Fossicking? “What does that mean?” you’re probably wondering.
We discovered the word late one night at Fleurs Place, a restaurant in Moeraki on New Zealand’s South Island.
“Ah, Fleurs Place. Good choice,” said Alix, the campground manager. “Best I give her a ring and see if she’s got a spot. She’s usually fully booked every night.”
Kohanga, our rented motorhome, didn’t like the look of the detour into Moeraki so she waited at the top of the village while we walked down the blackened streets toward the lights of the jetty.
Fleur herself greeted us, even though it was late and Fleur is not young—she was born on March 16, 1939.
“If I had been born one day later on St Patrick’s Day, my Irish-descended parents would have named me Pat. Somehow I don’t think my life would have been quite the same if I had been called Pat,” she writes in her book FLEUR, The Life and Times of Pioneering Restaurateur Fleur Sullivan.
In her book, a copy of which was on our table, the New Zealand poet Sam Hunt describes her perfectly: “My first impression of Fleur was one of an incredibly truthful person. Straight to the bulls-eyes. And of course colourful and delightful. One of those people who make you believe in words like consecration.”
Tall and dressed in independent shades of black with a wildish mane of long white hair and sparkling eyes behind stylish frames, Fleur, you just know, has a boatload of stories from a life lived to the brink.
She walked us to a circular wooden table, large and well worn. “The blue cod is very good today,” she told us, confidently. “We’re serving it whole for two with a brown-butter-caper sauce and steamed vegetables.” We interpreted that to mean, “You would be fools to order anything else.”
The décor demands your attention. Fleurs Place, which opened in 2002, is actually an old barn filled with eclectic furnishings, artifacts and art that reflect the area’s history as a fishing port and whaling station. A huge undersea sculpture in copper and green crowns the bar. A facsimile of Cook’s map of NZ and an old copy of the Treaty of Waitangi hang among black-and-white photos from the past. The hull of a fishing boat screens the door to the toilet. A Victorian staircase leads to “Gwen’s table” (where Gwyneth Paltrow ate.) And there’s a large cloak made from the feathers of Chinese Silkie Bantams that Fleur had been raising out behind the restaurant until, as she tells it in her book, “neighbours who stay here about two times a year made a fuss about them and the Waitaki District Council got involved and in the end I had to have the poultry slaughtered…When I stood up to be inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame in 2007, Mary Whitau and our friend Koa Mantell draped me in a new cloak that Mary had made.”
Fleur writes candidly of a stormy marriage with a (mostly absent) husband who didn’t appreciate her uncanny ability to—literally from scratch with no training—build, decorate, and manage a restaurant in which she would work as owner, chef and hostess, serving naturally good food in a small town with few resources other than her own wit. While raising their three young children.
Fleurs Place is her third restaurant on the South Island where she was born and has always lived. (The lack of an apostrophe in the restaurant’s name is because Fleur wanted the place to belong not just to her, but to all of her patrons. It’s spelled both ways but we’re honouring her philosophy.)
Her former restaurant, the highly acclaimed Oliver’s, was named for Oliver Twist. Fleur hoped her patrons would emulate his culinary plea “I want some more!”—they did.
In her book, Fleur describes the challenges of financing, marketing and running a restaurant. “There was the guy who was always drunk by 10 am; the one who used to dress up as an air hostess…” Burnt out and recovering from cancer, Fleur sold Oliver’s and bought a house on the hill in Moeraki where she intended to view the harbor, the Remarkables and the Pacific “until I was about 108.”
As if that was going to happen to a go-getter like Fleur.
Even with her past experience, starting Fleurs Place wasn’t easy. “Cold as charity,” Fleur might say about the process of launching a restaurant serving fish fresh off the boats at the Moeraki jetty.
That’s because getting access to local, freshly caught fish in New Zealand is difficult—95% of it is exported. The authorities told her that if she bought her own scales, the paperwork could be done on the wharf and she could buy a small amount of fish off the boats—until they deemed her $1,800 scales weren’t up to the job.
She was in their face like a westerly. “You’ve taken all this fish away from Moeraki and it’s been sitting in your yard since Friday and won’t be processed until Monday. And I’ve got all these people coming and you’ve got all the fish in your trucks. Actually, stronger words were used,” she writes in her book.
In time, she bought her own quota ($50,000 a tonne), ensuring the fish at Fleurs Place is fresh off the boat, daily. All of her other food suppliers live within an hour’s drive.
Indefatigable, after opening Fleurs, she started The Loan & Merc in historic Oamaru not far away. It’s run by her two granddaughters, Flame and Ruby. (I wonder if Fleur had a say in their names?)
So how was the blue cod you ask? The BEST fish we’ve ever eaten. Fresh. Pure. Simply cooked. Magellan and I hardly spoke—we just ate and ate until there was nothing but a boney, white skeleton on the plate.
It was when we were leafing through Fleur’s autobiography while waiting for our blue cod that we found “fossicking,” this zany-sounding word.
Fossicking means to search, rummage about, dig up, obtain by asking or ferret out in hopes of gaining something profitable—it’s what Fleur has done all her life. Fossicking to find buildings to turn into restaurants. Fossicking to buy antiques and dishes at second-hand shops and estate auctions to create shabby-chic décors. Fossicking for ways to tackle bureaucracy and red tape.
Fossicking to find out more about Fleur, we found this in her book’s postscript: “If I look at my life as a branch I can see that I am coming close to the slender little tip at the end and I can’t ignore it.” I’d say there’s always going to be something budding with Fleur.
Happy 77th birthday to you Fleur and many more!
Kohanga liked her first camp spot with us at Moeraki Boulders Kiwi Holiday Park and we’re thankful to Alix for calling Fleurs on our behalf after our long day, which began in Auckland.
Sullivan, Fleur. FLEUR: The Life and Times of Pioneering Restaurateur Fleur Sullivan. New Zealand: Random House, 2011.