Muttonbird on the menu

Sep 9th, 2018 | By | Category: Country Cooking

David Riddell whips up a special lunch

I’ve often seen sooty shearwaters at sea, and occasionally on their breeding grounds, but until now I’d never eaten one. When on the table they’re better known as muttonbirds; I spotted some in the window of a Ngaruawahia butcher’s shop the other day and thought I’d give one a try.

Sooty shearwaters (titi) are New Zealand’s most abundant seabird. There are probably more than 20 million of them out there, and they breed the length of the country, mainly on islands where rats and other predators can’t get at them, but also at a few mainland sites. The biggest numbers are down south, and Rakiura (Stewart Island) Maori have traditional rights to harvest them from the so-called titi islands.

Sooty sheawater

Sooty shearwater Photo: David Riddell

 

It’s the plump chicks that are taken – these are plucked, cleaned and packed in salt before being distributed around the country. On islands off the east coast of the North Island another species, the grey-faced petrel, also supports a small muttonbird harvest, but as far as I can make out few of these find their way to public sale.

When preparing muttonbirds, the first thing to deal with is all that salt they were packed in.  Give them a rinse and put them in a large pot of boiling water (four litres is about right for one or two birds) and simmer gently for an hour; some recipes advise adding a few bay leaves.  When the hour is up, replace the water (the first batch will look very oily – muttonbirds are fatty as well as salty) and simmer for another hour. They have a strong smell while cooking, so keep a window open, run your extractor fan on high, or (what I did) cook them on a portable gas ring in the garage.

 

boiling

 

Next remove the muttonbirds, tip out about three-quarters of the water, and top up with enough fresh water to boil the vegetables that will accompany the birds. I went for small, unpeeled potatoes, but kumara is also commonly used, together with handfuls of watercress and puha (sow thistle). Watercress has a strong, peppery flavour, and puha is quite bitter, but these traditional Maori greens complement the meaty, salty flavour of the muttonbirds really well.

When collecting them (occasionally food markets have them for sale, but foraging is fun and a lot cheaper!), pick fresh, new leaves, which have a milder flavour. Cooking also helps to mellow them out – give them and the potatoes about 15 minutes. You’ll need generous handfuls of the greens as they reduce down a lot with cooking.

While the veges are boiling, grill the muttonbirds for a few minutes to crisp up the skin and get a bit more fat out of them, then drain the veges and lay them on a plate. The muttonbird meat should be falling off the bones; arrange the pieces, along with the skin, over the veges. The end result is something quite unique: the name muttonbird is supposed to be due to their muttony flavour, but to me they tasted more like corned beef, partly due to the remaining salt, although the texture is rather like well-cooked lamb.

Whatever, they don’t taste like any bird I ever ate, although the skin is like duck. The uncooked birds had a fishy aroma, but not much of this survived the cooking process.  One bird would probably serve two people.

 

Muttonbird

*Our muttonbirds were bought from Stirling Quality Meats in Ngaruawahia.

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4 Comments to “Muttonbird on the menu”

  1. Judy says:

    That is interesting Annette. Tempted to give it a go new experience eating mutton bird. Have plenty of watercress at the moment. I can buy them in Ngaruawahia? Anywhere else?

    • N8N says:

      Hi Judy, you see them from time to time in fish shops, but the supply seems to be fairly irregular. Somewhere like the Seafood Bazaar on Mahana Rd, Te Rapa, might be worth trying if Stirlings in Ngaruawahia have run out.

  2. Don says:

    Hi Annette and David,
    Hope this finds both well.
    From what I’ve been reading it sounds like everyone down there is enthusiastic about spring arriving. Give us a thought up here with autumn, such a colourful time of year (Porana Park) and then with winter creeping up behind it.
    You just hope you don’t get a lot of snow. Just have to wait and see.
    I’ve been waiting all week for this newsletter to see if the final 2 birds were found to make the list up 50. Forty eight is an impressive number and when you read the list you get a surprise as how you take their presence for granted. Good to see Californian quail on the list.
    How about the seagulls – Red or Black billed? And have you ever had White cockatoo from over the west coast in the Gordonton area. I remember back in the ’80s, we were living at Horotiu at the time, hearing this racket and seeing these white birds flying from the Te Kowhai direction. It was the White cockatoos out for a day trip inland. First time I’d ever seen them in the wild. That’s my contribution for what it’s worth.
    Just the sound of the name and knowing they were fatty never really enticed me to consider trying muttonbird. Mind you, I do love lamb and mutton.
    How did the trip down country to see the Nankeen herons go? Hope you saw some and had a good time.
    Hope all is well in Gordonton. Thanks for the map in the last newsletter. It’s quite handy.
    Take care’
    Don

    • N8N says:

      Don, you’re a genius! That’s jogged our memories, just gone back and checked some old records and yes, back in May 1992 there were several cockatoos reported to the Ornithological Society, in Horsham Downs, feeding on walnuts. So along with the cattle egrets that we’d originally forgotten about (another old record – there used to be a winter flock at Rototuna that’s been pushed out by urban development) that brings us to 50! Will go and update the story. Anyone know if cockatoos are still seen around Horsham Downs? There used to be reasonable numbers west of Hamilton, and there are still a few scattered through the hill country between Port Waikato and Waitetuna, but they’re a lot less common than they were.
      The smaller gulls are surprisingly rare around these parts. Looking at the records at ebird.org, red-bills have been seen at Huntly, and black-bills at Ohaupo, so they’re certainly possible. Californian quail are a lot rarer than they were, but we had one on our lawn not long ago. And the nankeen night heron was very successful – we saw at least six, possibly up to nine, even managed to get some reasonable photos!

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