Time Out Melbourne’s Gemima Cody speaks to Carbon Arts director, Jodi Newcombe, about our latest collaborative project, The Australian Future Foods Lab.

Hey sustainability and lilly pilly fans, there’s a new food-art organisation in town that you need to get on your radar. They’re called the Australian Future Foods Lab and they’re determined to re-brand native food in a way that isn’t naff. On Wednesday February 13 they held their first event – a cocktail session where drinkers were invited to muddle strawberry gum into their cocktails, have their minds blown by wattleseed espresso martinis, and write bad haikus about the experience. Time Out went, and the experience was both a lot better than our poetry, and any other ‘bush tucker’ party (shudder) we’ve been to. We talked to Lab leader Jodi Newcombe about their plans to continue making native produce digestible.

What are you guys are trying to achieve?
The Australian Future Foods Lab is principally concerned with creating a rebirth of cool for native ingredients. When you think about native ingredients, you think about bush tucker.

You mean khaki pants?
Yes. It puts a lot of people off. And that’s a real shame because there are amazing foods – super foods – with health giving properties. We’re probably one of the only cultures that doesn’t eat what’s in our backyard and it’s a missed opportunity in terms of what tourists expect when they come here, what we could export, and what is good for our environment. Saltbush, which used to cover Australia, is something that should be on every restaurant table instead of salt. It would be such an Australian thing.

Who are the members of Australian Future Foods Lab?
Myself, Jodie Ahrens and Asha Bee Abraham. Each of us in this lab has taken on the challenge of experimenting with these ingredients, but we are artists as well so we’re looking to create new mythology through the eyes, as well as a new sensory experience through food.

You’re doing a full botanical garden tour, artist talk and degustation next week – What’s the aim of the event?
The dinner will be based on an experience artist Janet Laurence had in Japan where there was a priest who went through and described the botanical qualities of every plant. So that’s what we’ll be doing. Douglas McMaster (Silo byJoost) is creating a degustation menu and we’ll be lead through the dinner by a performative botanist.

What is the outcome that you’re hoping for? What do you want people to do, practically, after they’ve come to these sessions?
There’s two touch stones that we’ll be directing people to think about: what they plant in their garden – for example, instead of planting a lime tree, plant a native Australian lime tree- and what they buy at the grocery store.

We try to think about native food as something to substitute for other ingredients you might currently use, like instead of pepper, why not use pepper berry? It has an amazing flavour – like horseradish or a chilli and it kind of gives you a kick after you try it. Or eat muntrie berries instead of blueberries? Obviously we’re not there yet with availability of a lot of these ingredients.

Aren’t there sustainability issues to consider in promoting things that aren’t currently produced on a commercial scale? Ben Shewry at Attica is always hesitant to use anything that might, through his wide reaching influence, put a strain on any meat or plant.
It’s a learning curb agro-economically and there are growing pains. With some ingredients there is too much demand, and not enough ability to meet it. But some ingredients are not currently grown in orchards and they could be. We’re trying to connect people to that future vision.


What are these snacks, and why should I care?

Finger limes: These little pinkie-shaped fruits are packing citrus caviar. The tiny beads are kind of peppery and genuinely explosive when bitten (or squeezed into an attackers eyes for all you lovers of organic self-defence.)

Saltbush: Little grey green leaves – pure tasty seasoning.

Warrigal greens: You’ve got to blanche the leafy green, but after that you can use it any way you’d use spinach.

River mint: It’s like a cross between mint and thyme, and it makes for a killer Australian Mojito.

Muntries: Tiny little fruits that are kind of like a cross between a tart apple and a blueberry.