I’m sorry to do this, but this is going to be a largely negative posting. I had high hopes for gastromic experiences down here, owing in no small part to the hype of all the publicity I’d read from the NZ immigration department and other travel literature. Much is made of New Zealand’s position as an agricultural economy, and also of the natural resources that are the surrounding seas, with the emphasis upon the resulting availability of fresh ingredients, and hence high-quality food. Well, it’s bollocks. I didn’t want to believe it when I was told that all the best products are exported, and I still don’t totally, but as an example over 90% of kiwifruit production is exported.
So what is the food like? By and large, underwhelmingly average. When doing grocery shopping, there’s a sense of everything being at the lower end of the quality spectrum, and all but the best delicatessens are not worthy of the name. There’s no cheese counter in the supermarket, and production is very centralised with monopolies such as Fonterra. So while you can buy loose ham over the counter in the shop, it’s not freshly carved off a joint the way it’s easy to get accustomed to in Sainsbury’s.
When it comes to eating out, in many places you’ll struggle to find a good restuarant. I consider myself very fortunate to live so close to Wellington, which does have excellent restaurants with varied specialities. Away from the big cities the choice is fast food or a pub.
Two foods that are endemic are sausages and pies. I’m not sure if there’s generally any meat in the sausages, some are worryingly labelled as “pork flavour”, while others are simply sold as “breakfast” or “BBQ” sausages. To say such sausages are bad is an understatement, yet whenever I see a charity “sausage sizzle” I end up buying one. Onions and sauce are a saving grace, as it’s difficult to distinguish between the slice of bread and the sausage. Still, decent sausages are available, so it’s just a case of being a choosy customer in the butcher’s. As for the pies, these vary in quality enormously, and I’d actually say they’re generally better than a Pukka or Wright’s pie that you might buy in a British chip shop. In some places the filling variety is huge, but my preference is for steak or lamb and cheese.
Another over-hyped but actually uninspiring aspect are the wines. Forget tourist board publicity, just about every person who I talked with about New Zealand mentioned wine, and said they’d heard it was good. Note heard, they often didn’t actually generally buy kiwi wine themselves. As it turns out, I buy far less wine now I live in New Zealand than I did before, simply because there is so little variety, and it’s so hard to find a decent bottle without having some tasting notes available. Generally I find that the wines lack body, are a little acidic, and generally leave my taste buds unfulfilled. As a result I avoid anything described as “subtle”, because that seems to actually mean flavourless. I wish there was the international range available in supermarkets here that the UK enjoys. I’d like a nice selection of European wines to choose from!
I must at this point emphasise that this is the general case. Hawke’s Bay wines seem generally far superior, especially those from the Gimlett Gravels area.
Like the UK, New Zealand has a burgeoning craft/microbrewery scene. Sadly, these are not widely available in supermarkets or “bottle shops” (off-licenses), so to enjoy a variety of different beers can mean travelling to the source. The best beers widely available are those of Monteith’s and Mac’s, although even these are not exceptional. Two breweries, Lion and DB, account for some 90% of NZ’s beer sales (and own the above two brands), and everything a typical bottle store or supermarket sells is from these two stables. Of all the beers they produce, the two worst which I have tried are Export Gold and Tui. It’s not that they’re unpleasant, it’s just that like the wines, there’s nothing to them. I ought to say now that there are other brands such as DB and Lion Red which I have avoided on the advice of friends. I couldn’t resist adding my own take on Tui’s well known marketing.
Again, I must extol the merits of living close to Wellington. There is a fantastic bottle shop called Regional Wines, which provide detailed tasting notes on the wines they sell, and also offer beers from a variety of smaller breweries, both on-tap and bottled. It’s a lifeline!