Kim Knight meets Marlborough’s hunters, gatherers and makers ahead of an autumn food festival.
“Misery,” says Kevin Loe, cheerfully. “Every farm’s got one!”
We’re 45-minutes and a million miles away from downtown Blenheim, and Loe is pointing across the valley to a windswept hill.
“Doesn’t matter what time of year, it’s always miserable up there.”
I am not convinced. The view from the top of the oldest sheep station in the South Island is spectacular. So is the lamb they breed and hand-select for flavour from this sunny, salt-licked terroir.
How spectacular? In May, a top Auckland chef will put Flaxbourne Pure lamb on a pop-up menu at Blenheim restaurant Scotch.
Sid Sahrawat (who is bringing a taste of Cassia restaurant south) is one of the big names at Feast Marlborough, the May 9-12 showcase of regional produce.
Other visiting chefs include Ben Bayly, Mark Southon, Shaun Clouston and Al Brown. Think black garlic at a secret Marlborough Sounds restaurant, silken sea-raised salmon served in a designer treetop dining room; a green-lipped mussel themed street party and a Mother’s Day brunch at a cafe with a gin distiller next door.
Marlborough wine and food is at the heart of the festival (and the associated month-long “rare fare” restaurant competition) but there is also a major emphasis on the makers — the people who hunt, grow and gather the food that celebrity chefs and local restaurants will be cooking. Sunday Travel went south for a “behind the scenes” sampler of the upcoming event.
You’d never know it used to be a rabbit. A little fluffy bunny, remade into a little crispy croquette, topped with a blob of lemon gel. Next up, fallow deer on a pavé of potato.
We’re devouring this at Arbour, where chef and co-owner Bradley Hornby will collaborate with Mark Southon on a Feast Marlborough menu of foraged ingredients and wild meat. Premium Game co-owner Darren Clifford is dressed for dinner but in a couple of hours he’ll be out targeting venison. He and his brother hunt about half the company’s wild produce, with the rest coming from a network of registered hunters (an estimated 10 per cent are women). Demand for wild-caught meat — especially goat — is growing, says Clifford. And with venison practically mainstream, he predicts restaurants will start using more tahr (super-lean), hare (chunkier than rabbit) and the like.
Simon and Hellene Lamb reckon a goat can do anything a cow can do — “except a steak”. And on the dining room table at Cranky Goat Ltd, they’ve assembled proof. We’re considering nine types of cheese, courtesy of the 110-strong herd their neighbours run over the fence.
Some of the fresh rounds were, just four days earlier, still in the goat. The artisan business, about 10 minutes out of Havelock, turns out just under 300kg of product a week. It appears on menus across the region (and again at the Sunday Farmer’s Market). Think goat’s cheese, think France, but Simon says the joy of working on this side of the world is the ability to break from tradition — and partner with other local suppliers. Yes, that is Marlborough black garlic in the Linton Noir. Horopito and goat?
They’re working on it.
When in wine country, drink wine (obviously). Last year, Marlborough’s 510 growers produced 313,038 tonnes of grapes for 141 companies. But not all wine is created equal, and some wine is created organic.
Eleven wineries will be pouring 22 organic drops at a special Feast Marlborough Friday Night Feast pop-up bar. Our picks from a hosted preview? The Hans Herzog “sur lie” sauvignon blanc (macerated lemon and ripe melon) and a soft and creamy Huia chardonnay.
Google “manaaki” and feel the aroha. Hospitality, kindness, generosity and support via a jar of kawakawa jelly.
The Aunties of Omaka Marae started making their Manaaki brand preserves and condiments as a social enterprise business.
At Feast, they’ll host “hakari with the aunties” — modern Maori cuisine with music and cultural performances. Our preview taste started with a powhiri and a tour of the whare runanga with its painted mural and tukutuku panels referencing Marlborough’s food heritage.
The Manaaki kaupapa embodies the afternoon-tea taking elegance of the Aunties’ matriarchal forebears. I’m in jeans and they’re in frocks but either way the lemon horopito sauce on salmon is yum.
A BIT MORE MEAT
The South Island’s oldest sheep station has been (and is) home to six generations of the Loe family.
They produce single origin lamb — hand-selected animals that eat grass and lucerne and chicory.
“Feed it right, harvest it when it’s ready and it will taste right,” says Kevin, who has loaded his city visitors into an ATV and taken them almost to the top of Flaxbourne Station. Past the paddocks with nicknames like “Jurassic Park” and out to the edge where you can see the new coastal reef pushed up by the Kaikoura earthquake. Silver tussocks flop in the wind like boy-band haircuts. Kevin says once, the tussock would have been lost to burn-offs. “What we know now is different to what we knew 10 years ago — and that’s different to what we knew 10 years before that.”
AND A TAKEAWAY . . .
Our itinerary was (kawakawa) jam-packed, but the take-home was indisputable — the best venison backstraps have a backstory, good cheese takes time but great goat’s cheese doesn’t have to and meeting the makers will make everything taste better.
STILL HUNGRY? A FEW FEAST EXTRAS
Breakfast: The Vines Village is hosting a Mother’s Day brunch (go for coffee, stay for the gin distillery and the quilting supply shop) or pick ‘n’ mix at the Sunday Farmer’s Market (pastries from Lola’s French Bakery, coffee from Kate at the Koffie Kart and a quite excellent Royale Beef Sandwich with Picton Multigrain from Feast Merchants).
Lunch: Allan Scott Winery’s Twelve Trees Vineyard restaurant won last year’s Rare Fare competition.
This year, chef Maree Connolly is thinking figs and honey, pork and pumpkin. Let them do the wine-matching, but whatever you do, start with a glass of Allan Scott Cecilia Brut.
Late lunch: Sunday Travel recommends packing a second stomach. At Cloudy Bay, we sampled (be still my beating heart) paua and Ora King salmon from the seasonal raw bar, matched with so many wines I lost track. At Feast, Logan Brown’s Shaun Clouston will be devising the six-course wine and salmon Feast extravaganza that will be served under the David Trubridge lights in the designer “treehouse”.
Dinner: Arbour is clever but not pretentious. The food is smart, sustainable and inventive. The steak comes with locally foraged peppercorns, the miso-cured warehou is paired with nashi pears from a waitress’s garden and the harvest cake dessert was equal parts humble, elegant and perfect. Go there anytime for chef and co-owner Bradley Hornby’s spectacular cooking; book tickets for the one-off opening night Gala Feast the Arbour team is pulling together.
Late dinner: A third stomach? Scotch does great wine, excellent plates to share (sweetcorn with chilli, lemon and pecorino will probably be off the seasonal menu by now, but I wanted to lick the plate) and the lighting is dim. No-one will notice if you have to loosen a belt buckle.
Midnight snack: We stayed at Rowley Estate, a luxuriously renovated sprawling 1920s farm homestead about five minutes out of Blenheim. The fruit bowl is a work of art, the deli platter restaurant quality and my only regret is that we were too full to take advantage of a self-cook bacon and egg breakfast.
flies from Auckland to Blenheim, with one-way Seat fares from $53.
For full Feast Marlborough schedule and ticket details, including the Starlight Sessions gala opener, the Friday Night Feast street party, the two-day and 12-event “Marlborough Underground” programme and the Rare Fare signature dish restaurant competition, go to feastmarlborough.nz