Anna King Shahab takes a forager's tour of Wellington's inner-city food sources
Getting a taste of what's local is something many of us increasingly prioritise when travelling. That might entail produce grown, raised, and fished from the region. Or in the case of several Wellington establishments I visited on a recent trip to the capital, it means things wild: from ingredients foraged in the town's green belt and other swathes of native bush, to micro-organisms lured in from the city's night air through flung-open windows.
My taxi driver seemed decidedly unsure about whether he should be dropping me up a dead-end street at the foot of Te Ahumairangi Hill rather early on a drizzly Saturday morning. But soon enough I was greeted by Asher Boote, arriving armed with coffee and containers. Boote, owner and chef at Hillside Kitchen, is a regular on this inner-city hillside; he and his team forage for edible plants here a few times a week – the results packed neatly into said containers to go straight into dishes, or into preserves, to serve at the restaurant. Hillside Kitchen is currently running from a temporary CBD location while its original Tinakori site – that intimate, heritage space just a short stroll from where we stood overlooking the city - is earthquake-strengthened. Hillside's menu showcases seasonal produce, with an emphasis on that sourced hyper-locally. Foraging finds are added to produce grown at Sabai, Boote's quarter-acre permaculture garden in Shannon.
In a small open patch, far enough away from the road but on the edge of the bush proper, Boote pointed out just how many edible things can be gleaned, even in midwinter: purslane, chickweed, pūhā, oxalis. Then, as we perused the fringe of the native bush, there was a bounty of kawakawa leaves and berries, kūmarahou, mamaku, harakeke. I let out a yelp of joy at spotting a decent-sized puffball mushroom, which Boote carefully sliced off with a knife so as not to disturb the spore network below.
A few hours later I was sitting at the counter at Hillside in the City with Boote cooking up said puffball in front of me. He pressed slices gently on a hot pan – dry, to start with, which seals the juices – he then added a little olive oil to give it the requisite golden, umami exterior (Boote sources his olive oil as locally and excellently as it gets: from Martinborough's Lot 8). The sautéed mushroom is served with lick of leek-infused olive oil, and a garnish of chickweed we picked earlier. It's a lesson in simple, delicious, very local flavour and an excellent starter.
Later that afternoon I was lucky enough to get a tour around Garage Project's Wild Workshop with co-founder Pete Gillespie. The brand's second full brewery site in the city, housed in an old print press factory, Wild Workshop enables experimentation with wild fermentation. Doing this in a dedicated space means no risk of the wild yeasts contaminating controlled brews (as did in fact happen in quite a serious way at an overseas brewery, Gillespie explains). There's "100 per cent spontaneous fermentation, which is just letting whatever is around come in, with us having no control over it", explains Gillespie; this happens by spreading the wort out on the big stainless steel cool ship – it sits by big old windows, which are flung open to let micro-organisms in the city's night air go to work on the wort.
"Then there are our wildflower ferments, where we go out and forage for flowers… with that approach we have a bit more control in terms of flavour". They often bolster that with fruit from the same plant the flower is from – taste their Wildflower Feijoa on tap now.
"Then we also work on projects where we go out and try and isolate certain yeasts – at the moment we're working with the Botanic Gardens, which has yeast hives dotted around". The cellar door at Wild Workshop is open Friday and Saturday evenings for sampling of these wild creations as well as conventional brews, the brand's natural wines, and the occasional beer/wine hybrid.
To wrap your head and taste buds around the OG flavours of Wellington's landscape, book well in advance to secure a table at Hiakai. Chef and owner Monique Fiso has spent countless hours researching, documenting, and experimenting with ngā tipu – indigenous plants – sourced in ngahere – tracts of bush around the city. My meal there was a delicious journey: orokohanga, the Māori creation story, was told across seven courses. It was fascinating knowing that in every dish were ingredients that were part of the flavour narrative hundreds of years ago – things like kiekie, pikopiko, manono, tarata, pirita, tī kōuka – woven in clever, nuanced ways into each dish (and drinks matches) and into the overall story.
Visa Wellington on a Plate dates
August 12-14: GP & Friends, a pop-up at Wild Workshop bringing exclusive tastes of beers from some of Garage Project's favourite brewing buddies from all over – relax amid the giant oak barrels of the workshop and sample a world of experimental beers.
August 21 (sold out but waitlist open): Chef and author Analiese Gregory joins the Hillside crew and guests to forage her favourite Wellington spots, before cranking up the barbecue and cooking a feast while Analiese shares stories from her new book How Wild Things Are (which you also take home).
For more Wellington on a Plate events, see visawoap.com