Sunday, February 11, 2007
It's eight a.m. and I'm by Lake Taupo, eating a petrol station mince pie - I'm taking a quick break before driving on to Kawhia's Maori food festival. My friend Belinda's asked me to grab a pumice stone or two for her garden, so I move to the shore to hunt for some decent sized stones. I spy two shapes on the lake; they see me and start drifting, inexorably, towards me. With a grim sense of foreboding, I focus on them knowing what they are and what they want.
Black swans. My pie.
Suddenly, I know what it must of felt like for the inhabitants of Alderaan as the Death Star moved relentlessly through space towards their planet. I down the remnants of my pie in one gulp, and hastily grab at pumice stones as I make my way back towards the car.
They make landfall. Setting foot on shore, they stand and flex their large, suffocating wings, and fix me with a supercillious glare, affronted by my presence but desirous of my pie. They move towards me, blood-coloured beaks ready to strike like a conquistador's sword.
But I'm in my car, pumice stones on the floor next to me. I sneer at them as I gun the engine and tear off up the road. Nasty, sinister things, black swans - fit only for one thing if you ask me... Onwards to the west coast and Kawhia.
I'm visiting Kawhia's second annual traditional Maori food festival. Last year, this town of 650 people played host to ten thousand visitors. Kai is the principal feature of the event, accompanied by music, kapahaka groups and dance. There are stalls selling and displaying crafts as well. This is a popular cultural event and serves as a showcase for Maori cuisine, both traditional and modern.
Driving over here is a treat. The land is lush and green, easy on the eye after the dry, brown pastures of Hawkes Bay. After what seems like hours of driving on a long, windy main road (change up, change down, change up...), you're met with a view of the harbour and with the sun climbing the sky, this coastal town looks charming and inviting. There's a long queue of cars ahead of me, crawling into town - this event is huge. Parking spaces come at a premium - there are cars on the footpaths, people's front yards - every spare inch is covered. After driving through this busy town, I surrender and end up driving back to its entrance and park next to the main drag, along with the rest of the town's visitors who weren't so fortunate. As I'm locking my car, an SUV passes and arms are thrust out, waving madly - they're friends I haven't seen in a while and I wave back, surprised and pleased. New Zealand is very small.
Maoris - thousands of them! It's friendly and welcoming and even Don Brash would feel comfortable and compelled to loosen his immaculately fastened tie. There are kids running around, unchaperoned and unshod. There are Pakeha families here, and at least one German and a Czech. The teenagers are dressed in their finest and strut like peacocks, eager to impress. It's hot now and I buy a coke from the dairy and amble, with the throng, towards the festival. It's a beautiful town and I picture myself here with a Maori girl and babies; a little house, a labrador, an unkempt lawn... I fish in my pockets for change and realise I don't have my car keys; no matter, I'm hungry, so I'll panic later.
The crowd is formidable and they're all expecting to be fed. No one will leave disappointed. There's a raft of stalls and tents. The smells are tempting. Down to business - I pull out my camera and stride towards a stall selling mutton birds, puha and doughboys.
Mmmm! I haven't had mutton birds for years. They taste exactly as the name suggests, and salty too. The puha is pleasantly astringent, the spud's ok and the doughboys (dumplings for those who were wondering) is spot on. I run into Lucie, and we queue for whitebait fritters.
The fritter is overly eggy but I'm still grateful to have one, given what they cost during the height of the season. Not bad. Eerily, the eyes follow me across the plate...
I leave Lucie and head towards a couple of guys selling paua fritters, mussels and other kaimoana. They're showmen and work the crowd with witty banter and blasts of flame from their woks. The air is hot and pungent with the smell of garlic and chilli. The crowd grows as the gentlemen perform. A camera crew watches them work their magic. It smells great and people are feasting.
My camera starts to play up and I'm fishing in my bag for batteries, but that's not the problem. I line up for hangi after seeing people wandering around with little flax baskets holding chicken, potatoes and kumara. Four different local groups (Rakaunui marae, Mokoroa marae, the Taniwharau Kapa Haka group and the Te Ramaihiko Rangatahi Trust) have put down hangi and each are served at intervals during the day. Mine tastes fantastic - there is something truly unique about chicken and spuds cooked in a hangi. The wee basket is cute - it's a nice touch. My camera decides not to oblige, so no photos.
While I'm eating, and during the course of the day, music is performed on stage by Ben Tawhiti and The Mariners. The MC, a lady called Aunty Mabel, engages the crowd. At one point, she's joined on stage by her mokopuna who sing and dance. A kapa haka group comes on to perform and fires up the crowd.
Rewena bread! I spend a few minutes talking to the ladies at the stall about their technique - I need to keep baking until it becomes second nature. Practise makes perfect. Their bread tastes sweet and with jam, it's delectable!
Huhu grubs! A TV crew from Mai Time hovers expectantly as people down these critters.
Rotten corn! I see some being sold at a stand and grab a pack for my mum, remembering her tales of eating it as a child. It's made by leaving corn in a sack in running water (a creek or similar) for several days, until it turns black having fermented. It's mashed or blended and is eaten like porridge, hot or cold, with a sprinkling of sugar and served with milk or cream. Opening the pack, I quickly discover it lives up to its name (my mother politely declined my offering. Some things, she says, are best left in the past).
My crayfish - deliciously sweet.
That age-old traditional Maori dessert, watermelon and ice cream.
It wasn't all food - there were carving displays, moko demonstrations and exhibitions of weaving. The festival itself opened with a dramatic haka and karakia and mihi. Raukura Hauora o Tainui, the local health services provider had an information tent, as did Te Wananga o Aotearoa, the multi-campus tertiary institution. There were stalls selling t-shirts, tattoos, lollies, arts and crafts, chips and hot dogs, coffee and the ubiquitous Mr Whippy.
Bald dude with newspaper hat.
It was a fantastic day. The weather was perfect (I got sunburnt), the crowd was happy and friendly, the food plentiful, varied and filling. This is an annual event and I really encourage you to go, so mark it in your diary for next year. As much as I love the Marlborough and Martinborough wine and food festivals, the sheer lack of pretension, not to mention the absence of drunk, boorish middle-class prats makes this absolutely refreshing, and most importantly, fun! No black swans, either...
A big thank you to the Kawhia police constable and his instruction in the use of a coat hanger in gaining access to my car keys...