With culinary traditions and a natural bounty that spans the vast country, the charms of New Zealand’s gastronomy are endless and deeply rooted in its history.
This is probably the last apple of the season,” jokes Kate McMillan as she picks a yellowing apple off a tree that’s shedding its last autumn leaves. She drops it into her basket and tramps across the long, drying grass to pick fistfuls of spiky chestnuts from the ground. She leads us back to the car, which we’ve parked on an unpaved slip road, and drives further along the Wicker Pass in North Canterbury, flanked by looming limestone outcrops. Further ahead, we stop to walk along the grassy plain where she points out the countless stalks of wild parsley, dandelion and pea shoots on the ground, pulling out what she thinks she’ll need to cook our lunch.
Kate is a born-and-bred North Canterbury girl. Brought up on an organic beef and fine wool sheep farm in New Zealand’s Hurunui region, she trained as a chef and worked in restaurants in Auckland before venturing overseas. On a working holiday in a small hotel in Spain, Kate found herself cooking produce sourced from around the area and was inspired to return home to do the same.
“The meals we cooked (there) were truly an expression of the region and I came away convinced that this was really the way food should be sourced and prepared,” she says. “That experience inspired me to return home to set up a catering business based on these principles in a New Zealand context.”
New Zealand has long been known for its unique quality produce that grows throughout its 268,000 square kilometres. Equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom, the country is populated by just 4.6 million people—that’s less than the number of people crammed into Singapore—which means much of its landscape remains blissfully unpopulated and largely unsullied by human habits. From this vast land with its myriad micro climates comes produce like olives and truffles, milk and lamb, fruit, cheese, chocolates, and of course, wine.
“What we have is so unique and special, but we haven’t been very good at telling our story to the world,” says Angela Clifford, who is behind our day’s food and wine tour. “New Zealand has become known as a list of exported ingredients.”
Angela is among a new wave of New Zealanders who are hoping to change that. Among the many hats she wears is that of co-owner of The Food Farm, located a 50-minute drive north of Christchurch. At this small permaculture farm, Angela grows her own food, from fruit and vegetables, to animals like milk cows and pekin ducks. She also runs her own wine label called Tongue in Groove Wines, and is the chief executive of Eat New Zealand, which works to grow the international profile of New Zealand food.
“In North Canterbury, we’ve always lived our lives close to our food. This is our opportunity to show the world that you can create your own meaningful connection to what you eat,” she continues. “We know it’s difficult for people who live in cities to grow their own food and really make that connection, so we want to give them the opportunity to spend time with us, slow down, and experience it.”
Wine, Truffles and a Dog Named Rosie
Because we’ve come on a wet, dreary, almost winter’s day, we have to miss the tour of the farm where Angela would typically demonstrate how to milk a cow, explain the fruit and vegetables they grow, and collect wild produce that grows on the grounds, which are now miserably bog-soggy.
Instead, we meet at the 110-year-old stone farmhouse belonging to husband and wife Gareth and Camille Renowden just a short drive away. At their 10-hectare Limestone Hills farm, the Renowdens grow four types of truffles, as well as pinot noir and syrah grapes for their small-batch wines. After downing a warmly fragrant slice of rhubarb tart made by Angela and a hot cup of tea, we head out to the grounds where a bright-eyed beagle named Rosie sniffs out truffle after truffle from the limestone-rich soil at the foot of oak trees.
The rest of the morning is spent foraging for edibles with Kate before we head to Greystone Wines where she cooks lunch with the ingredients we’ve collected and others she’s brought. There is crisp-skinned duck confit with a bright salad of the greens we’d picked, plump slivers of cured salmon, and dessert of Jerusalem artichoke ice cream with a tart cherry compote. Sated, we spend what remains of the afternoon traipsing through Waipara’s finest wineries, tasting the region’s celebrated Pinot Noirs and Rieslings.
Fresh Off the Boat
For city folk more accustomed to picking our produce off supermarket shelves, there is something truly special about being able to eat off the land and sea. It’s one thing to eat a freshly shucked oyster that’s travelled several hours on a plane from a different continent, but to be able to pluck an oyster right off the water’s racks and slurp it up immediately is a primal, salty pleasure.
That’s exactly what a ride on the The Shuckle Ferry, New Zealand’s only oyster farm tour based in the township of Matakana, offers. Departing from picturesque Scotts Landing, just an hour’s drive from Auckland’s city centre, the openair ferry cruises towards Historic Browns Bay where wild oysters grow on rocks and Pacific oysters are farmed on wooden racks in the water.
Owner and operator Phil Morris takes groups of up to 16 people for one or two-hour tours during which he explains how oysters grow and are farmed in the area. He then jumps in to the water to pick the briny bivalves off the racks for guests to enjoy on the ferry with champagne, juice and other delicious treats.
The Land Before Time
This tradition of eating off the land in New Zealand precedes its European settlers. Long before truffles, cheese and potatoes arrived on the country’s shores, the Maori had been eating what grew naturally off the vast land.
They hunted, fished and foraged, turning flora and fauna into food and medicine. But as colonisation sank its roots deep into the land, the Maori succumbed to the convenience foods of the Europeans.
“Once upon a time, we were a perfectly formed race because we ate birds, fish, seafood and vegetables as our main proteins. Now we are the sickest race because we eat so much fast food and western food… and sugar.” says Maori chef Charles Royal as we trudge through the forest at the back of his home in Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island.
Charles stops at the trunk of a fallen tree, pointing out the plenitude of mushrooms that have sprouted from its bark before gathering them into a container. His wife Tanya picks pikopiko—fern shoots that look like fiddleheads.
This foraging trip is part of Charles’ eponymous Maori Food Trails, which offer personalised bush tours, camping trips and home stays in Rotorua. Former restaurateurs, the Royals stumbled onto their calling as champions of Maori ingredients when a customer brought some to their restaurant and asked if Charles would cook them. Though the restaurant did not survive—“it was ahead of its time,” says Tanya—Charles soon found himself travelling the country, conducting workshops and teaching other chefs how to cook traditional Maori produce.
Back at their home, Charles cooks us a lunch of pikopiko soda bread, roasted duck caught from the area, and smoked trout from a nearby lake. Tanya pours us steaming mugs of tea brewed from kawakawa, an indigenous plant with myriad medicinal properties that brews to a lemon myrtle-like astringency.
“The Maori have always known about the food they picked. There were no supermarkets for a long time, so we ate well and healthily,” says Charles as we dine in his sun-drenched dining room. “I think that’s why foraging has become popular, because people want to get back to the land.”
Coming Full Circle
It is an interest that has slowly and surely made its way into New Zealand’s cities. At Fush, a fish and chips restaurant in Christchurch, co-owner Anton Matthews and his family are serving not just Maori produce, but also a glimpse into their native culture.
Fush’s menus are written in both Maori and English, while table toppers encourage guests to learn a little more about the Maori language. The family also only uses linecaught fish. “We work with two Maori family-owned businesses. We tell them what we need and they will go out with big long lines, with like 500 hooks, and what they bring up is what we get. There’s no by-catch, no trawling, no damage to the eco-system. It’s an expensive way to catch fish, but from a Maori point of view, we want to protect the earth, forest, sky and land. We believe that it’s all alive and it’s our job to look out for it.”
No doubt, eating from source is a movement that’s taking hold again in New Zealand. And for its advocates, recovering old culinary traditions isn’t a way of finding new and novel ways to charm world-weary diners. At heart, it is an effort to restore a way of life and chart a conscious, sustainable way into the future simply by looking back.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2019 issue – The Art of Craft.