The inhospitable Red Centre of Australia is dry, rugged and barren but there is food if you know where to look. Aboriginal people know which acacia tree roots hold the prized Witchetty Grubs and where to dig for edible honey ants. There are wild oranges on the edge of creek beds, and seasonal seeds, berries, bush tomatoes, wild figs and wild peaches (quandong).
The Quandong (Santalum Acuminatum) is found in the arid and semi-arid regions of all Australian mainland states. Semi-parasitic, it is usually hosted by Wattle Trees. A small desert tree up to 4 metres high, with rough dark bark and pale green elongated hanging leaves. Cream flowers appear late summer and, depending on the season, form fruit which is ready for harvest in early spring.
Traditionally, the Quandong was an important food source for Australian Aborigines. Athough somewhat tart, they are highly nutritious and contain twice the vitamin C of an orange. When hunting game was in short supply, male members of the Red Centre’s Pitjantjara people substituted the wild peach for meat.
Quandong gathering and food preparation is considered Pitjantjara women’s business. The ripe red Wild Peach would be eaten raw or dried for later use. Typically the women would collect Quandong in bark dishes, separate the flesh from the pitted stone, and then roll the edible fruit into a ball. The fruit ball was then broken up for consumption by the tribal group.
Highly valued for its medicinal properties, Quandong was brewed into a form of tea which was drunk as a purgative. The tree roots were also ground down and used as an infusion for the treatment of rheumatism. The leaves were crushed and mixed with saliva to produce a topical ointment for skin sores and boils.
Encased within each Quandong seed is a very nutritious oil rich kernel which was also processed in a similar fashion to treat skin disorders. The kernels are edible and some tribal groups were known to use crushed kernels as a form of “hair conditioning oil”. Quandong is also the preferred food source of emus, and, as is the case with many native animals, the bird eats the whole fruit but is unable to fully digest the seed which then passes out into its own rich compost. This makes for easy collection because it’s easy to spot emus in the bush.
Quandong trees possess an aromatic wood that was traditionally used by aboriginal people in “smoking ceremonies”. The wood from the slow growing trees was prized for the making of traditional bowls – pitti or coolamons.
Australia’s early pastoralists became creative around the campfire. When stockmen were away from home for long periods they baked dampers infused with Quandong leaves.
When in season – between October and February – many early settler farmers would also take their families out for a Quandong picnic. After gathering Quandong the peeled fruit was used to make a variety of jams, chutneys and pies. Such treats were often the only delicacies to be had – especially during drought and depression years when money was short. Many older Australians eyes still mist when reminicsing about Quandong Pie from their childhood and how they painted the seeds to make the playing pieces for Chinese Checkers.
During the past 30 years the Quandong has become a firm favourite of Australia’s burgeoning bush food industry. Commercial Quandong plantations are now an economic reality. Quandong fruit can be dried and/or frozen for 8 years or more, without losing any flavour.
Dried Quandong halves are available year round in the (Taste Australia Bush Food Shop) and are an excellent pantry staple. In the early part of each year I make Quandong in Liqueur, this gives it a good 9 to 10 months to infuse and is ready for inclusion in the Christmas Cake. It also makes an intoxicating icecream topping when pureed.
Quandong in Liqueur
Soak 100gm dried quandong halves in water overnight, drain and transfer to a large glass jar. Add 750ml Vodka plus cooled sugar syrup (2 cups sugar dissolved in half cup water). Stir into the jar. Seal and place in a cool dark place. Stir weekly. Should be ready in 4 to 6 weeks but of course the longer, the better.
Quandong Chilli Sauce
15 Quandong (dried or fresh) rough chop
1/4 cup vinegar (don’t use sweet spiced type)
2 small chillies – chopped and de- seeded
1 tsp salt
1 tbspn brown sugar or palm sugar
If using dried quandong soak overnight, then drain.
Simmer slowly quandong and chillies in the vinegar with salt and sugar added, until mixture has become reduced and quandongs soft and mushy, about 30 mins.
Sauce should coat the back of a spoon and not just run straight off.
100gm dried quandong
juice of one lime
Cover the quandong with water and soak overnight.
Cook until tender (about 30 minutes).Strain
Puree the fruit and place in a pot with sugar and lime juice.
Cook for approx half an hour until all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened.
Then pour into moulds and allow to cool before covering. Excellent on a cheese platter.
100gm dried quandong soaked overnight
1 litre water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornflour
250gram short crust pastry
2 Granny Smith apples (peeled, cored and cubed)
Simmer quandong with water and sugar until thick and hydrated then stir in apples. Make a smooth paste with the cornflour by adding a little water. While quandong and apples are simmering stir in the cornflour mixture bring to the boil until the first bubbles appear then take off the heat and cool.
Grease a 20cm pie tin and then line with pastry pressing the pastry into the sides and leaving an overlap of pastry. Fill the pie crust until 3/4 full with quandong and apple mix. Brush egg wash around edge of pie crust and top with a pastry cover. Crimp pie edge to form a seal and brush top with egg wash. Run a fork over pastry to form a pattern then place five holes in pastry top
Bake at 180C for 30-45 minutes or until pastry is cooked and nicely browned.