It was the colour I noticed first. A deep green carpet of moss on the track, and vines that intertwine around ancient trees

New Zealand chefs are working hard to ensure the survival of indigenous Maori cuisine as Kirstie Bedford discovered.

Pulling puha from the ground as a child, I never would have imagined this thistly, wild weed would appear in top restaurants and luxury retreats around the country, but three decades on that’s exactly what’s happened.

Puha is just one of many native New Zealand plants and herbs that local chefs are turning to for inspiration and using to create dishes that are not only wowing New Zealanders, but tourists too.

Maori chef Charles Royal was one of the first to incorporate Maori foods in cuisine at his restaurant in Rotorua in the Central North Island.

“They say if a culture loses its food, it’s near impossible to get it back. I felt like Maori food was being lost so that’s why I started doing it and now I live by that.”

Charles Royal

After incorporating herbs and plants in his dishes, Royal quickly realised travellers not only wanted to taste indigenous food, but they wanted to know the stories behind them, so it seemed a natural progression to start taking them foraging in the forest.

Finding wildfoods might sound relatively easy, but as only 15 per cent of the total land area is covered in native flora, you need to know where to go and what to look out for. The experience is one you certainly won’t forget. I certainly didn’t…

It was the colour I noticed first. A deep green carpet of moss on the track and vines that intertwine around ancient trees. The only thing you hear is the crunch of leaves under your feet and then as we sit for a while quietly among the massive canopy of 800-year-old trees you hear the high-pitch melody of the New Zealand native Tui and if you’re lucky the flutter of their wings.

They say to truly get to know a country you need to try its food and we were about to do just that.  The forest is deep and the plants plentiful, and there isn’t a sound as we move through towering ferns with snatches of clear sky above us, until our guides catch sight of a Pikopiko fern or Koru in a damp shady area of the bush and the group produces an almost unanimous ‘wow’.

Pikopiko Koru fern in food dish Treetops

The pretty curled tip of the fern is quintessentially Kiwi – even the country’s national airline, Air New Zealand, uses it as its logo and it’s often used in Maori carvings. You can find more than 300 different types of ferns, but to spot this New Zealand symbol was extra special.

Charles explains there’s a natural snapping point and you have to run your thumb up the top and your second finger below, grab and bend before it will snap off.

When raw it has a peppery taste, but once cooked in butter and garlic it tastes much like asparagus. The Horopito and Kawakawa are another two native New Zealand plants that an untrained eye would easily overlook as just another small tree or shrub, but which we are given a chance to taste in the forest.

The kawakawa is made into a tea and is peppery much like the Pikopiko. It’s an acquired taste, unlike anything you may have probably experienced before, which is part of the appeal, and if nothing else, they provide a story to tell once you head back home – and there are the medicinal properties too. Horopito has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions and Kawakawa aids digestion and respiratory conditions.

The interest in traditional Maori ingredients has become so huge that Royal now sustainably harvests herbs and plants, which he dries and provides to restauranteurs. He’s also produced a cookbook to teach interested foodies how to include them in their own meals.

Less than an hour’s drive south at five-star-luxury lodge Treetops Lodge & Estate is a slice of paradise set among 2,500 acres of wilderness where Charles first started doing foraging tours.

Inside the rustic-style stone and timber lodge every window appears as if an artwork, framing the surrounding forest and streams. I couldn’t help but catch my breath as I walked through its large open, opulent interiors, where there’s a feeling like you’re literally in the middle of nowhere, but who would mind – and it’s certainly the way the owners like it.

Pikopiko Koru fern credit Kirstie Bedford

They are determined to tread lightly on the land preserving the natural environment – and its natural then that they take people out to appreciate the landscape, which has included the planting of more than 70,000 exotic and indigenous trees and shrubs to provide a year round habitat for the protected species such as the Tui.

Here they also do their own Maori food trail where you explore the forest, quite literally on its doorstep, and collect herbs and spices to use in a cooking class in the Treetops’ kitchen. They can also teach you how to recreate a hangi (Maori pit-oven), akin to eating a smokey flavoured roast dinner.

Food and beverage general manager Harrie Geraerts says travellers are more educated now and no longer just want to be given a good meal, but expect to be part of it. “You can get a nice meal anywhere, but you need to provide an experience.  People are more aware of what they are eating. The purpose of travel is new tastes and experiences and it’s nice to see guests are really interested in food origin.”

On site is a garden with Puha and Kumara (sweet potato) and guests can also learn how these are grown, not that the Puha needs much attention Harrie laughs.

But as Charles says, “it’s the best of them all. It grows everywhere and there’s nothing quite like pork bones and puha.”

It’s a dish my father cooked, and while it didn’t excite me as a child, it certainly does now. The dish takes on the flavour of the meat and is much like spinach, but has been used for centuries to detoxify and protect the liver – just what is needed after the five-star treatment you’ll be given at Treetops.

I tell Charles he must be proud of how he’s educating people around the globe about native herbs and plants, and their significance to the Maori people, but this humble entrepreneur takes it all in his stride.

“I’m really happy, I might not show it much, but in my mind I’m over the moon because, well, it hasn’t been done before.”

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