Cooking with bark

My sister is in the air on her way back to her English home after three months in the lucky country. Her parting gift was next week's photography topic - bark and tree trunks. So this morning when I walked I started snapping.

As I walked along I was pondering on how I could turn this into a blog post, and had had some thoughts, and then I saw this tree with the sap oozing out of it, hardening and shining in the sunlight and I thought of maple syrup to add to cinnamon, and maybe paperbark. Technically of course, maple syrup is not anything to do with bark - it's sap. So it just gets an honourable mention here. Besides it's a chance to show off this photograph. In some ways this week's photo topic is just too, too easy. Australia is blessed with beautiful trees. The problem is more when to stop snapping than finding something interesting to take.

But back to bark as food - or at least bark as used in the kitchen.

When I started looking, all there seemed to be were various articles on how to survive in the wild by eating bark. Well it seems that, certainly in the past we ate bark. And some people still do, but I suspect it's either people who are relatively cut off from the modern world, or those who go off into the wilderness for fun.

Back in time, and, indeed in times of famine until the 19th century, bark has been used as a substitute for grain, when crops failed, to make flour.

I should first make clear that we are talking about the inner bark layer - the cambium layer, which carries nutrients up and down trees. So the first problem is not to kill the tree by ringbarking it. Anyway if you know what you are doing, you peel off strips, dry them, as shown here, and then grind them into flour. It doesn't rise as well as grains, but you can eat it. This process seems to date back at least 3000 years in Scandinavia - which is where it is mostly done, although other parts of Europe have harvested bark in those famine times -as in the 18th century mini ice-age.

Or you can actually chew bark - eat it if you like and the North American Indians it seems are into this. Adirondack - a part of New York state actually means 'bark' eater. I think you can eat it either as is, or you can cook it. But I don't think any of us are likely to be doing this in the near future so I won't go any further on this. Except to say that not only do you need to know how to harvest the bark, you also need to know which tree to harvest. They're not all a good bet.

Cinnamon is though. Well as long as you know that you have cinnamon and not cassia. Not that it matters too, too much I feel. Did you know, for example, that most of the ground cinnamon that you buy is actually cassia? They both come from a tree in the genus cinnamomum. Cinnamomum Verum is top of the tree I think and is mostly grown in Sri Lanka. Wikipedia will tell you all on this of course.

Real cinnamon sticks or quills curl in a telescopic form, in a perfect circle. But, cassia sticks curl inward from both sides, appearing like a scroll." Peggy Trowbridge Filippone - The Spruce Eats

So I rushed to see what my cinnamon scrolls look like, and they are indeed cinnamon, with lots of flaky bits. And if I had thought about it I would have known this, because if you put a whole cinnamon stick into something it flakes into pieces after a while. As to my ground cinnamon, well there's no way of telling as there is no ingredients list - just a note that it is packed in India from imported ingredients. At least I hope this means that there are no additives.

Like the foraging wilderness types, though cinnamon comes from the inner bark.

"The cut stems are processed by scraping off the outer bark, then beating the branch evenly with a hammer to loosen the inner bark, which is then pried off in long rolls. Only 0.5 mm (0.02 in) of the inner bark is used; the outer, woody portion is discarded, leaving metre-long cinnamon strips that curl into rolls ("quills") on drying. The processed bark dries completely in four to six hours, provided it is in a well-ventilated and relatively warm environment. Once dry, the bark is cut into 5 to 10 cm (2 to 4 in) lengths for sale." Wikipedia

Cassia sometimes uses the whole bark, and indeed I used to have some because an Indian recipe a long time ago specified cassia bark, and somehow or other I found some.

Does it matter though whether you use cinnamon or cassia? Do they taste different? Well perhaps if you are a super taster.

"Cinnamon is warmer in tone and tan in color with a sweet flavor. Cassia is more of a reddish brown in color and has a more coarse texture, with a stronger, yet more bitter flavor." Peggy Trowbridge Filippone - The Spruce Eats

I don't think I'm going to get all het up about this. Though maybe I will make sure my cinnamon sticks are flaky.

Then there's paperbark - which I remembered from somewhere - maybe the barramundi, because when I looked into this, that is what it seems to be mostly used for - wrapping fish for baking, either in hot coals in the ground, on a barbecue or in an oven. Obviously this is bush tucker and various well-know chefs have had a go. Here are some. You will find that Hayden Quinn's recipe includes a video showing how to do it out in the bush in authentic Aboriginal style.

Smoked barramundi as presented by Hayden Quinn; Lemon infused fish cooked in paperbark with herb butter - Mark Olive/SBS Food; Paperbark cod - Ben Devlin/Good Food;

Fish baked in paperbark - Miguel Maestre

You can watch a video of Ben Devlin doing his thing - I'm tempted to say don't try this at home because it's got really special kind of barbecuing equipment. I didn't actually watch the whole thing, but he does indeed use paperbark. But everyone seems to rave about this particular dish.

I don't know whether the paperbark has an actual taste that is imparted to the fish or whether it is just a convenient way of wrapping the fish - like banana or coconut leaves. And if that's the case, why would you bother, unless you're one of those wilderness adventurers making do with what you can find.

I feel there may be other bark based food things out there, but I'm not sure what they might be. Well maybe you can make various cooking implements from some kinds of bark. Which makes me think of bamboo - but I think you only eat bamboo shoots and they are not really bark. They're just the young shoots of the tree or grass.

Safe journey Jenny.


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