Foraging with Charles Royal (+recipes)

By Grant Allen

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Grant Allen spends a day gathering food from the wild.

Charles Royal shows Grant Allen how to gather native plants for eating. Photo / Jason Burgess
Charles Royal shows Grant Allen how to gather native plants for eating. Photo / Jason Burgess

Charles Royal is a true forager.

This term is rather loosely bandied around the food world at the moment. Its meaning is to hunt and gather from the wild.

Before crop cultivation and the farming of animals, foraging was essential for man's survival. It takes knowledge and skill to know what to gather and use and to do so in a way that allows nature to replenish her larder. Charles has a store house of this information.

After 10 years in the Army Catering Division and more years with Air New Zealand's flight kitchens, Charles followed his heart to work on the land of his ancestors and spend as much time as possible in his beloved native bush.

He sought knowledge from the elders in his area. They shared their stories of food gathering, cooking, preserving and trading from times before European contact.

This led him to develop a range of native seasonings, Kinaki wild herbs, and also incorporate indigenous plants into his cooking.

Charles does not deliver "bush tucker". His food is presented in a sophisticated way that brings together contemporary style with ancient ingredients and techniques.

He has begun another Rotorua-based enterprise. Collaborating with other local tour operators, Charles leads food-based experiences that include sailing to one of Lake Rotoiti's islands, foraging in the bush, cooking demonstrations, soaking in secret hot pools and of course tasting some uniquely New Zealand food.

The groups are kept small and with warmth and charm Charles reveals what is normally unnoticed on a bush walk, what may be eaten and how to sustainably harvest. One feels in the presence of a forest guardian.

We followed Charles on a mini gathering expedition. He pointed out kawakawa, explaining how to pick the small leaves with holes for food use. This plant has multiple properties and is also widely used in Maori medicine.

It has a sharp peppery taste with a tongue numbing effect similar to Sichuan pepper. The larger leaves are used for drying and grinding into a seasoning.

At this time of the year there is abundant wood ear fungus on offer. Leaving the smallest to keep growing, we gathered some to cook. These fungi were exported in vast quantities to China in the late 19th century.

Piripiri vine has a growing tip with a natural snap point (like asparagus) and tastes like a cross between a pea and a bean. Refreshingly crisp to eat raw, it can also be steamed. The vine was used to weave cray pots in earlier days.

Pikopiko looks a bit like bracken in form. There are many varieties of this fern and it can be used as a vegetable, dried and rehydrated or as decoration. My very cool little local bar uses the fronds as a swizzle stick in cocktails. A blend of pikopiko, horopito and cayenne pepper form a piripiri seasoning produced under the Kinaki label.

Once back to the side of the lake Charles fired up the barbecue and made us some food. He brought along some hummus and pesto made with his products, a loaf of his soda bread spiraled with pikopiko, and a drink of lemon splash with a leaf of kawakawa added for extra zing.

We watched as his professional chef side emerged. Organised and efficient, some main course tastings and desserts were created and savoured beside the shining lake water edged by dark dense hills. Only in Rotorua, Aotearoa.

Below are recipes Charles has shared with us:

* Horopito hummus

* Pikopiko pesto

* Pikopiko takakau - Fiddlehead fern bread

- Herald on Sunday

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