What it's really like to go food foraging in Byron Bay

Growing interest in reconnecting with nature has led to an appetite for foraging amongst everyday foodies.

Peter Hardwick picking native plants in the bush
  • Sudeshna Ghosh
  • December 2019

Squelch, squelch… my city slicker sneakers sink into the wet, sandy shoreline as I march forward with the rest of the group, single file, before making a sharp left turn into the forest. OK, not so much a forest as a thicket. In a council park. But it’s wild enough for me.

The waters of Shaws Bay lap gently at the sand, as a child squeals in delight on playground swings in the distance, reminding me that, although in Australian scrub, we are not far from civilisation at all – barely 20 minutes from Byron Bay, in fact.

I’m on a foraging walk with Peter Hardwick, a veteran horticulturist and wild food researcher who is credited as being one of the pioneers of promoting Australian native foods, exploring one of his favourite stomping grounds. Peter, who has been championing bush foods for over four decades, is now the resident forager at Harvest Newrybar restaurant where I am soon about to dine on a gourmet dinner created using some of these unexpected ingredients – think fermented wattle and finger lime – made by none other than Attica chef Ben Shewry (who is guest chef-ing at the restaurant for one night only).

Peter Hardwick holding a bag of foraged ingredients
Wild food researcher Peter Hardwick is a pioneer of food foraging.

From the likes of Rene Redzepi, of Copenhagen’s Noma fame, to Jock Zonfrillo, who celebrates native ingredients in his acclaimed Adelaide restaurant Orana, chefs foraging for ingredients they turn into unique dishes isn’t new. As awareness grows about the increasing urgency of eating sustainably, this interest in turning to nature’s larder for food is also becoming more mainstream.

“Interest in foraging is certainly trending, people are realising this is something they can get involved with,” says Peter. “And chefs are leading the charge with that and inspiring people.”

According to Diego Bonetto, who runs urban foraging workshops across NSW, there has been a definite uptick in people interested in foraging, crediting the Noma restaurant effect for putting it firmly in the spotlight. “The number of workshops I run has nearly doubled in the last five years,” he says.

As someone who cares passionately about what I eat and its provenance, nothing could make me happier. I smile with delight when I come upon a clump of textured warrigal greens growing in wild abandon at my feet; it’s the only thing I recognise on this foraging walk, however. Earlier on the expedition, Peter introduced me to sea purslane – it tastes salty, of the sea it grows so close to – and grey mangrove, which has the texture of avocado but tastes like olives when pickled, among a few other wild plants.

Charred garlic flowers at Harvest Newyrbar
The delicious food at Harvest Newrybar use many foraged ingredients.

I encounter some unexpected flavours that evening at dinner too. The yeast bread toast topped with crunchy ngerdi (green ants) is confronting but surprisingly delicious, bunya nuts add a delightful new layer of flavour to dessert and the highlight of the evening is potatoes – given an incredibly rich, smoky flavour from the sea kelp they were cooked in. It’s a revelatory meal.

When the ingredients in a dish are this closely connected to nature, the food tastes… just different. Good different. It helps create an instant connection with the source.

“Everyone’s got this desire to connect with nature. And the idea of foraging – that whole self-sufficiency thing, it touches on the human psyche in a primal way,” Peter explains. Diego agrees. “I get a diverse range of people coming to forage, but in my opinion, one of the main drivers is environmental guilt,” he says. “By now we have a clear understanding of how disconnected we are to that land. By engaging with wild food sources, you become a stakeholder.”

Vegetable garden at Harvest Newyrbar
Harvest restaurant also has its own on-site organic garden.

Apart from taste, eating off the land is also beneficial for health – a number of native ingredients have medicinal qualities. Which is not to say that we should be swapping our supermarket shop for a foraging trip to the local park next weekend! “You have to be careful – there are things out there that are toxic, which is something I continually emphasise,” warns Peter. “Equally important is responsible foraging, to ensure we are not harming the environment. There is a lot of information out there, but also a lot of misinformation, which can be dangerous.”

But with a growing number of professional foragers, such as WA’s Australian Truffle Traders and Animal Tracks in the Northern Territory, guiding curious visitors into the world of edible native plants, it is becoming ever easier to learn how to eat as nature intended. And if that sparks an interest in eating more sustainably, it can only be a good thing.

And the food will always taste better.