Westport Whitebait Festival

St Canices innovation won the day

A light dose of ‘Buller sunshine’ wasn’t enough to deter foodies, the adventurous and disciples of the frontier spirit from embracing the annual Westport Whitebait Festival over Labour Weekend.

Droves of locals and visitors were happy to fritter away Saturday enjoying the stalls, entertainment, live music and food, despite light drizzle persisting. The main street was closed to traffic, which created a relaxed spacious feel and ambience but it was whitebait people came for and, despite a lacklustre season, they weren’t disappointed. A couple of stalls were kept busy cooking up whitebait patties, the delicate aroma drifting down Palmerston Street enough to ensure a steady stream of hungry clientele.

A highlight of the entertainment was the Whitebait Filleting Competition, which was hotly contested by teams representing St John Ambulance, Talleys and The Fire Brigade. Each team comprised of members vying for a spot in the finals. The objective: to head, tail and fillet 20 whitebait within three minutes. Points were awarded for technique and presentation, with the ultimate award taken out by The Fire Brigade, which competed in full regalia and with the ‘Jaws of Life’ as back up.

North School delivered a creative twist

The main drawcard, however, was the Whitebait Cook Off, which attracted seven teams: the four schools—North School, South School, Buller High and St Canices—South Peak Homes, Mitre Ten and Buller Rugby. Contestants had 30 minutes to create a whitebait dish in their own style and were scored on presentation and taste: 10 points each category for a possible high score of 20. With ‘Crimpy’ as Chief Judge and open to bribes, an impromptu ‘panel of four judges’ was hastily cobbled together to balance the field, with Richard Fairbrass and Jonathan Taylor stepping up and Gemma Rout reluctantly seconded from the audience.

South School twist on a classic whitebait dish

The results impressed the crowds and stunned the judges. With only twoburner cookers to work on, the teams excelled, delivering a Masterclass lesson in whitebait cuisine. The classic fritter with white bread, butter and lemon juice formed a central theme, with most teams either adapting the recipe with a twist, incorporating it into a themed dish or innovating a new recipe entirely. The judges were impressed with the variety of flavours and the high standard of presentation. Dishes to impress included Whitebait Pattie with fried Māori Bread, Whitebait in Beer Batter, Whitebait Benedict, Whitebait Dumplings and Whitebait Patties with Stuffed Grilled Mushrooms. Many of the dishes were even accompanied by a beer match, such as the innovative Whitebait Cucumber Canapé matched with locally brewed Cucumber Beer.

Such was the calibre of the entries, the judges deliberated at length to select a winner, saying the standard was so high it came down to fractions of a point in the end. South School took out the prize for Best Presentation with their twist on White bread and Pattie, while North School won the Innovation Award for their Whitebait Threeways: whitebait with fried Māori bread, in beer batter, and with homemade white bread—accompanied with a craft beer match. Buller Rugby got over the line in third place by bribing Crimpy with crayfish and Buller High scored second with the best Pattie.

Buller High’s simple classic fritter

The supreme award was taken out by St Canices with a stunning Whitebait Ramen Dish: a Japanese style noodle soup with whitebait cooked three ways pattie, individually fried and in a cabbage & spinach dumpling— served in a fish broth and topped with a Ramen egg. The judges said, while complex, the presentation epitomised this style of dish and it was well executed. However, when all the elements came together in the spoon, it produced the perfect marriage of ingredients, came alive and created a flavour sensation that was truly unique.

Put a ring around next Labour Weekend—The Westport Whitebait Festival is not to be missed.

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