The day before my 40th birthday my cousin and his two fashionably dressed Sydney-based teenage daughters arrived at my Wellington cottage to find a hare strung up in a tree and me skinning it at pace. Dismembered animal parts sat in a chilli bin. Flies buzzed in the summer heat and the dog looked o.n intently, hopeful of a morsel.
My nieces did a superb job at pretending the scene of death confronting them was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor did they appear ruffled on learning that the chilli bin, on which they innocently perched, housed two more hares and the back legs from three goats shot the day before. The day had started at 7am with two mates and me swimming out to a rock in Wellington harbour; home to a bed of green lipped mussels. We needed 150, and I had underestimated how heavy mussels are, especially when you have to swim with a bag of them for 40 minutes against a strong harbour current.
The mussels were to form one of three entrees for my 40th birthday party the next day. It would have been easier to buy some from the supermarket but that would have defeated the point. I was hosting a dinner party featuring food hunted, fished, grown or foraged by my guests. Aside from flour, salt, pepper and spices, the concept was to spend no money.
I've always loved the process of hunting, cooking and sharing food. There's so much more satisfaction to be had tucking into freshly charcoal-grilled crayfish, dripping in garlic butter, when you've caught it with your own hands. Why not let my friends and family experience this too? I'd originally pitched the dinner as a wedding concept to Sally, my wife to be. Sagely, in hindsight, she declined. To ramp it up a notch, I wasn't going to settle for any old pot luck. I wanted a restaurant-quality dinner, cooked by all of us. Booze-wise I was more relaxed. Aside from a home brewed Pilsner, we bought bubbly, cocktail ingredients and wine.
My 55 guests humoured me when I put the callout for ingredients. I think there was some scepticism about whether we'd pull it off. On the Friday afternoon, while forcing inflexible hare carcasses into too-small cooking pots for a 12-hour, slow cooked ragu, I, too, became a doubter. I'm a respectable home chef - but no Al Brown - and this wasthe biggest group I'd cater for.
On the big day, my brother flew down from Auckland with 60 homegrown potatoes, 25 venison sausages, venison back steaks, homemade basil pesto and mint, all stashed in his hand luggage. Tomatoes, zucchinis, lettuces, beetroots and pumpkins came from veggie patches across the lower North Island. Ten crayfish were carefully transported back from a Great Barrier Island diving trip, along with kingfish that was smoked, made into a pate and served on 150 homemade blinis. Guests less able to provide hunted or grown food contributed homemade bread and desserts. International guests got the duty free.
The party, held in Berhampore's Cook Islands Society Hall, was a frenzy of laughter, chaos, fine food and great chat. Trestle tables were covered in white tablecloths, adorned with shrubbery scavenged from gardens. Guests were confronted by strands of freshly made fettucine hanging in rows on my usefully co-opted clotheshorse. The verdict? The paua ravioli in beurre blanc sauce, à la Logan Brown, was the most technically challenging but proved a show stopper. The aforementioned heavy mussels were smoked, removed from their shell, de-bearded, placed back in a half-shell and served with a small dollop of garlic aioli on top. Worth the effort.
Why all the hard work?
Hunting and fishing are a regular part of my life in the city. Off Wellington's rich coastline, most weeks it is easy to get into the ocean and grab a feed of fish, paua or crayfish. It connects me to the land and sea, and in an era of complex food supply chains, it feels good to know the fish I caught was killed cleanly, lived well and no part of it was wasted.
Practically speaking, hunting, fishing and growing food can reduce living costs. According to Statistics New Zealand the average weekly household food shop rose 11 per cent, from $192 in 2013, to $214 in 2016. And the University of Otago's latest Food Cost Survey finds the average Aucklander spends 59 percent of their food budget on meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables and legumes.
The high cost of food prompted Invercargill couple, Sarah and Joe Reti, to adopt a modern hunter-gather lifestyle 14 years ago. Then, they were on a weekly benefit of $180 with a young child to feed. They decided to save money by huntingand growing vegetables. "When we started on this journey, we were broke," says Joe. "The benefit covered rent, power and the bare staples for the cupboard. The land provided everything else for us. Our Pak'N'Save is the sea."
Sarah and Joe now have a family of three children – two boys, aged 13 and 10, and a daughter who is seven. Life is less financially strained than it once was, with both Sarah and Joe working, but hunting and fishing remains a core element of family life. Joe spends five hours hunting or fishing every week, with the family joining regularly.
The Retis estimate 90 percent of the food they eat has not been sourced from the supermarket, a cost saving of at least $100 a week . The contents of their freezer reflects the changing seasons but is stacked with venison, wild sheep, rabbit, duck, blue cod, moki, crayfish and paua. No part of a kill goes to waste - paua and deer antlers are carved into pendants and jewellery.
Just last weekend middle child Jahna, 10, shot his first animal – a large wild ram . With snow on the ground, initially the kids weren't too keen on the hunt first thing in the morning, Sarah says. "They were like, 'do we have to?' But when Jahna got home he was so excited. He didn't just shoot a little old sheep but a huge ram. He walked around with a grin on his face for the rest of the day." The ram will be made into mince and sausages. Sarah estimates they will get 120 sausages from the sheep, which, if bought from the supermarket, could cost about $120 . The cost for the Retis is the price of one $3 bullet and some petrol to have high-quality sausages with no flour or preservatives. "Over the years, we've grown and developed our hunting and fishing skills," Joe says. "No matter what the weather is doing, every week we know where to go to source food. We have created a cycle of sustainability. We are so much better off for where this lifestyle has put us. "We don't blow our money needlessly – we've learnt that we can get our own food. A lot of people waste money on food and waste money on going to the gym rather than getting out and doing what we're naturally built to do."
There is no doubt hunting and fishing is popular with Kiwis at a time when more New Zealanders are using food banks more often, according to the Salvation Army. They saw a12 percent increase in the number of food parcels distributed in 2017, from the previous year. Major Pam Waugh, the Salvation Army's head of welfare services, says housing unaffordability is driving demand for food parcels. "If we hear that one of our clients likes fishing, or hunting, or has access to a vegetable patch, we encourage them to make use of that resource. It's one more way to reduce costs and break the debt cycle."When hunting, the words of social media star William Waiirua are certainly true: those who do the mahi, get the treats.
But the mahi can be really hard, a point reflected on forcefully, and with much colourful language, by a friend of mine as we staggered out of the bush recently, our packs full of venison. We were on a hunting trip in the Ruahine Ranges for this year's roar and had the good fortune to shoot a stag each. Good fortune, that is, until we had to stumble out on a badly maintained track for six hours with 40kg packs on our backs, our 40-year-old knees creaking. But, the gin and juniper sausages were to die for.
3pm: Bubbly, antipasto and croquet
Hauraki Gulf kingfish pate
Waripori summer tomato's
Wellington fresh spring rolls
Breaker Bay smoked mussels
Logan Brown's paua ravioli with beurre blanc sauce
Manawatu 12-hour rabbit ragu
Wairarapa vine-ripened tomato pasta
Wild venison backstrap & sausages
Southern Alps chamois backstrap
Rimutaka goat kofta, cucumber and yogurt
Great Barrier Island grilled crayfish
Wild venison skewers
Chargrilled summer vegetable skewers
South Coast greenbone goujons
A selection of seasonal salads and home baked breads
Assorted rustic desserts made with homegrown and foraged fruits.
9pm: Dancing, whiskey & port, cigars