Photographer Lisa Wood shares her passion for indigenous flora and fauna through the cards she creates for her business, Wilde Cards. When a few years ago she married avocado grower Fred Mancy, her once sideline hobby growing native plants turned into a flourishing second business, Wilde Foods. Fred provided Lisa with the space and guidance she needed to grow her pastime into a commercial venture. Besides growing a variety of native foods, Lisa has started to propagate and grow saffron, which is proving to be both challenging and rewarding. Lisa sells an expanding range of premium native foods through her website, and to chefs and restaurants. (www.wildefoods.com.au)
LISA WOOD & FRED MANCY
How did Wilde Foods begin?
LISA: I am passionate about native flora and fauna, and I have been for twenty years. I’ve been studying propagation and growth. I am trained as a visual artist and a hobby of mine has been growing plants.
Tell us a bit about the property.
FRED: This property has been farming forever. Originally, it grew oranges and citrus fruit. Then, around 1944, a fellow called Jim Wilson bought it and started growing avocados. He teamed up with a fellow called Frank Sharp, who was married to an American lady, and her family grew avocados in California. He used to bring budwood and various things back to Australia, and plant and trial them. Now, Jim Wilson, he comes from Hunchy on the Sunshine Coast, and in 1943, he sent the first three boxes of avocados to market in Australia, and they came off a tree that they had up at Hunchy, as far as I know. They were sent down to Sydney. One box was sold and the other two rotted because nobody knew what to do with them. That was the beginning of the avocado industry.
LISA: That is where the avocado name ‘Sharwil’ comes from: Sharp and Wilson.
FRED: What I find interesting about this property is that, originally, it was a very experimental place for the avocado industry and it is now becoming an experimental place for saffron.
So, Lisa, why did you decide to grow saffron?
LISA: It has been a journey with the saffron. Saffron was one of the first things we considered instead of the rhubarb. The rhubarb had a virus and had started to decline. So, when we noticed the writing on the wall, we thought, ‘Well, what crops can we trial to take the place of the rhubarb?’ We started with the saffron first, with a little knowledge about how labour-intensive it was, but not really realising how intense it can be.
Our research has shown, once it becomes dormant, there is a temperature range it needs to stay within, so the flowers are not aborted. Being Queensland, that is quite tricky. We trialled a hundred bulbs and had chef Josh Lopez test them, and the response was extremely favourable. So, Fred bought another thou sand bulbs and we went into production with that.
FRED: With the first hundred bulbs, we bought them, put them in the ground, and they all came up. We picked eighty flowers off one hundred bulbs, and we left them in the ground. The next year, we got about seventy-five up, and we only picked about twenty-five flowers. So, we researched a little more and found out about this critical factor of the temperature. And that’s why, this year, we’ve lifted our bulbs, because we could see that the ground, already, at the beginning of summer or late spring, was heating up.
What makes growing saffron so labour-intensive?
LISA: Out of our first hundred bulbs, as Fred said, we had eighty flowers, and there are three little stamens to each flower that you have to pick out with tweezers. We found out the hard way that they need to be dried over a low heat and without a breeze as, being very light, our saffron disappeared into the oven and so it was discarded. That is part of our research process. We are finding ways we can store them and dry them.
What is your goal with the bulbs?
FRED: My goal is to grow a kilogram of saffron, for which I think I’ll need anywhere from around 100,000 to 200,000 bulbs to grow a kilogram.
LISA: Yes, and about ten years.
Is there anyone who has helped you or are you finding your own way?
LISA: It has been very hard to find information about saffron, or information about native foods. I’ve joined ANFAB (Australian Native Foods and Botanicals) and some more information has been forthcoming through that. But, as you can imagine, we have been trailblazing.
Do you find that exciting?
LISA: Yes, but it has been very frustrating, particularly with the muntries. A muntry — or muntries, plural — is a berry. It tastes like a spicy apple. It has two or three times the antioxidants of blueberries. They specifically are foraged, but they are growing more and more of them in South Australia. They are trialling growing them on trellises. Anyway, growing muntries has been a trial process for me. I got the plants, but then there was a huge drop-off rate — they were dying — and we found out it was actually the supplier that was the issue. The plants from a different supplier have been growing. This is what happens when you are starting something that hasn’t been done before.
What are the foods you’re growing or stocking?
LISA: Native mulberries and riberries, small-leaved tamarind, zigzag vine, native ginger, crocus — which is the saffron, midyims, finger limes, pepperberries, muntry berries, native tamarind, native yams, millaa-millaa vine, beach cherries, sweet apple-berries, apple dumpling berries, scented vanilla lily, desert yam, many-flowered fringe lily, many-flowered nodding chocolate lily, native violets, native raspberry and native ginger. I do buy in the bush tomatoes and the natural lake salt, because I don’t see why we should be eating Himalayan salt when we have such a beautiful product that is Australian. And the pepperberries, I started buying in. I am concentrating specifically on niche markets of chefs and restaurants. There is such a wealth of tastes and flavours of indigenous foods, and none of it is really known about. It is very exciting.
When did you begin growing all of these?
FRED: When you married me!
LISA: In earnest, yes, and we’ve been married for about two-and-a-half years. Fred has been farming the avocados for so long, trading under his name, and he gave me the encouragement I needed. If he hadn’t had the farm, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be able to put anything in the ground — enough to be a commercial option. Fred has had years of experience behind him.
FRED: Growing things is pretty much the same for everything. You just have to know the nuances of the different crops, which is what we’re learning with the saffron.
So, Wilde Food is your project, Lisa, but Fred is involved too?
LISA: Yes. For example, with the native black plums, it is an indigenous tree to the area. We’ve had to draw on my knowledge of propagating the seeds, and on Fred’s experience with grafting, so we can get a variety that will grow quickly and be able to produce well, too. So, it is a combination of skills. But we are trailblazing because nobody really knows enough about it. There are only 150 trees in the wild — it is that endangered. So, for me it is exciting to be able to highlight something so beautiful, but also it might be an opportunity to save it from extinction.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
LISA: Hats off to Indigenous people, particularly in the Scenic Rim and on the Gold Coast. A lot of the species I’ve chosen are indigenous to this area, and it is like a supermarket of foods. It is wonderful — there is a huge range of species available and they’re all fantastic. To be able to have the opportunity to grow them commercially and not to forage and take away from what is here — that’s what is important to me. I want to celebrate the uniqueness and beauty of the flavours, and the wide range that is available. Most Australians, or, indeed, the world, don’t really have any concept of what bush tucker is. They have a vague idea, but they don’t realise the depth and wealth that is there, not just in flavours, but in antioxidants and health properties. I am very much about natural food, about not using sprays, and about making it sustainable. I think that is the way of the future.