More often than not, when people speak of New Zealand, the usual conversational suspects would arise: the amusing pastoral myth that there are 20 sheep for each New Zealander or Kiwi as they are affectionately called (in truth, there are about six to one), the nation’s all-consuming fixation with wine and rugby and, of course, the breathtaking vastness of its nature that is so often pegged to J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth realm for his iconic The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was filmed entirely there.
But as I sat ensconced in a helicopter cockpit, at about 1,500 metres above sea level and flying over the mountainous terrain of the South Island’s Fiordland — the conserved national park in New Zealand’s southwest corner — none of the things I have heard about the country readied me for the overwhelming visual majesty below us. Fjords that slash into its coastline, carved by glaciers from erosion-proof granite more than 10,000 years ago; delicate craggy caps, powdered with snow; crystalline lakes and primaeval forests, bursting forth in its untouched state of wilderness.
New Zealand consists of an archipelago of two major islands, the North and South Islands — which together, is known as the mainland — and hundreds of minor islands dotted nearby. Located south-east of Australia, it is geographically far removed from the hullaballoo of the rest of the world.
And it is.
In New Zealand, things move according to a pace that seems to belong to a rural past, not dictated by urbanity. Surrounded by all-encompassing alpine grandeur brimming with verdant flora and prosperous fauna, the laws of nature take prime precedence. It would appear that on a per-capita basis, New Zealand is the most nature-embracing country on the planet. With a population of more than 4.5 million, the nation has some 4,000 conservation groups. The Kiwis are, to borrow the biologist-naturalist E. O. Wilson’s term in its truest form, a prevalent testament to biophilia, a concept that believes humans possess an innate need to connect to nature.
To get to know New Zealand is to be acquainted with its omnipresent gods: the land and the sea. And one way to get closer to these seemingly untouchable beings is through the bounty of their respective harvests. Amid New Zealand’s elemental landscape of sheep-dotted pastures and cobalt sky and the great surrounding ocean, you only truly step into its realm of allegory when you eat of its produce. It was a lesson I learned in the most sublime of ways on a week-long traverse to three coastal destinations.
Framed by the centuries-old silver beech trees on Anchor Island — the gateway to Captain James Cook’s maiden arrival in New Zealand — a glimpse of Dusky Sound’s sun-dappled fjords.
Dusky Sound, Fiordland, South Island
Mark Deaker, the quiet-spoken pilot of our helicopter, lifted off from a floating helipad in Cascade Cove, a small inlet in one the concealed crooks of Dusky Sound, the furthest tip of Fiordland that opens to the Tasman Sea. Deaker and his work mate, Doug Beech, a North Islander sportsman who had chosen to move away and work closer in the great outdoors of the South Island, had spent the whole day generously giving of their time.
Earlier that morning, Deaker, then the captain of our cabin cruiser, sailed us between the towering cliff walls of Dusky Sound, which is scattered with islets, and the day’s cruise was about snaking around them. The boat set sail from the cove and stopped at an islet bay with a trickling waterfall. Without a word, Beech strode to the starboard side and started pulling on a rope that was floating on the water. Soon, the smudged outlines of a metal cage manifested beneath the rippling pristine waters. The cage surfaced to reveal a lobster trap. Inside, six massive crustaceans were crawling. Reaching in, Beech took the second largest one and held it out vertically. The lobster unfurled to the length of Beech’s torso. Under its tail was a glistening blanket of orange eggs. Beech explained that they never keep female lobsters, before pushing it over the edge of the boat, and explained that it would be illegal to have kept the she-lobster. Here, the primordial rhythm of nature is preserved and protected at all cost.
Lobster, or crayfish as New Zealanders would call it, populate the ocean floor of Dusky Sound.
Deaker then brought us away from the coastline. At a substantial distance, where the bay opened towards the ocean, he dropped anchor and handed us each a fishing rod. And in less than five minutes after casting it, Beech, with a smile on his face, unhooked a blue cod from my line, and threw it into a bucket. The reoccurrence of swift captures came easy. More blue cods soon filled our bucket. “We hardly ever need to wait here,” Beech said with a chuckle, noticing the awestruck intrigue that befell the rest of us on the boat. Then again, we were the only ones around. No other boats nor signs of intelligent life were in view for miles away. We had the entirety of Dusky Sound, incontestably, to ourselves. Though the splendour of Fiordland is an ill-kept secret by now, very few get to view the tipping end of the protected expanse. There are no roads and bridges for drivers to pass through. It’s too remote for even the avid hikers to trek through. The plausible way to travel to Dusky Sound is by helicopters or ocean-going vessels. The Alpine Group, the Wanaka-based tourism provider of which Beech and Deaker are employed by, is one of the ultra-select few that offers a day trip to the faraway sound or fjord. Commercial fishers have never been allowed in the conserved area. In return, the ecosystem, untouched, flourishes in a prosperous state that’s closest to its prehistoric state than any other part of New Zealand.
Later on, Beech, having shimmied into a skin-tight wetsuit, flung himself into a nearby bay’s 10° C shallow waters to search for blackfoot abalone, or paua as locals would refer to them by its indigenous Maori name. The black-fleshed sea snail only exists in New Zealand’s shallow waters, camouflaging as coastal rocks. Twenty minutes later, Beech climbed back onboard and proudly presented his catch: two pauas — one female, one male.
With the boat anchored right by the island where Captain James Cook first moored his ship in New Zealand, Deaker prepared the day’s catches on deck.
We set off thereafter, and as the boat inched closer to Anchor Island, the storied site where Captain James Cook first moored his ship in New Zealand, Deaker switched off the engine. A heavy silence fell, lifting gradually to reveal bird calls in the distance, and the faint babble of countless tiny waterfalls pattering down slopes festooned with moss and ferns. Then we heard the sizzle of butter on hot metal, its subsequent aroma filling the air. Towards the stern of the boat, Deaker had begun pan-frying our catches on a portable gas cooker. Meanwhile, at the centre, Beech was unwrapping a cheese board, before uncorking two bottles of South Island wines – a sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region and a pinot noir from the Central Otago region.
Lunch was a feast. The dishes were, wonderfully, straightforward: pan-fried blue cod fillets and lobster meat, sweet in their literal sea-to-plate freshness. There was no elaborate preparation nor fancy plating, only liberal squeezes of oranges and sprinklings of salt and pepper. The pauas were shelled and chopped into thin strips before they were cooked, their chewy texture, bringing to mind that of calamari, owned a distinct flavour closer to that of a steak, rather than a shellfish.
It was there, on an anchored boat adrift by a bay that, perhaps, still looks exactly like it was when Captain Cook arrived in the 18th century, flanked by the lofty cliff walls of a magnificent fjord, that I began to grasp the breadth and depth of the relationship between New Zealand and its seas and oceans. And a substantial part of that has to do with the bounty its residents harvest from those waters.
At Wharekauhau’s estate, its sheep-dotted hilly expanse is melded with the sweeping coastline of Palliser Bay, where a colony of seals loll around seasonally.
Palliser Bay, Wairarapa, North Island
Another inside-looking-out perspective was posited by chef Marc Soper two days prior during a foraging sojourn he led. Soper is the executive chef at Wharekauhau Country Estate, the spearhead of the estate’s kitchen. Wharekauhau fronts the broad sweep of Palliser Bay in Wairarapa. Perching on the south-eastern tip of the North Island, the first of the Maori settlers had given the site its name (pronounced ‘farra-coe-hoe’), which means “place of knowledge”. Today, the estate is run as both a working farm and upmarket lodge with 16 contemporarily Edwardian cottage suites. Its typical guests are the well-heeled in search of luxe seclusion in the midst of New Zealand’s quiet magnificence. (The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had stayed at its three-bedroom house.) It was not unusual for their guests to arrive from Wellington via a 10-minute helicopter flight. Often battered by gales gusting in from the south, the night prior to Soper’s foraging sojourn had ended on a howling note. The morning after, by contrast, was truly delightful: an awe-inspiring scene on Palliser Bay with cattle grazing on the grassy hills above the remains of Maori-owned gardens that are apparently 700 years old. The sea was a make-believe blue; beyond it, the South Island’s snow-capped Kaikoura Range stood out distinctly.
Yet, it was the image of Soper climbing over a fence that separates the open grazing pasture of Wharekauhau Country Estate and the sloping terrain of the nearby beach that would linger in my memory. Under the fence, a spring spills in tendril-like veins. A few hundred metres ahead of Soper, South Wairarapa’s foamy Ocean Beach coastline stretches as far as the eye can see. Behind him, lambs noisily belch on after their ewe mothers against the cloud-speckled sky. Framed by this picturesque setting, Soper bent down and plucked a basketful of watercress from the pristine stream. They were to be served as a salad appetiser to his diners later in the evening. In the summertime, he claims to forage 80 per cent of the kitchen’s produce from around the estate’s sloping coastal terrain of rolling fields, lakes, woodland and approximately 20 kilometres of rugged coastline, where a colony of seals would seasonally visit.
Several times a week, Wharekauhau Country Estate’s executive chef, Marc Soper, picks vegetables from the garden behind the homestead and forages for edible wild herbs to be incorporated into his menu.
To Soper, Wharekauhau’s land is a chef’s dream playground. “It’s like a 5,000-acre food paradise with a lot of diverse stuff growing,” he said, explaining that, harnessing the produce of the estate’s ecosystem, of which is encompassed by the hillside and surrounded by the ocean, is the anchor to his gastronomical philosophy. “We’re making use of the best of both worlds. We don’t do foams or dainty bits and pieces, El Bulli-style, because it doesn’t fit our identity. We’re on a farm stay.” Soper gestured matter-of-factly towards the lush land and wide expanse of ocean beyond it. “We let nature take its course,” Soper remarked. “Everything that is grown outdoors, that doesn’t have unnatural components to added it, they have a beautiful unmistakable smell to it.”
The Kiwi chef would collect bull kelps that are washed ashore at the beach, saving them for dashi and risotto seasoning. The wind brings in parsley seeds, scattering them to grow wildly (“You can smell them from a mile away.”). Soper would pluck what many would consider as a type of weed, and whip them into parsley puree. From the trunks of trees in a grove near the main cottage, Soper would scrape off crinkled leathery films of cloud ear fungus, or elephant mushroom as he calls it. Soper also has his own garden behind the homestead, where he grows a sundry of fruits, herbs and vegetables, organically.
The dishes Soper prepares at Wharekauhau is an honest distillation of the land’s spirit. Largely depending on what the land and sea have to offer, the menus change on a daily basis. Soper’s signature Ora King salmon dish requires him to forage for manuka bark to smoke the fish, wild parsley and karengo (a type of red seaweed that’s related to Japanese nori) to add in a dash of umami. The pork knuckles he serves are usually paired with bush basil (kawakawa in Maori), from his garden, that has been pickled in a jar for three to six months. “People, nowadays, want to know where a product is from; how it’s grown; how sustainable the farming practice is,” said Soper. “So you have to tell the story.” As opposed to simply handing out a menu, Soper would often invite inquisitive guests to trail him while he forages. “There are lots of different food stories in New Zealand,” said Soper. “And mine here is about sourcing locally, from pasture to the plate, from seed to skillet.”
Chef Craig Martin foraging for wild herbs among the field of daffodils in Annandale.
Pigeon Bay, South Island
Back in the helicopter cockpit, our perspective slowly morphed. What looked like an impeccable miniature landscape one would imagine of an idyllic earth from up high engulfed us in its scale-distorting realness. We were making our descent to Fiordland Lodge, where I would be staying for the night. Perched on the edge of the calm lake Te Anau, the glass-panelled wooden building has a spectacular view of Mount Luxmore, where the famous Kepler Track, one of the three ‘Great Walks’ of Fiordland, winds through. As I climbed down from the helicopter, I took in the hauntingly beautiful view, silently parting with it.
The next afternoon, after a flight into Christchurch and an hour’s drive from the city, trailing the outline of Tai Tapu and Motukarara’s hilly topography, I arrived at the quiet little town of Pigeon Bay. Cleaving inland, the glittering emerald waters lap on the velveteen hills. At the end of the narrow street that circles the bay, sits the Annandale estate. The 6,000-acre rural retreat, owned by Mark Palmer, who was born and raised on a New Zealand sheep farm, hosts four different cottages. The quaint homestead is a five-bedroom villa built in the 19th century.
Behind the homestead, an edible garden sprawls. The pretty plot is Craig Martin’s prized possession. Martin, the head chef of Annandale, works with two full-time gardeners to chart and tend to the planting cycle of up to 50 varieties of vegetables and herbs, from bushes of golden raspberries and rosemary to rows of asparagus, onions and celery. A bee-filled greenhouse holds a plot cultivating radishes, lemongrass, broccoli and turnips. Adjacent to it, another greenhouse is dedicated to nurturing micro herbs. A gravelled pathway right by the garden leads to a restored Victorian fernery, where Martin would often come with a basket and snip fern shoots for his dishes.
One of the greenhouses at Annandale.
As Martin showed me around the garden, he told me that the kitchen adheres to a 100-kilometre footprint rule. Meat, like Angus beef and Romney mutton, can be easily sourced from Annandale’s herd of cattle and sheep; vegetables and herbs, from the backyard garden that’s merely a stone’s throw away from the kitchen door. Martin also works closely with local producers who are stationed nearby. For native herbs he doesn’t grow in the garden, he forages. “From my home to the estate, I can pick up 20 to 30 different herbs,” he said. Martin’s home sits by the bay next to Pigeon Bay School, a derelict two-classroom school building, which had been refurbished as Annandale’s staff quarters.
Twice a week, the naturalist-chef harvests green-lipped mussels and fresh seaweed from the rocky cliffs of Pigeon Bay. He invited me to join his bi-weekly escapade.
The craggy rocks of Stony Point at Pigeon Bay is home to thousands of green- lipped mussels, the indigenous mollusc species of New Zealand.
Early the next morning, shod in a pair of gumboots, I followed Martin down a steep cliff. The bay’s low tides uncovered the normally submerged ragged, ocean-hewn surface. Martin called it Stony Point. At closer inspection, the rough jags of the rocks were encrusted with thick clusters of baby mussels. Each was about the size of the tip of my fingernails. Carefully, with a grocery tote in one hand, Martin stepped down to the lowest point of the surface, where the salty waters gently lap against the rocky outcrops. The underbelly of the rocks, as it turned out, was the hotbed to a colony of full-grown green-lipped mussels. With a knife, Martin detached some, and threw them into his tote. He shucked one open and handed it to me to taste. Having only eaten raw mussels from ice-laden bowls at restaurants, I hesitated. “These wild mussels taste different from those that are farmed. You can taste the life of the ocean,” Martin said. “Try it.” I shut my eyes and slurped the shellfish out of its shell. He was right. Unlike anything, the saltiness, bursting in layers, was divine. Martin looked on approvingly.
In the kitchen, Martin preparing to rinse the mussels he collected from Stony Point earlier in the morning.
Back in the kitchen, Martin explained that like Italian nonnas, he tended not to work with set recipes. “I just have it in my head most of the time,” he said, as he began steaming the mussels. Martin’s menus could change in a whim, depending on the season’s available produce, the guests’ preferences and, really, what Martin felt like cooking on the day. With the freshly harvested mussels, the chef decided he would make a hearty chowder out of it. Sitting in the warmth of Martin’s kitchen, I savoured the creamy mussel soup, and a feeling of fullness, of being filled to wholeness, seeped in.
In retrospect, the “jeans-and-boots” sincerity of the New Zealanders I had crossed paths with — like Deaker and Beach, Soper and Martin — made me stop and notice the minutest of elements. The little things, of the land and of the sea, that they extol and protect far long before the rest of the world, in the face of its environmental decay, caught on. To be in New Zealand’s coastal towns is to rekindle an affinity for rawness, simplicity. It’s the slow, human-scaled, somewhat ancient state of arrangements that gives the country much of its endearing charm. In its rurality, the absence of modern developments — of high-rises and high-speed technologies — makes you feel as if it is the last sliver of earth in its most pristine condition.
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