Paua saucisson. Perigord truffles. Horseradish that bites. The rewards are (mainly) ours.
Monetary reward may eventually come their way, but that’s not why these pioneers are labouring at what can be uncomfortable and unrewarding tasks.
They love what they do, mixing tradition with innovation to make our land a better place and provide a few gastronomic delights along the way. The rewards are ours.
In Queenstown’s mountain shadows Zenkuro sake brewery is running at capacity and bursting at the seams as operations spill out into the carpark.
Who knew New Zealanders had such a taste for this unique Japanese brew? “Not me!” says Zenkuro’s brewer/owner David Joll. “When I started seven years ago it wasn’t because I was a brewer or sake expert. It was my love for Japan.”
David, who has been back in Queenstown for 25 years, had lived in Japan for 15, where he went to university, was a salaryman and played rugby. He had been wanting to do something here that was very Japanese and when a friend said he was interested in doing sake but didn’t have the time to pursue it, David volunteered to find out about setting up a brewery.
“I got hooked and found out that it was me, it’s my thing,” he says enthusiastically.
David has lived and breathed sake ever since, to wife Yasuko’s slight dismay. The Jolls have young children and Yasuko, who is very much part of the business, would prefer it if David didn’t have to work weekends and bombard her with work at home.
It’s hard for them to take a break, but they have one booked at the end of the year to see family and friends in Japan.
“Unfortunately, it will be winter there,” says Yasuko through her layers of warm clothing.
Sake breweries must be cold, and they are working in five-degree temperatures, which the Jolls say you never get used to. They tend to only brew over winter in Japan, but David has devised an almost year-round brewing system that involves various cooling methods the shade from that mountain as important as its water.
Soft mountain water is required for Zenkuro’s premium style of sake which contains only one other ingredient rice. Steamed sake rice (planted and milled in Japan to Zenkuro specifications) and koji (fermented rice which creates yeast which then creates sugar).
It’s a repetitive process that involves rice soaking, steaming, fanning (to release moisture) and working over by hand to break up any lumps before mixing with water and koji in stages. There is daily stirring and monitoring of temperatures, and each batch sits for four weeks before pressing in two traditional ways.
A drip press, where bags of mash are hung, and a hard press, where they are pressed down with rocks. New machinery would make this process more efficient and David remarks that they are doing everything in the most inefficient way possible, but “you get a really nice sake like this”.
Before each batch is bottled and labelled by hand, there is pasteurisation and a four-month ageing. They start a new batch every two weeks.
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There is science involved, but David says it’s an art for him. He has handmade much of the brewery equipment, including mānuka stirring poles that add Kiwi ingenuity to the traditions.
“Machines would be more efficient, but I think you’ve got to learn to do it by hand first to understand the processes.”
After seven years, David thinks they are ready to take that next step and has been teaching two employees (both Japanese and new to sake brewing) everything he has learnt so that the business is not so dependent on him.
Picking up on sake’s food-matching qualities, many non-Japanese restaurants now serve sake and are helping to educate New Zealanders on the nuances of Zenkuro’s style of premium sake over table sake (made quickly using additives and preservatives), and how to drink it (savoured like a wine in a wine glass, not a shot).
David says his award-winning sake bottles now sit on shelves next to those of one of Japan’s most respected sake brewers who once mentored him.
“His company has been brewing for something like 14 generations so I’m not sure what he would make of that,” he laughs.
A desire to see New Zealand do more than just catch it, put it in a box and send it overseas led to the formation of biotechnology and future food company NewFish in 2020.
It’s chef Vaughan Mabee’s experimentations in the Amisfield kitchen that we can thank for the exceptional quality of the company’s first commercial product NewFish Pāua Saucisson (Traditionally, saucisson is a dry-cured pork sausage from France.)
Vaughan mentioning Amisfield diners’ enthusiasm for the Pāua Saucisson to friend Tom Darby, a venture capitalist, led to Tom’s discussions with Alex Worker, who has a professional background in food, ventures and agriculture, and Hamish Howard with one in marine science and commercial fisheries.
It was good timing for the NewFish co-founders, and this trio of entrepreneurs was excited by what this type of blackfoot pāua-based product could mean to the New Zealand seafood industry and wider primary industries.
NewFish is no cottage industry, we’re talking, in the words of Outset Ventures’ Imche Fourie, “a company with bigger than Fonterra-sized possibilities”.
There’s a lot of money involved and a seed capital raise, led by Peter Beck-backed Outset Ventures, saw big names, including NBA basketballer Steven Adams, invest because they see it as a compelling industry that will transition New Zealand away from a reliance on dairy and the more environmentally questionable industries and practices that we are dependent on.
So far so easy in global corporation terms. It’s all happening very quickly, but the saucisson can’t be hurried. After years in development by Vaughan and his Amisfield team in Queenstown, production has moved to the NewFish R&D pilot plant in Auckland where a team of food technologists make and naturally ferment the product in compliance with challenging regulatory requirements.
“We are bringing Vaughan’s products to life and to market and simultaneously exploring the full potential of New Zealand’s marine species,” says Hamish who has taken the role of NewFish general manager.
This is where it gets complicated because, alongside better utilisation of New Zealand’s endemic blackfoot pāua (including the skirt and nutrient dense hua which for the most part are thrown away), NewFish intend to foster a New Zealand algae industry.
“It’s exciting stuff,” says Hamish. “New Zealand has over 1000 native species of macroalgae (seaweed) and countless species of microalgae that have huge potential as a low-impact, environmentally regenerative food industry. The algae grow at phenomenal rates and require minimal nutrient inputs, and we think this could be the next big thing for New Zealand.”
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The high-end Pāua Saucisson, which combines Akaroa kelp with blackfoot pāua and kurobuta pork, will be joined by plant-based Ocean Mortadella, an Ocean Pepperoni; other every day, algae-based products.
There are big names involved here too, with Cawthron Institute (marine research) and Riddet Institute (nutritional science) part of the technical process. It’s deep tech but Hamish emphasises their flavour-first principle.
“If it doesn’t taste good, we are not interested. We want to create products that people want to eat because of what they are.”
NewFish are not trying to emulate the meat and seafood products that we know and love. It’s their love of food, especially seafood and hyper-awareness of the consequences of overfishing and unsustainable practices (such as the status quo bleaching and canning of blackfoot pāua for export), that has led them to a reimagining of New Zealand seafood and our relationship with the ocean that will allow future generations to still share in seafood celebrations and traditions but in an entirely new way.
It’s literally head down bum up for Rod Keillor with his Black Quail truffle venture. Adopting the ‘truffle pose’, Rod sniffs the ground truffle dog Nico has identified to ascertain the ripeness of the rare fungus before he digs.
Digging one up too soon is a waste, left too long and it will rot. It’s a delicate process Rod shrugs off as part of a long road to get here. It’s the fun part satisfying for man and dog.
Truffle hunting sees Rod sniffing and digging every weekend between June to mid-August at his truffiere in Bannockburn a three-hour drive from the ophthalmologist’s Dunedin home and medical clinic that occupies his weekdays.
Working alongside Rod and Nico, Mirani Keillor confesses that it only became “our truffiere” when her husband found the first truffle in 2015. For the preceding 11 years she referred to it as “Rod’s folly”.
A couple of those years involved soil testing temperatures and pH levels deemed okay by New Zealand’s truffle pioneer Dr Ian Hall who, as a patient of Rod’s, instigated the idea.
Then came the trees, bought as two-year-old hazelnut seedlings inoculated with Périgord truffle fungi a $6000 investment that gained Mirani’s attention. “I knew things were getting serious when 240 trees arrived. I was expecting five or six!”
Rod admits that the whole thing was a complete gamble, and after eight years, when the anticipated crop didn’t happen, he was starting to make other plans for the site, but he persevered. “Rod is an incredibly patient man,” Mirani points out. Four years later they struck gold.
The Keillors explain that a truffle hunter from the Wairarapa found the truffles first. They had asked them to go through the truffiere because their dog Rissa, who they had been training for five years, wasn’t detecting any.
They found truffles straight away and Rissa successfully picked up the job until she died four years later.
Then came Nico, who, with mental health issues, took a whole lot of love and perseverance to turn into a truffle hunter. It was again a hired truffle dog who helped Nico find his first truffles and the couple lovingly say, “he’s turned into an ace truffle hunter who at only three years old, should continue to get better”.
The gamble may have paid off to this point, but there were no guarantees that the truffles, which must be used within 10-14 days of harvesting, would sell.
To get word out that truffles were now growing in the Otago region, to educate truffle virgins, and avoid waste, Mirani was giving them away (some nice wine or produce in return).
They are now harvesting 4-5 kg each weekend during the season, which sell for at least $2 per gram to a growing clientele.
Executive chefs of the region have been catalysts from day one and enjoy taking part in the harvesting of truffles for their restaurants. Rod will even cook lunch for these culinary experts now there’s the measure of the man!
Also working from a ski jacket on a cold, frosty day, Mandy Steel has refined her Christchurch business to ensure a more balanced lifestyle, but her fresh horseradish processing still requires working with open doors and windows despite the temperature.
Mandy is one of two Mandys who founded Mandys Horseradish, hence the lack of apostrophe in the name. Two Mandys became one in 2010 when Mandy Steel bought Mandy Kain out. Enough Mandys already, let’s focus on horseradish.
“People have horseradish in their back gardens, but as far as I know I am the only one growing it in large amounts,” says Mandy. This makes it hard to get hold of and we don’t tend to know what to do with it, so you’re not likely to find fresh horseradish for sale.
However, there’s a league of horseradish sauce fans who know that Mandys make superior products (pure horseradish and horseradish sauce) which have recently won gold in the Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards.
Superior because Mandy’s gnarly horseradish roots are grown in Canterbury and processed within days of harvesting. Other companies bring in horseradish from overseas which has been marinated in vinegar.
Mandy explains that she laboriously hand-peels 15-20 kg of freshly harvested horseradish root a day with a common vegetable peeler the peeled roots are then chopped and blitzed to a paste.
During the entire process doors and windows are wide open with big, stainless-steel fans blowing out the potent fumes which are 100 times worse than fumes from an onion.
There are a lot of tears and after nearly two decades Mandy says she’s pretty much immune to it, but when she has students helping during her busy summer months, they have to wear goggles, and gloves are required to prevent skin irritation.
The Canterbury lass thinks nothing of it. “My commercial kitchen is in my backyard so I get to work from home, can choose my own hours and there’s an outdoor component to it, which I think I was always looking for when I was struggling to find what my professional niche was.”
As well as processing, packing and selling, Mandy used to grow all the horseradish herself. It’s a hardy, regenerating plant that is harvested year-round when it is 12-18 months old.
Mandy must ensure that she has enough planted to allow her to harvest every week. In recent years she contracted that side of it out to her cousin who has planted three acres of it on his Oxford farm.
“It was too much for me. I was harvesting on weekends dragging my builder husband out to drive the tractor then working all week processing it,” says Mandy.
It’s manageable now and she intends to keep it that way. She loves the variants of the job and that she can still get out and meet customers face to face to hear their reactions when they experience their first sinus-clearing taste of pure horseradish and their appreciation for her horseradish sauce, still made to Mandy Kain’s grandmother’s recipe.
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