Forage North Canterbury for food… humbling

We are luckier than we think.

Greetings from the sunny South Island of New Zealand where I have just spent 36 hours foraging for food, fishing in Kaikoura, harvesting wild edible greens and generally feeling humbled by Mother Nature’s seemingly endless supply of uncultivated food. If you look for it, you will find it.

Food is all around us, even in cities, as my own little patch of communal garden in Wellington’s ‘eco valley’ (also known as Aro Valley) show, but more on that in another blog.

The one is all about an event called Forage North Canterbury.

It’s the first year I have been to Forage North Canterbury, but the event is now in its third year and is gaining momentum, says food grower Angela Clifford, who founded the event. She describes Forage as a serendipitous relationship between a food movement and the local wine industry in North Canterbury’s rolling foothills of the Southern Alps. She also pays tribute to Kate McMillan and Melany Wright, two local women who she says were intrinsic to the start of Forage, due to their love of nature and its bountiful supply of food, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

Clifford also founded The Food Farm, which supports her assertion that the Forage event is a natural extension of the lives of those living in this rural region. The farm is 16 acres of vegetables that she owns with her life partner Nick Gill, a local viticulturist. It is also home to ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep and cows. There is no vineyard on site. The couple do make wine, however, under the tongue in cheek brand, Tongue in Groove, which they co-own with four other locals in North Canterbury. This region is significantly warmer, drier, sunnier and more sheltered than the Canterbury Plains, which spread out from Christchurch city, 40 minutes’ drive south. Prior to wine grapes being planted here, North Canterbury was home to experimental fruit and vegetable growing and some vineyards are still full of asparagus, which spreads like tasty wildfire each year.

But like many rural regions, the area is also home to wild fruit trees, wild mushrooms, such as porcini, and also to truffles, as well as being close to kaimoana (seafood). Blue cod, gurnard and perch all made an appearance on our fishing lines and our plates because the sea is nine kilometres east of the State Highway 1, just over the Teviotdale Hills, which provide much needed wind protection from the strong sea breezes.

There are wild deer, pigs, hare, rabbits and goats, some of which appeared (in a relatively minor way) on the table at this year’s Forage North Canterbury dinner. But the star attraction in most  dishes was wild greens, which tasted exceptionally fresh, crisp and, very often, very lemony – despite which, no lemons were harvested or used in the meal.

“Tonight’s meal is a snapshot of what happened today; it’s staggering how much produce we can get because there’s just so much wild food we can eat. If we just look for it, it’s there and there’s no need to go hungry,” said James Stapley, chef at  Bistro Gentil in Wanaka, and one-time chef at Pegasus Bay winery when it first won restaurant of the year from Cuisine magazine well over a decade ago. The winery’s restaurant has gone on to win the same accolade many times. It’s easy to taste why.

Stapley’s dish at Forage was slivers of fresh blue cod, caught by five of us earlier that day in Kaikoura. The explosive fresh taste of the dish came from the wild greens while its pretty appearance came from tiny purple flowers that he and I picked on the rugged beach at Kaikoura, prior to our lunch of fresh crayfish sandwiches served with 2009 Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Dry Riesling, brought by Edward Donaldson, who captained his own speed boat to take us fishing for Forage.

Other teams scoured the countryside for wild mushrooms, buckets of small, tart and incredibly tasty wild cherries, miniature wild plums ranging from pale green to red to deep purple, with flavours as varied as the colour. There were flowers and green leaves wrapped inside miniature bites of fresh mullet and a sensational dish of fish with the intensely earthy taste of truffle, which was crumbled over it.

About 70 of us attended Forage North Canterbury this year, including a handful of New Zealand’s top South Island chefs who gave their time in exchange for the privilege of being involved. While it took time out of their more lucrative lives, the privilege of taking part more than rewarded them, said chef Stapley, who enjoyed his second year at Forage.

After we had foraged for food and brought the spoils back, we were treated to aged Rieslings from the cellars of local wineries such as Pegasus Bay (where the Forage dinner was held), Terrace Edge, Tongue in Groove, Mount Brown, Bellbird Spring, The Boneline, Greystone, Black Estate and Crater Rim wineries. I think all wineries have been included, but email me, if I have missed someone. This region is known for its earthy Pinot Noirs and a growing amount of Sauvignon Blanc, but it has a long history of producing outstanding dry, medium and luscious Rieslings, all of which can age for decades and remain fresh in flavour.

With the exception of olive oil, salt and pepper, all ingredients used in the meal had been freshly foraged that day.

Two things surprised me: the discovery that I am a natural forager is one. Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising when I think back to my grandparents’ vast vegetable gardens, but it felt validating to walk along the beach with Stapley after we had been fishing, and to collect wild plants with someone else who clearly sees great edible potential in the natural world around us.

The concept of living off seasonal, unsprayed and unpolluted produce is one that’s close to my heart and my hands – I have just been allotted a segment of communal garden in Wellington’s ‘eco valley’ (also known as Aro Valley), an eight minute walk from the front door of my apartment.

Forage North Canterbury has left me feeling humbled to reconnect with the land and with Mother Nature’s seemingly endless supply of more than  we need, despite our questionable treatment of the world around us. We are luckier than we think.

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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