A hand holds a wooden pocket, in which sit green berries, yellow straw, feathers and bark.

From saltbush to samphire: tasting the indigenous ingredients of Australia's volcanic south

The terrain of southwest Victoria is home to some of Australia’s best and most abundant produce. Dormant volcanoes are planted with vines, eels swim in crater lakes and the bush is a ‘supermarket’ stocking everything from wattleseed to warrigal greens.

A selection of native plants, used for food and medicine, at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve.
Photograph by Liam Neal
This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The only problem I have with eel these days is using a knife and fork — I want to use my hands,” says Jayden Lillyst. “It feels more natural.”

I take his lead and hold a segment of smoked eel between my thumb and forefinger. The skin peels away with ease, leaving dehydrated, salty flesh. It’s hardy and intense, a ribbon of brittle fish ‘crackling’: a desirable, crunchy addition. Alongside it on the tasting platter are creamy eel pâté and arancini flecked with smoked eel — the latter a more subtle introduction for first-timers.

Here, in the cafe of the Tae Rak Aquaculture Centre, a four-hour drive from Melbourne, in southwest Victoria, eels aren’t the only local speciality on the menu. Other dishes incorporate river mint, lemon myrtle and kangaroo. Known as the Volcanic Lakes and Plains region, this corner of Australia is the third-largest volcanic plain in the world, and its nutrient-rich soils connect ancient Aboriginal food culture with the produce served in the region’s restaurants today.

“Ngatanwarr wartee pa kakay teen Gunditjmara mirring,” says Jayden as he starts our tour, before translating: “Welcome, brothers and sisters, to Gunditjmara country.” The Gunditjmara, of whom Jayden is one, are the traditional landowners of this area, which is now part of the UNESCO-listed Budj Bim National Park.

The Gunditjmara have been living off the land and waters here for millennia. Budj Bim, or Mount Eccles, last erupted 37,000 years ago, with the lava forming basalt rises and chiselling out ponds that the First Nations community used for storing eels and other fish. It’s said to be the world’s oldest aquaculture system. Canals connect each pond, which are sometimes cut off from one another and the nearby lake during drier seasons.

Tae Rak, also known as Lake Condah, was severely disrupted when European settlers installed drainage channels in the 1880s and 1950s, but recent restoration and conservation initiatives are returning it to its former glory. The Aquaculture Centre stands on the shore of Tae Rak, where families of black swans and downy grey cygnets paddle between swarms of mating dragonflies, while wedge-tailed eagles gracefully assess intruders from above. The centre’s cafe currently sources its short-finned eel from bodies of water in nearby towns, but once the fish population here has returned to pre-European density, it will come from lake to plate.

“This place was meant to mimic the old ways,” says Jayden, gesturing to the lake. “You catch, you process, and that’s your currency.” His ancestors would trade smoked eel, which was prized for lasting 10 days or more without refrigeration, for materials to build tools. 

Basalt, sand and ash

The Volcanic Lakes and Plains region spreads from Tower Hill and Budj Bim in the west to Beeac in the east, around 100 miles from Melbourne. It’s a region dotted with family-run businesses based in small country communities. As I drive through here, the landscape transforms from tranquil lakes, vast pastures and country towns to dramatic volcanic rock formations and beaches with craggy boulders jutting into the Indian Ocean. 

Around an hour’s drive south east of Budj Bim, a short detour off the much-visited Great Ocean Road, is Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, a lush landscape with a dormant volcano at its heart. Cliffs patterned with layers resembling vertical ripples flank one side of the road. On the other, the land slopes down to Tower Hill Lake, which practically surrounds the reserve, with just a narrow road offering access across the water. The unique landform in the centre of the lake was created when smaller eruptions exploded within the crater 35,000 years ago. 

“That was our supermarket, out there,” says Brett Clarke, a tour guide and member of the Kirrae Wurrung First Nations community, gesturing to the bush. He works with Worn Gundidj, an Aboriginal social enterprise that, among other projects, runs tours focused on identifying native plants and their uses.

“Not many people realise it, but we had our own gardening system here,” says Brett. He passes me a bundi, a bulbous, wooden club with a teardrop tip used for smoking ceremonies and digging, including for food. “In this area, the old men were growing, harvesting, trading and roasting our own spuds, called murnong, a traditional yam daisy.”

The volcanic soil here — layered with basalt, sand and ash — provides ideal drainage for tubers. It’s no coincidence that the nearby town of Koroit attracted Irish immigrant potato farmers in the 1840s. Brett explains how yams are traditionally cooked over fire in the grass basket in which they’re gathered, sandwiched between layers of watercress and native herbs and, once soft, eaten hot from the coals.

Worn Gundidj recently launched a successful bush-food collaboration with Timboon Fine Ice Cream, around 30 miles away — local in Australian terms. Worn Gundidj provides native plants that are mixed with local dairy into paper cups, which are sold at the Tower Hill visitor centre, the Timboon ice creamery and other independent shops. I dig my spoon into a helping of vanilla, speckled with crushed wattleseed, which imparts a nutty, coffee-like flavour. The peppermint gum ice cream, meanwhile, has refreshing notes of eucalyptus, while the Davidson plum sorbet has an earthy tang.

Over in Koroit, a short drive from the nature reserve, Noodledoof Brewing & Distilling Co also works with Worn Gundidj to source native botanicals for its gin. Correa alba, a coastal shrub with white flowers, is picked from inside the volcanic crater, while mountain pepper and lemon myrtle are sourced from the Otway Ranges, 100 miles to the south east. 

Inside Noodledoof’s bare-brick warehouse, diners tuck into paperbark-smoked chicken wings and sip small-batch beers, often made with produce destined for the bin. Every spring, owners Sam ‘Noodles’ Rudolph and Alex ‘Doof’ Carr ask locals to bring in any excess rhubarb they have, to be used in a rhubarb custard sour. A free coffee or pot of the finished product is given in exchange.

“We’re also planning on doing a raspberry and chocolate sour, because a chocolate shop rang up and asked if we had any use for 200kg [440lb] of used cacao husks,” says Sam.

Stacked against one wall are crates of strawberry puree. Damaged produce from a local restaurant supplier, the puree has been blended and frozen, ready to be incorporated into new concoctions. The supplier, Volcano Produce, has a roadside stall off the Princes Highway, where I stopped off for a visit earlier. As I arrived, a man in a rusty white truck pulled over on his way out, proffering an oversized strawberry from the window. He told me he’d recently lost a large batch due to the heavy rain, but this specimen was flawlessly red, perfumed like summer cordial.

Volcano Produce ingredients also feature on the menu at Fen in Port Fairy, a historic fishing town that’s considered the end of the Great Ocean Road (it technically finishes to the east of there, in Allansford, where it becomes the Princes Highway before continuing along the coast into South Australia). Port Fairy’s quaint, coastal streets are lined with grand, classical architecture: bluestone-brick buildings, an old two-storey millhouse and hotels dating back to the mid-1800s. Sharing a sandstone building with its food and wine store, Fen is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Ryan and Kirstyn Sessions, who grew up in the region. They first made their mark locally with a restaurant at the Merrijig Inn in the mid-2000s, before opening this place in 2022. Seating just 14, Fen is only open on Friday and Saturday nights, serving a 12-course degustation menu that celebrates the best of local produce.

“Around the same time we started, Noma was blowing up and we found we could get a lot of the coastal herbs that they were using [in Copenhagen] around here,” says Ryan, the restaurant’s only chef.

He’s not wrong. Among the dunes at Port Fairy’s Pea Soup Beach, karkalla plants sprout purple flowers that Ryan uses for garnish, while warrigal greens creep between ground cover. Salty ice plant, distinctive for its frosty appearance, gathers where the foliage thins, and thick samphire shrubs spring out between black volcanic boulders that spill into the sea. 

Back at the restaurant, I watch as Ryan fastidiously assembles a miniature ecosystem on a custom ceramic plate. He packs a wafer-thin tart shell with cubes of beetroot, goat’s cheese and the prettiest of the strawberries, carefully sliced. Garnishes are tweezered on: slivers of pickled sunrise lime (a soft-skinned, kumquat-like fruit), dehydrated karkalla petals and orange chickweed flowers, which, says Ryan, were “foraged literally from behind the fence”. It’s a single, electric mouthful that journeys from earthiness to a burst of fruit, with plenty of crunch and tang.

A nod to Budj Bim

“This is the largest volcanic plain in the Southern Hemisphere and bugger-all people know that,” says Shane Clancey. In 2002, he gave up running restaurants in Port Fairy to transform an old potato field into Basalt Wines, a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it winery and cellar door, on the route to Tower Hill. He grows and pours riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir, tempranillo and shiraz (the latter made using grapes from the Grampians, further north, rather than his own plot).

“In this region, the flavours come in at a lower baumé [a measurement indicating how much sugar is in the grapes], so there’s a nice, high acidity that just balances them out and freshens them up,” says Shane.

Basalt’s vineyards are dry-grown, without irrigation, as the soil here provides ample drainage and can also store water. The less liquid, the more concentrated the grapes, and the greater the acidity. The maritime climate also blows cold wind in from the Antarctic, but hints of saltiness come not from the ocean breeze but via the high concentration of nutrients such as magnesium, calcium and potassium in the fruit. 

Shane pours a tempranillo and a riesling. The former is typical of the region’s reds — subtle and elegant, rather than powerful and bursting with ripe fruit — while the riesling is as crisp as a maritime gust, like biting into a tart green apple.

When he can get the staff — a challenge for many hospitality businesses post-pandemic — Shane runs a restaurant from the cellar door, offering dishes such as smoked eel and local Killarney potato with smoked Shaw River buffalo cheese, served on basalt tiles. ‘Our nod to Budj Bim’, reads the menu. “Smoked eel has been a real feature for us in the past 20 years,” says Shane. “I’ve always really tried to focus on that story. With the Killarney potatoes, it’s melding the two histories on the one plate.”

Basalt Wines sits within the Henty wine region, which spans from the South Australian border to the Hopkins River, around 120 miles west of Melbourne. Henty is far less well-known than other Australian wine regions — it was founded on potato crops and dairy farming, not winemaking — but those who seek it out are rewarded with elegant reds with subtle spice and eucalyptus that mimic the red, gum-peppered landscape, and whites filled with zesty minerality. 

Keayang Maar Vineyard is a Henty newcomer, its cellar door having opened in the small, rural town of Dixie in 2021. Jerram Wurlod left a job in the art department of Neighbours (there’s a Ramsay Street sign in the toilet as tribute) to come back here and help his retired dairy-farmer parents with a winemaking project they’d started as a hobby. The property sits on the edge of a volcanic crater, with other dormant volcanoes looming on the horizon. Once, in kindergarten, Jerram’s son drew a picture of their house on the side of an erupting volcano. And ‘maar’ in the brand’s name is the local Aboriginal word for a crater formation (‘keayang’ means eel).

Standing on the west-facing slope of the crater, among the 13-year-old pinot noir and syrah vines, Jerram allows the crumbly soil to fall through his fingers. “This dark, aerated, volcanic clay has blown up here from what would’ve been a dry lakebed over thousands of years,” he says.

With just three acres of productive vines and six acres in total, Keayang Maar released its first estate wines, pinot noir and shiraz, last year. The small quantities sold out quickly, but I’m treated to a taste of the 2022 vintage straight from the barrel, before its spring 2023 release. It’s a stunning shade of garnet with a youthful, cherry freshness, but I can already detect the structure from the gentle acidity as the juice rolls down my throat.

The other wines are available to try at the cellar door, where Jerram’s wife, Caitlin, has pieced together a DIY deli fridge for visitors to help themselves to local cheese and charcuterie. As we sip our wine on the veranda, the sun casts shadows at the edges of the crater. It serves as a reminder of the gastronomic influence this unique landscape has had, from storing ancient eels to growing grapes, 35,000 years later.

Five indigenous ingredients to try

1. Saltbush 
Of the various species, old man saltbush (more common inland) and the grey, coastal variety are often served alongside roasted meats and seafood, or deep-fried as garnish. The tiny berries from ruby saltbush are traditionally eaten for their vitamin C content and used as lip colouring.

2. Black wattle tree
Black wattle seeds grow in pea-like clusters and, once roasted, can be ground into breads, desserts and even coffee. The bark is also steeped in water to create a traditional medicine. 

3. Karkalla
Also known as pigface or beach banana, this coastal succulent tends to grow on sand dunes and rocky cliffs. It’s briny, juicy and fleshy and a fantastic supplement in salads, stir-fries and with seafood. Its pinkish-purple flowers are also edible. 

4. Warrigal greens
Australia’s answer to spinach, warrigal greens can be eaten in salads, stir-fries and more, and contain a high concentration of vitamin C. Blanch and use them as you would spinach.

5. Samphire 
Also referred to as sea asparagus, samphire grows in sandy soil and salty flats. This native succulent — a close relative of the varieties that grow in the UK — has a woody stem and is best blanched before cooking. Depending on the season, its knobbly branches might be plump and green or dryer and tinged red. It can also be pickled.

Getting there and around

Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Emirates fly to Melbourne from Heathrow, via Perth, Singapore and Dubai, respectively. From there, it’s best to hire a car to explore Victoria. 

Where to stay in Victoria

The Oak & Anchor is an adults-only boutique hotel in Port Fairy, within a heritage 1857 building. From AU$230 (£130), room only.

Published in Issue 19 (Spring 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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