Imagine living in a country the size of a continent, in possession of an unlimited naturalistic and gastronomic heritage without being at all familiar with such resources. This was the scenario facing Mark Olive, known as the Black Olive, an Australian aboriginal chef who, ever since the late 80’s, has been cooking and studying the ancient ingredients used by the various aboriginal communities dotted throughout the country.
Mark has chosen television as the ideal media for getting his message across: as the first aboriginal chef of the small screen, since 2006, Mark has been showing Australians how to use bush foods, herbs, seeds and edible flowers or how to cook Opossum meat. A format that has turned out to be a successful one: today, Mark Olive is a widely known television celebrity, an icon of Australian food and showbiz.
Thanks to him, Australians have started to familiarize with Saltbush, a sprawling grey/blue shrub sometimes spreading to five metres wide, or the Bush Cucumber, mainly growing in the western Queensland area. Not to mention Kutjera, a tiny desert plant belonging to the tomato family producing a small fruit which, when dried, can be used like a spice, or Lemon Myrtle, a herb used to flavour fish or fruit such as pineapple, in which case it releases an extremely fresh taste of mint and lemon.
Fine Dining Lovers met him recently and this is what he told us about aboriginal cooking and his work as a TV chef.
How can aboriginal cuisine be defined?
It is difficult to sum it up in a few words: before actually visiting Australia, it is hard to imagine the huge distance between one city and another. Throughout Australia, from Queensland to Victoria, there are Australian aboriginal communities whose dialect, food and traditions all differ from each other. In order to enter these communities, you have to be invited by their elders. The ingredients used in Australian cuisine are fresh and variegated and we have everything we need without having to import anything: if you buy local you support the aboriginal communities which are starting to work on farms and in the production of their typical foodstuffs.
Herbs, wild plants: it seems to be a very healthy diet.
Aboriginal food is very healthy. All herbs and wild plants are extremely good for our organism: the Bush tomato tree, for instance, is an important anti-oxidant. Kangaroo meat is obviously high in protein and at the same time suitable for diabetics, since it helps reduce their blood sugar levels.
How have you addressed the task of explaining aboriginal food to Australians?
For over 30 years now, I have focused on the objective of making aboriginal food part of everyday cuisine. Australian people still do not use the typical ingredients of our land and this is a great pity: what I try to do is to teach them how to use our rich natural resources and how to cook more healthily by fully exploiting the flavour of wild herbs and plants. I believe the easiest way is to adapt it to well-known dishes: for instance if I make an aboriginal lasagne, I try to make it look like a traditional lasagne but, instead of beef, I use kangaroo meat and, of course, locally grown tomatoes. If I prepare a Filet Mignon, I use Emu meat instead of port and add aboriginal spinach (which are poisonous if eaten raw). The flavour is bound to be different. This is one way to get people to taste and appreciate flavours which actually belong to an ancient tradition but have just fallen into disuse.
What type of ingredients do Australian people normally use, and what would be better for them?
For example, more expensive types of meat that are not part of our eco system. Very little kangaroo or emu is eaten because they are looked on as symbols of Australia, but they are also an integral part of the traditional aboriginal diet. Then there are other less familiar meats such as crocodile and opossum: I once explained how to cook it in a TV show and viewers thought it was a cat!
You are also renowned for your vast knowledge of wild herbs and spices.
Almost everywhere in Australia, you can find some amazing ingredients growing wild. I love to cook with what nature offers us. One of my signature dishes is this highly traditional recipe called Lemon and Ginger Barramundi, which I cook in a roll of paper bark from a Melaleuca tree, a very common species in Australia. Its fragrance is very "woody", but as the food cooks inside, the wood releases some fantastic aromas and infuses the fish with marvellous flavours.
After ten years’ activity, do you feel that you have changed the perception of aboriginal cooking in Australia and the rest of the world?
Actually…yes! When I began my career as a chef, I wanted to do something different and I did it. I started to work for a small television channel at the time, and I had nothing to lose. Today, I can say that I have been extremely fortunate.
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