Linda Dipper is on a mission: to educate herself and others about the bounty of native food on our doorstep.
She and partner Ray Kochel own and run Oz Tukka, a Redhead-based business that uses unique flavours from the Australian bush in their gourmet products. They source and sell products using flora that nourished the Indigenous people of this land for more than 50,000 years. "Bush tucker" like wattle seed, bush tomato, aniseed myrtle, davidson plum and Tasmanian pepper.
"Most Australians have little to no knowledge of our native plants that we can eat and grow," Dipper says.
"Why are we importing various foods when we have plenty of our own native foods growing here - and have the ability to grow more? They are adapted to our harsh climate, have outstanding health and wellness properties, they're in our backyard and they taste amazing."
These are questions Dipper asks herself - and others - every day. And they are questions worth asking ourselves, too, given the catastrophic drought conditions farmers across Australia are enduring.
It makes sense to use what grows here, naturally, and that is suited to our harsh climate. Native foods that could be grown, harvested and consumed.
Oz Tukka's biggest selling market is tourism. Yes, curious tourists buy native food and we don't. It doesn't add up. Get Dipper started on this topic and she is off and running.
"We mostly sell wholesale to the tourist industry. Think airports, botanic gardens, the National Museum in Canberra. Touristy places. Overseas people are embracing our native foods more openly than us," she says.
"I only discovered the true Australian history when I read a book I reckon every Australian should read - Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? by Bruce Pascoe - and I cried.
"The book motivated me to discover what's on offer here in this country, and highlighted the importance of the knowledge held by our Indigenous people who lived here before European settlement came along and wrecked it all. Because that's exactly what happened.
"Pascoe talks about the First Fleet and the people coming on to the land and it says in books that were written back in that time that there were 'fields of grass swaying in the wind'.
"What it actually was, was kangaroo grass. This is Australia's wheat.
"And because Europeans brought the cattle, the cattle chomped it all down and we nearly lost it. It's just ridiculous."
The couple purchased Oz Tukka in 2016. Dipper was already familiar with the business, having bought wattle seed and lemon myrtle there on previous occasions, and jumped at the chance to buy it when she heard it was on the market.
She grew up in Floraville and attended Belmont High. Kochel is "a Windale boy who went to Gateshead High". They now call Cardiff South home.
Dipper has always been a keen gardener and 20 years ago started a vegetable patch in the backyard of her quarter-acre block. It grew and grew.
"So I had a vegie garden, then I found this write-up in the Newcastle Herald about permaculture by a man called Tom Toogood. I started doing some research and realised that I was already using permaculture principles without knowing it," she says.
"I contacted Tom and decided to study permaculture.
"Then I did a bit of research up at Tocal and thought land conservation sounded good so I started studying that.
"There's two branches you can follow, the regeneration side or the bush side, and I chose the bush side and found these native edible plants and I was like 'Wattle seed? Where do you get that from?'
"So again, I did some research and made a lemon myrtle and wattle seed cheesecake.
"I was blown away by how amazing it was. That's where it all started."
Soon, native Australian flora dominated the vegie patch - and the quarter-acre block.
Over the past three years Oz Tukka has won four food awards, including a gold at the Sydney Royal Fine Food competition for its Rainforest Macadamia Oil. And last year Oz Tukka was invited by the NSW Department of Industry to represent the 2018 Flavours of NSW stand at the Fine Food Australia trade fair in Melbourne.
"Our Rainforest Oil is a macadamia oil infused with lemon myrtle and a little bit of ginger and a secret something that I can't share. You know, macadamia is native to Australia. Most people tend to think they are Hawaiian but they're not. It's another example of this country never embracing its own food.
"If this country doesn't get its finger out we're going to lose it all. Kakadu plum is the world's richest source of vitamin C, 100 times that of an orange. We have it growing through the arid parts at the top of WA and it is the super food of super foods and yet most people have never heard of it."
And there's the time she spotted kangaroo apple in a Sandgate field.
"I was excited to find one that was ripe. They're toxic if they're not ripe. So that night I studied it and it turns out kangaroo apple was taken over to Russia, I think, and it is the main ingredient in some contraceptives."
Interest in Australian native food is growing, Dipper says, and Oz Tukka is responding in kind. Kochel, a musician, runs the production side of things full-time, while Dipper is still juggling working in the motor industry with her Oz Tukka commitments. She realises that might have to change: "We've just got to get the turnover a bit more constant".
"We are in the process of adapting, revising and changing. We are proud Australian native food producers, that's for sure, and that won't change, but our connections have and are leading us in new and different directions," she explains.
"We are starting native bush food education programs for schools, health and well-being businesses and government groups, and are encouraging organised visits to our HACCP certified native food production factory.
'We will still be attending food shows and markets to share the native food love, but we are transforming Oz Tukka into a place for all things native, including a collection of other native food producers' products, bush food garden and recipe books, native edible plants and an ever-growing stock of dried and frozen bush foods.
"Seasonal fresh bush foods are available by order. Otherwise, we freeze them and I use them in educational talks. We can't grow them here because they are temperate plants."
Cooking demonstrations and classes are also in the pipeline.
"We really have been bombarded this year by schools. I've got about 40 schools registered and I haven't even got the native food program finalised yet. It's growing in the curriculum now, native food," she says.
Surprisingly, not many native food businesses are owned by Indigenous Australians. Dipper hopes that will change.
"I've seen a few pop up, which is really good, because that's how it should be," she says.
"Most Indigenous Australians I've spoken to are supportive of what we and others are doing because most people in the native food industry promote Indigenous culture and respect it.
"The connection between native food producers and Indigenous communities is being pushed along a bit by ANFAB (Australian Native Food and Botanicals), the governing body of native food, which is promising."
COQUUN is a modern Australian restaurant in Maitland founded on respect for Indigenous culture, tradition and food. Some of the menu is written in the Wonnarua language to recognise the traditional custodians of the Hunter Valley. Staff are only too happy to translate for diners.
Owner Daniel O'Leary tells Weekender diners are "genuinely intrigued" by the exciting flavours our native food bowl has to offer.
"The remarkable flavour profiles [of native ingredients] excite our chefs, our staff and the customers that come through our door," he says.
"Many of our natives come from local farms like Purple Pear but we also have a generous community of backyard enthusiasts that like to share the fruits of their labour with our kitchen."
He believes Australians should be aware of, and use, our native foods as part of "an ongoing exploration of a more sustainable farming practice ... A practice that aligns with nature's natural rhythms. Our natives love to grow here and Mother Earth loves to nurture them".
O'Leary is partial to using sweet and sweet sour quandongs in combination with crispy-skinned trout: "I also love using warrigal greens wherever possible as they grow in such great abundance locally."
Dipper, as we know, is rather keen on lemon myrtle. She laughs when reminded.
"We all should be growing a lemon myrtle at the back door. Why are we growing all these non-edible hedges? Instead of growing a murraya hedge we should be growing lilly pilly, you know? And then you can make jam from their little berries."
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