Meet the Taranaki recyclers living off the land

David Marshall talks about growing produce and his sustainable approach to both food and architecture.

This story was originally published by Food To Love and is republished with permission.

Farmer, fisherman, singer, builder and businessman, David Marshall has worn many different hats over the years – but one he continually wears is 'grower'. As an early adopter of organic gardening in the eighties, David has always produced homegrown seasonal produce for his family; while catching fish and collecting seafood is an integral part of his hunter-gatherer approach to food. His foraging skills are also evident in the sustainable materials he gathered to create the Ahu Ahu Beach Villas, the hospitality business he built and now runs along with his wife, Nuala.

We asked David to share his food philosophy, his top tips for growing produce and why he chose old materials when building a new business.

Ahu Ahu Beach Villas in Taranaki.
Ahu Ahu Beach Villas in Taranaki.

Has the Taranaki environment influenced your family's lifestyle and the way you eat?

Absolutely, the rich volcanic loam topsoil, subtropical climate and sheltered aspect of our property make it comparatively easy to grow our own fruit and vegetables. Fruit trees we have growing include lemons, mandarins, oranges, feijoas, tamarillos, peaches, plums, avocados and macadamias. In the evenings after work, we look to the garden for our meal and enjoy whatever vegetables are in season. The ocean is like our supermarket and provides us with fish, crayfish and paua, plus on our farmland we fatten a few lambs for our table.

I really enjoy seeing my children and grandchildren embrace the hunter-gatherer philosophy. I dove for paua with my daughter Jess this week, fished with my grandson Kian, and recently my son Seth went into the hills with friends and bought back wild goat. He and Indian friend Antony cooked a traditional goat curry for Seth's twenty-fifth birthday gathering. As they say 'the crowd went wild' – so tasty it was, that it all disappeared before the cooks got to it!

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When did you start growing your own food?

My dad always had a good vegetable garden, so I imagine I imbibed some understanding of growing as a child. My first serious experience of gardening was in my late teen hippie years; we lived in a ten dollar a-week farmhouse, close to a crystal clear mountain river and numerous surf breaks. I worked one day a week at Port Taranaki, and we grew our own food (amongst other things). In 1979 I moved to Ahu Ahu Rd and started the Down To Earth wholefoods shop with friends and began growing organic produce for the business - which I suppose was ahead of its time in the early 1980s. Since selling the shop in 1988, we have continued to grow our food organically.

What are your top tips for starting a veggie garden?

* Good soil is a must. I add organic manure to my soil that is easy to access. I've used compost, blood and bone, sheep pellets, horse manure, organic rock phosphate, chicken manure – how much and 'what' depends upon the fertility levels of the soil you are starting with.

* Local knowledge is the key and networking with green-fingered folk in your area will help give you an understanding of what to grow and when. The pleasure gained when eating vine-ripened tomatoes is one of life's joys; growing your own food is good for both body and soul and the rewards far outway the efforts that go into producing them. Failure is also part of the garden; the seasons and weather patterns play their part. Trial and error is a great teacher, plus there are numerous resources to tap into such as books, the internet and fellow gardeners.

* Mulching around plants is great for retaining moisture and suppressing weeds especially in the summertime, we use a lot of seaweed as it washes up on our beach. Look local, and you can often get mulch for free, i.e. straw from horse stables, sawdust from cowsheds, or hit up the local arborist mulching trees down your street. I even heard coffee-grounds work well as a mulch.

Are there any chefs, cooks or guests at the Villas who have inspired your food journey?

Our life is rich with friends and cuisine, and it's in sharing food that you glean ideas. My fishing buddy Dave and his wife Dot are very creative cooks, my hippie friend Sandi makes nature's ingredients taste superb, my Japanese-Californian buddy Joe Kai Sloggy and wife Britney are inspiring with their ability to forage creatively and combine flavours that 'wow'. Henrik, a chef from Sweden, came up with sweet chilli, dill and juniper berry marinade that makes the pickled pork we cook in our gourmet hangi taste exceptional. I've also shared a couple of meals with Annabel Langbein, and a picnic out with her and husband Ted is just like it is in the books or magazines. She has wonderful, seasonal, uncomplicated and tasty recipes that we regularly use.

Do you have any go-to fish recipes?

Battering fresh fish to make an iconic Kiwi experience is always popular and oh-so-easy!


* Quantities depend on how much fish you are cooking

* Pour water in a bowl (I use approx 2 cups when making the batter for 8 people)

* Throw in plain white flour and whisk

* Add more flour or water until the batter is a smooth consistency that is not too runny but not thick

* Whisk in ¾ - 1 tsp baking soda

* Heat enough canola or rice bran oil to immerse fish in either a saucepan or a deep fryer.

* Heat oil until a drop of batter sinks then immediately floats to the surface sizzling

* Dust the fish with flour, and coat with the batter using tongs

* Then lay the fillet into the hot oil, cook in batches, so they don't stick together

* Deep fry until golden brown, then drain and keep hot in the oven if cooking multiple batches.

* Sprinkle with salt before serving and accompany with your favourite dipping sauce such as sweet chilli or aioli or classic tomato sauce.

Why did you choose to build your accommodation business from recycled, sustainable materials?

We wanted to create the timeless, rustic feel of old European buildings and the best way to do this was with aged materials. We took an unconventional approach when creating the villas: first gather materials, then design. By upcycling pieces from old buildings and sites around New Zealand, a sort of reincarnation occurred; old and soon-to-be cast-off building materials took on a new form in a new place. Recycled Australian hardwood wharf piles, one-hundred-year-old Marseille French clay roof tiles, and old hospital doors and windows have been repurposed to create a unique aesthetic. My greatest compliment while building was when someone walking along the beach looked up and asked a friend of mine 'how long has that guy been renovating those old cottages'.

I was not a builder when planning the villas, and thought it would be a cheaper build using recycled materials. The materials may have been cheaper; however there is a lot more work involved in marrying all the elements together harmoniously. We have no regrets though, as building in a sustainable manner was one of our goals, and the ambience created has been worth all the effort. We have also used many of the leftover materials from the villas to create our much-loved family summer campsite, which includes a renovated KP Goods Wagon, a cookhouse/dining area and a couple of classic retro caravans.

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