An Arrowtown restaurant is using the best of the South to create culinary gold, writes Angela Walker.
Fiordland venison, Stewart Island blue cod and Bluff oysters; crayfish from Milford Sound, lamb from the Caitlins; tomatoes from the Gibbston Valley; white truffles from Wanaka; West Coast whitebait, wild mushrooms, berries, quail and rabbit from the hills and riverbanks along the Arrow River.
This is the best of the south of the South Island on a shopping list. It’s also just some of what you will find on the menu of Saffron, the Arrowtown restaurant that for 13 years has delivered culinary gold from its kitchen, sealing a reputation as one of the country’s best.
Adelaide-born chef Pete Gawron, his partner, Mel Hill, and their two daughters moved to Arrowtown, population just over 2000, 13 years ago, where they opened their restaurant Saffron in Buckingham St, the town’s main street.
Comfortably elegant – they deliberately don’t use tablecloths – with a large fireplace, great paintings and outdoor seating ideal for people watching on a sunny day – it’s warm, welcoming and seriously intent on delivering great food and wine to its diners.
It’s also genuinely Southern in its hospitality. You’ll never leave Saffron feeling like if you could have squeezed in just a little bit more.
Since the opening of Saffron, Pete and Mel have also opened the almost subterranean and very cosy Blue Door bar across the lane from Saffron, and Pesto, a more casual pasta and pizza place tucked in behind.
The laneway’s also home to the seriously good Nadene Milne Gallery (artists currently showing: Max Gimblett and Damien Hirst; yes, that Damien Hirst) and upstairs, Dorothy Brown’s, a bijou pairing of cinemas that screen arthouse and more mainstream films.
‘‘The lane’s one of my favourite places here – it could be anywhere in the world,’’ Mel says.
I can only agree. So why Arrowtown?
‘‘We could see its potential, it was the place to nestle a restaurant,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s that marriage of food and wine that comes when winemakers make wine with a view of sharing what they’re making with food - when i make dishes I think about the wine it’ll go with.
I do with my dishes - that’s the process I go through when creating dishes - The symbiosis - it’s lovely and those winemakers will be the first people I invite to the book launch. we all have such a connection to the area.
Gawron’s Second cookbook, The Taste of Central Otago, was released this month, five years after the publication of his first book, Saffron: Food from the Central Otago Heartland.
The new book not only features 75 of Gawron’s recipes, but also scores of heavenly photographs by Aaron McLean taken over a year to highlight the area’s changing seasons: the brittle white edge of winter, the reds, golds and oranges of autumn, the green promise of spring and the big blue skies of summer – each so different and each so beautiful.
‘‘The book was a lot of fun to do and it’s lovely to be a vehicle for the region and to highlight what this area represents to me and a lot of other people too,’’ Gawron says.
‘‘Arrowtown was a goldmining town, but that’s a bit of a cliche, a dusty old thing and that’s just so not what this town is about.
‘‘Yes there’s a historical component that we tip our hat to, but there’s so much here that’s vibrant and contemporary. There’s definitely an edge. Right now there’s an exhibition on at the gallery next door with works by Damien Hirst. That’s a coup for the region.’’
Arrowtown offers so much to so many, Gawron says, and he would know – he’s fed plenty of them.
‘‘There are golfers who head to Millbrook, young backpackers who want to see a beautiful part of the country, mountainbikers, bush walkers, fly fishermen and your nte internationals – the money market people from Hong Kong and Singapore. And there are also the farmers from Invercargill, who have a bach here.
‘‘There are all these little niches which I find really interesting. You can just pick up on the conversation you had with them last November, which is great. I just find it really hard to keep track of their names.’’
Of course, there are the names that would be impossible to forget, such as Sam (Neill), Peter (Jackson), Stephen (Fry) and Ian (McKellen), all Saffron regulars when they’re in the neighbourhood.
The restaurant has hosted top sports players, cultural icons, international chefs, the offspring of Middle-Eastern dictators and the Jewish orthodox wedding of a New York couple which involved rabbis from New York and Auckland, a complete new set of crockery and traditional Hebrew cleansing rituals for the restaurant’s knives, pots and pans.
Since the summer holidays of my childhood, my own food memories of Arrowtown have naturally changed as well.
In my childhood, it was all barbecues, leftover ham from Christmas dinner, griddle scones sold from the back of the truck that used to drive around the town, 10-cent mixtures that lasted a day (back when you would get seven fizzy lollies for a cent), and stonefruit brought on the drive through from Dunedin – cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines in varying degrees of ripeness (I like sweet and ripe, Dad prefers firm and toothsome).
The paddocks in the Kawerau Valley that are now producing award-winning pinot noir and riesling were in those days scratchy and dry in those days with matakauri and dotted with weather-worn sheep.
Now, when I think of Arrowtown, I think of the luscious sticky buns and gingerbread from the brilliant cafe Provisions and I think of Saffron: its legendary trio of curries, a flounder packed with prawns, spring vegetables and gnocchi, the whitebait (West Coast) and oysters (the new and sensational farmed ones from Stewart Island – a revelation).
The wine, well that’s a given.
With Mel one golden sunny Saturday morning in late September, we drive out, past the farm that supplies Saffron with its rocket, turnip tops and cavalo nero, to see Grant Taylor at Valli Wines. He is recognised as one of the world’s leading makers of pinot noir. Indeed, just about a week or so after our visit, his Gibbston Valley 2010 Pinot Noir is named best pinot noir at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London.
With Duncan Forsyth of Mt Edward and Blair Walter of Felton Road, he is one of the area’s winemaking pioneers: ‘‘Starting out here was like being the first person on the Moon. We were getting wines from areas where there was nothing.’’
But, Taylor says , Taylor says, nte ‘‘it’s about living here more than making great pinot. It’s the place we really love. We could be growing gooseberries if we weren’t growing grapes.’’ Taylor says.
‘‘I get that,’’ Gawron exclaims when I’m on the phone to him a couple of weeks later. It’s snowing. ‘‘I’d be growing gooseberries too – in competition with Grant.
ntsD and he’s just popped a terrine in the oven for a table of late lunchers. nte ‘‘I know where there are six different type of wild gooseberries growing at the top of the Sawpit Gully track. They’re all these different varieties planted by the miners,’’ he says.
‘‘That’s my favourite place here – there’s a schist outcrop with 360-degree views at the top of German Hill on Sawpit Gully. You can see everything for miles around. It’s also where the local falcons nest. I learned the hard way not to go there in spring. They swoop you. I often take lunch up there for some time out.’’
Gawron also travels overseas once a year to work in kitchens around the globe: London, Denmark and Asia.
‘‘I go away as often as I can. You can atrophy here,’’ he explains. ‘‘I go overseas to get a buzz and to find out what’s going on.’’
He returns to his restaurant and his team of young chefs, to his clients – ‘‘they’re amazing and so worldly: they get what we do’’ – and the garden at the old miner’s cottage he and Mel still live in, where pantry shelves are laden with their homemade pickled cherries, crabapple jelly and quince paste to get them through the winter.
‘‘We’re driven by seasonality here. You’d be doing a disservice if you didn’t embrace that. I’m thrilled to be able to work seasonally because it gives you that diversity naturally. The more local something is and the more it flourishes, the more I like to use it because it’s obviously living harmoniously in the area: things like the local rabbit, exotic lettuces from my garden, different wild berries that we forage for. Stonefruit grows beautifully here. It’s world class.
‘‘I love the local trout too but of course I can’t sell it. I eat it at my own table. I like fly fishing and it doesn’t matter if I don’t catch a fish. It’s always a good walk.’’
Gawron’s been cooking for 33 years and still loves the buzz it brings.
‘‘As I tell my team, we get paid to create. This is my craft and I dig it.’’ And, yes, he still loves this town. ‘‘Everyone is in love with this place and as you explore this region more, geographically and socially, it just keeps getting better.’’
Angela Walker visited Arrowtown thanks to Destination Queenstown.
- Sunday Star Times