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Barry and the Eastbourne muttonbirds

Wellington.Scoop
By Mary McCallum


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Eastbourne butcher Barry Spooner and one of the muttonbirds (Photo: Mary McCallum)

It’s June, so it must be muttonbird season in Eastbourne. That’s the time when local butcher Barry Spooner buys the fresh seabirds from the deepest south and sells them to the locals – many of whom are pakeha and mostly, until recently, either ignorant or unappreciative of the joys of titi.

Eastbourne Fire chief Ross Carroll got Eastbourne Village Meats started on the annual muttonbird order about seven years ago after his previous supplier – an uncle in Bluff – passed away.

Barry says the supplier he uses is a ‘friend of a friend’ with a quota for one of the Muttonbird Islands in the deep south. He explains he prefers to keep the name quiet to protect his supply. ‘I ring him up before he heads down to the island. A month later he emerges smelly and hairy, and couriers the muttonbirds to me.’

Muttonbirds are young sooty shearwaters pulled from their burrows while the adults are on the ocean looking for food. This year Barry’s ordered three barrels’ worth – each one holding around 25 birds.

Ross the Fire Chief has already bought two barrels which he’ll work through over the next couple of months, and the rest have been individually vacuum-packed and will sell for $15-$17 each. Nearby Waiwhetu Marae takes whatever’s left.

‘The Maori people are really onto it,’ says Barry. ‘They’re advanced compared to us in recognising a huge delicacy. Muttonbird has unique and intense flavours.’ He says the taste isn’t so much mutton as anchovy, and the smell is linseed.

He opens up a barrel so I can smell one. The bird has been flattened and plucked but not salted or preserved in fat as they are traditionally.
‘You just need to bring them to the boil to reduce the natural fat and the salt, and cook them for 15 minutes,’ says Barry. ‘Then put them under the grill until the skin is crispy and the flesh is falling off their bones.’ His eyes get a faraway look.

It was that look which made me buy a muttonbird from Barry for the first time four years ago. Not only had I never tasted them, I had no idea what they were. I became so fascinated by the fish-flavoured birds and the rich culture surrounding them that I went on to include a whole chapter based around muttonbirding in my whaling novel The Blue.

‘People in Eastbourne are quite courageous about trying new things,’ says Barry. The Top Shop Butcher for 2004 is known for having an adventurous range to suit a demanding public. His pork is from ‘happy pigs’, and he has free-range chickens and wild venison. He’s passionate about seasonal food, which is why he likes having the muttonbirds.

‘The global way of living means you’ve got strawberries now in the middle of the winter,’ says Barry. ‘What’s wrong with being made to wait? I know a lady here who has Brussels Sprout parties in autumn. That’s the way to do it.’

While I’m talking to Barry, Ross Carroll comes in to the shop. He tells me his mother was brought up on muttonbirds and oysters, and had to continue the tradition when she moved north. ‘My uncle used to work on Bluff wharf and he sent them up every year. We went to the terminal in Taranaki Street to collect them.’

Ross says he boils the muttonbirds and then grills them until the skin is crunchy. He and his friend Mike eat them with bread and butter. And Brussels sprouts? ‘Nope, just bread and butter.’

Barry nods vigorously and gets that far-away look again.

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Mary McCallum is the author of The Blue – a novel set on Arapawa Island in Tory Channel, 1938. It won the Best First Book of Fiction and Readers Choice Award at the Montana NZ Book Awards 2008.

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1 comment:

  1. Phil Wollerman, 22. July 2009, 15:06

    What a pleasure to see Barry – our fantastic local butcher – featured here on Scoop! I buy almost daily from Barry and have never been disappointed with any of the purchases I have made.

    Barry and his team have turned an average kiwi butcher’s shop into a work of art, fully deserving of their Best Retail award, and My family and I are really appreciative of the high quality and diverse range they provide.

    Eastbourne is a special place, and specialty stores are helping underline the distinct flavour of the district. I should also mention the fabulous gelato and equally superb coffee from the new store next door the the butcher.

    Well done Barry!