Why ‘shrubs’ are the most delicious thing you’ve never tasted

If you want to find Ziggy’s Wild Foods CEO Gabriel Gutnik on the weekend, head into the forests around Sydney and look for a man foraging through the undergrowth, stuffing ingredients into a bag.

“Everything that goes into our bottles is foraged by hand. Usually by me,” Gabriel says. “We use whatever’s seasonal, whatever exists, and we use it until it doesn’t exist anymore.”   

 This is the wild-grown mantra behind Ziggy’s. It’s a food and beverage brand that celebrates not just fresh, native Australian ingredients, but the context of those ingredients, and the communities behind them. Gabriel wants people to appreciate how native food tastes, but also where it comes from, who grows it, how it came to be here, and the stories behind every leaf, nut and berry.

This isn’t exactly mainstream F&B marketing. Despite finger limes, Davidson plums and Murnong yams sprouting on more restaurant menus these days, Gabriel says that—without their historical context—these ingredients are always going to remain a passing fad or token garnish. “I’m sick of seeing Australian ingredients being made into jam, or salt, or sleepy-time tea,” he says. “We can do so much better than that. It’s not enough for a chef to say, ‘Oh, I’ve got some wild yam daisies on the menu’. People want history. They want a story.”

To that end, Ziggy’s has started making shrubs.

 It’s okay if you’re unfamiliar with the term. Most people are. Shrubs are a sort of fruity, vinegar-y syrup that became popular in the 1700s, when refrigerators were in short supply. It was a cheap and easy way of preserving fresh summer fruits year-round, and the technique can be used on almost anything, including lilly pilly, lemon myrtle, wild Australian lavender, desert limes and strawberry gum eucalyptus. 

Ziggy’s has combined ancient Indigenous ingredients with centuries-old European preservation techniques, and the results are surprisingly delicious: a tangy-sweet fruit explosion that makes your synapses fizz. 

“Shrubs are old-fashioned but they’re making a comeback,” Gabriel says. “People like tangy flavours, which is why kombucha took off, and because you’re using vinegar to preserve the fruit, there’s no cooking required, you can keep all those prebiotics and nutrients in-tact.”

There’s another benefit, too. Because shrubs are incredibly concentrated—almost a vinegar-powered fruit liqueur—a little goes a long way. By mixing Ziggy’s shrubs with ginger beer, or swizzling them into a cocktail, one bottle might make 20 or 30 individual drinks. And although it’s hard to scale when your business model involves one guy in the forest hunting for blossoms, the seasonality actually works in Gabriel’s favour.

“Being foraged, there’s no production costs,” he says. “One of the things holding native ingredients back is that they tend to very expensive. Davidson plums are $80 per kilo, frozen. So if you can go somewhere myself, and you know techniques to stretch the fruit, use the flesh, the skin, the seeds, the flowers, you can take an unconventional approach to productivity.”

Ziggy’s shrub varieties depend on season and climate, and how much foraging Gabriel has been able to do lately, but he’s kicking off the range with an electric pink lilly pilly, lemon myrtle and elderflower shrub. Gabriel recommends matching this mad concoction with a splash of ginger beer and fresh apple, or adding it to tequila, mezcal, whisky or vodka.

There are plans for wild chamomile shrubs, wild rosewater shrubs, mulberry shrubs and strawberry gum eucalyptus shrubs (“When you crush the leaves, they smell like real strawberry jam”). 

As Gabriel says, people can get a gin and tonic anywhere now. It’s not enough for bars to stock the ‘usual’. Bartenders and chefs, at least the ones that really care about their craft, are looking to push the flavour envelope, and hand-foraged shrubs might just be the next small thing.