Botany Bay greens

Warrigal Greens.jpg

Take a glance at the terms that emerge from our convict and colonial past and you get the unmistakable feeling that life was tough. Anything that was a substitute for the real thing was described as Botany Bay — as in Botany  Bay greens, also known as Botany Bay spinach.

 The bush tucker cuisine of the 1980s saw the revival of a number of our edible plants including this one, but it has been presented anew with a more classy name, warrigal greens.  Less limiting geographically as well, perhaps.

 Later colonial took over the function of Botany Bay in words like colonial goose. This was a leg of mutton with the meat removed from the bone and covered with a mix of onion, sage and breadcrumbs bound with egg. Then baked. Presumably if you couldn’t see what the meat was, you could pretend it was goose.

 There is an ironic undertone to this kind of lexicon — the black humour of desperation.

 The word bush developed a range of compounds — it was for us a significant word and therefore a very productive one with underlying meanings of ‘makeshift’ or ‘appropriate to’ or ‘found in’ the bush. In this way we developed a wide range of compounds such as bush champagne and bush jam tarts.

 An item like bush jam tarts uses bush in the sense of  ‘makeshift’ because the jam in the tarts was ‘ingeniously concocted of brown ration sugar and water’ to quote JCF Johnston writing in 1873.  Bush champagne was made from a saline mixed with methylated spirits. Pretty desperate drinking.

 We also have the use of bush in such compounds as bush apple and bush plum, for local fruits which, in the fond dreams of the settlers, resembled the fruits they were used to eating but which, of course, bore no relation to them in reality. 

 Plants were also referred to as ‘native’ this and that, many of these being finally dignified with names that gave them their own status and identity, often ones of Indigenous origin. The native apple is the angophora because the tree grows in a shape that resembles that of the apple tree.  The native dandelion is the yam daisy. Some plants, like the native ginger, have not found a ‘true’ name yet and some names are just a catch-all, as native cabbage referring to any plant that resembles a cabbage.

 The general consensus on those colonial days is that Australians ate damper and meat, and drank billy tea and much too much of spirits. It seems that colonial wine was in need of some improvement as the following quotes show.

  A London curate writing under the pseudonym Andrew Pasquin in 1868 sneered at the wine on offer in the colonies:

South Australia spread rheumatism and insanity all over New Holland with her sour ditch water, christened ‘colonial wine’. 

 And Anthony Trollope remarked in 1873:

Sometimes praise is expected for colonial wine which a prejudiced old Englishman feels that he can hardly give with truth.

 There was a conscious decision made in the early 1900s to replace the term colonial wine with Australian wine, which can no longer be described as ‘sour ditch water’. Similarly we are revisiting the colonial bush tucker and turning it out again, but with better names.


foodSue ButlerComment