Heading west on Friday afternoon, we drive into a brilliant lilac sunset. My “fork buddy” Aimee is at the wheel and our spirits are high. We’ve been looking forward to this for months. We are going to Hiakai and hiakai means hungry in Māori. However, the weather soon sours. By the time we arrive at Vineyard Cottages in the heart of Kumeu, it is dusk and both sky and earth are wet. Typical Auckland. A couple of fire pits and glowing tents are beacons in the dark, confirming our destination. One bell tent with a warming wood stove burner is to be our dining room and the other canvas tent to serve as the camp kitchen and kitchen pass.
I first cottoned on to chef Monique Fiso on the recommendation of fellow blogger Bri DiMattina. @momofiso’s brand of honest, humble humour track her explorations and experiments into a new standard of fiercely Māori cuisine. Having spent 7 years working in some of New York’s best kitchens, Wellington-born, Māori-Samoan chef Fiso returned to New Zealand in 2016 with the concept of Hiakai brewing. Since then I’ve been stalking Fiso’s social media like a hungry badger. Gracious enough to accept my friend request on Facebook, she once told me SHE had been creeping on ME on social media. Say what?
Last July we were lucky enough to nab tickets to her first (sold out) Auckland Hiakai event at Merediths and we also caught her Chef’s Secrets cooking demo at Taste of Auckland in November. When the latest Auckland Hiakai pop up came on sale a few months ago, we checked the dates and snaffled up tickets. One tent seating just 10 people per night. All 5 sessions sold out within a day.
Between innovating beautiful dishes, foraging land and sea, gathering rocks, wood and flax, weaving, and championing the hāngi pit, Monique Fiso is a do-it-all wonder woman. Casually dressed in a jeans-plaid-gumboot combo and crowned in a glowing head lamp, Fiso fits perfectly in her element. Blending the use of traditional Māori cooking techniques with Michelin kitchen learned knowledge, the feast was heavily dependent on seasonal and foraged foods. “Off the rack” portable 10-seater dining tables just don’t exist and Monique designed the round table we feast upon. It breaks down into pieces for easy transport to various events around the country. A hole in the middle for a tent pole and adjustable legs to allow for uneven ground – these are details one must consider when embarking where no chef has gone before.
Tonight’s 8 course tasting menu with Tohu and Kumeu River matched wines is enjoyed over an intimate candlelit dinner. Intimate dinners with strangers could be weird but we seriously had THE BEST group. It turns out to be a very small world and the ambience was magic. If we weren’t old friends already, it sure feels like it by the end. The shared journey delights as the evening unfolds. There’s food, there’s wine, there’s light and there’s laughter. Fiso and her team are warm, informative and answered our many questions with good humour.
We began with gin cocktails and carefully make our way through the soggy fallen leaves to the bell tent. I instantly regret wearing heels although there were no casualties. Luckily there isn’t too much wandering around. We settle in for our first few dishes…
Flame cooked Rewana bread with rich tītī butter was flavoursome with a wonderful char and chew.
Fresh oyster with karamu berry mignonette foam and pickled karamu berries was briny and refreshing. These berries have edible seeds but Fiso plucks them out with tweezers because they are nicer without and that’s just how she rolls.
12-hour Tītī confit, Moe Moe (purple potato) cracker with sweet and sour persimmon was one of my favourites, unlike anything I had eaten before. We were glad we had our phone torches to shine upon this. The brilliant lilac-hued cracker was muted in the candle light but turned electric under lights.
NZ green-lipped mussel with kina (sea urchin) butter. Can you believe this brought on food envy? Apparently my mussel had more kina butter on it than my friend’s mussel. No, I would not swap. Ha!
Charred kumara with goat cheese. The ash on this dish was unusual. Interesting to try something that embraced ash as a dominant flavour. The goats cheese was creamy and rich.
After our first 5 dishes, we are summoned outside to witness the unearthing of the hāngi. When she says the hāngi is traditional, she means it. There are no shortcuts here. Fiso has gone the long way ’round.
The rain barely registers. As we watch her work, we are treated with a cup of soup like none we’ve ever tasted before: Māori dashi broth of smoked eel, mushroom, karengo (seaweed) and puha. A pure hit of umami. Standing in the wet cold dark with hot soup in hand. A moment to cherish. A reminder that while we were tucked away warm and dry for most of the evening, Fiso was out in the night labouring over our smokey fiery feast. Full appreciation.
Back in the luxury of our tent, we unpacked our next course. Hāngi chicken thigh, rewena and chicken fat stuffing, rongā herbs, urenika potatoes and carrot served in flax baskets. The baskets were woven by Fiso with foraged flax and I was surprised to learn that each species of flax has it’s own merits. The baskets were lined with rangiora leaves and we were advised only to eat as far as the lower leaves. Anything below were aromatics. This was comfort food at its best. The chicken thigh was perfectly cooked. Pre-brined and smokey. I could eat my weight in stuffing.
Palate cleanser: Kawakawa sorbet, feijoa foam, candied kawakawa and lime meringue crumb. A beautiful dish. Refreshing and seasonal.
Hokey Pokey whoopie pie, horopito salted caramel, harakeke chocolate truffle, toasted tamarillo marshmallow. This was playful take on petit fours though I imagine it could be made even more fun had we toasted our own marshmallows in the fire pit. The salted caramel was totally my jams. I wish I could have bought a bag to take home.
Hāngi steamed pudding with pear and kaanga wai (fermented corn) custard. Another interactive dish, unwrap your pudding and pour over the custard. Fiso came and explained kaanga wai to us while dishing out extra custard to anyone who wanted more. Perhaps a combination of greed and enthusiasm, we all wanted more. Pretty soon, she was out of custard.
Four hours to completion and it still felt like it ended too soon. The magic of the event lingers days later and perhaps for ever. One of the best meals of my life. I loved every single morsel but if I had to pick out a few favourites, they would be the rewana bread with tītī butter, the mussel with kina butter, the tītī confit, the hāngi chicken and the horopito salted caramel. Is that too many to pick out? The palate cleanser was also wonderful and really stood out amongst the smokey rich flavours.
It’s been a long while since I tasted something new. I eat new combinations of familiar foods all the time, but new foods are rare these days. Until Friday, I had never tried tītī (muttonbird) before. Named for their similarity to mutton, muttonbird are a seabird from the deep south, seldom seen outside of traditional Māori cooking. Harvested for a short season (April to May) the rest of the year they are available whole, preserved in salt by the bucket for those in the know. Now I can regard tītī butter and confit tītī as right up there with any other beloved fatty meats. I’ll have to get my hands on some tītī soon and I’m already dreaming of rendering that fat for tītī fat roast potatoes.
If you would to be kept in the loop for future events, make sure you follow her Instagram and Facebook accounts.
For more information visit www.hiakai.co.nz
For another account and more photos of this event, check out Bri DiMattina’s review here.
Fiso is a busy lady and her story and vision is still unfolding. Coming up in September are a couple of dinners in New York, where she earned her stripes. Hiakai’s next pop up is in October at Greywacke in Marlborough. As my buddy Aimee puts it, “Greywacke wines are LUSH”. The Marlborough location is inaccessible by car and diners must be transported to dinner via 4×4. No doubt the unique landscape will provide various challenges and triumphs. The most remote location yet and already sold out.
I can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.