Quandong?!! Are you having me on?
No. The name isn't made up. The quandong1 is the name of both a tree and fruit found in the outback of Australia. It is perhaps one of the oldest fruits on the planet, with fossilised quandongs discovered in the coal seams of southern Victoria, dating from 40 million years ago - a time when Australia was still linked to the Antarctic continent. The word quandong originates from the Wiradjuri language of Central and Western New South Wales and means 'nut'.
Quandong trees can be found mostly in the desert areas of Australia; much of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. They also grow in the north of Queensland and some parts of New South Wales and are semi-parasitic, thriving off the rootstock and nutrients of other trees and plants. Ideally adapted to the hot Aussie environment the quandong tree can grow up to three metres in height with a large leafy crown. Although the tree itself is attractive, it is the sweet and juicy apple-sized fruit that makes it so sought after. There are three types of quandong growing in Australia, these being:
The desert quandong (Santalum acuminatum), or wild peach, is the most common variety of quandong. It grows in sandy and stony soil along with other native plants, as it takes its nutrients from deeper growing rootstock. Bearing a shiny red or sometimes yellow fruit that tastes a little like a cross between quince and a mango, the desert quandong is becoming scarce in the Northern Territory, most likely as a result of wild camels and humans helping themselves to them!
Bitter quandong (Santalum murrayanum), or ming, is also known as sandalwood, katunga, burn-burn and mangata. It grows mainly in mallee scrub2 in South Australia. It resembles the desert quandong, but the fruit is a little bitter to taste, hence the name.
Blue quandong (Elaeocarpus angustifolius, syn E grandis) is also known as silver quandong, brush quandong, blue fig and coolan. This variety is found mostly in northern Queensland and New South Wales as it grows best in humid rainforests like the Daintree or Kakadu. Instead of being red, the fruit is deep blue in colour and has a taste akin to olives.
Traditionally, the quandong is an important food source for the native Australians, as it is a good meat substitute when kangaroo or goanna3 are in short supply. The tree and its fruits are used in a variety of ways; the leaves can be used in the production of a topical ointment that may ease skin sores and boils. The roots of the tree are ground down and used as an infusion for the treatment of rheumatism, while the fruit itself can either be eaten fresh, dried or as an infusion for a type of tea. Quandong seeds can also be crushed to make a lotion that can be used to treat skin disorders or even act as a hair conditioner. The quandong is a favourite food of emus and cassowaries, and as long as you don't mind getting your hands dirty, the seeds are readily available in the bird's droppings.
Explorer Charles Sturt would probably have died of scurvy in central Australia if he had not trusted the locals and eaten quandong. The fruit is rich in many vitamins, in particular Vitamin C. The settlers of the outback, running sheep and cattle stations for the most part, also found out about the joys of quandongs. Jackeroos4 would often bake dampers5 containing the fruit to have a change from the mundane, while the seeds could also be used for making necklace beads, buttons and game pieces for Chinese checkers.
A Rare Fruit
The quandong has recently become a firm favourite of the Australian bushtucker6 industry. It is a particularly versatile fruit as well and can be dried and frozen for eight years or more without losing any of its flavour. Commercial quandong plantations are now commonplace and jams, jellies, dried and tinned quandong fruit can be bought from most supermarkets in Australia. It can be purchased in other parts of the world, but it is extremely difficult to come across. Because of the quandong's relative obscurity, in the past the president of the New York Explorers Club even imported the fruit for one of the annual dinners, along with Antarctic ice!
Quandongs can be cooked in the same way as many other fruits, and used in jams, preserves or in fruit pies. Like this one:
2 cups quandongs (dried are preferable)
1 litre (2 pints) water
1 cup sugar
½ cup cornflour7
250g (9oz) shortcrust pastry
Simmer the quandongs in the sugar and water until the mix has a sauce-like consistency, looking a little like orange marmalade.
Add the cornflour and stir until the mix has formed a paste, then allow to cool.
Pre-heat oven to 190°C (370°F).
Line a pie dish with the pastry, and then fill with the now-cool quandong mixture.
Place a pastry lid on top of the pie with small breather holes, brush the surface with a mix of beaten egg and milk, sprinkle lightly with sugar and bake for 45 minutes.
Best piping hot, the sweet orange-coloured pie is mouthwatering with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.