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Food & Drinks

How one Australian chef is using locally foraged food to create dishes of unimaginable flavour

Saltbush, wattle seeds, dune spinach – it’s all on chef Jed Gerrard’s menu at Wildflower in Perth, gathered from the local area and infused in spectacular dishes that reflect indigenous seasons. We joined him on a foraging trip

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 7:20pm

“Can you smell that? It’s our bush perfume.”

The scent of boronia flowers is heady and distinct in the already fragrant environment of Perth’s Kings Park. Sweet and peppery on the nose, it is a rare bloom to come across, found mainly in Western Australia and Tasmania.

The man sharing his vast knowledge of – and passion for – the local flora and fauna is Dr Richard Walley, a member of the Nyoongar cultural group. He is also one of Australia’s leading indigenous performers, musicians and writers, not to mention a committed campaigner. His people have inhabited the region for an unimaginably long time.

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“We’ve been here for 2,000 generations – around 60,000 years. Our tribal land is as big as France.” He says this in such a matter-of-fact way that you have to stop and think for a second to take it all in.

We are standing in Perth’s early autumn sunshine as part of the Wildflower Experience, an initiative from the city’s Como The Treasury hotel. The experience takes guests on a culinary journey, which starts with exploring indigenous Australian produce at its source before tasting some of it in well-crafted dishes put together by hotel executive chef Jed Gerrard at the aptly named Wildflower restaurant.

The state of Western Australia is home to more than 12,000 species of wild flower, many of which are unique to the region. The Nyoongar people have long followed the subtle changes in their environment, letting themselves be guided by nature and the seasonal changes observed in the wildflowers.

“Our indigenous calendar has not four but six seasons, namely Birak, Bunuru, Djeran, Makuru, Djilba and Kambarang, the one that coincides with our visit,” Walley says. “Once the kangaroo paw [a type of flower] and donkey orchids are out, it’s the start of Kambarang.”

Of course, over many thousands of years the Nyoongar have also learned to determine which plants are ripe for eating. Walley explains, however, that it is wrong to think of his people as purely nomadic, roaming the land and randomly seeking out food.

“We weren’t nomadic because we were systematic. We knew the seasons and followed them because you came back to where you were 10 months ago and all the animals and fish populations would have been restored. You are what you eat, you are your surroundings. Like today, we never cut a tree down, we wait for it to blow down in a storm.”

After a remarkable, humbling morning learning about Nyoongar culture and the natural world they so symbiotically inhabit, more botanical discoveries are on the menu at Wildflower.

Last year, Como The Treasury was named Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s hotel of the year in Australia and also the global runner-up. Its conversion from a mid-19th-century state building into a 48-room hotel was overseen with impeccable taste and attention to detail.

Sea mustard tastes like you’re eating hot English mustard. It goes great with kangaroo, emu and even beef
Jed Gerrard

Its range of successful restaurants has also drawn much acclaim, most notably Wildflower – which even led the The Australian’s notoriously hard-to-please restaurant critic John Lethlean to say: “Jed Gerrard is our new culinary star.”

Gerrard was born and raised in Western Australia. He trained in New Zealand and Canada before returning to work under Australia’s godfather of French dining, Tony Bilson. Stints in Michelin-starred restaurants in Switzerland and France followed, then spots at Tetsuya’s and Black by Ezard (now Black Bar and Grill) in Sydney, before the call of Western Australia led him back home.

The modest and softly spoken chef runs a multinational kitchen with staff from China, Korea and England – you won’t find people hurling obscenities and pots here. He describes his food as “modern West Australian cuisine”, with everything on his tasting menu originating from within the state’s borders.

Foraging and a love of local, native ingredients are clearly in his blood. His list of food heroes includes Michel Bras (from the Bras restaurant in Laguiole, southern France), Ben Shewry (from Attica in Melbourne), Dan Hunter (from Brae in Birregurra) and Dan Barber (from Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York), all of whom are renowned for using home-grown produce.

Gerrard explains that foraging is viable almost anywhere in Australia. “As long as it’s on Crown land, there’s no need for a permit. I did it when I worked in Honfleur in Normandy, looking for ramps [wild onion] and wild garlic. Let’s just say there’s a lot more variety in Perth! We’re very lucky here as there are so many options for wild produce.”

Gerrard and his team forage for native plants such as saltbush, samphire and barilla along Perth’s Swan River. “It’s a great excuse to spend an afternoon at the beach,” he explains with a smile. He adds that some staff even pick produce on their way to work, such as Geraldton wax, a flower.

We join him on the coast a short drive from the hotel. We haven’t even left the car park before he stops to show the first native plant, plucking a leaf from a plant called dune spinach from a sandbank. “It tastes like the beach, the ocean, with a parsley-spinach flavour – it’s natural seasoning.”

As the surf crashes in, he points out more: “Sea mustard tastes like you’re eating hot English mustard. It goes great with kangaroo, emu and even beef. You can grind it into a paste like a wasabi or use its flowers as a garnish, although they’re only in bloom for a couple of weeks.”

Slightly more familiar native ingredients such as eucalyptus, finger limes and pepperberries dot his menus at Wildflower, while the restaurant’s on-site “urban cultivator” grows non-native plants that include nasturtiums, herbs, micro greens and shiso. But Gerrard is clearly in his element outdoors and excitedly shows off another couple of plants.

“This is called pigface or sometimes beach banana. You blanch them and put them in a vinegar solution to mellow them out. They add a briny, bitter note, like capers, to seafood. And this is amazing beach rosemary – you put it in rapeseed oil, heat to 50 degrees Celsius and it takes on the flavour.”

It is a brilliant experience to source and discover produce with a chef, but it is back in the restaurant where he shows his world-class finesse and mastery of flavour. The menu I tasted marked the Nyoongar season of Djilba that was just coming to a close.

To start was a sourdough bread with – edible Australian acacia seeds – served with whipped butter topped with candied macadamias. This was accompanied by a plate of small bites using locally foraged produce.

Then followed a puffed beef tendon served with native five-spice powder that included saltbush and pepperberries; a seaweed crisp with local Davidson plum and home-smoked crocodile ham; and a preserved and pickled cucumber with rye berry powder. These were extraordinary, wholly new flavours, served up in inspired combinations.

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Raw scallops from Rottnest Island came with a cream made from Geraldton wax flowers, sea parsley oil, fennel and apple dressing with frozen fennel juice. The balance of unusual and unexpected flavours came together in perfect harmony; vibrant and sharp, yet also somehow comforting and creamy at the same time.

Local marron, a sweet crayfish, is already an exceptional ingredient; with the addition of river fern, preserved pumpkin, finger lime and brown butter emulsion, it was taken somewhere altogether stratospheric. I risk sounding hyperbolic, but this dish, and the scallops, were two of the most exciting I have eaten in years.

Two more courses followed: Doodlakine pork and then wagyu, before a dessert of chocolate mousse that came with passion fruit, sorbet and a cream infused with wattle seeds.

Matching wines – all local, naturally – completed a truly memorable dinner and a salutary reminder of the amazing natural larder that surrounds us, most of which we know nothing about.

The Wildflower Experience is priced from A$1,950 (US$1,500) for two nights, based on two guests sharing. It is available until November 30 from Como The Treasury.