There really is no other place in the world quite like New Zealand. Slightly larger than the British Isles, it consists of two main islands, and several smaller ones. It has vast tracts of forest, enormous masses of land devoted to farming (not just sheep and kiwis), and one of the largest littorals in the world.
Viewing this geography from a culinary perspective, the possibilities are endless. You have every sort of marine life, farm-fresh organic vegetables, grapes growing in the vineyards, and, thanks to settlers from abroad, an indigenous selection of game.
Prior to human settlement in the 18th century, New Zealand had no land-based mammals other than bat species. Polynesians, the ancestors of the Maori, were the first immigrants and with later European settlers introduced a wide range of animals including some specifically for game hunting. The so-called “Acclimatization Societies” were responsible over a period of 60 years from the 1860s in introducing animals to New Zealand. In the 1980s Recreational Hunting Areas (RHA’s) were set up to support recreational hunting on conservation land, and the country boasts many thousands of hectares where game is hunted.
Not all the different species that the Maori and the European settlers introduced have survived. But there are a number of different types of game birds including ducks, California quail, brown quail, chukar and pheasants, deer, chamois and wapiti.
As for wine, New Zealand started back around 1970 making some of the world’s greatest whites. Sauvignon blanc is the grape of choice, its most famous terroir being the area around Marlborough. Says one critic: “New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is like a child who inherits the best of both parents—exotic aromas found in certain Sauvignon blancs from the New World and the pungency and limy acidity of an Old World Sauvignon blanc like Sancerre from the Loire Valley.”
The comparison with Sancerre is merited from a quality point of view, but Sancerre is much softer than the Kiwi product; New Zealand Sav is all about sharpness and bite, like a high-contrast photograph. You wouldn’t drink Sancerre with game, but you certainly can pair a New Zealand Sav with wild hare, or pheasant, or even venison if it isn’t stewed.
You could start with some Maori cooking, which is really quite different from that of Hawaii. Up north in the Rotorua region, which is filled with lakes and forests rich in game, Maori Chef Charles Royal will take you for a walk in the woods to gather herbs and vegetables, and then cook up venison he’s hunted in a hangi, which is a hole dug in the ground lined with stones in which a manuka wood fire burns.
“It has to be manuka wood,” Royal insists, “or it is not a Maori hangi.” Manuka is similar to the tea tree, and thus produces an odoriferous smoke that flavors the meat. It is possible to reproduce the effect of a real hangi on your barbecue, but first marinate your venison with one part each of horopito native bush pepper, kawakawa native bush basil, and cayenne pepper. Serve with lightly fried kawakawa, a local vegetable leaf; and there would be nothing wrong with washing it down with a great New Zealand Sav that will hold up to all that pepper. Nautilus Estate, just outside Marlborough, provides just such a classic Sav, and the 2009 would work perfectly with the dish, its extreme bite setting off the mild sweetness of the meat and herbs.
But the Maori tradition is only one of the great traditions that New Zealand encompasses when it comes to cooking game. Great European traditions are also invoked in the country’s amazing restaurants–chefs from New Zealand get started here and then go off to New York, Milan and Tokyo. Cooking at this level is found, for example, at the Pegasus Bay Winery Restaurant in Waipara Valley, just 30 minutes north of Christchurch, and well south of Marlborough. Chef Shawn McGowan takes the minimalist route: Nouvelle-Cuisine type entrées, which bring together a maximum of influences from the fabulous agricultural sources in the valley. For example, “Wild hare and shiitake terrine, carrot cardamom pickle, radish, celery.” From the hare that is hunted on the grounds to the homegrown vegetables, all are served against a late-picked Riesling in which extra concentration and some botrytis (noble rot) influence. The wine has a mouth-filling lusciousness, with great purity and elegance, similar to auslese wines of Germany.
Alternatively, there is the mixed-game terrine, and this a very subtle mixture of venison, hare and game birds. The delicate flavors are set off perfectly by the winery’s Sauvignon Semillon for 2004, with a flowery nose.
One of the rituals of hunting game in New Zealand is the annual gamebird hunting festival in the spring. Hunters go off after duck or pheasant, and then bring their bag back to participating restaurants that do great things with them. Now into its eighth year, the Gamebird Food Festival is an initiative of Fish & Game New Zealand that promotes the value of game birds.
In Auckland, one such restaurant is the Restaurant Cazador, which is entirely dedicated to cooking game all year round. Chef Dariush Lolaiy is of Iranian origin, and he brings an Eastern note to some classic western game recipes like jugged wild hare in blood sauce, blackened venison, or a sweetened quail pie. Lolaiy boasts of how a hunter brought him a deer on a Monday and, by Wednesday, he’d used the whole thing, including the heart, kidneys and liver–they were all on the menu! The chef goes in for interesting pairings with biodiverse wines–again, often not what one would expect.
But one never knows what to expect in New Zealand, a place so idiosyncratic, so eclectic and so original. Surely it is, at least, a place where, in the dining room, one might expect never to be bored.–Andrew Rosenbaum