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An Auckland Culinary Adventure
With a sigh, I leave the balmy spring weather of New York for an 18-hour journey to the other side of the world. I search online and find great discount on flights. But to my delight similar sparkling sunshine, now of early fall, greets me as we land in Auckland. Cows are grazing near the runway; in the carpark is a lemon tree, laden with a fruit so common that no one bothers to pick it. Trees and gardens line the route into town.
When my cooking classes start, I realize the full impact of this green utopia. New Zealand is an ecologists' dream of unfished waters and untainted earth. The nearest land is Antarctica, the nearest continent Australia, 1200 miles and 2 l/2 hours flight away. Salmon and spiny lobster are raised in the chilly fjords of the south island. Dairy products are prime; the risk of salmonella infection is so low that eggs need not be refrigerated. As for lamb, it is almost a joke, with sheep outnumbering humans by l2 to l (New Zealand's population is under 4 million).
At a reception in Samoa House, I am honored by the traditional Maori chant of welcome. With fellow food-writers, I tuck in to giant greenshell mussels, little pipi clams, and fritters of inanga, tiny thread-like whitebait. Lamb has been roasted pink to serve with purple potatoes and shredded papaya dressed with fish sauce. The bread is flavored with three kinds of shredded coconut, fresh, dried and pickled. The local sweet potato, kumara, is pureed with coconut milk. Given such varied ethnic influences, I guess it's no surprise that the chef, Jennifer LeComte, should have been trained in New York.
We take the one-hour ferry to Waiheke Island, a haven for artists dotted with traditional bungalows and infant vineyards. It proves too cold to steam shellfish in a billy can on the beach, so we feast indoors on raw oysters -- wild rock oysters, and bluff oysters with an intense, savory flavor. "Our produce is full of natural taste", says food writer Lauraine Jacobs. "We are a farming nation so we're used to things straight from the land." "And our chefs are good at enhancing without overwhelming them" chimes in Julie Dalzell, publisher of New Zealand's Cuisine magazine. "We have Asian influence, yes, but not as enthusiastically copied as in California."
Marlborough on the south island is known as the gourmet province and I feel instantly at home. So much reminds me of Burgundy. The area around Blenheim is famous for wines, young wines to be sure but already wineries like Cloudy Bay have an international reputation, particularly for their white Sauvignons and Chardonnays. So generous is the sunshine, the Maori call the valley "hole in the sky."
Big fat cherries are a local specialty, as are walnuts, quince, and outstanding tomatoes. Honey bees take advantage of the local flora -- clover, lavender and wild blue borage. Herbs and greens go up to restaurants in Auckland for dishes such as seafood and spinach roulade with nori in a dill dressing. Locally chefs are less formal, offering great antipasto platters of roasted peppers, smoked oysters, mussels, dried sausage and fresh goat cheese, together with a nice variety of cheese and olive breads. There's a Blenheim crop which makes me envious -- in Burgundy we cannot grow olives.
I talk to Jeremy Jones, who for many years ran a restaurant still held as a benchmark for quality. "There simply wasn't the market then", he says, "but it's changing fast. So many vineyards are being planted and small businesses are opening. Everyone wants adventure." Together with Francie and Terry Shagin, originally from San Francisco, we launch a small adventure together, holding cooking classes in a breathtaking setting overlooking towering, blue-misted mountains.
The audience comes from all over New Zealand for this Blenheim experience. The news is of wines winning prizes, of restaurants opening, of olive groves coming into production, of freshwater shrimp being farmed in hot geysers, and of the development of top quality New Zealand "cervena" venison. We exchange gossip about cooks in the US and France. There's no doubt that cooking here is on the move. From being a culinary backwater, New Zealand is on the way to becoming a hot destination.
Salmon with Black Bean Paste and Spiced Cucumber Salad
This recipe is adapted from Lauraine Jacobs' New Taste, New Zealand, a look at innovative national chefs, published in October l996. The mix of European ingredients with a touch of Chinese spice typifies the contemporary approach. Chorizo or spicy Italian sausage can be substituted for the Chinese preserved sausage.
1 l/2 lb salmon fillets without skin
1/4 cup black bean paste
2 medium cucumbers
1/2 cup white wine vinegar, more to taste
2 tablespoons sugar, more to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 oz Chinese preserved sausage, thinly sliced
1/2 cup unsalted roasted peanuts
3 scallions, green and white part sliced
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
3-4 tablespoons chopped mint
salt and pepper
Cut salmon fillets in 4 serving portions and spread them with bean paste. Cover and chill at least 1 and up to 4 hours.
For salad: Peel cucumbers, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds with a teaspoon. Slice halves lengthwise into strips, then crosswise into dice. Stir in vinegar and sugar. Fry sausage in half the oil until the fat runs and meat starts to brown. Lift out with a draining spoon and stir into cucumber with peanuts, scallions, tomatoes and chopped mint. Taste, adjust seasoning and chill.
To finish: heat oven to 350 degrees F. Oil a baking dish, add salmon topped with bean paste and sprinkle with remaining oil. Bake in oven until fish flakes but is still transparent in the center, 8 - 10 minutes. Serve salmon with salad on the side. Boiled rice is a good accompaniment.