From Waipukurau to Waipawa, Hastings to Havelock North, how did a humble crumbed meatball reach cult status? Fiona Fraser investigates the origins of this east coast delicacy.
I was halfway out the door of a client’s premises when he bellowed “Have you had lunch? I’m just nipping out to get some meatballs. Five for $10.”
Hawke’s Bay “meatballs”. I’d seen them in the bakeries for months but had no idea what they were. Spherical, crumbed, sort of orange in colour on the outside and Lord knows what on the inside.
When he reappeared with a grease-pocked paper bag brimming with the wee buggers, I mustered my strength and took a bite.
A crisp shell, a bit like pastry or the golden top of a shepherd’s pie, I thought… then, a paste. The bovine equivalent of PVA, heavy on the salt, beefy, lots of onion, and a faint reminiscence of tomato sauce. Like a Jimmy’s pie that’s been popped in the blender then rolled in chaff, baked and served at blood temperature.
Drooling yet? No – I didn’t think so.
Yet, it’s oddly delicious. And here in Hawke’s Bay, people are crazy about meatballs. All the bakehouses and main street cafes in Hastings stock them – in the warmer, nestled beside the sausage rolls – before they invariably sell out. School canteens go crackers for them. They’ve achieved cult-like status in Havelock North, Waipukurau and Waipawa too although (and this has yet to be substantiated), they’re unavailable in Napier. Or, in fact, anywhere else in New Zealand.
John ‘Mac’ Macpherson grew up in Hawke’s Bay in the 70s and remembers queues snaking down Heretaunga Street (Hastings’ main drag) outside the Lilac Bakery where the meatball made its debut. “The bakery was owned by a European family and the meatballs were their take on the traditional Dutch bitterballen,” says Mac, a sort of self-styled meatball historian. Then, without a word of a lie, he offers, “They brought a level of sophistication to our food scene we had not previously ever seen here.”
A brief Google search tells me his view is certainly shared – although nobody can quite decide the provenance of Lilac’s proprietors. “The most amazing ever German baker!” squeals one fan. “My mother used to buy these ultra-yummy meatball things there,” another enthuses. Some friends tell me the owners were Swedish, or that so-and-so’s aunty used to work there. The Lilac itself, though, is long gone, replaced with a hair salon.
Betty Finlayson is able to shed some light. “Lilac was owned by Ekhardt Kohnke and he is German,” says the former Lilac Bakery staff member. Betty’s in her 80s now but remembers when the meatballs would sell for 8 cents apiece. “By the time I left they were up to 12 cents – and they were still just as popular, very popular,” she says. “People would come all the way from Auckland to buy them.”
Ekhardt is in Brisbane now, she says, so I give him a call. His accent is still strong, even after a lifetime spent in Antipodean nations. “Oh, the meatballs!” he says. “It cracks me always up when I hear of them now!” The recipe, he says, came from the Dutch proprietor who owned the Lilac before he took it on over 40 years ago. “The meatballs were so popular – more popular than pies – that we asked the Dutch chap for the recipe.” And he was happy to oblige. Veal was the trick, and unsalted butter, and chicken stock. “We’d use 30 kilograms of veal each week to make two batches,” says Ekhardt. “The farmers from all around Hawke’s Bay would stock up for their parties.”
The bakery Ekhardt owns now in Brisbane with his daughter doesn’t do meatballs. “Nothing in the deep fryer,” he says solemnly.
Mac has more meatball memories to share. “Just up the road at the Farmers department store there was a fine-dining, silver-service tearooms, with oak panelling. You could get a cup of tea and a meatball there.”
Andrew Stokes is also able to elaborate on that story. He spent much of his career making meatballs – first, in the kitchen of those tearooms in Hastings in 1974, then at his fish and chip shop, before starting his own business hand-crafting meatballs wholesale which, at its height, delivered 12,000 of his supremely popular snack each week to cafe cabinets across the Bay. He did that from 1987 to 2012 when a run of bad luck with his premises and health saw him shut up the meatball shop.
“They used to call me The Meatball Man,” says Andrew. “People loved them for 21st birthdays and weddings and would order in bulk for their special event.”
At one stage, Andrew was supplying pretty much every supermarket, takeaway store, petrol station, school tuckshop and bakery in the Hawke’s Bay region. And even though the late 80s were by all accounts peak meatball, he still had a steady stream of people rapping on the back door of his wholesalers asking to buy seconds.
“At the Farmers tearooms we made them from veal too,” he offers. “Cushions of veal, they were called, and we’d boil them whole until they fell apart, then strip off the fat. The meat was lovely.”
When he went out on his own, beef mince was a more economical choice. “There are no preservative or E numbers!” he chuckles. “Just mince, garlic, onions, salt, beef stock, Worcestershire sauce and butter. You roll them, snap-freeze them, then make your shell.”
That’s a simple slurry of flour and water, and a breadcrumb coating. Andrew reckons a double layer is best. “That’s how we’d do them. You’d drop them in 190-degree oil to set the crumb.”
It was hard graft rolling 12,000 meatballs each week. “A very labour-intensive process,” he nods, “but when we looked at getting a machine to do it, it didn’t make financial sense.
“To this day, people stop me in the street and tell me, ‘Oh, I wish we still had your meatballs!’” he adds, with a justifiable note of pride.
Mac’s wife Pip went to a girls’ school in Havelock North. These two fell in love as teens – undoubtedly over their shared fondness for crusty balls. “On the first Friday of each school holidays, me and my seven siblings would be allowed to bike down to the Lilac and buy one each,” says Pip. “Oh, they just melted in the mouth! We lived for this day. It was the highlight of the holiday.”
Mac and Pip own Havelock North wine store Advintage – and participate each year in the region’s Food and Wine Classic (or F.A.W.C!, as it’s known). Mac’s been trying to convince his team that they should run a meatball-and-wine-matching event. His attempts to date have gone down like a cup of cold rissoles.
“Look, they’re a delicacy, and although they’re not for everyone, the locals bloody love them. They’re the cheese roll of the east coast. In fact, they’re arguably the Bay’s most iconic food item,” he trumpets – although ask where the best meatballs are to be found and you’re in line for a heated debate. The ones at Te Mata Bakehouse are “good – slightly chunkier”, those at Jacksons Bakery “don’t quite have the flavour right – a poor imitation”, and if you’re sneaking in a cheeky nine at Hastings Golf Club in Bridge Pa, you’ll get a “pretty average” version. Andrew declares Pak n Save meatballs his pick but during The Spinoff’s guaranteed verified survey of meatball buffs, those from BJ’s Bakery in Hastings are universally “the best, like nothing else on earth” – the added bonus that you can buy them by the bag.
“They are, and have always been, my favourite,” says Yvonne. “Totally addicted!” raves Kate. The last word is Mac’s. “BJ’s are unequivocally the best of all.” He goes one step further. “That guy who brought the meatball to Hawke’s Bay deserves a posthumous knighthood.”
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