Anna King Shahab deep dives into the Sherwood Queenstown's mouth-watering menu
It's amazing how fire can transform raw ingredients into something so delicious. Having toured the extensive permaculture garden at Sherwood alongside Head Chef and co-owner Chris Scott, I returned to the restaurant where, before my eyes, sous chef Vinni gently shaped a ball of dough into a disc, scattered over a few carefully chosen toppings, and posted his creation into the hellishly hot wood oven sitting bench-height in the open kitchen. In no time I was sitting at a table with a substantial late afternoon snack staring up at me: the dough puffed up, blackened blisters cracking to reveal the airy crumb within.
Over the lockdown of March-April 2020, Scott was keen to extend his baking skills, in particular working with sourdough techniques. He honed in on the concept of flatbreads, he says, "as a good way to incorporate produce from our garden in a hyper-seasonal way, with a freedom to be creative". He avoided using the term 'pizza' which he says comes loaded with tradition "and preconceived notions of what can or should be used as toppings."
"The wood-fired stone brick oven was made by Authentique in Tauranga; it was pre-cast and shipped down in one piece", says Scott. "It weighs more than a tonne, so it was a pretty big task getting into place, cantilevered over our marble kitchen pass bench!"
After lots of experimenting with sourdough recipes, Scott and his team settled on a recipe they liked, from San Francisco's legendary bakery Tartine, and adapted it using BIO Grow Aotearoa-grown and milled flours – a blend of OO, wheat and rye. "It's the same process as making a sourdough loaf – a natural leaven, bulk fermentation, bench rest and a moulding process", explains Scott – but instead of being shaped into a high loaf they're moulded into flatbreads and covered with toppings. It might sound simple, but it's probably one of the trickier sections of the menu as there are so many variables that go into the making of the dough; and cooking temperature and time may need adjusting accordingly.
As for the toppings, the menu runs to five different offerings. The one I happily chewed my way through that afternoon featured oyster mushrooms from a local supplier, and to really hit home that earthy flavour Scott and his team make a mushroom dressing using roasted foraged boletes and dried slippery jacks, which they then boost with truffle.
The mozzarella is made in the South Island, by Viavio, and smoked in the oven in the Sherwood's kitchen which adds another layer of flavour. "We then top it with greens from the garden", explains Scott. Depending on what's being picked, that might be baby kale, watercress – which Scott describes is "collected from the mountain stream that runs through the property", or even leaves from a big, healthy-looking alexanders shrub – a new-to-me ingredient. Every part of the plant can be eaten including the seeds, stems, flowers, and bright green, glossy leaves – the alexanders plant was prized by the Romans.
Scott pours a Sled Dog Hazy from Queenstown's Altitude Brewery to accompany my mushroom flatbread – the earthiness in the food sits nicely alongside the generous punch of riwaka, mosaic, citra and waimea hops which give the beer a crunchy juiciness.
"It also goes well with the pinot noir we serve on tap from our good friends at Mt Edward Gibbston Valley, or our non-alcoholic Sherwood seasonal soda with black Doris plum and anise hyssop."
Several hours later I returned to the restaurant for dinner, and we kicked off our feast with a second helping from the flatbread menu. This time onion jam, Pecorino, and 'bacon' Scott and team had made in collaboration with Te Mana lamb by dry-curing lamb belly. Another glorious combination of flavours, and further evidence that the tonne of wood-fired oven was a stellar investment.
The garden at Sherwood
On sloping land on the northern side of Lake Wakatipu, the site isn't blessed with as much sunshine as the hills over on the southern shores. Growing seasons here tend to be short – but a careful cycle of planting by Sherwood's full-time horticulturist Bruce Thurlow makes the most of those seasons. He works directly with Scott to plan how and with what to best supply the restaurant from what Thurlow describes as "essentially a pretty small garden".
"We have about 165 metres of 75cm-wide annual beds", explains Thurlow. "From those beds last year, we harvested more than $25,000 worth in market rates of produce and this year we're on track to greatly exceed that… Last week I was harvesting 19 items each day that featured on the menu, direct from garden to plate".
While the property, including the kitchen, makes avoiding waste of any kind a priority, all of the organic waste the kitchen does produce is returned to the garden via composting: a closed loop.
To supplement what's grown here, regular foraging expeditions in pockets dotted around the region yield delights like mushrooms, nuts, berries, fruits, and all sorts of edible flowers.
The Sherwood hotel and restaurant is at 554 Frankton Rd, Queenstown. sherwoodqueenstown.nz