The Dish Down Under
Farm-to-table is nothing new in New Zealand, where long-standing agricultural traditions are finally translating to world-class cuisine.
It was a crisp May morning, and I was sitting patiently in a New Zealand traffic jam. To the left of the winding dirt road, rolling hills tumbled into one another like golden-green waves until they disappeared suddenly into the shimmering horizon of Pigeon Bay. To the right, a steep slope rose some 30 feet above the vehicle, so close that it nearly scraped the side mirror. Directly in front, two dozen cows awkwardly crowded the road, shuffling uncomfortably between the bumper of the car and a cattle fence 20 yards ahead.
Beside me in the driver’s seat, Liz Buttimore—then the general manager of the South Island’s new Annandale lodge—was clearly concerned. Even the most skilled driver would have balked at negotiating our dusty cliffside path in reverse, and pushing forward through the jittery cattle would have surely chased them off the rocky ledge to our left. “I’ll have to hike to the other side,” Buttimore said as she shimmied through the sliver of space allowed by her blocked door. Dressed in black slacks, a white button-down shirt, and black flats, she hardly looked prepared for a hike. But my companion soon proved her mettle as a native Kiwi by disappearing behind a green mound and, several minutes later, reappearing on the other side of the gate to allow our anxious roadblocks safe passage.
This bovine blockade on the cliffs of Annandale was the first sign of gridlock I had encountered in New Zealand, a country twice as large as New York State with a population half that of New York City. Indeed, livestock crossings are nearly as common as stoplights—and a cattle fatality can be front-page news—in this land where sheep outnumber human residents 7 to 1. It is no wonder, then, that livestock—or rather, meat—was what had brought me to Annandale, a 4,000-acre sheep-and-cattle farm and lodge set on more than six miles of coastline just outside of Christchurch.
Opened in September of last year, Annandale has a sheep-to-human ratio even greater than the national average, with about 4,000 sheep (plus 500 cattle) and a maximum of only 30 guests. As Buttimore and I combed the vast property dotted end to end with the fluffy creatures, we passed four villas ranging from a traditional shepherd’s cottage to a modern glass-and-steel residence located among private coves, isolated valleys, and grazing hills. Arriving at the five-bedroom Homestead, a 19th-century harbor-front manor with views of the Pacific Ocean, I discovered I had a swimming pool, tennis court, and fitness center all to myself. The only recreation on my mind, however, required a fork and knife.
After settling in, I pulled up a chair in the Homestead’s gourmet kitchen, where Bradley Hornby—then the chef of Annandale—was hard at work on the evening’s seven-course tasting menu. Hornby, who previously served as the executive chef at the North Island’s Huka Lodge, grew up less than 150 miles from Annandale in the fishing and agriculture town of Timaru, and he was eager to share the region’s bounty with me.
“If we don’t have it here, we can’t really use it,” he said while plating the evening’s first course. “We’re so far out, we can’t expect to source something and get it fresh. So I watch the cycle of the plants and decide what will go well together. I don’t have a routine or a set menu. It’s always something new, and no plate is ever the same.”
The evening’s menu was full of the seasonal combinations Hornby favors, from local prawns with chorizo oil and tomatoes from the lodge’s garden to seared Tasman Bay scallops served with pickled daikon, ancho chili peppers, and an orange emulsion. Meat for the lamb croquette (accented with pickled parsnip and beetroot) and smoked rib-eye steak (accompanied by pasta puree and kale in red-wine vinegar) also came straight from Annandale’s farm.
Horby’s approach, I would discover, is the norm in New Zealand. While farm-to-table has become a global catchphrase in recent years, here the practice of eating local has never fallen out of fashion. For centuries, independent family-owned farms have fed the country’s sparse population and fueled its economy. In more recent decades, homegrown Kiwi delicacies such as green-lipped mussels and manuka honey have become coveted worldwide exports. Still, despite its infrastructure and abundance of local delights, New Zealand has struggled to define its national cuisine. Recently, however, chefs at Annandale and other lodges throughout the North and South Islands have begun to clarify their country’s place on the culinary map, spinning modern and refined fare built on New Zealand’s deep agricultural roots.
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