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?