New Zealand Food Tour for FT

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New Zealand Food Tour
– By Shoba Narayan

(This article originally appeared in May 2005)
For being such an isolated faraway country, New Zealand is a veritable culinary cornucopia. There are olives for the pressing, berries for the picking and wines for the sampling all within a span of miles and sometimes within the same village. Happy sheep bound about the bucolic countryside feasting on the verdant meadows, all of which, no doubt, add flavor to New Zealand’s prized lamb. Salmon, trout and whitebait frisk and frolic in pristine lakes and rivers yielding meltingly fresh seafood that grace many a restaurant’s platter. Bluff oysters, Akaroa salmon, Nelson’s King scallops, West Coast whitebait and Kaikoura crayfish—these are the bounty of New Zealand’s waters. There is beef, ham and venison too from cattle reared on rolling hills and wide-open pastures. I’ve never seen such happy animals as I have in New Zealand and they all probably add to the taste of its cuisine.

This is an old land but a young country. The Maori chanced upon it in 1350 A.D. when they rowed across the Pacific from Hawaiiki. The Irish and English discovered it a mere two generations ago bringing with them a hardy ‘food as fuel’ philosophy that was reflected in hearty roasts, potatoes and dark ale. “Used to be that a big night out would be to Barry’s Bistro for Steak Diane and a big cask of Muller Thurgau,” laughs Debbie Baldook, executive chef of the Millbrook Resort in Queenstown. In the last ten years however, Kiwi cuisine has gone from being ‘roast of the day’ to dishes that are startlingly inventive or completely out-of-control depending on your point of view. Mussel soup with passionfruit mousse anyone?

Devoid of a culinary tradition—the Maori hangi feasts don’t seem to have made a dent in the current cooking scene—New Zealand as a country embraces innovation. Chefs are encouraged to experiment and come up with fusion-combinations that borrow from the cuisines of the Pacific Rim. The results can be incredible or inedible. One restaurant served up a giant flax leaf wrapped around a tiny bowl containing an infusion of some sort. I wasn’t sure if the foot-high flax leaf was a wrap or ornament. So I simply sent the dish back. As Chef Michael Maguire at the Lakes restaurant in Christchurch says, “Sometimes you end up paying $36 for what is essentially several layers of garnish.”

Maguire himself is wary of such histrionics. His food is as earthy and harmonious as the Canterbury countryside on which it is based. He scours the world for spices and condiments but uses them sparingly. His pan seared scallops with pineapple salsa and coconut sorbet is a fine reflection of his teenage years in Singapore and his apprenticeship with three-star Michelin chef Marco Russo in the UK. Like most chefs, Maguire has to please two sets of mutually exclusive diners— older Christchurch locals who are wary of spices and a younger, more worldly clientele that seeks nouvelle cuisine. “I run a very flexible kitchen,” says Maguire. “There is no grandstanding. Basically, we’ll cook whatever the customer wants.”

For being a medium-sized city with a population of 366,000, Christchurch has more cafes and bars per head than anywhere else in New Zealand. Moroccan, Mexican, Indian, Turkish, Spanish, Old English, you name it and they have it. Christchurch is also a city that pretends it is in old England with hedge-lined squares where boys in white play cricket and a Victorian tramway that ambles along cobblestone streets. Men in hats can take you on a ‘punt’ along the Avon River in traditional English flat-bottomed boats and Hagley Park is a picture of manicured perfection.

Christchurch’s café and bistro scene, however, is decidedly modern. Black-uniformed wait-staff briskly take your order and come back with sandwiches or paninis stuffed with ingredients that are sourced from around the world: hummus, tzatziki, couscous, kale, miso and curry are all proffered and accepted. Vegetarians and vegans are graciously accommodated without much fuss. And restaurants, even the finest ones resist brocaded stuffiness. The service at 50 on the Park at the George Hotel, one of the city’s oldest dining establishments, for instance, is formal yet friendly. Nathan Bates, the executive chef sources the world for his spices and inspirations and works with over 40 local suppliers including foragers, bakers and beekeepers for ingredients. The results show in his sparkling if pricey cuisine. A duo of Canterbury lamb cutlet and cut of loin costs $32 while mains at the seafood-focused Pescatore restaurant upstairs start at $41.

There is a reason for this high price and it is one that locals rue: the best lamb, seafood, wines and oils are exported. If local chefs want them, they have to pay export prices. Most chefs make do with the B-grade stuff which is quite good by global standards, while the chefs at top restaurants pass on the expense to their customers.

For those willing to pay the price, however, New Zealand offers a bounty of produce, dairy, seafood and meats in the most startling of places. At the tiny mountain village of Geraldine, en route to the glaciers of Mount Cook, I encountered some exceptional cheeses in a tiny store. Talbot Forest Cheese, they were called, and they were all produced locally. I sampled some perfectly ripe Chevre le Blanc—a camembert made from goat’s milk, some aged Gouda, a creamy brie called Canter-brie in a nod to the region, and a smoky Manuka before buying the whole lot for the road.

Right next door, Barker’s Berry barn offered a variety of jams, preserves and chutneys neatly lined up in bottles alongside free samples for tasting. The apricot, boysenberry and blackcurrant jams were fresh and tasty as were the wildberry and orange preserves. But what caught my eye were the chutneys: capsicum and apricot, green tomato and jalapeno, tamarillo and plum and spiced beetroot. I can’t say that I liked all of them but the interesting and sometimes outrageous combinations typified New Zealand’s culinary sensibility.

After fifteen days of driving around the South Island, we realized that the climate and scenery seemed to encourage artisanal products. In obscure small towns, we found chocolatiers, cheese-mongers, herb and lavender farmers, butchers, bakers and icecream-makers practicing and perfecting their craft. Beesonline mixes vinegar and honey and sells its ‘honeygars’ nationwide. Prenzel Distilling Company sells apricot, peach and sour apple schnapps with butterscotch cream at the Grape Escape gourmet outlet in Nelson. Kinaki Wild Herbs sells herbs that the Maori used such as koru, pikopiko, horopito and kawakawa, all of which can be infused into native avocado oil to give an instant Kiwi flavor to dishes. Pacific Harvest company promotes kelp and seaweed. And Salumeria Fontana seasons sausages with Sicilian sea salt, black pepper, Southland elephant garlic and Italian wine. Organic vineyards such as Sunset Valley in Nelson follow biodynamic sustainable viticultural practices.

Outside Queenstown, we found a line of berry and fruit orchards lining the road and stopped to pick cherries and sun-ripened strawberries. We sampled extra virgin olive oil at numerous presses all over the country, a legacy of the late Israeli horticulturist Gideon Blumenfeld who planted his first olive trees in 1985 and is now considered the godfather of New Zealand’s burgeoning olive oil industry. Athena Olive oil serves up some wonderfully fruity lemon-infused olive oil that are stocked in the Canterbury region. Up near Nelson, we stopped in at the Stafford Lane Estate, which grows olive and native fejoia trees beside its vineyards. I bought a peppery picholine olive oil which worked well for the Indian cuisine I cooked. As for the fejoia jam, all I have to say is that it is an acquired taste. Stafford Lane also stocked Dukkah, which is an spice-mix made of hazelnuts, coriander, cumin and sesame, somewhat reminiscent of the Israeli Za’atar. But all these were expensive. A small bottle of olive oil was $12.95.

Bread is booming in New Zealand perfected in family-owned bakeries that have, in some cases, carried sourdough starters from the old country. Rachel Scott breads have a cult following around Christchurch, while Redwood Bakkerij specializes in moist ‘half-baked’ baguettes. A minor revolution is the widespread availability of savory scones, pies and muffins. Unlike the US where muffins are cloyingly sweet, New Zealand has mastered the savory counterpart. At the Founder’s Organic Brewery in Nelson, where I sampled pints of micro-brewed beer with chirpy names like Tall Blonde, Redhead and Long Black, the in-house café sold a delicious feta cheese and sundried tomato muffin. At the Riverside Café which is part of the Riverside Community that “promotes peace through cooperative and sustainable living,” we wolfed down some savory spice-encrusted muffins while waiting for our lunch. When our crisp French fries and thin pizzas finally arrived, we could barely do justice to them. At the Hislops café in the whale-watching crayfish-eating haven that is Kaikoura township, we became smarter and lunched on a tasty burger along with some onion and cheese muffins, all washed down with a few glasses of sauvignon blanc.

Wineries are of course a major driver of the food revolution in New Zealand. After all, when the quality of the wine improves, you need food to go with it. Many wineries have in-house cafes and restaurants that serve to showcase their product. The in-house restaurant at the Pegasus Bay winery takes its cuisine very seriously and was in fact shortlisted for one of the top ten restaurants in New Zealand by Cuisine, New Zealand’s foodie magazine. The food at Pegasus Bay was deep on flavor and a perfect foil for their wines. We walked in without reservations and were told that there was a 45-minute wait. The same was true at the Carrick Winery restaurant near Queenstown. After a while, we got the message: if you want to lunch at these immensely popular winery restaurants, you’d do best to call ahead. At Pegasus Bay, our wait was rewarded with a cool apple and celery soup with truffle scented Athena oil and a handmade pumpkin and marjoram tortellini with a summer vegetable nage, all washed down with Pegasus Bay Reisling.

The Gibbston Valley winery goes one step further. In addition to the wine-tasting and full-service restaurant, there is an in-house cheesery that sells a variety of homegrown cheeses. We sampled their cheese board that offered its washed-rind cheese called ‘Monk’s Gold,’ its savory cheddar and soft brie.

Artisanal cheeses are being perfected all over the country ranging from the venerable and large Kapiti cheeses from the North Island too smaller producers like Whitestone, Talbot and others. With milk and butter being so abundant, cheese is only the natural next step. Most New Zealand cheesemakers go for the more straightforward cheeses however, rather than the more obscure ‘smelly’ European cheeses. They seem content perfect a smooth brie instead of attempting a complex gruyere. And why not? This after all is most definitely not a nation with 536 varieites of cheeses. New Zealand has 53,000 sheep and for the Kiwis, perfecting a few world-class sheep’s milk cheese is just as satisfying as trying their hand at the tricky ones. In his website, Kapiti cheese’s chairman says,
So there you have it, two culinary trends running parallel to each other. On the one hand, the Kiwi inclination towards self-effacement, restraint and quietitude and yet, on the other, this inventive playfulness, this constant innovation towards extreme-cuisine as it were from a nation that invented bungy-jumping and thrives on extreme-sports. The taciturn mountaineer a la Edmund Hillary, the national icon is just as much a Kiwi stereotype as is the voluble adrenaline-junkie Prime Minister Helen Clark who didn’t know about the Asian tsunami disaster because she was heli-skiing in Norway over Boxing Day. The question for the future is which will win out—extreme cuisine or restrained roasts.

Debbie Baldook, executive chef at the Millbrook Resort thinks that her country is over fusion, Pacific Rim and incessant invention. “Now it is all about putting clean, clear flavors on the plate,” she said while at the same time appealing to the ever-growing sophistication of the Kiwi palate. Perhaps because they are so isolated, New Zealanders are more attuned to global goings-on than other countries. They travel the world and sample its wares. They are open-minded and accepting of new things, be it spices or flavors. Baldook for instance, offers tahini sauce with her veal tenderloin and none of her clients—local or tourist—bat an eyelid, she says.
“New Zealanders are much more innovative than, say in the UK,” says Alan Hibberts, originally from London. “They are open to new flavors in a way that the English aren’t.”

“We are a shy people,” says Richard Tanner, chef-owner of Malabar, an Asian fusion restaurant in the alpine spa-outpost of Hamner Springs where vacationers come to take in the waters at the region’s hot and thermal springs. Tanner has lived and cooked in 88 countries across the globe including New York, London, Spain, India and Thailand. Originally from Hanmer Springs, he came back home to roost and roast here. His cuisine reflects his global travels and Kiwi moorings.

Chefs such as Tanner reflect the new Kiwi: world-travelled, sophisticated, open-minded, blessed with a bounty of ingredients and finally knowing what to do with them. “For the first time, I think we aren’t looking to Europe or America or Asia for inspiration,” says Bates. “We aren’t look inward. We are figuring out what we as New Zealanders can cook and eat.”

And my, what a feast that will be.
This article originally appeared in may 2005.
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