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Unexpected edibles

Olive Herb, Santolina rosmarinifolia

A journey through the more unusual foods to grace an Australian plate

An occasional series on the foods less travelled-with … the Australian native foods, the weeds, the very old and the very new. Hello, I’m Fiona, and I’m a foodie neophile.

Today: olive herb, finger limes.


Olive herb

The story

I had this plant – or one like it – in Sydney. I just loved the intensity of the scent and never realised it was actually edible. I’d planted it in one of the many gardens I created in rental properties across Australia, enjoying its Mediterranean hardiness.

A couple of years after our move to Tarago in 2006, I found it again in Rodney’s Nursery in Pialligo, in the edible herb section. The tag said “cold-hardy, full sun” and I gleefully popped it into a relatively sunny, exposed section on the verandah edge.

It has grown perfectly happily ever since, with virtually no intervention on my part save to top up the soil every now and again as the garden washes into the gully, in our intense little rainstorms.

I’m particularly fond of the little bright yellow button flowers that cover it every summer … and which are themselves covered in bees, both native and exotic.

The leaves have a resinous intensity that really taste like olives when added to savoury dishes.

The recipe

I like it finely chopped into salads, blended into pesto, added to frittatas, or in place of rosemary in a range of dishes – for eg, over lamb or cooked into focaccia breads. It does provide its flavour when used in slow-cooking, but my personal preference is fresh and immediate.

A branch of olive herb might make an interesting garnish for a Bloody or Virgin Mary cocktail!

The following recipe is an easy, full-flavoured paste for using on breads, on pasta, as a dip, as a rub for vegetables or meat before roasting/grilling/BBQing, or even with baked potatoes.

  • 200 g pitted green olives
  • 100–150 ml of olive oil
  • 1 small bunch Olive Herb
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 small jar of capers
  • juice of one lemon
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 1 tablespoon dried herbs such as rosemary, thyme, lemon myrtle, chives.

Blend ingredients together to a chunky paste. Use more or less olive oil to bring it to a solid, just-pourable consistency.

> Original recipe found here.

The facts

Latin name: Santolina rosmarinifolia
Common name/s: Holy Flax, Wadi Tops, Olive Herb
General use: Leaves have an intense, olive-like flavouring for use in savoury dishes; may even set off sweet dishes when used in tiny quantities. Similar intensity of flavour to rosemary, and grows in similar conditions.
Growing tips: Naturally found in the Mediterranean regions of Europe. Grows well in the Canberra region’s intensely hot/cold and dry climate. Loves the sun and harsh locations. Excellent edging plant; doesn’t grow much taller than about 50cm high. Has little yellow button flowers in summer. Responds well to pruning. Can be harvested year-round.


finger limes Citrus australasica

Finger lime

The story

One of the best of the Australian native edibles. Fun and flavour in one zingy package. It’s a true lime, but the rough shape and size of a human finger (hence the name), with the juice contained in little separate bubbles that pop like caviar in the mouth.

The finger lime is best used fresh, cut in half and the central bubbles squeezed out like toothpaste. However, they are also excellent dried whole and used as a savoury spice.

The bubbles come in a range of colours, from pale lemonadey green to rich pinks, roughly matching the colour of the skins. There are minor flavour differences between the colours, but overall they concentrate rich lime flavours into one tiny crunchy bubble, with an immediate bitterness that dies off to a lovely citrus sweetness.

They are one of the most Instagrammable foods ever!

You will need gauntlets for harvesting the finger-sized fruits. While the CSIRO has done a lot of work to standardise and extend the range of colours available, they haven’t yet managed to breed out the wickedly long and sharp thorns the trees still have. (Note that all lemons and limes actually have thorns – it’s just that most of them have had their spikey bits bred out. But I’ve often been impaled by a random spike in my lemons and limes).

Little birds adore the trees as a result, of course. The trees on the plantation from which I harvest, on the south coast of NSW, are covered in the small, abandoned nests of small birds like wrens. Luckily the babies have grown up and left well before harvesting begins.

A thorny, edible hedge of finger limes makes a fantastic small animal habitat in the garden.

The recipe

I admit I don’t really cook finger limes as such; it’s more a case of finding your preferred combination flavours. Always aim to use them fresh; you may lose the lovely crunchy pop of the bubbles if they’re cooked.

The skin is low in the white pith and rich in oils; makes an excellent substitute for lime or even lemon zest in recipes. Don’t waste the empty skins when you’ve squeezed out all the bubbles; crystallise them until chewy and then maybe dip in a dark chocolate, or put them in a cool, dry, airy location and dry them until they’re completely crisp, then use whole or as a ground spice.

Add the bubbles to:

  • Seafood, especially oysters and any sashimi
  • Drinks and cocktails, especially gin and tonics, particular if it’s a local or native-flavour gin
  • Sweets, such as cheesecake, yoghurt, or fruit salads
  • Salads, either sprinkled on top of the leaves or added to dressings and mayonnaises
  • Hot dishes just before serving, such as stir-fries or curries
  • Preserves such as finger lime curd.

The facts

Latin name: Citrus australasica
Common name/s: Finger lime, sunrise lime (actually a CSIRO hybrid), lime caviar
General use: Use the pulp and whole fruit of the tree. Fruits ripen between December and May. The pulp comes out in attractive bubbles of liquid. Best used fresh so the bubbles pop in the mouth with intense, rich limey flavours. The whole fruit can be frozen for later use, or dried to form a rich, intense spice for use in both sweet and savoury cooking, while the skins can be used as zest, crystallised, or dried.

> More info can be found here
> Download pdf:  Growing Australian Native finger limes

IMAGES: Fiona Porteous

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