Auckland author and foodie Simon Farrell-Green devotes two chapters of his new book, Food Heroes, to Hawke's Bay artisan producers. He chats to Mark Story and says the province should stop comparing itself to Provence.
The book's title suggests the food industry needs saving from itself - is that a deliberate point you're making?
Yes. The world food economy, and New Zealand's food economy, has become increasingly industrial in the past few decades - food producers have had to get bigger to be competitive, and food travels further before it gets to you. That comes with an environmental cost, obviously, but it also has a massive effect on the quality of what we're eating. It's particularly problematic for fresh food - what you're eating might pass through six or seven pairs of hands down a distribution chain before it actually reaches you. Which is all a bit roundabout really. We pay more, the grower gets less, and a big chunk of the difference disappears into the gap in between.
A secondary point is that in New Zealand, in particular, we seem to be caught up with producing commodities in an ever more efficient fashion, rather than making high-value food, and as a result there's a tendency to ignore the local market. Consumers in Guanghzou seem to matter more to big food businesses than we do.
What constitutes a food "hero"?
To me it's as simple as someone going against that tide. All of the producers in the book care very deeply about food and what it takes to produce it. They're certainly not in it for the money.
You write that food, to you, is "50 per cent cerebral" - what does this mean?
I mean that I know where it comes from, who grew it or made it and what they did to it and why. I know the back story of a lot of the things I eat, and in many cases I've visited the farm or the kitchen. That gives me enormous pleasure when I then go to cook it because as I do so I remember the day I stood on a barge in the Mahurangi Harbour eating oysters, say, but it also gives me certainty that what I'm eating was produced responsibly.
Not so long ago a cheeseball or mutton roast sufficed for a social dinner. Today there's an expectation we should all be home gourmands. Are there downsides to the gentrification of food?
I love that New Zealanders are as obsessed with eating as they are these days, and I think it's typical of the kind of people we are - it's all or nothing. But we've definitely become precious about food; there is an anxiety around it, which I think is fed by all of the food media everywhere. This really troubles me, and I think people now think they need a lot more in the pantry - fancy gourmet rubs and sauces and what not, all of which is very expensive. We seem to think a simple garden-fresh salad isn't good enough any more.
My own style of cooking is really basic, very rustic and simple, and I always say the key to eating well is getting good ingredients and not doing very much to them. That's why when I was putting the book together, I was really determined that it had a lot of fresh food in it - fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, with a smattering of other really good-value products (a jar of preserved lemons, for instance, lasts through a dozen meals and you only need a tiny amount.) That's also why we included recipes in the book. I really wanted to show people that it's not hard. Although I have to say, I don't lament the decline of the cheeseball.
You profile a selection of organic growers in the book. Some would argue organic artisans produce great fare because they tend to do so passionately - not because the product is organic. To you, which is the more crucial ingredient?
I actually have a small issue with organics, or rather, the certification system. I love the movement and the fact that it enables consumers to make better choices, but it's incredibly prescriptive and some of it doesn't always make sense (you can use antibiotics on an animal once, for instance, but twice and it's not organic any more.) More particularly, it seems to me organic certification is actually designed to plug food into that existing distribution system, rather than changing the way that food is distributed - it's designed to communicate with a consumer a long way from where it might have been grown. So increasingly, I'm more interested in talking to the person that grew it than whether they're certified - that's why I think farmers' markets are so important. You can ask questions about how something was grown, and then make a value judgment. That's way more important than some sticker. So yes, that passion for what they're making is much more important.
Hawke's Bay has been talked up as New Zealand's "Provence". In your view, is it?
I really don't think those sorts of comparisons are helpful. What does that even mean?
Provence is fantastic because the people there worked out, centuries ago, what grew well and what they had to hand, and that was a particular type of wine and a particular type of food and that's what people love about going there for the same reasons as they like visiting Umbria or Barcelona. I think Hawke's Bay should be talked up for being Hawke's Bay: Great fruit, brilliant wine, lots of sun, beautiful beaches, some amazing artisan producers and good restaurants.