Groups of teenagers run shrieking and laughing from booth to booth. Couples hover in front of exotic-looking food stalls. The sun shines down on this brightly colored gathering, and the savory, charred scent of grill smoke wafts in the air. It’s the 2009 Wildfoods Festival of Hokitika, New Zealand.
Every March, 15,000 people descend on this small coastal town for an annual celebration of “wild” foods, briefly quadrupling the Hokitika population. Heralded as “Hokitika’s biggest event since the gold rush,” the culinary gathering is an extravaganza of gourmet “bush tucker” — food produced from local land and sea sources, often presented in an innovative manner. This year marks the 20th Wildfoods Festival with dishes including some of the most adventurous cuisine I’ve seen.
Adventurous how? Well, there’s barbecued cow’s udder, for one. The Wildfoods Festival specializes in serving wildlife — plant and animal— that is not commonly found on plates. Haggis, pig’s feet, and deep-fried sheep gonads follow the barbecued cow’s udder on the list of animal parts I had never seen served before (at least I don’t think so).
Some of this exotic fare included whole species I had never imagined could be edible, much less considered gourmet. Booths advertised ostrich pies and sandwiches, snails, and even worm sushi. Among the most daring purchases were huhu grubs: barbecued, marinated, pickled, or even raw. One huhu grub booth had a large stack of deadwood outside of its stall. To the delight — and disgust — of onlookers, two men took hatchets to the rotting tree trunks and harvested huhu grubs right then and there.
Not all was “Fear Factor” fodder, though — not by a long shot. One stand, “the beehive,” offered chunks of two different kinds of honeycomb — or, for true decadence, a bowl of vanilla ice cream garnished heavily with honeycomb pieces. Another stall had “Kowlua and milk,” homemade coffee liqueur with unpasteurized cow’s milk. Fresh strawberries were served with real cream, and venison kebabs turned appealingly on a spit.
Strategically placed next to a booth advertising “Everything but the squeal — pig’s feet and more,” the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals set up a stand of wild vegetarian delicacies. I sampled mushrooms and several edible native New Zealand plants. Pikopiko, edible fern shoots, are a New Zealand version of asparagus, and native seaweed can be used for salt.
Understandably, every teenager on the South Island seemed to be there, and at least half of their parents. Girls shrieked as boys chased them with a plate of freshly purchased huhu grubs. Someone invariably had a picture taken while eating a snail. Others of us simply stood around the more daunting stands, still thinking, “You can really eat that?” Large numbers flocked to stands serving locally caught tuna and whitebait fish, while a wild petal wine booth serving gorse flower, rose petal, broom flower and rosehip wines proved even more popular. All the while, groups of performers roamed among the throng — belly dancers, magicians and clowns entertained the gathered crowd, while three bandstands were a constant source of music.
In the end, I played it safe with a bowl of venison curry, avoiding anything wilder in the animal department. The honeycomb was a truly sweet treat, and a glass of rose petal champagne led me to consider still more virtues of flowering plants.
Thirty years ago, one would not have associated “wild” or “exotic” with New Zealand cuisine. On this island where sheep outnumber people 10 to 1, lamb roast has been the standard national dish. Those cloven wooly blankets on legs that pepper the hillsides rival even the kiwi bird as the national icon. Sheep so permeate New Zealand culture that steel scrub brushes are called “metal sheep” and one species of fluffy moss goes by the name of “vegetable sheep.”
After deregulation in the 1980s, farmers had more options than raising just sheep and cattle, initiating greater culinary diversification. Combined with an increased multiculturalism, experimentation in the kitchen has become much more common. If this generation of Kiwis has embraced culinary creativity along with multicultural blending, it certainly shows at the Wildfoods Festival. At the same time, there is a growing interest in all things native and locally produced.
For a country where the most adventurous local food used to be the ever-present spread Marmite — a strongly flavored, sticky brown yeast spread that is an acquired taste akin to the Australian Vegemite — New Zealand is certainly producing some interesting food these days.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at email@example.com.