In the early 1800s Major Thomas Mitchell set out to survey NSW. He came back with stories of fields of grain which reached the horizon, hay-like bundles and earth turned up as if it had been ploughed by a hoe. These were not the farms of Mitchell’s fellow colonisers, though. These were Aboriginal practices. “Mitchell rode through nine miles of stooked grain. His fellow explorers said it looked like an English field of harvest. This is an enormous devotion of labour and ingenuity and couldn't be described as hunting and gathering in any way,” says Bruce Pascoe, Australian Indigenous writer and author of Dark Emu.
Dark Emu is a groundbreaking study of Aboriginal agriculture, taken from the journals of Australia’s early explorers. “The key point is that Aboriginal people were said to be hunters and gatherers and I think that was more historically and politically useful to colonising forces than it was true of what the explorers saw,” says Pascoe. Pascoe is one the speakers and organisers of Rootstock Sydney festival at Carriageworks. With help from Giorgio de Maria and his team, Pascoe is creating the festival’s Indigenous pavilion.
“We’re a food and wine festival based on sustainability. For me, the way Aboriginal people used to live with the land is the most sustainable way I know of. The amount of knowledge that they're carrying is incredible,” de Maria says. The festival’s Indigenous pavilion will show some of the grains, ingredients and practices used in Aboriginal agriculture. Members of the Yuin nation from the south coast of NSW will cook a traditional Yuin meal using an earth oven that de Maria and Pascoe hope to build on site. “We'll be preparing a seafood meal with pippies, oysters, mussels and bimbla (a variety of blood cockle). I think people would like to see something a bit more exotic, but these luxury seafoods were part of our staple diet as well as crayfish and abalone,” Pascoe says. De Maria first met Pascoe at a function where he was speaking about Dark Emu and the history of Aboriginal farming. “At the time I had absolutely no idea,” he says. “He [explained] things I had never heard of.” As well as supporting sustainable producers, de Maria hopes the festival can be an educational tool to spread the word about Australia’s little-known but rich Indigenous history of cooking and farming. “For us it's very exciting because not many people know Aboriginal people were practicing a lot of agriculture. There’s a lot of stuff untold or unsaid, which [if revealed] would change history books.”
The most significant change wouldn’t just affect Australia’s history books but the world’s. Archaeological sites in central NSW have revealed Aboriginal grinding stones used to make flour for bread baking. Those grinding stones date back to 30,000 BC, making it likely that Aboriginal people were the first on Earth to make bread. Pascoe’s Dark Emu recounts a story from Charles Sturt who, when dying in the centre of Australia, was saved by Aboriginal people who had been harvesting grains and making cakes. “That's what they served to Sturt. He said the cake was the sweetest and lightest he'd ever tasted.”
Pascoe and de Maria have just come back from Mildura where they were working with young members of the local Indigenous community on using native grains to produce bread. “For me that was one of the most moving experiences of my life, to see that recovery of culture and economy,” Pascoe says. De Maria and Pascoe are currently working on a project to revitalise native Australian produce farming with Indigenous communities. With help from Rootstock Sydney crowdfunding, the duo aims to establish two lots of land in NSW to grow yam daisies, a sweet native root that can be eaten fresh or prepared like a potato.
Both Pascoe and de Maria are excited about the project; not only will it contribute to revitalising Aboriginal agriculture, it will also spread the use of Australian native ingredients. “All the plants Aboriginal people were using had adapted to the climate and the available fertility and moisture. We tried to replace them with plants that hadn't done that,” Pascoe says.
Pascoe describes food as soft history, a tool that can invite divided groups and ideas to come together. He stresses the importance of, “Us all sharing and enjoying the food this country produces, and has produced for so long. The gentleness of sharing a meal together will allow us to then explore our mutual history.”
Bruce Pascoe will appear at Rootstock Sydney to talk about his book Dark Emu.
Rootstock Sydney will run from Saturday November 28 until Sunday November 29 at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. Tickets are on sale now through Rootstock's website.
Rootstock Sydney is a not-for-profit organisation and festival and relies heavily on the support of a vibrant community for its success. The team is currently looking for volunteers to help the chefs, winemakers, producers and festival organisers. You will be able to enjoy the event as part of being a volunteer. To register your interest and for more information, visit rootstocksydney.com/volunteer.
Broadsheet is the proud media partner of Rootstock Sydney.
The Gurandje Munjie program now has a live Pozible campaign, see it here