In recent years, Cloudy Bay – the winery that about 25 vintages ago introduced American consumers to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc– has each February held a small event called “Forage.” True to its name, Forage is about collecting foods – wild and cultivated, animal and vegetable and mineral – that have as their habitat the Marlborough region at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island and pairing them with Cloudy Bay’s wines.
In many ways, Forage is as much about how we think about food and wine as it is about actually consuming food and wine. On one level, it is reality TV – one morning, four gung-ho teams are sent to the four points of the compass in search of a set of different foods which they bring back in the evening to present to a master chef who the next evening prepares a 10-course meal using forage as the basis for each dish. On another level, it is a challenge to the mind to mull over some interesting questions– how far can we/should we expand the farm-to-table concept, is “provenance” the new “terroir,” how long does it take something that was once “foreign” to become “local,” and is it counter-productive to always resist invasive species the way the French tried unsuccessfully to resist American culture in the 1950s? After all, what if Italy had said “no” to tomatoes, if New Zealanders had rejected European grapes and if American conservatives had banned fish tacos?
A little over a week ago, I was one of two writers from the Western Hemisphere who were invited to fly west across the International Date Line to Blenheim, joining nine other journalists from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand for the two days and three nights that constitute Forage.
The first evening, we met the Cloudy Bay crew – estate manager Ian Morden, viticulturist Jim White and winemakers Tim Heath, Nick Lane and Sarah Burton. We also said hello to Simon Gault, the famous Kiwi chef whose home port is his Euro restaurant in Auckland. At that time, we were placed into teams – one each south to hunt wild game, east to ocean fish and collect shellfish, west for freshwater fishing and north to pick produce.
“The place of origin – provenance – is important,” Morden explained to us. “Provenance is where your roots are. Countries like France have already figured this out. We are planting here in virgin soil, and we need to understand our provenance, where we come from.”
The next morning, Burton, our team leader, chef Gault, Hong Kong critic-at-large Chris Ng Ka Keung and I boarded a helicopter and flew south into the rugged mountains along the Waihopai River as dawn broke over Marlborough Sound. At Glazebrook Lodge, guide Steve Smith introduced us to .308-caliber rifles, which he and fellow guide Mike Darling would teach us to use. Then we would jump into two Kubota all-terrain-vehicles and bump along some of the roughest trails known to animals and search among the 24,000 acres of the ranch for wild deer and wild boar, not game-preserve animals, but animals that lived by their wits. Smith and Darling would carry the guns, and we would get to shoot them when animals were spotted.
Four hours later, after several sightings of pigs and deer, mostly at several hundred yards distance, our team had bagged two deer, one shot by Darling and one by Gault, a first-time hunter whom I kidded about taking farm to table to extremes. Although I had hunted in my youth for rabbits and squirrels and advocate hunting for food and population control, I confess I was just as happy not to pull the trigger. Chris said he felt the same.
The teams partied that night and feasted the next evening. Gault prepared Tio Point oysters with mandarin and jalapeno to go with Cloudy Bay’s vintage Pelorus sparkling wine. Then crayfish, red pepper, apple and olive with Riesling, paua (abalone) and crab roll with Chardonnay, salmon tartar with Gewurz. Gault’s freshly bagged venison appeared as medallions with horseradish custard and crispy capers and as brioche sliders, both served with Cloudy Bay’s rich, luscious Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc. And so on – a lovely meal and a great experience.
The next evening I crossed back over the dateline en route to a layover in San Francisco. I decided to use this regained day on the 747 to think about Morden’s provenances, Gault’s backward integration into the food-production chain and Smith’s and Heath’s exploration of how best to adapt these once- foreign vines to express this new yet old Marlborough terroir. Forage for the table, forage for the mind.