Thursday, February 6, 2014

Karl du Fresne: Sauerkraut in Masterton - who would have thought?

I was mooching around in the kitchen the other day, generally getting in the way, as I do, when something caught my eye. It was a vacuum pack of German sauerkraut that my wife had bought at a local food outlet. Now who would have thought, in the New Zealand I grew up in, that in the future you’d be able to buy German sauerkraut (for the uninitiated, that’s fermented cabbage, which sounds gross, but it’s not) in a provincial town like Masterton?
I think back several decades to when I first lived in Wellington. Even in the capital city there was only one place where you could be confident of finding exotic foods such as sauerkraut, Gouda cheese and Bismarck herring.

It was a small Cuba St supermarket called Fuller Fultons, and it was mainly patronised by European immigrants – Dutch, Austrians, Swiss, Poles and Jews – who yearned for the food they had known in their homelands. My Polish father-in-law was a frequent customer.

In those days, sauerkraut would have been brought into the country under a special import licence. There were lots of odd little companies that imported and distributed small lines of specialist foodstuffs. No New Zealand companies bothered to make them, because there was no money in it; not enough demand. New Zealand then was still a monocultural, meat-and-three veg society.

Nonetheless, in the tightly controlled economy of that era – Fortress New Zealand, as it was sometimes known – anyone wanting to bring in such goods had to obtain an import licence, which was not always easy.

The theory was that New Zealand manufacturers were thus protected from overseas competition, an approach promoted by the influential left-wing economist Bill Sutch and adopted by both Labour and National governments.
This policy had several consequences. One was that inefficient New Zealand industries got away with producing overpriced, second-rate goods because there was no competition.
Another was that companies fortunate enough to obtain import licences for sought-after products were on the pig’s back. Many old New Zealand merchant families became wealthy purely on the basis of the goods that passed through their warehouses. Having secured their gold-plated import licences, they hardly had to lift a finger.

And of course everyone – shippers, importers, wholesalers and retailers – clipped the ticket on the way through, meaning higher prices for the hapless consumer.

A third, and incidental, consequence was that the public servants in charge of granting import licences were treated to a lot of lavish lunches and dinners. Sir Des Britten, who owned a classy Wellington restaurant called The Coachman, once told me of an official who dined there several times a week at the expense of businessmen wooing him for favourable treatment.
But the distortions in the rigidly controlled economy (which were all for the benefit of the public, of course) went far beyond these little quirks.

That was also the era when, bizarrely, you needed a doctor’s prescription to buy margarine. Why? Because the dairy industry persuaded the government that without such restrictions, sales of margarine would hurt butter producers. It’s hard to believe now, but that restriction wasn’t lifted until 1974.
Then there were the incomprehensible and utterly irrational limitations on what corner dairies – the only retail businesses allowed to trade at weekends – were allowed to sell when everything else was shut. You could buy a tin of shoe polish, but not a pack of sausages; a packet of clothes pegs, but not a jar of marmalade.

Alright, I can’t recall whether those specific examples were literally correct. But no one could fathom the logic – for want of a better word – behind the list of goods that were approved or forbidden. Committees of bureaucrats seemed free to impose whatever pettifogging rules they chose, and to heck with reason.
Many dairy owners ignored the regulations anyway, but did so at the risk of being pinged by government snoops who prowled the suburbs looking for subversive shopkeepers. Doubtless they were considered enemies of the state.

How quickly we forget all that. A generation has grown up since the era I’m writing about, and in the meantime New Zealand has changed radically.
The Labour government of the 1980s took bold steps to deregulate the economy and drag it into the modern era. It dismantled the complex tangle of tariffs and import licences that protected the privileged. Not surprisingly, many complacent, long-established companies collapsed once exposed to competition.

Among the new businesses that sprang up in their place were Stephen Tindall’s the Warehouse, which took full advantage of the newly deregulated economy by sourcing cheap goods from Third World countries.
There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth, because the Warehouse pulled the rug out from under local manufacturers – which had prospered in the absence of cheap imports – as well as taking business away from traditional retailers. But I applauded its arrival because it made a wide range of low-priced goods accessible to consumers who had previously been disadvantaged by the cosy status quo. Low-income shoppers remain the Warehouse’s core market.

For similar reasons I applauded when the car trade was opened up to used Japanese imports and the car assembly companies (none of which survived) were stripped of their protection. Who could possibly object to low-income people finally being able to afford decent, low-mileage vehicles?
Not all the sweeping changes ushered in by Sir Roger Douglas worked. (When she was prime minister, Helen Clark liked to call them the “failed reforms”, even though she was a member of the same government and was happy to leave them in place.) But I doubt that many New Zealanders who remember the days of Fortress of New Zealand would want to regress to that era.

Of course other things have changed too. A more liberal immigration policy has exposed us to multicultural influences. Cheaper international travel and more open borders have enabled us to experience a world our grandparents could only read about, and to bring back new ideas and ways of doing things.
For me, a telling symbol of New Zealand’s transformation was the opening several years ago in sleepy, bucolic Carterton, just down the road from where I live, of a Turkish restaurant (a very good one, too); and only a year or so later, a French one (also very good).

We have become, dare I say it, a great deal more sophisticated. Which, to bring me back to where I started, explains why a store in provincial New Zealand finds it profitable to stock imported sauerkraut. And very nice it was, too.


Brian said...

Sauerkraut Cheese and Kensington St.
Karl’s blog brought back to both my wife and I the period of 1950’s nostalgia, of a bedsit (bathroom shared of course) in Kensington St., Wellington. Handy as I pointed out to my wife, to the Bethany Salvation Army Maternity Home!!!
Yes those times were restrictive, also very daunting as I found after landing one Saturday morning off the Wanganella. How to eat when everything was closed and those Hotels well out of my price range? Thank God for that pie cart, although pies for breakfast, lunch, & dinner for two days dimmed my appetite for that cuisine ever since.
Friday night at Fuller Fultons was an adventure into the exotic, quite apart from the delicious aroma the variety was breathtaking, and to me as a Pom far away from the still enforced wartime rationing a glimpse of a pre war Britain.
Your Blog Karl, brought back to us both memoirs of a long gone Wellington where we both worked, my wife in banking and I in publishing, before we packed up and went on the road to be dairy farmers.
After buying our own farm we experienced Fortress New Zealand and its Union domination; with our cull cows being returned to us in drought conditions due to a decision to strike without warning at the Freezing works. (Cartage both ways at our expense of course!).
Another connotation of the old adage
“Where Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then a gentleman?”
Later when at the yearly attendance at Annual Dairy Board meetings in Wellington we were confronted with the skeleton framework of an uncompleted Bank of New Zealand Building in Manners St. Symbolic with the failure of Government to be a Government, in an era demanding the acceptance of a new future plus the developing threat of the E.U.
Well one thing has survived from that era and that is Blackmail, no longer the province of Unionism, now practiced with ritual efficiency by MMP minor parties, and now part and parcel of Waitangi Day celebrations.
Karl, Farming adapted to Lange’s new deal, and is still adapting despite the bureaucratic humbug of more and more regulations and criticism. Couple this together with a political scenario indoctrinated by the Greens, with their anti capitalistic demands, and a daily media ritual of potential environmental suicide!
Bring back those old days, I think not, even in old age the real interest is the future of the future.
But thanks Karl, enjoyed the nostalgia, but I still have hope that we can overcome this cosmetic age!

Anonymous said...

Having migrated to NZ from England in 1972 I remember those days well.
However what I read is disappointing about the piece is that we need to import sauerkraut as there are no domestic suppliers. There shouldn't be trade barriers but we should be adding value to our own agricultural products so we can export them rather than importing them from one of the most expensive countries in the world. Our exporters should be seeing that there are many opportunities out there that we must take if we're going to be able to afford to import luxuries.

Anonymous said...

Karl, great article. We've certainly come a long way. In 1973 our first baby was born, and we decided that the the old Ford Anglia was just too small for the pram and all the other baby accoutrements, and we'd buy our first new car, one with four doors. The top of our list was a Mk 3 Ford Cortina. So off I went to Wellington's Avery Motors to see what colours were available. To my surprise (and despair), I found that we'd have to go on an extensive waiting list, and it could be a long time before we got to the top of the list. However, the salesman thought that a customer in Taupo had just cancelled their order for a new Cortina from their local dealer, so I sent them a reply-paid telegram (remember telegrams?) asking if we could please, please have it. They replied, saying "Like most rumours, this one isn't true either". We were totally devastated. Some weeks later, the Avery Motors salesman phoned me to say they had a brand new Cortina, colour blue, take it or leave it. We took it. Yes, times have certainly changed. So have the cars - thank goodness.