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A Sydney Ranger, a Maori Hangi, and Fairy Bread
Indigenous Foods in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park Near Sydney, Australia;
Traditional Pit Barbeque in Auckland, New Zealand
by Fred Ferretti

"This plateau was the country of the Gurrangai aboriginal people. It was their nation," Steve King was telling us one morning a few months ago under a hot Australian sun, a sun that filtered through the gum and turpentine trees to dry the footpaths to dust and make the expanses of smooth and blackened sandstone around us uncomfortable to touch. "They were spear fisherman in the shallows," he said, as he gestured toward the small bays and creeks of the Hawkesbury River below. "But much of their food came from up here."

King is a ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales, and he had agreed to walk us through Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, a protected bushland where more than ten thousand years of aboriginal history is preserved. In his college days King studied archaeology, conservation, forestry, and law enforcement, and he makes use of all these disciplines in his present job. "I need to be a jack-of-all-trades here," he said. "One day I'm cooking sausages over a fire for a visiting minister, the next I'm fighting bush fires." Every day he roves this bush he loves, among the shades of the Aborigines who once lived here, whose presence he says he senses.

Ku-ring-gai Chase is about fifteen miles north of Sydney, and on a morning as clear as ours was that Sunday the knob of North Head point jutting above Sydney's harbor can be seen from the chase's rocky ledges. The national park is, however, a world away from the city, for within it are caves in which aborigines lived; smooth layers of Hawkesbury sandstone into which they carved deep-gouged images of themselves, their beliefs, and their environment; and ancient stone tools and petrified foods found in middens that continue to be unearthed.

The Gurrangai lived on their flat mountain and on its slopes more than ten thousand years ago, perhaps longer, according to the carbon dating of artifacts from archaeological digs, King told us. They thrived until the last years of the eighteenth century, when English settlers sailed into Botany Bay to the south and explored northward. Within a few years, all of the Gurrangai, lacking resistance to foreign diseases, died. What remains is their mountain and its remembrances in stone and the same kinds of flora and fauna that sustained the aboriginal inhabitants millennia ago. Ku-ring-gai Chase contains ninety-seven species of edible plants, more than at any other such preserve in Australia.

Pointing at the fans of leaves on a burrawang palm, the ranger said, "There are nuts the aborigines ate. They are poisonous, but, if you soak them in water for seven or eight days and change the water daily, you can roast them, pound them into meal, and make bread from the meal." We walked along a path bordered by scrub, none of it taller than about six feet. "This is a banksias," King said. He pulled a sausage-shaped flower, covered with soft needles, from a stalk. "It was a favored plant. The nectar from the flower is sweet, and the aborigines would soak the blossoms and drink the sweetened water."

"They ate the roots of these sedges," he said as we walked. "The stringy bark from these eucalyptus trees was made into fishing line, and the shells from the oysters and mussels they ate were filed down for hooks." The Gurrangai supplemented their diet of fish with the meat of wallabies and other kangaroos, which once were plentiful on the plateau. The red-purple berry of the lillypilly tree was also enjoyed, he said, most likely eaten out of hand.

"Blueberry ash," Steve King said, gesturing. "Its purple berry is edible. And that tree's leaves, which taste like sarsaparilla, were chewed to ease thirst. These grevillea flowers are filled with nectar. That native raspberry is delicious, and, although the bracken ferns are not particularly appetizing, their underground rhizomes were a staple." So were the tubers of the ground orchid, he told us. He pulled a branch from a shrub that resembled rosemary. "This is a tea tree," he said. "The pink flowers are what the aborigines steeped for tea." He pointed to a long stem with a flower and spike at its top, standing up amid a thick tuft of grass. "A grass tree. The spike was used for the shaft of a spear, and the ends of the leaves were a fine source of starch."

"These are wattles," he said of trees with tiny, lacy yellow flowers. "The Gurrangai ground the seeds into flour and made what we call damper with it." Damper is bush bread, and to this day it is made from wattle flour. "Those white flowers?" Peppermint. "Those fruits? We call them geebungs. They are quite a bit like grapes."

It was an exhilarating walk through Ku-ring-gai Chase that morning in the sun, a ramble of surprises and discoveries. In Australia these days, more and more restaurants appear to be making an effort to cook and otherwise prepare foods of the bush, the historic foods of the aborigines, foods other than the witjuti grubs, the tree larvae that the rest of the world knows as witchetty grubs and that mischievous Australians have been feeding visitors for years in all manner of guises.

As King walked us through the bush and through his litany of the fruits and nectars enjoyed by the aborigines, I wondered aloud whether, presented with such an array of sweetness, these first Australians had ever fermented fruit into alcohol. Evidently not, I was told. But then, why would they need to drink in a place of plenty and beauty like Ku-ring-gai?

Maori Hangi

"If you do not have manuka wood to burn, if you cannot get stones from a river, then you might just as well forget about having a proper hangi," Ruben Oneroa was saying one afternoon in a backyard in Auckland, New Zealand, as he watched wisps of smoke seep through a large mound of freshly turned soil and up into the leaves of the lemon trees.

We were in the yard belonging to our friends Lauraine and Murray Jacobs, in the Remuera section of Auckland, on an incline of Mount Hobson. Ruben and the Ihaka brothers, Daga and Dave (all three are Maori) had dug up the earth so that we might experience a true hangi, a tradition of those Polynesian first settlers of New Zealand, an outdoor feast with which they mark salient events in their personal lives and their history.

The stones that Ruben was talking about — between swallows of beer (another ingredient absolutely necessary for an honest hangi) and occasional tastes of green-lipped mussels lifted from a nearby barbecue — were of lava. "And you cannot have stones that have been in salt water," he said. "They will crack and split when you warm them. They will sound like guns. You have to have proper stones from fresh water. And manuka." Manuka is an extremely hard wood from the tea tree that burns slowly and with great heat.

Ruben, Daga, and Dave had excavated a rectangular hole about four feet by two and almost three feet deep and piled in it logs of manuka, which they ignited and covered with lava rocks. After two hours the rocks and wood ashes were removed and the hot lava re-bedded in the hole. On top of the rocks the men placed a tray of open metalwork onto which were layered, in ascending order, slabs of fatty pork; whole chickens; racks of lamb; jacketed potatoes; chunks of kumara (pronounced CUE-mara), a marvelous yellow sweet potato; and slices of pumpkin. The loaded tray was covered with lengths of linen, the linen with bolts of thick sailcloth, the sailcloth with burlap, and the burlap with the pile of loose dirt left from digging the hole. The food for the hangi thus "steams" under the soil, Ruben said.

The hangi, a culinary treasure, exemplifies much that is good about New Zealand's cuisine: its simplicity and lack of adornment. In my visits to Auckland and to Wellington I ate lamb and venison, grilled and roasted; fat mullet, kingfish, snapper, trevally, salmon, and tuna (all just pulled from the water, fish that tasted as fish ought to, whether steamed, panfried, or smoked); and thick pea soups with ham. I also ate fine vegetables and fruits — leeks, small sweet tomatoes, parsnips, tangelos, Braeburn apples, and "drinking nuts," which is what coconuts are called in the Saturday Polynesian market at Otara, near Auckland.

As we waited Ruben showed me an old lithograph of an 1844 hangi, wherein the Maori baked nine thousand sharks, one hundred pigs, and eleven thousand baskets of potatoes in a celebration of amity with new English arrivals to their country. "It was a major hangi," he said, "the kind we usually have to observe an important event like the accession or funeral of a leader, any occasion when we would have a hui," or important discussion.

Would we have a hui at our hangi, I asked?

"We are having one," said Ruben. "Have a mussel."

For about three hours, the buried food cooked, and then Ruben bent over the pile of smoky dirt, sniffed, and pronounced the food done. He and Daga and Dave shoveled the earth away and asked me to help shift first the burlap, then the canvas, then the linen. Finally the four of us lifted the enormous metal tray up and onto a table, where the meat and vegetables were sliced and served.

Into the night we ate pork, chicken, and lamb; softened potatoes, kumaras, and pumpkin; and all manner of greens and salads that others had contributed to the hangi. Moist and sweetly aromatic with the flavor of the kumara, the meats, tubers, and roots had cooked through perfectly. A glorious introductory hangi it was.

"You have learned a lot today, have you not?" Ruben asked.

Indeed I had. In the course of my afternoon hui, as the foods steamed, I had learned about lava rocks from fresh water and manuka wood; about the need for fatty pork to be the foundation of a successful hangi; that a little smoke will not harm lemon leaves; that good beer is necessary for the orchestration of a hangi.

"Good," said Ruben. "Now the haka."

A haka, he explained, is a Maori dance that concludes every hangi. To participate, one waves one's arms about while jumping from one foot to the other, up and down, back and forth, scowling and sticking one's tongue out to ward off enemies and unfriendly vapors.

"I'll watch," I told Ruben.

Fairy Bread

I had allowed myself the pleasure of a pie floater one midnight outside of the city casino in Adelaide. To describe it as hearty is to demean it, for it is mammoth. Pea soup is poured into a huge bowl, a meat pie is dropped into the soup, upside down, the whole is doused in ketchup and it is handed to you along with a spoon. I ate it, I really did, in the interest of Pan Pacific relations.

So it was that I was asked the morning after if I'd like something considerably lighter.

"You've had your Fairy Bread today, I expect?" I was asked one of those mornings in Australia.

"Well, no, actually I hadn't.

Aha, then, would I like to try some?

I suppose so.

What was set before me was a slice of soft white bread, buttered and dotted with many different-colored candy sprinkles.

"Fairy Bread?" I asked. Yes, I was told.

Children love it.

I am certain children love Fairy Bread. I passed.

Table For Two

We were in the library the other night, and I was attempting with only meager success to keep up with my readings on organically grown squash when it came to me. "I know where I've failed," I said, looking over to my wife.

"Failed? What?" she asked, peering up from her knitting.

"Not what. Who. I know now where we failed our children."

"We didn't fail anything," my wife responded. "It serves them right for not taking advanced kinetics. They could have been in arbitrage."

"Not that kind of failing," I said. "We didn't feed them peanut butter mixed with non-fat dry milk and rolled in crushed seeds. That's how we failed them."

"What?"

"We allowed them to consume bagels and cookies, soft drinks, bacon, granola, ketchup, French fries, pastrami, puddings, smoked salmon, cauliflower, peanuts, and pancake syrup. That's how we failed them."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm reading this book by a woman and her husband, a biochemist he is, who say that those foods and 163 others have kept our children's IQ's down. It's a very learned book. They say that those foods are not 'bright' foods; they are 'dull' foods. They do not feed the brain, these people say."

"Cauliflower?"

"And avocados," I replied.

"Nonsense," my wife countered.

"They eat sugar, right? Well, these people say that sugar makes children aggressive and sullen."

"Your son in particular is aggressive and sullen when he eats parsnips," my wife said. "But I don't blame that on parsnips. Don't talk to me about sullen. Didn't those people used to say granola was good?"

"I don't think it was them. It was probably some Swiss biochemist and his wife."

"What do they say about milk?" my wife asked.

"Who? The Swiss?"

"Don't be funny."

"They say that until the age of five milk is okay, but after that children should have non-fat dry milk," I answered. "If only we had fed them abalone, monkfish, pheasant, quail, skim milk, pot cheese, dried beans, dry yeast, guava, figs, okra, safflower oil, carob powder, chervil, and vanilla beans their IQs would be thirty-five points higher. Their brains would be sprightly and responsive. That's what they say. In fact they have this no-knead raisin bread . . . ."

"But they don't like any of those things, particularly chervil. It just so happens we were talking about chervil the other day and . . . ."

"Will you please be serious," I said. "We have an IQ problem here."

"We certainly do," agreed my wife.

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