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Northland's Flavour I.D. - Do We Have One?

With travel, it seems more and more we are seeking out not only the sights and experiences of a place but the unique flavour and taste of the location we discover. As fellow travelers and now hosts, we have these conversations often. On a broader scale, the questions are around what flavours do we consider as quintessentially New Zealand, do we have a 'national dish', or signature flavour? It's always quite an entertaining conversation because, and I think many Kiwi's would agree, there's not really one, or even a few things that we would settle on as a fitting answer.

Living in 'the land of plenty' we're lucky to have never suffered from lack of food source. Because of this there is no legendary struggle for survival or historic event, which led to a cornerstone food connection. I have strong memories of passionate discussions on the other side of the world, around the table, drink in hand among a melting pot of cultures. We'd explore our different upbringings, countries, and social and political influences. It soon became clear in my opinion, that New Zealand as a culture and country was essentially the 'teenager' of the bunch. Relatively youthful in the scheme of things, no vast generations of wisdom as reference, free-spirited, gutsy, if a little 'too big for our boots' sometimes, also a bit awkward and self-conscious at the same time.

I adored, and still do, the romanticism attached with the idea of sipping coffee and gently breaking open buttery layers of a croissant street-side in a Paris café, or slurping spaghetti and rich sauce through pursed lips over red and white table cloths in a perfectly humble trattoria somewhere in Italy. Paella in Spain, or a roast with all the trimmings at a pub anywhere in England, the references are everywhere. So what is the equivalent experience in New Zealand? Is it fish and chips on the beach, Pavlova, cream and kiwifruit, lamb and mint sauce or the humble pie with a squirt of 'Watties finest'? These things all probably go some way towards a flavour icon we might identify with, but I'm not sure there's any one thing that we're deeply connected to.
We were recently in a room filled with food lovers, hospitality gurus and event and tourism professionals. The gathering was at Taste of Auckland and orchestrated by a formidable group of passionate chefs, producers, media and tourism operators. It was the 2016 ConversatioNZ Symposium, in a nutshell, a national platform to unravel the question; 'what is unique about NZ food and what is our place in the world?' We got ourselves along to the event mainly because we loved the idea of hearing different industry perspectives on this topic, but also because of our growing love affair with all things local and the richness to be discovered in what comes from the land and is crafted by the people.

Between 9am and 3pm we heard from an astonishing 20 people - there was no languid, laid-back or luxurious hospitality approach here, there was a lot to talk about and schedule was packed! From creators, producers, growers, brewers, writers and organisers, all were great food thinkers. The conversation was enlightening, thought-provoking, meaningful, funny, aspirational, fiery, animated and intelligent. We left with heads fizzing and hearts full.

While on the face of it the question at its core is pretty simple, the topics, themes and perspectives that surfaced soon revealed layers of narrative that could have had us there for days. I was expecting some inspiration by attending but not quite to the extent that has had me thinking for weeks after the fact. Was the question answered? In a lot of ways yes, but there are many parts to the answer. Just as the day revealed, I feel I could be writing for days about what was discussed, but there are a few things I specifically want to touch on because they moved me...

- History and diversity fill our identity cup in equal parts - Of the 20 speakers who took the stage and the many people in attendance, our cultures in that room were reflective of our country and are as diverse as a trip around the world. From celebrating fascinating Maori food gathering, preservation and preparation rituals, through to embracing the global talents that fill our kitchens and restaurants up and down the country everyday. This is who we are, and it's special. We all love this piece of paradise and all contribute to what makes it so good.

- We're as guilty as the rest of the world for neglecting our food sources - At the forefront of what makes New Zealand food unique is the flavour and purity of what comes from this beautiful 'untouched' land and ocean we're surrounded by. But along with the rest of the world, we are in danger of losing exactly what we all treasure so much. If we truly love the delicious bounty we are afforded every day, we must be better caretakers. It is possible and it's up to every one of us to make the right choices to restore the balance, demand more from large suppliers, care about origin and do our bit to increase the nutritional benefit of our food.

- While we're an informal bunch we can do quality very well - We often take the role of underdog, it suits us and with this, in many fields we often punch well above our weight. Producing some of the worlds finest ingredients as well as incredible talent, we can give ourselves permission to excel wherever we choose. If it's to specialise in a premium protein or to master the art of promoting lifelong bonds over an informal experience, none is more worthy than the other so we owe it to ourselves to shoot for the stars.

- Our food identity may lie in our provinces and that's OK - Pinpointing just one food connection to hang our hat on is not necessarily what this is all about, we don't need to follow others in order to measure up. Our real treasure seems to lie in the connection between the 'volume of flavour' in our produce and the uniquely 'kiwi way' we handle and present it for sharing. The closer we are to the source and a dish's creator, the deeper and more memorable the experience, and that is worth celebrating.
So I couldn't help but reference our personal experience of coming to the northern most part of beautiful New Zealand. Like all parts, what is unique here is driven predominantly by the seasons and the landscape. Warm climate and generous rainfall mean long seasons of beautiful produce, some subtropical fruits that won't grow in other parts, an abundance of seafood, organic milk, intensely flavoured manuka honey, the list goes on.

But as hunters of this local treasure we've often had our work cut out for us. Export is the necessary giant hand that takes a generous share leaving supermarket shelves offering only imported and diluted replacements. Until the very recent bubble of growth, a relatively sparse population have not illustrated enough demand for local goodness at cafe's and restaurants resulting in a lack of Northland soul on those plates. And then our talented artisan makers and producers spend so much of their time with hand to the grindstone there is often a special 6th sense required to discover the distinctly Northland flavours they are producing with such passion.

So does Northland have a unique food identity? Absolutely! The people + produce offers a rich combination that only needs to be revered, celebrated and demanded by us all so it can grow and distill into something that we can taste, enjoy and share everyday. If anything, we're more motivated now to continue on our treasure hunting journey and do our bit to see more of Northlands culinary expression revealed. Here's to continuing the worthy conversation, an evolving story with so many layers.
Thanks to the countless folk @conversation_nz for beginning this movement! #eatNZ #CNZ17 #nzfood #kai #nzpure #inspirekai #realfood #eatlocalnz #foodnz #newzealand