More than Kiwis

More than Kiwis

Mikkel Vang
Mikkel Vang

Traversing New Zealand's North and South Islands on a feeding frenzy, Matt Lee and Ted Lee sample olives, kiwifruit, grass-fed beef, abalone, Pinot Noirs, paprika chiles, even kipikipi.

Exactly 500 trees rise in orderly ranks from the slate and shale of Creekside Olive Estate, one of the newest agricultural enterprises to emerge from the Wairau Valley, on the northernmost part of New Zealand's South Island. Each tree is about the size of an SUV stood on end, and has the manicured grace of bonsai, its olive-laden branches cascading down in a vase-shaped canopy as its leaves point eagerly upward. As the trees' sculptor, Ken Prain, showed us around the grove—sun hat pulled low, cargoes belted with a shears holster—his pruning echoed the skittish movements of the Jack Russell that nipped at his heels. "I don't have a minute snip off snip from my pruning snip-snip," he said, with good-natured resignation; his groves yield twice the fruit of less coddled olive trees. We kept our hands close to our sides.

Prain's wife, Libby Fulton, is the palate of the pair, deciding when the olives are ripe for picking and blending the varietals to make an oil with the ideal balance of fruit flavors, piquancy, and bitterness. Fulton discovered real olive oil while living in Florence in the sixties. "When I returned to New Zealand," she said in the pressing and sampling lab that overlooks the grove, "the only olive oil I could find was at the chemists'—refined stuff for putting in your ear. Ghastly, really." She poured us small cups of an oil with an electric hue somewhere between emerald and chartreuse and a flavor that evoked green apples, ferns, and grass, with a peppery bite that would make any Florentine envious. Of the 600 liters of oil Prain and Fulton pressed in the 2002 season, just seven bottles remained when we visited in April, a testament to their pruning and pressing methods and their triumph over common hazards like the olive fly, an insect that gives the oil a higher acidity. "When you pick up a defect in an olive oil, you know there's been some shortcut," Fulton said. "The oil never lies."

In 1984, when Dr. Gideon Blumenthal first imported olive trees from Israel to Blenheim (where Creekside is located), there wasn't a single olive-oil press in the country. Today, just 20 years later, there are 800 producers, a national trade organization, and more than 2,475 liters exported every year. Prain explained that an international profile (read: more exports) is essential for the nascent New Zealand olive oil industry: a storehouse filled with last year's bottles is the norm among his competitors. "No market has been established here for the oil," he said. "Kiwis don't really know what to do with it. Still, everyone's scrambled into the business of growing olives."

This blend of let's-have-a-go-at-it pluck and oil-never-lies pragmatism has contributed to an unusual situation in New Zealand: many of the producers are so intrepid, and such quick studies, that they've become too successful too soon, outstripping the country's capacity to consume new flavors and foods. It's an island nation awash in exquisite wines, house-roasted coffees, varietal olive oils, grass-fed beef, jumbo crayfish, and heirloom gooseberries, but with a populace quite content to make a dinner of roast and lager. Still, culinary adventurism has undoubtedly increased here over the past five years, driven in part by the burgeoning urban restaurant scene, continued immigration from the Pacific Rim, the popular magazine Cuisine, and a host of weekend cooking schools in the cities of Wellington, Auckland, and Christchurch. It's also likely the result of this flood of fantasy foodstuffs. What chef wouldn't jump at the chance to experiment with New Zealand's bounty? Or for that matter, what traveler?

New Zealand's food boom and its gold-rush quality made a journey at summer's end, high harvest season, irresistible. And we were curious to know what had become of the indigenous culinary tradition—the food of the Maori, who named these islands Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud) when they brought their canoes here, approximately a thousand years ago, from a distant Polynesian archipelago. We were curious about paua, the prized New Zealand abalone; wanted to taste puha, the bitter greens; and were eager to find karengo, a purple seaweed that grows primarily around these shores. After a quick touchdown in Marlborough, on the South Island, we charted a voyage that would take in as much as possible of the North Island. Restaurant-hopping and market-snooping in Wellington and Auckland would be our only goals, with plenty of vineyard and farm visits in between. En route, we'd also hit Hawke's Bay, the North Island's up-and-coming wine region.

We got a glimmer of what had befallen the Maori food scene before we left Creekside Olive Estate. By chance, an editor from Cuisine breezed into the tasting room. She was researching a Marlborough food guide, and as she sipped her samples, we couldn't help asking if she could point us toward a definitive Maori food experience. She nearly choked on her oil. "Definitive Maori food experience?" she sputtered. "That's like me asking you for a definitive Red Indian culinary experience in the States!" In the chill that followed, we made a mental list: Narragansett johnnycake in Rhode Island, Cherokee yellow-jacket soup in the mountains of Georgia, Navajo fry-bread tacos in the Southwest... We thought better of refuting a local expert, but at least our trip now had a mission.

The following morning, dawn broke through the casement windows that spanned the width of our room at Hotel d'Urville, a friendly, informal inn retrofitted in a crisp Greek Revival bank building. Outside, Blenheim seemed fast asleep. But that aura belied the harvest activity going on in the vineyards on the outskirts of town, where some of New Zealand's most famous wines—the Sauvignon Blancs, especially—were being created. We dropped in at Lawson's Dry Hills, a 10-acre vineyard set in a plain beside Napa-like hillsides. Barbara Lawson, who owns the winery with her husband, Ross, took us through a range of astounding whites: a crisp, tart Sauvignon Blanc with the characteristic ferny flavor (some liken it to that of gooseberries), a peachy Pinot Gris, and a Riesling with a wisp of honeysuckle. We sipped new Sauvignon Blanc juice that had been in the cask only four days; milky-yellow, it was odd stuff, vaguely familiar, almost like vanilla-laced pineapple juice. We weren't able to taste Lawson's trophy 2002 Gewürztraminer, because it had sold out after winning a gold medal from the Air New Zealand Wine Awards. That vintage was made from the fruit of the very first vines she and her husband had planted, 20 years before ("My back still remembers it"). In those days, Barbara was a full-time surgical nurse, Ross a sheep farmer looking for a more profitable crop, when they saw an ad in the newspaper for Gewürztraminer vines. "I didn't even know how to pronounce it," she said, "but it seemed like a good way to use the land."

While we were tasting, a blue dump truck rumbled into the drive, its bed heaped with grapes, juice dripping from the tailgate. Lawson's Dry Hills' two young winemakers, Mike Just and Marcus Wright, and their crew rushed to meet it. The air was thick with a sticky-sweet aroma reminiscent of green peppers and ripe papayas. Just, a wiry thirtysomething sporting a ponytail and an eye patch, tipped a cheap wineglass into the stream of juice dripping from the de-stemming machine, and we all held our breath as he paused to appraise a whole season's worth of sun and rain and effort. He shrugged. "Not bad. It was a difficult year," he said, an assessment we'd hear throughout the trip. Evidently, late-spring frost had reduced productivity countrywide.

Ross Lawson showed up just as we were leaving and wouldn't let us go without asking what we thought of the Pinot Noirs we'd tasted thus far in New Zealand. We admitted we'd already had some lovely ones, including his own (all blackberry and cherry tones), but we thought it might be tough for New Zealand to put a dent in Oregon's stellar reputation in the U.S. market. His brow furrowed. "I'm worried New Zealand growers are overplanting Pinot Noir," he said, and it reminded us: winemakers in Europe have the benefit of two millennia of trial and error; California winemakers have more than 100 years. Lawson's Dry Hills, considered an older winery in New Zealand, has been planting for only 20 years.

After a handful of vineyard visits, we raced back to the tiny Blenheim airport to catch the 30-minute flight over the Cook Strait to Wellington, New Zealand's capital, on the southern tip of the North Island. The prop plane, which hadn't seemed that small on the ground, rolled and pitched like a kite in the wind. By the time we landed in Wellington, we were ready for stiff drinks and headed straight to the Roxburgh Bistro, an attractive Victorian frame house in a swank, hilly residential district just off the city center. The dining room at Roxburgh is purple and slightly dour, but it was packed, and the kitchen was hitting some high notes like melt-in-your-mouth oxtails paired with blue cheese and pickled carrot. An aromatic saffron rice cake with crunchy muscat grapes and pistachios was a vegetarian triumph. But it seemed like the kind of meal we might be served at the fresh-and-local temples in San Francisco. We'd come so far—shouldn't we be eating something we couldn't get stateside?

Our search for a food experience unique to New Zealand led us, improbably, to Maria Pia's Trattoria. It was five minutes past closing time when we arrived, but the restaurant, in a darkened district near New Zealand's Parliament, was radiating the kind of Big Night energy of a small-restaurant owner's dreams. Fresh pasta and wild boar sausage were still being served. A fire glowed in a tiny freestanding fireplace whose chimney breast seemed yellowed with a half-century's worth of Friday nights like these. In fact, the restaurant had celebrated its inauguration just 14 months earlier, presided over by a Maori priest who blessed the new establishment. Maria Pia De Razza-Klein had in short order become a minor expert on Maori customs and cuisine, lobbying the legislators who frequented the restaurant on behalf of Slow Food, the international organization dedicated to saving and celebrating regional fare (her husband, Richard, directs its Wellington chapter).

De Razza-Klein emerged from the kitchen, effusive, idealistic, and, with her thick Leccese accent, unmistakably Italian. She held us in thrall as she deconstructed the Kiwi mind-set and rhapsodized about the foods she'd discovered in her adopted homeland. Much of what she'd learned about Maori cooking, she said, she'd gotten firsthand, at the Porirua Market in the suburbs outside Wellington. Fortunately for us, the market would be starting in under an hour (it runs from midnight to 9 a.m. on Saturdays). She sent us on our way with some plum paste she'd made that day, and we drove north out of Wellington to Porirua.

In the early dawn light, the market appeared as a glowing whirlpool of activity in an otherwise mundane suburban setting—the parking lot of a mall, a stone's throw from the highway. Vans and plywood tables stood cheek by jowl, displaying a colorful array of tender produce and smoky edibles. Within five minutes we'd had our definitive modern Maori food experience—several of them. One seafood-centric vendor, Pete's Mobile Café, sold luscious purple-black fritters made from chopped local abalone (paua) and onions, served hot from the fryer on a bun. It was more burger than fritter, and tasted deliciously buttery and mushroomy, the way an escargot burger might. Several stalls sold feijoa, a dusky green fruit that seemed a cross between a lemon and a kiwifruit. When we bit into it, the flavor was distinctive, with a tropical, guava-like sweetness that resolved into a slightly musky, resinous aftertaste—not our favorite. A young brother-and-sister team with broad, freckled Maori features sold Rewena bread, a spongy sourdough made from a fermented-potato starter, and kipikipi, a biscuit the shape and size of a sunflower. Each petal of the flower had a dark brown center, tinted with soy sauce and garlic. It was gorgeous-looking and faintly sweet, with a shortbread consistency. We bought puha greens (sow thistle), New Zealand's answer to dandelion greens, arranged into fans and stacked in layers. Ota Ika, a Tongan delicacy—raw fish soaked in coconut milk, lime juice, and chiles—was sold out, but we tasted a Maori "boil-up," a hearty stew of intense pork broth, pork bones, kumara (yellow sweet potato), pumpkin, dumplings called doughboys, and watercress.

Fueled by the market discoveries, we were among the first through the door at Te Papa Tongarewa, a soaring modern edifice that looms over the Wellington harbor. Te papa tongarewa means "treasure chest for precious things" in Maori, and the museum houses a narrative history of New Zealand, from its geographical formation, to the arrival of the Maori from their ancestral home, Hawaiki, to the modern, multicultural society the country has become. The jewel of Te Papa is a marae, a Maori meeting hall, which dominates the museum's top floor. Like the thousand-odd marae throughout New Zealand, this is part community center, part stage, and part work of art, with ornate carvings and scrollwork.

The museum has already won awards and accolades for its inventive exhibits, but perhaps its finest accomplishment is having a restaurant, Icon, that must be the most lovely and well-adjusted museum restaurant in the world. Chef Peter Thornley's food is ambitious without being strenuous, like his Akaroa salmon (the South Island's best salmon) smoked over ginger tea with purple karengo seaweed fronds, sea salt, and local olive oil. The fish was sparkling, deep mango in color, with a gentle smokiness that bridged the salty-fishy karengo and the herbaceous shot of olive oil.

We left Wellington on a road that traced the island's western shore, angled east along a rocky, canyon-like riverbed, and later opened up into ranchland. When we reached Napier, a sleepy town on the shore of Hawke Bay whose streamlined Art Deco façades (some of which incorporate Maori symbols in their ornament) seem to lack only a Packard or a Duesenberg at the curb. We chose Napier as our home base for a few days. The Hawke's Bay region is a leeward coastal plain about the size of the San Francisco Bay area whose temperate climate is ideal for agriculture and whose farmers' market, in a field outside Hastings, south of Napier, is the envy of Kiwi epicures.

There, among the stalls selling heirloom varieties of potato, goat cheeses, and organic meats, we caught up with growers Hilary and Richard Anderson of Orcona Chillis 'n Peppers. The Andersons smoke their paprika chiles over manuka wood (tea tree) to make a sweet-hot condiment that is the apotheosis of pepper flakes, the perfect sprinkle over a poached egg or split pea soup. They have a difficult time selling more-piquant sauces because Kiwi palates are only slowly becoming attuned to the sensation of spice and heat. "We could never have been in business ten years ago," Hilary said. Her chile-and-feijoa jam was fruity and tropical, kicked up with enough pepper flavor and heat to mask the funk of feijoa while bringing out its guava-like qualities. It was sublime with a smear of goat cheese on a cracker.

From the market, we set off for the Gimblett Gravels area of Hawke's Bay, a few minutes' drive from Havelock North. Until the late eighties, the Gravels was considered some of the leanest, cheapest land in New Zealand, suitable only for strip mining or low-cost housing. Then a maverick grower planted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes there with great success, and these days the future of New Zealand's red wine industry—predominantly Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons—is in part being bet on the vineyards of the Gravels. One of these, Unison, makes only two wines, both tannic Bordeaux-style blends of Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet intended for cellaring. Its wines are the closest thing to cult vintages that New Zealand has, and getting one's hands on a bottle can be a challenge. Upon arriving at Unison we found not a soul. We honked the horn and Bruce Helliwell emerged from a garage and ushered us down into the small cellar where his wines are aged. There, amid clouds of fruit flies, we tasted just one wine—the earlier-drinking style he calls Unison. Helliwell and his wife, Anna-Barbara, had been winemakers in California, Tuscany, and Germany, and had returned to the Gravels in 1996 to strike out on their own. Literally. All the work on the 15-acre estate they perform themselves, by hand. "I'm the tractor driver and the bird scarer too," he said.

The following morning we sped northwest back to Auckland, along a route that climbed through timber forests and rockier terrain punctuated by thermal springs that sent a sulfury, lacy steam into the air. Just outside the city we stopped in Avondale, to track down another legendary New Zealand produce market. This one, in the parking lot of a racetrack, seemed to draw people from the whole South Pacific and most of Asia. The smell of damp gingerroot, mint, and lemon thyme hung in the air. Women in saris and burkas competed for the raw peanuts, long melons, bok choy, and the last watercress of the season. We bought a lunch of angel-hair chop suey and one of the most transporting liquid experiences of the entire trip: an oily, fruity hot cocoa—koko—brewed from roasted beans ground by hand into coarse crumbs that swirled around in the brew, giving it a slightly chewy texture.

The melting pot we'd encountered in Wellington was even more exuberant and churning in Auckland. At the swank Italian restaurant Gault at George, we found flashes of Tobiko, daikon, and wasabi among the pecorino, cippolini, and prosciutto di Parma. Even at the low-key neighborhood restaurant One Tree Grill, in the Epson district, we found Japan and India in the same bite: quail wrapped in nori and tempura-fried, with a spot of tomato pickle.

As global as Auckland's palate seemed to be, everyone we eavesdropped on was drinking their native wine. We visited 21 restaurants, and on most of the wine lists, nine out of 10 bottles were from New Zealand. Although the wine culture in the country is quite new, the rarefied aura that hovers over wine service in the States seems largely absent. People drink wine not because it's exclusive but because it's a delicious component of everyday life.

Small wonder, then, that Kiwi winemakers are leading the world in embracing the screw cap, on even their finest vintages—it's simply the shortest path to the wine they love. And we'd drink to that any day.

November is high spring in New Zealand, the weather is temperate, and the summer crowds have not yet descended. A rental car is indispensable, especially for the longer hauls from Wellington to Napier (about 5 1/2 hours) and Napier to Auckland (about six hours). If time constraints force you to limit yourself to the North Island, drive the eastern route to Napier through Martinborough to visit some of the winery and market action you missed by skipping Marlborough.

Hotel d'Urville The jewel of downtown Blenheim: 11 stylish, themed rooms and one of the best restaurants in Marlborough. DOUBLES FROM $175. 52 QUEEN ST., BLENHEIM; 64-3/577-9945;

Scenic Hotel Te Pania A budget property with boutique aspirations. Light-drenched rooms overlook Hawke Bay. DOUBLES FROM $113. 45 MARINE PARADE, NAPIER; 64-6/833-7733;

Hilton Auckland So far out into Auckland Harbor, you feel as if you're on a docked cruise ship. DOUBLES FROM $140. PRINCES WHARF, 147 QUAY ST., AUCKLAND; 800/445-8667 OR 64-9/978-2000;

Gault at George In tony Parnell, classic Italian fare, with dips into the Pacific for ingredients like the New Zealand oysters on offer. DINNER FOR TWO $60. 144 PARNELL RD, AUCKLAND; 64-9/358-2600

Icon Peter Thornley's menu is an effortless mix of traditional and contemporary New Zealand. DINNER FOR TWO $74. MUSEUM OF NEW ZEALAND TE PAPA TONGAREWA, CABLE ST., WELLINGTON; 64-4/801-5300

Maria Pia's Trattoria Pasta, ciabatta, and sausage are made from scratch each morning at this local favorite. DINNER FOR TWO $65. 55 MULGRAVE ST., WELLINGTON; 64-4/499-5590

Mussel Boys Restaurant A funky roadside shack—the perfect place to try New Zealand's popular green-lipped mussels. DINNER FOR TWO $45. 73 MAIN RD., HAVELOCK; 64-3/574-2824

Prime A sun-splashed, lunch-only bistro with a superb globe-trotting menu. LUNCH FOR TWO $58. PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS TOWER, 188 QUAY ST., AUCKLAND; 64-9/357-0188

Otto's The chic and well-heeled come here for chef Jason Bartley's daring compositions, which are grounded in his meticulous technique. DINNER FOR TWO $60. METROPOLIS BLDG., 40 KITCHENER ST., AUCKLAND; 64-9/300-9595

RD1 at Sileni Ambitious fare with a local, fresh mission seems to be the mantra at this Hawke's Bay winery restaurant. DINNER FOR TWO $70. SILENI ESTATES, 2016 MARAEKAKAHO RD., HASTINGS; 64-6/879-8768

Terroir A French country bistro on steroids, where excellent wood fire-grilled meats and fish rule, with occasional nods to Asian and Kiwi fare. DINNER FOR TWO $70. CRAGGY RANGE WINERY, 253 WAIMARAMA RD., HAVELOCK NORTH; 64-6/873-0143

Creekside Olive Estate A small grove with exquisitely delicious, handcrafted oils. 774 RAPAURA RD., BLENHEIM; 64-3/570-5372

Hawke's Bay Farmers' Market A Sunday-morning market with lots to taste. "We massage and pat our cows," says one producer of grass-fed beef. TOMOANA SHOW GROUNDS, KENILWORTH RD., HASTINGS;

Kumeu River Sophisticated Chardonnays are this family-run winery's forte. 550 STATE HWY. 16, KUMEU; 64-9/412-8415;

Lawson's Dry Hills Get a sip of Ross and Barbara Lawson's impressive Gewürztraminer before it's gone. 238 ALABAMA RD., BLENHEIM; 64-3/578-7674;

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa A must for any visitor to New Zealand. The history of the country is told in riveting narrative displays and exhibits. CABLE ST., WELLINGTON; 64-4/381-7000;

Porirua Market A uniquely Kiwi culinary experience, with vendors selling Maori, Tongan, and Asian delicacies. MIDNIGHT TO 9 A.M. CITY CENTER PLAZA, PORIRUA

Sail NZ Crewing aboard an actual America's Cup boat that sails around Auckland harbor is quite a workout, but it affords stunning skyline views. VIADUCT HARBOR, AUCKLAND; 64-9/359-5987;

Unison Vineyard Even though Bruce and Anna-Barbara Helliwell may not make a wide variety of wines, the ones they do are worth the trip. 2163 HWY. 50, HASTINGS; 64-6/879-7913;

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