“I’d never seen them before,” Chef Analiese Gregory said of the flax seeds that garnished her dish of crayfish, butterfish, kombu and wild plums. “You see flax plants everywhere, but it never occurred to me to open them up and take something out.” In a world that too often puts convenience over authenticity, it was beautiful to have a reminder that food is all around us.
If you dismiss foraging as a food fad, you’re seriously missing out. Hunting and gathering are as old as human history. As the Hurunui district mayor stated during his dinner speech at this year’s Forage North Canterbury event, it was not so long ago that Europeans were pioneers in this area. And the region had long been an important food source for South Island Maori. On forage day local guides and winemakers invited visiting sommeliers, chefs, and journalists to explore this wine region beyond the vineyards. We traveled to rivers, oceans, estuaries, fields, mountains, and permaculture farms to gather ingredients and then prepare a ten course dinner.
We met at 7am, eighty of us huddled around the coffee pot over breakfast at Black Estate. As event organiser Angela Clifford assigned us to our groups, she said, “this is not a contrived event. This is an extension of how we genuinely live our lives.” With those words, it’s not surprising that she is also one of the voices behind ConversatioNZ, a group in New Zealand’s food industry that have come together to encourage collaboration across the nation. The movement began last year with a discussion around what constitutes New Zealand cuisine.
In his book ‘The Third Plate,’ Chef Dan Barber states that the heart of all great cuisines lies in the challenge of making use of a region’s diverse ingredients. Forage North Canterbury dinner is at the heart of this region’s cuisine. Chefs make use of everything from roadside weeds to sea vegetables, wild fruits and funghi, to fish and game; the forage harvest represents the bounty of the region in its fullest.
Dan Barber goes further, to say that rather than developing from what the land offers, cuisines develop from what the land demands. My dad, an environmental historian, likes to remind my sisters and I that there is very little land in the world that hasn’t been significantly altered by human influence. While most food production ignores the surrounding environment, there are some small scale farms that operate in harmony with it. With that philosophy in mind, the forage teams collected rye from the biodynamic flour mill Millmore Downs, Clifford’s food farm supplied berries for dessert, and the first stop for my team was sheep and goat dairy Aisling Quoy.
Aisling Quoy translates to ‘Field of Dreams,’ named for the state of the land when owners Steve and Lyndal first moved to the site. Nearly ten years later, the couple operates a fromagerie with sheep and goat milk as well as raising pigs, poultry, and vegetables. “Now we don’t need to buy meat, dairy, or produce,” said Steve, “but we had to give up our passports.” The responsibilities limit their traveling now, but inspiration for the farm came from their time spent WWOOFing in Europe. “Everyone knows that Roquefort comes from sheep.” Lyndal said, but it wasn’t until she travelled through France and saw all the sheep that she realised that she wanted to start milking them.
Lyndal showed us to the fromagerie, a milking shed modified from a shipping container. The goats, having already been milked, lounged around the trampoline. The sheep were still waiting, some impatiently, as we had arrived a bit late. Lyndal explained that those with no experience milking cows would have an advantage, because milking sheep is different. With cows, you pull the udder downwards, but with sheep you grip the top with forefinger and thumb to trap the milk, and then wrap each finger around from top to bottom. “Practice on your thumb first,” Lyndal said, “or practice on Maddie’s thumb, she’ll tell you if you’ve got it right.”
They have four sheep, each with different personalities. The first girl was waiting at the gate, and they always get milked in the same order. Vic, owner of the Boneline Vineyard and our local guide, remarked that it’s not true what people say about sheep having no brains and no personalities. “It’s dead wrong,” Lyndal agreed. “They have as much brains as you’ll let them have.” “And sometimes too much personality,” Steve said.
Lyndal massaged the udder to activate the flow of milk, and explained that the lambs in the field head butt the ewes for the same purpose. “They’re pretty tough, in the field you see the babies lifting their mothers off the ground as they feed.” Lyndal said that milking machines suck downwards, but teats are often not entirely vertical, and vary in size. Using the milking machine, she’d still have to get the excess milk out by hand, and at small volumes it’s not quicker.
Lyndal makes thirty types of cheese regularly and produces around 200 kilos a year, but she doesn’t sell them. It costs upwards of $6k annually for audits and testing, and that fee is the same whether its a large scale industrial dairy or the smallest artisan producer. She said that large-scale dairy can afford the audits, but they don’t have the same care for the animals. She gives mastitis testing as an example, industrial dairies test once a week but she does it daily, and there is no substitute for knowing the personalities of the animals. “It makes it hard for artisan producers,” she said. Her cheeses, similar to acclaimed European cheeses, are made from raw milk.
Lyndal explained that raw milk needs to be handled properly, “you can’t get your groceries and leave the milk in a hot car while you run errands.” Teresa, head chef at Pegasus Bay, commented on the pecorino, “that goat cheese just goes on and on… you could be a global player.” Lyndal laughed and shook her head, explaining that she could sell it if it was pasteurised, but she doesn’t want to. “I make cheese because I love it, I believe in it.”
THE BONELINE VINEYARD
Our next stop was the Boneline Vineyard, where Vic took us foraging across the property, starting at the top blocks on a ridge where it’s hot enough to grow Syrah and Bordeaux blends typically only found farther north. “We heard that farm labourers were passing out because it was so hot, and we knew that this was the land that we’d been looking for,” Vic said. The bottom vineyard blocks are made up of loamy gravel, with underwater rivers coursing underneath the vines next to the above ground Waipara River. Vic tells us that the riverside Hell Block was originally called Well Block. “We were digging a well, but it was so bloody hot we started calling it Hell Block. Gravelly as anything.” At first glance you only notice grapevines, but once you know what to look for you begin to see food everywhere. Amongst the rows on our walk from the ridge to the river our group found mushrooms and edible flowers, flax seeds and peppery horopito.
Next we raided Vic’s home garden, where she frets about how it’s all gone to seed since they abandoned it for the local market. Now they use it as a vine nursery. Vic pointed out the Sauvignon Blanc amongst the wild asparagus, fennel, and dill that we gather for table decorations.
The garden is surrounded by fruit trees – plums, apricots, kaffir limes, and grapefruits. We climbed around and gathered the fruit while Remy the giant schnauzer kept us company. “She’s the mother of them all and she’s the naughtiest of them all,” said Vic. I felt legit with my forage hands, stained orange and red from leaves and berries. Chef Teresa showed off her forage knee, scraped up and red from crawling through bush to get to the best fruit. We joked that we should smear berries across our faces, a bit of berry black under the eyes to show off our forage credentials.
We met back at Pegasus Bay winery and as the teams returned the table started to fill. Quail eggs, muscovy ducks, saffron, honeycomb, wild plums, kombu, truffles, sea buckthorn berries, sumac, flounders, a goat, puffball mushrooms, banana passionfruit, sea urchins, raspberries, rabbits, cockles, wild garlic, coastal spinich, and an octopus. Chef Jonny Schwass carried out the slabs of proscuitto from the wild boar that was caught the previous year. “I haven’t cut it yet,” he said. “It’s either going to be shit or really amazing. It’s rarely in between.” The chefs spent the next few hours preparing the meal, while the rest of us tasted the latest releases from Waipara winemakers.
Chef Analiese Gregory’s dish had the most interesting combinations of textures and flavours. Sweet plums, the saltiness of estuary succulent samphire, the umami of kombu, all surrounding some very meaty chunks of butterfish and speckled with flax seeds throughout.
Chef Giulio Sturla’s dish of flounder and sea salad was pure comfort food. The salad of coastal lavender, samphire, and silverbeet was fresh and nourishing, and at my table there was a general consensus that the sardine and saffron broth was the sort of thing that you tip back and drink straight from the bowl.
My favourite bite was a soft and briny kina with wild boar prosciutto. It confirmed for me that where some people have a sweet tooth, I have a salt tooth. “We just took five of the saltiest things and put them on a plate,” said Chef Simon Levy. Pickled octopus and the watery crunch of New Zealand spinach finished this dish.
My favourite dish overall was James Stapely’s cod ceviche with sliced green plums and wild plum granita. The acidity of the plums made for a very Kiwi twist on the limey dish that I fell in love with living in Mexico. Sea lettuce and coastal spinach provided greenery and texture, while sprigs of wild garlic made for savoury surprises in several bites.
The forage event is completely different from year to year, partly to do with the season, and partly to do with the luck of the hunt. Chef Johnny Schwass pointed out that the haul was completely different than it would have been even a day before or after. “This event is put together by people who actually give a fuck about food and where it comes from,” he said during a dinner speech. The crowd cheered. He carried out the prosciutto and said, “it was actually pretty good, but I reckon it could go another twelve months so I’m putting it away until next year’s event.” The crowd cheered even louder.