The Art Of Food

Outback

December 2014/January 2015


A couple from the New South Wales South coast is using their cooking skills to give visitors an experience of Australia’s rich indigenous culture, writes Tatyana Leonov.

Noel Butler and Trish Roberts opened up their appropriately named cafe – the Digging Stick Art & Food – in the New South Wales seaside town of ulladulla in october 2012, after struggling to find a good cup of coffee in the local area. “Trish and I were chatting one day about how it’s hard to get a decent coffee in town,” Noel says. “And just like that we decided to open a café.”

They started with the coffee – Alfresco Sapphire Coast Blend. “It’s a South Coast company based in Moruya and we love the fact that we have this great product locally,” Trish says. “We started the cafe to pass on cultural knowledge through our art, and this requires a relaxed comfortable environment – with good coffee and cake.”

Noel, a teacher for most of his life, is well known in the local region for his unique wood sculptures, including those along ulladulla’s one track for All, a two-kilometre cultural trail with Indigenous carvings and paintings along the way. Partner Trish is also renowned in the community, for her singing, dancing and art. The twosome has been performing together (and with other musicians) for nine years. As a couple they have been together for almost five years ... although still act like in-love teenagers when no one is looking.

The café sits on one Ulladulla’s busiest corners, and the art message is carried across before you even step inside. Sculptures (“They all have a story,” Noel says) confidently stand outside the doorway welcoming you as you enter. Noel has made the sculptures, as well as the tables and matching benches (most from banyan wood) and some tables feature unique drawings he’s burned into the wood. His latest creation is a red-gum burl tabletop with a mallee-root base. It’s unusual shape and colour adds yet another visually exciting element to the space.

“The goal has always been about education,” Noel says. “Between Ulladulla and Melbourne there are no other small Aboriginal communities where you can buy original work and eat Aboriginal-inspired food, so we’re offering a unique product.” He pauses and smiles. “And Trish makes some mean cakes.”

As with her singing and art, Trish taught herself to cook, while Noel’s background as a pastry chef makes for some of the best short crust pastry on the South Coast. “Some of the recipes are ours, others I’ve found and then tweaked,” Trish says. “The apple and lilli pilli tart and baked finger lime tart are Noel’s recipes and we use lilli pilli and fresh finger limes from our garden. And we change up the fruit muffins to reflect what’s growing abundantly. We always try to use wattleseed, as well as seasonal fruits and herbs, like lilli pillis, lemon aspen, finger limes and Davidson plums.”

Running a café where the focus is bush tucker-inspired desserts is not always an easy task. Although Noel and Trish grow a lot of the produce on their property, not everything is always in season or comes in an easy-to-use form. “We have most the bush tucker at home but we buy some of the ingredients, like the wattle seed,” Trish says. “It needs to be ground down for most recipes, so we buy the ground-up product and use the fresh leaves from our garden as a decorative item.”

Bright lilli pillis sit atop a vibrantly coloured lilli pilli cake, sliced native finger limes are skillfully positioned on a fresh lime tart and fresh-baked muffins give off a lovely aroma. Whether it’s inquisitiveness about the sculptures, the beautiful indigenous art scattered around the space or the tantalising desserts on offer, everyone is keen for a chat at the café.

Noel takes customers on nature walks around the nearby bush land (this needs to be booked ahead) once a week. “It can take two hours or it can take six hours,” he laughs. “It depends on group size and how curious they are. In terms of food, whatever we see along the way – bush food plants, bush medicine plants – we talk about what you can and can’t eat.”

Noel and Trish have more plans. “We’re going to have music nights featuring local indigenous artists where we will offer finger food, like kangaroo and emu meatballs,” Trish says. “And we want to start packaging and selling Aboriginal essences,” Noel chips in. “Lemon myrtle, aniseed myrtle, bush tomato, lilli pillis ... so people can take a taste of the Australian bush home.”

They don’t plan to supply instructions with the essences. “We will tell people how to use them,” Noel says. "Talking, storytelling, whatever you want to call it. that’s the old way of teaching and what we do here.”

THE DIGGING STICK ART & FOOD

16 wason Street, ulladulla, NSw phone: 0405 646 911