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Taste New Zealand

by Souperchef Anna on

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It Starts Here

 

Close your eyes and think of New Zealand. What is the image that pops up first or most vividly in your mind?

To the fans of the trilogy Lord of the Rings, this is the spectacular land that makes “Middle-earth” come to life with her deep fjords and massive expanses of empty landscapes. To the adrenaline-seekers, New Zealand is deservedly the adventure tourism capital of the world known for its lofty collection of places for bungee jumping, tandem skydiving and mountaineering, just to name a few. And who can forget her wines and vineyards? I’m not great with alcohol, but I still can’t resist a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with its bold yet balanced fruitiness!

All that said, my first and lasting image of New Zealand has got to be the sheep, the cattle and all things dairy! How many of you remember the commercial in the 90s with its famous line that claimed New Zealand had as many cows as Singapore’s human population then? To me, New Zealand will always be a land of plentiful, gorgeous fresh dairy produce and green grass pastures.

It’s thus most befitting to go on this trip with Fonterra, a co-operative owned by some 10,500 New Zealand dairy farmers. With a history that goes as far back as 1871, we couldn’t have found a better host and partner in our quest to taste New Zealand and uncover its culinary gems!

The hospitality from the dairy industry!

 

I suppose the simple answer to this is that there might not be one characteristic Kiwi cuisine! It may not have been as distinct, but the beauty of such a cuisine, to me, means every dish is a surprise and often, such a delight. The New Zealand Anchor Food Professionals team even scooped a silver medal at the 2016 Culinary Olympics, a giant leap in bringing the Kiwi cuisine to the world. Recollecting the glorious food I’ve had here, indeed each dish is marked by a seamless fusion of a medley of indigenous, colonial and global influences, capitalising on the proud freshness of the foods the country produces. And that’s a distinction not all cuisines can boast of!

 

The farm scene that inspired my thoughts, my soups.

 

This trip with Fonterra was a window into an intimate side of the country I’ve come to love so very much. Thankful, as always, for the opportunity to meet the people who have made the dairy industry what it is today. To many, the farming life is a romantic notion of green pastures and dreamy sheep, but the reality is a life built on passion, perspiration and protection. Farming and dairy is the backbone behind the entire country’s dining and living habits, an industry that needs us, as consumers, to respect and support more. And I’m glad, that in the search for authentic New Zealand cuisine, I have found much, much more.

 

A reenactment of the arrival of the Polynesians on Aotearoa.

 

The story of New Zealand, we were told, begins with the Māori. The first inhabitants of the country, the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori were said to have moved through the Pacific in double-hulled canoes more than 1,000 years ago, bringing with them root vegetables like yam, taro (a starchy tuber) and kumara (sweet potato), and their native dog, the kuri. The climate was a lot colder than the tropical home of the Māori so many of the crops they brought along were unable to grow. The kumara, however, survived and thrived, and together with the abundance of marine life and large flightless birds found particularly in the South Island, the Māori were able to settle down to a permanent living pattern and a highly organised culture.

Tucked away and isolated near the bottom of the globe, the islands were elusive to many, and remained the domain of the Polynesians, even after an initial 1642 sighting by the Dutchman Abel Tasman. It wasn’t until Englishman James Cook’s meticulous navigation and observation in 1769 that the Europeans caught sight of Aotearoa, “the land of the long white cloud”. The original settlers called themselves Māori, literally meaning “normal”, while the Europeans were referred to as Pakeha, the “foreign”.

 

 

A trip to New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without an immersion into the Māori culture! The Māori currently make up approximately 15% of the population. The society is largely tribal and different tribal groups hold fast to their oral history, shared through chants, rituals and storytelling. Over the years, despite the dominance of the Anglo-European society in New Zealand, the Māori identity remains distinct. Basic tenets of the culture are strong as ever, with formal rules and protocols governing daily urban events and situations.

The most famous Māori ritual is probably the haka. You may have seen the haka being performed at international rugby matches by the New Zealand All Blacks. This is a traditional Māori dance with an intimidating thigh-slapping, loud chanting, eye-bulging display with flickering tongues, designed to display dominance, fitness and agility.

 

Visitors may not enter the marae (referring to the community, social grounds of the Māori) uninvited. The tradition is for a fearsome warrior to determine intent of the visitors with a ritualistic challenge, followed by a welcome call and ceremony by the women.

 

Before entering the Tamaki Māori village at Rotorua nestled in a 200 year-old Tawa forest, the women make a powhiri, a sung welcome call, followed by a fearsome challenge by a group of warriors and an exchange of peace. The welcome ceremony continues with dancing, soul-stirring harmonies of traditional waiata (meaning ‘song’ in Māori) and a sharing session on the tattoos the Māori carry. The tattoos are not only stylistic expressions, but also significant indications of the tribes the Māori belong to.

 

The earth oven with hot stones.

 

As with many of my food-centred travels, this trip to New Zealand is a personal desire to uncover the Kiwi gastronomy.  At the Māori village we visited, we were treated to a traditional hangi (pronounced nasally as “hungi”) meal, cooked underground in an earth oven with hot stones. In the face of Anglo-European influence and other culinary cues from globalisation, how is the Māori food holding out? How has the young country been shaped by the original inhabitants and the subsequent settlers?

 

Our hangi meal!

 

 

What is the quintessential New Zealand cuisine? Is there even one? We journey on. It all starts here.

From Grass to Glass

The farm scene that inspired my thoughts, my soups.

 

Some quick facts: The most popular breed of cow in New Zealand is the Holstein-Friesian/Jersey cross. It takes 50-70 hours to convert grass to milk, and a cow needs to eat about 100-200kg of grass and drink 50-80 litres of water to produce around 20 litres of milk a day.

The Holstein-Friesian breed is the most common in the world, and it has taken New Zealand 150 years of rigourous breeding to stabilise the national Friesian herd to achieve the high volume of milk produced today. We were part amused, and part in awe to learn that the Holstein-Friesian cow can grow up to 550kg and thus potentially damage the grass!

 

Smaller than the Holstein-Friesians are the Jersey cows that yield rich milk with high fat content, and are hence popular for making butter. The medium-sized Kiwi cross is a mix of the two breeds and a popular mix, accounting for about 43% of the cow population in New Zealand. Due to the good size and high fat content and volume of milk produced, these cross-bred cows are currently high in demand.

Did you know that milk is the sum of what the animal has eaten in the past few hours, influenced largely by the feed and weather? It logically follows that quality milk can only be produced by quality feed, raised in conducive weather.

The peak of the milk production season begins in September, with the season ending in April, so we were extremely thankful to be able to catch the last bit of the milking season when we visited in mid-April! The optimal weather conditions allow for grass to grow well, and grazing land is abundant for the cows to roam freely and get the best feed.

From May onwards, as nature prepares itself for winter, farms typically renew the old pastures to ensure that the grass cover lasts through winter. Farms also observe a drying off season that allows cows to rest and recover for the next milking season.

 

The milk tanker leaves a farm, beginning its journey to be made into dairy products to provide nutrition for life.

 

Fonterra At A Glance

The close relationship between type of feed (grass vs grain), weather and milk supply and quality cannot be emphasised enough. Fonterra prides itself as a clean, green co-operative that sustains dairy farming with green grass fresh from the pastures, with animal health and welfare as the uncompromisable backbone of the industry.

A co-operative owned by 10,500 New Zealand farming families, Fonterra is the world’s largest dairy exporter and is behind well-loved brands like Anchor, Anlene, Anmum and Mainland. As a global dairy nutrition company, Fonterra also supplies dairy ingredients to leading food manufacturers, and collaborates with farmers in key regions to sustain New Zealand as a world leader in dairy.

We take a glimpse into the lives of the farmers and the basics of the dairy industry.

 

Trewithen Farm

It’s before dawn, the sky still inky black at Tikorangi’s Trewithen Farm at 4.30am, when this dairy farmer’s day begins with more than 1,200 cows awaiting to be milked in a high-tech Super Shed.

It’s a curious system that works. The 280-hectare farm’s land and milking facilities are owned by Gavin Faull’s Faull Farms, but operated by sharemilkers Tony and Loie Penwarden, who own the cows.

 

 

Sophisticated auto-milking facilities such as those in the Super Shed can cost about two million dollars to build. Factor in the costs of irrigation systems to water the grass, monitoring systems to check on the growth of the grass, replanting of the grass, alternating of crops and environmentally-friendly measures, and you can see how expensive it can be to set up a farm.

 

 

Milking is automated and done twice a day in the Super Shed, but the dairy industry is still heavily dependent on the farmers to care for the cows and the grass feed. The farmer checks on cows that don’t seem to be milking well and separates them from the herd to attend to their needs. He replants grass on 10-15% of the land every year to ensure the best feed for the cows.

 

 

The cows graze on the land perennially, but come winter, farmers feed them hay and also a mix of maize and meal when the grass is not giving adequate nutrition. Young calves are given particular attention and fed colostrum, the first milk from cows that have just given birth, well-known to be high in antibodies and fat.

 

 

Rapid advances in farm production systems have lightened greatly the load of the farmers and now, it only takes about 7 minutes to produce 15-20 litres of milk. Tony’s herd on Trewithen Farm produces a hefty 7,000 litres daily, collected by the industrial milk tanker that comes in at around 6.30 am to 8am.

Farmers are paid based on the milk solids collected. The more protein in the milk, the more money the farmer gets. Milk quality also undergoes stringent assessments and farmers are penalised if traces of antibiotics are found in the milk.

 

A spirit of innovation and investment in sophisticated technology are bringing new possibilities to sustain and protect the future of dairy.

 

Fonterra Milk For Schools

Fonterra Milk For Schools

 

The biggest community programme undertaken by any New Zealand company, Fonterra Milk for Schools is an initiative to increase milk consumption and general health and nutrition in New Zealand’s children. Through this programme, all primary-aged children at participating schools get free access to one 200ml carton of their Anchor chilled UHT milk every school day. That’s more than 140,000 children who get to drink quality milk for better health every school day! Since the programme began, more than 50 million packs of milk have been delivered.

The beauty of this programme goes beyond promoting the goodness of milk; it also imparts lasting lessons on recycling and leadership. For example, over the years, the 50 million packs have been folded and sent to Thailand and Malaysia to be recycled into roof tiles and exercise books. I was personally very touched by the educational aspect of this programme, connecting the children to where their dairy comes from and appreciating the farmers who have toiled to produce it. I wonder, how many of us know where our food comes from? When we do know, will we appreciate and give thanks more?

 

Dairy For Life

 

Dairy beats in the heart of almost every New Zealander, and Fonterra has a huge part to play in that. Dairy is who they are and what they do best. With more than 100 years of expertise in producing and developing dairy products, Fonterra is behind iconic Kiwi brands like Anchor, Anlene and Mainland (some of my personal favourite dairy products that I always have in my fridge!). We go behind the scenes with Fonterra to see the transformation of the milk we learned about into quality products that are designed to meet the different nutritional needs of the end consumers.

 

 

The Making of Cheese

I had my fair share of souper moments in this New Zealand trip, but I have to say, it was a little-child-meets-ice-cream-truck moment when I visited the Eltham cheese factory and The Kapiti Store!

Located in Eltham, a small town in South Taranaki, the thriving dairy industry brings in droves of tourists (like me!) eager to have a taste of its artisan cheeses freshly cut off the block. Known for being the only place in New Zealand that manufactures its own rennet for cheesemaking which it has made since 1916, Eltham is also home to the first non-cheddar cheese variant in the country, the blue vein cheese, introduced in 1951.

 

 

Down the road, the Fonterra-owned Whareroa factory is one of the largest of its kind in the world, almost an intimidating totem with its expansive stainless steel vats and sprawling warehouses. After learning about the milk production at Trewithen Farm, I was all the more curious to see how the milk is converted into high-value, high-quality dairy products, thereby bringing better returns for the farmers. After a safety briefing, we were shown the processes of making feta, halloumi and blue vein cheeses. I was souper excited!

The milk from farms is sent to the factory in milk tankers, to be made into milk powder, butter and cheese. Some 1,000 staff here are responsible for processing a whopping 14 million litres of milk per day, an average of 6,000-8,000 litres of milk from each farm.

First up, churning butter. I have watched cooking shows that demonstrate how you can churn butter at home simply by whipping heated cream, then allowing it to cool down to about 12-15°C. This home method takes about 24 hours. In a commercial setting, the process takes a grand total of three wink-and-you-miss-it seconds!

 

Blue Vein Cheese Production

 

Cheese production at Eltham, by contrast, is a much more labourious art form, aided by the sophisticated facilities and the years of experience of master craftsmen. Typically, 53kg of milk can yield about 23kg of cheese.

It starts with a vat of 2,200 litres of milk, reduced down to half the volume when the whey is removed (the whey protein is made into a concentrate for yoghurts and supplements). In the mixing vat, the rennet and starter culture (we were shown the blue vein strain mould) are added. In the Eltham factory, the blue vein culture is kept in a room at a temperature of 70°C, a practice they  have held since 1951.

 

 

It takes 24 hours to press out all the liquid and to turn the mixture six times in a metal container with holes (to allow the mould to work). This is where the cheese block gets its round wheel shape. Each wheel is salted daily for the next four days, then pierced for the mould to penetrate to the centre, before being transferred to the maturation room to be turned on the cheese hoop for the next four weeks.

Blue vein cheese is also generically known as blue cheese, and has a distinct smell of ammonia that comes from the cultivated bacteria. The beta carotene in grass is passed on to grass-fed cows, contributing to the unique taste of the blue vein cheese too. You are either Team Blue Cheese or you are not. I was not, but little did I know that I was about to change team on this trip!

I was introduced to the various types of blue cheese: the Ava Blue is the traditional blue cheese, the Kahurangi which is a creamy blue, and the Kikorangi, a milder blue cheese. The latter has to be cut by hand as it is a natural cheese with an odd shape. When it is very ‘young’ (2-3 weeks), it is very salty and hence not suitable for consumption. At four weeks, the blue cheese is ready for export with air in the packaging, allowing maturation to continue. For local consumption, the blue cheese is given 8 weeks’ maturation before it is sold.

Manual inspection and a taste test of the wheels by the master taster determine if the cheese is mature. Specifically, he looks out for dryness, which is a big no-no for good blue cheeses which are supposed to be moist and creamy.

 

Processed Cheese

 

We also had the privilege of visiting the Collingwood Street Facility in Eltham, another Fonterra-operated site. The largest foodservice and consumer cheese operation in Asia Pacific, Fonterra has 500 employees on site with a plant that operates 24 hours a day. This is the place where cheeses are processed, shredded and frozen, impressively processing around 14,000 million tonnes of natural cheese and 8,500 million tonnes of grated cheese per year. This facility alone produces enough cheese to supply 3 billion cheese burgers in a year, or enough cheese to wrap around the earth six times! Jaw-dropping statistics that truly bear testimony to Eltham’s reputation as dairy town, and the profound impact Fonterra has on the town and the larger Taranaki community.

 

 

Here, a dazzling array of cheeses are processed. Young cheeses are generally milder on the palate, but the flavour profile grows in intensity with more maturation. We picked up handy information on the different kinds of cheeses and here you go, some cheesy tips!

 

Cheddar 

A relatively hard and sometimes sharp-tasting cheese, with a lot of different varieties:

Mild – matured for 3-6 months

Tasty – matured for 6-12 months

Vintage – matured for 18 months

Epicure – matured for 36 months

Processed – shelf-stable at 24 months

Noble – low-fat cheddar cheese matured for 12-18 months, with no compromise in flavour profile

 

Colby

A mild-flavoured semi-hard cheese that is similar to Monterey Jack and has a moist, creamy texture. Some have compared it to gouda cheese, but this is generally milder in profile.

 

Smoked Harvarti

This cheese is made by lightly smoking for 30 seconds and left to age and mature, and has a signature velvety, creamy texture and a subtle smokiness. Best enjoyed nearer to the expiry date for the full smoky profile, I was told!

 

Halloumi

Unlike the smoked harvarti, this cheese is best eaten as soon as it hits the shelf as it has a tendency to dry out and lose its shape.

 

How to Create Souper Cheese Boards

 

At The Kapiti Store, you can sample some of the country’s best cheese and buy them fresh or packaged to bring home. As a frequent host to my friends and family back home, the tips I picked up here were so handy it would be selfish of me not to share!

It isn’t difficult to please a crowd simply with some specialty cheeses on hand. A great cheese board needs little embellishment and takes little effort to put together. Keep the board uncomplicated, unpretentious and let the cheese platter shine.

 

Number of cheeses

Choose from a variety of categories so there is something for everyone, like three to four cheeses that vary in taste, texture and appearance. I bought a few Kapiti artisan cheeses this time, ranging from creamy, salty, mild, firm to sharp and pungent.

Preparation

Bring the cheeses to room temperature for up to an hour before serving. Remove the packaging and scrape the cheese surface to bring out the full flavour and character of the cheeses.

Cutting Cheese

I like to serve my cheese with wafers, so I typically cut the cheese into slivers. But a variety of chunks and cuts work wonders on a platter, so try cutting into thick wedges or cute triangles as well.

Building the Board

Arrange cheese in order from mildest to strongest, and if you can, serve each cheese with its own knife to avoid mixing flavours.

For guests with a sweet tooth, I usually add a seasonal fruit preserve or even a little jar of honey on the side, as well as a few berries for an unexpected pop of colour.

 

 

Afterthoughts

Even at a time of increasing urbanisation, the dairy industry is a key contributor to New Zealand’s economy – with 95% of the milk produced exported around the world, over $1 billion invested in dairy innovation in the past ten years, and more than 22,000 people hired globally by Fonterra. What does this mean for New Zealanders, and the country’s food culture?

Finding The New Zealand Cuisine

 

Try not falling in love with New Zealand. It’s Mission Impossible! I can’t even begin to articulate what I love most about the country. After four trips, including this one with Fonterra, I still can’t get enough of her great outdoors, the way dawn breaks and spills a watercolour palette over the skies. The young yet intriguing history that gives the people such a distinct Kiwi character. At the heart of every trip was undeniably the food. Every supermarket trip was an eye-opener. I’m embarrassed how much time I can  while away in the aisles! The meals there provided much culinary inspiration for both my home cooking and what I would love to bring to The Soup Spoon.

Yet, this question still stumped me: What exactly is the New Zealand cuisine? Is there even one to begin with?

Talk about Korean cuisine and you’ll think of kimchi, gojuchang and its spicy jjigae. Speak of Italian food and you’ll start slurping up al dente spaghetti in your mind. Singaporean fare, as we all know, is the collective representation of our multi-racial tapestry, our immigrant history. But when it comes to New Zealand cuisine, I will confess that my mind struck a blank, void of distinct associations.

I suppose the simple answer to this is that there might not be one characteristic Kiwi cuisine! It may not be as distinct as we would like it to be, but the beauty of such a cuisine, to me, means every dish is a surprise and often, such a delight. The New Zealand Anchor Food Professionals team even scooped a silver at the 2016 Culinary Olympics, a giant leap in bringing Kiwi cuisine to the world.

Recollecting the glorious food I’ve had here, indeed each dish is marked by a seamless fusion of a medley of indigenous, colonial and global influences, capitalising on the proud freshness of the foods the country produces. And that’s a distinction not all cuisines can boast of!

 

Seafood is bountiful and cooked in both the simplest and sophisticated of ways. Take your pick!

 

My travel companions once joked that what was on our plates could probably be found in the farm not too far away, or freshly plucked from our neighbour’s backyard. How true that is! Honouring the pureness and volume of flavours in the local produce, home cooks and chefs in New Zealand have also embraced their great biodiversity to create foods that are equal parts cosmopolitan and Kiwi.

 

 

The indigenous backdrop of New Zealand also means a unique, traditional Māori hangi experience that can be offered to locals and tourists alike. The labourious ways in which food is gathered, prepared and preserved also bears testament to the unparalleled diligence and warmth of the country’s first inhabitants.

 

 

I’ve particularly enjoyed slowing down to one-too-many teatime breaks in New Zealand’s much lauded vibrant café scene. Many locals are deft bakers, springing an evolution of tea rooms that serve exceptional mince pies, rolls and lamingtons. Just look at the gems we’ve had!

 

 

This trip with Fonterra was a window into an intimate side of the country I’ve come to love so very much. Thankful, as always, for the opportunity to meet the people who have made the dairy industry what it is today. To many, the farming life is a romantic notion of green pastures and dreamy sheep, but the reality is it’s a life built on passion, perspiration and protection. Farming and dairy is the backbone behind the country’s dining and living habits, an industry that needs us, as consumers, to respect and support more.

And I’m glad that in the search for authentic New Zealand cuisine, I have found much, much more.

 

I know I say this a lot, but I’ll say it again because I mean it. Thank YOU. I’ve had so many of you writing in to share your thoughts on the SouperChef Specials and my NZ travel stories. I’m heartened. Thank you for popping by, for the soupport! Do you know that I was so charged with inspiration after the trip to New Zealand with Fonterra that I created almost double the number of recipes required? As a chef, we can have our blind spots and play favourites to ingredients and cooking methods, so armed with my scribbled recipes and notes, I went around asking my friends for their views. Taste is a mighty subjective thing, but I’m pretty sure these carefully chosen six SouperChef Specials will please!

 

Round 2 Taste New Zealand SouperChef Specials

 

You may have noticed how dairy features in these soups! Dairy beats in the heart of almost every New Zealander, and Fonterra has a huge part to play in that. Dairy is who they are and what they do best. With more than 100 years of expertise in producing and developing dairy products, Fonterra is behind iconic Kiwi brands like Anchor, Anlene and Mainland (some of my personal favourite dairy products that I always have in my fridge!). This trip to New Zealand, we have gone behind the scenes with Fonterra to see the transformation of the milk into quality products that are designed to meet the different nutritional needs of the end consumers. In these two rounds of SouperChef Specials, taste for yourself the full-bodied flavours of their products, and the difference they can make to dishes, particularly the versatility of the well-loved Anchor brand!

 

Fonterra Milk For Schools, an initiative providing 140,000 packs of milk to NZ school children every day.

The hard work that goes into transforming milk into cheese!

 

We have also put together some handy cards with recipes from our Kiwi hosts so you too can experience the vibrant colours of Kiwi cooking and dairy goodness in your own kitchen! If you haven’t checked out our e-mag, you really should. It’s a gem of intimate conversations, stories, recipes and memories, a little something we have worked hard on to share with you. Enjoy Round 2 of Taste New Zealand!

 

 

xx

Anna