The desert raisin (Solanum centrale) is a member of the tomato family and is possibly the most important of all the Central Australian plant foods. It used to be widely spread but is now quite rare and often only grows where the ground has been disturbed, for example alongside roads. It is a clonal under-shrub about 30cm high. It has rather soft leaves and purple flowers. The fruit starts out as green, turns yellow when ripe and becomes sticky and then as it dries on the plant turns to a chocolate brown. It is usually picked in late autumn and early winter.
The desert raisin is highly dependent on fire and for tens of thousands of years was "cultivated" by the indigenous peoples through the highly selective use of fire, when and as appropriate.
The land management techniques practiced by indigenous people for thousands of years indeed involve fire, an element that has a crucial role in many aspects of these communities’ lives (environmental, social, cultural, spiritual…). Using controlled fires, a knowledge that is gradually lost, enabled for example to prevent hot incontrollable wildfires to develop, and helped biodiversity and the land to regenerate.
With the trend for indigenous people to move to towns and cities, away from their traditional lands, this fire management has ceased and with it, the highly productive system of crop management has ceased. This plant will become extinct in its native environment without appropriate fire management. There have been several small businesses that have tried to produce the desert raisin on a commercial basis for sale into the main Sydney market as a spice to be added to other foods. This was not as it is used by the indigenous peoples and has not found much popularity. Nowadays, the plant is sometimes grown in the deserts of central Australia.
This fruit is highly sought after. When ripe and yellow, it has a very distinctive taste, sweet, tomatey and with a strong caramel flavour, thus it is used for sauces and condiments. As it dries, it becomes brown and shrivels, appearing very much like a raisin. The fruit is highly nutritious, even when old and dark brown, although its taste becomes bitter. It is an excellent source of vitamin C. The dried fruit can be ground into a paste before being eaten or rolled into balls to be further dried and stored for long periods. The desert raisin features in many Dreamtime stories and important increase ceremonies are carried out to ensure continued food production.