Sunday, June 24, 2007
Have you ever wanted to try a muttonbird but were too chicken (ah, comedy gold!) to give it a whirl? Take a look at this weeks effort in the kai lab.
First, some background. Muttonbirds, known also as the Sooty Shearwater or Titi amongst Maori, are a member of the petrel family. The origin of the name refers to the mutton-like taste of the flesh, and possibly the woolly appearance of its young. It is the chick that is harvested, found in vast numbers living in the multitude of burrows on the small islands near Stewart Island (Rakiura). The season starts on the 1st of April and goes through to the 31st of May. All activity is administered by Rakiura Maori (Ngai Tahu) and their sustainable harvest programme. To that end, the bird population is monitored in conjunction with the University of Otago. The harvest is an age-old event for the islanders, being one of the few large-scale harvests of petrels in the world. Consequently, it is of immense significance, providing as it does income, an opportunity for families and those connected to meet, work and socialise together, as well as being an important facet of cultural life for Maori in the South Island.
The process: once the chicks are collected, they are plucked and then the feet and wings are cut off. They are then dipped in wax to help remove the layer of down on the bird's body. Once hardened, the wax is cracked and removed, taking the down with it. The birds are then packed in salt and placed in buckets for shipping to market on the mainland. The birds are expensive and available for a limited time. I bought mine from the Albert street market in Palmerston North; I've seen them for sale at fish markets, non-chain butcher shops and once at Pak 'n' Save in Hastings.
The bird is the size of a very small duck. It's fatty, a feature necessary for a bird soon to spend long periods of time at sea (except this one, obviously). Cooking them takes a wee bit of time. Your kitchen will also become quite pungent for a while. Personally, I don't mind the smell but some people might, so don't say I didn't warn you... I cooked mine with puha and I also made some gnocchi - more on those soon.
Find your puha, wash and put aside. Take your muttonbird and pluck off any downy feathers that may be left. Place in a pot of water - lots of water. Pop the lid on, bring to the boil and then simmer for an hour. Once the hour's up, drain off the water, and repeat the entire process. By the way, are your windows open? Go open them... Or turn your rangehood up to eleven.
Again, once that hour has been reached, drain off the water. As you can see from the photo, the bird possesses an astounding amount of fat, even after that initial change of water; the second change will take care of that though. This time, when refilling the pot with water, you'll only need enough to cover the bird.
Once the bird has simmered for about 30-40 minutes, whip up some gnocchi, dumplings or doughboys. During this time, hurl your puha into the pot with the muttonbird.
Time to cook the gnocchi. Remove the bird from the pot and keep warm - turn the heat up and drop your gnocchi into the pot to cook. While this is happening, remove the skin off the bird and don't play with the light settings on your camera, even if the results look good (deceptively so) on the camera's LCD screen...
Voila! Muttonbird, puha and misshapen gnocchi! It was very tasty - the meat of the bird is quite dark and does indeed taste like mutton. I've read grumbles about muttonbirds tasting overly greasy, salty and/or fishy - patently untrue. Changing the water minimises those potential problems, thus bringing out the flavour of the food as well as making it a bit healthier. If you make this for your family, you might want to remove the bones for your littlies. One bird would feed two people at a stretch, and given the cost (anywhere from $12 to $18 a bird), this is probably a truly seasonal treat (unless you 'know' people).
Other methods of cooking muttonbirds I've encountered involve grilling after boiling (reasonably common), boiling in milk (!) and an odd french story involving boiling in brandy (done presumably because they were French and can get away with that sort of nonsense).
Fancy something a little more flash? Try titi orzo by brilliant New Zealand chef Anne Thorpe.
Take a look at these two personal accounts of muttonbirding from Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand and the National Library of New Zealand.