Eating Otago

Eating Otago – Virgil Evetts

 Like many New Zealanders, I’m better travelled internationally than within my own country.  It just seems so much easier to fly to Queensland than Queenstown. We’re funny like that in New Zealand. Maybe it’s our bottom-of-the-world inferiority complex [HIV to the tall poppy syndrome’s AIDS] – how could our own fair shores be as good, if not better, than anything across the ditch and beyond?  Well, it’s not so much that in my case, it’s more to do with the knowledge that whatever corner of our fair fiefdom I choose to visit will be full of other New Zealanders. No offence, but I get enough of them at home. I travel for culture [which makes my fondness for Northern Queensland rather baffling], for landscape, for history, and most significantly, for flavours that I can’t get at home. You know- the usual conceited middleclass nonsense.  

Well, we might not have much variety in the culture department here, but all the other boxes get a firm tick. With this in mind, I’ve been making an effort to see more of my own country and to open my eyes and mouth to all that her provinces have to offer. Because let’s be honest, all hand on heart, God of Nations carry-on aside, we live in a remarkably beautiful country.  We grow, manufacture and ferment some of the finest things that will ever pass your lips. The reasons to travel domestic are legion.

In this vein, I recently spent a week in Cromwell, Central Otago,  the very heart of the NZ stone fruit industry and what is now considered to be one of the greatest wine producing regions in the world [as opposed to all those great vineyards on Jupiter].   We stayed with my best beloved’s father, who is establishing a lifestyle block orchard on the shores of Lake Dunstan.  It’s a ridiculously picturesque spot; in fact the scenery of the entire region is overflowing with vast beauty, to an almost desensitising degree.  Soaring mountains with craggy snow-strewn peaks,  desolate valleys of wind-swept tussock and vast braided rivers. On top of all that Lord of the Rings out-takes footage splendour is a wealth of great local produce, which even on a bad day makes a compelling reason to visit Otago

Cherries

Those of us in the North of New Zealand have it tough when it comes to cherries. Needing a cold, dry winter they simply won’t set fruit up here.  Sure, there’s no lack of them in our shops over summer, but the difference between a tree- ripened cherry, bought direct from the orchard, and the fruit that turns up in Auckland is quite profound. Tree-ripened fruit have a perfect balance of acidity and sugar, a rich meaty texture and full rounded flavour. Store-bought cherries taste mealy and flaccid by comparison . You can’t drive far in central Otago without passing untold caged cherry orchards.  So precious is this crop that rather than netting the trees individually the entire orchard is kept in a retractable bird-proof cage. This incredibly pricey undertaking [tens of thousands of dollars per hectare] is the only way to keep the birds, and apparently more than a few thieving humans, off the fruit.  In peak season orchard prices drop to as little as $5-$7 per kilo and locals apparently get quite sick of cherries.  I can’t fathom it but I hear the same happens with crayfish in Kaikoura. In the space of a week I did come close to overindulging in cherries myself, but it was more an issue of gastric turbulence than a jaded palate.  I’ve heard of people travelling to Thailand specifically to eat mangosteen  , but flying for 12 hours for fruit is a bit beyond my passion and budget. On the other hand, a one hour flight to Queenstown for an annual cherry binge seems perfectly reasonable.

Apricots

Another fruit that just doesn’t survive the trip north with its dignity intact.  A fresh, perfectly ripe, and preferably sun-warmed apricot is like a fuzzy little sphere of summer; juicy, sweet as honey with a gorgeous toothsome texture and heady fragrance. Exquisite, swoon-worthy bliss. Unless you have access to a very good fruiterer, don’t waste your time with fresh apricots in the upper North island. They’re picked too early and although pretty enough, lack flavour and finesse.  Do look out for the dried ones from Otago though- these are the dried fruit of your childhood, sour but fragrant and luridly coloured.  Perfect in mustard fruits and ever welcome in lunch boxes.

 Unfortunately the season hadn’t quite kicked off in Otago when I was there but I managed to pinch a few fruit from a woefully unsupervised orchard. I don’t advocate this sort of thing but they were just so temptingly orange.

Wild thyme

The hills around much of Otago are blanketed in wild common thyme.  Technically the plant is a weed [introduced by settlers], and not terribly popular with DoC, but like gorse in the North Island- it aint goin nowhere. Unlike gorse however, it’s a versatile beast in the kitchen.  Due to the tough growing conditions in the mountains – freezing winters, blazing summers and very little water for years on end – Otago wild thyme is powerfully flavoursome; with a pungent,  peppery burn on the palate. Common, well watered garden thyme, despite being the same species tastes like some insipid salad green by comparison.  Wild thyme marries superbly with rustic country dishes like spit roasted lamb, giving the fatty, savoury meat a distinctly high-country accent.

Shrek, central Otago’s inexplicably famous bag of dags feral sheep staggered out of the wilds in 2004 after 6 years of grazing on wild thyme and other mountain herbs. While the rest of the country adopted him as some sort of icon of pluckiness all I could think of was dinner.  In the immortal words of Homer Simpson;   “this is lamb, not a lamb”

Rabbit

In the North Island we hear about what a terrible pest rabbits are in the countryside, but visit any farm up here and you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. The rabbits are there all right, hopping about in their cute rabbity way, but in fairly modest numbers that amount to little more than a Peter Rabbit-scale nuisance in the lettuce patch.  In the high country of the South Island it’s a very different story. Down there Peter has gathered about 12 million of his nearest and dearest and they’re having a massive, hood-rattling party. They’re a menace [and just a little menacing], hopping about in large arrogant groups, indifferent to the daylight, pock-marking the landscape with burrows and eating all plant life to the ground. Despite my animal loving leanings, I was happily shooting at them with an air rifle by the first evening.  Wild rabbit is a fabulous meat, and would feature prominently in my diet if I lived in a bunny-besieged locale. It makes excellent stew, can be grilled with herbs, cooked in wine and cream, made into ragu and even squeezed out as sausages. Yes, Thumper can be a little stringy at times, but he makes up for it with bucket loads of flavour. Lock and load.

Honey

Great honey can be found all over New Zealand, but two of the best, including one that I regard as New Zealand’s best kept food secret are produced exclusively in Central Otago. Vipers Buglos is a scraggly form of echium that paints the hills and valleys of Otago blue every summer with its nectar rich flowers.  It yields a superb, light honey with a bouquet like a summer meadow. So maybe I did steal that descriptor from a shampoo bottle, but it’s all true.  This honey isn’t overwhelmed with the polleny notes or deep earthiness of many other New Zealand honeys and it’s great on hot, buttery toast or in nice cup of Earl Grey. But by far the greatest honey of the region, and as I said earlier one of the finest foods coming out of NZ, is Otago thyme honey. The word elixir can be used here without a trace of hyperbole. During the spring/summer flowering season, hives are placed high in the thyme covered hills. The result is a honey with a deep, complex and almost overwhelmingly herbal flavour. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I just can’t get enough of the stuff. In winter I make sweet, fried ravioli which are stuffed with Gorgonzola and liberally drizzled with thyme honey. A real show stopper.  If you don’t feel like going to that much bother or you don’t do cheese and sweet, try a teaspoon dissolved in a little hot water and mixed into cold milk. The perfect, fragrant sleeping draft.

 

I’m sure I’ve just scraped the surface of the food delights on offer in Otago and seeing as I’m bound to be down there again, local knowledge would be welcome. Likewise I’d love to hear your regional favourites from around the country. I’m sure there is a reason to visit Hamilton, so convince me!

PS

I happened upon an amusing post script to this article last week when I opened the menu at the very decent O’Connell street bistro in Auckland – Pappardelle of braised Bendigo Station Rabbit, rimu smoked Bacon, Walnut Watercress pesto & Parmigiano Reggiano: $36. Somewhere in those craggy Otago hills is a gun toting Southern man who is laughing [between sips of Speight’s] all the way to the bank at the stupidity of latte loving JAFAs who pay for mainland vermin. Very nice it was too.

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