A backyard Christmas

Last updated 14:03 24/12/2012

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Is it possible to eat a classic Christmas meal that’s been raised, cultivated, harvested, butchered or otherwise produced entirely in the Nelson-Tasman region? Naomi Arnold finds out.

Forgo the food road train, and instead eat your way around our region at Christmas.

You could probably blame American writer Michael Pollan for the cult of the locavore. His 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, helped fuel the stampede towards eating more locally produced food.

It is better for you, better for the local economy and better for the environment, because of the lower transport costs.

After all, are we really aware of how much petroleum is required to transport our parsnips from Southland and chicken from Rangiora, not to mention sugar from Queensland and cranberries from Canada?

This summer, as Nelson’s markets and roadside stalls groan with fresh fruit and vegetables of all descriptions, we wondered whether it was actually possible to forgo the food road train and, instead, eat your way around the region, enjoying a full Christmas meal from nuts to pavlova.

The menu we have settled on for our imaginary Christmas dinner is a little alarming, but we are working with a blown-out budget and bottomless stomachs, just like a real Christmas. We have taken a traditional English meal and tweaked it slightly, adding a few Kiwi favourites.

For starters, we are going to nibble on nuts, cheese, crackers and olives, with chutneys and fruit pastes. For mains, there will be a choice of ham, chicken, turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, pigs in a blanket and salmon.

Vegetables will include minted new potatoes, parsnips, green salad, and peas.

Dessert will consist of pavlova topped with strawberries, kiwifruit, boysenberries and cream, cherries, and a traditional Christmas pudding.

We are absolutely spoilt for choice for good wine and beer in this region, so we are leaving the drinks up to you.

Armed with our Christmas menu, our first stop is Fresh Choice in Nelson, which makes a point of highlighting locally produced goods with its black-and-yellow ‘‘Under 200km’’ tags.

Owner-operator Mark A’Court introduced the concept in 2007, seeing food miles as the new organics. We found dozens of different local products to choose from.

We also scoured markets and websites.Going Local Nelson (goinglocalnelson. wordpress.com, has a comprehensive list of local food producers and Open Orchards (tinyurl.com/open-orchards), maps food-producing plantings on public land around the region.

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We soon hit our first ideological conflict: Can our menu include food packaged or produced here, such as Nelson nuts caramelised locally but with Queensland sugar, or must it be grown here as well?

We will head as far back up the production line as possible, but include both options for the pedants among us.

First: platters of nibbles. We found olives grown at Tasman’s Beulah Ridge Olives and Redwood Valley’s Kakariki Olives, macadamias and almonds at Stoney Grove in Hope – the southernmost macadamia orchard in the world – and hazelnuts at Hazelbrook in Wakefield.Walnut trees are abundant in the region too, particularly on Open Orchards’ site.

We can find salt from nearby, if not exactly in Nelson – Lake Grassmere is the country’s ultimate salt works, just over the hill in Marlborough.

Nelson did, however, have the honour of being the first place in the country to produce salt, as reported in the Nelson Examiner in 1844. An acre of mudflats was cut off from the sea, and salt of ‘‘excellent quality’’ was made as a trial, although lack of funds prevented the business from truly taking off.

For our cheese, we tracked down several local cheese producers, including sheep’s milk cheesemakers at Neudorf Dairy in Upper Moutere.

Wangapeka Downs, near Tapawera, turned away from Fonterra several years ago in favour of producing its own under the brand Wangapeka Cheese and stocks a huge range of cheeses at this time of year, as well as yoghurt, butter, quark, cream, and milk.

We could also buy cheeses and preserved accompaniments from Ruby Bay cheesemonger Robynne Harvey, who makes her own pickled figs and chutneys to go with the cheeses she sources and ripens from throughout New Zealand.

The crackers are more difficult. Griffin’s started more than a century ago in Nelson, but its factory is now in Papakura.

Arnott’s is a subsidiary of the United States’ Campbell Soup Company and all its biscuits and crackers have been made in Australia since 1997.

We found a couple of local cracker producers, both of whom produce alternative options such as gluten, vegan or dairy-free, although many of their raw ingredients can’t be grown locally.

Nelson’s Eat Right Foods makes gluten-free Super Seeded and simple Bach Bread crackers – the latter so called because the idea for it came during holidays in Abel Tasman National Park.Or you can try your cheese on a Super Seeded Cracker, made with seeds Eat Right Foods has sprouted themselves.

Again in Nelson, Crackers for Crackers produces rice and chickpea crackers.

Appetites piqued, it’s on to the meat.

If you want to find a local ham for your Christmas lunch and don’t know a friendly pig hunter, your best bet is probably Pestell’s, a family-owned Nelson business run by third-generation butchers Christopher and Stephen Pestell.

Their retail shop and factory in Stoke produces dry-cured bacon and several varieties of manuka-smoked ham, although their pork comes from Canterbury.

There used to be plenty of pig farmers in Nelson, Chris Pestell says, but that was when there was an abattoir in Motueka, now long gone.

We have done the best we can for the ham, but finding poultry is more difficult.

There is no immediately obvious chicken or turkey provider in the region and local butchers and poultry industry folk don’t know of anyone who raises birds for meat here.

The millions of dollars needed to produce a plant that meets the strict regulations are out of reach for all but the biggest organisations.

We turned to local restaurants for help. Hopgood’s owner, Kevin Hopgood, believes the closest poultry growers to Nelson are those in Rangiora’s Canter Valley.
‘‘There’s definitely room for someone to start farming ducks, chickens and turkeys here,’’ he says.

Most of the poultry bought at the supermarket or butcher comes from Christchurch, Ashburton or further south.

Of course, the ultimate solution is to raise and kill your own.

Brightwater’s Appleton’s Hen Houses and Poultry Supplies can help you there, selling day-old chicks and fertile eggs.

For the cranberry sauce to daub on our Canterbury turkey, we will turn to fresh cranberries rather than choose a packaged product made from outside the region.

No industry people we spoke to seem to know of a local cranberry grower, so cranberries from growers on the West Coast will have to do, or we will opt for Nelson company Sujon, which packages frozen cranberries from Canada.

Instead of using sugar shipped from Queensland to be processed in Auckland, we will concoct a delicious and simple cranberry sauce with local honey and oranges.

On to the next dish.

Our traditional British pigs in a blanket are relatively easy to make. There is a handful of smallgoods makers in our region, although they use meat from out of the district. For the pastry, we will use Wangapeka butter, but the flour is more difficult to source.

Alfred Saunders and John Griffin were among the first to establish flour mills in the region in the mid-19th century and the Marawera flour mill south of Tapawera is still intact.

Most of the flour in New Zealand is produced by the Goodman Fielder Group – born, of course, in Motueka – which owns flour brand Champion; and the George Weston group.

New Zealand’s main mills are in Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland, and Mount Maunganui, but most of our wheat is grown in Canterbury.

We did hear of local flour millers during our investigations, but couldn’t confirm anyone who sells it; if you know of someone, we’d love to talk to them.

For the salmon, we’re going to catch our own at Anatoki Salmon in Golden Bay. Although New Zealand King Salmon’s head office is in Nelson,  the fish comes from Marlborough sea farms.

We will dress our fish with lemons and dill from the Nelson City Council’s flourishing roadside verges, pick up a local olive oil or use a dill or lemon sauce from Skipper’s Choice, in Stoke.

Our side dishes are easy. We are spoilt for choice in vegetables and salad ingredients. They are easily found – at the markets, roadside stalls, in your own gardens, at pick-your-own places such as 185 in Hope, or delivered to your door through companies such as Fresh2U.

Most of the parsnips we will need are grown in Southland at this time of year, although when they’re in season in autumn and winter you can find locals in Nelson shops.

Peas used to be a hugely important industry to Nelson. The February 8, 1964, issue of Nelson Photo News immortalised summer processing at now-defunct Snowcraft Frozen Foods.

As ‘‘thousands of tourists and Nelsonians were enjoying the Christmas-New Year vacation’’, the harvesting and processing of this year’s pea crop was ‘‘going on apace’’, through day and night.

‘‘Tractors equipped with special mowers moved into the pea crops at 10pm and the trucks and their loading machines commenced to pick up the peas from 2am.

‘‘The pea viners at Richmond began to hum at 4am and the factory, silent from midnight, again began work at 6am. The work continued day in, day out. There was no time to lose.’’

The factory in Stoke once handled between 750 to 800 tons of peas during the summer season, but, once again, production has now moved out of the region to down south, where it’s more economical. However, you’ll find plenty of peas at the local markets.

A few hours later, it’s time for dessert.

Our Kiwi pavlova is simply eggs and sugar with a topping of cream and locally grown fruit, but the typical recipe also calls for a slosh of vinegar and vanilla essence.

Eggs are easy to find locally, but we’ll have to buy in the sugar. For the vinegar, we’re turning to Tim Goulter, of Goulter’s Vinegar. Mr Goulter sources locally grown, organic apples and makes apple cider vinegar at his factory in Tahuna.

Can you use apple-cider vinegar instead of normal vinegar in pavlova?

‘‘It’s better,’’ Mr Goulter assures us. If he’s confident, so are we. In it goes.

Cornflour, or corn starch, is the white, powdered starch of maize. Grant Matthews, of Pioneer, tells us that maize is indeed grown in Motueka, but says that we would have to have planned this meal six months in advance to have local maize ground into cornflour by now.

Our vanilla flavour isn’t going to come from Nelson, either. Real vanilla is grown in a narrow tropical band on either side of the equator, if not synthesised entirely in a laboratory, as most cheap vanilla essence is.

However, there is Heilala, the brainchild of New Zealander John Ross and his family, who have helped residents in Vava’u Islands, Tonga, establish organic plantations, and they’re experimenting with growing it in Tauranga. That might be the closest we will come to local vanilla.

Luckily, we can top our pavlova with Wangapeka double cream and local berries, which are flourishing in Nelson at this time of year, as are cherries.

There are even a few kiwifruit left from our harvest, although many greengrocers are selling kiwifruit from the Bay of Plenty, where the biggest packhouses are.

The coolstore at Motueka’s Birdhurst is still storing local fruit from about eight different orchards, waiting for export overseas or to sell locally.

Finally, the big event: the Christmas pudding. We don’t have a hope of finding cinnamon and other spices grown here, although you can buy them whole and grind your own, but our milk and butter will come from Wangapeka.

We won’t find the raw products that make flour or sugar on the market here but, theoretically, we could source currants from our local blackcurrant growers, as well as find and dry our own raisins, sultanas, and prunes.

Making baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, turns out to be an incredibly complicated chemical process that we won’t go into here, suffice to say that it’s not produced in Nelson.

If you like gluten-free, you could also buy a fruit cake from Dovedale.

Happily, we’re able to top the whole thing off in a flaming finish with spirits from Schnapp Dragon Distillery in Takaka. It doesn’t make brandy, but it does make rumberry, cranberry and tangelo liqueurs and a straight 14-year aged rum, all of which co-owner Rachel Raine assures us would go brilliantly with our pudding.

‘‘You could pour it over anything – liberally,’’ she says.

If you truly wanted to please Michael Pollan and become a locavore, you would have to stick to fruit, vegetables, seafood, dairy, nuts, honey and eggs, with a few locally packaged food products on the side – not a bad diet, really.

The big producers of everyday staples and baking ingredients like flour and sugar have centralised in other parts of the country; or were never here in the first place.

It’s nigh on impossible to buy poultry and pork raised locally, unless you do it yourself.

Don’t forget the Nelson-made pottery, breadboards and glassware on which to serve all that wonderful local food.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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