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On a chef’s trail in New Zealand

By Sudeshna Ghosh | January 11, 2015

Travel-new-zealand

We travelled to the ‘land of the long white cloud’ to discover the beautiful country and its fabulous produce, with a chef for company. Excerpts from her travel journal.

Blades of grass. That’s how detailed the conversation got, when we were 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 to New Zealand with chefs Roy Soundranayagam, Group Executive chef of Food Fund International (they’re the guys behind Meat Co. and other successful restaurants – so they know a thing or two about their meat) and his protégé Prabakaran Manickam, Area Head Chef, Food Fund International, and winner of last year’s Taste New Zealand cooking competition held in Dubai by the New Zealand Trade & Enterprise. I’ve been to cattle farms before, but 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 our first glimpse into the famed New Zealand countryside was adequately impressive. “It’s beautiful! Everything is so green all around,” the two chefs gushed like excited schoolboys on a field trip as we cruised 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. Seeing the landscape firsthand 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 the chances of having a lot of nasties put into your food are a lot slimmer here than most other places on this planet. Why would you, when everything tastes so much better when it’s natural and fresh?

Back to those cows. After listening to Farmer Andy – owner of one of several family-run farms that produce New Zealand beef – wax eloquent on exactly what type of grass his cows 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?) as Chef Roy peppered him with questions, we made our way back to the ANZCO offices, who market this beef, to enjoy a steak lunch.

When travelling with a chef, the question of who does the cooking isn’t usually a question even. So Roy happily manned the BBQ in the balcony, and got to work as the sizzling aromas wafted through the boardroom, even as he observed how cooking the meat on a flat cooktop on high temperature gives a good caramelisation, and seals the meat. I usually like my steak with sauces and lots of accompaniments, but this simple meal of tender, juicy, just-grilled slabs of meat, accompanied by a homemade coleslaw, turned out to be unbelievably delicious!

This particular kind of Angus cattle enjoys a 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, drinking artesian water that comes directly from the Southern Alps, and their entire life cycle is free from hormones, antibiotics and most importantly, stress. I was sold!

Over lunch, the conversation revolved around everything from global meat prices to off-cuts and everything in between. As we left, the chef asked to try their long-fed beef (200 days of a grain diet), which he reckons might pack in even more flavour.

In fact, throughout our trip, our chats never steered too far away from food, cooking, eating – whether it was swapping stories about the most unusual things we’d eaten, or chef telling me about the menus and new restaurant concepts he’d been planning on his flight in; even as the rest of us feasted on gourmet menus on the Emirates A380 business class cabin (with much of the produce coming from New Zealand), and kicked back on the flat-bed seats, he was hard at work on the long-haul flight!

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 isdefinitely 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 grow free-range 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, 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 – Roy had pointed out to me earlier that only Mediterranean lamb enjoys a similar sort of natural diet – 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, with Roy, ably assisted by Prabhakaran, taking over the kitchen for the evening. On the menu were mouthwatering Merino lamb chops – simply grilled with a cumin-ginger spice rub – lamb loin with wholegrain mustard, salad and roast potatoes. The chefs also tossed up a quick pasta with pesto and pan-fried salmon, while dessert was a light Kiwi fruit sorbet that Annabelle had made. “The lamb has a lot of flavour,” opined Roy, who’d really liked the farm operations. “Even though I did very little with it, it was still juicy. I’d eat it again!” As we lingered over our lovely dinner, washed down by fine New Zealand wines, enjoying the warm hospitality of our friendly hosts, I couldn’t have agreed more.

If that evening was memorable, then the view and soundtrack I woke up to the next morning was even more so – 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. Tucking into the delicate, subtly flavoured fish from the back of our cars, Roy wondered out loud about how it would taste in a hot-smoked avatar. Luckily, just then another pack containing the smoked version was whipped out, and the unanimous answer was – it tastes delicious! “It’s interesting to see salmon being farmed as fresh water fish,” said Roy (these salmon are farmed in hydro canals offering swift currents to offer a healthy habitat for the fish). “They don’t taste as ‘fishy’ as some other salmon, and are also lower in fat. I think they’d be great lightly pan-fried, medium rare.”

If I thought that was the freshest fish I’d get to taste, I clearly hadn’t seen anything yet, as within a couple of days, I found myself out in the breathtaking surrounds of the Marlborough Sounds (a network of fjords on the northeast tip of the island), on a boat, eating just-caught mussels. But more on that later!

Vintage affair

On this day, 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.

Clearly not just an authority on food but a wine enthusiast too, Sri Lankan-Australian Roy not only soaked up all the information, asking plentiful questions along the way, but his choice of purchase, an expensive vintage, proved to be something the winemaker personally approved of!

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.

Throughout the meal, the professional’s critique of the restaurant continued – ‘is the butter soft enough, or straight out of the fridge?’ ‘Should a croquette be coated in béchamel sauce?’ – and towards the end, when head chef Chris came out to say hello, little did he know we’d end up having a nearly hour-long conversation about produce sourcing, New Zealand cuisine, and everything in between. But here, the chef 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, on that afore-mentioned mussel farm. Having travelled from Queenstown – stopping over for a quick bungee jump on the way at the world’s first bungee spot, as you do! – to the picturesque Marlborough Sounds region, we were about to be taken on a rare trip to a mussel farm.

The chef’s enthusiasm was visible the next morning – “I love fishing!” he’d revealed to me on the boat ride – as, while the rest of us staggered out bleary-eyed for a 6am start, he was already conjuring up what he’d like to do with mussels. “Just a few shallots, garlic, tomatoes and a splash of white wine can turn fresh mussels into a beautiful dish,” he said.

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 we needed however. By the time we reached the mussel harvesting boat anchored in the midst of the spectacular fjords, we were all eyes and ears. This was a first-time experience for all of us, 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.

The good news? You can buy these mussels here too, thanks to Omega seafood, who retail these sustainably farmed mussels (and clams) in cleaned, pre-cooked and vacuum-sealed form at your friendly neighbourhood Spinneys or Waitrose supermarket! I tried their clams in a spaghetti vongole, a simple concoction with pasta and white wine, a few days later, and it was one of my most memorable meals.

I have plenty more ideas up my sleeve of what to do with this beautiful seafood, as Roy kept coming up with new ideas and recipes on our journey back. The whole trip seemed to be in equal measures inspiring and enlightening, for both me and him. As he put it, “It’s important for us as chefs to get to see this; it’s a story to tell, that we get to share with our customers.” And the main story here is that in New Zealand, 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.

TRAVEL DIARY

Getting there
Emirates offers daily flights to Auckland (and Christchurch) from Dubai on its glamorous A380 aircrafts. The perfect way to travel for a long-haul destination such as this on their business class cabins, featuring flat-bed seats, Bulgari amenities, and gourmet cuisine such as grilled beef steak with truffle jus, sautéed spinach, grilled cherry tomato and roasted garlic potatoes for dinner, and chive scrambled eggs at breakfast, with plenty of snacks to keep you going in between. When you’re whiling away the hours enjoying the plethora of on-demand entertainment, socialising at the manned bar for premium passengers on the upper deck, and sleeping it off, the 18-hour flight seems a breeze. Emirates also has dedicated lounges at all key airports in Australia and New Zealand, and complimentary chauffeur drive service at most airports. Ticket prices start from Dhs7,650 for economy, and Dhs23,700 for business class. www.emirates.com

BLACK BOOK

Here are some of the experiences on our travel trail that even you can experience:

  • Omarama station farm-stay: www.omaramastation.co.nz.
  • Peregrine winery wine tours: www.peregrinewines.co.nz.
  • Rata restaurant, Queenstown: www.ratadining.co.nz.


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