It has been fashionable for some time for the chefs of leading restaurants to forage some of their ingredients from the local environment. Daniel Patterson at San Francisco’s Coi and LocoL can be spotted gathering oxalis and lichen in the fields and forests of California. Mana! in Hong Kong features raw foraged coconut ice cream, and Alex Atala at D.O.M. in São Paulo undertakes full scale Amazonian expeditions to source new wild ingredients to update his Brazilian cuisine.
But what is it like to forage for deliciousness in Australia, a land that has a reputation for an arid, forbidding, and occasionally lethal natural landscape? Chef (and surfer) David Moyle, who runs the locavore restaurant Franklin in Hobart, Tasmania, has agreed to show me.
First stop: a suburban park with a saltwater inlet. We stroll the jogging path and Moyle points out the saltbush plant, a shrub in the Atriplex family with grey-green leaves which taste both refreshing and salty. He serves it to guests as an intruiging bit of salty crunch on top of spelt grain, braised nettles, and southern calamari. And right now, he’s stashing select fronds into a reusable shopping bag. Nearby, we find crunchy, bright samphire, also known as sea asparagus. “This time of year the samphire is really good,” Moyle says. “I’d love to just do it with garlic oil as a vegetable, but I would find it hard to harvest enough.”
As he forages, Moyle is hyperaware of the micro-environment. After all, he’s serving these bits of greenery to his guests, he wouldn’t want them to be contaminated with agricultural runoff or duck poop. But perhaps even more so, he’s mindful of limiting his damage to the plants themselves—taking a bit from this one, a bit from the other, careful never to take enough dune spinach that it would stop holding back sand erosion. He wields his scissors and knife with the utmost restraint.
Creating haute locavore cuisine in Tassie has its challenges. The island has a robust fishing fleet—but no fresh fish market. Nearly everything is sent to Sydney and Melbourne. “Tasmanian” wines are nearly all produced off island with Tasmanian grapes—though Moyle lives on one of the few vineyards that makes its own wine. Imported produce is sprayed against pests, which icks Moyle out. And the foraging is somewhat slim. A keen backpacker told me that he’s extra careful to bring enough food rations when he heads out on a Tasmanian trek. “There’s hardly any bush tucker at all; you’d starve out there.”
Moyle more or less agrees. “I use it for flavoring, not to fill you up,” he says, working his scissors. The core of his menu is flora and fauna he buys from thoughtful, trusted producers: shellfish, meat, vegetables, fruit, and honey.
Of course all of Australia’s Aboriginal people knew what to eat to stay nourished before the Europeans came along. Now they make up less than 3 percent of the population (see Australia’s Aboriginals.)
In Tasmania, even more than in other parts of Australia, the destruction of aboriginal cultures was brutal and swift. Much knowledge was lost, along with many plants and animals as the island turned towards agriculture. And yet despite this ever-present sadness, there is interest in wild foods here. And some exciting flavors, both native and introduced, are available for the picking, just a short wander from the road, in abandoned fields, roadsides, parks, and beaches.
Among Moyle´s favourite Tasmanian tastes are the native angasi oysters, abalone, periwinkle, and the odd roast wallaby or lamb—and of course, saltbush.
Moyle embraces them all—native and introduced alike. We´ve moved onto a public beach now, where he snips away at some sea parsley growing among rocks while a surf school practices paddling on their boards. The parsley looks and tastes remarkably like Italian flat leaf, but it is a native.
“They say that this is the first thing Capitan Cook ate when he got here, to ward off scurvy. This and some flounder,” he says.
But our next stop is to bag some non-native bronze fennel growing wild in an empty lot behind a restaurant selling “Asian Food” according to its nonspecific signage. “Taste that!” Moyle says, handing over a frond. “Pure sugar!” the fennel is remarkably sweet, like an anise cookie. “The pollen is actually my favourite part,” he says. “It almost tastes like curry.”
Moyle wants to make it clear that he’s not advocating living on wild foods alone, or even mostly. That kind of intensive use doesn’t scale up well. There are just too many people on Earth—or even on Tasmania—for us to all live off the land. But he believes a restaurant experience should be different, exciting, and place-specific.
On today’s menu, Tasmania tastes like raw fish, nasturtium leaves, horseradish, sour cream, and seaweed paste. The seaweed is roasted wakame, nutty and umami and deep-sea delicious. Moyle buys it from a diver he knows. It is originally from Japan, but hey, it is here now. And by “here” I mean melting into pure marine pleasure on my tongue.
Emma Marris writes about conservation, ecology, energy, agriculture, food, language, books and film. Her stories have appeared in Conservation, Slate, Discover, the New York Times, National Geographic, and Nature. You can find her on Twitter.