Where the Kiwi Is Not a Fruit

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mussels.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Cold January weather and my nearly depleted stock of suitcase wines make my thoughts return to New Zealand, where it is currently high summer and the oh-so-drinkable "savvy" (kiwi slang for sauvignon blanc) is flowing like water.  I spent two gluttonous weeks there last September, eating and drinking my way from Auckland in the north to Napier in the east, then to the south island through Marlborough and Waipara, and down to Christchurch.  It was pure hedonistic bliss.
ciabatta.jpgI engaged the assistance of a local gourmand (and tour guide) to help me root out the best local products and wines, which was the best decision of the trip, other than the one to go in the first place.  Greg Beachen of Grape Escapes chauffeured me around on the left side of the road, got me in for private tastings at the best boutique wineries no one has ever heard of stateside, and helped me track down and devour everything on my wish list--including a homemade pavlova courtesy of his friend Jan, and fabulous local grouper courtesy of Greg himself.  He even scored me a night on a working truffle farm, plus interview and guided tour with the truffle-obsessed proprietor, Gareth Renowden.  Greg totally, utterly, rocks.

Everywhere we visited, incredible regional foods held pride of place on restaurant menus, roadside stands, and farmers' markets... tender lamb and locally grown saffron (?!) from Hawkes Bay; super-briny Marlborough oysters and green lip mussels; ginormous Kaikoura crayfish as big, meaty, and delicious as Maine lobsters; walnuts and venison and black truffles (yes, truffles) from Canterbury... and always, always a selection of more New Zealand wines than this Californian had ever dreamed existed.    

kumara.jpgWhile kiwifruit--not to be confused with kiwis, who are the people of New Zealand--is now common in the states, many other indigenous foods with fascinating names like feijoa, tamarillo, titi, kawa kawa, Sally-Lun, and kumara can only be discovered at the source.  One of the single best things I ate the entire trip was a kumara mash with miso, rosemary, and browned butter.  Since golden kumara is very similar to orange-fleshed sweet potatoes or yams, I've fortunately been able to approximate this vegetable revelation since my return.  But the kangaroo sausages, venison salumi, and unbelievable grass-fed beef remain only in New Zealand.  The steak sandwich I had in Marlborough was so tender, they didn't even cut it for you--they literally just threw a steak on a ciabatta bun.  Incredible.  The world-famous green lip mussels, huge and ridiculously cheap in grocery stores (about $3 US buys you dinner for two), are similarly nothing like we get here.  Eating them fresh in New Zealand is the only way to truly appreciate them.

feijoa.jpgAll of this is to say, if you're a foodie, get on a plane to New Zealand now.  And put me in your suitcase.

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