A hākari on Wellington's Matiu/Somes Island brings stories together
Terese McLeod spent the first half of her life dreaming about a place she was unable to visit.
The islands in the middle of Wellington Harbour had always drawn her eye. As a child, she'd look for them through the car window on drives from the Hutt into the city. Later, as a student, she'd gaze at them from the lookout at the top of the cable car.
The largest, shaped like a teardrop, was christened by New Zealand's earliest explorer. Kupe named Matiu for the daughter he left behind.
McLeod, who is of Taranaki Whānui descent, knew her tupuna had used the island as a defence outpost in the past. But Matiu had been off limits since 1839, when the Crown claimed it and renamed it Somes.
For the next 150 years, the island was a sentry stationed at the capital's gate. Imported animals were quarantined there, as were sickly immigrants. During the World Wars, suspected enemies of the state were interned in its barracks.
When McLeod was growing up, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries maintained a maximum security animal quarantine station on the island. When operations ended in 1995, so too did restricted access.
Somes Island was designated a historic and scientific reserve. And, for the first time in living memory, it was open to the public.
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McLeod was in her 20s when she first visited the place she'd set her sights on as a child. An ad in the newspaper presented the opportunity she'd been waiting for: The Department of Conservation, who'd taken over the island's administration, was looking for volunteers.
The ferry trip from Queen's Wharf took just 20 minutes. McLeod spent her inaugural visit tearing weeds from the earth where her ancestors had walked.
It was the beginning of what she calls the greatest love story of her life.
That day, McLeod knew she would never stop coming back to the island. In the 20-odd years since she first set foot there, she has made a point of turning her hand to every job that's needed doing – from planting flora and painting fences, to scrubbing buildings and sussing out sewerage systems. It was what she calls a "self-imposed apprenticeship" to learn how the island ticked.
The island was renamed Matiu/Somes in 1997; more than a decade later, a Treaty of Waitangi settlement returned the land to Taranaki Whānui ownership, with day-to-day operations managed by DOC. Today, McLeod serves as the island's kaitiaki, and has made it her mission to connect people to place.
On the mainland, McLeod works as an administrator for Victoria University's School of Māori Studies, and lives in the seaside suburb of Miramar. But she is constantly on the lookout for ways to bring those she encounters to the place she calls her "medicine island".
For her, the slowed-down, stripped back existence on Matiu/Somes is an antidote to the pace and complexity of city life. Being there, she says, allows her to breathe a different kind of breath.
I step off the ferry on to the jetty at Matiu/Somes, where McLeod is waiting with her friend and fellow foodie, Bart Cox.
My initiation to island life is to be in the form of a hākari, comprised largely of ingredients collected from the surrounding harbour and bush. It is fitting my introduction to McLeod's "medicine island" is a culinary one: in te ao Māori, all kai is rongoā, and all rongoā is some kind of kai.
After a DOC ranger inspects our gear for stowaway pests, our party – a journalist, a photographer and two of McLeod's mates from the mainland – passes through a carved waharoa and ambles up a stony track.
Reminders of the island's past are scattered across its 25 hectares. On our way to McLeod's whare, we stop at a cairn built in memoriam to the settlers who died in quarantine. Further on is a stone seat inscribed with the names of the 38 Italians interned here during World War II.
Internees of German, Austrian and Japanese descent have no memorials, as yet. But McLeod is always conscious of their memories.
"In one name, it's telling you the story just like that. Matiu was its Māori history. Somes was its Pakeha history. Now it's Matiu/Somes Island – a combined history," she says.
"We've all got many stories on the island, and everyone's story is valid."
Today, those stories will be told through food. Pot stickers made of pāua, harvested from the harbour by McLeod's cousin a few days earlier, are a mihi to the Italian internees who had a cottage industry carving jewellery from the iridescent shells; the ika mata – raw trevally "cooked" in lime juice, doused in fresh coconut milk – is a nod to Kupe's South Pacific origins.
We arrive at the whare mahana, the pink brick bungalow that is McLeod's home on Matiu/Somes, remove our shoes and gravitate towards the heart of the house. The dining room, which has an enormous particle board table, overlooks Wellington Harbour - an omnipresent view from almost any of the island's vantage points. Over the years, McLeod has sat here with strangers, students, scientists, whānau, friends and film crews. Across the water, Saturday traffic dribbles along the motorway.
In the whare's kitchen, benchtops are crammed with cork-stoppered bottles of homemade horopito sauce, verdant bunches of kanuka and kawakawa and jars of pearl-like seaweed suspended in a sweet, sour brine. On the green linoleum, blue plastic buckets brim with mussels and mutton birds.
Cox, an ecologist and DOC ranger based in the Wairarapa, was a chef in another life, training under Al Brown before going on to open the popular Wellington eatery, Sweet Mother's Kitchen, with his cousin who still runs it. The hākari, he explains, is an exercise in engaging with local taonga.
"Often, conservation is about not touching, not being involved," he says.
"If you say 'Look and don't touch,' that only attracts certain kinds of people. If you say, 'This sustains us', it actually becomes really important to you."
Cox, who grew up in the bush above Petone, has been foraging food since childhood. His cat Timmy specialised in flushing rabbits from their holes and possums from their perches for Cox to shoot with his bow and arrow. Together, they'd also catch crayfish from a nearby stream.
In his 20s Cox would tramp North Island coastlines with only kumara in his pack, relying on his senses for his next meal. The change from sandy beach to rocky shore signalled that a new harvest awaited.
"When you get to a new environment you're looking really, really hard for what's there," he says.
"Once you've done that enough times, you can almost walk around with your eyes closed because you've learnt enough about these kinds of environments to realise what the inventory of stuff will be."
There are always surprises, he adds.
"But it becomes way less about chance, and more about following the signs."
On one of these expeditions, Cox exchanged greetings with an elderly man from the nearby Hongoeka Marae who was fishing from a deckchair on the sand at Titahi Bay.
The man told Cox he could eat almost anything from the sea. Limpets, he said, were particularly delicious.
Cox was surprised the shellfish, usually relegated to bait, was yummier than pāua: mildly sweet, chewy, with a creamy stomach sack to be slurped straight from the shell.
Today, he serves limpets plucked from Matiu/Somes' south coast, flash-fried and draped with pickled Neptune's Necklace, dark green beads of seaweed that have a gherkin-like crunch.
Sea lettuce, which McLeod picked from the shoreline this morning, is nestled among its ecological brethren. Cox tells me flavours found together in nature are often complementary to the palate.
The dish, he says, is a rock pool on a plate.
The limpets and seaweed are garnished with the orange berries which bloom from the taupata bushes lining the island's stony tracks, among the first native species to be replanted here.
The berries also feature in a relish, a syrup slathered on a banana split and in the moonshine mixed into a cocktail we all share from the same glass.
In a meal like this, the dishes are dictated by what's available in the environment, not the price of ingredients in a supermarket. Cox took his cues from the island's animals.
"The sheep go mental for the leaves, the seagulls go crazy for the berries… They're telling you there's something delicious about them."
FINDING THE CHUFF FACTOR
Foraging, hunting and gathering impart what Cox calls "the chuff factor": the satisfaction of sourcing your own food, and serving it up.
Where karaka nuts are concerned, it's a pleasure that has been somewhat lost. The trees were among the first planted on the island in the 1980s, in an ongoing effort to return pastures to native bush.
In the past, they were a prized food source of Māori and Moriori, who call them "kōpī". Their groves on the Chatham Islands are revered.
These days, the trees are better known for killing dogs, who've eaten their orange berries and been poisoned by the nuts within. The nuts within are also toxic to humans. Historical records of early Māoridom recount children being buried up to their necks in sand to stop violent convulsions from karaka poisoning.
But when soaked and boiled, karaka nuts are rendered harmless – knowledge that has been largely forgotten. Cox passes around a bowl of the waxy kernels for us to try - they look like peanuts, though black. They don't really taste like anything.
One of the island's rangers, Evan Ward, is known for grinding the nuts and making crackers, which we crunch with cheese and taupata relish. Later, we tuck into jack mackerel hot smoked with kōpī wood, which McLeod and Cox were given by friends on the Chatham Islands.
This year, they travelled with Ward to Rēkohu, to share the technique that makes kōpī safe to eat, helping repair the link that has somehow been broken.
The people on Rēkohu have a massive love for their kōpī, Cox says.
"They don't want to be afraid of their most favourite plant in the world."
HAKARI MENU: A CULINARY TRIBUTE TO MATIU/SOMES
Pāua and chive potstickers with dipping sauce, made from kaimoana from Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour).
Tītī (muttonbird), slow roasted with watercress salsa verde from Cox's homegrown patch, kao (hāngi-cooked, sundried kumara), toroī (watercress and mussel salad), and kamokamo. The muttonbirds were a koha from Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene, who had attended the recent opening of the island's waharoa.
Horopito blackened fish with rosti made from peruperu, a Māori variety of potato grown in the DOC garden on the island, and a red apple slaw; dressed with Te Whanganui-a-Tara kina remoulade and horopito hot sauce, with New Zealand spinach growing on the banks of Matiu/Somes.
Ika mata, made with fresh trevally "cooked" in lime juice then mixed with fresh, home-extracted coconut milk.
Ngākihi (limpets) and pickled Neptune's Necklace, both found on the shores of Matiu/Somes, with karengo (sea lettuce) and fresh taupata berries.
Kōpī smoked jack mackerel with fresh parāoa (ideally rēwena) and butter. The wood was a koha from McLeod and Cox's friends on Rēkohu (the Chatham Islands).
Kawakawa steamed green lip mussels, plentiful at the island's waterline.
Karaka/kōpī crackers with cheese, taupata relish, and sundried taupata raisins.
Caramelised banana split with vanilla icecream, hazelnuts and taupata berry syrup.
Taupata sour, made with lime juice, egg white and taupata grappa instead of the cocktail's traditional whisky or rum.
- Sunday Magazine