For ancient Māori, the rise of the Matariki or Pleiades constellation in the celestial skies above Aotearoa New Zealand signalled a change in season - the arrival of the winter solstice and the countdown to spring and summer.
Matariki was an important event on the lunar calendar that the Māori followed for planting, fishing and trapping game.
At Matariki, the Māori tohunga / learned elders would go out in the early morning before first light to wait for the moment when the constellation rose before the sun’s dawn light. The twinkling of the stars helped them predict what the weather would be like for the coming season.
The new moon after the first Matariki sighting heralded the solstice, and was the start of celebrations.
Matariki was also a time for looking back and being thankful to the gods of the land, forest and sea for the provisions of the past harvest that would sustain the people through the colder months.
With the pātaka / food storehouses full, there was no planting, food gathering, fishing or eeling left to do, so Matariki became a mostly indoor occasion.
The old-time Matariki was a time for feasting and sharing the harvest bounty with family and friends.
Families also got together for wananga / schools of learning, arts and crafts that would keep them occupied over the winter.
Matariki celebrations have evolved with time. But, while contemporary lives are less dependent on the seasons for survival, many Kiwis still observe Matariki in a grassroots style where family and community activities focus on reviving old customs and culture.
During Matariki - a four-week period that varies according to the lunar calendar and the location - New Zealanders celebrate the season with events that are as varied as the local communities and Māori marae / tribal meeting grounds that organise them.
With eyes turned to the skies, there are also events dedicated to star-gazing, learning about the night sky and the old methods of celestial navigation.
Building and flying kites is another way of celebrating Matariki. Ancient Māori kite-flying traditions had a symbolic connection to Matariki - as kites were seen as connectors between the heavens and earth.
Sharing food is an essential ingredient of modern Matariki - which coincides nicely with the seasonal yearning for warmer comfort foods - as families, extended tribal families and communities get together to savour the fruits of the harvest.
Matariki feasts often feature food cooked in a Māori hangi - an oven in a pit dug in the ground where meat and vegetables are slowly baked over hot stones that have been covered over with earth.
The typical modern hangi includes lamb and pork, but traditional foods are also likely to feature on the menu - shellfish, seafood, vegetables, plants and herbs gathered from the forest.
Kumara / sweet potato is an all-time favourite New Zealand vegetable, but other traditional Māori root crops - including varieties of purple taewa or riwai / Māori potato - have enjoyed a comeback in recent times.
The old-time hangi is also evolving, and the most recent innovation is a giant gourmet hangi at Turangawaewae marae - home of the Māori royal family. It is hosted by local Māori but under the direction of celebrated New Zealand chef Peter Gordon, of London’s The Providores and Tapa Room and Auckland’s dine by Peter Gordon, at SkyCity.
Background: Traditional Māori food
Māori lived off the land, and work on the gardens that surrounded the villages was a major occupation. Everyone from the chiefs down was involved in cultivation.
The first Māori voyagers who navigated their great canoes from Hawaiki - the original homeland - brought food plants with them, such as kumara / sweet potato, hue / gourds, taro, and yams, along with the rituals and tools they used for cultivation.
In the forests, Māori hunters caught birds such as kererū / wood pigeon and the kiore / rat, and foraged for grubs, edible and medicinal plants, berries and herbs. They fished the rivers, lakes and ocean for eels, fish and other seafood, and dug for shellfish on the beaches.
They were also skilled at preserving and long-term storage of foods for use during the winter months.
Before Europeans introduced metal tools and guns, Māori made implements for gardening, hunting, fishing, and eeling from natural resources found in the surrounding environment.
They used wood, bark and flax for making snares, and gardening tools. Bird and whale bones were used for making matau / fishhooks, and spear points. Hīnaki / eel pots and taruke / crayfish pots were made out of supplejack vines.
While many of the old ways, including traditional food gathering methods and tools, disappeared after the arrival of Europeans, there has been a revival over recent decades, and many books have been written about these methods.
The Remuera Feast
One of New Zealand’s most lavish gatherings was the Remuera Feast of 1844 when around 4000 guests assembled in Auckland for a four-day culinary marathon - dining on 9000 sharks and 11,000 baskets of potatoes.
The event was a spectacular display of Māori power and strength. According to written accounts the feast was hosted by tribes from Waikato led by Te Wherowhero and Wiremu Wetere Te Kauae to assert mana and to reciprocate past feasts.