Member Stories: Rebecca Barnes, Playing with Fire Native Foods
Rebecca Barnes heads up Playing with Fire Native Foods, a local Northern Rivers NSW company that is working hard to promote the virtues of our amazing Australian native food industry.
She hasn’t always worked in the food industry – originally, she worked in the insurance industry but was looking for a career change that was a little more family friendly. Rebecca moved to the Northern Rivers NSW region back in 1996. She found inspiration one day when wandering through the bush with a friend and discovered the delights of native raspberries. A trial crop was planted a few months later and was a huge success.
“It was an important moment for me. My appetite for Australia’s indigenous foods was born and still grows today. I am fascinated by the variety, nutrition, taste, colours and smells of foods available and largely ignored by white man. Twenty-four years later from my original discovery of native raspberries, I believe the potential for these fruits has only grown” said Rebecca.
She explains that there are approximately 6,000 native food plants in Australia.
“When I started the business only ten of them were being used in this country in food production. These days that number is more like twenty, but is growing all the time, with growing interest from chefs, food manufacturers, distillers and the general public.”
What are the most popular Australian native foods?
Rebecca says the local Australian native food products most in demand these days include:
- Davidson Plums
- Finger Limes
- Lemon Myrtles (in fact all the myrtles)
- Strawberry gum and
- Lilly Pillies.
Others that grow in desert country, or colder climates include peppers, wattleseed, bush tomatoes and kakadu plum from the top end is in very high demand for its health benefits.
Rebecca says, in addition to these relatively well-known native foods, there is also an enormous array of indigenous spices and flavourings that are less well known but show incredible diversity of flavours and textures.
“Our peppers range from smooth and aromatic to super spicy and hot as hell. The variety amongst our native mints is truly astounding; woody and almost eucalypt-like from the rainforest, or sharp and exquisitely high note spearmint from our inland river beds there is a mint that will become your favourite. Our myrtles – lemon, aniseed, cinnamon and curry – beautiful and full of flavour. The harsh Outback deserts produce akudjura, small bush tomatoes with powerful complicated flavour that develops with each bite. Wattleseed, our favourite spring time flowers, produce a wonderful edible seed with chocolate, hazelnut, coffee tones – fabulous for a rich exotic flavour.”
What do they taste like?
The short answer is …it varies. There are so many different Australian native foods and they vary quite a bit. For example, the Australian native finger lime contains individual vesicles like caviar that burst in your mouth.
“Their fresh rejuvenating flavour of the rainforest and the taste of these intriguing fruits is nothing short of fantastic! These fruits are beautiful to break open and bite into. They don’t have the sour punch of other limes and are a sheer delight bursting with fresh lime flavour shooting into your mouth.”
“Our native raspberries are sweet and juicy with distinctive colours and flavours. Rubus probus from north Queensland shows huge promise as a cultivated variety as it has the best yield and works well with similar growing practices to the European and hybrid varieties. We have had the leaf from a local variety Rubus molucannus tested for its health and nutritional benefits – raspberry leaf is traditionally a strong women’s herb – and yes, the molucca leaf is effective whilst also containing anti-bacterial qualities. ”
“Davidson Plums are incredibly sour, not the type of fruit you eat straight from the tree, but their wonderful sharp acidity makes them perfect for jams and sauces of all kinds. Davidson Plums become deliciously tangy when cooked and the colour is nothing short of spectacular – a ‘davo’ sauce or powder looks sensational on any dish.”
Rebecca explains that a good number of other Australian fruits cannot be described as sweet or tasty when compared to the array of pulpy, very sweet fruits readily available.
“To appreciate native Australian fruit, we need to adjust our sense of taste so that we can accommodate a range of flavours that includes bitterness, sourness and a high degree of acidity.”
Rebecca says the COVID year was initially tough for her and her business. With a renewed focus on domestic product, and with food manufacturers and distillers often not being able to source international products, she found the demand for Australian native foods as ingredients soared and so too did the prices as demand increased.
She says it is still quite challenging to source enough Davidson Plums as more and more people discover the benefits of using it in food manufacture, the price has gone sky rocket high.
COVID also saw the land she leased to grow a number of local Australian native foods be resumed by the owner. She is currently seeking new land to lease and also would like to encourage more local landholders to start growing some of these Australian native foods that are in such high demand.
On the positive side, she helped develop the indigenous growers group Jah Gubih (which means ‘edible’ in Bundjalung nation language), which is planning to support the growth and sustainability of the industry locally.
She also launched a new range of herbal teas using functional, delicious and sustainable Australian native botanicals – Walkabout, Secret Womens Business, Dreaming and No Worries.
Rebecca would like to see more people growing Australian native foods in this region.
She encourages people moving to this region who buy land to consider growing Australian native foods such as Davidson Plums and myrtles to help increase the supply to meet the growing demand. She would also like to see more co-ordination to help source, process and market Australian native foods in this region, perhaps via a local co-operative.
In the meantime, Rebecca is continuing to source fresh, frozen and dried Australian native produce for her growing business. She also offers a grower consultation service and education programs for people starting out. She welcomes contact from growers seeking information on growing Australian native foods.
“Overall, there is so much depth to this industry – it is so fascinating. I enjoy working with our local growers who produce Australian native foods. There are literally hundreds of varieties of fruit and nuts found on native Australian trees, bushes, shrubs and vines. Some varieties are available year-round whilst others occur only intermittently and seasonally. In some years many varieties of fruits do not bear at all because of environmental factors – too little or too much rain usually! It is always interesting and engaging working in this industry.”
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