Standing high on a hill on Minaret Station was no place to be this cold, blustery snow-on-the-way day, but there I was, exhilarated and remarking at the pretty white faces of the lambs being shepherded around us. “They are very good looking sheep,” says Matt Wallis, one of four brothers who own the station, “but we are careful who we say that around.”
It was one of many quips from Matt and his brother Jonathan as they helicoptered me around their 50,000 acre property, which has no road access but enjoys 27km of Wanaka lakefront. Matt’s focus is the hospitality side of the business.
Minaret Station Alpine Lodge, nestled 900m above sea level in a valley that stretches to Mt Aspiring, offers guests a typical high country experience. "Nothing is staged" says Matt, "we just want people to be able to share and enjoy what we have here". From luxury lodgings — there are four chalets nestled around a main lodge — guests can head off by foot or helicopter for adventures including hunting, fishing and heli-skiing or something completely tailor-made.
Helicopters are also part of the brothers’ business and they have the wherewithal to make it happen — day trips down to Stewart Island or up to Kaikoura are not uncommon. Or guests can just relax and enjoy the isolation. “Sitting in a beanbag, glass of wine in hand, looking out at ridges is an experience for some people,” Matt says doubtfully, as you would expect from such a seasoned hunting, shooting, fishing adventurer.
The main lodge is suitably relaxed and informal and we gather at the kitchen hatch, chatting to chef Jeremy Simeon (pictured below) as he cooks our lunch of Te Mana Lamb — the breed farmed on the station and the reason for my visit.
Te Mana is the “omega-3 lamb” everyone is talking about. It has a unique fat profile rich in naturally-elevated polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats — the good fats — the ones we need to eat. The benefits are many. Te Mana Lamb brings variety to our diet, because you can only eat so much oily fish (chia seeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts are also high in omega-3s).
Te Mana Lamb cooks better, retaining its shape, flavour and texture, and its lighter, delicate taste and milder aroma appeals to non-lamb eaters. Te Mana lambs are also healthier and happier. Jonathan (who could talk farming all day) explains the consumer demand for less fat has led to production of lean lamb but this is not good for animal welfare. Fat is essential for sheep (below) to breed well and to thrive in high altitudes, pastures and conditions.
The Omega Lamb Project, a Primary Growth Partnership programme between food company Alliance Group, a group of progressive farmers known as Headwaters and the Ministry for Primary Industries, was originally conceived to produce sheep that would thrive better in these conditions. The resulting lamb, meat which cooks and tastes quite different to any other, was a happy discovery.
The fat, marbled throughout the meat, ensures succulence and makes it more forgiving to cook. I know many cooks who would enjoy cooking with Te Mana lamb at home, but unfortunately the breeding programme and pasture requirements don’t lend themselves to mass production just yet so we need to look out for it on restaurant menus.
Bite contributor Sid Sahrawat serves Te Mana Lamb at Sidart and plans to have it on the Cassia menu in the near future. "We like to have a point of difference at Sidart and only use superior cuts of meat and Te Mana ticks those boxes," he says. "The flavour is very different to any other New Zealand lamb. They feed on chicory so it's like a free range version of standard lamb. The higher fat content makes the meat tender and juicier."
At Sidart Te Mana Lamb is currently cooked at 65C sous vide for 50 minutes and served with caramelised leek and smoked macadamia. The chefs at Minaret Lodge cook Te Mana Lamb many ways for many occasions (the kitchen not only produces all meals for lodge guests, it also supplies picnic meals for Alpine Helicopters’ clientele) and Jeremy cooked a selection, served family style, for our lunch.
Rump and racks (pictured above) were sous vide, finished in the pan and served simply with sauce and vegetables. Shoulder was slow-cooked, sliced and served with roasted vegetables, and mint. The slow-cooked lamb at Wanaka Gourmet Kitchen is exceptional — everyone talks about it — and today I discover that Chef Dale Bowie's secret is Te Mana Lamb.
“It’s a revelation, radically different,” says Dale. “Since we’ve been using Te Mana shoulders in the restaurant, many customers have commented the lamb is even better than before. It’s really succulent, with a great taste but none of the fattiness you traditionally associate with lamb.”
I’ll round off this high country experience with my humble opinion: It’s like we have a whole new meat on the menu. I love lamb in all its fatty, musky-smelling glory. I now love Te Mana Lamb too, because there are times when I want something more delicate, sweet and succulent, something lighter that doesn’t leave a layer of fat on the roof of the mouth.
The polyunsaturated omega-3 fats encourage me to order it because my high cholesterol benefits from a diet rich in them and this gives me a dining out option that differs from the salmon and oily fish I can cook at home. Te Mana lamb comes from happy lambs in happy environments, an environment I’d be keen to spend more time in myself.
Te Mana lamb is on the menu at...
The Barnacle, Auckland
Langham Hotel, Auckland
Woodpecker Hill, Auckland
The Grove, Auckland
Cable Bay Vineyards, Waikeke Island
Chillingworth Road, Christchurch
Blanket Bay Lodge, Queenstown
Jack's Point Clubhouse, Queenstown
The Grille, Queenstown
Minart Station Alpine Lodge,Wanaka
Wanaka Gourmet Kitchen, Wanaka
You will also find Te Mana Lamb on menus in Hong Kong.