To coincide with the world premiere of Dark Emu, a dance performance based on Bruce Pascoe's book of the same name, Barangaroo House chef Cory Campbell has recreated two dishes from the book. Inspired by a meal shared by Charles Sturt and the Panara people in the Warburton River region, Campbell's roast duck and savoury yam and millet cakes bring to life an encounter which Pascoe describes in Dark Emu.
"Sturt's party were fed on roast duck and cake," Pascoe wrote. "And Sturt, who was to eat similar cakes over the next few months, referred to them as the best he had ever eaten."
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company, Bangarra, are performing Pascoe's groundbreaking 2014 book in a world premiere season that kicked off at Sydney Opera House on 14 June and will tour several Australian capital cities. The performance tells the story of the sophisticated farming, hunting and cooking techniques that Pascoe shows existed in Australia prior to European colonisation.
"It's important for us to reflect on how Aboriginal people had an association with the land that allowed them to live in areas that we now think are inhospitable," Pascoe says.
During Sturt's ill-fated mission to discover the Inland Sea he thought existed in central Australia, Sturt and his party – dying, ridden with scurvy and exhausted – came across a group of almost 300 Aboriginal people by the Warburton River who offered the Europeans water from wells and invited them to eat a meal of roast duck and cake, which were probably cooked over hot coals.
The cake was most likely made from millet flour grown in the huge grain belt known as the Panara that extended in a ring north from the Flinders Ranges all the way through New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. In his account, Sturt wrote of hearing grain mills turning in the evening, further evidence of the agricultural systems that were established long before European arrival. Campbell's cake is also made with millet, as well as yam, crisp saltbush and onion.
"I wanted to bring the different textures and the sweet and the savoury together to represent the melting pot of culture that is modern day Australia," the chef says.
The duck in Campbell's recipe is brushed with a honey that's been infused with tyrant ants, which are native to New South Wales and Queensland. Campbell says they add an earthy flavour to the honey. A variation of the dish appears on the menu at Bea, the restaurant within Barangaroo House.
Sturt's diary entries from 1845 are one of many similar instances described in Dark Emu. The powerful knowledge that Aboriginal people possessed was critical to their survival, Pascoe argues, and it helped to save the lives of many early European colonialists, not just Sturt. However, as the performance by Bangarra shows, the import of Western farming techniques, flora and fauna spelled the death of Aboriginal farming practices.
But through the work of academics including Pascoe and Bill Gammage, writers such as John Newton, Aboriginal elders and growers and chefs, the winds of change may finally be blowing.