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.”