“Do you know where to get lemon myrtle leaves?”
My husband wanted to make me a cocktail. Ever the supportive wife, I told him I could help him. Last year, I wrote about lilli pillis, a bush food that’s easy to forage in the city. One of the bloggers that liked that post was Peppermint Ridge Farm. Since then, I’d had visiting the farm on my mental to-do list.
From small beginnings, big ideas grow. First we intended to visit the farm and buy ingredients from their shop or nursery. But then we noticed the farm offers cooking classes….and accommodation. The stage was set for a Gippsland adventure – the first part I wrote about here.
Julie met us as we arrived at the farm. She has a lovely garden that spreads around the property with several purposeful zones. This morning, she took us to the bush foods zone. Julie’s ecology and environmental science background made her a wonderful guide. She’s researched the history of all her bush foods and can quote the latest scientific research papers on them.
We made our acquaintance again with warrigal greens, a plant we’ve grown and cooked with before. What we didn’t know was that this wasn’t considered a food plant by Aboriginal people. Like spinach, it contains oxalates, which are broken down with blanching. Aboriginal people didn’t have containers capable of boiling water.
Julie told us that many bush foods used now are useful because of cooking techniques brought by Europeans. A lot of the plants in her garden are from sub tropical areas of Australia. They’re not endemic but can grow well in Victoria with the right microclimate.
Next, we met lemon myrtle, mountain pepper and strawberry gum. We collected leaves from the lemon myrtle and mountain pepper for lunch. Julie promised us a strawberry gum treat for later. The strawberry gum’s leaves really do smell like strawberries when crushed.
Down the path, Dianella, river mint, native thyme and two kinds of finger lime greeted us. Julie updated us on recent research, which points to the Australian desert lime as the common ancestor of all citrus!
Finally, we stopped at the anise myrtle tree, with its wavy leaves. Like many bush foods in Julie’s garden, its high in antioxidants and Vitamin C. The anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties of these foods make them a natural preservative.
Getting our cook on
We carried our harvest into in the old school house to start cooking. The school house used to be the primary school in Packenham. Julie herself was a student here! When the school building was sold, Julie and Anthony moved it here for tearooms and a commercial kitchen.
Julie had prepared a menu based on our eating preferences. We divided the tasks between us and started preparing ingredients. I began melting chocolate for anise myrtle and chocolate truffles. My husband took charge of an eggplant and cauliflower curry with anise myrtle, carrot and cashew sauce. Julie encouraged us to use large quantities of fresh leaves. Several recipes also called for a drop of essential oil from the same plant to ramp up the flavour. All ingredients were up for debate and we added mountain pepper to the truffles as an experiment. Taste tests delivered a rounded, slightly spiced anise chocolate flavour.
Once the truffle mixture was in the fridge, I started preparing a coconut and finger lime sorbet. I haven’t made sorbet before, so the whole process was interesting. Preparing the finger limes was a real novelty. Native limes are full of juicy beads, rather than fleshy segments like most citrus I’m used to. Julie calls them lime caviar! It was my job to zest the fruit, then squeeze out the beads.
With the curry on the stove, my husband moved onto a warrigal greens pesto. He blanched the leaves to reduce the oxalic acid in them, then squeezed the water out before blending. It was some of the tastiest pesto I’ve ever eaten. Rich in flavour and a little spicy thanks to some mountain pepper leaves.
We ducked into the vegetable garden to collect ingredients for a green salad. I’ve never had a cucumber cut fresh from the plant 🙂 I was tasked with making a lemon myrtle dressing. Julie showed us the chemical reaction that occurs when mountain pepper berries touch vinegar. They turn pink!
The cooking class ran at a brisk pace, with just a quick morning tea break to test the truffles and pesto. We were proud we’d made so many different dishes for the first time.
Enjoying the results
We feasted on our creations for lunch. The curry had a mild, almost floral flavour, while the salad added a fresh crunch. The lime caviar kept their bead shape in the sorbet, and burst with zingy flavour as you ate. Yum.
Julie was good to her word and shared some strawberry gum infused tequila she’d made. In answer, we pulled out the Forty Spotted gin we’d brought along (a gin made with mountain pepper). An impromptu cocktail session resulted in a delicious cucumber essence gin and tonic. We were staying at Cornucopia cottage that night (one of the excellent accommodation options that Peppermint ridge farm offer). Julie sent us off with extra myrtle leaves and a mortar and pestle so we could continue our cocktail adventures into the night 🙂
edited to add: I’ve been thinking over how I wrote this post and I want to be clear: the methods and ingredients discussed here are only one (westernised) aspect of bush food. Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu provides one indigenous perspective on local food plants.