John Beasley, a photographer and videographer who’s lived here for a decade and has taken pictures all round the island, admits to being “blown away” by the places the group visited and the information they received.
The first stop was at the plantation of James Heather in Arorangi. James has a background of working with corporate vegetable growers in Hawke Bay in New Zealand, He decided to come home, bringing his science based knowledge with him. He grows a full range of fruit and vegetables like capsicums, eggplant, bananas and so on. He refuses to use weedkillers and uses a lot of old fashioned but tried and proven methods of looking after the land, like rotating his crops in different plots and resting the soil from time to time. He says he’s noticed the effects of climate change and has had to adjust old planting practices to meet new circumstances.
The visiting chefs, and everyone else for that matter, really sat up and paid attention when Grifford Robati opened up a container of processed vanilla at his vanilla plantation in Arorangi. The fragrance wafting out could be enjoyed from several metres away.
Grifford explained his ongoing efforts to keep ants and insects away from his hand-pollinated plants. The chefs and some of the visitors had their first taste of dragon fruit there too.
At the next stop at the Oasis hydroponics garden in Tupapa, the proprietors passed on the encouraging news that they had noticed a much higher uptake of greens in recent times. Not just from the resorts and commercial clients, but from “ordinary” people. The entourage was given a rundown on how the hydroponics system works and also its vulnerability if the water supply is disrupted.
But the highlight of the morning was the visit to the utu and taro plantations in the upper Takuvaine valley.
John Beasley who used a drone to take the beautiful picture supporting this story, described the upper valley and the terraces as a “Garden of Eden”.
It is said a picture is equivalent to a thousand words and the image speaks to us about the ancient ancestors who put in place these gardens and terraces to ensure a secure staple food supply for the people who lived here those many years ago. As tempting and as attractive as the picture it might be, it needs to be remembered that this is private land and visits can only be made by invitation of the landowners.
Wednesday’s visits were dubbed “Te Ki O Te Whenua”, when the bounty of the land was on display. Thursday’s label was ‘Te Ki O Te Moana’, a chance to catch and see fish caught. But while the mighty Pacific ocean north of the island was calm and flat, the fish were not so cooperative: an optimistic crew ventured forth on the fishing vessel Akura with hope in their hearts, but when they returned two and a half hours later, alas they were empty-handed.
All was not lost though, because once they were ashore they were treated to an informative presentation from Rarotonga born and bred marine biologist Dr Teina Rongo, about former sustainable fishing methods previously practiced in the Cook Islands. He explained why the percentage of fish in Cook Islanders’ diets dropped so dramatically and switched to cheap imported processed meats like chicken.
It was all triggered by a surge in ciguatera fish poisoning in the 1980s, caused by a naturally produced toxin in a plant that grows on coral reefs and which enjoys a growth spurt after cyclones destroy other plants and give it room to expand.
The plant is eaten by vegeterian fish which in turn are eaten by bigger carnivorous fish and bigger and bigger fish up the food chain, with the toxin becoming more concentrated and potent on the way up.
The fear of getting the debilitating fish poison caused people to move away from consumption of fish particularly lagoon and reef fish. And while fish numbers are down, Dr Rongo says this is not caused by over-fishing, but rather by climate change and the damage done to coral reefs by bleaching.
Today the ongoing search for a Cook Islands cuisine strategy moves to Coastal Kitchen in Tupapa for three panel discussions starting at 10am.
The first panel will explore the quest for food security in these islands looking at supply and demand.
Panel 2 at 11.30am will discuss healthy foods. Panel three the place of food in culture and the culture of food followed by questions.
Tomorrow the visiting and local chefs will move to the Punanga Nui market where they’ll see the range of goods for sale and have a shared lunch with Professor Jon Jonassen.
On Sunday they will attend church in the morning and in the afternoon prepare for the Cook Islands cuisine strategy launch on Monday night at Te Vara Nui.
- Derek Fox