My Auckland Excursion: A Taste of New Zealand

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New Zealand is a narrow spit of a nation consisting of two elongated islands that almost kiss in the middle. Once part of the massive Gondwanan supercontinent,it drifted away and nestled in the far southwest of the Pacific Ocean.

New Zealand then is the last landmass to be inhabited by humans. The Polynesians arrived by canoes a mere 1100 years ago and established the Maori culture. The Europeans arrived soon thereafter with vigor in the 17thCentury.

Both invasions brought enormous changes to the natural flora and fauna.

They both carried their culinary traditions and applied them to this new exotic landscape creating a gastronomic legacy found nowhere else on the planet.

The Hirshberg Entrepreneur Institute I attended in Auckland, New Zealand showed the ingenuity of a people bent on making the world a better place. It also displayed the absolutely delicious nature of the fruits of their labor – with a unique blend of European and Maori heritage.

Entrepreneurs came before us parading a wide array of unique and mouthwatering provisions that begged to be tasted and savored.

shoppingBrendan Vercoe from Plant & Food Research described his mission to create new markets for the New Zealand blackcurrant berry – grown by Maoris in the south. Not only are these succulent berries low in sugar and high in antioxidants, but they also display a deep purple color unlike blackcurrants anywhere on the planet.

Turns out the hole in the ozone that’s wreaking havoc with everyone’s skin here, produces a deep amethyst berry. They’ve been cultivated for hundreds of years, and these royal nuggets have not only adapted to the climate, but they are good for you too.

The research he conducted shows that the NZ blackcurrant increases blood flow, athletic performance and activates the body’s immune system defenses. They’re a perfect addition to the burgeoning US sports nutritional market.

But awareness of NZ blackcurrants in the US is nonexistent. If the berry launches under its generic term, inferior blackcurrants could flood the market Plant & Food Research so carefully wishes to create.

The plan is to brand them as “Rakoha Berries” and highlight that they’re low-sugar, high-antioxidant blackcurrants grown by the ancient Maori culture. Their slogan… “Science just caught up with ancient wisdom.”

I think Plant & Food Research is on to something, and I look forward to tasting Rakoha Berries in a smoothie in the US soon.

IMG_1467We heard from Soumyadeb Chakrabarti from Milkio Foods Ltd who came bearing jars of brilliant golden ghee. For those of you not familiar with ghee, it’s simply clarified butter or butter without the milk solids.

Ghee has been used for cooking in India and Asia for centuries. Its high smoke point allows for flavorful, rich frying and sautéing. I use it all the time!

In past years ghee has gotten a bad rap and was replaced by palm and coconut oils in many traditional Indian kitchens. Soumyadeb aims to change that with the current realization that butter and milk products made from grass-fed cows are quite literally super-foods.

He lined up a pageant of jars for tasting, and the brilliant yellow color was only surpassed by the delectable sweet flavor of this traditional food.

New Zealand is one rolling paddock of fine sweet grass where dairy cows can chew to their heart’s content. This all-pasture diet produces the rich golden color and sweet taste of Soumyadeb’s ghee. The fact that he has a certified organic line will certainly help him as he tries to butter up the US market with his products.

Next on to libations. Royce McKea from Tiki Wine and Vineyards gave us a modest account of his wineglass half full.

After traveling and surf bumming, he and his wife settled down and planted their first vineyard. They soon began making wine and became a certified Maori-owned NZ winery producing wines under the guiding Maori principles of Kaitiakitanga (Guardianship and care of the land for current and future generations).

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Tiki Wine and Vineyard’s award-winning wines are distributed in California and the East Coast. I tippled some during the who and afterward with friends. The complex grassy flavors of the wines are heady and deserve more attention here in the US.

Ken Stokes sat beside me representing the Zealong Tea Estate from the Waikato region. This tea is a national icon – it’s the only commercial tea estate in New Zealand that produces an award-winning, 100% organic tea. IMG_1470

In 1996 they imported 1,500 tea cuttings from the best tea growing regions across Asia. After the long quarantine period required by New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture, only 130 plants survived. With careful propagation and a wealth of knowledge gained over the years, Zealong now nurtures over 1 million tea plants flourishing over 40 hectares.

I sampled their tea during the breaks and savored the exotic blends of black, green and oolong teas. If you want to be a Zealong teetotaler in the US, the only place to buy them now is from The Kiwi Importer. 

What’s the best way to sweeten your tea but with a dollop of thick brown Manuka honey from New Zealand? Rick Yang from Steens Honey Tauranga was one of many Manuka honey producers in the room.

Manuka honey optimizes the symphony of the two peoples who settled New Zealand. It’s a product of European bees pollinating the native Mānuka bush named by the Māori.

This honey is thick and viscous like a dark, rich, spreadable cream. The taste can only be described as floral, earthy, sweet and herbaceous.

The real treat though is not the taste but the benefits of the antibacterial qualities derived from the pollen of this ancient tree. The active ingredient, Methylglyoxal, is likely responsible for its antibacterial qualities. Some claim it has antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects and is highly revered in the East as alternative preventative medicine.

Most jars bear a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating number that represents the unique signature compounds characteristic of Manuka honey to ensure purity and quality.

The higher the number, 10, 15, 20, indicates the higher concentration of the beneficial compounds and also gives the honey a darker color and distinctive taste. The higher the UMF rating, the dearer the honey is – some jars can fetch over $600!

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The challenge for Steens Honey and all the other Manuka honey producers will be to educate the US consumer about the value and beneficial effects of this sweet delight. One Manuka company, COMVITA, is doing just that here.

There were many more delectable products and entrepreneurs who attended the Hirshberg Institute worthy of mention, but alas this blog must end.

I leave you with the final thought that these spirited, innovative people on the other side of the planet are offering up delicious products that deserve to be savored by someone like you.

When you see Made in New Zealand on a product, give it a try, and you will taste its purity.

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