The best food is that feed of mussels on the beach, roasted open on corrugated iron over a fire. The fish and chips with a cheap bottle of bubbly, sitting on the floor of your new house because you can't afford furniture.
The best food is, by definition, the best because of the people you're with and the way the sun goes down, which is to say, the occasion. And, coming in an honourable third, the food itself. And it probably has to include fish.
Good restaurants know about this. They give you an experience. If it's Al Brown at Depot, the experience is designed to make you remember that fire on the beach, even if it's not your own memory. It's clever, what he does there.
When we were kids, Al and I used to go to the same beach for our summer holidays. Not that we knew it, because he's younger than me so we weren't there together. We holidayed maybe 50m apart, in space but not in time. His dad had a boat and they stayed in the motor camp and did a lot of fishing, and we had no boat and stayed in a rented Fibrolite bach right by the motor camp and never caught anything even when we did try fishing.
Castlepoint, on the Wairarapa Coast, the greatest place on earth.
There's surf that turns you over and over, thrilling for any kid. Stingrays, sometimes. A shop with icecream and fish and chips, neither of them, sad to say, especially memorable. A lagoon with much wilder surf out beyond the cutting, great sweeping tides that roll in all the way from Chile. Desolate men fishing off the rocks, risking all for a few kahawai, a lighthouse that never blinks, a million shellfish fossils in the rocks, the castle buttress so high and tough to climb, up through the karaka trees and on to the windblown grassy slopes, with a cliff on the seaward side so sheer it was, when I was a child, the foundation fear of all my nightmares.
Castlepoint, where the adults were all so tough, hanging about the fishing boats with their sideburns and bottles of beer, the print frocks and stubbies, the ciggies. A place to ride your bike, run on the beach and into the hills, tumble down the giant dunes with sand in your ears and mouth and hair and half-broken bones by the time you reach the bottom. And do it again. A wild place where the only thing was to be wild.
On evenings when the wind was offshore, the sky heavy and dark, someone would send out a Kontiki line. A little boat with a long line of hooks, named for the sailboat in which Thor Heyerdahl tried to undo generations of Polynesian nautical knowledge, complete with evidence the aliens had landed. He was a romantic figure, then.
The boat would head straight out on the flat expanse of the sea. Later, its sail collapsed, they wound it in and we'd all gawp at the few sad fish flapping on the sand. The magic was not in the catch. The magic was the tiny boat on the endless ocean.
In the evenings, the big kids went after the flounder, in pairs with a long net on poles held upright between them, like a tennis net dragging the sand. Some tough bugger who never felt the cold at the deeper end, another in the shallows, both of them trudging along in the gloom.
There's only one way to cook flounder: pan-fried with the head on, flour and butter, wedges of lemon. The secret is freshness. Actually the secret is the chips, which should be wedges and must be crunchy.
Drive north of Castlepoint for a couple of hours and they'll do you a swanky version, crumbed, in the round baronial hall at Craggy Range, in Hawke's Bay's Tukituki Valley. They do an even better one at Pipi Restaurant in nearby Havelock North, around the corner and up the hill a bit on Joll St, where everything is pink, the tables are benches and the whole place, operated by a genius called Alex Tylee, makes a promise to you: of warm, fond, occasionally raucous and possibly a little too drunken happiness.
Alex doesn't always have flounder. It's that kind of fish. But when she does, it spills over the edge of the plate and you squeeze out the lemon, eat the fillet off one side, sweet and juicy and firm, and lift the frame with your knife and fork, turn it over, breaking nothing, and repeat. Take pleasure in the skill of it. Divert to the chips at your leisure. And to the greens, perhaps watercress, fresh for the tang of it, picked in the creek within the hour.
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