Smoke rises from Kakadu’s ancient landscape at first light.
A fire in a wide hole glows gently. Dragonflies hover overhead in the still air and a blue-winged kookaburra watches hungrily as large chunks of fresh buffalo are placed on hot rocks and coals.
Freddy placing buffalo in the ground oven
And as the sun slides over the rim of the horizon, layers of paperbark are used to cover the feast of meat and vegetables before dirt is piled on to stop any heat or air escaping.
This is how a traditional ground oven is prepared.
Kakadu ranger Freddy Hunter has mastered this cooking method over many years, and the Hunter Family has gained notoriety for their ground oven feasts.
The ground oven crew at Taste of Kakadu 2018: Ian Conroy, Jenny Hunter, Catherine Ralph, Shantel Bayne, Freddy Hunter
Leading up to this year’s festival, Freddy shared some of his ground oven experience.
“We usually do them for big gatherings like weddings or funerals or things that get people together,” Freddy says. “I’ve done some big ones. Probably the biggest was to feed about 2000 people. We had to dig a hole about the size of this tray-back.”
He describes the sheets of paperbark used to cover the feast as the size of a 4WD bonnet.
Jenny Hunter (Freddy’s sister) carrying paperbark to cover the ground oven
For big events catering for up to 1000 people, Freddy begins preparing the ground oven well before the sun comes up. The cooking time can be up to eight hours depending on the amount and type of meat being cooked.
Freddy says you they don’t always need to be big. He often does smaller ground ovens at home just for friends and visitors. A lot of people do small ground ovens with barramundi or turtle.
Freddy says that when you lay the paperbark over the food, the paperbark wraps around it like cling film. Then you cover the paperbark with a thick layer of dirt to ensure no air or heat escapes during the cooking process.
He learnt the technique in the Jim Jim region of the park. He says this method of cooking has been used for generations and the knowledge is passed down.
To flavour the meat, leaves from native trees are used. This creates a unique variety of smokey flavours that absorbed during the slow cooking process.
Lunch is served – buffalo slow-cooked in the ground oven
Outsiders have only recently been given an open invitation to experience these types of cultural food offerings at Kakadu.
The ground oven feast is a metaphor for the entire festival. It brings people together, to eat, to connect and to get a true taste of Kakadu.
Want to to taste Freddy’s handiwork in person? The Hunter family will be hosting a family-style ground-oven cook-up at Anbangbang Billabong on Friday 17 May 2019 as part of Taste of Kakadu.
Places are strictly limited, so book now to reserve your spot.
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