Kiwi Hangi: Melbourne Food Festival 2013.
As part of the Earth themed Masterclass at Melbourne’s Ceres Community Park, Kiwi Ben Shewry of Attica fame demonstrated the laying of a hangi, which was one of the reasons that Brunyfire was willing to pay a hefty entry ticket. As already outlined in the previous post, it was Ed Kenney’s Hawaiian imu that made the most practical sense, and, in my view, completely overshadowed Shewry’s hangi demo.
Despite this, it was enlightening to see Shewry in action – here is a young chef who has made his name foraging and experimenting with seasonal produce and is proud of his New Zealand farm upbringing – as he outlines in his monumental book Origin. Shewry draws inspiration for his dishes from his surroundings, memories and life experiences and works closely with artisan producers.
Brunyfire was initially disappointed when Shewry politely refused her request to be able to witness the actual laying of the hangi – the know how would have been really useful – but then it later transpired that the preparation of this large scale version (required to feed about 150 or so guests) had to be started in the early hours of the morning.Shewry introduced his session by briefly outlining his boyhood upbringing on the family farm, where he laid his first hangi, aged 10. Nothing fancy, just potatoes that were thoroughly underdone, such was his impatience to unearth and devour them. But this one incident had an enduring effect on his current menu – ‘Potato cooked in the earth it was grown in’ – is a homage to this memory and is thus reflective of time, and place.
Shewry then went on with a rather rambling tale about the slaughter of a flock of geese on his uncle’s farm that affected him deeply as a youngster, but it’s a story many of us have heard before………Shewry’s pit, 3 1/2 metres long x 1 1/2 metres wide x 700 mm deep had been dug and his hangi laid and lit in the early hours of the morning. Consequently, there was some pretty tired helpers……..Shewry had had a smaller pit (about a metre square and 600 mm deep) dug in addition to the one he’d prepared to feed the multitudes. Like the imu, the hangi is first laid with kindling and then branches are laid lattice style across the open pit. The rocks are piled on top of the lattice with more wood and the rocks are placed on top of this. The whole thing is then set alight at each corner. Once again, the type of timber for fuel and the rocks used for heating, are important…………..unlike Kenney, Shewry had no idea what type of rocks he was using, and interestingly, some of the rocks (seen in the foreground of the above image) exploded in the fire, splintering nastily. By the time the fire has burned through the wood and the branch lattice, the white hot rocks then fall to the bottom of the pit, (after 4-6 hours). While the rocks are heating, the food is prepared – salted Virginia spuds, kumara (sweet potato), peeled onions, carrots, whole beetroots and Berkshire free range pork, were all wrapped in calico and tied up into individual bags.
A layer of saltbush was then laid on top of the hot rocks……………..and then wet sacking on top of this – to create the steam…….…….which took me right back to Te Puia in Rotorua, New Zealand (a Brunyfire family road trip last year)……..………a fantastic Māori cultural centre set amongst constant thermal activity – steaming vents, boiling mud pools and spectacular geysers. The Māori traditions of food, song, dance, wood carving and weaving are all kept alive for locals and tourists.
Shewry’s offsider demonstrated the laying of the calico wrapped food onto the wet sacks atop the hot rocks……..………which in turn were covered in more wet sacks, and covered with dirt – presided over by a couple of beer swilling celebs – Matt Preston and Matt Wilkinson.Meanwhile, back at the main hangi, Shewry and volunteers had begun to carefully uncover the main event.First, scraping back the dirt to reveal the first layer of sacking and lifting it up carefully, so as not to get dirt into the wrapped bags of food.Shewry starts to remove the bagged food…….………all of which looks pretty unappetising!
To be fair though, the pork was fall apart tender even if we had to wait several more hours before getting our serve, but despite this, the vegetables weren’t inspiring tasting more of wet sacking than anything. Watching how everyone mucked in, knowing how much fun it would have been to have seen the sky high flames during the early morning firing as Shewry described and preparing copious amounts of food whilst consuming copious amounts of alcohol, is an event meant for the gathering of the clans – to celebrate family and friends.
In the final analysis, laying and firing a hangi is more about the process than the product.