Rosie's astute snout is a sniffing machine. Sniff, sniff. Snuffle, snuffle. She moves with purpose, rooting around in the earth in the Waipara Valley, just north of Christchurch. She is a beagle with a difference, hunting down a bounty of black Périgord truffles.
For this particular excavation, Rosie and her owner Gareth Renowden had me in tow, attempting in my amateurish, twitchy-nosed way to sense out a fungal bouquet of my own. It's exciting stuff, surveying the land, digging the soil, making a right old mess of things. But none of this seems special or evolutionary to locals – certainly not to Rosie – rather just part of the spoils of having such a lush, bountiful and fertile landscape.
New Zealand is an over-spilling allotment, flanked by the Pacific Ocean, and for a visitor like me, the munificence of produce creates wild envy. People's relationships with their larders are almost spiritual here, though it makes me wonder: do Kiwis actually know how good they've got it?
I arrive into Auckland – the largest city in New Zealand, in the north of the North Island – tired and bleary-eyed, seeking out coffee. I find it at The Shelf and Remedy Coffee, then follow it with soft-shell crab and a thick chowder at The Crab Shack on Princes Wharf. It's immediately obvious that this is a city obsessed with food; restaurants, street stalls, and food trucks all promote Kiwi produce, from condiments and dressings direct from back gardens to the popular Pascall Pineapple Lumps I see numerous kids munching on (though production of the latter has recently moved to Australia).
tikification of pacific food has done maori cuisine no favours
And, while Auckland has a worldly gathering of fast-food outlets – all of the mingled aromas of a Chuck'N'Chicken, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, and a vast array of noodle takeouts – places like The French Café, Orphans Kitchen, and Ponsonby Road Bistro, proudly promote regional fare.
Beyond Auckland, too, Kiwi ingredients are supported at markets in an ever-growing local-seasonal-organic food movement. Towards the southeast corner of the North Island, in the Hawkes Bay region, I visit a growers' market at Black Barn vineyards; a charming example of local produce promoted within the community. A collection of pop-up stalls are housed beneath a ring of plane trees, and it's here that I try my first whitebait fritter – a New Zealand favourite that's usually somewhere between an omelette and a pancake, depending on where you're eating it – drink outstanding flat whites, and buy a jar of the country's famous mānuka honey.
It's important to remember that, despite the snow-capped mountains, ski fields and dense glaciation, New Zealand is a Polynesian country, right down to the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands, where the southernmost corner of the Polynesian Triangle reaches. Food is naturally a reflection of this, and there's a growing movement to bring the food traditions of the Māori – New Zealand's indigenous Polynesian people – to a greater prominence. While here, I eat kokoda (a traditional Fijian raw fish dish), taewa tutaekuri (a native purple potato), and meals prepared in ground ovens called hangi.
It may be the backbone of the country's culinary heritage, but Māori cooking remains far from mainstream, and the global 'tikification' of Pacific food has done the cuisine no favours.
It is, however, finally beginning to be incorporated into day-to-day dining, thanks to people like Monique Fiso, a chef who left the fixed kitchen behind to create a pop-up restaurant called Hiakai, based in the capital, Wellington. Hiakai pops up in unexpected and far-flung locations, where Fiso reimagines traditional Māori cuisine in a contemporary context.
Another is Māori chef Charles Pipi Tukukino Royal, who I join for a morning of foraging at his home, half an hour from Rotorua in central North Island. Royal is a former field chef in the New Zealand Army, as well as working for Air New Zealand's in-flight catering service. He runs a business – Kinaki Wild Herbs – based on sourcing indigenous treats from the native forests, and is a leading figure in the rediscovery of wild herbs and edible ferns (generally overlooked since early Māori settlement) that have now been elevated to contemporary fine food status.
Together we tread the bush, picking horopito (wild peppers), pikopiko (edible ferns), and kawakawa (bush basil). Lunch is a five-course blowout, and everything that we eat apart from a brown trout has been picked, plucked, pulled and gathered from nature this morning. "People talk about self-sufficiency and foraging – the importance of knowing your surroundings – but that's always been the Māori way," says Royal. "It's not a new thing for me."
What is beginning to emerge is a cross-pollination of foods; a brave new world in which the old blends seamlessly in a unified Asian, European and Pacific-Māori cuisine. Jeremy Rameka of Pacifica in Napier – voted Restaurant of the Year by Cuisine magazine's Good Food Awards – is a leading advocate for Māori food, making use of quintessentially New Zealand ingredients such as kina (a type of sea urchin), sea snails, eel, and muttonbird.
countless chefs are promoting regional, seasonal produce
On the South Island, Giulio Sturla of Roots restaurant in Lyttelton near Christchurch, a Chilean chef raised in Ecuador with experience at three Michelin-starred Mugaritz, integrates many indigenous ingredients in his menus, such as garden-grown garlic and koji (fermented barley). "We should understand that we are a diverse and multicultural country and have the best produce you'll find in the world," says Sturla.
With each Kiwi I encounter, I make a point of asking what ingredients and dishes define New Zealand cuisine for them. It's an interesting and useful study with myriad answers: lamb, pies, crayfish, whitebait, Akaroa salmon, anything dairy. Few, however, mention native ingredients or Polynesian cooking techniques.
Despite this, I see more and more indigenous elements incorporated into dishes while I'm here, presented in both a casual and fine-dining context. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these places put great emphasis on location, too, with restaurants overlooking lakes, vineyards or the ocean, while others are attached to a kitchen garden promoting sustainability and a robust agrarian philosophy.
In Christchurch, the South Island's largest city, I meet Jonny Schwass at his Ilex Cafe in the botanical gardens, and together we tackle a truly gargantuan pavlova with fierce determination. Next, I head 75km east to the volcanic Banks peninsula, where Lou and Ant Bentley of Akaroa Cookery School feed me pink and luscious smoked Akaroa salmon, taken flapping that morning from waters ten metres from where we're sitting.
Returning to Christchurch, I chat to Alex Davies at his restaurant, Gatherings, where the plant-based menu is informed by Davies' decision, in 2015, to leave the kitchen and work on an organic vegetable farm in Swannanoa, North Canterbury. It's commonplace today for chefs to talk about the stories behind their ingredients, promoting a narrative of local, seasonal and organic, but how many actually travel to the source of those stories or work the land?
More than ever before, apparently – in New Zealand, at least. Since I landed in Auckland, I've met countless chefs who are promoting regional produce and incorporating it into dishes that lean on seasonality, not to mention the country's cultural and culinary heritage.
To find out more about visiting New Zealand, see newzealand.com. Cathay Pacific offers a choice of three fight routes between the UK and Hong Kong, and onwards to Auckland and Christchurch (seasonal flight) from £755 return. These include five flights per day from London Heathrow and daily flights from London Gatwick and Manchester. For more information about routes, and to book head to cathaypacific.co.uk or call Cathay Pacific on 0800 917 8260.
Along with this has come a palpable patriotic buzz, and a strengthened food system – one the UK could learn from – that emphasises exporting more and importing less. The Ministry of Primary Industries' website carries a clear message: 'New Zealand's primary industries are focused on export markets.' In short, feed the country the good stuff and export the surplus to the world.
Which, for you and me, means going straight to the source. Believe me when I say it's worth it, for a taste of the world's most exciting new culinary movement.
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