Decolonising the bread aisle
On the movement to mainstream rēwena bread, the ongoing dip debacle, and a confectionery brand coated in controversy.
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter produced in partnership with Boring Oat Milk. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
It might have been because I arrived at the markets earlier than usual on Sunday, but for the first time ever, among the tumbles of onions, stone fruit, soil-flecked greens and fresh tofu, I discovered loaves of rēwena. There were just two left at the stall and so I quickly handed over a $10 note, added the glad-wrapped loaf to my knackered grocery bag, and then the $3 worth of change to my purse.
Happily, it means that each morning this week has featured a slice, toasted and then smeared with butter and raspberry jam. In the interests of honesty, I have to tell you, it’s not the best loaf of rēwena I’ve ever had – far too dry and less sweet than you’d hope – but with a pāraoa as elusive as this, I’ll take what I can get.
But the very elusiveness of rēwena in Aotearoa, despite the mainstream familiarity and open-armed approach we have towards European sourdough traditions, is a constant bugbear of mine. In an article in Metro last year, food writer Sunita Patel described rēwena as an expression “of Māori ingenuity in the face of aggressive colonialisation” and asked the big question: why, despite rēwena being unique to Aotearoa, do we not eat more of it?
Someone who is at the forefront of the movement for Aotearoa to eat more rēwena is Whanganui rēwena maker George Jackson (Te Ātihanuinui-a-Pāpārangi). I spoke to Jackson last year for this newsletter, just after his bread had been recognised by Unesco. The overseas recognition was a huge honour, and yet, Jackson told me his biggest goal was far less swanky: to supply supermarkets. He wanted rēwena to be as commonplace in homes across Aotearoa as, well, a loaf of sliced white bread.
It turns out he’s a lot closer to that goal now. At the moment, Jackson told me over the phone that around 60 loaves a day are produced out of his shop. It’s a long process. Each loaf takes around 16 hours from start to finish – nine hours of which is spent proving the dough. “It’s old-school sourdough bread, sugar, flour, salt and the starter,” he says. That potato starter is one passed down from his great-grandmother. “I’m honoured to be using that. It's got mana, it's got history, so I wouldn't use any other,” he told me last year.
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Jackson’s shop is filled with mementos expressive of this whakapapa that dwarfs the 16-hour process. Keepsakes are dotted around the store, with the camp oven his nan made rēwena sitting in pride of place. A framed photograph of her is fixed to the wall by the counter too. “I hadn't had rēwena for more than 20 years and then I had a piece and it just took me back to when we used to have it when we were kids, so I started baking it for my family – and that's what got me into it,” he says. The loaves are more than delicious, they’re memories, whakapapa, inter-generational mātauranga and love. His mission to make rēwena commonplace feels as personal as it is political.
And within the next six months you’ll be able to find his loaves in the bread aisle of Four Squares and the New World in Whanganui. Initially, it will see their little shop producing up to 400 loaves a day. “I'm just focusing on Whanganui at this stage because I'm dealing with a sourdough starter which is very temperamental,” he says. But from there the goal is to shift from recyclable packaging to biodegradable, and then, to be in every supermarket in the North Island.
“It's totally new to have actual proper rēwena bread in the supermarket,” says Jackson. “No one's ever done this.” When I ask Jackson about the fluffy, rounded loaves sold as “rewana bread” in the bakery section of some major supermarkets, he laughs, before saying more gravely, “it’s not rēwena at all.” Rather, “it’s just normal yeast bread with potato flakes,” he adds. In one instance, industrial bakery supplier Bakels, which supplies supermarkets too, lists flour, sourdough mix, treacle, pie mash, water and instant yeast in their recipe for the bread which, by their method, is ready in less than two hours – far removed from the slow, natural leavening process of proper rēwena. That misrepresentation, he believes, should be cause for outrage. “People think they’ve tried rēwena bread, but they haven't,” he says. “It’s sly.”
Jackson sees rēwena as a vehicle for food sovereignty too. He’s struck by the dissonance between local food insecurity and immense amounts of food produced on our shores being sent overseas. It means that his mission is grand, but it also only stretches as far as our borders. “I want to keep it in New Zealand, I want to make sure New Zealand has its own bread,” he says.
It’s difficult not to make comparisons between rēwena bread and the many other dimensions of te ao Māori that have been excluded from the mainstream, and in the case of the faux-versions sold at regular supermarkets, the inferior appropriation of certain aspects. Despite being a delicious sourdough bread, forged on our soil, with a rich history, familiarity of it pales in comparison to the ubiquity of overseas kinds. “The thing that's gotten me from the beginning is you walk into a supermarket, why isn't Māori bread the first thing to be in these supermarkets?” he says. “If anything, it should be part of the staples.” Its absence is, in more ways than one, an edible reflection of cultural repression. Conversely, efforts like Jackson’s to bring it back are just another kind of cultural revitalisation – by decolonising the bread aisle.
“It’s a mission, but it's that fact that keeps me going,” he says. “I want to make space so that I can put rēwena bread in the aisle, right next to the Freya’s, Vogel’s, Yarrows, Goodman Fielding – it’s all about catching up. It’s about catching up on our history, really.”
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Making my inaugural foray into homemade hummus last week was enlightening (it’s not that difficult!), but it was also incredibly fortuitous. Last Wednesday, MPI published a recall notice on a collection of supermarket hummus brands due to possible salmonella contamination in tahini used in the products, which were imported from Turkey. Around 21 products in the Greater!, Lisa’s and Prep Kitchen ranges were among the recalled products that had been on shelves for several weeks before the warning. While there are still no official reports of customers being sick from the dips, there are certainly plenty of post-hummus-eating salmonella anecdotes floating around at the moment. Only adding to the hummus chaos is that Foodstuffs underestimated the number of containers of recalled products that were sold in error to customers – and, as of Tuesday, the buyer of a 500g tub of potentially salmonella-laden roasted garlic hummus from Port Chalmers Four Square remained at large.
With their sleekly branded pineapple pieces, coconut rough and peanut clusters, Levin-based brand Potter Brothers’ website boasts of a “hand crafted” selection of “reimagined Kiwi classics”. Their prices are reflective of this backdrop of quality too, with their pineapple chews retailing for $5.99 at most stockists, around double the price of other versions. But, as Stewart Sowman-Lund reported yesterday, some customers believe they’re actually “just buying lollies and covering them in chocolate”. Even their chocolate coating, which they claim to be made to a 25-year-old family recipe, has come into question. What happens next might be a bitter pill for the brand: according to Consumer NZ, all of this could well be a breach of the Fair Trading Act.
Duncan Greive takes on naming conventions in regards to a very Auckland problem. That is, every new restaurant in this city has (essentially) the same name: some type of formation that goes “vowel, consonants, repeat vowel”. See: Ada, Alma, Alta, Apero, Aigo and Amano – a list of excellent restaurants that I, for the life of me, can’t distinguish between due to their near-identical titles. Most importantly though, the piece makes an argument, perhaps even a plea, for restaurant names more memorable and more chaotic.
After Auckland city councillors were told their free lunches would be coming to an end as part of a raft of cost-cutting measures, councillor Maurice Williamson, a former National cabinet minister, found himself struggling to find a pie or a sandwich for lunch. “The problem with this building, because it’s just so awful,” he said of the Queen Street location. “I cross the road to the food court thinking ‘wow’, and it’s just nothing but Chinese food,” he told his fellow councillors at a planning meeting last week, the Herald reported. There is a lot to unpack here. For one, there is something extremely baffling, and very outdated, about his disparaging tone towards the cuisine – because, well, Chinese cuisine in all its multitudes is yum. I am all too familiar with the foodcourt in question too, and from memory there are two Chinese outlets among an array of other stalls which include Brazilian, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian and Japanese. Obviously, I can’t comprehend the level of disappointment (which feels tinged by culinary bigotry), but what I can understand is that sometimes for lunch, nothing but a pie or sandwich in hand will do – but even so, there are numerous pie and sandwich spots in the vicinity of the town hall. In some ways, it’s a cautionary tale: perhaps austerity leaves us all wandering aimlessly around the city, searching in vain for a beige lunch that we can eat at our work desks.
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte