Monday, 20 February 2012

The Whisper of the Wild

Melbourne has a lot going for it. The city - and anyone wanting to damn it with faint praise - seems ever ready to remind us it's one of the world's most liveable cities. I have friends who love its bustle, who get a buzz from its urban whirl, who crave the retail gratification and constant entertainment it offers.

But by the time we fly out of Melbourne on our latest trip to New Zealand, I realise I have a different opinion. After just a few days there I am glad to leave behind the rush, the noise, the sheer sensual overload of this city, liveable or not.

While I tell myself I'm ready to slow down, part of me is curious as to the deeper reasons for my urban aversion. What is so good about "slow", and why am I so much more attracted to the whisper of the wild than the shout of the city?

I don't have to wait long to start finding some answers, even if they come from an unexpected quarter. On our second night in New Zealand we dine at the Loan and Merc restaurant in Oamaru. The emphasis is on food that is both local and slow-cooked. Despite its busyness, and the undoubted hard work put in behind the scenes, it is a delightfully relaxed and literally fulfilling dining experience.




The food we are served is a reminder of our proper connection with the natural world. Instead of arriving anonymously on our plates, freighted in from who-knows-where, food in the slow and local food movements has a known and nearby origin.

There are reminders everywhere in the menu that this food connects the diner with the earth - and sea - from which it came. It is no faux connection, no equivalent of wilderness posters in windowless urban offices. For instance as the chef carves the pork for us, he quietly tells us that he knew - and butchered - the pig which we are about to eat. He has an unsentimental pride in the process, something our taste buds would say is justified. On the same premises other local produce is smoked or pickled or preserved.

There are other surprising signs of the natural world leaking in. Beneath the floor of the old warehouse that houses the restaurant, some little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) have taken up residence. Oamaru is a coastal town, and these penguins are one of its proudest tourist attractions. They happen to be the same penguins we know from our local Tasmanian coast, and when I go to the toilet in the back room, I recognize the whiff of penguin guano. It contrasts with the rich smells of roasted meats and brewed ales back in the dining room, yet somehow seems perfectly apt.

After our sublime eating experience, we waddle penguin-like towards the water front to get some air, and to allow the rich meal to settle. Only metres from the restaurant we find people gathering along the shore to wait for those same penguins to come ashore.




As the light slowly fades to grey, we can just make out a handful of penguins swimming ashore. They bob like logs in the waves until their feet touch sand. Once upright they are suddenly clumsy, struggling up the slope like underpowered wind-up toys. Some are tumbled over again by the wash, but eventually they all make it to their destination.




The adult birds have been at sea all day, eating local - if not slow-cooked - produce. They will disgorge much of it into the mouths of chicks waiting in the burrows beneath our feet. There is even a link between their menu and ours. For them whitebait is part of a seafood smorgasbord; for us the tiny local fish is a seasonal delicacy flavouring Loan and Merc's featured omelette.

In places like this it's easier to remember that we, like every living thing, urban or wild, are intimately involved in the food chain.
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