One of the favourite traditional Maori foods.
I wrote about mussels and their traditional harvest at Tutehuarewa Marae at Koukourarata -Port Levy on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsular, about three years ago, for Ngai Tahu's TE KARAKA magazine. The marae, a cluster of buildings on a grassy slope, is perfectly placed overlooking a stony beach and a pretty jetty. Koukourarata is well known for producing some of the fattest, juiciest toretore around – mussels up to six inches long have been harvested from the bay over the years. Koukourarata was the largest Maori settlement in Canterbury in the mid-1800s with a population of around 400 people. Back then, Maori from Koukourarata bartered shark and other kai moana for eels caught by hapu from Waihora and Wairewa over the hills; and tons of dried fish were carried inland to trade.
I recall Matapi Briggs, then 75, telling me how she remembered a Koukourarata childhood that revolved around the sea. “The sea was our life. It meant everything; it was where we played and where we found our food. We knew where all the best kaimoana was and we only had to walk along the beach to pick cockles, paua and mussels off the rocks. We never needed a boat.” She talked about the times they made fires on the beach, slipping fat mussels in their shells into the ashes and eating them there and then. One of their jobs as children was to gather mussels for family meals but they were taught from an early age only to ever take what they needed, unless the family were taking kaimoana as koha for another runanga. “Our mussels have always been sweeter and juicier. I think it’s because there are a lot of freshwater creeks running into the sea here,” she says. “It’s common for them to grow to four or five inches long.” In the old days - “when my parents were young” - mussels were preserved in seaweed by the tahu method. They’d split the seaweed, put the mussels in and fill the pouch with hot bird fat. They also did that with paua,” Matapi says.
Matapi’s younger sister, Tokerau Wereta-Osborn also has vivid memories of a happy Port Levy childhood. She was just 18 months old when she arrived in the bay and now, her great-grandchildren are the sixth generation of her family to enjoy everything the bay has to offer.
‘The bay has never changed in my opinion. It’s always been a wonderful place to live and the kaimoana has always been plentiful. We used to walk out to the island at low tide to collect mussels, paua, oysters, cockles and conga eel. Our favourite way of eating mussels was simple - they were just opened, scalded in their shells, drained and then eaten with a bit of vinegar and onion. Sometimes our mother would make patties, or she battered the mussels whole but I always preferred them plain with vinegar,” Tokerau says. “I always loved making a fire on the beach and cooking the mussels in the ashes, or on a piece of hot tin and eating them fresh. When we needed to store them we would make a circle of rocks just offshore and keep the live mussels there. It was like our fridge and it saved us going out hunting for them each time we wanted a meal.”