Scenery fit to eat

01:43, Jan 31 2009
BUSH FOOD: Charles Royal prepares lunch on one of his wild-food trails at Lake Rotorua in the North Island.

Australian visitor MAX ANDERSON goes hunting and gathering in New Zealand with the Maori bush-tucker man.

As dining experiences go, this is unusual. I've been brought to a sacred island in the middle of Lake Rotorua to be served exotic ingredients, only there's a naked man sitting in the dining area. Even more bizarrely, the man is familiar.

I'm on Charles Royal's Mokoia Food Tour, an experience that is as unexpected as Neil Perry pulling the old tablecloth trick. Royal is Maori (you can tell this by his laconic charm and tattooed ear lobes), plus he's New Zealand Innovative Chef of the Year. And he's about to harvest wild ingredients for my lunch, which he will then cook and serve to me while I sit in a geothermal pool.

READY TO EAT: salmon with edible New Zealand fern (pikopiko).

Only there's a naked man in my lunch spot. Hey, bro, says Royal.

The two men know each other (Royal has cooked for him) and they start chatting about how the man has canoed across the lake to Mokoia Island and is now soaking away his aches in the steaming lakeside pool.

It suddenly dawns on me that I last saw the naked man opposite George Clooney in Three Kings, and before that, opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies. Both times he was playing Arabs of villainous intent (and both times he was wearing more clothes).

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But on with the strangeness – including the fact there is such a thing as Maori cuisine. People know Maori cooking for hangi, but it's more than that, says Royal, as we leave the actor to his soak and head deeper into the thickly forested island. "Traditionally, Maori people used a lot of herbs in their cooking. For protein we relied on seafood and birds. And we used a lot of plants and herbs."

Royal is part of a new movement to drag Maori cooking back into the light after being buried for decades beneath great layers of fish and chips and meat pies. But persuading elder Maori to think back and serve up their secrets hasn't been easy. "It takes a long time. I have to win their trust first – I bribe them with a lot of food!"

After asking elders to try his traditional food, he pays attention to their reaction. Tickling their tastebuds can stir up their memories. "They'll often say, `Oh, I haven't had one of these since my mother made them. And, y'know, what she used to do was ...'"

We go about the business of collecting our ingredients. The forest smells rich and ripe and it's encouraging to think that the overwhelming New Zealand greenness is about to end up on a plate. Can a country taste as good as it looks?

We stop at a tall succulent with pods on stalks. This is flax. Both settlers and Maori used it for rope – but the Maori also used the seeds for making bread. It is high in omega 6 fatty acids. "If you toast them you get a lovely coffee-chocolate aroma."

We bend low beneath giant ferns, rooting around in the rich black earth for young pikopiko ferns. New Zealand, with 312 varieties of ferns, has the greatest fern variety. But only six of them are edible.

We find one of the six. Royal runs his finger up a stem until it gently opens with a tiny pop. "Here, try it." The fresh little tip looks terrific, delicate and detailed, shaped like an inverted treble clef. It's pea-pod sweet.

He introduces me to bush pepper (horopito), bush basil (kawakawa) and the karaka nut, a sample of which he produces from a tin. The fruit of the karaka tastes like a pawpaw but has the texture of a date. "You can use the nut to make flour, but eat it raw and it'll make you turn crazy." The Maori used to extract the poison by boiling karaka nuts in a geothermal pool for 12 hours before drying and grinding.

Royal carries out these same processes to bring the Maori foods back to life, experimenting and testing along the way. Have you ever got it wrong? I ask. I mean, with the poisonous stuff?

"Yes! I once played around with a flower – cut it and dabbed a tiny little bit on my tongue. I instantly got stomach cramps. It took me two hours of constantly drinking water to flush it out."

With our ingredients, we make our way back to the thermal pool, while Royal tells tales of Maori history and legend on the island. Typically, they're ripe with love and blood.

His own history is rather less dramatic, but it transpires he had to go overseas to see what was missing in his home country. After 26 years in the Catering Corps (cooking for brigadiers) he was a chef for business and first-class customers on Air New Zealand planes. "I ended up travelling all over the world and spent a lot of my spare time trying out different cuisines. I fell in love with Cajun Creole in the southern (United) States – a mix of old and new-world cooking."

He returned home to open his own Cajun Creole restaurant near Wellington. It was then he realised there was no Maori cuisine outside of the Polynesian hangi, the hoary old favourite with the hotel lobbies.

It seems both European and Maori New Zealand was ready to try something resurrected. Royal now has his own line of packaged Maori herbs, appears regularly on New Zealand TV, acts as a cooking ambassador and runs his small-party food tours, catering for the sort of guests who stay at Rotorua's luxury lodges such as Treetops and Peppers on the Point.

At the thermal pool, I change into swimming gear and settle into the hot waters that (mercifully) smell considerably less pungent than some mainland pools. Royal hands me a very cold (and very good) Maori beer, while he and his assistant break out a tiny camp stove and begin cooking.

It's as al fresco as dining can possibly get: leaning back against a rock, I look up at the dark granite upthrust that looms over the island, listen to the sounds of birds among the tree ferns, smell food sizzling in a pan. The five-course meal is astonishing. Having selected a suitable rock ledge to serve as a table, I receive plates of mussels, chicken and salmon, all accompanied by our fresh native fare.

The pikopiko fern tastes of pea and bean and is one of the most delicate-looking things I've ever seen on a plate. Fermented sweet potatoes cooked into kumara patties are spicy and aromatic, the horopito humus is peppery and robust, while the flax seeds, as promised, infuse the pink salmon steak with the most delicate hint of coffee and chocolate. It's a meal that's wild, flavoursome and rich. The experience is nothing less.

* Cost: Charles Royal's Mokoia Food Tour costs $245 a person (maximum six on a tour), $122.50 for children under 12; price includes a jetboat trip from Rotorua and meal with wine; ph 07 345-3122, see http://www.maorifood.com or book through local hotels. Further information: www.rotoruanz.com

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