Magazine article The Spectator

Grubs Treat

Magazine article The Spectator

Grubs Treat

Article excerpt

THE petrol-pump attendant fixed me with an intense yet somehow vacant stare, and shuffled across the deserted forecourt. `Aha! You must be here for the Wildfoods Festival,' he said. I had no idea what he was talking about but I've seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I wasn't taking any chances. `Yes, of course - and some petrol, thanks.' I smiled nervously and, prising the change from his hand, hopped back into the safety of the car.

By the time we got to Greymouth, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, it had become more than unnerving how many people had repeated the wildfood thing. Plus, for the first time, my friend Annabel and I were experiencing problems trying to find a room for the night, and it was getting dark. `Maybe we'll find something in the town centre,' I muttered, looking up and down the empty road. Annabel studied the map. `This is the town centre,' she said. We had obviously missed the alien invasion; everyone had already been snatched.

It turned out that they were actually all in their beds, because the only two empty ones left in town were in a pub dormitory: a sort of youth hostel with booze. Downstairs in the bar we met a chippy called Pete. He gripped a stool to stop himself falling over, and told us that on no account should we miss the Wildfoods Festival. It wasn't just the food, he said, with a knowing but somewhat ill-focused look. Strewth, no! He lost his grip on the stool for a moment, but managed not to spill his beer. It wasn't just the food; there was going to be a barn dance as well! And that was going to be followed by a rave on the beach! Annabel and I looked at each other. This seemed too good to be true: we'd been told to expect two things in New Zealand, both fuelled by drinking - lots of throwing up and lots of fighting. We hadn't seen either yet. `Thousands of people will be there,' said Pete. `And the Beach Boys are playing. You can't miss that, eh?' Too right. We set our alarm early to beat the crowds.

The Wildfoods Festival in Hokitika is the Kiwi version of a huge village fete, except that it's all about gourmet bushtucker rather than homemade cakes and marmalade. It started on a small scale in 1990 and is now the biggest event on the South Island, with the local population of 4,000 swelling to 20,000, and people from all over the world attending - this year it was even rumoured that a television crew from England was coming.

We left Greymouth early the next morning for the 25-mile drive to Hokitika. By the time we arrived at 9 a.m., the place was crammed with camper vans and cars, and tents had been erected on every spare patch of ground. We parked and headed for a cashpoint machine. The long queue was lined with empty beer bottles. `You girls have got to try the mountain oysters,' said someone, trying to suppress a smile. But we had already been warned about those particular delicacies by a kindly barmaid. `We're not too keen on that testicle-- dipping sauce that they come with,' I said, before everybody fell about laughing.

The main site of the festival turned out to be a mini-Glastonbury, except that it was sunny and no one offered us drugs. Masses of people milled around the stalls outside and under marquees, beneath brightly illustrated banners advertising things like 'Westcargots' - a speciality, apparently, composed of indigenous snails in white wine, collected from local gardens by Girl Guides. We began gently, with emu souvlaki and plum sauce, followed by ostrich kebabs - not particularly adventurous, but certainly delicious. …

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