John King – Indulging in the Indigenous

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Peggy writes about John’s recent talk at our December meeting

The life force of the aborigines and a source of fascination for some of the rest of us, bush foods challenge our palates and our creative genius. Jokes are often made (‘You can live on it but it tastes like ****’ —Crocodile Dundee) and many jams concocted (meeting with mixed reviews).

John King, creator of `Rainforest Liqueurs’, has taken up the challenge to produce some very unusual – and very palatable — liqueurs and sweetmeats which he shared with those who attended December’s meeting. On the whole people seemed impressed by the cheesecake (made with tofu, ricotta and macadamia nuts), glace lilly pillys and sandpaper figs, Ficus coronata (my favourite!), the dried small-leaf lilly pilly, Syzygium luehmannii (which can be ground and used in curry powder), and John’s wattle and Kandertal (desert lime) liqueurs.

A soft-spoken man, behind John’s mild-mannered exterior is a powerhouse of knowledge and expertise. A chemical process technician with BP at their Brisbane Oil Refinery by trade, John has an understanding of the chemical processes involved in making liqueurs and preserving food. He has also taken it upon himself to learn almost everything there is to know about setting up a business in the food industry (town planning requirements, health and legal aspects, etc.) A keen bushwalker, amateur botanist and cook, it seems natural that John would venture into bushfoods. In addition, John says that he comes from an area in the United States’ Appalachian Mountains that has a long history of using native plants.

John’s interest in Australian native plants and bushfoods started in the early 1970s. When he decided to turn his interest into a business venture, he needed just the right property to provide the essential ingredient: the bushfoods. He wanted 60 to 100 acres in the Maleny area, it had to have flowing water or a good dam site, be south facing and if possible have some rainforest. In 1987 he found the spot, in the upper Mary Valley of the Conondale Range: 92 acres with five acres of river flats and a permanent creek flowing through it; it had rising slopes to an east west ridge and about 20 acres of rainforest on the south facing slopes. With river flats, a flowing creek, cleared and uncleared areas and views, all in one block, it seemed an excellent proposition for providing lifestyle as well as income. (John’s property, which has eight hectares of forest containing 20 rare and three endangered species, is listed with the Brisbane Herbarium.)

John would be the first to point out the difficulties of making a living from bushfoods. In fact, one of his comments about people involved in this fledgling industry is that they are in it more for the lifestyle than for the business. John was quoted in the October 2000 issue of `Acres Australia’ as saying that “not only is the bushfoods industry 3,000 or 4,000 years behind conventional horticulture, which is using fruits which have been hybridised and selected over that period to improve fruit quality and consistency of yield and flavour, but you have to value-add to generate sufficient economic value to get a return”. And, of course, this is what John is doing by producing liqueurs, glace fruits and seasonings. Note that John does not distil his liqueurs. He uses a pure white Australian rum which he flavours with various bush fruits and flowers.

One of the secrets to John’s `value-adding’ is sugar. John says that “most of the fruits that people grow and eat have been selected and developed for their sugar content. If you go back to the original apple, they were small and very sour, some only 10 to 20mm across. The flavour components are there in the fruits, the sugar just brings out and enhances the flavours.” John is able to bring out the hidden flavours in bushfoods by adding sugar, and he believes that his interest in cooking is behind his understanding of combining the flavours and tastes required to make his `Rainforest Liqueurs’.

There are very few plantations of bushfoods and John has no intention of developing his own property as a plantation but has been replanting the wild seed from the area in a natural style back to his property. Some fruits and leaves are bought in for processing as they are not natural to the area eg Kandertal (aboriginal name for Citrus glauca — Desert Lime) Gidneywallum (Podocarpus elatus — Brown Plum Pine) Wardnee (Eucalyptus staigeriana — Tangy Ironbark). Because of Australia’s variable weather patterns, supply is often unreliable. John also points out that, unlike cultivated fruits, flavours of bushfoods can vary significantly depending upon where they grow, introducing another uncertainty into the equation.

But uncertainties aside, the medicinal and nutritional value (Ficus platypoda, commonly known as the Rock Fig and growing anywhere from the Brisbane mangroves to central Australia, has 1200 mg/100 g of calcium as opposed to milk with 124 mg/100 g. That’s ten times more!) of bushfood is certain. John believes that if we can put aside our conventional taste `hang-ups’ and pre-conceived notions, the flavours of the bush will become an acceptable and sought-after aspect of Australian cuisine.

John is currently Chair of the Queensland Bushfoods Association, an organisation that is very similar to the Rare Fruit Council with people interested in the growing and utilisation of plant foods. Their meetings take the form of an open discussion on a topic and then they sample the food which people bring along. For anyone who is interested, meeting dates are the first Saturday in February, May, August and November, from l0am to 2pm in the courtyard room of the Mt. Cootha Gardens Library.

If you wish to contact John regarding any of his products or for more information about setting up a business in the bushfood industry, you can call him on (07) xxxx xxxx or email him at xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx