Marinated Lakes Entrance sardines with smoked-garlic aioli, grapes and pickled onions. Photography courtesy Sardine Dining.
There has come a time during every meal I’ve had at Sardine Dining in Paynesville, Victoria, when I look around and remind myself that the chic room and pretty plates of flavourful little fish are not in Melbourne’s Fitzroy or Sydney’s Surry Hills, but deep in Gippsland, almost four hours’ drive from Melbourne. There are upsides and downsides to this. I prefer restaurants with a firm sense of place, and while the view of Paynesville’s shimmering waterfront through the front windows is a bit of a giveaway, this feels like a slick urban restaurant. There’s also the pesky problem of it being too far from my house for me to eat here anywhere near as often as I’d like.
But it would be wrong to complain that there’s no Gippsland to Sardine, because the restaurant’s menu is one concise love letter to the region and its bounty. Ever since Mark and Victoria Briggs opened this ambitious little eatery in this small lakeside town in 2017, their main goal has been to promote the produce — especially the seafood — of the Gippsland Lakes region.
“There is seafood here in abundance that no-one’s ever wanted before,” Mark says. “When we first arrived and told the fishermen we wanted sardines, people said, ‘Why would you buy that? That’s bait.’ Four years later and people come in specifically for the sardines.”
These fish are joined by abalone from Mallacoota, octopus from Lakes Entrance and the tiny whitebait that can be pulled out of any of the Gippsland Lakes. Many dishes on Sardine’s ever-changing menu are adorned with vibrant red and green pigface, a succulent that sprawls along the shores of those lakes.
The honey on a crispy zucchini flower stuffed with goat’s cheese is from Raymond Island, which you can see across the lake from Sardine’s front windows. The restaurant’s namesake fish is ultra-fresh, hand-filleted and served simply, with oil and a few seasonal garnishes, allowing its deep, oily taste to shine.
Mark is originally from Croston, England, but he fell in love with Paynesville when his mother-in-law moved there from Melbourne. “When we opened, people asked us how we were going to survive the winter,” he says, acknowledging that much of his business in summer comes from tourists from the city. “But the locals have supported us from the beginning. They understand that in summer, we’ll have a lot of visitors from Melbourne, so they wait and come in the winter.”
In November of last year, the couple opened Sardine Cantina, a wine store and bar just one door down from Sardine. The menu is simple: no cooked food, just cheese, charcuterie, and — of course — tins of sardines.
Local producers are the focal point at both the restaurant and the wine bar. A selection of fantastic beers from Sailors Grave Brewing in Orbost is always available, as are some lovely Gippsland wines. But other regions and countries are well represented, too. “For the locals, they could drink Gippsland wines every day,” Briggs says. “They may not have the option of a great Chablis. So we want to offer both.”
Often one of the biggest struggles for regional restaurants is finding appropriate staff, especially servers and other front of house workers. Many recruit from the cities, but Victoria, who runs the front of house, has taken a different path. Most of the waitstaff are local young people, who start at the restaurant as soon as they’re allowed to work and are trained from the ground up. And yet their professionalism and poise are fantastic. This is a great sign for hospitality and its potential to bolster the economy of regional Australia — by providing training and career opportunities to local kids who might not otherwise have that option. Sardine proves that when it’s done right, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Back in November, the celebrity chef Adam Liaw tweeted his wish for Australia to take a page from Japan’s book in terms of promoting the foods of its regions. “In the 1960s, the Japanese government started a ‘one town, one dish’ initiative encouraging local areas to develop regional foods to boost domestic tourism,” he said. “Sixty years later and domestic tourism in Japan is incredibly strong. Would love to see something like this in Australia.”
Regional Australia is undoubtedly the next great frontier of our country’s dining scene. A perfect scenario would be for each region to seize on what’s unique about the ingredients of the area and build a dining culture around those gifts. What I’d hate to see is the city-fication of our small towns — with so many people moving to the country, it would be easy for a kind of mass gentrification to take place, one in which any restaurant or cafe or bar in any town might as well be in Fitzroy or Surry Hills.
Sardine is a model for a middle ground, one on which something distinct can be built. Mark and Victoria have brought the best of the city — the urbane feel, the professional service — and melded it beautifully with food that is wholly of its place.
Address: 3/69 Esplanade, Paynesville, Victoria Website:sardinedining.com.au Contact:[email protected] Must-try dish: Hand-filleted sardines Hours: Open for late lunch, from 2pm, Friday and Saturday; and dinner, from 5:30pm, Tuesday to Saturday Cost: Sharing plates, $12–$50; four-course shared tasting menu, $90pp; degustation, $125pp Need to know: Bookings recommended
A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 46 of T Australia with the headline:
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The global healing crystal market is estimated to be $1.3 billion. Photography by Hasan Can Devsir.
It came in a box labelled “Stoned” and sat on my desk for weeks, unopened. Maybe it was because my engineer husband rolled his eyes whenever he saw it, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I’ve never really been interested in crystals, other than in jewellery during the 90s. Sure, I might graze the horoscopes occasionally, use essentials oils in a diffuser and had my tarot cards read once, but crystal ownership seems a long way from those pursuits.
Crystals are just so… inactive. How could they influence my mood or the events in my life? You don’t ingest crystals, or use them in cooking, you can’t ask them questions and they don’t provide answers. They just are. They just sit. When I finally do open the box, the words under the lid don’t fill me with the confidence I’m looking for: “Let a little magic in…” it instructed me. Magic? Is that what this is all about? I’m no Disney critic or hater of circus magicians (and I’ve even read all seven Harry Potter books), but this mention of magic just adds to my skepticism.
My hesitation is commonplace, according to Ashley Bellino, founder of Stoned Crystals and provider of the crystal in question. “Crystals aren’t a magical tool for curing anything,” she explains. “I know people often (even with the right intentions) want to believe that crystals can heal illnesses or be the solution to a problem in their lives, but I always say: ‘The crystal isn’t magic – the magic is within you!’”
Bellino, who fell in love with crystals as a child after feeling the “energy” of a giant Amethyst Cave, believes crystals need to be appreciated for their ability to bring energy and mindfulness to our lives. “They’re a piece of the earth that is intended to provide the energy our bodies and our minds need, however that looks for each individual.” The question is, how does that look for me?
The rest of the message on the box does pique my interest; words such as ‘mindset’ and ‘positive outlooks’ are used, both concepts I am familiar with and which have numerous respected studies behind them. So this, I think to myself, is perhaps like a mood board or five-year-plan but in mindfulness form. I turn the crystal over in my hands (it’s a smokey quartz the size of my palm) ; it certainly feels nice. Smooth, heavy, reassuring. Apparently, this is important.
“The way to understand crystals is to pick them up, hold them and engage with them,” says Bellino. “Growing up I always saw crystals behind glass [in shops], but crystals emit high and steady vibrations that help to create balance within oneself so it’s important that you interact with them to truly understand their benefit and power.” It’s this concept of interaction which stumps me. How does one ‘interact’ and set intentions on a rock? Do you talk to it in the cosseted way we talk to our pets? Or is it better to write down what you want on a piece of paper and place the crystal on top? Or maybe it’s best to just whisper the words in your mind? I decide the latter.
A few weeks later I find myself complaining to my friend Emma about the crystal sitting on my coffee table. “I just don’t think it’s working,” I hear myself say. A lover of crystals herself, Emma looks at the dust gathering on said crystal and the haphazard way I had tossed it into a bowl of trinkets, and promptly tells me I’m not respecting the crystal’s energy. “Have you even charged it?” she asks.
After quick lesson on cleansing my crystal (sea water or salty water is easiest) and charging my crystal (full moon or direct sun is best), she suggests I use my glittering gemstone to help me sleep better, by setting that intention and leaving it beside my bed. Her crystal-fearing husband had once done that and, for him at least, it had worked well.
Attracted by the thought of sleeping better – I have a two-year-old daughter after all – I take her advice and nestle the crystal next to my face oils and books on my nightstand. Then promptly forget all about it, until the deadline for this article loomed. Looking back over the past month, I ask myself, have I slept better? Have I slept deeper? Do I feel more rested? And the answer, quite interestingly, has been yes. My daughter has started sleeping through the night (thank the gods), and even though I work in the evenings until quite late, when I have fallen sleep, I sleep solid. I sleep deeply. I sleep well.
Is it the crystal that calms my brain and helps me drift off? It’s hard to say. It could be a myriad of other factors that helped with that, and a “study” of one person doing one activity is hardly scientific anyway. But perhaps it was the fact that I mindfully set an intention to sleep better that helped overall. There is, of course, years of research into the extensive benefits of visualisation, journalling and mindfulness. Either way, I can’t deny the results.
However, according to Bellino I’m not alone in my scepticism of crystal energy and crystal culture. “Crystals have for so long been boxed in as ‘hippie’ and the jargon that surrounds them has made their use difficult to understand and undervalued by mainstream [Australia],” she explains. “But crystals are starting to make a comeback and are slowly finding their way back to the people.”
In fact, the sale of crystals has surged during the past two years, with Google searches up 40% and the global healing crystal market is estimated to be worth around $1.3 billion dollars. Even the ultimate zeitgeist barometers – celebrities – have got in on the act; everyone from Naomi Campbell to Bella Hadid and Victoria Beckham have spoken about their use, and love, of crystals.
So where does that leave me… Well, for now, I’m going to leave my crystal (who I’ve named Harold) next to my bed, because why not? I may forget to charge him, and he may become unduly dusty, but he’s a reminder of my need for better sleep. And that might just be good enough for me. Even Bellino agrees that at the end of the day, “all human beings need balance and to understand their own emotions and how to manifest the life they desire.” And whether that is with crystals by your side or not (though, they do look lovely on a coffee table), the power of positive thought is something we should all be experts at, especially right now.
A selection of canapés at Pipit, including pipis, smoked grouper, yellow endive and baby bay lobster. Photography by Sabine Bannard.
When people ask the now-tired but oft-repeated question “Is there really any such thing as Australian cuisine?” I often counter with, “Well, what is American food?” American food is the food of its immigrants, forced and unforced, influenced by the landscape and ingredients found in the New World. Australian food is much the same, with obvious historical and locational differences. But is there really regional Australian food in the same sense as there is regional American food?
Our colonised history is so much shorter, our population so much smaller, that the differences are far subtler than the sturdy pillars of Southern, Midwestern and Californian cuisines. Perth may have its conti rolls and Queensland can comfortably lay claim to the lamington, but — especially in modern cooking — regionally distinct Australian foodways are fuzzy at the edges, overlapping and fading into one another. I see that changing, in all corners of the country, slowly but surely. And the place I see it happening with the most assurance is in northern New South Wales.
There is a modern Australian cuisine taking shape along that coastline — forged by the ocean and rivers, the tropical abundance of its landscape and the culture of Byron Bay and its surrounding communities — which is unique to the region. One of the best examples of this is Pipit, a restaurant in Pottsville that opened two years ago but (particularly given the past 16 months of pandemic, lockdowns and border closures) still feels brand new. Here is a restaurant that is blatantly casual yet only serves tasting menus, that highlights the tropical fruit and bountiful seafood of the surrounding landscape and that is boldly creative in a way that speaks to the region’s countercultural history and its upmarket present.
It is only right that one of the chefs who is pushing this region’s narrative forward is a local boy. Ben Devlin, who along with his wife, Yen Trinh, owns Pipit, was raised in Byron Bay. He grew up thinking he’d make a life shaping surfboards, but a job at a cafe sucked him into hospitality. Eventually he moved to Brisbane, where he worked his way through practically every influential fine diner of the time: Lat 27, Restaurant Two, Urbane. From there he went to Noma in Copenhagen, where a two-month internship turned into a two-year job. When he returned to Australia, Devlin saw his home country with new eyes. He realised that in all his fine dining jobs prior to Noma, the food was guided by Europe but never Australia. The ethos of looking for inspiration right outside your door took hold.
I first ate Devlin’s food at Paper Daisy, the restaurant at Halcyon House, an old surf motel at Cabarita Beach that has been turned into a luxury hotel. In 2015, Devlin was recruited to launch that restaurant, and while he was there he reconnected with the coastline of his childhood. The whole experience of eating at Paper Daisy was dreamy, from the waves crashing on the beach just beyond the dining room’s wide-open windows to the assurance of the vintage nautical design and the feathery lightness of shaved squash with sea urchin and chickpea purée on my plate. It was not like the modern Australian food I’d eaten in Melbourne or Sydney, nor was it singular to the chef alone, in the way of Attica or Orana.
A narrative was being built, of a time and place, and I ate echoes of that narrative as I travelled down the coast, at Fleet in Brunswick Heads and at Shelter at Lennox Head, each restaurant different and thrilling in its own way, but each connected by a thread of freshness and purity of flavours and shared ingredients: sea succulents, macadamia, a focus on umami, stunningly fresh seafood. At Pipit, which opened in early 2019, the room is less themed than Paper Daisy, so much so as to be practically minimalist. Blackwood, poured concrete floors and teal and terracotta tiles give a rustic industrial feel, and the main visual element is the large open kitchen behind a counter where diners perch on high stools. On opening, Devlin offered both a tasting and an à la carte menu, but post-pandemic lockdown he has pared back and now only offers two tasting menus: a long version and a short version.
A meal begins with a flurry of small dishes accompanied by tart, springy sourdough. A crudité-esque dish of raw vegetables comes with “waste paste”, a dip made from kitchen cast- offs that is nonetheless delicious. Mamey sapote, a tropical fruit with a subtle, apricot-adjacent flavour, is topped with thin slices of salty duck ham. Dragon fruit is sprinkled with native pepper — all dishes seem designed to prime you to look twice, pay attention and then sigh with pleasure. I was lucky enough to dine during the pine mushroom season, when the kitchen had procured locally foraged mushrooms and served them with a rich roasted bone sauce. That richness followed an intensely fresh dish of bonito with tomatillo and choko, or chayote, that perfectly played the fattiness of the fish against the crisp, watery snap of the vegetables.
Many elements are scorched (eggplant, bonito), smoked (celeriac) or blackened (persimmon), and occasionally those elements overwhelm the subtler ingredients. On the scorched eggplant dish, for instance, the combination of peanut, gourd, eggplant and lobster was lovely, but the lobster served mainly as a textural foil, its sweetness and delicacy lost to the bolder flavours. But mostly, the takeaway from a meal at Pipit is one of newness, creativity and thoughtfulness.
That ethos is matched by the wine and cocktails, overseen by the sommelier Aaron Wigg. The wine pairing will take you through the wares of some of Australia’s best and smallest producers, and Wigg is a deft host who explains each glass with plenty of substance and zero snobbery. The food at Pipit actually tastes like the landscape around it — that is to say: beautiful, subtropical, with a saline hint of the ocean and dunes. If this is indeed what the next wave of Australian cooking looks like, then we are very lucky to be able to call it our own.
Address: 8 Coronation Avenue, Pottsville NSW
Contact: [email protected]
Must-Try Dish: Bonito with tomatillo, choko and cucumber
Cost: Degustation menus, $85–$115 per person
Need to Know: Open for dinner Thursday to Saturday and lunch Friday to Sunday. Online bookings essential. Visit pipitrestaurant.com
A version of this article appears in print in our launch edition, Page 74 of T Australia with the headline: A Sense of Place
Head chef at Gimlet Allan Doert Eccles. Photography by Sharyn Cairns.
When I first stepped into Gimlet at Cavendish House, it was like taking a cool drink of water after months of wandering in the desert. That conversational hum, that glass-on-glass tinkle, that rush of energy that accompanies every hot new restaurant worth its (expertly deployed) salt — these things have always thrilled me. But late last year, after Melbourne’s long, stark winter of lockdown, it felt like a balm, like a miracle. The room glittered in all its clubby, opulent glory. When chef and owner Andrew McConnell announced the then-unnamed project in 2019, he promised a grand European brasserie, along the lines of The Wolseley in London or New York City’s Balthazar. Gimlet certainly looks the part with its high ceilings and golden chandeliers and giant mirrors, although it’s a little slicker than the brasseries it imitates, which revel in their burnished beauty.
Gimlet’s original opening date was to be in March of 2020, and, well, we all know how that month went for Melbourne and for the world. After a short period of soft opening in June during Melbourne’s brief respite from lockdown, the room went dark again. In late November, the launch McConnell had envisaged all year finally happened. The postponement was an incredible blow to McConnell, particularly as this restaurant must be one of the most expensive fit-outs in Melbourne’s recent history.
The room is designed in layers: the central bar, surrounded by a chequered floor, fronts the gleaming open kitchen. Next comes a ring of bar tables, then burgundy booth seating. The outer edge of the room is raised for larger tables, which are framed by the huge windows of Cavendish House, which was built in the 1920s. This is dining as theatre, with multiple stages — the kitchen, bar and tables are all intended as sets from which cooks, bartenders and diners might accept their respective ovations.
Take your place at one of these stations and order — what else? — a Gimlet. The namesake cocktail is a lovely perfumed affair thanks to a touch of moscato, a syrup containing seven different kinds of citrus and a garnish of Geraldton waxflower. Neither as tart nor as sweet as a classic Gimlet, it sets the scene for the night of refined deliciousness ahead. The nods to those storied European brasseries that inspired McConnell are subtle. Yes, there is caviar service (sometimes; luxury ingredients from faraway lands have been much harder to come by this past year) and oysters and crudités. There is rock lobster for two, served over saffron rice — more Spanish than French, but impressive all the same. My seafood salad might more accurately have been called “one prawn, two clams and two mussels”, though its tomato dressing was tart and lovely and refreshing.
But most of this food is straight out of the McConnell playbook — that is to say, creative vegetable dishes that sing thanks to bold contrasting flavours, such as bullhorn peppers cooked to a pleasing sweet slump and paired with oregano and fresh ricotta, or asparagus served over a slick of nutty pistachio and dotted with fresh bursts of mandarin.
There is the requisite crudo, seen on almost every Melbourne menu these days, and it’s just as wonderful here as anywhere else, the cool, fatty yellowfin tuna dressed with verbena, cucumber and pomegranate. There are two steaks, one a peppered Wagyu rump with leeks and lovage, the other a dry-aged one-kilogramme rib-eye, meant for two, that will take up your whole table and make you feel fancy indeed. It should come as no surprise that McConnell and his staff know how to cook a steak — these are some of the better hunks of meat I’ve had in Melbourne.
Sommelier Leanne Altmann has put together a great wine list that smartly touches on every price point, from bargain drops to blowout, once- in-a-lifetime bottles. I have to say, in this room with this wine list, I longed for some of the more extravagant luxuries of New York’s Balthazar or the gilded restaurants of Paris: the seafood towers, the cheese cart, the tableside flambé. Gimlet at Cavendish House is not so French as to accurately reflect the great brasseries of France (or New York), nor is it so clearly Australian that it nods to any part of our own country’s story. The offering is obviously Andrew McConnell food, which means it is very, very good. It also means that it is very much like many other things you can get in Melbourne.
Would it be too much for me to wish that one of these expensive and ambitious projects might look to our own history for inspiration rather than France or London or America’s take on these places? Indeed, Australia had its own version of haute French cuisine, buoyed by the wealth of the gold rush and the Victorian era, the same fortune that built Melbourne in all its finery. Menus from banquets in Australia dating back to the 1800s are easily found in libraries and online — what fun it would be to see a chef with McConnell’s talent and bravado take on a project that uses those archives as muse.
This is not a direct criticism of McConnell himself or of Gimlet. In some ways Andrew McConnell is Melbourne, his food and restaurants (and the talent he has fostered) having defined so much of who we are and what we eat. It would be unfair of me to fault a chef for delivering the precise thing that he popularised, especially when he’s doing it extremely well. It is a broader wish, though, that we could celebrate and borrow from our own history as much as we do from that of Europe and America, and that Australia’s best restaurants could be easily distinguishable from their counterparts in those places.
In the meantime, if you are looking for a grand night out — a reason to dust off your heels, a pay cheque to blow and a gorgeous setting in which to blow it — Gimlet at Cavendish House will do quite nicely.
Address: 33 Russell Street, Melbourne Contacts: (03) 9277 9777 Must-Try Dish: The seafood salad Signature Cocktail: The Gimlet with moscato and citrus syrup, garnished with Geraldton waxflower Cost: It’s a splurge (rock lobster for two, $150) Need to Know: Open Tuesday to Sunday, from noon until late. For more information, gimlet.melbourne
A version of this article appears in print in our launch edition, Page 54 of T Australia with the headline:
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Freshly prepared pickling jars are lined up after a class. Photography by Shaney Hudson.
It’s hard to make pickling current; after all it’s been practised since the early days of agriculture, but in the kitchens of Sydney’s Inner West, the four-thousand-year old food preservation technique is regaining momentum, not least because of its ability to stem food wastage.
With 24-hour supermarket convenience, mass production and big brand marketing leaving us overwhelmingly spoilt when it comes to produce, in turn, the food in our fridges spoils faster than most people would care to admit. An estimated 300kg per person of food is wasted in Australia each year alone.
For Alex Elliot-Howery, co-owner of Sydney’s Cornersmith cafe, the craft of preserving and pickling is about championing sustainability. “I want you to look at pickling as a tool to save food,” she says. “It’s about taking one thing, valuing that ingredient, not letting it go to waste and turning it into something else delicious.”
Elliot-Howery, a self-taught a cook, opened the doors of Cornersmith in 2012 with husband James Grant. A year later, in a response to what she refers to as the “urban disconnect and growing desire to engage with food more”, their Picklery and popular Cooking School opened.
“The skills [taught at the cooking school] have been making a comeback for while,” she says, “but we’re definitely seeing a growing popularity with a broader audience. I think people are looking for ways to connect with food, especially in urban areas, to be more sustainable, more resourceful and less wasteful.”
While the picklery premises is being redeveloped, Cornersmith’s Cooking School has found its way into a quiet corner of event and art space, Carriageworks in Eveleigh, until 18th April. Bookended by a well-loved Saturday farmers’ market and immersive art shows, and supported by an engaged local community, the attendees at the pop-up reflect the audience Cornersmith has attracted over the past nine years.
Along with home cooks, their classes are filled with chefs and cafe owners keen to learn what has made the Cornersmith brand such a success. Courses on offer include Ancient Grain Pasta Making, Fermenting, Pickling and Breadmaking, as well as fan favourite, Tomato Day, where Passata, canned tomatoes and additive free Tomato Ketchup are taught. Elliot-Howery credits the appeal of the hands-on courses – many of which have already sold out – to both the growing curiosity about utilising these traditional methods.
“A lot of cooks don’t trust themselves when learning a new skill, especially something they’re not familiar with like sterilising, heat processing, filling a jar with pickles,” says Alex Elliot-Howery. “So seeing it done in person takes out some of the fear.”
Beyond their courses, Cornersmith has also published three cookbooks. Their first, a feel-good library of cafe favourites; the second, a seasonal guide to salads and pickles. Their new third cookbook, Use it All: The Cornersmith Guide to A More Sustainable Kitchen (Murdoch Books), released in a post-COVID culinary and publishing environment, is more determined and direct.
“It’s increasingly clear the personal choices we make are political,” they write in the introduction, “amidst our busy lives, how and what we feed ourselves and our loved ones can make a difference.”
Is pickling an act of politics? Slicing peaches and nudging them into glass jars with a brine of water, vinegar, cloves and sugar might not feel like a definitive statement, but in many ways it is a personal one; embracing seasonality, sustainability and a cultural act of reclaiming a four-thousand-year-old life skill of self-preservation and food security.
“I really want you to understand the craft of pickling, rather than get obsessed about the recipe,” Elliot-Howery tells her class, “because once you know how to do it you don’t need the recipe, or me, anymore.”
Chefs like Noma’s René Redzepi and Masterchef host Jock Zonfrillo have long championed foraging for wild food, popularising it as a culinary trend. Photography by Shaney Hudson.
There are over 4000 hectares of wild African olive trees in Sydney, but most locals have never noticed them. Officially considered a noxious weed, the African olive, which was once introduced as fencing hedge for cattle, is one of Sydney’s most abundant wild weeds, and a particular fascination to urban forager and wild food educator, Diego Bonetto, who sees it as one of Sydney’s untapped resources.
Chefs like Noma’s René Redzepi and Masterchef host Jock Zonfrillo have long championed foraging for wild food, popularising it as a culinary trend. However, Bonetto points out, for thousands of years foraging wasn’t a fad. It wasn’t exceptional. It was just food. Much of our modern-day desire to forage, Bonetto argues, goes back to this instinctive, almost primal level. “I can feed you anytime,” he reminds his students. “What I have, you have it too; you just forgot.”
Foraging is a skill Bonetto learned while growing up on a dairy farm in Northern Italy, before moving to Australia 25 years ago. Working in horticulture, he was surprised to find that both the Indigenous and immigrant expertise associated with foraging was largely ignored in Australia.
Today, Bonetto is a wild food educator and urban forager consulting with boutique gin distilleries. school groups, and nutritionists, working across the Sydney basin from rockpools along the coast to pine forests in the Southern Highlands and a more urban destination: Queens Park in Sydney, part of Centennial Parklands.
Boentto runs his Wonderful Wild Weeds tours in Centennial Parklands to demystify foraging. Kneeling where droplets of morning dew still coat patches of grass, he takes a small pocketknife and extracts a flowering weed with long roots attached – a dandelion – adding it to his growing basket of greens. “This isn’t the long-lost plant from the Peruvian Andes,” says Bonetto. “It’s the crack in your path, in your backyard, your driveway. The best place to forage is your own backyard.”
His two-hour tour covers just a few hundred metres, but as we stand in the shadow of towering acorn trees, he begins to collect over 18 different species of wild weeds, from peppercress to purslane and fig to the most abundant crop: wild fennel. The plant’s bright yellow flowers grow along the hillside and, at this time of year, along every motorway in Australia. Rubbing the small yellow flowers through the fingers, the olfactory senses are ignited with the scent of aniseed. When they dry, the seeds can be collected and used as a digestive.
However, Bonetto encourages the uninitiated and experienced forager alike to trust their instincts above all else. “If it looks like a stick, it will taste like a stick. If it looks lush and fresh and green, it should taste fresh and green,” he says, adding one important caveat. “Don’t engage with something you don’t know.”
This is one of his four core takeaways from the tour, the first being to properly identify everything, the second to engage where there is plenty, and thirdly – most important of all – to pay respect to the resources. “This is not free food; this is a gift… And, lastly, no jumping fences at 5am,” Bonetto grins. “That’s for young sous chefs.”