My lunch just winked at me.

November 30, 2008

Viking Woman and I have come to the Black Barn Vineyard’s Growers’ Market seeking a New Zealand icon which may only exist in our imagination.

We have now attended a number of these local markets and have yet to stumble across what we would consider a typical Kiwi farmer. Which, to our mind, would be a bloke kitted out in a floppy hat, wearing a stained singlet, stubbies and Wellies, four days’ worth of whiskery steel wool on his ruddy cheeks and fresh dirt under his fingernails.

The carrots and broccoli and cukes and potatoes in the cardboard boxes nestled in the bed of his battered ute would have been plucked from the earth that very morning, when dawn was but a faint smear on the horizon and the birds were still clearing their throats.

That’s who we’re looking for. But he’s not here. Not at Black Barn, just outside Havelock North, about a 25-minute drive from our home in Napier.

Instead, we find ourselves in the midst of a small grove, with booths and displays arranged in a circle around a portable espresso machine and a comely lass serving up gelato. The entire place is wired for power and the adjacent washrooms have flush toilets.

While we don’t see anyone matching our fantasy of a real farmer, there are glass jars of jams and jellies for sale, artisan breads, gourmet cheeses, and offerings of lavender products and smoked mushrooms and Malaysian fare. One fellow is selling kitchen knives so finely worked you could shave a peach with them. Oh, and there are also avocados and limes, boysenberries and cherries and raspberries and apricots.

But everything looks so scrubbed, a little too perfect, as if it has just come off the shelves at a supermarket instead of an orchard or farm. Like flush toilets in the middle of a paddock, it feels a bit on the contrived side. A bit too convenient, as if no one wants the moneyed residents of Havelock North to peer behind the muddy curtain of tilling and planting and irrigation and fertilizing. No one here is getting their hands dirty.

Maybe our vision of a farmers’ market no longer exists. We certainly didn’t find it in Vallejo, when we lived in Northern California. At that downtown market, Viking Woman eyed the knock-off purses while I stationed myself in front of the batch popper, watching in hungry fascination as individual kernels sacrificed themselves so that I might enjoy a plastic bag of warm kettle corn. And, no, not a single real farmer in sight.

This isn’t meant to denigrate the Black Barn market. We always enjoy exploring various aspects of our new home and the setting — ordered rows of grape vines tucked into a hollow of the Tukituki Valley, seemingly a mere stone’s throw from Havelock North’s city limits — is delightful.

We marvel at the lemons and compare them to the ones growing in our front yard. We buy a bag of apricots, our mouths already watering at the thought of adding them to our fruit salad.

We also learn about gooseberries, how some sort of calamity once had them on New Zealand’s endangered list, along with kiwis, green sea turtles and my hairline. But, I’m pleased to report, the fruit is making a comeback and, while not recommended to be consumed in its raw state, makes for an excellent jam or jelly.

We employ an upturned oak cask as a makeshift table for our coffees while we sit and revel in another glorious Southern Hemisphere summer morning. We are soon joined by a rotund dog, obviously the market’s designated barkuum, who roams the area in search of pats on the head or, better yet, any dropped offerings.

And we inch closer to becoming true Kiwis by indulging in what is considered one of the nation’s culinary traditions — a whitebait fritter.

Let me start by saying whitebait is the juvenile of a fish called the inanga. I have no idea what the adult version looks like, but if I tell you the fry appears to be an icky, transparent worm, would you be lining up to try one with us? Didn’t think so. I did mention the little black eyes, right?

Because Viking Woman is gluten-intolerant, we don’t have our shared fritter on a bun. Too bad — that might have helped in the taste department. As it is, the creation served up to us on a napkin is simply whitebait fried in an egg mixture and sprinkled with lemon juice and salt. Which means, to my undiscerning palate, it tastes like a salty omelette.

Viking Woman, however, licks her fingers and says she’d eat one again. She won’t have to worry about sharing.

One of the fellows operating the espresso coffee machine picks up on our Canadian accents and chats with us later. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he has visited Canada, primarily the ski fields of Whistler, Banff and Lake Louise. He enjoyed his time in the Great White North but was surprised, while visiting Vermillion, Alberta, to find that residents need to plug their cars in during the winter. I’m surprised to hear anyone bothers to stop in Vermillion.

We tell him about breaking our whitebait maiden, how we are slowly working our way through the staples of the Kiwi diet. And that’s how the talk turns to Marmite.

Kiwis, like their British descendants, eat Marmite like we more civilized folk eat peanut butter. With one big difference — you can’t pave roads with peanut butter.

I worked for the Ministry of Highways for 10 years and I swear Marmite is simply the British term for asphalt. It even looks like asphalt.

Undeterred by my blunt opinion of his favorite snack, our new best friend describes how best to serve up Marmite: daub butter on a slice of white bread, apply a thin layer of Marmite and then sprinkle on chopped onions.

Just the thought of that staring back at me from a plate makes me want to gaaaaaa . . .

Oh, hang on, I think I just threw up in my mouth. Hmmm, tastes just like whitebait. Only better.

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