World's top chefs plate up Australian native plants

13 Oct 2016

Author: Richard Cornish

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By the mouth of the Snowy River, a waterway iconic in Australian history and literature, a farmer is growing native succulents on land once thought to be affected by salt beyond redemption. These tasty natives are found in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in Australia and around the world.
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In the drought of the early 2000s, a lack of rainfall caused the mouth of the Snowy River – east of Melbourne –  to close. Newly formed sand banks blocked the entrance, sending millions of litres of water to the low-lying flood plain where the Snowy River flows into Bass Strait. Trapped behind the newly formed sand banks, rainwater mixed with salty water from the estuary and sat for several weeks on some 200 acres of Andrew and Gabrielle French’s 2,500-acre farm – Snowy River Station. 

The Frenchs thought their once verdant grazing land was going to be permanently devastated by the salty stagnant water and that they would never farm the fertile soils again. Then something extraordinary happened. After the floodwaters receded, the native plants that grew around the drainage canals erupted into life and spread out across the barren paddocks. In a matter of months, hardy native succulents, accustomed to salty terrain, not only grew but began to thrive on the bare paddocks. 

New beginnings

One of the most prolific plants was a variety of kalkalla, a creeping succulent known colloquially as pigface and commonly used as a food source for the Indigenous people of the area. French, an inventor and a man accustomed to novel ideas, and his wife saw an opportunity. 

They cleverly named the unique variety of kalkalla they grow at their farm as Beach Bananas which they have now trademarked. Green with fine skin and no bigger than your little finger, the Beach Bananas have succulent, slightly salty flesh with an earthy taste and the tang of iodine.

Snowy River Station’s now saline paddocks also became home to Sea Spray – a delicate plant with fern-like leaves, a crunchy texture and slightly salty taste – and samphire, a coastal plant used in traditional cooking from England to Andalusia. 


Snowy River Station Credit: The Weekly Times, photographer: Andy Rogers.
Beach Bananas at Snowy River Station Credit: The Weekly Times, photographer: Andy Rogers.

The Frenchs quickly learned when the plants were at their prime to be harvested and the best time of day to pick the plants without damaging them. They also learned that if they let the plants flower and seed, they would self-propagate. They developed methods to improve growth with cultivation. 

Early adopters

Much of Snowy River Station sits below sea level at high tide with man made levy banks. The channels that of drained the property by opening the sluice gates at low tide were left open at high tide to let more sea water onto the salt-loving plants. This proved to be serendipitous for the French family. The cold, salty water proved the perfect environment for a type of algae called sea streamers a seaweed popular with chefs.

The Frenchs sent samples of their products to Australian chefs. The response was very positive. Michael Ryan from Provenance in Beechworth in regional Victoria – a critically acclaimed chef known for his innovative Japanese-inspired cuisine – was an early adopter of the sea vegetables grown at Snowy River Station. So was chef Frank Camorra from the Movida group of restaurants, who appreciates the fresh flavours of the products. 

“Chefs love the texture and flavour of the plants but also the clean and green way in which they are grown and harvested,” French says.  

International success

Five years ago, Snowy River Station secured a distributor in The Netherlands. The Frenchs continue to work with the same distributor today, airfreighting 100 kilograms of freshly picked succulents to the Netherlands every week.  Production for export is soon expected to increase to up to 500 kilograms per week. The increase is due to a strong possibility that Snowy River Station sea vegetables will soon be available on supermarket shelves – with Delhaize supermarkets in Belgium leading the retail push. 

In the Netherlands, well-known hospitality, restaurant and catering supplier Sligro carries Snowy River Station sea vegetables. One of the biggest names in the Netherlands to use the sea vegetables is chef Jannis Brevet of two-Michelin-star restaurant Inter Scaldes in Kruiningen. Here the Beach Banana forms an integral part of Brevet’s stunning dish of octopus with onion, green apple, yuzu and lavender. 

Domestic champions

At home, internationally renowned Australian chefs such as Tetsuya Wakuda and Guillaume Brahimi are using Snowy River Station sea vegetables on their menus. Brahimi uses Snowy River Sea Spray on a dish of Bateau Bay kingfish with smoked eel, shiso, walnuts and apple. He says it adds not only texture but a great salty flavour to the dish. Other local restaurants using the product are Sea Level in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla, Blackbird in Brisbane and Press Club in Canberra. Chefs are using finely diced Beach Bananas, for example, served on fresh oysters as a textural counterpoint. Samphire is mixed through salads and vegetable dishes where its gentle saltiness and savoury flavour acts as a natural seasoning. 

Black Bird’s award winning Executive Chef Jake Nicolson says, “I like to use Beach Bananas and Sea Streamers to accompany a lovely piece of simply grilled fish with a seaweed butter.” He continues, “It really adds to that sense of eating freshly caught seafood.” Nicolson also uses Snowy River Station pickled samphire with a tuna carpaccio. “Each element offers a burst of flavour, making this dish pack a lot of punch,” he says. 


Tetsuya
Tetsuya's Seared Tuna with Roasted Eggplant and Coastal Succulents. Photo credit/copyright: Tetsuya's.

A bright future

Another unexpected bonus of having salt-tolerant plants growing on your farm is that they act as natural anti-parasitics. This means the purebred Hereford cattle that graze on the farm – large swathes were unaffected by floods – do not need to be treated with chemical drenches. The minerals and iodine in the salt-water vegetables get rid of worms and other parasites. The flavour of the beef is also dramatically enhanced by the naturally occurring plants. The Frenchs sell their prime cuts of meat to restaurants. Shortly, their other cuts of beef will be minced and mixed with their pickled samphire to make a range of top-quality breakfast sausages aimed at the five-star hotel market. 

The Frenchs are also exploring the idea of aquaculture, using the natural flows of salt water to meet a burgeoning demand for seaweed. In the same ponds, they will grow fish native to the region such as mulloway, flathead and bream. 

As spring moves to summer, the river flats at Snowy River Station are beginning to turn bright crimson as the Beach Bananas come into bloom. These flowers are sold to the domestic restaurant industry where they are used as edible flowers. This iridescent carpet of colour is just another unexpected benefit of a disaster turned into success.

Visit Snowy River Station.