On a taste trail in New Zealand

My journey into the ‘land of the long white cloud’, meeting farmers, producers, fishermen, restaurateurs, and winemakers along the way…

Blades of grass. That’s how detailed the conversation got, when I was at a cattle farm, investigating exactly what type of grass these happy cows, gazing benevolently at us from their lush pasture, were grazing on (clover and rye, apparently, if you wanted to know!).

This was Day 1 of my trip discovering the produce paradise that is New Zealand, with two chefs for company, and while I’ve been to cattle farms before, never had I learnt so much about what goes into, at the grassroots level (literally!), making a good steak.

I’d only just seen the inside of airports, and a bit of sleepy Christchurch after-dark so far, so my first glimpse into the famed New Zealand countryside was adequately impressive.

Cruising through the picturesque Canterbury countryside on the South Island, past miles and miles of rolling green farmland dotted with fat furry sheep, and grazing cattle, the landscape really brought home the fact that it is for good reason that New Zealand has earned a reputation for high-quality, healthy produce – it is a truly clean, green, pristine environment, there is a sense of abundance everywhere, and you can just feel that your ingredients are more natural and fresh here than most other places on this planet.

So, back to those cows. Farmer Andy – owner of one of several family-run farms that produce New Zealand beef – waxed eloquent on exactly what type of grass this Angus cattle enjoy eating, and how he monitors their diet to ensure optimum health (too much of one type of grass can cause indigestion, didn’t you know?); their free-range life on the pastures, followed by about 120 days on a grain-fed diet – on feed that comes from neighbouring farms, completing a highly sustainable cycle – on a sea-facing feed lot; the artesian water that comes directly from the Southern Alps that they drink; and how their entire life cycle is free from hormones, antibiotics and most importantly, stress. It translates directly into taste, I learnt during my steak lunch later that day. I usually like my steak with sauces and lots of accompaniments, but the simple meal I had at the beef exporters’ offices, of tender, juicy, just-grilled slabs of meat, accompanied by a homemade coleslaw, turned out to be unbelievably delicious.

Farm life

Just when I thought I’d got as in-depth as I wanted to when it comes to meat, we were whizzed over to our next stop – the home of Merino sheep. Now, they may be better known around the world for their temperature-regulating wool, but more recently, their meat has become a prized commodity as well, being distributed globally by Silver Fern farms.

Benmore Station, set in the stunning Mackenzie Basin region of the South Island, is one of just a handful of farms producing the unique, premium lamb, one of New Zealand’s best kept food secrets. Nestled at the foothills of the southern Alps, this region is wild country at its best – towns are few and far between, the sky is definitely bluer (it is also a prime astronomy spot), and the rolling plains overlooked by majestic snow-capped mountains come together to make a serene, postcard-perfect landscape – and the perfect habitat for the Merino lamb to grow healthily and happily.

I felt like I’d walked straight into a Shadow the sheep dog book, as I wandered around the pasture on a blustery spring afternoon. Merino lamb roam free on the high country slopes, grazing on native herbs such as wild thyme and tussock, and tended to by the kindly farmers and their friendly dogs, and usually grow to a mature 18 months to two years, before making it on to the plates of a privileged few. This unique diet and environment create a meat that is tender and succulent yet not fatty, and deeply flavoursome, as we found out later that evening over dinner at the Omarama station farm-stay.

Richard and Annabelle Subtil run this family-owned farm and open up their home to visitors, allowing a rare glimpse into life in a working farm, while being couched in comfort. The 19th century homestead has been carefully restored to offer luxurious yet homely accommodation, both within the main house as well as in a gorgeous stone cottage on the grounds, equipped with all the mod cons one would need.

After settling into our respective rooms, we gathered round the fireside for a social meal with some of Richard and Annabelle’s friends. On the menu were mouthwatering Merino lamb chops – simply grilled with a cumin-ginger spice rub – and lamb loin with wholegrain mustard, salad and roast potatoes. We also tucked into pasta with pesto and pan-fried salmon, while dessert was a light Kiwi fruit sorbet that Annabelle had made. As we lingered over our lovely dinner, washed down by fine New Zealand wines, enjoying the warm hospitality of our friendly hosts, I mentally bookmarked this evening as one I wouldn’t forget in a hurry.

But if I thought that evening was memorable, it had nothing on the view and soundtrack I woke up to the next morning… a babbling brook that the stone cottage overlooks, was being visited by a family of sheep nibbling at the grass, kept me company as I sipped on my morning cuppa. After a quick visit to a sheep mustering session – where the sheep are brought in to be weighed and checked up on – we hit the road again, this time to go from turf to surf.

Fishy adventures

I don’t often eat fish for breakfast, but the quaint little café, Wrinkly Rams in Twizel, down the road from the Omarama station, specialised in the seasonal whitebait – it is a small fish only available for two-three months in the year, and widely available in restaurants around New Zealand when in season – so we didn’t hesitate to tuck into some. The traditional way to eat it here is in the form of omelettes, which definitely prepared our palates for all the fish we’d be trying later in the day.

Salmon, to be precise. One of only a handful of regions in the world to farm King salmon, this untouched end of the planet, nestled at the foothills of the majestic Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, offers a picturesque setting for the fish to grow. The fish at Mt Cook Alpine Salmon, the world’s highest altitude salmon farm, enjoy pure glacial water from the Alps, a chemical- and antibiotic-free hand-fed diet, and high standards of aquaculture to emerge as one of the most delicious ones around – as we found out at our impromptu salmon picnic after the farm tour. The delicate, subtle tasting fish is also delicious in the hot-smoked version.

Vintage affair

Next, we were en route to wash down our fish with some biodynamic wine. This stretch between the two towns of Christchurch and Queenstown is one of the country’s prettiest, and therefore, a popular weekend or holiday destination for the locals. The landscape is ever-changing, going from turquoise alpine lakes, green meadows and rolling hills to drier, shrub-filled plains in the space of less than an hour – making it an Instagrammer’s delight. It’s a good idea to save some camera memory space for Queenstown, however, which is one of the prettiest towns I’ve ever been in.

We took the scenic route to Queenstown via Felton Road winery, a boutique winery specialising in organic, biodynamic farming. A tour of the vineyards proved to be hugely informative, and even if some of their farming practices might seem a bit unusual – planting and harvesting according to lunar cycles, for example – their natural, minimal-interference approach to wine-making was revelatory. And the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the pinot noir to be exact, which they specialise in; they also produce a good chardonnay and Reisling. This informal, family-run winery doesn’t normally do tours for visitors, but private tours can be booked if you ask nicely. It’s worth getting an education before forking out the dollars for their wine, which is truly exceptional.

Another exceptional winery that we visited, also in the central Otago region – one of New Zealand’s up-and-coming wine regions, enjoying a continental macro-climate of hot, dry summers and cold winters, thanks to its unique geographic location – is Peregrine. Having won several awards, not just for their wines, but also the architecture – the contemporary winery building is designed to represent a peregrine falcon in flight – Peregrine offers a sophisticated option for visitors to experience New Zealand wine in style. Producing an array of organic wines, Peregrine also specialise in premium Pinot Noir, but they make a fabulous Pinot Gris as well, plus Reisling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. There’s no better way to enjoy their offerings than with a tasting; bespoke tours can vary from a tasting in their stylish modern ‘cellar’ area, to a full-on tour of the vineyard hosted by a sommelier, followed by tasting of up to eight wines, accompanied by a gourmet ‘Viticulturists Platter’ lunch – think, a selection of local cheeses, pear and fig chutney, quince paste, roasted nectarine chutney, smoked salmon, New Zealand salami and chorizo, and locally made breads.

Our consumption of fine Otago wines – and good food – continued that evening at Queenstown’s smartest restaurant, Rãtã. Helmed by celebrity chef Josh Emett, the restaurant is tucked away in a quiet by-lane away from the tourist town’s busier streets. With a daily changing menu representing modern New Zealand cuisine, the restaurant combines gourmet, Michelin-star worthy food showcasing local produce, in a relaxed yet stylish setting with an industrial-meets-natural vibe.

As a table of foodies, we managed to order almost everything on the compact menu – from the smoked warehou croquettes with black sesame and soy mayonnaise; seared Wakanui sirloin with pickled shitake; Moko smoked eel with heirloom beetroot and confit lemon; and rose veal carpaccio with ox tongue, pink onions and smoked oyster cream, to roasted Cervena venison loin with braised cheek, parsnip cream and roast yams; pink fir potatoes with black rye and shallot crumble; and another taste of our favourite Merino lamb with spiced aubergine and broccolini.

Here, when the chef comes by to say hello, he rocks up not in a stiff white jacket, but in a t-shirt rather. The menus aren’t formal leather binders, but straightforward printouts on thick paper. Little things like this really summed up the New Zealand culture for me – it’s low-key, fuss-free, fresh, modern, and genuinely hospitable, with a focus on quality.

Freshness and quality were two things that we found in abundance at our final pit-stop on the trip – the breathtaking Marlborough Sounds (a network of fjords on the northeast tip of the island), where we wound up eating just-caught mussels on a boat.

Having travelled from Queenstown – stopping over for a quick bungee jump on the way at the world’s first bungee spot, as you do! – we were about to be taken on a rare trip to a mussel farm. The drive to the tiny fishing village of Havelock, past dramatically changing landscapes from pine-clad mountains and rolling green valleys to pastoral plains and Hobbit-esque hamlets with names like Woodchester and Rossdale, followed by a bracing boat ride out on the Balaena, a 120-year old whaling boat, watching the mist lift off the glistening ocean as the multitude of fishing boats bobbed about at the pier, was all the waking up I needed, after a bleary-eyed 6am start.

By the time we reached the mussel harvesting boat anchored in the midst of the spectacular fjords, I was all eyes and ears. This was a first-time experience for all of us (thanks to Omega Seafood) so we were intrigued with how the mussels were farmed on thick, moss-laden ropes to closely resemble their natural habitat (they naturally grow on seaside rocks).

After feasting our eyes, we then treated our palates to these large, fleshy mussels, crudo-style on the boat – simply pluck from the rope, unbeard and slither into mouth, much like oysters! It didn’t even need seasoning, with the natural sea salt offering all the flavour needed. We also tried some mussels, lightly steamed, on the boat, and cooked classic-style with white wine and lemon juice later at the pier-side café on our way out, but when they’re this fresh, you need do very little with it.

This whole trip seemed to be in equal measures inspiring and enlightening. Throughout, our chats never steered too far away from food – whether it was eating, cooking, eating or swapping stories. And the main story from New Zealand that I will be dining out on for as long as I can, is that, here, things like provenance, sustainability, and farm-to-table aren’t just trendy buzzwords being bandied about – it is the actual way of life. They take a real pride in taking care of their land and sea, their produce; that’s how it’s always been.

 

A version of this feature has been previously published in BBC Good Food ME.

 

 

 

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