It’s almost difficult to imagine that not all that long ago, let’s say, prior to Europeans invading and claiming this country as their own, the site on which Gardener’s Lodge Cafe is built was once a gathering place for the Gadigal people. One of an handful of clans that made up the Eora, a sizeable group of people that shared a language and an area we know as the Sydney Basin. Present day Victoria Park makes up a small piece of what was once natural bushland with a waterhole, now a large pond and fountain, that was a water source for animals, a gathering place for the Gadigal and greater Eora people and a natural habitat for bush food.
Fast forward to the 21st century and along comes Aboriginal elder Beryl Van-Oploo, or Auntie Beryl, bringing to life a dream she’d had for almost a decade. Her heritage comes from northwest New South Wales, of the Gamillaroi people, and her dream was to operate a cafe serving bush tucker in the abandoned Gardener’s Lodge in Victoria Park, one of two gate lodges for the University of Sydney. The matching Messenger’s Lodge hit the dirt in 1940 and in the 1930’s its surviving twin was converted to public toilets, since being abandoned and left to decay in the 1990’s.
The council spent many dollars bringing the lodge back to life and now it’s a gathering and eating place made popular by uni students and locals as well as being a platform for graduates of Yaama Dhiyaan Hospitality Training College, where along with two other teachers from the college, Auntie Beryl helps train Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that want a taste of the hospitality industry.
The menu at Gardener’s Lodge runs parallel to many other cafes we’ve all been to but what stands out is its incorporation, here and there, of native Australian ingredients. This is an area of food and spices I’ve recently become intrigued with, as some of you may already know. Ingredients many people still don’t know about that, I personally, want to help shed a lot more light on.
Coffee at the Lodge is of the Toby’s Estate variety, nicely made, even if my macchiato resembled a piccolo latte as it did on my few visits. It was a given that I hone in on anything with native Australian ingredients; like a breakfast of sweet corn and alpine pepper zucchini fritters (14.95). Stacked with wilted baby spinach, roasted tomato and guacamole, it was a little on the sloppy-side (zucchini tends to do that) and had me questioning where the alpine pepper came into it. Nothing noticeable what-so-ever.
Things picked up bit on my second breakfast visit with buttermilk and wattleseed pancakes (13.95). The wattleseed was playing a little peek-a-boo and showed its face only a few times but it was the plump little riberries, from our native lilly pilly trees, that stole the show with their clove and cinnamon-like flavours. A little help with some beautiful macadamia honey and I was smacking my lips like the best of them.
On the third visit I brought the other half and by pure coincidence we choose a dish that involved one of the animals on our national emblem. Kangaroo. First we have a kangaroo and stout pie (15.95), loaded with chunks of tender meat, a slight tang from the beer and some buttery & chunky mash on the side. The bush tomato sauce that came with it was the only extra it needed. My hands-down favourite was the Gardener’s steak sandwich (15.95). You can opt for scotch fillet if you wish but when kangaroo is the other option, how could I not? Chunks of perfectly under-cooked kangaroo fillet, and lots of it, take pride of place in the bun with caramelised onion, tomato, leaves and a wattleseed mustard cream. This is a winning sandwich/burger; a little messy to eat but that’s what you expect from a burger, right? Loving the fries as well.
As we tuck into our kangaroo dishes I noticed Aunty Beryl take a seat nearby, after which she got up and chatted to us about some recent and unfortunate break-in’s, the food and her plans of conducting bush food walks in the area. I can only hope there are no more break-in’s. As for the bush food walk, can you see me waving my hands like a madman?