When toheroa soup went global


When the King of England wrote ‘Very good!’ alongside “Toheroa Soup” on its menu, it sparked a mining frenzy that nearly led to the precious shellfish going extinct. In this excerpt from Robert Vennell’s book Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures, toheroa’s story is served.

Toheroa were once our most famous shellfish, eaten in the dining halls of Sydney and London, and described as “a gift of nature…which has done much to make the Dominion known to the world”. Present in huge beds several kilometers long, so dense that they could be harvested by horse and plow, the toheroa were considered an inexhaustible resource. But today their populations are so threatened that they are the only shellfish it is illegal to take or disturb without a permit.

For Maori, toheroa have always been very important. To make the most of the enormous abundance of food they provided, communities would set up temporary camps near the coast to collect and store toheroa for future use. The shells were dug up by hand and placed in woven kete which allowed sand and water to drain away. Once picked, toheroa could be opened and eaten raw on the beach, cooked in a hāngī, or preserved by stringing them with linen cords and leaving them to dry in the sun.

Even a single toheroa is a rich and nutritious meal, and a ration of one toheroa a day was given to taua (war parties) on the march. The desirable beds of toheroa were themselves at times a cause of war, and there are accounts of battles fought on the great beds of the west coast of the North Island.

Those who had access to toheroa beds were in possession of a valuable resource. Dried toheroa were useful items for trade and were considered a prestigious food item to be served to guests when they were welcomed on the marae. Indeed, the toheroa were so valued that the Maori actively transferred them across the country to introduce them to new areas and increase the population. Oral traditions tell of toheroa being stored in kelp bags filled with seawater to keep them alive on long journeys. This may help explain why toheroa have such an unusual distribution: mostly along the west coast of the North Island, but with an isolated population deep in the South Island.

As such an important seashell, the toheroa is said to have very prestigious origins. They They are believed to have originated in the spiritual homeland of Hawaii and were “planted” on the west coast of Northland. Another northern tradition helps explain the biology of the toheroa by describing its special relationship to the pīngao, a golden sand sedge. Pīngao was originally a seaweed, but was placed in the dunes by Tangaroa – atua of the sea – to tend toheroa.

It is believed that at spring tide, the tiny juvenile toheroa (spat) are carried in the foam of the waves and deposited in the pīngao leaves on the sand dunes. Here they are fed and grow strong until they are ready to survive in the sand.

Then they hitch a ride on the seed heads of spinifex grass – the tumbleweed-like plants that blow across sandy beaches – and are dropped onto the beach. When a toheroa expert felt this process was happening, children weren’t allowed to play waiwatai, a game in which they chased seed heads that tumbled around the beach, in case they bothered. the toheroa during this vulnerable time.

Bombing of toheroa on the beach (Picture: Supplied)

Pākehā liked to eat toheroa from the earliest days of colonization. The shells were left in a bucket of water to entice them to spit out the sand and then baked, fried, steamed, minced or made into fritters and served with bread. For purists, however, there was only one way to eat them: toheroa soup.

At first glance, toheroa soup seems like an unlikely food phenomenon, because when the shellfish are boiled, an unusual, khaki-green broth results, colored by all the phytoplankton they eat. But this green soup was greatly admired. It had a delicate flavor that was easy on the stomach but nourishing and invigorating at the same time.

In the 1920s, toheroa soup went global. During a royal tour of New Zealand, Prince Edward (later King Edward VIII) was served the soup at a banquet and liked the taste so much he highlighted it on the menu and scribbled in the margin “Very good!” The incident was widely reported in the newspapers, spurring huge demand across the British Commonwealth, as people sought to try the dish ‘fit for a king’. Toheroa soup was soon on the menu of eateries and eateries in New Zealand, Australia and Britain. It became a staple of upmarket restaurants as well as high street milk bars, and the hot toheroa soup was a favorite during the cold English winter.

In response to demand, the canning industry in toheroa grew considerably and large numbers of shellfish were canned whole or chopped and sent overseas. At the height of the toheroa’s popularity, Australian fisheries managers investigated how to introduce the shellfish to Australia, and folktales arose about a wealthy American businessman who tried to buy New Zealand only to take possession of the toheroa soup supply. Collecting toheroa became something of a national pastime and became so prominent in the public consciousness that children sang toheroa in school and canned toheroa were sent to New Zealand troops. fighting in World War II in Egypt and the Pacific.

Muriwai Beach, 1962 (Photo: Supplied)

But even as early as the 1920s, there were fears that toheroa would decline so rapidly they could disappear if nothing was done to protect them. In the 1950s and 1960s, as more New Zealanders had access to cars, it became popular to drive to the beach to collect toheroa. In 1966, at Glinks Gully on Ripirō Beach in Northland, around 50,000 people showed up and raised over a million toheroa in one weekend.

Over time, the huge beds began to shrink, and fewer and fewer toheroa were found each year. By the late 1960s, toheroa canning factories had closed and strict restrictions were introduced, with harvesting only allowed on occasional open days. These days could be wild and frantic affairs, as thousands descended on the coast at once to pick up toheroa. Cars sometimes collide on the beaches and conflicts break out between pickers.

Some people were so caught up in the excitement that they didn’t really know what to do with the shells they caught, and surplus toheroa could sometimes be found at the local dump afterwards.

The last open day was in 1993, and since then the toheroa have been completely protected, with only small numbers allowed to be taken for the usual Maori harvest. Today, toheroa poachers face fines of up to $20,000, but they often go to great lengths to steal the shells. Some have been caught stashing toheroa in purses, jacket pockets and spare tires; pretend to play golf near the beach and dig them with clubs; or have their children build sand castles on the beds so they can be picked up in secret.

Even after 40 years of restrictions, toheroa numbers have not recovered. They remain threatened by various sources, such as disease, runoff, pollution, and driving on beaches. However, there is some hope for the future, as a female toheroa can release 15-20 million eggs in a single spawning event. If some of the threats to heroa could be managed, then their populations have the potential to rebound.

Work has been carried out to investigate the restoration of toheroa beds, with kaitiaki Māori experimenting with traditional methods of toheroa translocation using bags of bull kelp to help build populations. In one example, a group of kaitiaki took 30,000 toheroa from Ripirō Beach and moved them to Te Oneone Rangatira Beach near Muriwai. They successfully established themselves there, creating a model for the future restoration of other toheroa beds.

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins NZ, $55) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.


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