Winter brings with it lillipilli trees heavy with fruit. Footpaths and roads are buried beneath the purple fruit, and trees in parks and streets shiver heavily with the berries. An indigenous food plant of tropical and subtropical Australia, despite their ubiquity here in Adelaide, lillipillies (Syzygium sp.) still seem to transform many faces into a mask of terror when they see others popping the shiny berries into their mouth. Their arrival at winter Urban Orchards has provoked plenty of discussion – from participants incredulous that they’re edible at all, to the reminisces of participants who have spent time in South East Asia and who are reminded of forgotten tropical fruits with every crisp, subtle bite.
Following one particular Urban Orchard, I came home with a shopping bag full of lillipillies, gleaned from the South parklands. I’d remembered that Vic Cherikoff’s Bushfood Handbook contained some super-retro lillipilly concoction, and I was keen to expand my experience of this under utilised semi-wild food.
Drawing from both A Year in a Bottle, by Sally Wise, and The Best of Jackie French, I thought I would start with a lilly-pilly cordial. I measured out and washed about 1.5kg of fruit, adding to a saucepan with 6 cups of water. After cooking for about 20 minutes (during which the colour drains from the fruit and into the water), I strained the liquid from the fruit through a colander and then several times through a tea strainer.
I then combined the liquid with sugar in a clean saucepan, at a ratio of about half a cup of sugar for every cup of liquid. I brought it to the boil, and added the juice of a lemon or two. After a few minutes of boiling, I transferred it into sterilised bottles and sealed. It should keep for up to 3 months in the fridge. Jackie French warns to “discard if it bubbles, changes colour, or grows anything odd”.
Jeremy has since adopted the lilly-pilly cordial as an ingredient in a hot toddy that also involves brandy and assorted spices.
With enough lillipillies left over from the cordial for something more, I turned to Vic Cherikoff’s The Bushfood Handbook for advice, and my first encounter with agar-agar. The whip calls for 1 cup of apple juice (we used apple and guava, which seemed to work), combined with the appropriate amount of agar-agar and heated to boiling. Meanwhile, combine 3 tablespoons of arrowroot with another 1/2 cup of apple (and guava) juice and then add to the hot agar-juice combo. Once everything that should dissolve has, put aside to cool, and blend up 1.5 cups of pitted lillipillies with another 1/2 cup of apple (and guava) juice. Combine everything, and allow to set, preferably in some opulent, 1970s parfait glass. Vic urges punters to “top with whipped cream, garnished with whole lillipilli fruits”. All I can say is that agar-agar changed my life. Who needs liquids when you can have jelly?!