A Canterbury forager finds flavours of New Zealand that money can't buy

Last updated 05:00 26/05/2017
Cassandra Kovacs

Check and re-check that foraged mushrooms are not poisonous, Peter Langlands says.

Cassandra Kovacs
Peter Langlands finds the natural world is a smorgasbord when you know where to look.
Cassandra Kovacs
A native star fungus.

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At the time of our interview, Canterbury forager Peter Langlands is planning an evening meal of fresh road-kill rabbit and foraged porcini mushrooms. He'd bagged the dead rabbit on a backroad between Waikari and Scargill and the meat was too good to waste.

"Rabbit is a nice clean white meat that can be used as a substitute for chicken. Foraging is so healthy and relaxing. You find so many foods and flavours that you simply can't buy in New Zealand. Exploring the diversity of what's around has really accelerated for me in the last three years," he says.

Peppery horopito leaves, crunchy baked seaweed fronds and alpine snowberries are just some of the delicacies he has sampled over many years spent outdoors in New Zealand's rugged country and coastal landscapes.

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His passion for foraging goes back to childhood, but has developed through his work as an ornithologist and a conservation researcher. From the upper Rangitata River to the Catlins, Peter has travelled extensively in the South Island, working to protect endangered species, such as the wrybill plover and the Australasian bittern, while also exploring nature's bounty in the wider sense.

Peter's partner, Melany Wright, is a fellow forager and has helped him expand his knowledge of introduced plants.

As well as foraging for the home kitchen, Peter is increasingly working with chefs who share his enthusiasm. One such colleague in the field is Vaughan Mabee, executive chef at Queenstown's Amisfield Bistro and Cellar Door. Peter went foraging with polytechnic students for an autumn event held at Amisfield. Their haul included twin cress, mallow flowers, apples, figs, peaches and elderberries.

"We found 30 different types of wild foods for the menu … Vaughan has travelled internationally and had exposure to restaurants where they have made foraging integral to what they do, such as Noma in Denmark, so he is a real enthusiast and he has several sous chefs who are very keen on foraging as well. Other restaurants are going down the same track, too."

In Canterbury, Peter has teamed up with Giulio Sturla, of Lyttelton's award-winning Roots Restaurant, on various foraging expeditions. Roots is at the forefront of Canterbury's foraging movement and has hosted international chefs with a penchant for wild foods, such as Japanese-American chef Jacob Kear, now based in Auckland.

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"It is an exciting time for sharing ideas … The environmental side of it is becoming very important too, because foraging relies upon a healthy environment with high biodiversity," Peter says.

In Canterbury, his foraging finds have included edible field mushrooms (such as slippery jack, birch and larch boletes), fruit, herbs and wild greens (including onion weed, Italian parsley, miner's lettuce, fat hen, wood sorrel and dandelion), surf clams and seaweed.

Apparently, Pegasus Bay is one of the best storm clam fishing grounds in the world. Along the coastline, Peter finds other tasty morsels, including karengo seaweed, introduced wakame and bull and bladder kelp. He uses kelp blades to steam fish and roasts frond tips to make seaweed chips. Karengo, once dehydrated and reconstituted, apparently has a nice flavour and tender texture that goes down well in stir fries.

Foraging requires an investment of time and travel, but Peter estimates he saves 30 to 40 per cent on the grocery bill.

"Depending on where you live, you can get enough to put a meal together in an hour."

Christchurch's residential red zone is a popular foraging destination.

"The interest in foraging for fresh fruit in Canterbury has skyrocketed and people's knowledge base as to what is out there is rapidly expanding."

Appreciating New Zealand's rich biodiversity has prompted Peter to write digital guides on edible mushrooms, seaweed and local foraging opportunities and he is now working on a photographic field guide.

As for that meal of road-kill rabbit? "I skinned it and cooked it whole with some wild thyme and stuffed it with field mushrooms. It tasted great."

Wild food tips

Where do you most like to forage in Canterbury? Banks Peninsula – it is one of the top three foraging zones in New Zealand.

What has been your most exciting find? Twin cress, because up until last year, I didn't know about it at all and yet it's widespread throughout New Zealand. It has a peppery flavour and is very versatile. You can use it to flavour meat dishes. At Amisfield, we also used it in an apple and peach dish and it worked really well.

What is your top tip for novice foragers? It's really important to be aware of poisonous species out there, such as deadly nightshade, death cap mushrooms, hemlock and ngaio. You need to be able to confidently identify one species at a time. With mushrooms, you have to be sure they're edible as you pick them and check again in the kitchen to be sure none of them are poisonous.

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