Friday, February 15, 2008


February 12

The early part of a press trip can be sketchy, because you have no idea who these people you’re traveling with are. Have you been trapped with lunatics? With angry curmudgeons? Were your organizers incompetent, setting you up in accommodations with plumbing problems in mosquito-infested swamps? You don’t know.
On a trip with just two guests, well, it could be bad.
But it became clear pretty early on that this trip would be a good one.
Bill King comes across at first as a quiet man. Not quite gruff, but no chatterbox. Once he decides he’s interested in something, however, he becomes completely engaged and is open about his opinion while still being kind.
As a chef, he’s in the hospitality business and from that comes a fundamental warmth, which is desirable in anyone you’re likely to spend time with. On top of that, we seemed to be looking for similar things on the trip: Information about the food and wine of New Zealand without much fuss.
This all became clear pretty early on, as we drove from Nelson to the little town of Havelock in Marlborough (it turns out there also is a Havelock in Hawke’s Bay, on the North Island; obviously that’s a different one).
The few thousand people who live in Havelock are at the center of New Zealand’s green-lip mussel industry. From here boats ply the Marlborough sounds, tending to the farms of mollusks suspended from ropes below the surface of the water.
We met Sam Hobson, John Grant and Sigrun Steinhagen of Aotearoa Seafoods, a company owned by 3,500 families from four different Maori tribes. They have many business interestes, including wine and tourism as well as mussel growing and processing.
Nicola, Bill, Kevin and I boarded a little boat with Sam, John, Sigrun and a pilot whose name I think was Graham, or possibly Graeme. Nice guy.
There we learned about green-shell mussels, as New Zealanders call them, as well as how Australians claim things that are really Kiwi, including Russell Crowe, the Split Enz and their successor band, Crowded House.
I amused my hosts by disparaging Australians generally and decrying their shabby character as we visited the mussel farms.
In truth, I like Australians, and most of the ones I have met are of very fine character. But playing on people’s irrational prejudices is a sure way into their good graces. I think they knew I was kidding.
You should have heard what I told them about Aucklanders. Pompous lummoxes, one and all (I was joking then, too).
The mussel farms are networks of ropes suspended from posts below the water. The mollusks attach to the ropes as tiny little guys the size of a grain of sand. At first they are put along with seaweed into a mesh sock that is stretched around the ropes. As they get bigger, they are shaken lose, put into new socks and put on new ropes. They spread out and grow, and eventually the mesh socks rot away, giving them more room to continue spreading out and growing.
We happened upon one of Aotearoa’s harvesting vessels and were invited onboard — we were traveling with the crew’s bosses, after all — and wandered around, asking questions, to the polite amusement of the crew. I wondered a little about what they were smiling at.
“Blue collar snobbery,” Bill explained later: They found it funny that we hadn’t worked an honest day in our lives.
Kevin took this picture of me on the harvesting vessel.

We returned to our own little boat and had lunch. We started with a few raw mussels, which John pulled out of the water and pried open.
Green-shell mussels are bigger than mollusks that we’re accustomed to eating raw. I enjoyed them anyway.
Bill told Sam and John that they probably would sell the mussels better in the United States if they harvested them at smaller sizes.
Green-shell mussels traditionally have been low-budget items in the U.S., sold at Chinese buffets and the like, but Sam, John, and presumably anyone else exporting their mussels, are aiming for a higher priced market.
This is a common theme that will come up frequently as I recount my journey.
But for now, I’ll end this entry with a picture of Sam (on the left) and John.

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