Taking the challenge of the wild

Bill and Sarah Manson, pictured in Eastbourne with their 9-year-old daughter Grace, have put their all into the Local Wild Food Challenge.
Bill and Sarah Manson, pictured in Eastbourne with their 9-year-old daughter Grace, have put their all into the Local Wild Food Challenge.

Bill Manson's Local Wild Food Challenge began in Wellington in 2009 and now runs annually there and in Glenorchy, as well as Finland, Martha's Vinyard and Hawaii in the United States, and in France.

He and wife Sarah have put their all into the snowballing enterprise not for riches but for love of cooking and the environment.

It all began when Manson was a kid in Eastbourne, Wellington, one of a family of keen cooks in an out-doorsy area. Hunting and fishing were second nature. He vividly recalls his first experience of pig hunting, in a wild place near Nelson and with the uncle of a friend. Manson was 12.

"They had given us a .303 gun and we went into the bush and they got these two pigs. They were calling us to 'get in here boys' but with all the chaos and noise we looked at each other and decided we'd leave it to the big guys.

"We had a gorgeous pig roast in a smoky hut in the middle of the bush, exhausted after a full day's hunting. They cooked it in a Dutch camp oven and I could hardly stay awake. I'm glad I did.

"It was a bit of an epiphany. I had so much respect for those guys, able to do that. It was exciting, scary, adrenalin-filled and exhausting, and it felt so good lying in a bunk, smoke sticking to the ceiling, full. I really enjoyed that.

"Later on, when I was round the country, I'd take gear and we'd fish and dive and cook and hunt. I'm not that good a fisher, diver or hunter. The key, I've found, is to go with people who are ... And I'm a reasonable cook, I can help with that. I do dive and can fish, but I'm by no means as experienced as the people I like to go out with. I have a lot of respect for those guys pulling those things out of the bush and the sea."

Serendipitously, Manson's love of the wild and its associated food was reinforced again and again, everywhere he lived and cooked in the world, to a point where, years later, the Local Wild Food Challenge became a no-brainer.

First came cooking. He left school at 17, wanting to be a chef after having worked at the Skyline Restaurant in the school holidays. In the 1980s he took a cooking course at Wellington Polytechnic.

"The food scene was changing rapidly in New Zealand at the time with brasseries and cafes becoming part of the culture. My cousin Danny McGrath opened Cafe Paradiso in 1987 and I decided to dive in.

"The new style of cooking unfolding in New Zealand was different to even when I had started training ... I was very involved and loving the whole new style of cooking.

"It was free of the heavy hand of the hotel dining experience, the old-school English dining experience. Cuisine was lightened up. It made the eating and drinking culture much more accessible to the average person. Anyone could have a go, and that to me is important."

Later, the idea of anyone being able to "have a go" would be important in Manson's Local Wild Food Challenge. Anyone can have a go at the culinary adventure competition, too. All they need is the will, the skill and one wild ingredient, preferably sourced with a little effort.

Manson left New Zealand to travel. He cooked and "kicked around" in South America and France, where he met and fell in love with Sarah, the manager of a restaurant in Savoie in the French Alps. Together they opened an adventure tourism business run in a chalet, with eight guests at a time. "They'd eat our food and we'd show them the experiences of that part of the world."

They got to know a local pig-hunter, and a couple who foraged in spring, "berries and morels and trout from the lake – it was a whole connection back to what I knew in New Zealand". They also met a wealthy American who lived at Martha's Vineyard, and Manson took a job as his personal chef, staying there for six months of the year.

"The same sort of thing began to come out of the surrounding area." He met fishermen and foragers – "again that connection, stumble-trip, stumble-trip. If you put all those things together, that's when the idea crystallised in my mind."

The couple, with their young daughter, sold their place in France and returned to New Zealand, with Manson continuing to work six months of the year in the US. "We caught up again with people getting under water and working the bush."

He worked, for several seasons, for a boutique winery in the Wairarapa and the call of a wild food adventure became persistent. A mate owned the local tavern, and the first Local Wild Food Challenge was held there, advertised by fliers and posters.

"The pub was packed out. About 25 people entered. We set up a couple of barbecues, and a prep table, and had a fridge the pub let us use.

"In they came with stuff they had collected and preserved, or just gone and got. They brought paua, deer, crabs, blackberries. One guy made wild blackberry icecream and put caramelised cicadas over the top of it. You name it – gorse flowers in cordial. There were not just hard-core fishermen and hunters, but people from all walks of life. First prize was a trip to the Martinborough Hotel and a bottle of bubbly."

A professional chef won, but Manson was most impressed with a woman who entered a venison pie. He learned, over a beer, that she had not only devised and cooked the pie but shot, gutted and cut up the beast herself. He decided the judging would, in future, take effort into account, "so it became a level playing field for amateurs and professionals".

He was "so happy and surprised" at this inaugural challenge, that in 2010 he started a challenge at a restaurant near where he worked at Martha's Vineyard. People cooked squirrels, and pancakes and fritters made from acorn flour, the acorns treated to old Indian recipes, so they weren't poisonous.

"It was even more successful. It was absolutely popping. About 100 people packed out the restaurant and about 30 people entered."

Manson was learning how to talk to sponsors and having little trouble finding them, largely because "it's all about the environment. And if you're out there as part of the environment, using resources, you're the frontline. You get what's going on with degradation and poaching. You're in the space and more focused on protection and have a vested interest. Where doesn't that apply in the world?"

A year later, a Finnish winemaker entered the Eastbourne challenge and suggested one in Finland at a friend's hotel. Manson was anxious about a challenge away from his geographical and cultural comfort zone, but it was the usual success. People braised hares, cooked reindeer meat, fried wood ants and deep-fried lichen.

Before he knew it, he was launching another at Glenorchy, near Queenstown. There, as everywhere, there were great stories around ingredients. One Glenorchy woman used dandelions because her children had habitually given them to her and she found them later dried everywhere and tucked in her pockets, "a little gift of love".

"She made dandelion lemonade. She'd researched their medicinal qualities. Her 'little gifts of love' inspired her to enter. There are a lot of those things where people find themselves learning, and appreciating family and the environment."

The winners of this year's Glenorchy challenge, held last weekend, were local Christine Benjamin and part-time resident Gill Tacchi, from Norfolk, who named their platter of sweet treats Jewels in the Wild.

Their ingredients included fruit and flowers with early-settler associations, all gathered from the Rees Valley. Offerings included elderflower posset topped with rosehip gel (see the recipe on this page), marshmallows with wild raspberries, blackberries and elderflowers, honey tuiles, wild berry jellies and meringue with goats beard lichen sprinkles.

Second from the lineup of 33 entries was musician Steven Campbell with a wild stag, dark ale home-brew chilli stew.

Manson has begun to introduce children's sections, there is a website, and good sponsors have ensured the challenges, globally, share prizes worth $25,000.

Satisfaction, so far, has been Manson's reward. "No, I'm not getting paid for it, but it's an incredible thing. The experience is so wonderful and so cool, and I work hard in the US for half the year.

"I'm trying to get infrastructure sponsors. I want to take it as far as we can take it. It's such a gorgeous idea and it's for everyone; for the people and by the people. If you have one wild food ingredient, you can enter.

"I'd like to see it in Ireland, and the UK and Australia, Sri Lanka, Morocco, in the truffle country of Italy. It just needs a place to hold it, sponsors and my energy."

The Eastbourne Local Wild Food Challenge is on at the Days Bay Pavilion cafe and pizzeria on March 15 at 3pm. Pre-registration – not essential – is at info@localwildfoodchallenge.com.

The Dominion Post