I was in the habit of driving a lot, going places to bush-walk, look around or just to enjoy this amazing country we call home here in Australia. But to get to the spectacular places you had to pass hundreds of miles (kilometres) of damaged farmland, cleared bush, ruined, ring-barked forests, weed infested grasslands; sick country and it was obvious we have learned nothing from the original, Aboriginal inhabitants of this land. Gone were the herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, seeds and other foods, gone forever from vast tracts of ‘improved’ pasture and agricultural wasteland.
We know now that land clearing reduces local rainfall and grasses in ‘improved pastures’ initially prosper on the nitrogen left from the native species which were cleared away. Also phosphorus is limiting in Australian soils and exotic species typically need more of this nutrient than native ones.
A total lack of investment in critical environmental issues such as land, water and resource management, sustainability and population growth has lead Australia to having one of the worst global reputations for environmental management. Our record for species extinction per capita is one of the highest in the world.
It depressed me that along most country roads I’d see these thin strips of bush, no more than 20 metres wide and behind this were vast distances of cleared land or single crops. Often the topsoil was easy to see because it was blowing around in the air, in willy-willies (eddies) like mini-tornadoes. I knew that a lot of this fertile soil (which is severely limited in Australia) ended up in our rivers and creeks and eventually, in the oceans.
Kangaroos and other gourmet foods
I’d often see farmers in different parts of Australia, sitting in their air-conditioned tractors ploughing land from which they or their predecessors had bull-dozed away healthy eco-systems of a huge number of edible fruit trees and bushes, vegetables from forbs, creepers and other plants, herbs, spices, nuts and seeds. This is not to mention the habitats they bulldozed killing native bees and dozens of other of gourmet delicacies including lizards and other reptiles, tortoises and terrapins, kangaroos and their relatives, a wide array of birds from emus, turkeys, bustards and pigeons to cassowaries, geese and ducks.
My thoughts often turned to considering that there must be a better way to grow our food. I had made a study of the herbs and spices and other foods native to Australia since way back to my teenage years and even studied environmental biology to learn more about botany and ecology.
While studying for my Bachelor of Applied Science degree in the 1970s at what is now the University of Technology, Nicole Kidman’s father, Anthony Kidman (who was my lecturer in biochemistry years before) bumped into me in the hallway sometime in 1975 and said “Are you still here Vic? Do you want a job? I have one on offer at the University of New South Wales in the Dept of Pharmacology and Physiology.”
Well, after 4 years of a mix of full and part time study and another year part-time to go on to finish a triple major (environmental biology, biochemistry and industrial microbiology) I was pleased to get a paying job (such as it was in science research in this country). What followed was 6 years in clinical pharmacology working on the brain reactions to various neurotransmitters and therapeutic drugs. It proved to be excellent training for my current focus on food safety and in sourcing, screening and marketing active medicinal compounds from Australian botanicals for use in biotherapies.
The grant money at the UNSW was ultimately not renewed in 1982 and after a brief 3 months on the benches with the unemployed, I applied for a position undertaking scientific analytical research into the nutritional value of native foods at the Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Sydney.
In some ways, it was serendipitous that I landed this job because I was one out of 84 other applicants. Yet thus began an accelerated learning curve on my teenage passion; that of finding and eating wild native Australian foods, then popularly known as bushfood or bush tucker but nowadays better referred to as authentic Australian food.
Having access to over 450 different foods for analysis and able to nibble on thousands more gave me a unique insight into Australia’s undiscovered, wild food (and medicine) resources. The fruits, tubers, vegetables, herbs, spices, seeds, nuts and more that I tasted instantly screamed at me that here was an industry waiting to be commercialized. Starting with a single restaurant in Sydney as a customer, my company Vic Cherikoff Food Services Pty Ltd now exports plantation grown, organic native foods as well as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal wild-harvested ingredients into over 28 countries and to countless chefs, numerous manufacturers and hundreds of on-line shoppers each month.
The foods came in from around the country, initially predominantly supplied by Aboriginal communities and through my own collecting. In 1983, some of the left-overs (after analysis) were supplied to chefs and although I didn’t recognize its potential impact at the time, the possibility of an Australian cuisine had begun. I started my first wild food trading company, Bush Tucker Supply in 1987. It went through various changes in name and suffered all the trials and tribulations of small business and partnerships with embezzlement by one co-director and a take-over attempt by others. Finally, I had to start all over again after walking away from directors who thought they could run my supply business without me and from a plush office high in the sky in Sydney’s CBD.
Vic Cherikoff Food Services
Today, I run a new start-up business with a committed, enthusiastic and highly capable team who keep Vic Cherikoff Food Services P/L leading the way for the future of Australian cuisine. The business has even grown into three distinct divisions; Cherikoff Rare Spices (food ingredients); Cherikoff Bioactives (functional ingredients); and Cherikoff Infotainment (publishing, video content and appearances).
As the author of two books on native foods; The Bushfood Handbook and Uniquely Australian, A wild food cookbook (both currently out of print) and co-author (with Benjamin Christie) of the Dining Downunder Cookbook, I hope I have spread my enthusiasm for native foods to gardeners and professional growers, foragers and foodies, cooks and chefs. Through school and trade curricula which I have written, Australian native cuisine is being taught to both qualified and apprentice chefs. I have personally trained over 600 chefs in my scientific approach to the incorporation of native flavours into other, more conventional cuisines. I also hope that I have inspired many more.
The motivation and untiring commitment behind Vic Cherikoff Food Services P/L is a vision that anyone who appreciates good food will soon learn to seek out and appreciate those wild and unique flavours which make our modern and distinctive, Australian ingredients the one influence unifying the many food fads of contemporary, multi-cultural Australia.
I see the spread of Australian native flavours around the world as simply the result of a twenty-first century spice trade exploring the new and exciting flavours that this ancient continent has to offer the culinary world.
As an interesting update, one area where wild foods almost sell themselves is in the health and well-being markets. Kakadu Juice contains 10 wild foods from Australia, home of the longest living culture on the planet. It also includes the usual superfoods – acai, goji, mangosteen, blueberries, green tea in fact over 2 dozen ingredients with NO fillers (ordinary juices). This makes it an ultra-premium nutrition solution for the diseases of civilization and the results we are getting substantiate the science and the quality.
This year will see the growth of this product into substantial markets as Americans are made aware of this amazing product which puts all other nutritional supplements into a poor second place.
Perhaps this is the future, at least in the shorter term, for Australian wild foods. Fixing our ailing health can ultimately lead to a better enjoyment of our cuisine and the ingredients are less challenging because of the educational factor that products like Kakadu Juice delivers.
The upshot of either way is a benefit to the environment as new crops are developed along ecologically sustainable lines and we increase the number of foods we eat for our health and well-being. We might even better value what little we have left when it comes to the wild country and the resources it still holds.