The home of chowder in New Zealand?

The Occidental Hotel was opened in Auckland’s Vulcan Lane by American sailor Edward Perkins on 2 July 1870. It’s now a Belgian beer bar which serves beer and mussels. What’s interesting is that an advertisement in the Auckland Star on 12 August 1870 states: “Clam chowder. At the Occidental Hotel tomorrow.” I can’t find any earlier New Zealand references to chowder as a dish. Perkins died in 1905. Did he introduce us to chowder? Looking at other references in early New Zealand newspapers it’s clear that it was closely associated with the United States. An item in the Ashburton Guardian on 6 March 1888 marvels at the wide variety of canned foods in America and notes that canned clam chowder “is also now coming into general use; the article has not been on the market to any great extent heretofore, but is now being called for and the demand is increasing.” The chowder obviously made its way here: Taylor’s at 97 Colombo Street, Christchurch advertises its Christmas specialties in the Press on 6 January 1902, including some New American Importations such as 3-pound tins of clam chowder for 1 shilling and 2 pence per tin.

Chowder was definitely seen as an American dish. A few months later on 5 August 1902 the Bruce Herald carried a heart-wrenching article headed “It’s Tomato Chowder Now”, pointing to comments in the New York Sun that the “good old American dish which used to deserve its name of claim chowder” seems to have degenerated into a thick, sour-tasting tomato soup. “There is scarcely a place in town where one can get clam chowder now as it was made when the dish earned the great measure of popularity upon which its disreputable successor is still trading,” the writer complains. “Instead of clams tomatoes have become the chief ingredient, and the result is an indigestible mess that recalls only in name the savory chowder of better days, and nine- times out of ten the deluded diner who partakes of it will be afflicted with heartburn for hours afterward.” It obviously rankled. The Bruce Herald repeated the story word for word a month later in its issue of 5 September 1902.

And to close, a surprising disclosure in the Feilding Star on 28 October 1903: “In order to meet a requirement of American visitors, the Tourist Department proposes to introduce clams to New Zealand waters. No real American can appreciate the beauties of Nature until he has been ‘filled up’, with his favorite dish— clam chowder.” This obviously didn’t work. Fast forward a couple of decades and the following item appeared in the Auckland Star on 12 August 1925: “American visitors! Ask for Tiki Toheroa Soup. Like Clam Chowder, only more so. At hotels, restaurants and stores.”

Fishbone Cafe and Wine Bar, Kerikeri, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

The Fishbone Cafe and Wine Bar at 88 Kerikeri Road apparently transforms from a day cafe into a sophisticated wine bar in the early evening (so says the website). We didn’t see that transformation as we were there for lunch on 2 January 2015. They advertised a special of Seafood Chowder at $13, so that was my lunch sorted.

It was a busy time for them, it was a holiday (not sure if there was a surcharge on the price) and the staff were pretty harried. The seafood chowder which resulted was OK but something which had come of the production line. It had mashed up little bits of seafood – mainly mussel and a few hunks of celery. I though it was more of a soup than a chowder and while it tasted all right, it really didn’t come across as anything special. There were three nice pieces of toast with it, the temperature was good – not too hot, not too cool – and the portion was of a good size. That gets it 6 out of 10Kerikeri

How to make clam chowder – from the Ashburton Guardian, 1900

“Twenty-five clams, one-half pound salt pork chopped fine, six potatoes sliced thin and four onions sliced thin. Put pork in kettle after cooking a short time and add potatoes, onions and juice of clams. Cook 2-1/2 hours and then add clams. Fifteen minutes before serving add two quarts of milk.”

Ashburton Guardian, 6 April 1900, page 4. Short and to the point. It looks like it’ll make a good quantity – 500 grams of salt pork and 1.9 litres of milk. I suppose the clams are meant to be added right at the end. Not seafood chowder as we know it.

The Gables, Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

A trip to Russell on the ferry from Pahia on a hot sunny day is something which makes me very happy that I was born in New Zealand. And when there’s a delicious bowl of seafood chowder at the end, it’s hard to beat.

We got off the ferry at Russell around midday on 29 December 2014 with the temperature in the mid-20s and the red flowers of the pohutukawa running right around the Russell sea front. There were swarms of people in shorts, teeshirts and jandals/sandels strolling around the town. After a bit of a wander we decided to get some lunch and checked out the menu at a place called The Gables (19 The Strand, Russell). Apparently it was built in 1847 – many more details on the website. I didn’t think we’d have a chance, but we scored a table for four outside the restaurant right on the seashore and under a big old pohutukawa.

The service was laid back but attentive and friendly. All four of us really enjoyed the setting, the food, and the welcome beers/wine/fruit juice. It was a magical experience. And the seafood chowder didn’t disappoint.

The menu said The Gables Chowder was “a creamy soup of prawns, mussels, scallops and local fish served with homebaked ciabatta”. The price was quite steep at $21, but it was really good. And it included more than the menu said, with several juicy clams in the shell included, along with a couple of other things.

The Gables

The picture isn’t all that good unfortunately. We were sitting outside on a gloriously sunny day in the partial shade. The Gables’ chowder was a bit on the thin side (I’ve used this term a couple of times, but in my quest for the Best Chowder of All I’m looking for a chowder which has the perfect balance; not too thick and not too thin – and The Gables was on the thin side of perfection). The chowder had a lovely seafood taste and I really enjoyed it. As well as the promised prawns, mussels, scallops (at least four) and local fish, it include the clams (nice and sweet) and a couple of oysters plus some squid, diced onion and carrot. A really good seafood chowder and I gave it 8 out of 10.

There was one piece of ciabatta, untoasted, and this was very good as well. Great chowder, great location, great meal overall, great service. If you’re in Russell on a sunny day, head for The Gables.

The Pear Tree, Kerikeri, Northland, New Zealand

The Pear Tree restaurant is located at 215 Kerikeri Road. It is in a lovely location, overlooking the Kerikeri estuary on one side and the old Stone Store on the other. The Stone Store dates from the 1830s and the restaurant takes its name from a pear tree which apparently was planted in 1819 by the Christian Missionary Samuel Marsden and is New Zealand’s oldest (see the website for further information).

I’m always a bit suspicious of restaurants which are in a beautiful location or an historic or odd building. The Tugboat on the Bay in Wellington and a place in an old ship in Tairua are two which come to mind. Great building/views, but shame about the food. Four of us dined at The Pear Tree on 28 December 2014 and all four of us found it acceptable – but only just. It was certainly just another eating place and not somewhere special. Location 9/10; food and service 6/10. The oddest thing that evening was the “summer vegetable” – battered fried eggplant, which was chewy and … fatty. Where were the beans, the courgettes, the other many possible contenders for light, well-prepared “summer vegetables”?

Pear Tree

The Seafood Chowder was available as an entree ($12) or a main ($18.50). It was described on the menu thus (capitalisation reproduced): “Classic Creamy Chowder with Mussels, Prawns, Smoked Fish & Salmon. Served with Fresh Homemade Bread.” I have to say I don’t like salmon, and I don’t think it really belongs in seafood chowder. The Pear Tree chowder had a reasonably sized glob of salmon plonked right in the middle of the bowl, alongside a mussel in a shell. “Yes, it has salmon. Check. Yes, it has mussels. Check.” The salmon wasn’t really integrated with the rest of the dish. The temperature was good but overall the chowder was thin and didn’t have a rich taste – and it certainly wasn’t “creamy” as claimed by the menu. Some bits of mussel were present, along with a few prawns and some small chunks of smoked fish. Grated bits of carrot and chopped parsley also lurked in the depths. Overall, it was like The Pear Tree: Adequate. I gave the chowder 6 out of 10. Not all that bad, but there are lots of restaurants and cafes all around New Zealand which turn out a much superior chowder.

The accompanying bread was excellent. Freshly baked, two types and of sourdough-like consistency. It wasn’t toasted, but was a delight to eat. They can’t really produce top quality seafood chowder, but their bread is good.

Schnappa Rock, Tutukaka, Northland, New Zealand

We turned up here at about 3 in the afternoon after a great trip to the Poor Knights Islands, on 27 December 2014.

Schnappa Rock is found on the corner of Marina Road and Marlin Place in Tutukaka. Look across the road and there’s a large marina. A further 20 or 30 kms out to sea are the Poor Knights. Unlike Jimmy Jack’s, it has a website.

The only thing I can fault is the old-fashioned and inaccurate spelling of snapper (is it meant to be “schnapper”?). Thirty five years ago I was editing a commercial fishing magazine (called Catch) and I got interested in “official” fish names. I remember writing an article, “Too few rules in fish name game” (Catch ’80, July 1980, page 24), and discovering that the Americans wanted to rename our snapper to “porgy”. Back then there were 17 other “snappers” in the United States. “Porgy” is not nearly as good the name we use for pagrus auratus – but unfortunately everyone else has their snappers. I see that in 1980 when I wrote the story we classified snapper as Chrysophyrus auratus: so even the scientific name has a bit of a history. Anyway, “schnapper” is the old-fashioned spelling and only seems to live on in a few place names – and restaurants it appears.

Everyone enjoyed their meal at Schnapper Rock. The service was friendly and laid back. I ordered a variation on seafood chowder: “NZ Greenshell Mussel Chowder with a warm bread roll, $16.00“. However, it included a large prawn which had been placed right in the middle. It was served with a nice crisp bread roll and included several whole mussels, a bit of fish, the prawn, plus carrot, celery and chopped potatoes. The potatoes weren’t soggy (often a problem) but were just al dente. A minute less and they would have been too hard. Good luck or good management?

Sch Rock jpeg

Presentation was great and the chowder was a good temperature (often it’s a little bit too cool). It was thick, but not too thick, and had a lovely seafood flavour without being too sweet. Very nice and I give it 8 out of 10.


Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack, Paihia, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

First up was a place in the main shopping street of Paihia. We went there on 24 December 2014 for a late lunch and it was while I was eating my chowder that I decided to have a go at setting up this blog. In future I’ll have a picture of what the chowder looked like – but this time I didn’t think about it until after I had finished.

I’ve decided to rate each place out of 10. As far as form goes, any seafood chowder should have more than one type of seafood, be served in a bowl (a curse on all those places which still think it’s cool to serve seafood chowder in a loaf of bread), and be accompanied by one or two pieces of lightly toasted bread with or without butter. The colour should be creamy white, with a yellowish tinge allowable.

Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack is located at 9 Williams Road, Paihia. Apparently the ribs are pretty good – but not so for the seafood chowder. The stuff I got was full of chopped up crabstick – the trick of a lazy chef/cook. Apparently crabstick is pulverised fish meat (usually hoki in New Zealand) which is shaped to resemble the leg meat from a crab. They bung in a bit of red colouring and some sort of sweet flavouring after vacuuming up the hoki from our EEZ. I don’t mind crabsticks by themselves once every few years, but they don’t belong in seafood chowder. Seafood chowder should be natural and unprocessed pieces of seafood floating in a thick chowder. Over 50% of the seafood in Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack chowder was crabstick.

The menu description was as follows: “Bay of Islands Seafood Chowder: Served with green lipped mussels, prawns and much more. $16.90.” No way. There were a couple of bits of chopped up mussel, a prawn floating in the middle, and much crabstick. The chowder was reasonably thick (good) and the quantity wasn’t too bad, but the crabstick made it far too sweet. So, I’ve given it 5 out of 10 on my unique and very arbitrary rating system. I wouldn’t go back for it. Probably not surprising in a place which seems to specialise in ribs.

I like seafood chowder … and I’m proud of it

I’ve always loved seafood. And a few years ago I realised that I always ordered seafood chowder for lunch if it was available, and as an entree if I was out for dinner. Since then I’ve tried to sample as much seafood chowder as possible.

This summer my wife Karen, my son Jack (21) and my daughter Grace (17) spent a week at Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands. I’d been thinking about having a go at setting up a blog – just to see how it was done – and one lunch time when I was tucking into some seafood chowder I decided that this would be the theme of my blog.

So. Let’s see how this develops. Short reviews, some recipes, some ideas towards defining what the Greatest Seafood Chowder Ever would look like; and some other random thoughts perhaps from time to time.