My geography teacher pulled out a map of our province, Marlborough, at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. She drew a big black circle around the main town of Blenheim and then highlighted six roads feeding into it. With the authority of an army commander, she sent us off on our bikes to record what was growing in the surrounding fields.

We returned with our crumpled maps covered in a mosaic of colours representing all the different crops: cherries, apples, apricots, nectarines, tomatoes, fields of oats, barley, wheat, maize, pumpkins and onions, and where the ground was too dry and stony for arable crops there were sheep. That was 30 years ago, and there was hardly a grapevine in sight. 

If a group of schoolgirls were let loose on the same field trip today, their charts would be green, green, green with grapes, grapes, grapes. Marlborough is now known around the world for its fruit-filled sauvignon blanc wine. This new crop attracts many overseas visitors who sample their way around the well organised wine trail, but it’s not quite so straight-forward for those wanting to track down the local food specialities. About two hours drive south of Blenheim is Kaikoura, a small seaside town now famous for whale-watching but when the Maori named the area it was because of the seafood: kai means food, koura means crayfish (like a lobster but with smaller claws). The place to get freshly caught crayfish is a roadside caravan called Nin’s Bin.

Whales and wineries have been good for fisherman Rodney Clark. He heads out at first light every day to pick up his crayfish pots along the rocky Pacific coast for two miles either side of the caravan. “We catch between 50 and 80 crays a day, drown them in cold water, stack them in the copper [a cauldron-like pot that was the precursor to the washing machine], get the fire going and bring them to the boil. As soon as they’re cooked we dunk them in cold water to stop them stewing.” The result is a sweet, delicate flesh that couldn’t be much fresher – my cray, which was lunch for three and cost the equivalent of £12 – was still warm when it was wrapped up in newspaper and handed over.

 Marlborough is also bordered by sea to the north, where the Cook Strait flows into the fiords of the Marlborough Sounds. The hills of the Kenepuru Sound were once grazed by sheep but now the farming has moved into the water, where millions of greenshell mussels fatten up on growing lines suspended from black plastic floats. It does little to add to the beauty of the area, but onboard the Greenshell Mussel Cruise the skipper assured us it was a natural process, with the mussels feeding only on small plankton and algae brought in with the tide. Perna canaliculus is native to New Zealand and is a bigger and fleshier specimen than its blue European cousin.

Back at the nearby port town of Havelock, the Mussel Pot restaurant has a simple menu of mussels grilled or steamed, with a choice of flavours. Mine came in a huge bowl, the emerald-rimmed shells glistening, the mussels perfectly cooked in a light chilli, coriander, ginger and coconut milk sauce.

 As well as by the sea, Marlborough is defined by its rivers. The braided Wairau River built up the plain with the shingle and loam that suits the grapes so well. And it also suits olive oil production. Jeremy Laurenson, a stock-
broker and fund manager in London for 35 years, returned to New Zealand in the late 1980s, just as the first olive groves were being planted. “The same thing that makes Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc so good applies to olives: hot days, cold nights and low humidity lead to intensity of flavour.” Jeremy and his wife Rosemary planted 1,400 trees in the Waihopai Valley, surrounded by vineyards. Their Landfall label includes a single varietal Leccino extra virgin olive oil, which has a good grass aroma and a strong finish, while their Frantoio/Leccino blend is more laid back. An Italian visitor to the Laurenson’s stall at the San Francisco food fair gave them the ultimate compliment: “I never would have believed you could taste Tuscan oil outside Tuscany.”

To taste it in Marlborough, go to the Sunday farmers market in Blenheim, where Landfall is one of more than a dozen stalls selling fresh, local produce. The few orchard owners who have resisted the high prices being paid for grape land are still selling succulent cherries and nectarines. And the new guard is represented by tastings of the wines of Clos Marguerite, a small family operation, and Seresin Estate, which first produced organic wine in the region. But there are also new boutique products that reflect the transformation of Marlborough into the gourmet province: saffron, wild venison salami, flaky sea salt, organic farmed salmon, and mixed salad bags of rocket, mizuna, sunflower sprouts and coriander. A lot has changed in 30 years, but the fundamental ability of this region to grow food bursting with flavour has stayed the same – as long as you know where to look on the map.

On the grapevine

Crayfish: Nin’s Bin, State Highway 1, 15 miles north of Kaikoura. Suggested wine match: Clos Marguerite Sauvignon Blanc 2006

Greenshell mussels: sold live at most supermarkets. Suggested wine match: Seresin Estate Pinot Gris 2006.

To go on a mussel farm cruise,

Olive oil: Landfall Estate, Waihopai Valley Road, nr Renwick. tel: +64 (0)3 572 4337

Marlborough Farmers Market: Sunday 9am-noon, November-June. A&P Showgrounds, Maxwell Rd, Blenheim. Tel: +64 (0)3 579 3599.

Restaurants that make the most of local ingredients:

The Mussel Pot, 73 Main Rd, Havelock. Tel: +64 (0)3 574 2824

Gibb’s Vineyard Restaurant, 258 Jacksons Rd, RD3 Blenheim. Tel: +64 (0)3 572 8048

Herzog, 81 Jeffries Rd, RD3 Blenheim. +64 (0)3 572 8770

A taste of Kiwi food and drink in London

New Zealand food in London: The Toast New Zealand festival is at Fulham Palace on Saturday July 21.

The Providores and Tapa Room, 109 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 4RX, tel: +44 (0)20 7935 6175

Suze in Mayfair, 41 North Audley Street, London W1K 6ZP, tel: +44 (0)20 7491 3237

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