Thursday, December 10, 2009

Titi Territory

When I was at Takutai o te Titi Marae in Colac Bay in Southland a few weeks ago for the Ngai Tahu Hui-a-Tau, I was reminded again of what this pretty place is famous for – Titi, also known as muttonbird. I had visited before a couple of years earlier, with Ngai Tahu chef, Jason Dell and photographer Phil Tumataroa in the course of preparing another of the Te Karaka magazine kai features and despite Jason’s best culinary efforts, I wasn’t won over to the taste of titi. Those who are however, seem to love it with a passion and kaumatua from the Oraka-Aparima Runaka were happy to share their memories of titi gathering, or, as it is known in these circles, birding.
Titi, muttonbird, sooty shearwater, Puffinus griseus – they’re all the same – is a migratory seabird and the young birds caught by Maori as an annual delicacy on the Muttonbird Islands, southwest of Stewart Island, are fat with the oils of the fish eaten and regurgitated by their parents. The parent birds come home every night, having eaten pilchards, shrimps, sprats and small squid and the young birds gobble down their oily dinner and grow very, very fat. It’s no wonder they smell on cooking. Kaumatua, Robin Thomson leaned back in her chair and drew in the kitchen aromas. She remembered her 1940s childhood and the excitement of travelling down to Murderers Cove on Taukihepa Island on the old ferry, Wairua.
“In those days our family had a round, thatched wharerau on the island, with a pit fire in the floor and a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. We’d put ferns on the floor and our kapok mattresses on top for sleeping.”
Arrival on the Muttonbird Islands was always two weeks prior to the official start of titi hunting on April 1st. It was a time used by each family to tidy up their house, chop wood and make repairs. They would have gathered kelp from the beaches back home, dried it and taken it with them to the islands where it was made into pouches to preserve the titi (see above). When April 1st dawned, everyone would be up early, walking through the bush to their own area, their manu. “We’d get down on our stomachs and reach into the nest holes. In my grandfather’s day, he used a strip of fern and he’d turn it in the nest and entangle it in the young bird’s feathers to tug it out,’ says Robin.
“As kids it was our job to cart all the birds and do the plucking with mum. On an average day we’d get about 100 birds so that was a lot of plucking. In those days we bagged up the feathers and they were sold as down for mattresses, but they don’t do that now.”
A favourite method of preserving the birds is to tahu them – “that’s how they were done in the pre-European days before salt. The katu, or balls of fat inside the birds were removed and rendered down and the birds were cooked and preserved in that. (See second image from top). They’ll last a year preserved that way and locals say they taste very different-greasier and not salty and definitely delicious. Most say the whole titi tradition was and still is, important to family. It’s special. It’s spiritual they say. That day, Jason Dell has worked his culinary miracles and served up twice-cooked titi in a hearty winter boil-up, confit of titi, little titi pies and salad of titi confit. It all looked a picture but seemed a world away from the freshly cooked tahu titi, potato chips and fried bread that Robin Thomson used to enjoy with her family on the wilds of Taukihepa Island.

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