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More than Kiwis

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.

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