This past week I've been working in London. It's late spring here, lushly green and at 30 degrees, it's been unseasonably hot. The city is bustling, with tourists everywhere, almost as if there hasn't been a major pandemic. But with the war in Ukraine so close to hand, the mood is often somber. It's hard to imagine the toll of this terrible war, but for so many people it's very real - it's their fathers and mothers, their brothers and sister, their best friends and colleagues.
Sitting and having a coffee in a little bar down by the river, I noticed out the window across the road, one of the stands selling tourist trinkets was flying a large Ukrainian flag. On the steps nearby, a group of older men had gathered. I could only guess they were from Ukraine. Every now and then another man would join the group, going from person-to-person bear hugging them or giving them a bolstering pat on the back. There was such a sense of gentle kindness in their camaraderie, these Ukrainian men, here in London, away from their homeland, facing an overwhelming tide of loss and pain seeing their country and their people torn apart by this horrific war.
It got me thinking about how incredibly lucky we are in New Zealand, living in these small verdant islands tucked down in the bottom of the Pacific, unlikely (hopefully) to be the target of a malicious global aggressor. It's often not until things go horribly wrong in life that you realise how lucky you've been.
Which is part of what makes the upcoming Matariki public holiday such a special occasion. This new holiday in the New Zealand calendar, coinciding with the arrival of the Matariki star cluster in our skies, celebrates Mātauranga Māori. This is a time of remembrance for those we have lost since the last rising of these stars; a time to look forward and plan the new year ahead, and the opportunity to gather together and give thanks with a celebration of the harvests.
In traditional Māori culture, a special hāngī would be put down late in the night, ready to lift at dawn with the rising of Matariki. The hāngī would contain foods to honour each of the four stars which are related to four of the elements in the environment - fresh water, salt water, forest and garden. As the hāngī was opened, the steam from the food would rise up to the heavens to feed Matariki.
Making a traditional hāngī takes a lot of expertise to get right, and these days it's seldom feasible to dig up the back lawn and put down a hāngī but we can take a cue from the menu of Attica in Melbourne, where NZ-born Australian chef Ben Shewry has created his signature hāngī -inspired dish, which he calls "a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown".
I've been lucky enough to enjoy this dish at Attica, where the potato is served with supercharged touches of chicken floss, smoked curd, deep-fried saltbush leaves, coconut husk ash, ground coffee and pūhā. But the potato at the heart of this dish requires no fancy chef techniques, just the idea of a hāngī with its wonderful steamy earthiness. Shewry uses freshly dug whole potatoes, coats them in a little oil and seasons them with a little salt. He then makes a layer (about 1.5kg) of the soil in which the potatoes were grown in a deep-sided roasting dish (I think any good quality topsoil will work here), spreading it out to cover the base of the tray. Wet a tea towel and squeeze dry. Put this over the soil. The damp tea towel is then covered with a piece of hessian sack. The oiled, seasoned potatoes sit on top of the sack and another piece of hessian goes on top. This is covered with yet another damp tea towel, which is tucked in so that the potatoes are well sealed and no soil can get into them. A final layer of soil goes over the top before the dish is covered with tinfoil. The potatoes bake for three hours at 180C, then a further four to five hours at 100C.
When the potatoes are ready, the top layer of hessian and tea towel with the soil is carefully lifted so as not to get the potatoes dirty. The potatoes will be soft and creamy in texture. Whole kūmara can also be cooked the same way.
As a partner to your earth-baked Matariki potatoes or kūmara, what could be better than fresh sweet mussels? The quintessential Kiwi kai, mussels are super-versatile and, as a bonus, wonderfully economical. Steam them open with aromatic flavours, serve them with a rich tomato sauce, cook them on a barbecue hotplate with a slug of beer or wine to steam them open, chop up the cooked flesh for fritters or pop them into a seafood soup (fennel, potatoes and tomatoes make a great soup combo for mussels, or use smoked mussels with potatoes, corn, celery and leeks. You can also pop them into a laksa).
It's time to gather friends and family together and celebrate Matariki.
The following recipes can all be easily scaled-up. If collecting your own mussels, be sure they come from a clean, unpolluted water source. Discard any mussels that do not close when tapped or run under a cold tap. Scrub and pull off the beards before using. Any mussels that don't open after cooking should be discarded.
Spicy mussel pot
Just the sort of thing to serve around the kitchen table with good friends – this is lip-smacking, finger-licking fare.
Ready in 20 minutes
24-30 live mussels
2 stalks lemongrass, bashed or 2 tsp crushed lemongrass
1-2 tsp green curry paste, to taste (use more if you like it hot)
1 tsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp fish sauce
8-10 thin slices fresh ginger
2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1-2 small red chillies
½ cup sake or fruity white wine
1 cup coconut cream (optional)
Scrub mussels, removing beards, and place in a large pot with all other ingredients except coconut cream, if using. Cover tightly and cook over high heat, removing the shellfish as they open. Discard any that do not open.
Transfer the cooked mussels to a serving bowl. If desired add coconut cream to pan liquids and bring back to a boil. Discard solids from sauce and pour over cooked mussels. Accompany with flatbreads or roti to dunk into the sauces.
Mussels in creamy tomato sauce
Here's a simple and incredibly delicious way to serve mussels, the kind of thing you might enjoy in a hole-in-the-wall Italian-style cantina. It works well as a lunch or light dinner.
Ready in 15 minutes
Serves 4, recipe easily scales up
2 dozen fresh mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ tsp chilli flakes
½ cup white wine or vermouth
1 cup tomato pasta sauce
½ cup cream
Freshly ground black pepper and salt, if needed
2 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley or basil
Scrub the mussels and remove beards. Discard any that won't close when you tap them.
In a large pot heat oil and sizzle garlic and chilli flakes for a few seconds (don't let the garlic burn). Add mussels and wine.
Cover pot tightly and cook mussels until they open, approximately 3-4 minutes. Discard those that won't open after this cooking. Lift out mussels and put to one side. Add the tomato pasta sauce and cream to the pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer 2-3 minutes, season with pepper and salt if needed. Return mussels to the pot with parsley or basil, and cook another minute to heat through.
Pile mussels into deep serving bowls and pour over sauce. Accompany with crusty bread to mop up the sauce.
You are always best to cook mussels as soon as you buy or harvest them. Once cooked they will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge or can be frozen. I like to have cooked mussels on hand ready to chop up and turn into these tasty fritters.
Ready in 30 minutes
1 cup self-raising flour
¼ tsp baking soda, crushed to remove any lumps
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup soda water
3 dozen cooked mussels, finely chopped
1 spring onion, finely chopped, green and white
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp chilli flakes or cayenne pepper
Rind of ½ lemon, finely zested
¼ cup chopped coriander or parsley
Neutral oil, to cook
Lemon wedges, to serve (optional)
Mix flour, baking soda, salt, pepper. Add eggs and soda water to make a very thick, smooth batter. Stir in all other ingredients except neutral oil and lemon wedges until evenly combined.
When ready to cook, heat a little oil in a heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat, swirling to coat the base. Working in batches, cook heaped tablespoons of mixture, turning to cook the other side as bubbles form (about 2 minutes each side). Transfer to a warm oven while you cook the rest, adding a little more oil between batches.
To check the fritters are fully cooked, the batter on the sides of the fritters needs to be set and the fritters should feel firm and springy and when lightly touched on top. If they leave an imprint they aren't quite ready. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Serve with lemon wedges, if using.
Match these with ...
by Yvonne Lorkin
(Spicy mussel pot)
Auntsfield South Oaks Barrel Fermented Southern Valleys Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($39)
Mussels are my drug of choice. I can't resist them if they're on offer and, when it comes to what to pair with these beautiful bivalves, it's sauvignon all the way. Planted back in 1873 by winemaker David Herd, Auntsfield is now under the care of the Cowley family whose tiny, 2ha South Oaks vineyard is littered with crushed greywacke rock that's fallen from the steep hill behind. Fermented in older oak, the wine boasts pretty lemongrass, marzipan and seductively soft, smoky notes on the nose, followed by grilled lemon and crushed herb flavours to finish. Youthful acidity and clinging, textural tannins make it magical with a mussel hotpot.
(Mussels in creamy tomato sauce)
Jackson Estate Grey Ghost Barrique Wairua Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($27)
This is sauvignon - and then some. Now considered a classic of its type, the Grey Ghost is supernaturally smoky and one of those wines that's almost otherworldly in its toasty complexity. Instead of passionfruit and peach, it's layered with lemongrass, basil, and lime notes, and its barrel fermentation adds depth and a unique style to the citrus backbone. Avoid overchilling, and drink now with Annabel's rib-stickingly lovely, saucy mussels, or save for a year or six in the cellar if you have the discipline. glengarrywines.co.nz
Misty Cove BDX 316 & 317 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($20)
Most days I try to work as one with nature. For example, I take inspiration from the birds and every few minutes I just let out a big scream. When screaming's not appropriate, I find that a sip or six of a stylish sauvignon blanc does the job of connecting me with my natural surroundings just as well. Misty's tropical notes of guava, passionfruit, and calamansi calm my farm fabulously. It's refreshing, juicy, and smashes out the citrus, meaning it's a mouthquake with these fantastic fritters.