On an overcast spring morning outside Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island, Charles Royal is digging for huhu grubs in a rotten stump – and I’m feeling a little ambivalent about his finding them. Charles hopes to discover a little cluster that he can scoop out and fry up. And what do they taste like? Peanuts, he says, with a broad smile.
Charles and his wife Tania have taken me deep into the fern-filled forest on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. As we tromp through mud searching for native plants and ingredients, they point out mushrooms gathered on felled trees, as delighted as if they’re seeing them for the first time. Charles pulls down a vine he identifies as pikopiko (edible fern fronds, or bush asparagus) and snaps off a piece for me to try. It has the mild taste and texture of a freshly picked green bean. We take a few more steps and he hands me a kawakawa leaf plucked from a small tree. On my tongue I feel menthol freshness, then the peppery bite of strong olive oil as it hits the back of my throat. “Good in ice cream,” says Charles. And I can taste it – creamy and sweet with a deep earthy flavour that hearkens back to the side of the small mountain we’re on.