With 40 years’ experience, Peter Hardwick – forager at Harvest restaurant, Newrybar – knows his way around weeds. Here he talks early epiphanies and stinking roger sorbet.
Every day I go into the kitchen to assess their needs for the day.
I see what they’ve run out of; if they’re out of fermented products that I have in stock (we have a food lab near the restaurant where we do fermenting), then I’ll supply it immediately and if they’re products that need harvesting, I go out that day or the next to keep the larder full.
Generally speaking, you have council parks where fruit is just falling off the trees.
There are special licences you can get if you’re harvesting out of state forests, but I don’t harvest there, so I don’t need one. No one seems to mind you harvesting the fruit, and we’re reducing the fruit fly risk or solving a messy fruit problem. In the case of harvesting weeds, making people get a licence to harvest introduced weeds would
be silly. You’re turning what’s an environmental problem into a positive by eating and reducing the impact of that weed.
What we’re doing is very benign; we’re not going in there and ripping up whole plants.
It’s very much a pick-harvesting situation and we harvest fruit in a way that’s quite sustainable and not damaging to plants. We also harvest some native ingredients from people who cultivate ornamental plants.
A weed is a plant that’s not native and has gone feral.
We call it feral food and some of it’s quite nutritious. It might sound strange but the reality is that some of these weeds were eaten in Europe in ancient times; they’ve been found in clay pots at archaeological sites. Those plants have been brought to Australia and they’ve become weeds, but they have a heritage of people eating them and they often have good health properties.
One classic weed everyone knows is dandelion.
It’s bitter and has medicinal properties. Another one that looks a bit like dandelion is called catsear (or flatweed). That’s eaten in Greece, in a dish called ‘horta’. They eat a lot of weeds there, traditionally in horta, which is blanched weeds with a dash of olive oil and a little lemon juice. It’s incredibly healthy: very high in wonderful, nutritious phytochemicals (natural plant chemicals). So there are great traditions in eating these weeds.
Both Bret [cameron, Harvest chef] and I get equally excited about working with new ingredients.
Bret just loves all the new flavours and we bounce off each other a lot. I joke that I am throwing the curve balls and the chefs are grabbing them and turning them into wonderful dishes. I love figuring out how to turn these ingredients into something that becomes useful, or more useful. That’s really exciting, transforming the ingredient.
I’ve built up my skill base on toxicology over 40 years.
When I got into this at 18 years old, I had enough sense to be cautious. I started off with the edible fruit then gradually moved into the plant parts that required more caution. Some botanical families are inherently more prone to containing toxic plants, so you steer clear of those or treat them with respect. I also work with biochemists and read a lot of scientific papers on toxicology.
In 1977, when I was about 18 years old, I had an epiphany while listening to the radio.
A forester was being interviewed about why he was cutting down a beautiful patch of old-growth forest in the Border Ranges (which is now World Heritage listed). He said, “there’s nothing else of value in the forest other than timber”. That seems such a silly thing to say now. Who would say that? But this was 1977 and that was the mindset then. I thought, ‘that’s not true!’ I’d been fascinated with bush foods since I was four years old, but at that point, I said to myself ‘OK, this is it’. I decided to make it my life’s task to research native foods to counter that argument and show people there is something of value in the native bush. And, at the same time, try to encourage people to regenerate these native food plants in ecosystems.
It was an interesting epiphany to have as a teenager.
But it wasn’t until 10 years later in my late twenties that I had encounters with Indigenous elders on the north coast about bush foods. It was amazing and doors opened. My approach was more to inform the elders about what I was doing rather than to pick their brains. If information was offered then that was great, but I always felt obliged not to use that information because any cultural knowledge given to me by an elder shouldn’t be used without their permission. My aim was more to just hang out.
Mass producing a new food crop takes a true entrepreneur.
Some bush foods are mass produced, of course, but it’s still hard to get hold of fresh native produce. True entrepreneurs in a new field are always thin on the ground. It does require someone to have the vision and then be able to make that happen in the marketplace. That skillset isn’t that common.
Foraging opens the door.
We’re able to make an assessment of a particular plant’s culinary qualities and try it out in a real-life restaurant situation, feed it to people and get their reactions. But the next job is to get the ones that look promising into cultivation. That’s the logical step, because if you were only to expect that foraging alone would meet all the needs of every restaurant in Australia, then it could be a problem.
I came up with the name for warrigal greens in the 1980s.
I initially foraged the greens near Ballina, NSW, for a restaurant in Sydney. I came up with that name because it sounded better than New Zealand spinach, which everyone was calling it at that stage, ironically. We hybridised two words: warrigal cabbage, an old colonial name for the plant, and Botany Bay greens, which also sounded too colonial.
Foraging is an important part of being human on this planet.
It’s an important part of having a relationship with nature. It’s nice to think we’re able to forage some of our food.
We’re a little cheeky with what we serve at our Wild Harvest sessions.
There’s a plant called farmer’s friend and everyone hates it. They know it for its seeds sticking in your socks. I harvest the top 10 centimetres of stem and new growth, boil it and ferment it then turn it into a kimchi with spices and our in-house vinegars – it’s very tasty. It just blows people away because you’re turning something totally on its head. There’s this nuisance weed that everyone’s pulling up and you turn around and say, “Hey, you can eat this and we can turn it into something really tasty.”
I love that whole thing of turning things on their heads.
Another edible weed we serve is stinking roger. It has a very strong smell. It’s a culinary herb in Peru but it’s a common weed around here. We serve a stinking roger sorbet.
You dilute the flavour right down and put it into a sorbet; it’s bright green and it has quite a lovely flavour. When you tell the old farmers who come in that it’s stinking roger they just can’t believe it.
There’s no such thing as an overnight professional forager.
It takes a long time to acquire that skillset. It’s such unforgiving territory. When you’re doing it for other people you have to cross your ‘t’s and dot your ‘i’s. Most people who are foraging are pretty sensible. There was one guy a few years ago who was saying he was a bush food expert and he obviously wasn’t. He was out there telling people what they could eat, but he didn’t know what he was talking about and it was dangerous. You need to know that the person giving you information is a reliable source.
Working with bush foods enables an exciting exchange between cultures.
We did a Wild Harvest fundraiser for the Boomerang Festival [an Indigenous cultural festival] at Harvest restaurant. It was all about acknowledging the traditional culinary heritage that’s existed here for thousands of years. We created a menu of native ingredients inspired by that. It was a lot of fun, and there was a wonderful sense of sharing at the event.
Acknowledging native foods is inherently an act of reconciliation.
Because it recognises the quality of Indigenous food culture. It’s like, let’s just get in there and share this wonderful food, but at the same time it’s inherently respectful. How can one eat native food and not recognise its origin? That’s my argument, anyway. But some people might exploit Indigenous culture so we need to be aware; we need to have a sensitivity and respect towards traditional cuisine.
If I wasn’t a forager I’d be a street performer.
In my twenties I had a choice between doing street performance (I wanted to do clowning and poetry) in Adelaide or coming here and starting up a bush food industry. In the end I decided to come up here.
Catch Peter’s foraged finds at Harvest’s Wild Harvest four-course dinners every Wednesday.