"What are you doing picking at my garden?!” a woman with soft grey hair pipes up with from over the fence. “Oh, we’re just picking your weeds. Do you mind?” replies Mike Eggert, a tuft of sun rose in his hand. “They’re delicious!”
As Eggert plucks a wild garlic flower from a crevice in the nature strip, he tells us this sort of interaction is not unusual. Most people living by the beach are unaware of the bounty of edible plants living in their backyards or just over the fence.
Before opening Woollahra’s inventive and experimental restaurant Pinbone in November 2013 along with chefs Berri Eggert (Mike’s sister), and Jemma Whiteman, Eggert completed a Masters degree in wildlife health and population management. He concedes that the reason the edible weeds and succulents that thrive along Australia’s coastline don’t make it onto our plates often is because, for the most part, they aren’t all that tasty. “Australia is such a harsh environment that most things aren’t very delicious,” he says. “The plant puts all its energy into surviving, so it doesn’t really have time to make itself taste good. Plus, being delicious isn’t very good for survival, because then things will eat you.”
Today, that thing is us. With Eggert and Whiteman as our guides, we discover that if you know where to look there are delicious things to be found all along the coast. But first, there are a few rules to abide by. A large portion of the NSW coast is protected under wildlife sanctuary laws, and a map of the NSW marine sanctuary zones is available online for those keen to go finding their own lunch. Within these areas it’s illegal to remove any native plants or marine life from the habitat, so it’s a good idea to head south out of the zone.
It’s also smart to keep your expectations low. Though some weeds may be highly prized by foragers – warrigal greens (which are like a native spinach and great to stir-fry), dandelions, succulents such as prickly pears and European Oxalis of which you can eat the entire plant – they’re also a pain in the arse for councils who work consistently to manage and eradicate them. We amble down an embankment to a fence protecting a cliff face, an area usually bristling with prickly-pear cacti. The grey, dry carcass of the plant is all that’s left. “Weeds are free,” says Eggert, “but they’re also the council’s enemies, so you can come every week and one day they could be gone.”
Lucky for us, there’s a lush specimen just a few hundred metres down the cliff, studded with bulbous fuchsia fruit. “The cactus fruit is one of the better, more delicious wild crops,” says Eggert. “They’re lovely. They make a really beautiful red cordial when blended or muddled down, kind of like a raspberry.” They’re also an introduced species, so it’s ok to pinch them. The pads of the prickly pear are covered in a fine layer of miniscule spines, which can be removed with a blowtorch back in the kitchen. It’s a versatile plant, with the texture of a firm cucumber when peeled, great for pickling or in a salad with some cured fish, which is what we do with it today.
As we move down a narrow, human-made path through marshy grasses toward the sand, we stop by a patch of wild European watercress thriving near a natural sandstone spring. “Just like you’d find at a restaurant,” says Eggert. “It’s as delicious a weed as you’ll find growing in Australia. Even better than your average watercress. It needs really clean water to grow, so it’s a good indicator of what’s around.”
The hardest part of coastal abundance is that most of it is native, and that means it’s restricted. “When you go to the forest or the park, it’s just full of weeds and you can take them all. But when you’re dealing with coastal stuff, it’s the introduced species to look for,” he says, “like the European cress.” We tuck a bunch into our basket. “Anything that does live on the coast is quite salt tolerant and hardy,” says Eggert. “It gives it that extra flavour, that salt, which is what chefs want. If you work with it in the kitchen, you might put it with a sweeter dish, or a creamy, rich or fatty dish.”
Foraged ingredients appear in a number of dishes at Pinbone, especially seaweeds, lettuces, and also mushrooms, stone fruit and other non-coastal seasonal ingredients. According to Eggert, the clumps of sundried kelp found along the coast are great for stocks, with a wonderful, rich umami flavour. On a good day the rock pools are full of sea lettuces, their glassy, soft leaves ideal in salads. “People do heaps more damage coming down and enjoying the beach and leaving rubbish than they do picking kelp,” says Eggert. Overforaging is a big issue though, especially now that more people are becoming aware of what there is to eat. This is especially true along the coastline where the habitat is particularly delicate. As we hop over rock pools and peer into their waters to look at their contents, we’re appalled by what we see. The pools are strewn with huge numbers of empty sea urchin shells, their spines cracked open and contents sucked out by ruthless foragers. Each pool is littered with up to five shells – with not a single living urchin remaining. The effects of a sunny long weekend are plain to see and particularly devastating on the environment here. “If it’s washed up on the sand, no one’s really going to break your balls for coming down and taking a bit of kelp,” says Eggert, but urchins are another story. They are subject to a bag limit, though that doesn’t account for specimens eaten right on the rocks like the shells found here. Eggert emphasises the respect needed when it comes to finding your own food. “We’re one of the most destructive countries in the world,” he says.
Back in September 2010, Eggert and Whiteman were called to show Danish chef Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copengahen – one of the world’s most well-known foraging chefs – the way around Australian native produce when he visited Sydney. That was the true start to their knowledge about the good things to eat lying across our land. “Two other chefs that I’d been working with dobbed me in and said I knew about this stuff, but I had no fucking idea,” says Eggert. “Jem and I went on an intense four-week crash course, picking everything we could and trying to learn and memorise everything.” Since then, foraging has kicked up a notch in the restaurant game, and not just at Pinbone. “There’s an obvious element of one-upmanship with other restaurants if you do find things that aren’t available,” says Eggert. “If people want to go out and learn, we’ll take them to all our secret spots. We don’t have any right or ownership, I don’t really mind if I turn up to my site and someone’s taken it all, that’s just foraging.”
3 Jersey Road, Woollahra
Always refer to the NSW Marine Parks Authority website before foraging along the coast to find out specific restrictions and limits.