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Mutton bird recipe a winner for chef

By KATHERINE HOBY and MICHELLE CRAWSHAW

First catch your mutton bird, as Mrs Beeton might famously have said.

Seal it in a barrel, then ship from, say, the Chatham Islands to New Zealand. Cook not once, twice, or even three times, but four times.

Then, say the chefs at Praxis restaurant in Auckland's Victoria St, cook the bird in its own juices - a process known as rilette.

That unusual recipe has helped the restaurant to take top honours at this year's Monteith's Wild Food Challenge.

The chefs created, using Maori delicacy mutton bird and freshwater plants, two dishes for the challenge, including an entree of warmed mutton bird rilette, kumara and watercress salad, on crusted wild mushroom with a malted beer and sweet wild berry jus.

The challenge calls on restaurants to create a two-course meal using New Zealand wild foods and match them with Monteith's beer.

The restaurant specialises in indigenous food, and is believed to be the only one in New Zealand serving mutton bird on its menu. The reason, say restaurant co-owners Roland Doyle and Christine Gale, is that it is difficult to get, and even harder to cook well.

The season for mutton birds, which live only on a few islands, including the Chathams, lasts between two and three months a year, and only baby birds can be harvested because the quality of the young meat is better, Ms Gale says.

Mr Doyle buys the birds by the barrel - there are 18 per barrel.

The birds fly to Russia and back during the New Zealand winter, and only a limited number can be caught in season.

Mutton birds need to be carefully prepared and cooked to rid them of the pungent odour and taste many New Zealanders associate the meat with. "It's an extremely oily, fatty meat so we cook it four times to get rid of all that excess fat," Ms Gale said.

The birds are blanched four times in icy water, then left to stand for three days before being considered ready for cooking.

Gourmet chef Damian Mahutonga delights in preparing a meal with mutton bird tasty and refined enough to grace the finest table. Traditionally, though, Maori ate it without blanching, freezing, or smoking the meat numerous times to rid it of its oily, salty taste and texture.

"They liked it fatty. They liked it salty. They loved to eat it with the juices running down their chins," he said.

The only way to describe the unique taste of the birds, is that it is like "bird fish", to use Ms Gale's expression. Both in texture and taste, it is neither fish nor fowl entirely.

A salty, earthy, taste lingers, rather like when one eats duck. But the small pieces in the dish are like tiny pieces of venison. One suspects that even a week of smoking, pounding, icing, and blanching could not remove the wild taste from it.

The accompanying freshwater greens - including a native fern shoot - mute the taste of the meat. And the malten berry jus, which includes blackberries and beer malt, sweetens the meat a little.

Praxis chefs' main dish was South Island river rock roasted salmon with kamo kamo (a marrow-like vegetable) and raisin salad, seared scallops, truffle oil and red volcanic sea salt dressing.

Other restaurants to win awards included Ponsonby's Alhambra and Zest in the Citylife Hotel, which were joint winners of the Best Individual Beer and Food match; Devonport's The Grapevine and Down The Hatch Bar for the Best Spirit Award; Red Restaurant in Herne Bay for the Best Service Award; and Two Fat Cows in Drury, which won the inaugural Consumer Choice Award.

Hamilton and Tauranga challenge winners will be announced next week.

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