Whitebait fritter is a classic NZ dish. In the season – or all year round if you catch enough and freeze them – whitebait is mixed with egg and fried up like a fishy omelette. Done well, it’s delicious. Done badly, well, it’s a bit of a pointless slaughter of many little fishies. And added to a pizza, well that’s a whole different story, and one we encountered this evening.
This morning, we left Mount Cook/Aoraki and headed for the South Island’s wild and woolly West Coast. Although Mount Cook is only about 50km from the coast as the crow flies, by combustion engine it’s more like 500km plus.
Cars can’t really manage the bloody great glaciated mountain range, you see. You have to drive all the way out from Mount Cook Village’s dead end highway, then east, then northeast towards Christchurch, then finally northwest and west over Arthur’s Pass, an impressive route that saddles at 920m. Alternatively, we’d have had to backtrack to Wanaka in the south, then loop up north over the Haast Pass. Either way is a mission. But Fran was determined to go to Hokitika – she’s reading Eleanor Catton’s award-winning, 832 page novel The Luminaries, which is set in this West Coast town in its 1860s gold-rush days.
It was a great journey though. We left our hostel, visited one last, epic glacier (Tasman), then drove out along the massive glaciated valley, past bright blue lakes, hydro projects, and onto the Canterbury Plains, along very English, or even French, avenues of poplars, oaks and willows. Through alpine tussock grasslands, past the incredible rock formations of Flock Hill and Kura Tawhiti, aptly named Castle Hill in English, past various ski areas, and then we got back to some areas that hadn’t been deforested for sheep stations.
Arthur’s Pass, and the descent toward the West Coast is precipitous in places, an amazing route, surrounded by peaks and native forest, frequently by keas (NZ’s unique alpine parrot) but not always entirely fun when the inevitable speeding local in a 4WD tries to chase you at 100kmh around every sharp bend marked with a 45kmh sign.
En route, we stopped at Geraldine, famed for a Bayeux Tapestry replica made with sewing machine needles (or somesuch). We didn’t check it out, concerned about our timing, but did eat a few idiosyncratic Kiwi snacks like a pinwheel, a savoury bun stuffed with cream cheese and red pepper, and citrus slice, a kinda of granola bar whose health benefits were undone by a thick layer of lemony icing. We also bought a few beers from the nearby Valley Brewing Co, a double hopped Pale Ale and Muster Red Ale (“Local barley and Nelson hops”), which we’re enjoying now.
The culinary highlight of the day, and indeed of the last week, however, was the abovementioned whitebait pizza. Rome’s renowned pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci has opened my eyes to new levels of pizza inventiveness (with seasonal delights like Brussels’ sprouts and mortadella) but even he didn’t prepare me for this.
The venue was Hokitika’s Fat Pipi Pizza, and this is their signature dish. The full 26 inch version supposedly includes a quarter pound (114g) of whitebait. I had the slightly more modest 20 inch, which still featured a serious amount of whitebait fritter, combined with mozzarella, capers and parsley, and served with lemon wedges. It was delicious. The capers and lemon cut through any fattiness from the cheese and egg, while the fish offered some slightly salty protein, care of the Hokitika River.
Tomorrow we plan to visit some of the remarkable old gold workings in the Hokitika Gorge, but in the meantime, we’re enjoying sitting in a hotel room, digesting pizza and feeling vaguely threatened by the sea. The room was going cheap, as recent storms have been trying to scour away the beach, and by extension the town, and apparently we’ll be woken by diggers working at low tide tomorrow morning trying to shore the place up. No matter, it’s still a delight to be listening to the waves a mere 20m away, and watching a line of sunset brightness slicing through the grey cloud.
Whitebait is a big deal in Hoki. The town’s history museum dedicates about a third of its space to whitebait, including a lot of blurb from Booker-winning author Keri Hulme (The Bone People), who says “she’s not particularly serious about anything except whitebaiting.”
Oh, and months later, after Fran had finally had a chance to look at her pics, I found this. I don’t look quite convinced at this point: