We all know what a pinecone looks like, right? And we also know that pine nuts come from pine cones because Ewell Gibbons once said famously, “Ever eat a pine cone?” But did you know that in Australia, there is something that’s been largely forgotten for decades called the Bunya Pine?
These massive, cone-shaped pine trees bear the gigantic pine cones that hold 30-100 bunya nuts, an Aboriginal food source dating back to before the Europeans arrived, in fact, to when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
During this time, when it was home to the Aboriginal Australians, they gathered about every three years to celebrate the bunya harvest at festivals, where the Indigenous tribes traveled from as far away as Victoria to attend. At these festivals, tribes stopped fighting with each other long enough to trade, arrange marriages, and feast on the bunya nut in it’s various forms. It was consumed either raw, roasted, boiled, or sometimes ground into flour and baked.
Leeton Lee, an Aboriginal artist, grew up in the bush and honed his skills at carving out shelters, crafting spears from tree branches, and snacked on the berries from the lilly pilly bushes, yet never tasted a bunya nut until he was an adult. He said, and I quote,” I couldn’t believe it’s something I sort of missed along the way and that a lot of other people had missed it too.”
The wet, tropical soil of it’s native Queensland grows bunya pines to more than 150-ft tall with a 4-ft diameter trunk and sports an impressive cone-shaped crown. Every three to four years, the trees produce the egg-shaped pine cones that are roughly the same size as a football and weigh as much as 22 pounds! You don’t want to be under a tree when it might be shedding something that big!
The Bunya Mountains in southern Queensland are still home to the ancient trees, however, the festival called Bonye Bonye has not been held since the early-20th century, when the Aboriginals were relocated to government settlements and the Europeans logging of the timbers from the bunya trees brought these festivals to an abrupt end.
This action caused the bunya-nut food culture to fade away for so long the current population has no idea that they have this food source growing on their property. Lee says due to the ignorance of the ancient custom, they just take the fallen pines cones to the dump, never realizing what they are tossing away is a valuable source of sustenance.
He is trying to change that. In 2018, Lee held a free workshop to re-introduce the bunya nut to his people and highlight it’s benefits.
He noticed that kids were going to school hungry, when they had this “portable lunchbox” they never knew about. He also decided it would be the perfect opportunity to tell the stories of his (and their) Aboriginal history and was surprised by the Facebook response. Even though the majority of those who came from as far away as 3 hours were non-Aboriginal Australians, he was happy to cook up culinary treats for his guests, teaching them tricks of the trade like how to incorporate the nuts in everything from stir-frys to chocolate. He also gave gift bags of the tasty nuts at his own “bunya gathering.”
He also took the opportunity to teach his guests lessons on sustainability, like not to just care for the trees and their nuts, but not to overharvest them. To leave some for other people and the wallabies too. He showed them that these days, the nuts can be frozen, whereas, in ancient times, they would be stored or fermented or buried to preserve them.
I relate the bunya nuts to our almonds in their versatility, for example, I use almonds in the same ways. I eat them raw, roasted, and ground into flour from which I then make bread, chaffles, pancakes, muffins and baked no-oatmeal. I have to wonder if the larger pine nuts have that sharp, pungent flavor that the small ones do. It would be worth a trip to Australia to find out!!
Lee is happy to see local restaurants now featuring many Indigenous foods from bunya nuts to crocodile as part of a food movement gaining culinary traction country-wide. He also sees the trend as an opportunity for Aboriginal people to showcase their own culture. He says that they are Australia’s minority population now, so it’s very important for the people to understand what they have and how best to care for it.
I think due to his efforts, we haven’t seen the last of the bunya nut.