Sauvignon Blanc, salmon and salt. It’s often what comes to mind when you think of Marlborough. Of course it is much more diverse than that. From the idyllic northern Marlborough Sounds to the beginnings of the Kaikoura Ranges in the south, the vast, wide plain of the Wairau Valley makes for varied geography and a wealth of wine, food and experiences.

Kelli Brett and I recently enjoyed Feast Marlborough – a four-day festival that highlights the food and wine of the region and the stories behind it. We were there to judge the inaugural Rare Fare competition. Local cafes and restaurants created a signature dish that encapsulated the essence of Marlborough. There were two categories; dishes costing under $25, and $25 and over. All of the dishes were available for the public to try over the competition period.

What were we looking for? Local ingredients used creatively but treated with respect; each element working harmoniously as a whole and, it goes without saying, it had to be delicious. Each dish was paired with a local wine. From around 16 entries, local judges and a ‘mystery shopper’ left us with five dishes from four restaurants. They were from Twelve Trees Restaurant at Allan Scott estate, St Clair Family Estate Vineyard Kitchen, Arbour restaurant and Highfield Terravin Vineyard Restaurant.

Many of the top five included some of our favourite food products from the region – Cranky Goat cheese, Uncle Joe’s nuts, Premium Game meats – while Marlborough Noir, the fermented black garlic, featured in four of the five top dishes.

 

The winner of the over-$25 category came from Highfield Terravin’s David Haase with his entry ‘Campfire on the Beach’. Swiss-born Haase’s inspiration came from a nostalgic memory of a campfire at Marfells beach not long after he arrived in Marlborough nine years ago. We loved the back story, the careful arrangement of ‘flames’ of crisp Renwick shallot and sage leaves, dotted ‘fire’ of pumpkin puree, ‘charcoal’ in the form of perfectly turned pickled beetroot which gave some much-needed acidity to the slow-cooked piece of rich, tender and moist pork shoulder. The fire bed was a smoky, silken black-garlic and cauliflower puree. A rich, wintery dish perfect for fireside dining in the Michael Fowler-designed Tuscan-style tasting room and restaurant. Restaurant manager, Stephanie Armstrong, paired the dish with a rich and yeasty Terravin Te Ahu Chardonnay 2014 – a brave choice although we felt the delicacy of the stone-fruit flavours were slightly hidden in this pairing.

Possibly somewhat controversially, we have given the under-$25 award to Jason Brown of Twelve Trees Restaurant at the Allan Scott winery, for his dish ‘Reg and Friends’. This is a cheese course featuring the wonderful Cranky Goat cheese, ‘The Reginald’, and the execution of the dish was perfect. A generous slice of the soft-rind, ash-dusted cheese, served at room temperature and dreamily gooey, was paired with some last-of-the-season, locally grown figs and blueberries. A light blueberry compote and the thinnest flaxseed wafers made for a delightful dish. But it was the luscious wine match of Allan Scott’s Generations Gewurtztraminer 2016, countering the tartness in the cheese, that sealed the deal.

What we noted time and again in many of the cafes and restaurants we visited was the great variety of kai moana; King salmon and mussels from the Marlborough Sounds, a variety of Cloudy Bay clams, foraged samphire and coastal plants and seaweeds.

If you are looking for a warm and engaging dining experience then Arbour is the place to be, the only restaurant in Marlborough to sport a Cuisine hat. Chef, Bradley Hornby, makes use of the best local products, and works with local growers to make food that is deceptively simple looking but with depth and plenty of technique. Partner, Liz Buttimore, (our restaurant personality of the year in 2017) runs the front of house with aplomb and ensures that service is smooth. She’s also a powerhouse in the community, helping to expand the Feast Marlborough event to its current size. arbour.co.nz

Ex-clam guy turned lamb guy, Dion Brown, is a co-owner in a new venture, Origin South’s single origin lamb. With both a Southland farm and Marlborough’s iconic Flaxbourne Station (one of the first pastoral stations in New Zealand) the meat is destined mainly for the hospitality market, so you’ll find it mostly on restaurant menus. It’s worth looking out for; sweet and tender meat with a distinct full flavour.

Aunties at Omaka marae wanted to share their knowledge of gardening and preserving with the younger generations. They re-established a maara kai (community garden) on the marae and created a range of food products under the Manaaki brand. The social enterprise helps the marae to be self sustaining but also imparts knowledge on traditional herbs and medicine. Currently the range includes a kawakawa jelly, horopito and lemon sauce, and kamokamo pickle. The beautifully packaged jars feature a stylised design of the marae’s tukutuku panels. Watch out for the Kai Kart at the farmers’ markets where you might just find some pulled pork braised in the kawakawa jelly. tastemanaaki.com

Peter Koller trained as a butcher and chef in Switzerland. While working as a chef at Herzog Winery he began experimenting with cured and dried meats and decided to open a butchery in Blenheim. He uses minimal nitrates and no additives in his delectable meats. You’ll find his bresaola, coppa and sausages on plenty of local menus, in his shop or at the Marlborough Farmers’ Market. theswissbutcher.co.nz

Cranky Goat craft some the country’s most interesting and delectable goat cheeses. Varieties include fresh, white rind and semi-hard cheese. Based in Linkwater, the Lamb family source their milk from the Leslies, their Saanen goat-farming neighbours. Cheese is made every day while the milk is in season. While we know that fruit and vegetables have a season, many people are unaware that cheese too is subject to seasonality and that not all cheeses will be available at all times. Cranky Goat cheeses are generally in production from late August to mid april. Look out for the spring arrival of some favourites; The Nanny, The Nag, The Reginald and the mild and creamy soft goats cheese. crankygoatltd.co.nz

Marlborough Farmers’ Market is on Sunday mornings and is always colourful. While the stallholders vary according to the season, look out for Windsong Orchards, Isobel olive oil, Cranky Goat, Nutt Ranch hazelnut products and glorious Pinoli pinenuts among many others. Try some of Pedro’s empanadas or everchanging treats from Feast Merchants. marlboroughfarmersmarket.org.nz

If you are pressed for time and can’t manage to make your way around the many wineries (and oh, you should do as many of these as possible – some such as Brancott have the most breathtaking views) then do visit The Wine Station. Housed in the 1913 railway station and with more than 80 wineries represented, it’s especially good if you are wanting to taste some of the wines from vineyards that don’t have a cellar door, and you can purchase to take away. thewinestation.co.nz

One of the more exciting new Marlborough ventures is Ben Leggett’s Elemental Distillers. Leggett has spent more than a decade in Europe working for luxury drink brands. Now back in Marlborough, he has a range of crafted bitters that are produced locally with the principle ingredients being the best he can find in New Zealand. He’s expanding and hoping to have a premium dry gin on the market later in the year and is looking to turn his hand to vermouth, amaro and liqueurs. elementaldistillers.com

And if, like me, you consider no road trip complete without a pie, then make sure that you get at least one Burleigh pie under your belt. Fan favourites are the mince with English cheddar, or the rich and indulgent Asian-spiced pork belly.

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