Charting a course for the best Kiwi cuisine on New Zealand’s South Island
Started in 2003, the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin is one of the oldest authentic farmers markets in New Zealand. Locals and visitors turn out Saturday mornings to stock up on food and chat with vendors. (Otago Farmers Market)
Food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of New Zealand. Its rugged good looks, pristine wilderness areas, thirst for thrills like bungee jumping and indigenous Maori culture overshadow anything culinary. So it might be a surprise that in the remotest gas station in the South Island, a barista poured espresso in a heart shape atop the frothy milk in my latte.
The Kiwi coffee culture — so ubiquitous you can find espresso machines in rural Mobil stations — is just the tip of the local culinary spear honed by indigenous culture, the island country’s remote geography and a pervasive interest in conservation that includes sourcing food locally.
“New Zealand’s prevalence of fresh food is uniquely bound in its indigenous history,” said Angela Clifford, the CEO of Eat New Zealand, a nonprofit group promoting culinary tourism in New Zealand. She explained that when English colonizers signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the indigenous Maori in 1840, they and the tribes declared peaceful coexistence and equal access to resources, including “the right to gather resources and food from the natural environment. It underpins everything about the New Zealand food story. It said people are connected to their land through food.”
Modern commercial bungee jumping got its start on New Zealand's South Island. (AJ Hackett Bungy)
While the North Island boasts the thriving restaurant scene of the nation’s biggest city, Auckland (newly a nonstop flight from Chicago on Air New Zealand), I ventured to the wild South Island to explore the unique terroir influencing a thriving and underexposed culinary culture. Sample it for yourself via the following road-trip stops recommended for foodies.
Like a lot of New Zealand, the Waitaki region is better known for its geology than its grub. It begins about 150 miles south of Christchurch and runs inland along the braided Waitaki River almost all the way to Aoraki/Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. Here, perfectly spherical boulders cluster on the beach, karst limestone formations resemble elephant herds among the sheep pastures and a series of Badlands-like cliffs reveal ancient fossilized whale skeletons.
The Moeraki Boulders are part of the geologically distinct Waitaki region, home of "geogastronomy." (Miles Holden)
Over 40 unique geological sites form the roughly 2,800-square-mile Waitaki Whitestone Geopark, which has been nominated as a UNESCO Global Geopark, defined as a region of international significance. In a parallel campaign, local culinary leaders have coined the phrase “geogastronomy” to express not just the concept of terroir as it applies to wine, but to the effect that the limestone bedrock has on all growers, brewers, winemakers and chefs.
“If you look at a cliff face, you can see different layers of soil,” said Clifford. “The geology of a place affects the flavor of the food.”
Fleurs Place is among the restaurants serving "geogastronomy," dishes that express the Waitaki region's distinct geography. The waterfront eatery specializes in fresh fish plucked from Moeraki Bay. (Tourism New Zealand)
Geology tours of the area sync up with geogastronomic restaurants. In coastal Oamaru, known as Whitestone City for its parade of limestone Victorian buildings, Cucina translates this hyperlocal focus into Italian pasta with housemade sausage and local grass-fed steaks. Near the Moeraki Boulders, those unusual spheres on the beach, Fleurs Place showcases local Moeraki Bay seafood and heirloom vegetables in a seafront, corrugated metal shack. The rural Waitaki Braids Lodge, along the park’s Vanished World Trail in Kurow, serves as a coffee shop by day and a restaurant by night, with set menus highlighting local orchards, cheese dairies and charcuterie makers for guests of its seven rooms.
About 70 miles south of Oamaru, on the southeast side of South Island, New Zealand’s oldest university, the University of Otago, resides in Dunedin, gateway to the nature-blessed Otago Peninsula, where endangered New Zealand sea lions rule the beaches, royal albatross have their own nature reserve and tours visit colonies of little blue penguins and the habitat of the rare yellow-eyed penguin.
Those activities are available anytime, but the day to eat in Dunedin is Saturday, when the Otago Farmers Market takes place from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The market, set up beside the 1906 Dunedin Railway train station, features full coffee shops housed in vintage trailers where locals bring their own cups or borrow one from the “cup library.” Venison sausage makers, cheesemongers, root vegetable chip dealers, nut butter grinders and seafood sellers line up next to bakery booths, a Chinese crepe chef, a brewer using rainwater to make beer and a winemaker selling pinot noir in refillable bottles.
“I love the idea of showing people the winemaking process and engaging directly with the people who drink my wine, as opposed to just the wine trade,” said that winemaker, Brendan Seal, the owner of Urbn Vino Dunedin. “It was always a dream of mine to have my own winery one day. It just happens to be in one of the best small cities in the world.”
Urbn Vino gets its grapes from the Central Otago, about a two-hour drive northwest. At 45 degrees latitude south, the Central Otago wine region champions pinot noir, the notoriously finicky grape that benefits from the nearby mountain range, ensuring daily and seasonal temperature swings the vines love. While some growers in Patagonia in South America are a few degrees more southerly, Central Otago vintners say they are the southernmost commercial wine district in the world.
“The Central Otago has hard slate bedrock and the Alpine territory makes vines struggle a little longer, and that creates flavor in grapes,” Clifford said.
Ostler Wines' vineyards are in the Waitaki area, an under-the-radar food destination on the South Island. (Tourism Waitaki)
Most of the Central Otago wineries are day-trip distance from Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. Many, like Amisfield, run destination restaurants. More casual Kinross offers meals in a wine-friendly cafe next to a tasting room pouring the goods from five area wineries, including Valli, that are hard to find stateside. Some require a reservation — worth it, we found, at Felton Road, where the pinots were velvety.
“The Otago doesn’t get super, super hot compared to the rest of the world, and it’s such a unique landscape ... to deliver terroir,” said Clifford. “The Maori word is ‘turangawaewae,’ which means ‘a place to stand.’ It means there’s something unique about that place expressed in the food and place.”
Queenstown offers access to four major ski areas, bungee jumping adventures, jet boat tours that fly inches from canyon walls and heli-everything, including heli-mountain biking and heli-golf. The Aspen of New Zealand — combining year-round mountain appeal and attracting upscale visitors — has a stellar dining scene that out punches its weight across the spectrum, from high- to low-end.
Locally sourced meat is just one of many offerings at the popular Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin. (Elaine Glusac/for the Chicago Tribune)
If there’s a place to indulge your carnivorous appetite, it’s Queenstown, home to acclaimed steakhouses including Jervois Steak House, serving locally raised Wakanui and Wagyu breeds as well as New Zealand lamb and venison. Botswana Butchery elevates its surf and turf menu with wild boar, Fiordland venison loin and goat curry.
Local beef, lamb and deer show up on the other end of the price range at Fergburger, a cult burger joint. It’s open 21 hours a day and almost always has a line of customers clamoring for its big, juicy and creative burgers — the tofu version comes with spicy satay and the venison edition is known as Sweet Bambi. They’re a relative bargain (about $8 U.S. for the original Fergburger) in an expensive resort town.
Queue up in Queenstown for the cult favorite Fergburger, a bargain at roughly $8. (Elaine Glusac/for the Chicago Tribune)
Fergburger’s success has spun off the bakery next door, which makes the burger buns as well as its own intriguing sandwiches and pastries, and a nearby gelato shop. But the only place to get a Fergburger — which has refused to replicate elsewhere — is Queenstown, in case you needed another reason to visit.
Elaine Glusac is a freelance writer.
- foodies for food Lovers