It’s often said that the worst thing about New Zealand is its isolation. But as COVID-19 has taught us, equally the best thing about New Zealand is this very isolation. As a remote island nation with easily controlled borders, we are given a head start in biosecurity, with effective screening not just of unwanted viruses but also of a host of nasty bacteria and insects from the northern hemisphere and beyond.

It’s thanks to the absence of European mildews that our vineyards, orchards and hop gardens are spared heavy spraying routines; foreign fruit flies don’t bug our apple orchards and the hop aphid is unknown in our hop gardens.

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But it gets even better than that: climatically, New Zealand is located within a perfect ‘Goldilocks zone’ – not too cold and not too hot – for growing a range of prestige crops. Our wine regions are as cool as Burgundy for growing great pinot noir, yet our autumns are long, sunny and dry enough to ripen those unique flavours into Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Moreover, Nelson, Motueka and Riwaka are lucky enough to fall within the narrow latitudinal band around the world in which it is possible to cultivate the fickle hop.

Breeding flavour into hops

Hops form the single most expensive component of beer, so in the days when accountants ruled the mainstream industry, the aim was to use as few hops as possible. This is why the traditional mass-production beer industry preferred hops with a high degree of bitterness – the so-called bittering hops – which mean that a little went a long way.

But then along came the craft beer boom and with it a whole new attitude. Today’s craft-beer brewer eschews bittering hops in favour of the so-called aroma hops, bursting with the scent of passionfruit and tropical fruits, which today form the mainstay of the Nelson industry. This is thanks to the prescience of plant geneticist Dr Ron Beatson, head of the hop-breeding programme at the Plant & Food Research centre near Motueka. After taking over in 1984, Ron Beatson and his team began a successful programme of breeding innovative new flavours into hops. Most famous of these is the cultivar Nelson Sauvin, which today is the most commonly planted hop. As the name suggests, Nelson Sauvin has a fruity aroma reminiscent of Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Craft brewers from more than 50 countries are nowadays falling over each other to buy these fruity new cultivars, and to feature them on their bottle labels. The latest hop to emerge after a 16-year trial period has been named Nectaron (a combination of ‘nectar of the gods’ and ‘Ron’ as a tribute to Ron Beatson). It, too, has a frontal and fruity character, this time reminiscent of tropical fruit (pineapple especially) and stonefruit such as peaches.

Since demand for these Nelson hops now outstrips supply (90 per cent of the crop is now sold prior to harvest) it’s perhaps not surprising that the area under cultivation in Nelson has more than trebled over the past five years.

Apples: back from the brink

Fifteen years ago the New Zealand apple industry was in crisis, shrinking in the face of competition from South America, South Africa and China, who had bred their own vast orchards from our iconic Braeburn and Gala apples and were selling them cheaply in Europe, undercutting our own traditional exports.

But New Zealand apple breeders have hit back by developing intellectual property rights for exciting new apple varieties, mostly derived from a cross of Braeburn and Gala. The early successes in this regard were the Pacific series of apples (Pacific Rose, Pacific Beauty, Pacific Queen) but more recently there has been the Envy, much favoured by American consumers on account of being crunchy and so very sweet. Envy apples don’t have the same popularity here in New Zealand, as we enjoy a more sophisticated European-style palate for apples such as Jazz, which have a touch of acidity to balance the sweetness. In recent years we have sold these sweet new apple varieties into the newly emerging markets of Asia, meeting their exacting standards for spray residues which the Latin American apple industries have been hard pushed to satisfy. As a result, New Zealand apple plantings are back on the rise.

Mushrooms: beyond buttons and Swiss browns

To most supermarket shoppers, mushrooms still mean the common button mushrooms, which have been under cultivation since the 1960s and, more recently, the tastier Swiss browns and portobellos. These are the mainstays of our major growers, Meadow Mushrooms, Parkvale Mushrooms and The Te Mata Mushroom Company.

On the fringes of the industry, however, are the exotic mushrooms from 18 or so artisanal growers around New Zealand. Some, such as Otahuhu’s Out of the Dark Mushrooms, are relatively large operations, producing a tonne a week and supplying prestigious Auckland restaurants such as Cocoro and Sid at The French Café. But many more operate out of shipping containers and tiny converted sheds, growing the mushrooms in plastic bag ‘logs’ of inoculated sawdust.

Due to biosecurity concerns, only about 15 species of mushrooms are allowed to be grown in New Zealand and of these most artisanal growers concentrate on a tiny handful: the tasty oyster mushroom (both pink and grey), the needle-thin enoki and the shiitake.

Many artisanal growers complain that a big industry player has been undercutting the small-scale shiitake growers on price and that it does this by importing the ‘logs’ ready-inoculated from China, then growing the shiitakes in Christchurch, thus allowing them to be sold as New Zealand-grown.

Since settling in Moutere near Nelson in 1998, Hannes and Theres Krummenacher of Neudorf Mushrooms have been busy planting out trees, the roots of which they have inoculated with interesting new mushroom species: under larch trees, the larch bolete; under birch trees, the birch bolete; and under radiata pines, the deliciously meaty saffron milk cap, which exudes liquid while being cooked and effectively provides its own sauce. “We bring umami from our forest to your plate,” says Theres.

These so-called mycorrhizal mushrooms supply the tree roots with nutrients and water, and in return receive soluble carbohydrates. The inoculation process is relatively straightforward: Hannes puts compost over the root end of a mycorrhizal mushroom and places the tree seedling over that.

Last winter, the Krummenachers planted another 600 trees, bringing their total to over 6000. “Sometimes we catch ourselves talking to the trees, telling them how good they are,” says Hannes.

However, given that a Mediterranean stone pine, for example, takes five years to grow, the Krummenachers necessarily take a long-term view of their enterprise; the hope is that one of their children will take over. In the meantime, the couple supplement their cultivated crop with wild mushrooms. Mushroom foraging is in Hannes’ blood: his father was a mushroom controller, who sorted through the baskets of amateur foragers to alert them to the poisonous species.

Thus, the couple are well aware of the death cap mushroom, which Hannes says is commonly found throughout the Moutere hills. In their dried Wild Mushroom Mix, the couple offers New Zealand’s better-known wild, edible mushrooms – slippery jack, pine bolete, painted suillus and shoros (but none of the famous porcini, which foragers are collecting from pine forests around Wellington and selling to restaurants).

 The rise of varietal honeys

We all know about the antibacterial properties of mānuka honey, but the mānuka tree has a shy sister – kānuka – whose honey has health benefits, too. While kānuka does not contain mānuka’s key ingredient, DHA (dihydroxyacetone), it does have a protein, AGP (arabinogalactan), used to treat a variety of skin diseases. The success of mānuka and kānuka is increasing consumer awareness of honeys from other flowers, and companies such as Airborne of Leeston are leading the way in presenting a wide range of these varietal honeys.

The delicate flavour of clover honey is familiar to the generation of older New Zealanders who grew up with it. But beyond that, kamahi honey, in particular, seems to be emerging as a chefs’ favourite as its strong and complex flavour shines through even in finished products such as ice cream or baking. Also favoured by chefs on account of its rich, malty taste is honey from the rewarewa flower, which appears at the same time as the kamahi.

Undoubtedly our most exotic honey is made when honey bees collect the droplets of nectar from the sooty trunks of the black beech to produce honeydew honey, so strongly flavoured it is almost pungent. However, possibly the strongest of all our honeys is the wild thyme honey from Central Otago, which has a distinctive herbal flavour. A little goes a long way in marinades and roasts.

At the other end of the spectrum is the mild butterscotch flavour of tāwari honey, and the equally subtle, jasmine-scented viper’s bugloss (not to be confused with blue borage). Certainly one of the most distinctive New Zealand honeys comes from the flower of the southern rātā. While mild and rich, it’s not especially sweet, being almost salty in flavour. Many would rate rātā as our best.

The local grain economy

Being up against the economies of scale in countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada, the wheat growers of New Zealand cannot compete, especially as Canadian growers still receive government farm subsidies that were long ago abolished here. Thus, around two-thirds of New Zealand’s wheat is imported, primarily from Australia, even though few New Zealanders are aware of this.

Foundation for Arable Research chief executive Alison Stewart quotes a survey that asked New Zealanders which country the wheat in their bread comes from. “75 per cent of [participants in] that survey answered ‘New Zealand’.”

A major downside of having to stockpile and store this imported flour for extended periods is that in order to prevent it going rancid it has all its health-giving bran and minerals removed. This white flour goes into the New Zealand supermarkets’ infamous $1 white loaf, offered as a loss-leader to draw in customers. Stale and devoid of most nutrients, this is what Sam Forbes of Wellington’s Shelly Bay Baker calls ‘dead flour’.

Sam has committed to buying 40 per cent of his wheat from New Zealand suppliers, notably Suzy Rea of Ngamara Farm near Marton and Mick Williams of Ahiaruhe Farm at Gladstone in the Wairarapa. In the resulting Shelly Bay sourdough, the freshness of flavour is palpable.

In order to reintroduce customers to what Sam calls the “mindblowing” taste of truly fresh flour, the local wheat is ground at Shelly Bay Bakers in a boutique mill. This also saves on packaging and transportation, as well as the bother of having to deal with the big flour mills who, controlled by two conglomerates, prioritise their big industrial clients. In recent years, the focus of the local grain economy has shifted from the heritage grains – wheat, barley and oats – to two distinctly non-traditional crops: quinoa and hemp.

Quinoa and hemp

Despite the failure of last year’s cannabis referendum, low-THC hemp seeds have been legal for human consumption since 2017. Before that, only hemp oil could be sold.

Hemp may be a close relation of cannabis but its seeds won’t get you high, and indeed they have distinct health benefits. Once stripped of their hard outer husks, the seed hearts reveal a rich, nutty flavour and, like quinoa, are high in protein (24 per cent). They also contain a perfect range of essential fatty acids (omega 3, 6 and 9) while their level of digestive dietary fibre, at 40 per cent, is the highest of any known grain.

Steve Burnett has been growing hemp in Moutere for more than 20 years and is known for his expertise in seed breeding. But the first to fully commercialise hemp seeds and fibre were Dave and Anne Jordan who established Hemp Farm New Zealand – today New Zealand’s largest hemp company – in 2008. The couple grows hemp crops with their Hemp Farm growers’ group and processes the seeds at their hemp food facility in Tauranga.

Quinoa, that high-protein, low-carb wonder grain, is now being grown by Hamish and Kate Dunlop near Hāwera who, as The New Zealand Quinoa Co, market both the raw grain and a novel new snack food, quinoa puffs.

But quinoa cultivation was first introduced to New Zealand by Dan and Jacqui Cottrell of Kiwi Quinoa, who while travelling through the quinoa-growing regions of Bolivia and Peru, noted the similarities to Dan’s high-altitude family farm on the North Island’s central plateau, 700-800 metres above sea level.

Jacqui is a qualified agronomist and, after trial and error with some of the 3000-plus varieties of quinoa grown in South America, she and Dan settled on one that is free of the usual coating of saponin, a bitter substance distasteful to birds and pests.

From their first commercial crop in 2016, they now have a unique product – a deliciously nutty-flavoured quinoa with no bitter aftertaste, which needs no commercial washing or polishing and can thus be sold as wholegrain.

The Cottrells are able to grow their quinoa without herbicides or pesticides; moreover, despite minimal input of fertiliser and no irrigation, their crop grows very quickly. This year the couple harvested a crop of red quinoa – another first in New Zealand.

“Quinoa grows really well in New Zealand,” says Dan. “We are seeing yields at the upper 10 per cent of what our varieties are doing in Europe, with about 15 per cent of the inputs. It’s great we can grow this nutritionally dense food with a very small footprint.”

Demand for quinoa is growing worldwide as consumers realise that it is delicious as well as healthy, so perhaps New Zealanders should look forward to the day when crops such as hemp and quinoa shed their crank status and become mainstream export earners alongside our much sought-after hops and apples.