I eyed the eclair my wife was offering me with suspicion. It looked innocent enough, the flaky pastry layered with rich chocolate and oozing decadent cream filling. But the setting made me skeptical: She’d purchased it from a stand where vendors dressed as milkmaids stood beneath a sign depicting a garishly grinning cartoon cow shooting milk from its teats. No, I was not eager to learn what colostrum is.
The eclair was one of the last dishes we tried at the Wildfoods Festival, an annual gathering of culinary aficionados in Hokitika, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. We’d already sampled shark, kangaroo, alligator, crayfish and whitebait, a particularly disgusting little baitfish that passes for a delicacy in New Zealand. My wife had choked down a chocolate-covered beetle, and she said that the colostrum — the first milk a cow gives after giving birth to a calf — was incredibly rich.
Wildfoods is just one in the seemingly endless parade of festivals, celebrations and anniversaries that draw visitors to small towns around New Zealand during a season that lasts from spring to late fall. During a three-month adventure that took us through the country last year, my wife and I found ourselves at several such events, all of which told us something about the region where we were staying at the moment.
In Hokitika, a small tourist enclave anchored in the off-season by New Zealand’s greenstone industry, 13,000 people snacked on strange morsels. Many were dressed in costume; we saw satyrs, Bigfoot, a few St. Pauli girls and several Catholic cardinals (Pope Francis would be elected a few days later). Most were fortified by Speight’s, Monteith’s or Tui, the national beers, or by a local wine.
A few weeks later, we spent several days just outside the Marlborough region, best known for sauvignon blanc, which makes up about four-fifths of New Zealand’s annual wine harvest. We were in Havelock, which sits at the base of the spidery waterways that lead into the Cook Strait, which divides the North and South islands. Every day, small fishing boats leave Havelock to ply the Mahau, Pelorus and Kenepuru sounds for green-lipped mussels, which are endemic to the region.
Our host at a small bed-and-breakfast pointed us to the Havelock Mussel Festival, which draws shellfish fans to the self-proclaimed green-lipped mussel capital of the world. We watched teams of local chefs speed-shuck hundreds of mussels (one chef had been certified the world’s fastest shucker by the Guinness Book of World Records). While my wife went to get her own order of the local delicacy, flash-steamed in a boiling cauldron fueled by an antique train engine, I watched a crowded competition of enthusiastic eaters prepare to wolf down a dozen mussels and half a pint of beer. The introduction took four minutes. The winner, a tall man with a South African flag on his hat, cleaned his plate and emptied his stein in seven seconds.
Another month passed as we slowly made our way north, across the Cook Strait to the North Island, through Wellington and Martinborough and Hawke’s Bay. (In Napier, a city leveled by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the Art Deco style, the local festival attracts tens of thousands dressed in period costumes from the era.) With barely a fortnight left in New Zealand, we stopped in Hamilton, the country’s fourth-largest city, an hour or so south of Auckland.
In the 19th century, the Waikato region was the site of the largest battles between British soldiers and Maori rebels. Today, the skies above Hamilton are dotted with hot air balloons of all shapes and colors as part of a five-day festival.
The punctuation came on a Saturday night, as the setting sun turned the few lazy white clouds a stunning combination of pink and purple. We made our way to the campus of Waikato University and shared a bottle of wine alongside thousands of picnickers as a dozen balloons, inflated on the campus soccer pitch, lit up to the strains of pop music and golden oldies.
Seemingly everywhere we went in New Zealand, we either had just missed or would leave just before the local festival. On Waiheke Island, a subtropical outpost just half an hour by ferry from Auckland, visitors could drop in at annual celebrations of the local olives or of the deep red wines that grow well in its orthic soils. In Central Otago, the world’s southernmost wine growing region, connoisseurs can sample dozens of pinot noirs at festivals in Clyde or Cromwell or the Gibbston Valley. The month-long Christchurch Arts Festival showcases theater, dance and music in a city still recovering from a devastating 2011 earthquake; a major section of downtown, dubbed the Red Zone, was still blocked off due to structural damage during our visit. In Paihia, one of the country’s oldest European settlements, every Feb. 6 brings Waitangi Day, a celebration of the treaty whites signed with Maori chieftains back in 1840, marking the founding of modern New Zealand.
New Zealand is one of the most isolated places on Earth, which means that it must import much of its food and durable goods from overseas. That fact must also inspire in Kiwis an instinctual pride in the goods they produce on their own land. The resulting festival culture means that the entire country spends most of its year in happy celebration.
Wilson is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of the morning political tipsheet Read In.