On yet another glorious day in the summer of 2012 (January in the southern hemisphere) Brunyfire and the Fireman (aka JEP) come across the possibility of dinner! Hmmm – how to catch and cook an echidna…..…..not that we could or would actually harm this little fellow – he is in fact, in the protected species category.
The Short-Beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) or spiny ant eater as they are more commonly known, are monotremes (mammals that lay eggs). There are only three species of monotreme in the world – the platypus and two species of echidna, one of which is restricted to the New Guinea highlands, the other two reside in Australia, including Tasmania. The females, as egg laying creatures, then suckle their young in their pouches. Echidnas have a lower body temperature than other mammals…………..…..which is why we found this guy at the water’s edge on such a hot day. Surprisingly, echidnas are good swimmers, paddling about with only their snout and a few spines showing. They have been seen to cross wide beaches to swim and groom themselves in the sea.
Piggiebillah is the fabled name of the echidna in Aboriginal legend. The story of how he got his spines is one of greed, cannibalism, revenge and dogged survival. Interestingly, the Tasmanian Aborigines did not eat either the echidna or the platypus – nor scaly fish – mainlanders certainly did, and in fact, still do.In this instance, the echidna is the meal of choice for internationally renowned indigenous Australian artist, Dorothy Napangardi. A Warlpiri woman from Mina Mina in the Tanami Desert region of Central Australia, she is one of the featured artists in the fabulous book The Artist’s Lunch – a collection of stories about food and art. Whilst Napangardi’s paintings appear to be intricate black and white abstractions, for Napangardi and her people they recount the stories of Jukurrpa, or Dreaming, which prescribes laws, moral codes and rules for dealing with the environment. Her painting of spinifex – a distinctive desert grass that grows in tufts – looks for all the world like an echidna………..………….awaiting its fate……..
Traditionally, the echidna is cooked in hot coals. According to one account, they have to be gutted (being careful not to break the stomach or the ant sack), rolled up in wet clay and buried in a bed of coals. After a couple of hours, the clay is broken open, removing the spines and the skin that is embedded in the clay and revealing the flesh, which is said to be very fatty.
Brunyfire and The Fireman cook up their own Piggiebillah – only cheating a little as ours was made of the local island clay, with stick spikes and contained a spud wrapped in foil….– but we did celebrate the piggie in Piggiebillah with our pork kebabs….
…….and to cut through the fat, the fruit of the pigface, or Carpobrotus rossii, is said to be a good accompaniment. Many diaries of the early explorers and settlers noted that the pigface fruits had a unique strawberry/fig like flavour. Which they certainly do. Once the flower has died, the fruit, or seed pod of the pigface develops, and it is this that one eats, rather like eating a fig by scraping out the flesh with the teeth. (I’ve noted that different species offer different sized fruits, but the taste is the same.)