Thursday, 18 April 2013

"Then came quail and squid-ink rice cake with a wild weed and nettle salad"


The wild weed in my title is Portulaca oleracea, aka Purslane, Pigweed or by some Aboriginal communities Munyeroo or Parnamula. The gastronomic garland is from an online review of 3-hatted restaurant Attica in Elsternwick by 'Richard from Melbourne'.

I am familiar with Nettle as a vegetable, although reluctant to collect it myself after too many irritating encounters with its toxic hairs. The Purslane I knew little about but all of a sudden it's everywhere - in a batch of herbs we bought at the local market, growing as a weed in our front garden and then broadcast across a billboard at Hawthorn station.


Portulaca oleracea has been an essential part of various Mediterranean dishes 'for ever' but it seems to have been freshly discovered in Melbourne in recent years. The Age chose to make the analogy between chef Ben Shewry's culinary curiosity and their own approach to reporting news.

The hint is, possibly, in the name. The Australian Plants Plants Society suggest the species name 'oleracea' means pertaining to a kitchen garden. Alternatively, it may just mean olive-coloured... (The genus name refers to the milky sap in the stems.)

Although escaping from gardens and becoming weedy in places, this species has been considered by some as a true Australian native (it grows in every State and Territory except Tasmania)*. Early settlers used it leaves in salads and cooked as a spinach substitute.

Like a few other local plants, its seeds were sometimes ground and baked into a damper. In fact the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust in Sydney describe the seeds as 'one of the most important bush foods of inland Australia'. Apparently the seeds are 20 per cent protein and 16 per cent fat.

It grows pretty much everywhere in the temperate world, as a native and a weed. With a taproot and succulent stems and leaves, it does well in dry (or neglected) gardens. It tolerates moderately salty soil as well.

The small yellow flowers in spring and summer don't make it a horticultural highlight but it's a hardy little plant and you can always eat it before it becomes too weedy.


*Note: The informed opinion of Tony Bean is that it is in fact an introduced plant that has become naturalised. Thanks to @angrywagtails and @danieljmurf for their tweets bringing this to my attention.
*More notes...: And thanks to the same for recent reference from the far west saying that it is both native and a weed over in Western Australia. The debate continues. Meanwhile Attica is voted the 21st best restaurant in the universe, or at least on our planet.

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