About Cherikoff Australian Ingredients – Part 1: A Bit of History
The story behind the pioneering steps …
I’d like to give you some of the reasons behind my commitment to the native Australian food industry, which goes back to the early 1980s when I began selecting what I thought were the commercial species, developing supply lines and trading in the foods but well before then …
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 drive past hundreds of 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 were the deep, soft, permeable soils rich with micro-organisms and organic matter and a permanent cover of grasses, lichens and mosses. Instead we have vast tracts of ‘improved’ weed-infested pasture and dry, dead dirt with top soil often seen blowing in the wind and a crust so hard that water can’t penetrate and rainfall runs off into erosion ditches carrying the few remaining soil nutrients out to waterways and ultimately out to sea.
Little thought to Climate Change or Biodiversity
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 and we rely on agricultural companies that have now irresponsibly mined most primary sources of this element around the world (see the effects on the barren wasteland of Nauru).
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 which are politically called biodiversity offset so that farmers can destroy remnant bushland elsewhere on their stolen land. Behind this dysfunctional ecosystem of dying trees and shrubs were vast expanses of cleared land for single crops. Often the topsoil was easy to see after the skeletal soils were ploughed by soil-crushing machines because it was blowing around in the air, in willy-willies (eddies) like mini-tornadoes. I knew that a lot of this once fertile soil (which is severely limited in Australia) ended up in our rivers and creeks and eventually, in the ocean.
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.
A Brush with Fame
While studying for my Bachelor of Applied Science degree in the 1970s at what is now the University of Technology, Nicole Kidman’s father, the late Anthony Kidman (who was my lecturer in biochemistry) 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 whole food 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 analytical research into the nutritional value of Australian wild foods at what was then, the Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Sydney.
Luck and a Life Changing Path
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 Australian wild foods, then popularly known as bushfood or bush tucker but nowadays better referred to as authentic Australian food or just wild foods.
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, Australian Functional Ingredients Pty Ltd now exports plantation grown, organic wild foods as well as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal wild-crafted ingredients into many 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.
Australian Functional Ingredients
My second in charge, Josh Powell, is an Indigenous Australian and Head of Logistics and Production and together, our committed, enthusiastic and highly capable team keep AFI leading the way for the future of Australian cuisine, processed foods, functional ingredients for cosmetics, nutritionals, cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals and a few specialist products coming from research into wild food functionality.
I have always recognized that the Indigenous knowledge of the wild foods in which I played my part in creating demand, is to be respected and appreciated. My goal was to create business opportunities for remote communities, families and networks of First Nation clans. I have had numerous Indigenous Australians employed directly in the company and some moved through the business to pursue their own paths. AFI still works to source ingredients and advises on harvest and post-harvest practices of wild foods as well as recommendations for ecosystem management urging selection of species variants to maximize the nutritional value, not necessarily the eating qualities. It has been this approach with modern foods which has seen wild qualities disappear from the few dozen conventional fruits and vegetables widely available leaving fruits devoid of fat soluble nutrients, low in fibre and other functional components and loaded with bad sugars and pumped up with irrigation water. We need to preserve wild quality or we are doomed to see more rubbish food on the market.
As the author of books on wild foods, I hope that I have spread my enthusiasm for the plants and the foods to gardeners and professional growers, foragers and foodies, cooks and chefs. Through school and trade curricula which I have written, Australian 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 wild flavours into other, more conventional cuisines. I also hope that I have inspired many more.
The motivation and untiring commitment behind Australian Functional Ingredients 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, multicultural Australia.
I see the spread of Australian wild foods 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.
From Food to Health Food
As an interesting update, one area where wild foods almost sell themselves is in the health market. LIFE (Lyophilized Indigenous Food Essentials)™ contains 14 wild foods from Australia, home of the longest living culture on the planet. It also includes other conventional superfoods such as wild blueberries, near-wild blackcurrants, pineapple core with its enzymes, in fact, all up it has 27 superfood ingredients with NO fillers or extenders and is based on freeze-dried (lyophilized) fruits and herbs. This makes it an ultra-premium, science-based solution which address the diseases of nutrition. The results that our customers (and raving fans) are getting substantiate the science and put LIFE out there as a must-have addition to our modern diet.
Perhaps this is the future, at least in the shorter term, for Australian wild foods. Fixing our ailing health can ultimately lead to better enjoyment of our cuisine and the ingredients are less challenging because of the health benefits that LIFE (Lyophilized Indigenous Food Essentials)™ 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.
Books by Vic Cherikoff:
The Bushfood Handbook; How to find, prepare, cook and grow Australian Wild Foods
Uniquely Australian, A wild food cookbook
Superfoods in LIFE
Wild Foods; Looking back 60,000 years for clues to our future survival. New Holland Publishers