Mmmm-mmm, Mangonui macadamia nuts. They’re tantalisingly smooth, with the faintest hint of coconut, and a buttery aftertaste that lingers long after the last morsel has gone. Where to find them? At Lindo and Laetitia Ferguson’s place on Butler Point, Hihi Beach, Doubtless Bay.
The pair planted some 400 trees of the Queensland variety about 40 years ago.
Here in winterless Northland, the nuts are picked mid-year and Laetitia says that the picking is extremely labour-intensive.
“And then there’s the husking. The outer layer has to be removed within 24 hours so they can begin to dry,” she says.
The nuts are next placed in onion-bags to dry slowly over a period of two weeks or so before they are heated in a silo (which can hold up to 800kg) and vacuum-packed.
“Drying them properly is a key step in the processing,” says Laetitia, for while a raw macadamia nut has a lovely flavour, similar to fresh coconut, if they’re not properly dried, they don’t preserve well.
At Butler Point, these nuts are added to everything, from soups and salads through to pasta dishes; they’re even used to coat fresh fish fillets from the harbour. Laetitia makes macadamia-nut butters with both roasted and plain nuts, which taste heavenly on hot toast or crackers, or added to Asian-influenced cooking. Macadamia pesto is also a highlight, made with generous quantities of garlic and basil. And of course, everyone’s favourite, chocolate-coated macadamias, are available in their small shop as well.
Macadamia nuts are not the only reason visitors come to Lindo and Laetitia’s property. Encompassing the whole of Butler Point, a peninsula reaching into the Mangonui Harbour, it features park-like surroundings, a pa site (fortress), and a large grove of mature pohutukawa trees – perfect for picnicking under during the summer. But it wasn’t always this way. When Lindo stumbled across the property some 40 years ago on a fishing expedition with a friend, there was no road in and no electric power, and the old Butler homestead was in disrepair.
“Where the macadamia nut trees now grow it was a jungle; the sheep kept the grass down. I had to really persuade Laetitia to come and have a look,” says Lindo.
But when she saw it, she couldn’t miss the potential. They constructed their own home, then restored the original 1830s homestead, which was originally built by the Anglican Church and barged to Butler Point from Paewhenua Island Mission Station.
They also set about rediscovering the history of the place. Mangonui was once a whaling base, a provisioning R&R port used by US whale boats, some of which moored here rather than in the infamous Bay of Islands, known in those days as the ‘hellhole’ of the Pacific.
“There were 30 or more whale boats here at a time,” says Lindo. “So many they moored side by side across the harbour, and you could walk over them all the way from Butler Point to Mangonui.”
The ‘Butler’ in question was the captain of a British whaling boat, which had anchored in Mangonui Harbour in 1839 after crossing from Sydney to Russell. An enterprising man and experienced sailor (he was just a young lad when he ran away to sea), he noted there was no local trading post or ship-repair facility, so seized the opportunity, and stowed his captain’s hat and came ashore. Purchasing a parcel of land across the harbour, he grew vegetables and raised pork for the whalers, while on another block at Butler Point, after barging the homestead across, he set up a warehouse and a wharf to provide a ship-repair yard and a base for exporting kauri to Australia.
Over time, the Fergusons have pieced together the region’s whaling history, and have turned the old homestead and its grounds into a whaling museum dedicated to the era. The 30ft-long whale boat, Elisa Butler, designed to carry six whalers, gives a taste of what life at sea must have been like, while a purpose-built space houses other relics, like harpoons, whale bones, and old rum bottles; plus more delicate items made from whale teeth and bone, such as carved brushes, hairpins, pens, whistles, dice, spinning tops, tools, walking sticks, and spoons. It’s a forgotten pocket of New Zealand with a wealth of history.