David Riddell whips up a special lunch which is utterly delicious and rather unusual. Muttonbird is on the menu.
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.
A thing or two
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.
Watercress and puha
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.
*Our muttonbirds were bought from Stirling Quality Meats in Ngaruawahia.
- Oh, we got a lot more recipes on this site. Click here for slow-cooked wild rabbit. Utterly wonderful.