One of the delights for a kiwi naturalist visiting the French subantarctic is enjoying French cuisine. Each of the five cabanes (field huts) we stayed in had been provisioned in advance by helicopter or boat, and on our arrival we would find a cluster of brown or blue plastic barrels (‘touques’) filled with fascinating ingredients that you rarely find in New Zealand pantries, let alone remote huts. I had never before cooked with marrons (chestnuts), huile de noix (walnut oil) or cèpes (a type of wild mushroom), and rarely with canard (duck), all of which were among the tins and bottles inside the touques. The French also have a much greater variety of tinned meals and vegetables than you find in New Zealand (e.g. cassoulet, pommes de terre au gratin/tartiflette, ratatouille, flageolets verte, foie gras), and I never once saw a tin of baked beans or spaghetti pre-cooked in tomato sauce.
For each field trip we had only to take a selection of fresh food from the Port aux Français kitchen, e.g. fromage, baguettes, ham, eggs (removed from their shells and stored in a jar), fresh or frozen meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables. The food lists were kindly arranged in advance by the IPEV volunteer on each team in discussion with the chefs, and so the contents of the fresh food cartons were as much a surprise to me as opening a touque.
The supply of vegetables we took in the field was more limited than I am used to – just onions, garlic, potatoes and carrots, and once some capsicums that were past their best. The absence of fresh greens was compensated for by foraging for wild dandelions, which are among the most widespread introduced plants on Kerguelen (along with the grass Poa annua). The most common dandelion there is the broad-leaved Taraxacum officinale, but the one we searched for was the more palatable narrow-leaved T. erythrospermum, which was a passable lettuce substitute when drizzled with Dijon vinaigrette. This was easily found (in the absence of rabbits) on Ile Mayes and Ile aux Cochons, where we ate dandelion salad on nine of twelve nights in the field. But it was more challenging at Cap Cotter, where our only salad was on Christmas day when we found enough narrow-leaved dandelion growing on the top of sheer-sided (hence rabbit-free) Mont Campbell.
We got our own back on one rabbit at Cap Cotter, served braised in red wine, onions and cèpes after Charly snared it at a burrow entrance. Charly was also the only one of us who had come prepared to catch trout, carrying a rod and spinners on the long walk back from Cap Cotter. We landed three small sea-run brown trout at the outlet to Lac Marville (and lost two much larger fish). The ones we caught were served marinated in olive oil and cider vinegar.
But it was on the islands that we had most success at living off the land and sea. In addition to the easily-found dandelions, there were scattered beds of mussels accessible at low tide. They were also present at Cap Cotter, but the perpetually stormy seas on this exposed coast kept them from our plates. The most common (and largest) species was a ribbed mussel (Aulacomya sp. – similar to a New Zealand species), but growing among them were enough of a more palatable introduced blue mussel species (Mytilus sp.) for a feed or three. My companions had only prepared them one way before – steamed open in white wine and water. I was pleased to be able to return the favour of broadening their culinary horizons by preparing them four other ways.
The mussels we gathered were smaller and more delicate than New Zealand green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus), and were difficult to remove from the shell in one piece when opened fresh. But this saved the effort of chopping them up when preparing a chowder/bouillabaisse or fritters. I lightly steamed open a few of the larger animals, then marinated them in cider vinegar. But the largest were opened carefully, lightly coated in flour and quickly pan-fried. This is a recipe from the Whittle/Miskelly turangawaewae of Papa-Aroha (Coromandel), taught by my Uncle Tom standing in front of a barbeque hot plate with a pair of tongs, a sack of mussels on one side and a plate of flour on the other. My French companions agreed they were the best.
Bon appétit! (la vie est dure en le sub-antarctique …).
NB No native species were harmed in the making of this blog.
Postscript: There is uncertainty over the identity of both species of mussels at Isles Kerguelen. I thank my Te Papa colleague Dr Bruce Marshall (Collection Manager molluscs) for the information this summary is based on. The ribbed mussel from Kerguelen has been named Aulacomya regia Powell, 1957, but it is questionable whether it is distinct from the Patagonian Aulacomya atra (Molina, 1782) or the New Zealand A. maoriana (Iredale, 1915). Perhaps all three should be referred to A. atra. The blue mussel is either Mytilus edulis Linnaeus, 1758 or M. galloprovincialis Lamarck, 1819 (or maybe both). They are very difficult to distinguish morphologically. Both are native to Europe, and are now spread around the globe. M. galloprovincialis is prevalent in the southern hemisphere, and is the species found in New Zealand. Molecular techniques may be required to resolve both questions, which is why I have used genus names only in the blog.
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s participation in seabird research programmes on the French subantarctic island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen was at the invitation of Dr Charly Bost of the CEBC laboratory (Chizé) of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique), France, and was supported by the Institut Polar Français Paul Emile Victor (IPEV) and Te Papa.
Previous blogs in this series
Subsequent blog in this series