Elijah Holland is looking down river. It’s gushing, frothing white and brown – how you imagine the start of a white-water rafting adventure to look. He can see something he wants about 150 metres down river, but can’t reach it. He goes to his car, gets some rope, ties one end to a big tree then the other around his waist. Holland jumps in the river, quickly scrambling up the side of the banks to what he was looking for: watercress.
Holland is a forager and chef. That day he was collecting watercress for the 10-year-anniversary dinner of Sydney’s Bentley Restaurant & Bar, where Brent Savage is head chef. Holland would usually get his watercress along Sydney’s coast, mostly on the north shore near where he lives in Clareville, opposite Ku-ring-gai National Park. It’s usually easy pickings there, but this was after a heavy storm. “All the watercress around coastal areas was ruined,” says Holland. “I had to look inland. I knew an area around the back of Terry Hills, but the creek I normally wade down had turned into a really fast-flowing river. I had no other way but to jump in.” Although an extreme account of his work, jumping into rivers and battling the elements isn’t unusual for Holland. It’s part of his job. He is one of Australia’s leading foragers, and worked with Rene Redzepi for the Noma Australia pop-up. He’s also a chef with experience at Powder Keg and Aria, but it’s his passion for foraging that has led him into the wilds of the NSW coast, through snow and ice in the Snowy Mountains, and rummaging through thick forests in search of ingredients.
Holland grew up in the Blue Mountains, where he learned about native ingredients from his parents and grandparents. “My family has a background in botany, permaculture and horticulture,” he says. “Mum cooks everything at home, [she] preserves, pickles, ferments, makes her own cheese and yoghurt. I learned a lot from her.” His childhood was spent climbing mulberry trees and eating sarsaparilla in the Blue Mountains, but it’s only recently this became his career. “Over the last four years I've become really infatuated with it,” he says. “I’ve started researching more and more.”
A crucial part of Holland’s success is his intense curiosity. “A lot of this stuff you can't actually buy or get in Australia, unless you go into the wild and get it,” says Holland. It means he doesn’t just have to know his ingredients, he has to understand the Australian landscape and climate. He needs to know what ecoregions are home to certain types of produce, and how weather – however raging – will it affect it.
Holland doesn’t just harvest fruits and vegetables, he collects roots, stems, bark, leaves, sap, flowers and even the insects living on and around what he collects. If he finds something he hasn’t seen before he’ll work with botanists to identify it and determine if it’s edible. If it is, he’ll pull it apart, cook it, ferment it, and find some way to use each and every part of it. “There's wild food everywhere,” he says. “I just want to know what it is.” Holland says the bush holds a tremendous amount of varietal ingredients. But they can also be found in cities. “I can go for a walk down my own street and find 30 things you can eat,” says Holland. “People should be more aware of what exists around them.”
Before you go out and start ripping unidentified plants from the ground and throwing them in your stir-fry, it’s crucial to do your research: “You need to be 100 per cent sure of what you're touching. There are a lot of unfriendly ingredients that look similar to good ones. They might be slightly poisonous or give you a rash.”
The other thing a forager needs to be aware of is supply. “I'll only ever touch a spot that is going to regenerate while I hit up another spot,” says Holland. Being aware of the weather in relation to what you’re searching for is key, too. “Weather has a massive effect on the areas you can go and what time,” says Holland. “My truck is always set up and ready to go for any occasion, rain hail and shine. You should always be prepared for anything and have the right means and necessities to battle any conditions.” That includes some rope.
This article is presented in partnership with Converse’s water-repellent Chuck II Shield Canvas range.