The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 4 (July 1, 1936)
The Toheroa — New Zealand's Exclusive Shell-fish
In every respect nature has dealt very kindly with New Zealand, and has endowed this gem of a country with unique specimens of every description to gladden the heart of the zoologist and the naturalist.
This article deals with a gift of nature which is a remarkable commercial asset, and although a mere shellfish, has done much to advertise the Dominion all over the world. I refer to New Zealand's own and exclusive shell-fish—the Toheroa.
This is a most delicious edible clam, which is becoming known and popular all over the world, and is now firmly established as a delicacy highly esteemed by the most fastidious gourmet.
To be explicit, the Toheroa is a large shell-fish with smooth slightly curved shells. It is usually, when fully developed, three or four inches long, and about two and a half inches wide, always regular in shape.
The shell contains a fish with a plump pouch-like body (somewhat resembling a fowl's crop) which contains a quantity of green pulpy meat; it has also a most extraordinary long white tongue of tough flesh, shaped very much like the human tongue, and very often nearly as large. The name Toheroa is, of course, Maori for “long tongue.”
At the middle of the thickest part of the back the shells have a neat, strong hinge, which opens and closes with remarkable force.
The tongue of the Toheroa provides it with great strength for burrowing into sand, and is a very active means of propulsion.
The Toheroa is quite an exclusive gentleman in his haunts. He is found nowhere in the world except in New Zealand, and thrives, particularly, on the northerly portion of the west coast of the North Island.
The principal beaches where the Toheroa is found at its best in North Auckland are, firstly, Muriwai Beach, a couple of hours’ motor run from Auckland. Secondly, the Toheroa abounds all along the Kaipara beaches further north, and again the most prolific beds of all are along the whole stretch of sixty miles, the real extent of the so-called “Ninety-mile Beach,” in the most northerly part of the west coast of New Zealand.
Many experiments have been made to transplant the Toheroa to other beaches, apparently of a similar nature to its native haunts. All these efforts have failed.
It is said that like caviare and olives, the Toheroa is an acquired taste, but in these days of enlightenment, the popularity of Toheroa soup on the menu, to say nothing of curried Toheroas or Toheroa fritters, seems to indicate that the acquisition of a taste for luxuries of this nature is growing rapidly, especially as the Toheroa is now met all over the world having been despatched thence carefully preserved in tins.
The Toheroa has always been popular locally. However, it is the prerogative of His Majesty the King to set the fashion in most things, and during his visit to New Zealand, when Prince of Wales, he was introduced to Toheroa soup on the menu at a dinner party. He was so impressed with it that he signed the menu and added a mark of appreciation “Excellent” opposite the Toheroa soup course. This menu card is a treasured souvenir and is owned and proudly exhibited by Mr. Meredith, who pioneered and was the first to operate Toheroa Canning Works near the Kaipara Beach about twenty years ago, which enterprise has flourished and is operating at full strength right up to the present day.
Let us visit the Toheroa in his native lair. For this purpose we can select no better spot than the “Ninety Mile Beach.” Here, on one of the grandest stretches of clean unbroken beach in any part of the world, the Toheroa is most plentiful.
All that is necessary to gather “Toheroa is a spade or shovel, a garden rake and a sack—there being no difficulty in gathering a sackfull in half an hour. The best specimens are secured at about thirty or forty yards from low water, the bivalve decreasing in size towards the high water mark.
The process of canning Toheroa is a simple one. Parties of Maori or white labour go down the beach, select a spot and fill a long low wooden trolley, which has four broad, solid wooden wheels. Six or eight sacks are gathered, and the spoil is taken back to the factory.
The Toheroa always contains much sand, and the first process is to soak them in fresh water for twelve hours, when they eject all sand.
With a stout knife, the shells are then severed at the hinge, the fish is taken out whole, then washed, and weighed in the tins.
The lid of the tin is crimped on, the tin being then placed in a receptacle and steamed at a high pressure for some minutes to expel the air. They are then removed and immediately (while hot) soldered.page 55
The cooking process then commences, the first of course being in a vacuum tin. After two to three hours cooking they are taken out (naturally five hundred to a thousand tins are cooked in one process). The tins are then stacked and left for some weeks, when they are carefully checked for faults, which arise through the admission of air.
The rest of the process merely consists of lacquering tins, labelling, casing and shipping. Carting and shipping is an expensive item, as the factories in both cases are some distance over sandy roads to the port of shipment.
The Toheroa has always been a food highly prized by the Maori, who regards it as his special perquisite; it forms a regular and staple diet, available for the taking.
The New Zealand Government policy respecting Toheroa beds, has been largely influenced by consideration for the Maori people.
Under the Treaty of Waitangi, the right to fish and take shell-fish for personal use were two items reserved to them for all time; and the problem of the utilisation of the Toheroa as a commercial asset was surrounded by considerable difficulty. However, it was solved eventually with satisfaction to all concerned.
The arrangement come to was that while rights to can or preserve for sale were leased by tender, the right to take for personal use was granted to all.
It is a curious fact that at least on two occasions wholesale mortality among the Toheroa “clan” has taken place, and in both cases, for brief periods, it was impossible to locate a Toheroa—they had vanished!
However, on both occasions the Toheroa subsequently returned, without notice, in full vigour and glory, and is still present and ready to compete with the turtle for the honours of the soup tureen.
Investigations by zoologists have not told us all we should like to know about the life history of the Toheroa.
The Toheroa may breed in a regular way, that is in a similar manner to the rock oyster. However, the process is still obscure.
The most important fact to be noted is that the Toheroa is generally in poor condition in the summer months, is in excellent condition, and especially delicious, from March to October.
The Toheroa, canned, is not a particularly attractive vision when the tin is opened; in fact its appearance does not do it justice, the green colour of the liquid and contents is perhaps uninviting to the uninitiated; but it is the richest of all shell fish in the necessary vitamins, is absolutely all nourishment, and only needs to be properly prepared (which is a very simple matter, the tins having full instructions printed on them) to be appreciated and eagerly sought after.
In fact the world's markets to-day ask for canned Toheroa, and in this industry New Zealand has a unique asset, which will certainly be a good advertisement in the years to come.