Monday, March 1, 2010

See food, eat it

We went camping a few weeks ago, and what a reminder it was how friendly this place is to grazing. "Living off the land" actually has meaning around here.

When we first came to NZ (more than ten years ago!?!), I went scalloping out in the bay with Graeme Marshall, fishing guru. There was no stalking or subtlety about that operation though. You take a motorboat out, drop a dredge off the back and tow it along the bottom for fifteen or twenty minutes. The hardest part is hauling this thing full of mud and other bottom-dwelling detritus back to the surface, but if you've found the right place, there are also dozens and dozens of scallops, looking for all the world like a gas-station sign.

And Nelson scallops are something else: a plug of crustacean goodness attached to a orange-pink liver-shaped something-or-other. You slip your knife in near the hinge and sweep along the shell to release it open to find a throbbing organism that has the good stuff almost incidentally: a ring of gills top and bottom, a garland of gristle studded with tiny gleaming eyes (or so it would seem), a dollop of mud and all the other messiness. But with two well-practiced circular strokes of the knife (and after a few dozen to practice on, everyone is well-practiced), the meat slides off with only a few little odd gobs clinging thereto. Generally, the meat goes into the bowl for the classic quick-cook, but often enough it finds its way into your mouth, where it becomes not only the freshest possible sushi--with all the lusciousness you imagine--but stays mixed up with a touch of guts, brine and (I picture) the bodily fluids of the organism.

In short, it tastes like life.

But there's regular fishing, too. A few weeks ago, Eamon and Wendy brought us along on one of their family fishing expeditions to the Marlborough Sounds. The arrival day was devoted to scalloping, then we targetted blue cod. It's the perfect fish for kids. Assuming you find a productive spot (not hard with a little intelligence-gathering before setting out), it's a matter of dropping the right lure to the bottom and jiggling it around. The fish hook themselves quite well, and they're not too much for kids to handle (legal minimum is about a foot long). Pretty easy to clean and fillet with two swipes along the spine, but the results are out of all proportion to the convenience. Pan-fried, with just a dusting of flour and a little lemon juice, and you've pretty much got a definition of what fish is supposed to be: delicate, sweet and just oozing seafaring allure. I took Kim fishing when we were down in Stewart Island some years ago, and not only were we hauling them in as fast as the crew could clean them, but the dinner we had that night is still burned in my memory.

And then there's mussels. They flourish on rocks all along the coast here, and the four-meter tides offer casual predation. Often turned into mussel fritters, I personally have never managed to get past just steaming them in white wine and garlic, then tearing into them with your bare hands.

So anyway: we went car camping at a national park campground on the beach at Totaranui with the usual gang. The day we arrived, a party had already come back from a neighboring beach with a couple of buckets of mussels, so that was a fine how-do-you-do: lounging around with full wine glasses, luxurious cheeses, Krys's bread and hot steamy crustaceans still easing open.

Fortunately, there was also more than one boat in residence, and they weren't just used for snorkeling. One day, a bowl of scallops materialized in exchange for helping shuck a mess of them. We never got round to having them that night, which is not such a bad thing because the next day there came blue cod and red snapper (another game fish, but one that expects more patience), along with more mussels. And so it was that "camping" dinner came to feature a seafood chowder that was hardly anything more than impeccable, sterling fish--just enough potatoes, seasoning, wine and broth to bind the whole thing together. Not only staggeringly good, but entertaining as well, from imagining how much people would pay, in how many other places in the world, for such a meal. Call me Mr. Schaadenfreud, I guess.

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