The West Coast’s annual Hokitika Wild Food Festival is not necessarily for the faint-hearted. And huhu grubs were just for starters!
In an attempt to celebrate my other half’s birthday away from the shake, rattle and roll of Christchurch, we decided to head over to the West Coast for the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival. The festival, which has been running for 22 years, is held every March in the little town of Hokitika, just 45 minutes from Greymouth.
I had never been to the Festival before but I had heard a mixed bag of reviews. Having a fondness for the West Coast and having travelled over there numerous times in the last 4 years, I soon learnt that the Coasters aren’t real fans of the Festival at all. A lot of Coasters I know in fact will head as far away from the crowds that descend on Hokitika as fast as they possibly can for the weekend. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but these tend to be people who own businesses such as gift shops, B&B’s and hostels. On the flip side, you have the die-hard Festival goers who have been numerous times and wouldn’t ever think about missing it. So, I was definitely curious to see what the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival had in store for us.
It was a gray afternoon in Christchurch when we headed out on our road trip to the West Coast. A few stops on the way for petrol and pies soon found us in Arthur’s Pass for a toilet stop. To say it was cold was an understatement. It was cold enough to freeze the balls off the proverbial brass monkey, which was not helped by the toilets at the railway station being made of metal. Having successfully turned my bottom blue, I suggested we head for the nearest café to get some warming refreshments of some kind. Five minutes later, hot chocolates in hand, we continued on our way.
I have been over to the West Coast about fifteen times now since returning to NZ four years ago, and I never tire of travelling the road to the Coast through Arthur’s Pass. The scenery is just breathtaking, no matter what the weather. Despite what people say, in my total of 8 weeks on the Coast, I have only had bad weather and the ‘West Coast rain’ for about 5 days in total. The rest of my time spent there has been in either glorious sunshine or slightly overcast days.
On this trip however, the further along the road to Hokitika we travelled, the worse the wind and rain got, and the less I liked the idea of sleeping in a tent for the weekend when we got there. Although I love festivals, I’m not a camping girl – I just don’t do it if I don’t have to. The idea of waking up in a teeny tiny tent that has become your own personal oven with the sunrise, or has become your ark in the middle of a puddle of mud, is not appealing in the slightest. If I have agreed to sleep in a tent, it’s for a very good reason – and usually because the weather forecast looks ok. The closer we got to Hokitika this time, the more my heart sank at the idea of a wet and cold night in the ‘ark’.
It was late when we finally arrived. We were staying with friends of friends we were travelling with, who conveniently had a house opposite the entrance to the festival. My spirits were significantly lifted when they told us that as it had been too wet to put up the tents, our house for the weekend would be an old, but water tight and warm caravan in the back garden. It was one of those caravans my Grandparents had, which strangely enough, despite my desire for home comforts, I love. The fact that you sleep in a bed that isn’t long enough or is too narrow to turn over without falling out, does not bother me in the slightest, and actually adds to the fun of the trip.
That first night was wild, with the wind howling and rain pounding on our little caravan. Inside, we were warm and toasty and slept through the noise of the storm outside. In the morning, it was like a different world when we got up. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. After having a hearty, line-the-stomach breakfast and getting dressed, we all moved out onto the front lawn of the house to watch the action start across the road at the Festival.
People came early, and most of them were dressed in costumes of all kinds. The costume theme I discovered was ‘Where The Wild Things Are’, but not many seemed to pay any attention to the theme at all. There were super heroes, police officers looking at lot less covered than the ‘official’ ones on the street, Barbie and Ken, cowboys and even a group dressed as M&M’s and Skittles. I hadn’t brought a costume so felt a little under dressed in comparison.
Although I had heard the stories, it did soon become apparent that the aim of the day was to get suitably drunk before gaining enough courage to eat as many weird and wild things as you could.
After watching the crowds for a while, we decided the time had come to venture in and try the gastronomical delights. You hear all sorts of stories about the “interesting” and just downright strange things you can eat: from huhu grubs and scorpions, to mountain oysters and stallion shots. I had already set a rule of ‘I’ll try anything unless it comes from something’s nether region’!
Although during my travels around the world I have eaten some pretty strange things, I must admit I was a little nervous when queued up to enter the Festival. Once inside, there was a sea of tents and people and I bit the bullet and headed straight for my first taste: smoked huhu grubs.
They honestly were not as bad as I predicted, and yes, they do kind of taste like peanut butter. They are a little crunchy but I didn’t think about it too much and just chewed away. I did follow the huhu with a drink of honey mead, which was a bit too sweet and sickly for my liking. It was astounding the amount of things that were available to sample and it certainly was wild food at its best.
Next up for me was the sea cucumber: actually quite tasty although a bit salty, and the sea kina: squishy in texture but still not bad. The next stall served snails. There was the option of garlic snails, snails in jelly or snails on toast. We tried all 3 and I wasn’t fazed at all as have had snails in France several times. I love snails in garlic so was keen to try the others. They were mostly ok although the jelly in the jelly shots gave them a strange texture, which was not pleasant. For those of you who haven’t tried snails, you should. They aren’t at all slimy like you would think- more like a mussel or scallop texture, and although have a unique taste, they are very similar to meat.
We then went for an easy round of crocodile and kangaroo at the Aussie stall, both of which I have eaten before and are just like eating a bit of steak. After our entrée of wild food, we decided to have a break and stop for a pint of Monteith’s cider and some wild strawberries and ice cream to cleanse the pallet.
After a few ciders the Dutch courage was flowing so we decided to step it up a notch. I wanted to try scorpions so we went on a search for those but came across the mountain oysters aka sheep testicles on the way! Although I had said I would not to try anything that came from a nether region, the buzz from eating so many things already, and possibly the cider I was still drinking, had me thinking that perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad. I decided to ask one of the guys eating the mountain oyster what he thought of it before making my decision. He said it was ok and then to my dismay, dropped one of them in my glass. I didn’t know whether to scoop it out and chuck it or to give it a go. In the end I thought why not, and took a bite. Never, ever, ever will I ever eat mountain oyster again. They are revolting! I’m not sure if it was the idea of it that repulsed me or the actual taste (I can’t even describe what it tasted like other than to say it was not good!) or the texture (strangely solid but chewy as hell) but whatever it was, it became the one and only thing I spat out that day! My other half Rory was not too impressed by it either and we swiftly made our way to another stall to try and drown out the taste of sheep testicles in our mouths.
It was then that I discovered the scorpions. God knows why I was so keen on having one. They were not that nice – very crunchy and no matter how many times you swallowed, you were still left with bits in your mouth. I’m guessing the shot that came with it, which I skulled first, was supposed to follow the scorpion and rinse the mouth out. One big thing to remember is that before you eat the scorpion, you have to pull off the stinger. I got the lady on the stand to do this though as I wasn’t too sure about my ability to do anything properly by this point.
By then, a few hours had passed and we decided that we’d had enough of the weird and wild, and would head back to our caravan. It was then that I realized we had not taken any photographs of us eating strange things, and therefore who would believe us? I then made the rather bizarre decision to repeat everything we had eaten for the sake of photography.
In between doing the rounds again, we also added some colostrum desserts and chilli-chocolate brownies to the mix too. Colostrum, for those of you wondering, is also present in breast milk! I am hoping that as they were wearing cow outfits, it was cow breast milk and not something else, but I chose not to ask and just went with it. We bravely tried the colostrum cheesecake and also the pikelet and piggy pile – pikelets containing colostrum with bacon and banana on top. Both were actually delicious and I would definitely recommend trying them – that is if you don’t think too much about where the colostrum has come from!
Despite getting rather adventurous by the end of the afternoon, I was not brave enough to try any of the shooters – stallion (horse) sperm or colostrum shooters. From watching other people drink them, I know that they would have sent me to the point of no return and it would have been early to bed for me with a sore tummy, rather than enjoying the after Festival BBQ back at the house.
My favourite part of the day was heading to the beach after our BBQ. There were hundreds of bonfires on the beach and people everywhere chatting, playing guitars and singing. It was really misty when we got to the beach and it gave it a magical glow like something out of a fairy tale, and I wished I’d brought my proper camera rather than just my iPhone. It was an awesome sight looking down the beach and seeing bonfires as far as the eye could see, and even though I was absolutely shattered after a few hours, I was sad to leave the beach and head back to our caravan.
All in all, the Festival was a lot of fun. It wasn’t as crowded as I’ve heard it can be, and I think this may have been due to the fact that it wasn’t long after the Christchurch earthquake. It was still busy enough to have a great atmosphere though, especially with the live music and dancing. Definitely for me, it was a welcome break away from the shaking and a great day to let my hair down and relax, whilst sampling a lot of mostly tasty wild foods.
The next Festival will be on Saturday the 12th March 2012. For more information see www.wildfoods.co.nz
from NZ Today Magazine June/July 2011 – Issue 40