Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Biological/self-sufficiency detective work

I thought of calling this 'The mysterious affair at Flinders' - but I am rather more like Inspector Clouseau than Inspector Poirot. You see I haven't yet found a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for Australia - or the collection of locals with local knowledge he managed to find. So much of what we do in our own Fearlessly-eatsitall experiment has to be based on some biological knowledge, a family history of fishing and diving (in very different climes, much of it), a lot of reading and experience cooking, logic, curiousity, asking excessive questions, and experimenting. And Internet research - which yeild rewards if you are good at those sort of puzzles which you do by only seeing a few bits and jiggling and wiggling the rest. It's all logic really. Not just wiggles (although some of what you eat will wiggle, and if you believed the logic part you probably deserve a few wiggles.)

Take for instance my desire to find a common South African (and European, and American) type of bivalve of the Genus Ensis - Popular in Spain, and used for bait in South Africa. The razor clam, AKA pod razor, AKA razor fish, AKA Jack-knife clam, AKA pencil bait/stick bait (South Africa). Now the probability of it not being here had to be real - except I had read somewhere of an Australian sand dwelling clam called a razorfish. No-one I've asked here ever heard of it, but if you search the net you can find pictures of it being collected in SA... South Australia. And it's not the same animal. However the same animal called a finger oyster DOES occur in Australia. There is no clue as to where - but someone suggests that razor clam would be a better common name for these Ensis. And that's as far as we've got, so far, with that one. Having found two "not here" species so far I'll keep looking.

Common names are a menace to the searcher, and I would cheerfully do very nasty things to government beaurocrats who don't check on Latin genus names before calling their projects something like... Ensis. We won't even start on my wild dreams of what I'd like to do to advertising agencies who call themselves for no gastromical/ self-sufficiency logical reason 'Razorfish'. Vogon Poetry is prescribed, I think. And of course I reserve a special spot for the fish called... razorfish. I don't know if I should be mad with the fish or the bivalve namers.

I love this island already, and love the food to be found here, but I keep being stunned by locals either not knowing or not eating the wonderful variety. Or letting it get caught and sold elsewhere. We eat squid (Calamari) a lot. I was horrified to find my dive partner had never caught any - but as he had no background or local pointers he didn't understand the animals and tried to catch them and failed. And he's been here 8 years. When we arrived I applied a bit of South African and biologist experience, stole with my eyes, read up... and we caught. The freezer has its quota, and right now we mustn't catch any more until those are eaten. But there are many more things which are here... and lots of them, that I have yet to find/catch/discover... So we soldier on. I've seen periostracum( the fragile outer layer) covered mussel shells (that do not exist here) and fresh long burrowing bivalves that I can't even ID, but the birds catch but I cannot (so far). I've found in very shallow water areas Doughboy and commercial and queen scallops with the hinge ligament intact - ie they haven't come far, and are still 'new' - no-one dives for them here, but they used to be a dredge business for them (I am for the record, very opposed to dredge harvesting where there is a viable alternative, and believe that dredge grounds must be limited. The destruction of other fauna and habitat is just wasteful. And that's a dirty word to me.) In Southern Tassie recreational diving for Scallops is quite widespread, and I believe it used to be(/is?) done in South Australia.

There is a wealth of wonderful and varied food out there, which, with a bit of common sense, unless you live near a city, is harvestable, and despite not coming from McDonalds is delicious, nutritious and satisfying (and sometimes crunchy and wiggly too). But it seems to me Australia with a wonderful selection of seafood has begun 'modernising' and exploring bush tucker, really needs a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall equivalent to write about it. It'd be bliss to find some good food-related field-guides, especially ones that worked on getting the best of those (sometimes odd and wiggly) flavours into palatable.

It's a grand adventure in the self-sufficency/foraging/gastronmic sense, but I wish I had someone to say "Elementary my dear Watson" when I tried to work out why there are millions on millions of huge cuttle-bones washed onto the beach... and I do love to eat cuttlefish, but I have not found out where or how to catch them yet.


  1. When I went fishing off of a pier in Happy Valley, SA with my brother lo so many years ago, some of our fellow fishermen had caught some cuttlefish. It was pretty disgusting, as I can still remember seeing these things sliding along the wood and making pathetic noises as they slowly died.

    But if Australia "really needs a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall equivalent to write about it" have you stopped to look in the mirror?

  2. Our Razor Shells (Pinna bicolor) are of the family Pinnidae rather than the Solinidae of genus Ensis you are used to. And according to what I can see their range doesn't include Tasmania, probably because it prefers sea-grass beds, but it definitely includes the sands of the Gulf of St Vincent. Sharp not-so-little buggers, as I can testify from personal experience.

    Also commonly called razor fish and razor clams, and thereby often confused with your Ensis.

    And here endeth my journey into the Icky soft science of stamp-collecting, excuse me, biology.

  3. We used to, he was called the Bush Tucker Man and had series on the ABC. You might be able to get old episodes on their website.

    He was ex army and I think his name was Les something... wait, I'll go google :D

    Found him:

    he put out a field guide in 2002 apparently.
    Not sure if this is the type of thing you're looking for, but the ABC website would probably be the place to find something anyway.

  4. The problem with the Field Guide is that it mainly deals with his military remit – investigating the bush tucker available in the northern half of Australia. You'll probably find Tim Low's Wild Food Plants of Australia a better source for your locale.

  5. Ditto blloonaticbmber's last sentence -- I'd love to see you publish a record of your discoveries (WITH PICTURES). Might have to find a new publisher though ;-)

    even though some of the pics would look like space aliens right enough

  6. I wonder how much of the lack of interest is due to Australia's history? The first settlers either subsisted off of supplies shipped in or those European type farm crops they could grow (iirc the first colony almost starved because of the failure of the latter). As I've mentioned before transportation is one essential to food. In the American Mid-west consumption of freshwater mussels dropped to near zero shortly after the arrival of the railroad.

    In the early 1800's Australia's colonies were located in Harbors and had easy access to outside food supplies. Additionally, productive farms were able to be worked close by.

    OTOH, Colonists in other parts of the world had to get a fair amount of their food from subsistence (learnt often from the first peoples there) when they first started out.

    Just an idea and apologies if I've mangled Aussie history.

  7. Reverence Pavane: one of the things that make Flinders such an unusual food place is its variety - we have vast sea-grass sand/mud flats on one side of the island, with very little surf activity. The other side is a typical high activity coast. On the north you get kelp forests, here you have zostera. There is limestone and granite and conglomerate and some sandstone I think - all mixed/close. We're at the end of the gyres of the warm East coast current - and we get colder swirls in from the west. Snook - a big deal fishing target SA and non-existant in Tassie occur here. We're crossover point for at least 3 distinct biotas IMO.

  8. blloonaticbmber - I've always had a problem with the just leave it die philosophy. It's probably not good for the meat quality, and avoiding long distress is my idea of ethical carnivory.

    I do know sepia (cuttlefish) get caught in much the same way as squid - but there must be places and seasons.

    One of ol'fearlessly-eatsitall strengths is that he doesn't know it all, but obviously likes to learn and experiment. I suppose that is the similarity ;-). But I'm not a celeb chef.

  9. Antikva - I'll get it. Thanks. But it's probably geared to survival not enjoyment if I know these things ;-). Still, it'll help with ID and I can work on 'enjoy'.

  10. Wild food plants to be added to to the to get list...

  11. Abigail - you know the one big problem with pictures - besides the fact that I am an amatuer with a very basic camera (if I got a contract for a book like this a camera with some extra features - or/and an underwater camera

  12. Blast -hit post by accident - anyway continuing - is that you can't thrownet and take pictures of yourself doing so, or gut and fillet flathead and take pictures. The other is that quite a lot of it would be food-photography which is really a lot harder than landscapes and sunsets. But I will try to take (and post) more pictures.

  13. Quilly I really don't think it's a lack of interest (I think interest is developing really fast now) so much as a simple lack of anyone putting it together. Australia prides itself on being a outdoorsy country - but really it's more urbanised than even the US. Which means a lot of people who would love to taste the foods or catch and prepare their own... simply don't have the background. I - and I think by your comments you - learned a lot from my family and background. I'm not really up on the history of Australia enough - but the way everything is called 'mutton' (sea-mutton - abalone, Muttonbird) gives me a clue as to how the immigrants brought with them rather than learning to live off the local food. South African settlers (black ones too) had many of the same attitudes. I suppose it was familiar and safe. Back in South Africa, Shipwrecked sailors trying to get to European settlements often died of starvation and thirst - in an area with food on every rock and brackish (but fresh enough to live on) water a few feet into the sand. But it wasn't salt beef and water in barrels.

  14. Well, I like the pictures I've seen here so far. And you don't need that many -- you're an artist with words. Your journey of discovery there is so fascinating, I'd just like to see it collected and edited some day.

    (If you ever get around to it, I'd love to see the entries you saved up back when you were first getting there, before the internet connection was sorted out. Or did the computers eat them?)

  15. Thank you :-) I think it'd make a lovely read as a book - but I am biased. The missing bits are still on the eee. I wouldn't want to put them in out of sequence, so I'll have to experiment.

  16. @Quilly: As to how ingrained the opposition to eating native wildlife was, until recently (last 30 years or so), kangaroo was only considered suitable as pet food. In fact many baby boomers and older still won't eat kangaroo, even at a fancy restaurant, because of this association.

    I don't think the idea of bush tucker had even entered the mind of the mostly white and thoroughly urbanised Australian until the aforementioned Bush Tucker Man TV series in the 80's [the series based on Les' work for the Australian Army collecting aboriginal bush survival lore before it was lost forever due to the aborigines being forced out of traditional modes of living].

    @Dave: It's probably the cold westerly current that is the reason they haven't propagated to you. They really don't appear to like the south west face of the continent. Which is really something to be thankful for the next time you go floundering. They is sharp!

  17. @Reverence - Mike-the-dive-master says he knows where they are here. I just have to talk him into showing me sometime. The floundering is more on sand and mud, and they seem to like weed?

  18. Hi Dave
    KZN Midlands flounderers also like weed.

  19. Here it is not restricted to flounderers, but is popular with some locals!