Forest Lore of the Maori
(Beilschmiedia tawa). This is another tree that was prized by the Maori, and particularly by those tribes dwelling on high-lying lands of the interior, tribes cut off from the seaboard and unable to produce much in the way of cultivated food-supplies. In Anderson's description of Queen Charlotte Sound, as seen in 1777, he mentions the tawa under the peculiar name of maitao, one that we do not recognize; his account is as follows: "There is a great variety of trees on the small flat spots behind the beaches. Amongst these are two that bear a kind of plum of the size of prunes; the one yellow, called karraca [karaka]; and the other black, called maitao; but neither of them of a very agreeable taste; though the natives eat both, and our people did the same. Those of the first sort grow on small trees, always facing the sea; but the others belong to larger trees that stand farther within the wood, and which we frequently cut down for fuel." This could have been no other tree than the tawa, and, if it was the variety usually termed white tawa, then the voyagers did well to select it as a fuel; it is, however, not improbable that they received some assistance from the natives as to selection of fuel timbers.
Our scientists recognize but one species of tawa, but, at the same time, the two kinds termed 'white tawa' and 'black tawa' by the ignorant layman, differ to a considerable extent. The former is the more common variety, and was the most useful to the Maori, for he not only obtained a useful food-product from it, but also found in it a true-grained, easy-riving timber that provided him with bird-spear shafts of great length. The wood is clean-faced when split; and white, the berries are larger than those of the black variety, the branchlets less rigid. The wood of black tawa is harder and darker than that of the first dscribed, the inner wood being often almost black in large-sized trees; the tree grows much larger than the white, it does not decay so quickly, its leaves are shorter, its bark much thicker in matured trees, and, viewed as a fuel it is avoided by the bushman, whereas white tawa is excellent fuel, and, moreover, burns well green, which same peculiarity has been a blessing to many a sojourner in our forest lands.page 42
Tawa trees that produced plentiful crops were valued, and would be described as tawa mapua. The fruit is called poker ehu, sometimes ponguru, but when in a green state is known as māriri, or kōriri. The flesh of the tawa- berry is termed pokere, and in speaking of such having the flesh still adhering, as when first procured, one alludes to them as tawa pokere, but the kernels denuded of such covering, as when prepared for preservation, are called simply tawa. The remark: "E rua nga kete tawa pokere i a maua" tells us that the speaker and a companion have procured two baskets of fresh tawa berries. The pulp of the berry is by no means pleasant eating, and it cannot be seriously viewed as a food-supply of former times; it was certainly eaten by children, who are, as is well known, an omniverous folk, and also it might, in times of stress, be of some fleeting service; it was, however, the kernel that was prized. These kernels are certainly not soft, and when dried for future use are of surpassing hardness; when required for use they were subjected to a prolonged steaming process. In his Account of New Zealand the Rev. W. Yate speaks of the kernel being boiled and states that: "The process of boiling extracts the poison which abounds in this fruit in its native state." Boiling formed no part of the preparation of these kernels in pre-European times, nor is it so suitable a method as steaming. As to the poisonous properties of the kernel, the taste thereof prior to being cooked is unpleasant, but I have not heard it described as poisonous. Yate may have confused it with the kernel of the karaka- berry.
The Tuhoe folk state that, in former times, they occasionally found in the crops of kaka parrots dark, kernel-like objects resembling tawa kernels in appearance. These were called manatawa, and they evolved the quaint belief that the birds had brought them hither from the isles of Polynesia. Again, the expression ahi tawa is sometimes heard; this name denotes a fire whereat tawa-berries are roasted; when subjected to strong heat they often burst with a fairly loud report, hence the expression ahi tawa is often employed to denote noise, and noisy folk. When a number of children are chattering, one may remark: Ko te ahi tawa hai whakarite-They are as noisy as a tawa fire. An old saying was as follows: He ahi tawa ki uta, he kumu tarakihi ki te moana-A tawa fire on land and a tarakihi fish at sea (are both noisy). When East Coast clans were attacking Toka-a-kuku in 1835 the crackling sound of musketry was heard afar and commented upon by a combatant, one Tuteranginoti, who cried: Añā! To hanga, e te ahi tawa! Me te mea tera he ahi harakeke (Ah! Such is your work, O tawa fire! Truly it resembles a flax fire). When a page 43fire is raging among flax (Phormium) plants it causes a similar loud crackling noise.
A missionary publication of 1847 states that the bark of the tawa, when infused, furnishes a wholesome as well as a grateful beverage, which does not require the addition of sugar. The use of this 'grateful beverage' has long been discontinued, the modern missionary has access to other concoctions that are still more grateful.
A Waiapu native explained that berries of the tawa were collected in baskets, and these baskets of berries were placed under water and there submitted to a vigorous trampling whereby the soft pulp was detached from the kernels, after which the kernels were placed in a hangi (or umu), steaming-pit, where they remained not less than twelve hours. The general procedure seems to have been to dry the kernels so that they would keep without deterioration, and store them away until wanted, when they were steamed in order to soften them, several informants adding that, after being cooked by the steaming-process, they were crushed and pounded in a wooden vessel. Bishop Selwyn, in one of his journals, speaks of seeing natives drying these kernels by spreading them on flat slabs of stone placed over steam vents; that was at Rotorua. The account of Sir George Grey's overland trip in 1850 also mentions these 'kilns of flat stones placed over some of the boiling springs for the purpose of drying the kernels of the berries of the tawa tree, which are considered to be a great delicacy.' As a food supply these kernels were appreciated, but I never heard the old folks speak of them as a great delicacy.
Another account collected explains that, when the tawa- berries were ripe, many people would proceed to the forest, men, women and children, often camping nearby if the place was somewhat distant from the village. Thus there were many hands for the collection of the berries from the ground beneath the trees. The berries were placed in baskets as they were picked up, no attempt being made to remove the pulp at the time. The full baskets were placed in the steaming pit, which might be six feet wide and four feet deep. Very large stones were used to heat such a pit, and, when the fierce fire in the pit had burned down, then the stones were levelled and arranged, after which they were covered with green leafy twigs of koromiko and karamu (Veronica and Coprosma), and the sides of the pit were covered with the same material. When the baskets of berries had been arranged on these leaves, and piled up until the pit was full, then all were covered with plaited mats, and these again with a thick deposit of earth, which covering of earth was padded and tamped in order to consolidate it, and so prevent the escape of steam. I was informed that no water was sprinkled over the contents of this page 44umu tawa, as was done in the case of ordinary cooking. The pit remained covered for two days, or even longer; on it being opened the baskets of berries were taken out and conveyed to the nearest water, in which they were placed and the pulp washed from the kernels, from which it was now easily detached. The cleansed kernels were then spread out on mat-covered platforms, and so sundried.
A Tuhoe note is to the effect that much care was displayed when lining the steam-oven with green stuff, for such lining was composed of leaves of six different plants, viz.: karamu (Coprosma), heruheru (Todea), manono ( another Coprosma), hangehange (Geniostoma), rautawhiri (Pittosporum tenuifolium), and paraharaha (Polypodium diversifolium). The first name given represents the first layer arranged, and so on, and these particular leaves were used because they gave a desirable brown appearance to the kernels, while the paraharaha fronds were supposed to impart a pleasing flavour to them. The long steaming process is termed taopaka. Into the leaf-lined pit the kernels were poured loose; when taken out they were dried and stored; when wanted for use they were steeped in water heated with hot stones in a wooden vessel, and then pounded ere being eaten. Arawa folk placed them in a boiling spring. In some places a long trench-like form of steaming pit was used, and, in late times, since the introduction of bees, honey has been added to the mashed-up kernels. No menstruating woman was allowed to assist in cooking these berries, the belief being that such a thing would cause the cooking to be a failure.
The pulp of the tawa berry smacks of turpentine when eaten, and so was not much favoured by even the all-devouring youths of my own time. The white tawa was termed tawa ran tangi by natives, owing to the rustling sound of its leaves when breezes are abroad. The wood decays rapidly when exposed, but is easy to work and of fine appearance; a considerable amount of it was shipped to Australia some years back.