Mahinga Kai in Moeraki

Fleur in her restaurant.

Fleur Sullivan

After a few years of amateur foraging, I was giddy to meet Fleur Sullivan of Fleurs Place, a Moeraki restaurant I’d imagined many times in my head.

Interview by: Olivia Sisson
Photo by: Nancy Zhou

Fleurs Place has come up again and again as I’ve researched and flirted with the world of New Zealand foraging. In the same way that motorists might speed past this seaside town without realising what it offers, many of the ingredients Fleur uses are easy to miss but hold flavours and stories of this place – Moeraki. Mahinga kai, the gathering of food from local resources, is what Fleurs Place is all about.

Dip your toes into the world of gathering and you’ll soon find yourself down the rabbit hole. These days I see edible plants and fungi everywhere. I’ve nearly been run over by the Christchurch Tram as I’ve zigged and zagged through the city looking for puha, porcini, chickweed, clover, dandelion and dock. When I visited Moeraki in November, the road that winds away from Highway 1, through the harbour and ends at Fleurs Place was brimming with wild passionfruit, nasturtiums, gorse and other edible colours. Even at 60 kmph, I can’t miss the wispy, green fronds of wild fennel.

While Fleurs is perched precariously close to the Moeraki headwaters, it’s got just enough land around it to support a little ecosystem of its own. The building itself is fringed with wild parsley, miner’s lettuce, calendula and, my favourite, fennel. The rocky embankment below, as Fleur showed me, is home to bull kelp, native ice plant and even a bit of aloe vera. Foraged gems plus locally grown fruit and veg support kai moana which is at the heart of this spot’s seasonal menu. Fleur has a deep appreciation for the ingredients found around her kitchen and she gave us a quick look into her Place and her world….

Working with what’s already here is a big part of what you do, what are some of your favourite foraged finds?

You can find wild passionfruit in our village at the moment, did you see it on the way in? It’s beautiful - looks like an elongated tamarillo. The ripe ones are yellow and gold like Christmas lights hanging down. There’s some interesting fungi around here to get, too. Big white puffballs, the kind our parents always told us were poison. They’re only poison if they’ve started to go to seed and turn orange and brown. There used to be wild potatoes growing over the fence and lots of wild parsley that I’d pinch in the night around here, too. But a lot of gardens have been put in and the wild stuff has been mashed down a bit. I see the cherries and the flowering azaleas that are being planted instead and I just want to go and pull them out.

How would you go about preparing a puffball?

You can slice it up and cook it in sesame seed oil. Or do a big wedge - I’ve even smoked them before. I remember finding big huge ones as a kid in the paddock, solid things without any wrinkles. They’d go ‘boing boing boing’ when you pressed them. If you haven’t got a lot of time to deal with them, just smoke them. You can make a little smoker in a tin tray with wood chips and a rack. Just put the whole thing in the oven. Or you can dry them in the sun and use them later. Slippery Jacks are the easiest ones to find here. I like to dry and powder them for soups.

What about kai moana and working with seafood drew you in?

I didn’t actually want to make a restaurant when I moved to Moeraki, I came here to be a hunter gatherer by the sea. I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t been invited out on a fishing boat and seen the beautiful fish bodies being filleted at sea. I saw the rest being thrown overboard, tossed back into the food chain for other fish to eat. There’s enough for the fish, the chef, the humans. You can keep the blue cod frames, heads and wings for stock and once the fish is gutted the fillets come right off. You can use the liver and the roe too, it’s really fun. With time I even learned to smoke fish heads.  Mahinga kai means the gathering of food from local resources. It means ‘the food of the place’ and is a big part of Ngai Tahu tradition. Just as eel and watercress coexist in life, their flavours match and enhance each other, for example. In the end it’s actually easier to make a restaurant this way.

Do you have any advice for new chefs and foragers?

When you get new chefs they sometimes bring you a bunch of parsley – or what they think is parsley. This happened once and my granddaughter who was seven at the time happened to be around. I said to her “Tell Andrew what he’s got” and she goes “You’ve got deadly poison Andrew, that’s hemlock.” It is a worry to me with young chefs. You’ve got to be cautious when you get old that you don’t become a proper pain in the backside but really you can’t just pick anything up and eat it. But then at the same time picking up random twigs and sticks and hiding a pâté in there or something isn’t foraging, that’s being a sculptor. You can’t master foraging in two weeks, just start learning slowly and go from there.

Do you have a favourite dish you’ve made?

One year when I lived in Clyde the hills were alive with Slippery Jack mushrooms. I would get the wheelbarrow, fill it up and take them home. I made a soup with leftover haggis and mushrooms and that was so good. I have this ambition to get everyone who is struggling to feed their families a big pot, a sieve, a grater and a wooden spoon and to teach them how to make beautiful, nourishing soups and boil ups. I think people can become more resourceful by getting outside and getting back to basics. It’s not that easy, no, but that feeling of being resourceful, being able to make food with what’s around you is so strong. With COVID I just want more people to know this feeling, to dig up some dirt - to start planting things.