THE FIRST FRUITS OF KIWI CUISINE

Once, New Zealand cooking meant lurid mix-and-match with a vengeance: chilli and tequila ice-cream tortilla with cinnamon. Now it has come of age, and Britain's top restaurants are awash with Kiwis. Michael Bateman reports
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The Independent Culture
BUNGEE jumping is not the only reckless adventure sport invented by New Zealanders. But I take it you haven't heard of Kiwi Cuisine? As a thrilling adventure activity it may provide as much drama as other current Kiwi leisure sports such as river sledding on a boogie board, parapenting (a cross between parachuting and hang-gliding) glacier skiing and cave abseiling.

It is with a bang that New Zealanders, the last Anglo-Saxons on this planet to discover cooking, have finally taken to the stove. They have now launched into a roller-coaster of a ride, focusing on some heart-stopping moments from the world's greatest cuisines. So what might this be, Kiwi Cuisine? Well, here's a sample dish from a current menu. Pan-fried chicken with char-grilled banana, curried watermelon salsa and Pacific-rimmed risotto. Pacific Rim is the modern term used to embrace the flavours of Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, California, Australia. Not forgetting Mexico, as featured in this hair-raising dessert: chilli and tequila ice- cream in tortilla with cinnamon and chocolate.

But it's not only the Pacific Rim. Kiwis are busy putting the whole world on a plate: chicken with Dijon mustard (France), with char-grilled aubergine (Italy), rouille (France) and gazpacho (Spain). This mix-and-macho style is also the essence of California and Australian cooking, which Kiwis partly seek to emulate. New Zealand may still be a few years behind, but its cooking has come from nowhere to rival theirs in execution.

In Britain today, any restaurant is happy to take on a Kiwi chef, confident that he or she will be intelligent, hardworking, open-minded. London is home to an increasing number of starry Kiwi cooks; Peter Gordon at Notting Hill Gate's Sugar Club (Time Out's modern British restaurant of the year), Pippa Wylie at Tabac in Golborne Road (she trained at The River Cafe) who has won guidebook praise for her riotous menu. Outside London, Mark Gregory at Brocket Hall, Bucks, exercises his skilful Asian vocabulary (he is author of an excellent cookbook reworking Japanese foodstuffs for non-Japanese palates).

There are other Kiwi heroes, though the precursor of the antipodean awakening, Graham Kerr, the overexcited Galloping Gourmet, is a faux-Kiwi, a London Scot who cut his culinary teeth in New Zealand. More recent gastronomic stars include presenter Glynn Christian, writer Clare Ferguson (stylish microwave cooking), cheese authority Juliet Harbutt (who launched Tesco's National Cheese Awards in 1994) and Robyn Wilson, who owns Holborn's Bleeding Heart, currently wine-writers' wine bar of the year.

So, New Zealanders reckon they have come of age, have finally bucked the meat-and-two-veg culture they inherited from the old country. And they have done it the hard way, backpacking their way round Asia, sweating in the kitchens of Europe. One of the leading Kiwi chefs, Warwick Brown, typifies this spirit. Before opening his first mould-breaking restaurant in Auckland, he created for himself a European apprenticeship. He simply presented himself at the kitchen doors of Michelin-starred restaurants in London and France explaining that, in exchange for the chance to learn, he was prepared to work for nothing.

Chefs were happy enough to write testimonials to this highly-motivated worker and he built up a Fort Knox of knowledge he couldn't have acquired at catering college. His cv is amazing. He worked with Albert Roux at Le Gavroche and with his brother Michel at The Waterside Inn. He did stints at La Tour d'Argent in Paris, and with Paul Bocuse in Lyon, with Fredy Girardet in Lausanne, with Georges Blanc in Burgundy and Roger Verge in Provence, at Troisgros in Roanne. "With Troisgros I worked an 18-hour day," he remembers. "I shacked up in a sleeping bag in a hay barn." This do-or-die spirit paid off. Having just had the opportunity to experience new wave Kiwi Cuisine at first hand I can say the best is outstanding. I stepped off the plane in Auckland and suddenly I was in Warwick Brown's airy, modern waterfront bistro, Mikano, enjoying a crayfish (spiny lobster) soup the equal of any in a European three-star restaurant, and served at a warming bistro price.

Eating out in style, with sensational wine and food, is such a new experience to New Zealanders that they are still pinching themselves in case it's a dream. In just five years they can now boast hundreds of exciting new restaurants where there were none. Julie Dalzell, editor of the leading NZ food and wine magazine Cuisine since its launch 11 years ago, is surprised at the pace of change. "My first avocado was only 20 years ago. Ten years ago people didn't know what aubergines were."

It has happened rapidly, but there is no mistaking the dedication of their chefs. "New Zealand chefs are admired abroad for their irreverence and innovation," she says. "Our chefs travel. They've learned their techniques. They are influenced by working in restaurants, then they come back and do it their way. They are not hidebound by tradition." New Zealand cuisine is, she says, a fusion of Mediterranean and Californian cooking, but not as faddy. "Our chefs have respect for the ingredient base. They take, say, a beautiful piece of snapper which has come out of the water today. They serve it without too much on the plate, just small, subtle flavour additions." New Zealand flavours are strong, she affirms. "A tomato tastes of tomato. In the States, vegetables have no flavour. Maybe that's why they have to chargrill them."

Some New Zealanders, such as food writer Elisabeth Pedersen, are bowled over by the dizzying haste of it all. A farmer's daughter, she was brought up to a tradition of good home cooking. No-one ate out. "The clever thing was to get plastered," she says. The new restaurant culture arrived overnight. "Anyone could set up as a chef. People put the strangest combinations on the plate: prawns and mangoes, blue corn and okra."

A cuisine trying to run before it could walk? New Zealand's leading food consultant Greg Heffernan (he advises Air New Zealand) agrees. "There was renaissance, and then the plot was lost. Chefs began to think they should serve sauerkraut with avocado and coca-cola beurre blanc." But he is happy for New Zealand to abandon its 200-year old culinary heritage and adopt an appropriate global position. "I've been in haute cuisine for 20 years (classically trained in Europe) and I'm happy to wave the flag for New Zealand. We made a break with the past. We freed ourselves from the stodginess of City and Guilds catering courses."

He upholds traditional kitchen discipline, but not necessarily the old techniques. "We're eliminating a vast number of preparations. You don't need to roll, stuff or wrap everything in pastry. The danger is that maybe we are changing too fast."

Most, but not all, the emerging stars in New Zealand have travelled. A notable exception is Varick Neilson who runs Bistro 305 in Auckland, a chef with talent and a droll humour. Asked if there was any chef who impressed him, he considers the question before replying: "I'm pretty impressed by myself, actually." And rightly, so it happens. While some other chefs are amassing the wide world's flavours on the plate, he's cutting them back. "A few years ago I'd have 11 flavours on the plate. Now I might have five. Three would be better."

Happily, basic ingredients in New Zealand have been improving. In Britain we think of NZ as one great farm, exporting off-season beef, lamb, and apples. But chef Warwick Brown points out they have been badly served at home. "For 50 years we've had all the food we want on our doorstep, but a lot of produce was muck. Everything was frozen. Chickens were fed with fish paste."

Consultant Greg Heffernan agrees. New Zealand is a major exporter of butter and cheese but until eight years ago the only cheese you could buy on the home market was plastic wrapped. "The quality of cheese was so bad, I would have preferred to eat the wrapper. Quite frankly the cheese was rubbish." Now there's a new wave of small "boutique" producers of excellent cheeses.

The same has been true of vegetables and salads, says Tony Smith, sous- chef of Christchurch's Park Royal. "In five years it's come from nothing. There used to be one sort of lettuce, iceberg. Now there is hardly a day when someone doesn't come to the back door with every sort of coloured leaf. Some of it is absurd, like tri-coloured beetroot."

Cuisine editor Julie Dalzell gives the example of cervena, farmed deer. Every chef offers it on the menu. Fish are being rediscovered, including unique species such as the dense white-fleshed orange roughy, netted at an astonishing depth of 6,000 feet. There are fine shellfish, spiny lobster, prawns, fat oysters, meaty paua (abalone) as well as their famous plump green-shelled mussels.

The fashionable vegetables these days are kumera, that's sweet potato (served as an orange mash, or sliced and fried as crisps) and kabocha, otherwise known as buttercup squash. And there are more exciting fruit than apples and kiwi fruit (de rigeur as topping for pavlova, the national pudding). There are deeply-flavoured Black Doris plums, rich dark cherries, blueberries, scented green feijoas, star fruit and tamarillos, all used in cooking, and often with meat and fish - some might say too extravagantly, but it can be masterly when done well. I tasted a prize-winning dish by Judith Tabron of Ramses in Auckland; peppered roast of cervena with a sauce of cherries (which had been bottled in grappa), served simply with a kumera mash (that's the sweet potato).

There is a heady feeling that this is only a beginning. Already the first New Zealand olive farm has been established, using stock from Tuscany. Amazingly, two Dunedin scientists have managed to spawn (or spore) the first truffles in the Southern hemisphere, in young beech and oak plantations.

The story of this renaissance would not be complete without New Zealand's infant wine industry, which, as British wine authority Jancis Robinson points out, produces only a fraction of one per cent of the world's wine. Yet some claim that, as in California and Australia, wine could have been the spark that ignited New Zealand's cuisine.

Vines have been grown for a century on North Island, by Dalmatian immigrants, but the expansion of the industry dates back no further than 1986. They started to plant vines in Marlborough on South Island, where the climate had been thought too cold. Now the area is famous for tart, clean Sauvignons and complex, rich Chardonnays. The most renowned is probably Cloudy Bay.

One chef, Michael Dalton, at The White House in Wanaka, puts it like this: "To sell the wine they needed to offer it with good food. You can't sell it with rubbish. It's like putting tenth grade fuel in a Ferrari." This was a point taken by Corbans, one of the big three wine companies. They run a pounds 10,000 Wine Challenge for restaurants which must present a three course menu to match Corbans wines. I visited one of their winners, The Roxburgh in Wellington, where chef Mark Limacher had created a superb and modestly-priced meal based on sliced fillet of hare, served with a pate and consomme of hare. It was accompanied by grilled polenta and Gumdiggers Sauce, the wine being a Gumdiggers Kumeu Cabernet Sauvignon. Such was the owner's ambition, he'd also commissioned special plates on which to serve the dessert, a beautiful arrangement of apricot brulee, gelato and pistachio biscuit.

Back in Britain I went to see Peter Gordon, chef at the Sugar Club in Notting Hill Gate, a truly new-wave Kiwi restaurant which the owners, Ashley Sumner and Vivienne Hayman, have translated from Wellington, NZ. Open barely a year, it has already won Fay Maschler's award for Best Pacific Rim Restaurant in London and Time Out's modern British restaurant of the year.

Modern British? Over lunch I asked Peter Gordon to describe his style, conscious that no chef likes to be categorised. If this wasn't Kiwi Cuisine, what was? An olive-flavoured gazpacho, grilled scallops in a Thai-style sweet sauce, roast Mediterranean vegetables with a smoked red chilli pesto. Peter Gordon really didn't want to say. Then owner Ashley Sumner stepped up: "Why don't we call it Mediterrasian?"

Here is Peter Gordon's newest dish, created last week: it is a salad of New Zealand green mussels with pickles, hijiki, coriander, sesame and chilli. PETER GORDON'S SALAD OF NEW ZEALAND GREEN MUSSELS

Serves 4 as a starter

16 green-lipped mussels, removed from the shell

6in piece of cucumber

6in piece of mooli (Japanese radish)

150ml/5fl oz cider vinegar

300ml/10fl oz water

100g/31/2oz caster sugar

2 star anise

handful of hijiki seaweed (optional - available from health food stores)

1/2 chilli

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1/2 bunch coriander leaves

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 bunches watercress or rocket leaves

The day before, peel and finely julienne the mooli. Core and finely slice the cucumber into rings, mix with the mooli and one teaspoon salt and put into a heatproof container. Bring the vinegar, water, star anise and sugar to the boil, pour over the vegetables, let cool and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. Cover the hijiki with cold water, then store it in the fridge overnight.

On the day, finely slice the chilli, removing seeds and inner pith if you don't like hot food. Remove the mussels from their shells and mix with any of their juice and the chilli. Drain 14 of the pickle liquid from the vegetables and add to the mussels, leave to marinate for an hour. Mix the mussels and their liquid with the drained pickles and all remaining ingredients. Serve with grilled flat or crusty bread.

PAVLOVA

By contrast, here is one of New Zealand's oldest recipes - pavlova cake - taken from David Burton's history of New Zealand Food and Cookery. Australia claims this dish is theirs, invented by Australian chef Herbert Stachse in 1935 and named by Henry Nairn of the Hotel Esplanade, Perth. Not so, says historian David Burton. The third edition of Cookery published in 1933 by the Dunedin City Gas Department gives a recipe for Meringue Sponge Sandwich or Pavlova Cake. There you go, sport.

Serves 4-6

4 egg whites

pinch salt

225g/8oz caster sugar

2 teaspoons cornflour

1 teaspoon vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Beat egg whites with salt until stiff. Add sugar a tablespoonful at a time, beating after each addition. Sprinkle over cornflour, vinegar and vanilla essence and fold in. Pile onto buttered greaseproof paper sprinkled with cornflour, or straight onto aluminium foil.

Place in a preheated moderate oven, reduce heat to low, and cook for one and a quarter hours. Allow to cool in oven to avoid cracking. Spread with passionfruit pulp folded into whipped cream, decorate with kiwi slices. !

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