Southland’s food flag is flying high and so is Lauraine Jacobs. We welcomed Aotearoa’s queen of food writing (and thinking!) to share her Southland explorations of the New Zealand food story.
I have always said the best position to view things clearly is at 35,000 feet up in the blue beyond. It’s simple, neither here nor there with absolutely no distractions in the periphery of vision, no influences, and plenty of time on your hands to think long and hard. My mind usually turns to food as you’d expect.
A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Invercargill (possibly only 28000 feet on the direct flight from Auckland) and uppermost in my mind, having just eaten an extraordinary Matariki seafood feast at Kingi, and subsequently devoured a bold piece of writing by the editor of The Feed, I pondered once again, just what is the New Zealand food story? So many have wrestled, like Tash McGill, with this perennial conundrum, as a food nation we try to sell our story to the world. Her discussions with chefs Sid Sahrawat and Lesley Chandra highlighted how the immigrant story, bringing a wealth of different traditional flavours and tastes, is entwined with not only existing established ingredients, while adding to what we’re all beginning to recognise as our very own food story.
Other pieces of this puzzle playing into New Zealand/Aotearoa kai, I realised, are importantly recognising seasonality and regionality in our food supply. All arrivals in our country, regardless of which century they came, brought and continue to bring seeds, plants and animals that, once established, have contributed to the rich and interesting variety of foods grown and consumed here. It would be slim pickings if our diet was limited to what existed here before the arrival of humans and recorded history began. We have eaten our way to extinction of so much, but farmers and growers now produce food in abundance in a way that could and should mean no-one goes hungry with millions of tonnes leftover to export and feed those around the world and to boost our economy.
Our food story is bursting with flavour and diversity. In every region of our fertile country there are specialties grown that inform the local food story. On my arrival at Invercargill I was whisked off, after a delicious local seafood pie at Fat Bastard Pies, to a couple of local farms to hear the respective stories of a Southland honey producer who was making glorious whipped white clover honey that recalled my childhood, and to Davis Downs, a hazelnut grower who was making all sorts of lovely edibles with their fresh nuts.
That evening, the very talented young chef, Ethan Flack, cooked a dinner for ten at his Kitchen Dinner initiative, that sent a strong message of regional food. Southland has traditional been a pastoral farming region with abundant dairy and red meat production. But living so far to the north I didn’t know much about the large arable farming sector of the south. In winter there are crops of swedes, pumpkins, turnips, beetroot, Brussels sprouts and more. And there’s a growing grain production. Large and small growers provide brilliantly sweet crops and Chef Flack presented a very local menu that made the most of these treasures. Every region in our country needs a talented far-sighted chef like this to engage with the local growers and farmers and demonstrate just how vital it is to recognise and showcase ‘local’ and lead the way for the menus of their area.
An absolute standout was Flack’s swede course – fresh swede ‘noodles’ cut thinly, placed in a bowl and flooded with a deliciously milk broth garnished with local hemp oil, served alongside a chunky wholesome bread made with freshly milled local grains. Food of the region made even more special as the swede grower – an arable local farmer – told me tales of how in wintertime her brothers and sisters’ snack had been to munch on fresh swedes they plucked from the earth. The combination of several snacks, a generous course of tasty local Leelands lamb and chard, that swede course, a playful ‘tongue in cheek’ beefy course with Crown pumpkin, and desserts with local hazelnuts, artichokes and apples made for an exemplary local and regional dinner.
Next day we went to Bluff, and here again, found the strength of eating locally, cooked by a chef who treasures and shares all the stunning kaimoana of this region. Seafood develops more flavour in colder water and here we were, across from the port that opens out into Foveaux Strait and the icy southern Ocean, eating with Haylee of Hayz@The Anchorage, New Zealand’s most southern restaurant. She served an amazingly generous platter featuring everything that’s special and pulled locally from the pristine sea. We ate pāua wontons, ‘Bluffies’, those uniquely local oysters, deep fried and on the shell, tasty tītī on crackers, smoked salmon, greenshell mussels, battered blue cod and chips, and crayfish while Haylee explained carefully and respectfully these taonga of the sea are harvested by the local iwi. A feast to remember served up in with wonderfully casual and cosy true Kiwi spirit.
It forced me to think on my homeward journey high in the skies, about the possibilities of Southland’s uniqueness and how different it is from any other region. Two chefs, changing the perception of Southland food, one dinner and a carefully curated feast. And to cap it off, before I boarded after this brief encounter, there in the Invercargill airport Koru lounge, was a platter of another Southern food icon, Cheese Rolls. I ate three!