When it comes to talking about the food chain, just how low can you go? Aardvarks eat termites; termites eat timber … and then what next? One of the surest places to find out is at the world’s more bizarre food festivals – and surely none is more outlandish than the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival.

‘Sophistication’ is not a term frequently in use on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, held in mid-March every year, takes gastronomy beyond the limit, with menu offerings including emu, fish eyes, huhu grubs, pigs’ ears, possum and seagulls.

Many of the offerings at the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival are so obviously animal fare that the only way to more thoroughly break the food chain would be with a pair of bolt-cutters. At the Startled Worm Café, for example, they serve meals fit mainly for chooks. So, adjusting my plume and letting forth a rousing cock-a-doodle-doo”, I ventured to taste some of their specialities.

Mercifully, it has to be said, the startled worm does everything possible to disguise the earthy (read “real dirt”) flavour of these creatures. Worm slammer (worms in liqueur), worm sushi, tiger worms in basil pesto crostini, chocolate worm truffle and worm espresso mousse are just a few of the offerings. And the verdict? Without the worms, this stuff would be great!

At the Skorpio stall, you can get genuine scorpions – not commonly regarded as human food. Though used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, the scorpion is one of the meanest organisms on the planet. Even the Skorpio vodka (you can still get a shot any time at the Amba Bar in Wellington) was crunchily OK. But I must confess to having baulked at the ice-cream spiders, made with real tarantulas and redbacks – even animal gastronomy has its limits.

Other offerings are a little closer to real food. Fancy hog’s ears in chilli sauce, for example? Then make a beeline for the Angry Pig stall, where a delicious piece of gristle will set you back just $2. On the other hand, one of the festival’s long-time favourites, possum meat, was served for the last time in 2004, as the country’s only possum processor has had to close its doors in response to a downturn in overseas orders.

By 2pm, the crowd has divided into two definite camps. At the east of the fairground are the big drinkers, who are already seven-eighths blotto on the excellent Monteith’s lager, “the official mouthwash of the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival”. At the other end, the still relatively sober one-third of the crowd are trying to make head and tail (or pig’s head and crayfish tail) of the stall offerings.

A whole smorgasbord of seagull dishes is on offer at the Wildfoods Festival – from roast seagull to chilli seagull stir-fry. In the remote Chatham Islands, for over a hundred years a New Zealand possession, seagull is a regular part of the diet. I grew up eating seagulls,” says Chatham Islander Pauline Douglas, as she expertly cooks up barbecued seagull. “The early whalers took to catching seagulls when there was nothing else to eat, and the trend soon caught on”.

At least seagulls are a recognised food. Can the same be said of Hokitika’s wild offerings? The only way to find out is to get there.

Bizarre food festivals worldwide

The 24th Montana Testicle Festival
September 14-18, 2006 (www.testyfesty.com)
There’s live music, the Testy Festy Awards, body painting, a wet T-shirt competition … and plenty of beer. Rod Lincoln, the creator of the Montana Testicle Festival, says that “it’s the waste not, want not tradition of Montana; and the health-conscious should note that testicles are 70% or more protein, and, obviously, they’re boneless”.

The 14th annual Roadkill Cookoff
September 30, 2006
When the state of West Virginia made it legal to take home – and use – animals killed by cars, the Roadkill Cookoff in Marlinton, West Virginia was born. Dishes like Thumper meets Bumper, one ton wonton, rigor mortis bear stew, tire tread tortillas and deer on a stick are judged for their taste – or lack thereof.

Festival de Vainilla (Vanilla Festival)
Every June
In Mexico (Papantla, Veracruz), the festival is held at the epicentre of one of the world’s largest vanilla-producing zones. The festival hosts indigenous dancers from all over the area performing the dances of the Quetzales, Negritos and Voladores, plus booths with regional food and beverages.

Gilroy Garlic Festival (California)
July 28-30, 2006
Fancy a garlic beer, garlic ice-cream or garlic frog’s legs? Then grab a ton of breath mints and head here. If you miss this year’s event, the next is on the last weekend in July, 2007.

Montà Food and Wine Festival
Every May
If you enjoy hiking with plenty of eat-and-drink breaks, head for the Montà Food and Wine Festival, celebrated every year near Turin in Piedmont, Italy. The hike is challenging, but trestle tables groaning with regional delicacies await the hiker at every (or nearly every) turn.”