How to process and cook Australian native bunya nuts

How to shell bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

Bunya nuts would have to be one of the most under-appreciated Australian bush foods. I’ve been enjoying an abundance of bunya nuts and have been surprised by how delicious and versatile they are. I’ve eaten bunya nuts every day for more than a week and thanks to a stash in the fridge will continue feasting for a few more weeks.

The fruit of the Bunya pine tree is full of edible and nutritious nuts. Little eco footprints

Feasting on the fruit of the majestic Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) is nothing new. Thousands of Australian Aboriginal people would gather in the mountains of south-east Queensland during bumper bunya nut seasons. Tribes came together from afar to feast on the nutritious nuts, exchange stories, trade, socialise, and resolve issues.

Tribes would leave nourished and connected after feasting for many weeks.

The last great bunya gathering was in 1887. The tradition was revitalised in 2007 and the Sunshine Coast Bunya Dreaming festival is now an annual event. I love the idea of feasts being used to build community and revitalise culture.

Despite growing naturally only in Queensland, huge old Bunya Pine trees can be found in parklands across the east coast Australia.  The ornamental qualities of this majestic giant, which can grow up to 45 m tall, saw it planted in many parklands and botanic gardens.

Jorge Tlaskal shelling bunya nuts from a tree he planted 25 years ago. Little eco footprints

Twenty-five years ago, Jorge Tlaskal planted a couple of Bunya Pines in his garden at Bulga in the Hunter Valley. He waited 24 years for his trees to produce nuts. I was fortunate to help Jorge collect and process the last of this season’s cones. 

Foraging australian native nunya nuts. little eco footprints

In late summer Bunya Pine trees drop huge cones the size of a bowling ball – and almost as heavy. So it’s best not to loiter under trees when gathering cones.

Gathering bunya nut bush tucker. Little eco footprints

How to open bunya nuts

To get at the nuts you need to pull the cone apart and peel the tough husk away from the seed. It’s best to do this as soon as you can as the husk becomes harder to remove as it dries.

The nut is encased in a super-hard shell. Nuts within intact shells can be stored in the fridge for weeks. The longer you store, the sweeter they become. Aboriginal people would store them in dilly bags placed in running water and would also ferment or sprout them by burying them in holes covered in mud or dirt (a nice overview of Australian aboriginal storage and uses can be found here).

Bunya nuts opened by boiling in water until the shell softens and splits. Little eco footprints

Opening the hard shell is a challenge. You can gently crack the shell with a hammer or rock and roast in the oven or on coals until the shell splits in two. Or you can boil in water until the shell softens and splits (pictured above).

Or there’s Jorge’s ingenious method:

Opening bunya nuts using a pair of garden loppers in a vice. Little eco footprints

Jorge quickly and easily cuts the shells in half using a pair of garden loppers held in place using a vice.

Bucket of bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

Within minutes we cut through a bucket of nuts.

Bunya nuts being removed from their cut shell. Little eco footprints

The nut can then be easily removed from the shell with a teaspoon.

Opening bunya shells with a pair of sharp garden secateurs. Little eco footprints.

A pair of sharp garden secateurs works just as well, but is a little more time consuming.

Bunya nut cotyledon. Little eco footprints

I've read one mention of the cotyledon in the centre of the nut (pictured above) not being edible. Most sources claim the entire nut is edible - which makes sense as there is no mention of the Australian aboriginal removing the cotyledon during preparation. Indeed, they presumably preferentially ate the cotyledon (which becomes the first first leaves of a seedling) when they sprouted the nuts. 

I removed the cotyledon the first few times I ate bunya nuts. Then I ate them with the cotyledon - and noticed no noticeable difference. I no longer bother removing the cotyledon. 

The nuts are safe to eat raw but are much tastier cooked. 

They have a unique flavour and texture, similar to white sweet potato or chestnut.

There’s a myriad of ways to cook bunya nuts

Stir-fried bunya nuts cooked with garlic. Little eco footprints

I like eating them simply stir-fried in olive oil with loads of garlic and a sprinkling of salt. Or boiled and served with a dollop of butter.

They can be baked in pancakes, biscuits, breads and cakes.

Bunya nut flat bread pikelets. Little eco footprints

I made delicious flat breads - influenced by how they were traditionally eaten by aboriginal people: ground and made into a paste which was roasted in hot coals to make a bread. To make these mini flat breads I processed raw nuts to a fine paste, added a little yoghurt, and fried small patties of the mix in a cast iron pan. Served with loads of honey they were delicious.

Buckwheat and oat groat porridge with bunya nuts. little eco footprints

Bunya nuts are also a delicious addition to porridge. I soaked the nuts overnight with buckwheat, oat groats, dates and spices and cooked briefly in the morning. Delicious. The bunya nuts reminded me of macadamia nuts. 

They are also delicious snacked on as pesto or with dips.

Or used in pasta sauce, casseroles, soups and stir-fries.

Bunya nuts served as a pasta alternative gnocci style. Little eco footprints

Bunya nuts are particularly good boiled and served as an alternative to pasta - juts like you would serve gnocci. 

Pan roasted vegetables and bunya nuts. little eco footprints

Eggs with a side of bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

They are also a great addition to a quick meal of pan roasted vegetables or as a side for eggs. 

Planting Bunya Pines as a perennial food tree

The bunya nut is so versatile I’m considering planting a few Bunya Pines - kind of like an extreme permaculture perennial food forest. I can imagine the family feast 24 years from now.

Bunya pines can live for an amazing 500 years.

I like the idea of my descendants 17 generations from now – enjoying fruit from a tree I planted. My great great-great-(you get the picture)-grandchild could collect nuts from my tree.

That’s a dream worth having.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th March 2015.


Foraging wild food - prickles, patience and practice

Prickly Pear fruit. Little eco footprints

Foraging is more than simply gathering free food. It can fulfil an innate urge to collect and is surprisingly rewarding. But it can take a while to get used to the unusual and variable flavours.

How to forage Prickly Pear. Little eco footprints

I've found that prickles, patience and practice are part of the process when learning how to forage food.

"Collecting wild foods is deeply rooted in our nature," wrote Adam Grubb and Annie Raser Rowland in The Weed Forager’s Handbook. For the vast majority of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers, dependent on our ability to forage. "Reconnecting with the original function of our foraging impulses helps us satiate them before they erupt into a house full of unused kitchen gadgets, shoes, or an LP jazz collection," wrote Adam and Annie.

By fulfilling an impulse to search, identify, collect and prepare, foraging can help us be content with what we have rather than yearn for more.

Foraging isn't without risks and hassles. Thankfully there are loads of resources, both online and in books (My favourite beginner foraging books include this one, this one and this one), which can help you get started (Weedy greens are a great place for beginners to start).

There’s also a long list of rules and tips that will ensure you don’t accidentally eat something that is poisonous, contaminated with herbicides or laden with heavy metals.

How to forage Prickly Pear fruit Australia. Little eco footprints

Once you make your way though the long list of rules and finally taste your previously forbidden fruit, you may discover you don’t like the taste, because the taste of wild foraged food can take a while to get used to.

"The first time you taste a new food, your tongue is naturally suspicious, especially of bitter flavours. Those of you who remember your first tastes of beer or coffee will know what we mean. It’s often only after you eat a new food, sleep, and wake up alive and well, that your tongue is willing to appreciate its nuances," wrote Adam and Annie.

The taste of wild foods can also vary between plants. Wild foraged food isn’t predictable like the cultivated food you’ll find in the supermarket. As Adam and Annie say: "Be persistent. Don’t be put off by one experience with a weed that’s been too tough, sour or bitter for your taste. It may taste quite different growing in a different spot."

How to forage Prickly Pear fruit. Little eco footprints

I've experienced this variation when foraging Prickly Pear fruit. I’d read that its flavour is like a cross between all-natural bubblegum and watermelon, or like raspberries and watermelon with kiwifruit. But each time I tasted the fruit, I found it bland and definitely not worth the prickles. However, prickly pear is abundant in my neighbourhood, so I persisted. Then finally, I harvested some delicious fruit without getting a single prickle. My persistence and practice paid off.

Prickly Pear weed Australia. Little eco footprints

Preparing foraged Prickly Pear pads nopales. Little eco footprints

I've had a similar experience with prickly pear pads. Known as nopales, prickly pear pads are popular in Mexican cuisine.

How to prepare nopales Prickly Pear pads. Little eco footprints.

IMG_5994

The first time I tasted them, I didn't like their sour flavour and slimy, mucilaginous texture. The meal wasn't worth the laborious process of carefully picking and preparing the prickly pads. But again, I persisted and practised and discovered that boiling in water is the key to reducing their slimy texture.

Cooking Nopales. Prickly Pear pads. Little eco footprints.

Nopales con huevos. Prickly Pear pads with scrambled eggs. Little eco footprints.

I recently made a classic Mexican meal – nopales con huevos. Or scrambled eggs and prickly pear. It was edible.

I wouldn't say I love prickly pear pads, but I'm going to persist. There’s still a long list of Mexican nopales recipes to try. Tortillas with cactus and cheese is next.

I'm pleased that I'm fulfilling more than my appetite when I serve foraged foods because otherwise I’d likely stick to scrambled eggs sans the prickly pads.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 16th February 2015.


Connecting with your wild side - Wildcraft Australia bush skills courses

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Learn how to start a fire without matches. Little eco footprints.

I’d like to take my connection with nature to the next level and learn a few bush survival skills. My hunter-gatherer aspirations must be contagious because Little Eco also wants to “learn how to survive in the wild”. So I was pleased to discover Wildcraft Australia – a Hunter based wilderness survival school.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Natural face painting. Little eco footprints

Little Eco and I met with Wildcraft Australia guides Sam New and Nikki Brown to find out more about their courses.

We were in bush crafting heaven. Within minutes, Little Eco was making body paint and having her face painted.

Woven natural hat. Nikki from Bushcraft Australia. Hunter Valley Australia. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Twine made from plants. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Sam's bush tea set. Little eco footprints

I admired hats, twine and tea sets - all made from natural materials. I was impressed with Sam’s bush tea set. He boils water in a bush billy made from a palm leaf, uses leaves from a native shrub as tea, and serves in cups made from coconut shells. 

Nikki tells me their courses are "for anyone who has an interest in bush craft and wilderness survival skills. We help participants develop bush confidence, a stronger connection to nature and help break down any fears".

Each course varies, depending on its target audience. Their Wild 101 introductory bush skills weekend jumps in the deep end of wilderness survival and includes barefoot blindfolded bushwalking. Apparently walking barefoot and blindfolded will teach me to slow down and awaken all my senses.

Their family-friendly wildcraft kids camps treads more gently into wilderness survival with face painting, exploring, tree climbing and nature craft.

“All of our courses include learning how to find bush tucker and shelter building. Participants also get to have a go at making a fire without matches” says Nikki.

Wildcraft Australia Bush Tucker March Fly 1. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Bush Tucker March Fly 2. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Bush Tucker March Fly 3. Little eco footprints

We got a tiny taste of what their courses include – literally. Nikki showed us how to eat March Flies - a survival skill that we’ll hopefully never need to depend on. I didn’t have the courage to try, but Little Eco tells me they “taste a little sweet”. 

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Sam making a tinder bundle. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Tinder bundle for lighting a fire without matches. Little eco footprints

Sam and Nikki also demonstrated how to light a fire without matches – using the hand drill technique. Sam first made a tinder bundle from paperbark and the silky insides of a seed pod. 

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting equipment. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting equipment - showing notch. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting - smoke. Little eco footprints.

Then they worked together, spinning a spindle on a baseboard, swapping every few moments to maintain friction. There was smoke within minutes and then a spark.

Wildcraft Australia. Lighting a fire without matches. Blowing on ignited char in tinder bundle. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia. Nikki lighting a fire without matches. Little eco footprints.

They transferred the spark to the tinder bundle and blew on it until it ignited. They made it look easy.

Foraging Native Hibiscus. Edible petals. Little eco footprints.

We only spent around an hour with Nikki and Sam and learnt so much. I can’t imagine how much we would learn in a three day course. Little Eco was already applying her newfound knowledge on the drive home. She insisted I stop so that she could pick native hibiscus flowers to add to that night’s salad.

Wildcraft Australia are hosting a bush skills course for adults in Barrington Tops THIS WEEKEND (5th - 7th December). There will be fire starting, foraging, barefoot blindfolded bushwalking, shelter building, and the lucky winners of a “shelter lotto” get to sleep in a bark and stick tepee. Now that’s a lotto I would like to win.

Other upcoming courses inclusd a wildcraft kids camp, weaving, cord making, and bush food. For more information visit www.wildcraftaustralia.com and check our their courses page.

Bookings for this weekend’s introductory bush skills course close Wednesday. Contact Nikki on 0412 216 485.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 1st December 2014.


How to forage chickweed - a tasty and nutritious wild green

Foraging Chickweed. Little eco footprints

You may have been weeding chickweed from your garden lately. It is a common cool-season weed and is abundant right now. Removing this plant is like pulling out a patch of lettuce or spinach. Chickweed (Stellaria media) is tasty and nutritious. It is also easy to identify, making it safe for beginner foragers.

Chickweed is delicious and milder than other weedy greens. Its delicate flowers, leaves and stems are all edible. I like it fresh, as a simple salad green. Egg and chickweed sandwiches are especially good. It can also be cooked in the same way as spinach: in frittatas, omelettes, stir-fries, or sauteed with a little butter.

Healthy herbal chickweed tea. Little eco footprints Foraging chickweed Stellaria media. Little eco fotprints

Chickweed can also be used to make a healthy herbal tea. Infuse a couple of fresh sprigs in hot water for at least 15 minutes.

The health benefits assigned to chickweed are numerous.It is used in Chinese medicine and also as a herbal remedy, mainly for the treatment of dermatitis, eczema and other dry or itchy skin conditions. It also contains anti-inflammatory and antiviral compounds.

Chickweed infused oil. Little eco footprints Foraged chickweed infused oil. little eco footprints

Keen to test the ability of chickweed to sooth dry and itchy skin, I made a batch of infused oil of chickweed using a recipe from Hunter Valley herbalist Pat Collins's book Useful Weeds at Our Doorstep. I simmered chopped chickweed with an equal weight of olive oil until only a few small bubbles remained. I strained the oil and bottled it. This earthy smelling oil soothed a friend's eczema and an itchy rash our pony had suffered from for months.

The "prepper" or "survivalist" in me likes collecting bits of information that I hopefully never need to use. Like, if I am ever stuck in the wild without antiseptic, crushed chickweed leaves can be used to clean cuts or burns. It is also a mild diuretic and can be used to treat urinary tract infections.

When foraging, you want to avoid places that may have been sprayed with herbicide or are likely to be polluted. A vegetable garden is an ideal place to forage chickweed. Avoid busy road verges and areas surrounding old painted buildings because they are likely to be contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.

Chickweed flowers. Little eco footprints

Identifying chickweed is easy once you know what to look for. It has small white flowers. Each flower has five petals that are deeply lobed, which makes the flowers appear as though they have 10 petals. The stems also have a single row of hairs, which distinguish it from its many lookalikes. The hairs are very small, so you will need to hold a stem up to the light and look closely to see them.

Chickweed may be confused with petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus) or scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis). Petty spurge is easy to distinguish by its milky sap. Scarlet pimpernel can be distinguished by its orange, pink or blue flowers.

If you are new to foraging chickweed, it may be best to pick it only when you can see its characteristic small white lobed flowers.

To harvest chickweed, grab a handful and snip off the top 10-20 centimetres of stem with a pair of scissors. Rinse.

It's nearing the end of its season here in Australia. So if you are keen to try this neglected, tasty free food, you'll need to be quick.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 11th August 2014.


Connecting with the story behind your food {Roadkill Kangaroo tail stew}

Roadkill_Roo_tail_stew_Little eco footprints

I recently enjoyed a meal that I had been planning for months. A meal made from ethical, frugal and sustainable meat that would have otherwise gone to waste. The slow-cooked stew was nourishing, delicious and proudly served to my family. The key ingredient? Roadkill kangaroo.

Conversations about ethical meat have had me waiting for an opportunity to take my foraging to the next level. Roadkill kangaroo is sadly a frequent occurrence in my neighbourhood.

I have been buying kangaroo from the supermarket for years. It is a healthy and sustainable meat. But it is also packaged in plastic and transported half way across the country before reaching the supermarket shelves. Slowly, as I digested the idea of foraging roadkill kangaroo, the idea of buying it from the supermarket seemed more ridiculous than scavenging it from my local roadside.

A friend who knew of my mission told me of a kangaroo that he had dragged off the road moments after it was accidentally killed. It was fresh, looked healthy (other than being dead) and had bright clear eyes. Once an animal starts to stiffen and its eyes become cloudy, it is no longer safe to butcher.

Collecting just the tail seemed like an achievable introduction. Indigenous Australians have long cooked kangaroo tails by roasting over coals. And the internet is littered with recipes for kangaroo-tail stew or soup – both commonly eaten by early European colonists and in the Depression era.

I searched the internet for tips on how to chop off a kangaroo tail. Failing to find any useful advice, I gathered an axe and a hack-saw.

My husband and I headed out into the dark and tried to look like we weren’t doing anything unusual each time a car passed by. After a few surreal minutes, we returned home with a kangaroo tail.

Armed with a kitchen knife that was in need of sharpening, we clumsily removed the skin. After around half an hour (serenaded by grumbles from my husband that I was taking my passion for sustainable food too far) we were left with meat that looked like something we’d pick up from the butchers.

I seared the meat and placed it in a slow cooker with potatoes, onions, carrots and a single bay leaf. I intentionally kept the ingredients simple and covered with tomato passata and water and simmered for 24 hours. I removed the vegetables overnight so that they didn’t overcook and returned them to the pot an hour before serving.

The stew was delicious. It was the most time-consuming meal I have ever made – but it was also the most meaningful and memorable.

Roo tail stew is something I won’t make often – but I am glad that I’ve added roadkill stew to my list of skills. For me, a large part of sustainable living is connecting with the story behind my food and gaining competence in growing and foraging my own food.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should head out and try roadkill. Indeed, it is actually illegal to be in possession of any part of an Australian native animal without an appropriate licence. On that note, I will say that the stew pictured above may in fact be beef and perhaps I am telling a rather large "tail".

Your roo tail stew may be switching to free-range eggs; or increasing the frequency of meat-free meals; or buying free-range ethically grown meat. Wherever your food boundaries currently sit, consider nudging yourself a little closer to truly connecting with the story behind your food.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 28th July 2014.