Meet the colourful couple behind Golden Bay’s Mussel Inn
The Mussel Inn beats at the heart of Golden Bay’s creative, organic community. Its music-loving owners created it with grit, vision… and a bit of inspiration from Bob Dylan.
Words: Rebecca Hayter
Images: Tessa Chrisp
When they met in 1980 at Lincoln College, Andrew and Jane Dixon fell for each other’s Bob Dylan collections and then for each other. Andrew had enrolled hoping to find a girlfriend and arrived with a healthy cynicism for what agricultural colleges were then teaching about modern farming. In particular, he queried the established cycle of applying fertilizer and weed-killer.
“I didn’t want to be moulded into an employable device. I like to think about things more than that,” he says.
Having met the right girl, he left before the second term; Jane stayed on and continued her degree in botany. Between Andrew’s free-spirited thinking and Jane’s grounded approach is a shared commitment to organic principles. It’s proved a fertile ground, having propagated a gently rebellious café at what’s come to be regarded as the cultural heart of Golden Bay, The Mussel Inn. It wasn’t in the plan; organic gardening is like that. Andrew and Jane had joined her parents at Golden Bay, where creative souls – artists, poets and healers – tend to gather. The Dixons planned to buy four hectares of farmland but their budget afforded only a nondescript half hectare at Onekaka on the road between Takaka and Collingwood. Its only building was a falling-down shed.
Nearly four decades on, Jane’s skills in botany and Andrew’s in design have created a village-like gathering of the Mussel Inn Café and its brewery, an adobe mud cellar, an orchard and vegetable garden and Andrew and Jane’s log house. A major crop is music: performers from throughout New Zealand queue up to play The Mussel Inn – Jane turns several away every day. “It’s sad because there are all sorts of wonderful sounding music that we just can’t fit in,” she says.
The musicians love the handmade intimacy of the venue. One Thursday a month, the Golden Bay Live Poets’ Society features a guest poet or two. The format includes an open mic in the second half. One evening’s repertoire included a one-woman spoof on multi-tasking and a father’s poem, poignant and brief, written on the death of his son.
Andrew and Jane’s love for Dylan’s music remains firm, and in May this year Nelson musicians Clayton Taylor and Nathan Torvik led a tribute at The Mussel Inn to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday. During the open mic session, Jane recited Dylan’s TV Talkin’ Song: “It will destroy your family, your happy home is gone/No one can protect you from it once you turn it on.” Television, she says, is a waste of time; Andrew calls it a “scourge on humanity”.
Perhaps the unpainted, rough-sawn walls have absorbed the wisdom in all that music and heartfelt lyrics because although Andrew and Jane built The Mussel Inn in 1992, it’s already an old soul. They designed it to evoke the essence of woolsheds and tramping huts, not for architectural ego, and the building evolved from its surroundings. The old shed contributed the corrugated iron for the cladding and timber for the bar frontage.
Andrew milled local trees from Pakawau and pine from the grounds of Onekaka Hall for the big tables; logs that washed down the Tukurua Creek became smaller tables inside. Every piece, including the accidental collection of art on the walls, has a story. “We didn’t set out to recreate an old building,” Jane says. “We’re just taking the essence of what old buildings are like and we’ve allowed it to age.”
“We haven’t put polyurethane on it and we had all that corrugated iron so it was the cheapest way to build it.”
The Mussel Inn continued its handmade, heart-made philosophy by serving bottled beers from small breweries and avoiding mainstream beers. The beers were popular with artisans, the market they wanted. In 1995 Andrew designed and built a brewery with a chiller called Antarctica. “I’d been brewing ever since I was 15 so it was just a continuation,” Andrew says. After 10 years, they replaced the first brewery for one with a larger capacity and now sell only Mussel Inn beers. Water for the brewery comes from a stream in the hills where, several years ago, the authorities were threatening to do a controversial aerial drop of 1080 pest poison. The Mussel Inn successfully opposed it and stopped the poison drop, thus protecting its water supply.
“I wasn’t in a position to do the possum control myself so the next best thing was to offer a free beer for a tail,” Andrew says. “We got to about 5000 and we decided that was enough. We still offer a beer for two stoat tails or feral cat tails.” The tale of tails scored a special mention from the Lonely Planet travel guide, which dubbed it one of the 10 best beer-drinking places in the world. “It turned out to be one of our best advertising stunts,” Andrew says.There is no such word as waste at The Mussel Inn. Cardboard packaging is shredded as fill for its compost toilets, which in turn fertilize the orchard along with by-products from the brewery. The orchard supplies hops for Andrew’s beer, feijoas and apples for his Freckled Frog cider and lemons for his Lemming Aid. The garden provides vegetables for the café.
“At the start we had a menu that was way too complicated for our capabilities,” Jane says. “After two weeks we wiped the whole menu off the board and got rid of the deep fryer. We didn’t want it to be a foodie place.” The revised menu, which hasn’t changed for 25 years, serves mussel chowder, nachos and bowls of “sossies”, aka sausages. By designing and building nearly every aspect of The Mussel Inn “village” over time, the Dixons have remained debt-free which, they believe, keeps them happy and healthy. When they bought the section, they lived in a caravan – “a bit hippie and feral” as Jane puts it – and were headed for a low-budget fibrolite house.
Luckily in 1983 they heard about a course on building log houses and realized they could learn the technique and build their own. It led to more work building log houses throughout New Zealand. Jane catered for the building teams and home-schooled their sons Henry, born in 1982, and Toby, in 1985. The couple also worked for the Whitecliffs Festival, an annual music festival near Christchurch, and learned to produce music events. Without knowing it, they were doing an apprenticeship for The Mussel Inn.
Using an old tractor with a front-end loader, Andrew and Jane completed their log house in 1990. It looks like a Swiss chalet with round black logs, a peaked roof, French-door style windows and a mudroom for kicking off gumboots. “We built the house with a 300-year plan, not just for us,” Jane says. “A whole lot of other people will be living in this house.”
The log house quickly became a gathering place for neighbours on Sunday afternoons to enjoy mussels from Onekaka Beach, accompanied by Andrew’s homebrew. “We were the mussel inn before we were The Mussel Inn,” says Jane. And so it continues. Toby, now an accountant in Wellington, keeps the books, and Henry is returning from Japan with his three children to live in Golden Bay. As for the boy who dropped out of college, Andrew says he hasn’t worked since he was 30. Since then he’s simply pursued his hobbies: hanging out with musicians and brewing beer.
THE HOUSE THE DIXONS BUILT
– Andrew and Jane built their log house over 5000 hours. The foundation logs are cut in half-rounds and laid on concrete. The next logs were placed on top, scribed to fit and then removed and cut to fit with a chainsaw.
– “It seems slow but when you put that final log on, it’s finished – no gibbing or painting,” Andrew says. “And if you do it yourself, no mortgage – you don’t have to work for the rest of your life paying it off.”
– They hand-peeled every log of bark and twigs. “You get to know your logs,” Jane says. “You are designing your wallpapers basically.”
– The logs are untreated. They don’t rot because the generous eaves keep
off the rain.
– The corners interlock in joints, which range from no-frills to the fancy square notch. They are also strong – bulldozers trying to destroy log houses usually end up pushing the houses around the paddock. The logs settle in their first few years, so lintels and chimneys are built so that they can accommodate the house settling around them.
– The interior walls are naked timber, with the main living area of dining and kitchen welcoming the morning sun and the upstairs bedrooms benefiting from the rising warmth.
MAKING OUR BEER, HERE
The first beer made at The Mussel Inn was First Light lager; the second was Dark Horse because Andrew didn’t know how it would turn out. The third, made of manuka, was Captain Cooker, a nod to pigs and to Captain Cook who made the first beer in New Zealand. Then came a lager called Golden Goose because the brewery was the golden egg for the business. Since then all names have been animal-themed, including the non-alcoholic Lemming Aid.
What I’m drinking:
Jane: Captain Cooker Manuka Beer – It’s delicious. It’s my go-to beer among the myriad of new flavours the beer world has on offer now. And it’s made right here, using Nelson hops, Canterbury malt, Golden Bay manuka and Onekaka water. So it’s about as local as a beer can be.
What I’m reading:
Jane: Apirana Taylor’s A Canoe in Midstream – Poems New and Old. Apirana visited recently and left us a copy of his latest collection. It is inspiring and uplifting to dip into in the morning before embarking on my regular tasks for the day.
What I’m listening to:
Jane: Aldoc. Band member and producer Gerry Paul dropped off a copy of the band’s 2014 recording From Tallaght to Halle soon after they’d finished it, and it’s been a favourite ever since. The band is led by virtuoso Irish flautist Alan Doherty, who contributed to The Lord of the Rings soundtrack and spent two years writing material based on new cultural experiences and influences picked up during 15 years of touring the world. The band is all about exploring music’s universality – none of the seven band members share nationality or musical heritage. Look out for them playing the Coastella Festival, north of Wellington and The Mussel Inn next March.
What I’m cooking:
Jane: Steamed mussels. After all these years, I still love them. We steam them in apple cider until they’re just open, then squeeze over lemon juice. Served like this, you really get to taste the mussels, rather than them just being a carrier for a tasty sauce. It’s good to serve them with some crispy bread to soak up the juices in the bottom of the bowl.