A taste for learning: Students partake in Muttonbird Masterchef in Tasmania

We spoke to Cohort 2017 Alumna Madeleine Brodie in the Summer 2018 edition of Stories. Madeleine had started a Kitchen Garden class to bring an understanding of good food and sustainability to the students at New Norfolk High School in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley. Now, we’re back at New Norfolk where Madeleine’s Year 8 students got a taste for learning during a lesson with a difference.


It’s minus one degree Celsius as New Norfolk High School students arrive at school, but the heady scent of a wood fire and flickering flames bids them a warm welcome. It’s Muttonbird Masterchef day for Madeleine Brodie’s Year 8 cooking students, and as they come to class she is busy in the kitchen prepping for the day with Tasmanian Aboriginal community leaders Warena and Emerenna Burgess, and Vicki Nicholson from the Aboriginal Education Service of Tasmania’s Department of Education.

 

Muttonbirding is one of the most enduring cultural practices of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and Warena and Emerenna are fifth generation muttonbirders who hold a commercial harvesting licence. They hunt for the five-week season with family on Big Dog Island in Flinders Strait. Muttonbirds, also known as Short-tailed Shearweaters, travel the world’s oceans feeding mostly on krill, squid and fish but breed on the scrubby, windswept islands off Tasmania’s coast, digging burrows to lay their eggs.

Early this year Madeleine attended a professional development day for Indigenous education that introduced Tasmania’s teachers to an online learning resource called The Orb that was designed to assist the teaching of Aboriginal histories and cultures. Vicki and Madeleine got to chatting and soon plans were in place to deliver the first-ever Muttonbird Masterchef lesson in Tasmania with the assistance and knowledge of the Burgess sisters.

 

“We’ve been chatting to students about the significance of muttonbirding to Tasmanian Aboriginal people and how important it is to us,” Warena said. “[Muttonbirding] is something Tasmanian Aboriginal people have always done. It’s a part of our culture we want to keep alive and strong and thriving. The bird itself is an amazing bird. We’re very respectful of the bird and we use as much of the bird as we can.”

Warena said that the family business was looking to expand muttonbird consumption and is targeting gourmet buyers, professional chefs and the restaurant scene as well as the health sector given the healing properties of muttonbird oil.

Madeleine’s students have put together a recipe book and are cooking the birds in a range of ways: over the open fire, on a barbecue, in curries, crumbed and even Kentucky fried style. By 9:30 am, the smell of muttonbirds cooking in many and varied ways is almost overpowering. Warena suggests that the muttonbird’s smell is closest to skin-on salmon when cooked, but they produce so much oil that the smell hangs heavy in the air for the rest of the day.

Madeleine Brodie and students cooking muttonbird

“I found this unit on muttonbirding on The Orb. I’m from Canberra originally and I’d never heard of muttonbird let alone muttonbirding,” Madeleine said, explaining how she reached out to Vicky and the pair had coordinated this first-of-its-kind inquiry activity with the Burgesses.

“I’m hoping the key learning outcomes from today are a lot of appreciation for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, lots of collaboration and communication, and for the students to start thinking about different food types. But me for me the biggest thing is hoping they take something home from this and talk to their families about food and nutrition or Indigenous education.”

The Burgess sisters during the day’s reflection session

Once the cooking wrapped up, students, family and staff enjoyed a muttonbird buffet before a post-lunch reflection session where Warena and Emerenna shared stories of life on the island and how hunting muttonbird had forged closer connections with family and culture.

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