Friday, October 2, 2009

Cockle Cook-Up

Matenga Taiaroa told me he had been gathering tuaki (cockles) on the Otago Peninsular near Dunedin from the time he could first walk. He’d lived close to the Otakou Marae for 73 years and he’d always considered tuaki an integral part of his diet. He still gathers them – “once a fortnight at least” – and puts them in a bowl in the microwave for a minute, (“just to release the muscle”) and then he eats them raw. It’s the way he’s always known. I visited Otakou Marae on the Otago Peninsular for Ngai Tahu’s TE KARAKA magazine a couple of years ago. It was a cloudy day but we had all the fun we always did on these kai feature visits to the various South Island runanga.
“When we were kids we’d take a bucket down to the harbour at low tide to gather tuaki for the whanau and we’d always crack a few open and eat them there and then,” Matenga said. He was one of six children and whoever was around had the job of digging for cockles. He taught his own two children to do the same. Tuaki, or cockles as they are commonly known to the locals, are actually New Zealand Littleneck Clams (Austrovenus stutchburyi). They are the single most abundant large invertebrate animal found in inter-tidal sand flats in sheltered harbours and estuaries throughout New Zealand. They have been an important food source for Muaupoko (Otago Peninsular) Maori for generations and their shells have commonly been found in centuries-old middens. The area was speckled with many kaik (villages) and Pukekura (Taiaroa Head) was an important fortified pa. From early times the peninsular provided a wealth of resources – from tuaki and seals to fish and birdlife.
Sitting on a wide bench seat outside Otakou Marae, overooking the ocean and village below, Matenga Taiaroa talked about his great-grandfather, who walked the same soil, and he was proud of the fact that his family still owned land on the peninsular. “We’re the caretakers here; that’s what I like – the sense of continuity through generations and the fact that we have always only ever taken what we need from the land and sea,” he told me. That day the Otakou team sat down to cockle feast by then-executive chef of Blanket Bay, Ngai Tahu chef, Jason Dell. They were presented with risotto with spinach and parmesan cheese; steamed cockles with linguini and garden vegetables; grilled cockles with pancetta, garlic and herb crumbs; and cockle chowder with kumara and assorted vegetables. It was a far cry from the simplicity of raw, or plain steamed tuaki but the men were enthusiastic about their introduction to new flavours. With paradise ducks honking in the background and steely grey clouds creeping across the cold winter skies, they worked their way through Jason’s modern take on a traditional favourite with happy gusto.

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