I travel to NZ on holiday, the first time in my career when I haven’t come to this island nation to work. Many times I have traversed the Pacific to represent organic apple growers in Hawkes Bay, the planetary inverse of the Monterey Bay. This time I come to take in hot springs, catch trout in monumental Lake Taupo, and tramp through thousand-year-old kauri forests. I come to eat and relax which affords me time to reflect on this place where people treat agriculture and food in a fair and sovereign manner.
From the moment the plane flies into Auckland I see a mass of plots and paddocks surrounded by live green hedges. Emerald hues of every variety dance in orchards, kiwi fruit espaliers, and vineyards. Large expanses of cattle, venison and sheep graze freely outdoors on the verdant quilt.
New Zealand is one big farm with soil its greatest treasure. New Zealanders grow grass primarily for grazing and trees for wood, using no-till methods that leave the soils intact, sequestering carbon and adding oxygen to our warming planet.
My first stop is in the Bay of Islands, and it is time to stock my small cabin with provisions. Large mountains of native Kumara sweet potatoes greet me with their ruddy skins and innocent pale flesh. Gifts from the first Polynesian inhabitants, they are eaten prodigiously and give reverence to the first indigenous seafarers who landed here some thousand years ago. These same peoples brought swine, ancient corn and tubers on their reed boats and all are offered in their modern cloaks of today.
It was the Europeans who arrived much later who brought their tea and butter, beef and venison. Chickens and other flocks of edible fowl also accompanied these seafaring settlers.
Today nearly all of the eggs and chickens are free range—hens raised outdoors in the sunshine and grass, pecking bugs and buds to their voracious delight. The absence of factory farming is evident in the taste of the succulent thighs and the bright orange yolks cracked into omelet.
Being a carnivore, I saddle up to the butchery counter. The beef beckons red and marbled, the lamb bleats tender and pink, and all are raised outdoors in giant paddocks of grass. Animals here live a sovereign life as they were intended before they offer themselves up to our table. Their flavor solicits memories of an earlier agrarian time.
The fresh produce aisle is a flight of colorful capsicums, bitter greens, yellow tomatoes and enormous branching brassicas. Almost everything is grown right here in New Zealand. Much of it is organic.
With my pantry well stocked, it’s now time for trivialities. Tramping, swimming, kayaking and fishing fill my mornings and naps are the order of the afternoons. I seek out my next culinary dalliance with gusto.
The summer sun at 38 degrees south is strong this time of year. It’s time to venture indoors and enjoy a Kiwi-inspired lunch. The faire displayed in cafes overflows with healthy and artfully displayed tidbits of joy. Savory muffins are stuffed with zucchini, onions and sharp cheese. Golden Corn fritters, bulbous with kernels, eggs and flour are waiting to be bitten. Frittatas are peaked with cubed pumpkin and potato tenderly massaged with eggs and spinach. My classic NZ Caesar salad is comprised of rations of middle bacon interlaced with croutons and dressing. Its majesty is crowned with an egg whose orange yolk trickles vibrantly down the green mantel.
I eat my way from the north to the south, and when the check comes the total is always a shocker, more than expected, but then again there is no expectation of gratuity. Because here the minimum wage is so high that everyone, cook, hostess, server and bottle washer, earns a livable fair wage. So very different from many places in my homeland where those who serve forth food scrounge and scrimp on the whims of their patrons’ tips.
It’s the second half of my trip and time to call on my dear friends. I visit my former business colleague Peter. His farm is surrounded by vast rolling paddocks dotted with cattle and sheep. Peter has decided to buck the old tends and raise beautiful she-goats bursting with udders of sweet milk. He feeds, grows and milks 2500 goats!
His operation is one of health, balance and grace. The girls are docile, munching on hay and sweet herbs that come straight from the farm. They gladly stroll onto their milking-go-round twice per day just to return to a little happy head butting in sweet smelling hay. A Billy or two keeps them content and frisky.
All of the droppings produced from the gentle beasts are the secret fertility of the nearby paddocks. Peter’s operation is on its way to becoming a biodynamic operation. A closed system, based on harmony and balance where everything that is cultivated, fed, milked and yielded is integrated throughout the operation.
His family and neighbors flourish financially and energetically from his holistic organic farming vision.
My friends Carl and Muff, farther south in Hawkes Bay, grow organic apples and pears. These folk who were once just a producer on a manifest are now like family. They cultivate family with the same loving care they give to their orchard. It’s late summer and as we walk the orchards, the Galas, Braeburn and Fuji apples cluster on branches bending achingly with their weight.
Carl has an experimental bent to his apple husbandry and has become a mad grafter of sorts. He marries old fashion quince rootstock with the splice of a new red Asian pear variety producing a rosy globe of a pear. Its nectar is uniquely sweet and tart, the granular bite melts on the tongue as the juices squirt down the chin.
His willingness to experiment and innovate is exemplary of the entrepreneurial spirit of New Zealand agriculture. Many varieties like Jazz, Pacific Rose and Braeburn, once marketing experiments, are now commonplace on the shelves.
I visit my dear friends Harry and Kirsty who pack organic apples for many growers all over Hawkes Bay on the last eve.
As I leave Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, I reflect on its many aspects of food sovereignty. Much of the agriculture is no-till, local and many are striving for organic. Factory farming is ubiquitously absent, and animals graze freely. Everyone from farmer to food service worker is treated fairly with a living wage and safe working conditions. Their reverence for ancient foods is coupled with innovative varieties that create an ageless cuisine.
Food sovereignty is alive and well in this land at the other end of the world.