Champion winners in this year's Outstanding Food Producers Awards were announced on a chilly Auckland evening recently, over a grazing table graced with a bounty of delicious things sourced and produced up and down the country.
"The Awards celebrate Kiwis who harvest, grow and make food and drinks", says co-founder Kathie Bartley.
"Entries come from every region in New Zealand and each year a team of specialist judges over 300 products, awarding the best with gold medals and the most outstanding with champion awards".
For the past several years, I've blind-tasted all sorts of products as one of the specialist judges of the awards, and it strikes me that the list of medalists makes a wonderful insight into the lie of the land – producers working within their particular environments to create a product that's imbued with a sense of place.
Here I outline a few stellar examples to seek out on shelves, online, at the farm gate, and via the awards' online store.
Chatham Islands Food Co.
The remote Chatham Islands are somewhere many Kiwis dream of visiting, but in reality, few of us will make it there. Chatham Islands Food Co., a family business run by seventh-generation islander Delwyn Tuanui (Ngāti Mutunga) and his wife Gigi Tuanui, scooped this year's Supreme Champion Award, and it's easy to see why.
First, there's the advantages of geography. "The icy subantarctic water and clean ocean floor – due to the extreme isolation of the island from any large landmass – gives our seafood an incredibly clean and delicate flavour", explains Gigi.
It's tough mahi fishing for blue cod, kina, crayfish and paua in treacherous waters, and the logistics of getting the product to market, but the Tuanuis have persisted and their product is a triumph which you can order online to be delivered to your door in pristine condition.
A special mention to the pottles of minced paua – a convenient and affordable way to savour a taste of a distant corner of our country.
Opito Bay Salt Co. and The Taipa Salt Pig
According to Te Ara, "Māori got their salt by eating seafood. The early settlers had to import it, and a few people tried unsuccessfully to extract it from the sea".
New Zealand has no rock salt deposits, and sea salt was not made locally for many years. Fast forward to 2022 and two artisan sea salt makers were awarded medals this year – Opito Bay Salt Co. and The Taipa Salt Pig.
Both businesses are the product of couples undergoing a major career shift and upping sticks to live by the beach.
At Opito Bay – accessed via the famously windy Black Jack Road on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, Erin Mone and Perry Cornish evaporate saltwater in solar tube houses; as well as a plain version, they make a range of salts with flavour additions. A special mention goes to the Coromandel Kelp Salt which features kelp collected at Port Charles.
The Taipa Salt Pig's James and Yasmin Moore source seawater from the crystal-clear waters of various Far North beaches. As well as being able to purchase the resulting salt from gourmet stores, you may well be served it if dining at Northland's Kauri Cliffs, Auckland's The Grove, and Wellington's Hippopotamus.
Hill Road Orchard
Gisborne is famous for things sunshiney – first to see the sun, grower of bright, zesty citrus fruit. The cheery packaging on Hill Road Orchard orange juice delivers – the orange liquid sings with the delights of the East Coast.
The orchard also won a medal for its finger limes, also known as citrus caviar, which add a concentrated pop of flavour to cocktails, seafood dishes, and desserts. Hill Road Orchard goodies are thus far only available in the Gisborne area, so seek them out to get a taste of the sunshine city next time you're there.
One of the country's original high country stations, Middlehurst spans over 16,000 acres in the Awatere Valley, Marlborough. The Awatere may be famous for sauvignon blanc, but Middlehurst is adding merino lamb to the map from its run which extends to the top of the rugged Inland Kaikoura Range, and ranges in altitude from 550 metres to 2,500 metres.
The wool goes off to high-end fashion, while the meat can be found on local restaurant menus (I recently had a rack cooked superbly at Bay of Many Coves), and delivered direct.
Currently, in the online store, the All Thing Gold box includes all six cuts of merino the business entered in the awards – which each won gold – as well as a few packs of their mince, because, well, mince is magic.
At the Champions party, guests descended on circulating platters of Middlehurst short ribs – succulent, with a delicious naturally sweet and umami flavour: put these on your shopping list.
Crust to Crust
The road trip map of Aotearoa is marked with many a darn good pie, but recently Westport's beacon has been shining extra bright thanks to chef Emily Lucas having to perform a change of tack due to Covid-19, switching up work at a luxury resort for days spent baking pies – with a twist.
The meat that fills Lucas' small-batch baked pies is wild – venison, pork, and goat – a great approach for the environment.
As well as beautifully crafted fillings, the pastry is to-die-for. A special edition pie using minced pāua from Chatham Islands Food Co. is a wonderful marriage of flavours and talent from the west and east coasts of the South Island, and can be ordered online right now – $60 for six; these pies redefine a Kiwi classic.