there's a yabby on my barbie
Everyone who grew up in Australia seems to have a fond memory of being a kid and catching yabbies....summer, a dam or stream, wet trouser legs, squishy mud between toes and the occasional nip to the finger. That said, yabbies are a little under- represented on restaurant menus, but they are popping up in (South Australian) farmers’ markets in greater numbers and more frequently lately.
The prevalent species in Australia is Cherax Destructor. It is an endemic species to most south eastern states. They are hardy little guys who are gaining popularity in aquaculture. The breeding cycle is short with a female producing over a couple of hundred eggs up to three times a year. The average table sized yabby (100 to 160 g) reaches weight in around 6 months.
Interestingly the common yabby is classified as a vulnerable species by the World Conservation Union but the listing is somewhat questionable; surprisingly little research on the species has been undertaken. A notable restriction is that berried (fancy word for pregnant) females must be returned to the water, (so if you see roe attached under the carapace then chuck it back); and bag limits of 200 per day apply in South Australia to preserve wild stocks, but stock levels for farmers is the least of their problems.
Jane Nott of Galloway Yabbies is a former pig, turkey, emu and sheep farmer who turned her hand to farming yabbies in the Fleurieu Peninsula a few years ago. She explains, “It’s a matter of control rather than management;” populations can get out of hand and the biggest challenge in her business is demand, not supply. It’s an interesting scenario when so many of our aquaculture industries struggle with breeding and mortality rates (antibiotic use is not uncommon) to grow species that may not be perfectly suited to our climate and conditions, yet ignore endemic species that thrive.
The species are nocturnal detritivores (which is a posh way of saying they stuff their faces with anything at night, so I guess they are like the bong-smokers of the aquatic system!). They eat algae and plant remains but are good dam cleaners and will eat any dead fish or animals that end up in the dam; this makes them a very economical source of protein as they require very little “inputs.”
Again when you compare the protein conversion of some of our aqua culture ventures that require 20 odd kg of protein i.e. fish meal to make 1 kg of protein for the table you have to scratch your head. It just doesn’t make sense as the overt use of fish meal basically translates to less small fish remaining for us/other fish to eat. Jane feeds her kids predominantly lupins, meadow hay and carp so they are hardly competing with us for valuable food supplies.
The biggest challenge she faces is preventing shags from eating her yabbies, they are efficient predators so dams have to be netted. Opera nets are used to split populations (boys are put in separate dams as they’re what is used for meat supply). But yabbies will crawl across land, so the occasional girl will get herself out of the dormitory and in with the guys that are slated for market.
Jane has a hectare of water available and is currently running at half capacity with 4 or 5 ponds stocked at a time. The ponds are periodically allowed to dry out; this is basically all that’s needed to clean the pond and eliminate nitrogen causing bugs which effect productivity.
A tribute to the species’ resilience is its ability to tunnel into the banks and lay dormant for long periods (an adaptation to our natural drought cycle), so when the dam is refilled and restocked there will always be a few remaining squatters lurking and ready to resurrect their home.
You will start to see a steady supply of yabbies when spring is underway, as Jane explains with water below 16°C there’s not a lot of action in the yabby world. Once the water temperature heats up growth spurts occur and you will notice the yabbies molt their shells to accommodate. It is fascinating to watch them slip out of a dirty old shell to reveal a paper-soft, new paint job.
Generally wild yabbies will have more robust shells and of course they won’t have been purged like market supplies of farmed product (after a day or two in clean water), so there will be more “mustard” in the tract (which is a nice way of saying poo!). I do prefer purged yabbies because you don’t have to peel the back flesh from the body to clean them which seems a little wasteful, you can generally just tug the tract through the body from the tail end while shelling and you have a clean piece of meat.
So back to those “yabby memories…” they don’t have to stop when you stop being a kid. Next Christmas why not skip the prawns, hit the markets and throw a few yabbies on the BBQ and start making some brand new happy memories.
Here's a recipe to try out on your barbie (or chargrill plate)...yabby gazpacho.
There is a little strip of soil in my driveway that I couldn't be bothered with when I started planting fruit and vegetables at home. The soil has never been "improved", it rarely gets watered and it gets absolutely hammered with northern sun, yet it is one of the most productive growing areas I have. Why? Maybe because it's planted with native Australian foods. There is sea parsley, warrigal greens, samphire, saltbush, muntries, native thyme (and a not so native prickly pear).
What amazes me is the total lack of love I give these plants, however they continue to yield year after year. I can't help comparing this with my vegetable patch which produces well enough but requires constant soil improvement, adequate water and a careful eye for common pests.
Now this is really just an anecdotal observation but it doesn't take a scientist to verify that the foods which have been growing in Australia for centuries would be perfectly suited to the climate. The mystery is why we don't eat them?
There are a few possibilities why these foods have been so undervalued on our tables. I guess the first is the trickiest to tackle and it is with trepidation that I say it has its roots buried somewhere in the controversial nature that this land was "settled" by Europeans. Without getting into a discourse of the legitimacy surrounding this issue, I think it is fair to say that livestock, crops and eating patterns were pretty much teleported to this country without too much thought in regards to suitability for the entirely different climate that was being settled. In a nutshell there was little interest in the traditional food culture that existed in this land before Europeans arrived.
It seems that 200 odd years on, there is finally recognition politically, artistically and culturally of our country's Indigenous history, and hopefully now a culinary recognition of Indigenous foods that had been largely ignored on our daily tables.
Some of this mainstream acceptance can be attributed to chefs like Vic Cherikoff and Andrew Fielke, pioneers in the use of native foods on restaurant menus for the past 20 to 30 years. Spearheading the modern charge, Mark Olive has been joined by chefs on the East Coast like Kylie Kwong, Neil Perry and Mark Best to name but a few. Having high profile credible chefs using these ingredients certainly helps introduce and showcase these flavours to a broad audience.
This coupled with our more adventurous palates mean that these brash bold flavours are becoming not only merely accepted but actually embraced as part of our country's shared heritage.
Another key factor for the popularity of these foods could be related to some interesting research that is surfacing from the past few years. The paper "Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999" * might not make fascinating reading for every home cook but the general gist of the paper is that in the 50 years from 1950 there has been a marked decline in the nutritional values of commercially grown fruit and veg. The research tracks levels of 13 key nutrients in 43 commonly grown commercial varieties. The overwhelming conclusion is that there is a large trade off between modern high yielding varieties (larger and faster growing and often more "visually appealing" ) and intensive farming methods (pesticides and fertilizers), and the nutritional value of our food.
Mike Quarmby from Outback Pride is a believer that "old food" is nutritionally superior. The 60 odd species that Mike and partner Gayle have selected from over 100 000 miles spent in the bush collecting species primarily for palatability not yield. Mike, a trained horticulturalist has never crossbred, never bred seed from selection and never inbred; what is produced in the Reedy Creek Nursery is basically the best most edible varieties that existed in Australia before intense clearing and grazing knocked them on the head (e.g. many variety's of natives like saltbush were over-grazed leaving the most palatable variety's stock levels threatened; likewise wild harvest has declined the stock levels of some species). This means it remains "old food" and along with the resurgence of Heirloom varieties of fruits and vegies which can be a bit gnarly and ugly - if you believe the research- are part of a nutritionally superior basket of foods.
The Outback Pride project has also set up over 25 native food nurseries in Indigenous communities, the profits from the sale of these foods are directed straight back to the communities so that's a win for Indigenous people when you buy these products.
The final challenge to the industry has probably centred around availability. Some of the seasons of these crops are incredibly short so the product cannot be supplied fresh all year round. Now, I am not a huge fan of shipping food all over the country via cold chains but when you total the inputs used to raise these crops (e.g. water and oil for farm machinery) they are minute. So in total, I for one, am happy to use a frozen (or dried) product on my menus knowing that the overall energy and resources used to grow and harvest them is nominal.
Having said that, three of my favorite varieties are now available fresh in 100g and 50g packs, so to cook this recipe (Outback Pride warrigal and saltbush tart with B.-d. Farm Paris Creek fetta), there is no need for you to raid my driveway or go bush!
*Dr. Donald Davis, Melvin Epp, and Hugh Riordan Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, Austin 2005
where the good stuff grows
I am a mad keen vegie gardener and can vouch that homegrown tastes better, organic home grown better still. There are a few challenges to get a good vegie patch going, the right soil, watering regime, companion planting knowledge, correct planting times and places, harvest timing, maintenance and most of all pest control. It requires constant diligence and hard work to produce food but it is worth the effort.
If you don't have adequate space, sun, soil conditions, water or time then a community garden plot is a great alternative, the bonus is the shared pool of knowledge that's "on tap" from your neighbours.
Failing all of this you can always hit one of the farmers markets and buy the good stuff from a grower.
Supermarket veg pales in relation; it has suffered transport logistics, storage time depletion possibly an energy hungry cold chain so it really can't compete. You also have no idea what inputs were used to grow it, but at a farmers market you can actually ask the farmer.
That's why some of the supermarket stuff tends to curl up and die within a few seconds of leaving its controlled environment on the shelf, but well grown vegies freshly picked and bought from a good vendor last for weeks and weeks. The nutritional benefits are obvious, the flavor and range (that are not just the standard commercial varieties) are a cook's dream.
I can't possibly do justice to the number of great growers we have in our South Australian markets but here's a little snap shop of who's on my beat.
At the Adelaide Showground Farmers Market (ASFM) you are spoilt for choice. Annemarie and Graham from The Food Forest tick every single box, organically certified grown fruits, nuts and vegies from their permaculture set up just outside Gawler. You can't eat their produce or listen to them talk and not get interested in permaculture. They are living proof that there is an alternative system of production that is respectful to the land, low input and tasty. They are a wealth of knowledge and a tour of their operation (something they welcome) is a must as it is truly inspiring.
Pat and Lina from Patlin Gardens are already an ASFM institution, if Pat wasn't a market gardener he would be a rock star! Every week he stands proudly in front of his huge stand. This is a man who knows he has the good stuff and he is always eager to give you a taste of something and have a chat. One of Pat and Lina's staff, Daniel an agricultural student, is one of my favorite market personalities. There is something a little magic about the way he handles the vegies with a sense of pride, like they are his babies.
Sarina and Francesco Virgara are ASFM regulars but you can also catch them up at Willunga Farmers Market on their home patch (their farms are at Willunga and Myponga) as well as at the Victor Harbor Farmers Market.
At Willunga Farmers Market, Barry Beach is another certified organic grower. Better known for his amazing wood oven sour dough bread and fair trade organic spices, Barry grows an array of fruit and veg but of particular interest is his penchant for Asian vegies and herbs.
Also at the Willunga market, Starlight Springs is so named because the farm is a network of natural springs, they have organic and some hard to get Heirloom varieties of veg. Michelle Vidau and Jack Walsh from Herbivorous always have a queue for their real herbs that have grown properly in the sun and an array of edible flowers and salad greens.
The Victor Harbor Farmers Market is gaining momentum and Brenton Tamblyn is a grower and vendor of organic Heirloom varieties at The Patch. He insists that everything is picked no sooner than the day before market, that's fresh!
Final mention to Tony Scarfo, who is the nicest guy you will ever meet and supplies some of the best places in town with his organic vegies grown out Virginia way. Second generation market gardeners Tony and Maria have been growing certified organic produce for around 20 years and you can find them at the Organic & Sustainable Market, Saturday mornings in Henley Beach.
no garden? get sprouting
I am a sprouter, there is always something in a hemp bag hanging in my kitchen, and if it sprouts I will eat it! (Believe me I have tried to sprout the maddest things). My all time favorite sprout is lentils; they have a great earthy flavour and the most pleasant aftertaste that just lingers. Sprouting is like vegie gardening for those with low attention spans and a demand for instant results; it never ceases to amaze me that you can grow food from seed in 4 days without soil.
snowpea tendrils and dirt(y) kangaroo island pure grain red nipper lentil sprouts with soy, tahini and lemon dressing
1 tablespoon canola or rice bran oil
4 handfuls of snowpea tendrils and leaves
1 cup (80 g) dirt(y) kangaroo island pure grain red nipper lentil sprouts
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
3 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon water
pinch of caster sugar
Mix together the dressing ingredients with a whisk, adding a little more water if needed to achieve the consistency of mayonnaise.
Preheat a large wok over high heat. Add the oil and swirl around the wok, then throw in the snowpea tendrils coat in the oil for a few seconds, using use tongs to twist them around the wok. Add a splash of water and toss once, remove the wok from the heat. The whole process should take about 10 seconds.
To serve, place the snowpeas tendrils on a plate and top with the sprouts. Pour/spoon over the dressing and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
these kids get good produce! adelaide showground farmers market kids' club
The kids at the Adelaide Showground Farmers Market helped get the chooks and vegies for this recipe from the stall holders and joined in on the cook up. You can see what happened in the movie and find the recipe below...
free range chicken egg noodles
serves 2 kids
30 ml peanut oil
free range chicken thigh, sliced
1 free range egg
2 cups fresh hokkien egg noodles
½ punnet cherry tomatoes cut into halves
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
cup bean sprouts
handful coriander leaves, chopped
handful dry wild mushrooms
Soak the mushrooms in 50 ml water, drain and reserve liquid for stir fry stock. Squeeze mushrooms dry & chop into small pieces (so kids don't know they are eating mushrooms!)
Get everything ready and nearby, as you have to work really quickly to wok this dish!!
Heat wok dry until very hot. Add oil to wok then chicken followed by diced wild mushrooms. Break egg into wok and let the white set, pop yolk. Add egg noodles followed by tomatoes. Add sugar and reserved 60 ml of mushroom stock to steam noodles through, then toss in bean sprouts and coriander.
Finally add soy, mix all ingredients and serve. Take care not to cook too long after adding soy as it will reduce and make the dish too salty.