Native Australian foods are leaving the bush to find fans the world over. And for one company, imagination is the only limit to the extension of its retail offering. From Sydney, just-food.com#;s Matthew Brace charts the growth of this emerging market.

Native foods from Australia's outback are fast becoming the flavour of the month on the shelves of Europe and the US.

"Bush tucker", as Australians call it, is a mixture of wild, chemical-free game, and organic fruits and vegetables mainly from Aboriginal communities. Since Aborigines have been in Australia for at least 50,000 years, some of these traditional foods have long culinary histories.

One of the leading proponents of bush tucker, Robins Australian Foods of Melbourne, is currently supplying sauces and herb products to supermarkets throughout Europe and the US. Retail products include a range of four chutneys: bush tomato and chilli, wild plum, bush tomato and native mint relish and wild lime pickle. There is also a range of four sauces: bush tomato ketchup, lemon myrtle coconut sauce, and Kakadu plum and chilli sauce.

In Europe, the company has just completed negotiations to have its new brand products, Outback Spirit, distributed by HELA (the Hermann Laue company), in Ahrensburg, Germany. Robins#; boss, Juleigh Robins, said she was also distributing a range to food service businesses, including food manufacturing products such as flavoured sausage pre-mixes, dry glazes for meat, crumb coatings, and cake mixes.

In the US, meanwhile, her products are currently being distributed under the name "Aussie Enterprises".

Back to its roots

Robins is going a step further with the production of its lines, and taking food processing back to its roots. The company is merging with a number of Aboriginal communities in central and northern Australia and using them to harvest and process the raw material foodstuffs in a traditional manner.

A good example is the bush tomato, a low-growing crop from the central deserts with an intense flavour. Traditionally they are left to ripen and dry on the bush in the sun when they are hand-picked by the women of the local community. In the past they were then sent to Robins and Melbourne to be ground and added as a piquant flavouring to chutneys.

"The Aboriginal people of the central deserts know exactly when to pick bush tomatoes. It is something they learn very early in life, part of their heritage in a way," said Robins.

"Now, instead of us getting them and grinding them we are setting up a central point in Alice Springs where that work will be done, and where the tomatoes will be vacuum-sealed in bags and warehoused.

"Local people will move from merely picking and selling a commodity to actually processing it into a value added product. They get a formal stake in the process."

The company will also begin processing wattleseed in Alice Springs for the wattleseed butterscotch sauce they sell to Sainsbury's.

Moving into the UK

In the UK, the Sainsbury's supermarket chain is stocking Robins' retail lines, which are made from fruit hand-picked by Aboriginal people.

This summer, Robins products will also appear on the shelves of sector rival Waitrose; including the wild herb salt from Victoria, native pepperberries from Tasmania, and bush dukkah from central Australia.

The company is also producing a range of native dried herbs and formalising agreements to begin exporting meats, including an Australian salami flavoured with outback herbs.

Indigenous Food Fund

Money to set up these programmes has come from an Indigenous Food Fund set up by Robins and the Australian supermarket chain Coles Myer. An accreditation system is being launched so consumers will know they are buying a genuine Aboriginal harvested and produced product. The prototype labels use a hand as the accreditation symbol.

Juleigh Robins added that much of her success is overseas. "We've been more successful selling these products in the UK than in the home market here in Australia. There's a cultural cringe here and some dark overtones. Our colonial past rejected Aboriginal culture for a long time," she said.

Sainsbury's spokesman Greg Sage added that Australia is a now regarded as a major emerging food source. "There is a demand for Australian products and it is growing. The Olympics had a major effect with people learning more about Australian foods," he said.

"People are realising what great food Australia has and as a result it is getting lots of shelf space. We are doing a big awareness campaign in store and are developing recipe cards for Australian dishes."

Indeed, the growing demand for Australian produce worldwide was kick-started by imports of meat to Britain during the mad cow and foot and mouth disease outbreaks, when Australia's disease-free status made it an attractive alternative food source.

Limited only by imagination

According to some British meat buyers demand was up 30% for kangaroo during 2000 and there was also more interest in beef, lamb and mutton.

With advances in refrigeration technology the freight of perishable products, geography is no longer as great a concern as it once was, so Australia is overcoming its main trade hurdle - distance from markets.

Now more exotic meats are arriving; crocodile farmers are the latest wave, marketing their fearsome farmed creatures to pubs, supermarkets and delicatessens. They say it is better than chicken, low in cholesterol and tasting like fine ham when smoked. They are also experimenting with sausages. Demand for Australian bush pig is growing too although research and development of farming them for export is in its early stages.

Bush tucker producers say the future is only limited by imagination. Australia is already exporting live camels to Muslim countries for meat and researchers in Darwin are also experimenting with farming lizards, called goannas, whose meat is popular in many developing nations.

By Matthew Brace, just-food.com correspondent