One woman. Seven crayfish dinners. Kim Knight eats her best life at Wellington on a Plate.
The Christmas we agreed to a $10 gift limit, my mother bought me a red plastic lobster cracker.
The fiscal gap between implement and ingredient was wide but it was the thought that counted. My kitchen cupboards were full of matching plates and pasta makers and recipes ripped from magazines with aspirational table settings. It was not unreasonable to assume I might one day buy marine-scented potpourri and plan a crayfish dinner party.
Eventually, I left that suburb; that relationship that could only end in marriage. Divisible chattels included at least six different devices for peeling garlic. You grow up. You meet someone who teaches you to smash garlic cloves with the flat side of a big knife and you realise the world won't end if your coffee cups are chipped. You have no idea where that lobster cracker went but you still love crayfish.
Let's be clear. In New Zealand, lobsters are crayfish. Some people say lobsters have pincers and crayfish don't. Others claim crayfish are found only in fresh water and not salt. The Government calls crayfish "rock lobster". The Māori Dictionary says Jasus edwardsii, Jasus verreauxi and Paranephrops zealandicus are all kōura by any other name.
Undisputed: crayfish are a culinary contradiction. So luxe that someone invented specialist equipment for polite eating; so low-brow that your first was almost certainly not at a restaurant. I remember the water was knee-deep. I remember the water was orange. At the far end of the beach that fronted the Punakaiki Seaside Motor Camp, the crayfish were marching. A spiky, spiny, eyes-on-stalks migration. I think I was 11 years old. I waded into that miracle and came out with a crayfish.
Three years ago, the headlines were grim. Conservation groups and scientists claimed that in the Hauraki Gulf crayfish were "functionally extinct". Goat Island Marine Reserve surveys revealed stocks were lower than those recorded before the reserve's creation 40 years earlier. There were calls for the entire fishery to be closed and, in March last year, the total allowable rock lobster catch in the area between Auckland and East Cape was slashed from 416.5 tonnes to just 173 tonnes. "Decisive action" was needed, said Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash. But he offered a carrot with the stick. In two areas, including Wellington/Hawke's Bay, the catch allowance would be increased.
Great news for gourmets! There is so much crayfish near the capital they're putting it on pizzas! Specifically, blackened squid ink pizza base with garlic salsa verde, crayfish, mozzarella, Tuatara Amarillo beer-battered crispies and crayfish butter sauce ($35).
At Visa Wellington on a Plate, 122 restaurants have created "festival dishes" showcasing chef talent and local produce. Seven of these dishes star crayfish. Earlier this month, I flew south to eat them all. Pass the finger bowl. Canvas has gone cray-cray for cray.
"How much?" I called to the bloke filleting fish on the back of the boat berthed alongside Wellington's Harbourside Market. Sunday, 9am, and I had just spotted my first crayfish. All show and no tail, the pile of dismembered bodies was a masterclass in maritime semiotics. Nothing says "kai moana" like a tangle of scarlet antennae.
"$20," he yelled back. "Crayfish, you know, is $150 a kilo." I licked my lips.
At Paekakariki the houses sport sage-green and sand-beige paint jobs. The streets are called Sand Track and Ocean Rd. The Beach Road Deli oozes sunny, yeasty warmth. Last year, they gave Wellington on a Plate the hangi burger. This year, it's that crayfish pizza on a squid ink-enhanced base, drenched in a butter sauce made 1000 times richer with the addition of stinky, creamy hepatopancreas. Some people call this "hua". Others refer to it as "mustard" or "head gravy". It is pure, visceral essence of ocean and it takes days to get the smell of it off your fingers. We shared our table with a Lycra-clad cyclist. He had a muffin. I consulted a fitness tracking app that said I would need to cycle 17 minutes to burn off 100g of New Zealand crayfish. We drove back to Wellington.
It was that in-between-lunch-and-dinner-time when we hit Dockside. Other guests included 20 men in wearing checked shirts, chinos and lobster-red cheeks. Occasionally, they broke into song. "Take me home, country roooooooads ... " It was crayfish on the credit card, the day after the All Blacks drew against the Springboks. Head chef Marie Penny had reduced the bodies to a bisque and a mayonnaise; the bed and the blanket for a perfectly baked piece of tarakihi ($36). Simple and sublime and all-consuming.
Two mouthfuls in and the overbaked punters had, mercifully, ceased to exist. My world was crayfish now. I went outside and noticed the asphalt had sprouted antennae. A pair of giant orange-plated crayfish feelers turned out to be a twinset of public toilets, opened in 2011. The lobster loos cost $375,000, which was only slightly more expensive than actual crayfish.
To be honest, when I emailed the people at Wellington on a Plate and suggested I fly south to eat seven back-to-back crayfish dishes, I didn't expect anybody to say yes. I certainly didn't expect QT Wellington to come to the party with a large hotel room, waterfront views and buffet breakfasts. It was night-time when I made it to the third floor and the very beautiful Hippopotamus restaurant and bar with its chandeliers and taxidermied peacocks. Cocktail? I was warming to my theme. "Make me something orange," I said, like an imperious writer on a preposterous freebie. The barkeep handed me a grapefruity glass. "It's a take on the Hemingway daiquiri," he said.
The crayfish, when it came, gleamed. The dish, called "roar of the waves", included a succulent green leaf that tasted like a raw oyster, sea chicory and wakame. There was a little smoked paprika in the roux and a succulent slab of blue cod, twinned with the kōura.
"For me," said chef Jiwon Do, "It is a sweet and savoury indulgence."
He will serve his crayfish at lunchtime ($49) and also as part of a pre-booked, five-course $185 sensory degustation in a private dining room. Hemingway, the writer for whom my cocktail had been named, once had his characters eat crayfish in paella in pavilions on the Spanish sand. They drank wine that was white, cold, light and good and cost 30 centimos a bottle. I drank white wine too. Vidals 1888 chardonnay retails for $120 a bottle. The Hippopotamus sommelier told me I should notice an "exceptional minerality". The ocean was on my plate and the beach was in my glass and I understood this was how the other half live: With absolutely no sand between their high thread count sheets.
You can mail order crayfish. On the websites of New Zealand seafood distributors, they start at around $80 for 750g. Does anybody ever do this? Crayfish is the currency of summer and mateship. You swap it for a dozen home brew or a hand whacking the new deck on the old bach. My dad's birthday is on Christmas Day. One year, my boyfriend arrived with a gift-wrapped roasting dish. My dad tore the paper and the steam that hit him in the face was hot with a hard morning's work under a grey sea.
Divers reckon that where there is one crayfish, there are more crayfish. It's the same in Wellington. I was starving when I got to Shed 5. One of the oldest wharf stores on Lambton Harbour is now an exceptionally beautiful high-wooden ceiling and white table-clothed restaurant. Its $35 "ladies lunch" was one of the best-value menus I've seen this year and its $28 crayfish festival dish is incredible bang for a fine-dining buck.
Head chef Geoff Ngan said he was playing with the pork-and-prawn flavour profiles of his Chinese heritage. It has been months in the making, because a good Ōtaki yuzu koshu - a funky, citrussy ferment with the kick of a small horse - takes time.
The koshu is a distinctive background note in a dramatic dish that pairs soft belly pork with a kawakawa and mānuka-smoked crayfish remoulade. Land, sea and air made elegant. "Crayfish is costly," says Ngan. "You can't deliver great wodges of it."
But if you could? Ngan's instructions are specific. Weigh the cray. Poach it for one minute per 100g plus an extra three minutes. Perfect every time and he is happy to share this.
"Absolutely! Some chefs are just a little bit up their own arses, to be honest."
Crayfish grows by moulting. In Powell's Native Animals of New Zealand, I read: "In this process of casting the shell, the whole of the limy jointed armour comes off in one piece, the limbs being withdrawn as a hand is withdrawn from a glove."
What if, when your clothes got too tight, you simply hunched your body and extracted your softer self? Laid low. Waited to harden up. Reapproached the world, fattened and desired? Anyway, it was time to eat another crayfish.
We had to be at Monsoon Poon by 4.30pm, because Albert Zhang had to be at a piano recital shortly thereafter. The chef had put peas in his dark and chewy $45 "risotto". A chunky curl of crayfish tail sat under a lemongrass foam and on top of a Thai black rice island surrounded by a sea of galangal and curry leaf bisque. I ate at a table under a framed plate signed by Gordon Ramsay. Why do we love crayfish?
Owner, Mike Egan: "It's luxurious but it's also a classic. It's our heritage. Summer. The neighbour next door has a pot, it's shared ... " Pragmatically: "It freezes well."
Growing up, I ate crayfish whole, boiled and cold. We'd carry a bloody big knife in the boot of any car heading within a whiff of Kaikōura. We'd buy the biggest we could afford from Nin's Bin or Cay's Crays. Slide the knife up the underside of the tail and push your thumbs under the tail meat. Press that knife hard to crack the body and expose the mustard. Dip. Eat. Swoon.
At Lulu Bar and Restaurant, the mantra is "oceanic eats, drinks, party". The genius menu opens with a $10 salt and vinegar taro chips with smoked eggplant and palusami dip (why is no one doing this in Auckland?) and the $38 festival dish is a whole wood-roasted fish with a crayfish and coconut bisque (why is no one doing this in Auckland?).
I am not sure where to start. Literally. I'm dining solo in a busy restaurant, trying to pretend it is perfectly normal for one woman to consume an entire baked tarakihi smothered in sauce and sharpened with a little olive and sesame crumble and a pot of smoked yoghurt. The chef, concerned I am eating only crayfish, has sent out a not-so-little bowl of crispy fried and spicy-sauced agria spud. Fish and chips in Pasifika. I gorge, grateful for the party-level lighting.
It is a short walk back to the hotel. I fall asleep listening to a man on a motorbike painting white lines on Cable St. I wake to a light breakfast of crayfish tails and fresh black truffles on Cuba St($35). 1154 Pastaria has opened early so I can finish my Wellington on a Plate visit as it began. If you can luxe up a peasanty pizza with crayfish, imagine what you can do with pasta? They make their own fettuccine (and everything else) here, using 100 per cent South Island-grown and ground Farmers Mill flour. The bacon is Freedom Farm and the cray tails come via Yellow Brick Road. The creamy, eggy, peppery carbonara sits under a fog of truffle. Eat with your nose and consider staying on for lunch and dinner and begging them to reopen early tomorrow, too.
I had eaten more crayfish in the past days than I had in the past decade. These were no ordinary dishes. And this is the dichotomy of crayfish. It is a feast for a prince and a pauper. The free and foraged food of a childhood summer, now paid-for in an adult winter. I left Wellington and my mouth tasted like money and memory.
Hungry? www.visawoap.co.nz (August 1-31)
Dine Festival crayfish dishes? Available until August 16 www.visawoap.com/dine