ANNA KING SHAHAB VISITS A REGION THAT’S SETTING THE STANDARD FOR WHAT A THRIVING FOOD COMMUNITY CAN LOOK LIKE.
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Anna King Shahab discovers a thriving food community that’s setting the standard AN EASY HOUR’S DRIVE from our second-biggest city is one of our most exciting food and wine destinations, a region punching above its weight when it comes to staking New Zealand’s culinary place in the world. We spent a few days getting familiar with the southern hospitality, and meeting some of the folk chipping away at making North Canterbury a stellar example of what a regional food hub in New Zealand can look like. DAY ONE The drive from Christchurch to Amberley, North Canterbury’s main centre, is a doddle (even in the pouring rain, which honestly doesn’t happen much here, but I’m known for bringing it with me). It’s too wet for the local farmers’ market, so instead we call into Amberley’s favourite café, the Nor’Wester, to catch up with Angela Clifford of The Food Farm (her family’s permaculture home farm) and Tongue in Groove Wines. As its CEO, Angela has been a seminal voice in the Cuisine supported Eat New Zealand initiative, so we chat over coffee about something she’s a firm believer in: the uniqueness of North Canterbury’s food community and the way it fits into a wider New Zealand culinary story. Angela runs wild food and wine tours with The Big Foody, plus if you’re keen to green your fingers, her How to Grow Your Own Food workshops at The Food Farm are perfect. Having already done her farmers’ market visit, Angela gives us a parting gift – North Cantab gold, a few loaves of local baker Rachel Scott’s sublime bread. It’s our first taste of it this weekend, and thankfully not the last. norwestercafe.co.nz; tongueingroove. co.nz; eatnewzealand.nz; thebigfoody. com; rachelscottbread.co.nz It’s still raining when we leave the cafe but never mind, we’re going 15 minutes up the road to the Waipara Valley and Black Estate’s annual Truffle Day Out, so it feels somewhat like we’re heading into the dark eye of a truffled, winesoaked perfect storm. Black Estate’s cellar door and restaurant sits atop the Home Vineyard, one of their three sites. Seated for lunch, we gaze out over a landscape that goes vines, foothills, mountains, Southern Alps. For today’s lunch, chef Jacob Stanley has prepared all five courses using local truffles. We feast on baked Nadine potatoes smothered in truffle butter, three-cheese soufflé with truffle sauce, a risotto of porcini and truffle, and the best duck I’ve tasted in ages – Canter Valley confit legs sitting atop Périgord potato mash with cavolo nero. Winemaker Nicholas Brown talks us through the wines he has matched to each course. All these wines are aged, and all of them sublime. Sitting with Nicholas and his wife Penelope Naish, who works on the restaurant and marketing side of Black Estate, we hear about how this business has its feet firmly on (and in) North Canterbury land. Nicholas is as passionate about organic wine production as it’s possible to be, yet he cuts through jargon and the potential for fluff with a practical, intelligent approach to describing his choices. “We believe organic and biodynamic farming is the best way to achieve the best possible produce from our sites. It’s about soil life – improving the fertility and life of soil – which means healthy vines with vibrant produce, packed with flavour. “In the winery we minimise additives which would influence the inherent flavours from the site. We put the wine in the bottle as simply as possible and ensure we don’t dress it up too much with too much new oak, filtration or adding fining or other inputs.” Penelope talks about the way the restaurant reflects their overall ethos. “We want the dining experience to give guests a sense of place, of what Black Estate wine is about. Good wine can express its site, so we want the restaurant to complement that, with local, organic, wild and seasonal produce. Sitting here, guests can see the working vineyard, the landscape our wine grows in, and our wait staff often work in the vineyard too. For us as owners, it makes running this business feel honest and fun.” blackestate.co.nz DAY TWO Breakfast is more of that heavenly Rachel Scott bread, with a cuppa, on the deck overlooking Greystone vineyard; we’ve spent the night under the stars in the glass-ceilinged PurePod, tucked over a ridge at the outer reach of the vines. greystonewines.co.nz; purepods.com A quick drive inland, into limestone hill territory, takes us to King Truffles, where we accompany owner Jax Lee and her lab/pointer/collie cross Freddy on a truffle hunt. Jax’s truffière of evergreen oak trees and some hazelnut is inoculated to produce Périgord, Bianchetto and Burgundy truffles. Freddy’s nose is well worth the insurance premiums. We’ve barely entered the farm when she indicates with a swift, dainty scrape of the soil the presence of black gold – a Périgord truffle. It’s over to Lee, who with her bare hands gently scoops out topsoil, sifting it through her fingers to find the prize. Kneeling down and pressing her nose into the soil, Jax invites us to do the same. The aroma of a truffle in the soil is magnificent: rich and sweet. Arriving early for our lunch booking at Pegasus Bay (which the locals all call Peg Bay), we stop in at the cellar door for a tasting and chat with Ed Donaldson, marketing manager and son of the founders. Ed’s worked in the business since he was young enough, as he puts it, to be “paid in scoops of ice cream” when helping with planting in 1985. He worked as head chef in the restaurant for many years too. The wine we taste is delicious – every bottle matured for at least a year, and every profile very much unique to this land. Ed tells us a little about the food production at Pegasus Bay. Thanks to the vision and hard yakka of his green-fingered mother Christine, there are oak and pine nut trees (producing truffles), several varieties of fig, olives and stonefruit aplenty featuring on the restaurant menu. Lunch is delectable. Cold-smoked warehou meets quince sorbet; delicate steamed monkfish cosies up to pickled daikon in a deeply satisfying shiitake consommé; and local Angus sirloin and fried oxtail is cleverly spiked with boquerones. pegasusbay.com We’ve just time to call in to Greystone, where manager Nick Gill talks us through the distinctive flavours. “With the sauvignon blanc, we wild ferment each wine in its own barrel, meaning it keeps its original character and gets additional richness from the lees.” The pinot gris sees them opt for concentration over quantity, spacing bunches out to give the grapes more sun. A lower yield, but a bigger flavour. “Sometimes,” admits Nick, “it costs us as much to manage the Sand Dollar pinot gris vines as our pinot noir… but essentially, we can’t compete in volume in the Waipara Valley – the weather is too unpredictable – so it’s sensible to instead aim to make the best.” We hardly needed dinner, but couldn’t miss tasting the local beer at Brew Moon, where they also happen to make good woodfired pizzas in a truck in the courtyard. Belinda Gould and her husband Kieran McCauley caught the brewing bug living in California in the 90s. Back in NZ, locally raised Belinda worked as a winemaker while Kieran began the brewing business in 2002, but it was when Belinda decided to enter the brewing thing full swing in 2011 that Brew Moon really kicked off, and the couple’s sons Toby and Oscar are on board now too. “We use malt from North Canterbury, Nelson hops and local fruit such as cherries and apples go into the saisons,” explains Belinda as we make our way through a tasting paddle. “One reason we started the brewery was we felt with wineries open only during the day; having a beer option at night made sense.” brewmoon.co.nz It’s that symbiotic, common-sense approach shared by producers here that makes North Canterbury its own perfect, delicious little ecosystem. *The writer was the guest of Black Estate during the Canterbury Truffle Festival