Martin Bosley enjoys the plentiful produce and abundant flavours of the Waitaki region.
Sitting between Dunedin and Timaru lies the district of Waitaki, combining the wild, windswept eastern coastline, the haunting, natural beauty of the Mackenzie plains, the towering, terrifying Southern Alps and reaching around Twizel towards Lake Tekapo. Over the ranges lies the West Coast, Haast and Aoraki/Mount Cook. A trip down the underwhelmingly named Waitaki Valley Road will take you from Ōmarama with its panoramic views, past the pure mountain lakes of Aviemore and the Benmore dam, down through rugged yet charming, peaceful countryside to the historic town of Ōamaru and its whitestone Victorian architecture and magical public gardens.
Head south from Ōamaru and you’ll pass through Moeraki, home to two New Zealand icons: the 65-million- year-old Moeraki Boulders and Fleur Sullivan’s seafood restaurant, Fleurs Place. Such is its reputation that when Rick Stein was asked several years ago which restaurant in the world he most wanted to go to, Fleurs Place was his answer. The trip was duly arranged. Fishing used to be a big part of the local economy with many local fishers operating day boats out of Moeraki harbour. It has sadly since fallen away, with only a couple of fishers left today. Now it is farmed Chinook (King) salmon that the region is becoming justly famous for.
Just south of Twizel, situated in the glacial hydro-canal waters of Wairepo Arm, is the boutique High Country Salmon farm. Established in 2000, it is one of the oldest freshwater salmon farms in New Zealand. The constant flow of pure, ice-cold water through the canals results in a fish with an incredibly clean flavour, distinct mineral notes and a non-oily texture; the flesh is creamy, almost soft. highcountrysalmon.co.nz
Kakanui Tomatoes sells direct from its farm in North Otago or will deliver just-picked tomatoes straight to your door. Store them in a bowl out of the fridge, as the cold dulls their flavour. There is nothing like biting through crisp, taut skin, the warm, sweet-sour juice filling your mouth. facebook.com/kakanui.tomatoes
At Sunday’s Ōamaru Farmers’ Market you’ll find Anna and Daniel from Waitaki Mushrooms. Recent arrivals in Ōamaru from Auckland, they are passionate about mushrooms, in particular Phoenix Oyster mushrooms. With a fan-shaped cap, they have a delicate texture and a mild, savoury, woody flavour. They can be eaten raw but when cooked become soft and velvety and have a savoury anise taste. waitakimushrooms.nz
Waitaki Orchards is a total family affair – mum, dad and six children work in the business growing stone fruits. A ripe apricot, rust brown with freckled cheeks, could be the most perfect of fruits, the stuff of dreams. I buy my stone fruits on the firm side and ripen them at home until they are yielding and fragrant. Sometimes, this doesn’t work, and the fruit stubbornly refuses to ripen and remains on the sour side. These underwhelming specimens respond to the warmth of the grill or barbecue. Sliced in half, pitted, brushed with oil and seasoned they can be cooked until they soften; as a dessert they need nothing more than a scoop of ice cream. Tucked in against a side of grilled salmon, the lightly charred flesh is a pleasing contrast against the richness of the salmon. waitakiorchards.co.nz