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OUTBACK CUISINE

Indigenous Australian chef, Mark Olive, creates gourmet dishes from bush food.

Story and photos by

Mention indigenous culture in Australia and most people think of Aboriginal art work or didgeridoos. Ask Aboriginal chef, Mark Olive, and you'll learn about indigenous Australian cuisine. Known for his TV cooking show, The Outback Café, the Aussie chef, nicknamed "the Black Olive," uses wild herbs, spices and native Australian meats and fish to create gourmet meals.

Mark Olive displays bush herbs and spices.
Mark Olive displays bush herbs and spices.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Born in Wollongong, on the Tasman Sea coast, 80 kilometres south of Sydney, Mark Olive is a member of the Bundjalong tribe, from New South Wales. "I've been cooking for 30 years," he says. "I started by watching my mother, aunties and grandparents cook." He later completed an apprenticeship under Rino Collechia, an Italian chef.

Bush tucker

"Australian cuisine has many different flavours. It's diverse, like Australia, which has 368 languages," he says. To illustrate his point, he pulls out a tray of tiny dishes, filled with bush herbs and spices.

Bush tucker (wild Australian fruits, seeds, herbs, meats and fish) have sustained Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years. Nowadays, we call it organic food.

"Taste this," says Mark Olive, as he offers us some finely ground leaves. "See how salty it is? But there's no sodium in it at all. We call it 'old man's salt bush.' It's our indigenous salt and pepper."

He then asks us to sniff the aroma of aniseed myrtle. The ground leaves of the Backhousia anisata smell like fennel.

Cameron McCarthy plays Aboriginal music on a didgeridoo.
Cameron McCarthy plays Aboriginal music
on a didgeridoo.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wild herbs

"Now taste this river mint," he says. The ground wild Mentha australis plant leaves have a concentrated spearmint flavour. Mark Olive uses river mint in a delicious medallion of seared glazed spring lamb fillet, topped with a dollop of river mint jelly, with sliced cherry tomato on a toasted brioche disc.

He then introduces us to mountain pepper, or pepperberry (Tasmannia lanceolata). "The berries grow on trees that originated in Tasmania. They have a very hot taste. Aboriginal people also use pepperberries for painting. If you add a bit of water to them, you'll see a red ochre color."

Pepperberries are used in soups, meat marinades, potatoes, pastas and any dish that requires a zesty zap. We enjoyed pepperberries in an appetizer that Mark Olive prepared. The tasty polenta-based layered native herb vegetable slice was garnished with mountain pepper dusted cracked and roasted macadamia nuts.

"We have hundreds of types of acacia in Australia," says Chef Olive. "Green wattle has a lovely nutty flavour that's good for making biscuits and dressings."

Tasmanian honey

Wattle seed (Acacia victoriae) added crunch and flavour to a traditional Aussie damper that Mark Olive made from flour, water and salt. The bannock-like bread was delicious, especially when spread with eucalyptus-scented butter and Tasmanian leatherwood honey.

Tasmanian leatherwood honey
Tasmanian leatherwood honey
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Sniff the aroma of these black wattle seeds," he says. They smell like coffee. Aboriginal people hand harvest the wattle seeds from acacias in the Northern Territory, then roast and grind the seeds.

"There's no caffeine in roasted wattle seed," explains Mark Olive. "You can use it as a coffee substitute in wattle lattes, cappuccinos and tiramisu."

Organic spices

He then shows us some bush tomatoes (Solanum centrale). "Their Aboriginal name is kutjera or akatjurra, but they're also called desert raisins," he says. "When the kutjera turn yellow, we know they're ripe." Bush tomatoes grow in the Northern Territory around Uluru. The kutjera are left to dry on the bushes, then the Aboriginal people harvest them.

We sample a pinch of the indigenous spice. It tastes like zesty sun-dried tomatoes. "Bush tomatoes are very high in Vitamin C," notes The Black Olive.

The variety of indigenous Australian spices and herbs astounds us. Mark Olive describes regional herbs, like sea parsley (Apium prostratum). "It looks like parsley, but has lovely woody and celery flavours."

He also describes the monk tree berry. "The fruit looks like a small Granny Smith apple, but it has a cinnamon aftertaste. Monk tree berries are high in Vitamin C."

Skillogalee Riesling wine from Clare Valley, South Australia.
Skillogalee Riesling wine from Clare Valley,
South Australia.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Rainforest herbs

One of the most versatile Aboriginal herbs is lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora). Grown in the rainforests of northeast Australia, lemon myrtle leaves add the citrus flavor and aroma of lemon zest and lemongrass to tea, fish, salad dressings, vegetables and desserts. Mark Olive makes a mouth-watering pineapple mango lemon myrtle salsa to accompany an oven-roasted wild barramundi, which he crowns with pickled ginger.

Chef Olive combines wild Australian herbs and spices to make a dukkah or herb mix. He rubs a kangaroo tail fillet with native herbs, roasts it and serves it with baby carrots, blanched snow peas, merlot jus, a creamy lemon oil and chardonnay vinegar and sweet potato mash. The kangaroo meat tastes like tender roast beef.

"Kangaroo is part of our Australian national cuisine," says Mark Olive. "We also eat emu meat and crocodile meat. Possum meat is also delicious, cooked with aniseed myrtle and lots of merlot."

Wine and food pairings

Australian wines match beautifully with Mark Olive's indigenous food recipes. D'Arenberg Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne complemented the wild barramundi. A Bordeaux blend, Alkoomi Blackbutt, paired well with the kangaroo meat.

What about indigenous desserts? Lamingtons (sponge cakes with chocolate topping and shredded coconut) are popular in Australia, so Mark Olive creates an indigenous recipe for lamingtons.

Dried quandongs
Dried quandongs
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

He shows us a dish of dried guandongs (Santalum acuminatum). "It's called a native peach," he says. "A quandong is a wild red fruit with a peach aroma and a pungent flavor." He stews guandongs into a sauce to accompany lamingtons, along with Chantilly cream and macadamia nuts.

Tasmanian cheeses

Quandongs, combined with Davidson plums, make a delicious sweet jam, which Mark Olive serves with three delectable Tasmanian King Island cheeses—Sea Bay triple crème, Stokes Point apple cheddar and Roaring Forties blue cheese. Nugan Cookoothama Semillon is a perfect wine match for the Tasmanian cheese.

What does the future hold for Australia's Aboriginal celebrity chef? "I started a catering company in Melbourne and I've written up a new series of TV cooking shows," he says. The ultimate goal, for Mark Olive, is a restaurant that specializes in gourmet Aboriginal food and teaches indigenous young people about Aboriginal cooking and restaurant management.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Mark Olive: www.blackolive.net.au

Tourism Australia: www.australia.com

Wine Australia: www.wineaustralia.com

Emirates Flights to Australia

More things to see & do in Australia:

What to do in South Australia

Tjapukai Cultural Park

Sydney Australia Stopover