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Its fair game at the 2002 Hokitika Wildfood's Festival

Quite literally . . . any game food is served at this unbelievable food festival; if you can catch it, collect it, shoot it, net it, spear it, hook it then someone will cook it!

Held here in New Zealand, every second weekend of March in Hokitika, on the West Coast of the South Island it is a must for anyone with an interest in foods. This festival started just over fifteen years ago with a few stalls and just the locals turning up, it is now progressed to ninety-five stalls with an amazing twenty-two thousand people attending the one day event this year. Let me put that figure into perspective for you; the population of the Hokitika township is only approximately five thousand! No prizes for the mathematics that, that means if even half the population was there, that it means twenty thousand visitors came and indulged, tickled their taste buds, tried their luck or were dared into trying something really wild.

Besides the food there is always generous amounts of liquid refreshment to indulge in; a major sponsor for the event is a local brewery, Monteiths. They produce boutique style beers that every year win gold at the international competitions, but besides their huge tent with the throngs inside one can try:

  • Moonshine

  • Stag velvet liqueur with real gold flakes

  • Billy tea

  • and for those that just need re-hydration in the blazing sun, the red cross deserve a mention for supplying free crystal clear, New Zealand, chilled water

Aerial view of the Hokitika FestivalVisitors come not only from all over New Zealand but many overseas visitors plan their New Zealand vacation around being here to attend. The day was an experience for all and thankfully the meteorologists got it wrong (again) and the sun blazed.

I must admit to not being able to go a wandering this year and see what was on offer as I was the organisor and a judge for the New Zealand Wildfood Festival Chef of the Year competition. This is a Tai Poutini Polytechnic event, that we launched last year; in which 9 top chefs from around the country come to compete. They are invited to create a dish based on wildfoods, at the festival they cook off in a ‘field kitchen’, in front of a 200 plus audience, having one hour to prepare and present 4 portions of their creation. Imagine if you will; you have evolved, created and practiced a dish over and over again in your own kitchen and then you have to re-create it in a make shift kitchen, under a tent in a ‘paddock’, using a gas oven and stove that you are unfamiliar with, under the watchful eyes of hundreds of people and of course the critical eye of the judges…….what a task, what an ask……but boy did they pull it off. Did they ever pull it off.

Chef Abby Mearns flaming her wild boarThose judges, were myself and Chef Peter Thornley of Icon Restaurant, Te Papa. Chef Peter is an international award winning chef who’s impressive credentials include, winning the major title in Brussels; the competition of all competitions for chefs.

Cups and awardsThe Culinary arts are a hard task master and no more so than this year with our judging, the chefs having pulled out all stops with their dishes. Chef Peter and myself had such tight judging that when we collated our marks found that there were just 8 points seperating all the chefs.

The finalist and their dishes were:

Jason Burrows : Quality Kings Hotel, Greymouth
“Baharat spiced wild chevron with pumpkin and pinenut cous cous spring rolls, a beetroot jus and a wild mint parsley rouille”

Mohamed Abbari : Complete Event, Christchurch
Slow roasted spiced quail stuffed with wild berries served on a watercress cous cous accompanied by Manuka honey, vegetable roulade and infused olive oil

Bruce Griffiths : Cook ‘N’ With Gas, Christchurch

  • Northern spiced “Arapaua” fritter with ceps and field mushroom sauté, red pepper, spring onion and hemp oil

  • Mainland whitebait hash under manuka smoked brown trout with pickled punga, wild watercress and crackling

  • Southern clam tart, steamed tidepool cams in Monteiths Pilsner in a native celery cream

Stuart Watson : The Landing Café & Bar, Franz Josef
Feral chamois marinated in Monteiths Black, layered with kumera crisps, resting on potato and watercress pesto, garnished with piko piko and roasted red pepper

Abby Mearns : Blue Ice Café, Franz Josef
Caramelised wild boar, seared with swede & green apple crisps, curls of crispy proscuitio, beetroot pesto & a cranberry infusion

Julie Bransgrove : Punakaiki Rocks Hotel
Seared Kangaroo fillet with paua risotto, kiwifruit chilli chutney & chamois pithivier

Judging as I say was hot and difficult, the chefs are not just judged on the final dish but many other areas also, all worth 10 marks, these are:

1. Professional practices
2. Variation/usage of wild ingredients
3. Degree of cooking
4. Tastes / flavours of main meat or seafood
5. Tastes / flavours of supplemental foods
6. Overall balance
7. Flair and originality of dish
8. Overall presentation
9. Completed tasks/dish within allocated time
The runners-up by just one point, were Bruce Griffiths of Christchurch’s 'Cook n with Gas', (the 2001 winner), with a dish called 'Gastronomic Aoteoroa' featuring three seafood mini dishes that included paua, whitebait and clams. Also Mohamed Abbari of 'The Complete Event' in Christchurch who created a dish using quail and cous cous with flavours reminiscent of his homeland in Morocco.

The finalistsChefs Mohammed Abbari, Jason Burrows (winner) & Bruce Griffiths (2001 winner)

Winner Jason BurrowsThe eventual 2002 winner however was a chef from the local Quality Kings Hotel in Greymouth; Jason Burrows, with his dish of :

'Baharat spiced wild chevron with pumpkin and pinenut cous cous spring rolls, a beetroot jus and a wild mint parsley rouille'

Jason Burrows' winning dishWhile not over infused with wild ingredients, Jason managed to bring this dish to life with subtle flavours that just so managed to come together and compliment each other on the day. His technical skills etc also greatly impressed us. This dish is now being featured at his restaurant. Jason has only just come to the West Coast from Christchurch where he was chef at a small, exclusive hotel, he has certainly made his mark now after just two months here.

All the chefs were awarded cups for their involvement; one to display in their restaurants and one for themselves, along with a host of other prizes sponsored by the Wildfoods Festival committee, Black & White Trading Co. Ltd and Catering Hardware in Christchurch and included kitchen equipment, uniforms and knives.

(left to right) Chef Jos Wellman (Tallyrand), Tai Poutini Polytechnic Chief Executive Officer,
Tai Poutini Polytechnic Chairman, Jason Burrows and Chef Peter Thornley (guest judge)

Twenty-two thousand people, ninety-five stalls, well over one hundred different wild foods being served to whet the appetite and challenge the masses: bugs, grubs, worms, chamois, deer, thar, wild honey, wild ferns and frond salads, scrambled emu and ostrich eggs . . . What a day! What food was served all around the festival and what amazingly creative dishes were cooked by the competition chefs . . . I guess closing with a quote from the national press is the best way to part (being such, sweet, sweet sorrow):

The New Zealand Wildfoods Festival Chef of the Year event was a huge success and attracted big crowds at this year's Wildfoods Festival, with the quality of the competing chefs and the judging being very high. Tai Poutini Polytechnic hosted the event and their chef programme students enjoyed assisting on the day, while being inspired by the impressive contestants. Tai Poutini Polytechnic's chef programme is recognised as one of New Zealand's finest

See you all there next year?

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