New Zealand’s Amazing – and Essential – Food Revolution

Actually a lovely meal, but also 'as good as it got' 40 years ago - a traditional 'Sunday roast' with beef, yorkshire pudding, and assorted roast and boiled veges.
Actually a lovely meal, but also ‘as good as it got’ 40 years ago in NZ – a traditional ‘Sunday roast’ with beef, Yorkshire Pudding, and assorted roast and boiled veges.

This is the first part of a series on food in New Zealand.  A second and possibly subsequent parts will showcase some of the best and most distinctive of New Zealand dishes.

When you consider New Zealand’s renown, these days, for its highest quality cuisine using the very best of local ingredients (truly a locavore’s paradise), it is astonishing to consider that fewer than 40 years ago, New Zealand’s food was as bad as Britain’s also was – an extension of its predominantly British heritage and culture.  This extraordinary turnaround is an interesting study in how quickly a society can transform itself, even in something as fundamental and seemingly traditional as its cuisine and eating attitudes.

To appreciate the wonderful world of gourmet cuisine that is everywhere in NZ these days, it is helpful – and possibly also amusing – to understand its evolution and its origins.

New Zealand as it Was

New Zealand food, until the mid 1970s, was bland and unimaginative, and with little variety.  A typical meal would comprise flavorless meat, potatoes, and a couple of vegetables, boiled and reduced to a pulpy mess.

In particular, growing up in the 1960s, I have vivid (but not particularly pleasant) memories of the typical evening meal cycle in our middle class family.  On Sunday night, we’d have a traditional ‘Sunday roast’ – usually roast beef or lamb; more rarely, roast pork (pork was the most expensive meat in NZ back then), accompanied by baked potatoes, baked other vegetables, Yorkshire Pudding if we were lucky, and gravy.  We’d usually have a dessert too – perhaps opening a Mason jar of home preserved peaches or other fruit, perhaps a can of pineapple, or some sort of cooked pudding, maybe with custard.

So the Sunday night meal was quite nice, and almost entirely home cooked from raw ingredients.  But then on Monday and Tuesday and probably Wednesday, we’d have left-overs.  Cold slices of the remains of the roast meat and reheated, increasingly thick gravy; accompanied by potatoes (either boiled or mashed) and then invariably a mix of mashed carrots and parsnips.  Ugh.  Perhaps we’d have another root vegetable such as ‘swede’ – aka rutabaga in the US.  Maybe marrow (a type of squash to use the US parlance).  Or pumpkin, something best reserved for feeding to pigs and carving shapes in for Halloween, in my opinion!

We’d have something different on Thursday – maybe ‘mince’ (a stew made from ground beef).  If my mother was feeling particularly adventurous, she’d add a hint of cumin or curry and label it as ‘Singapore Surprise’ – an imagined expression of exotic oriental cuisine, albeit looking forlornly out of place alongside the inevitable potatoes, carrots and parsnip.

We’d often have fish on Fridays – not because we were Catholic, but just because it was a traditional thing to do.  It would be crumbed and pan fried, and if we were very lucky, would be accompanied by chips (‘fries’ to the Americans) but more likely – yes, you guessed it.  Boiled or mashed potatoes, carrots and parsnip and maybe some other vegetable.  Saturdays were another slightly different meal – maybe sausages or a steak or something else, accompanied with – well, you already know, don’t you.  And then it was back to Sunday and the start of another weekly cycle.

Occasionally for lunch we’d have ‘pizza pie’ – an abomination with the thickest driest crust that was impossible to swallow, forming enormous lumps in one’s mouth that no matter how much you chewed, would recombine right back into its lumpen form.  That, and canned spaghetti, were nods to European cuisine.  Now you know why I was in my mid thirties before ever getting the desire or courage to travel to Europe.

Eating out?  Almost never.  Sometimes we’d have take-aways from a bakery for lunch, occasionally as a special treat we’d have takeaway fish and chips for dinner.  When traveling, we’d stay at motels and cook our own meals (or in such cases, the incidence of fish and chip takeaway meals would rise).  But dining in a restaurant?  Maybe once every year or two or three, maybe less.  And most NZ restaurants back then were somewhat akin to Denny’s, but without either the extensive menu or the charm.

One other interesting thing.  Until 1974, margarine was illegal in New Zealand, and could only be purchased with a doctor’s prescription.  Everyone was expected to eat butter, to bolster our dairy industry, and because it was, of course, natural and healthy and good for you – the more the merrier.  When the ban on margarine was finally overturned, the dairy industry lobbied strenuously for new legislation to require margarine to be died, not the traditional yellow butter type color (margarine in its natural state is clear) but blue!  Their efforts were almost successful.

If you find this impossibly bizarre, margarine was also banned in Canada until 1948 and in Wisconsin until 1967, and probably for a similar reason.

Notwithstanding an impressive dairy industry and overall milkfat production, NZ also resisted doing anything ‘interesting’ or artisanal with its cheese products.  A generic sort of cheddar, usually purchased in chunks cut to order off a huge block at the grocer’s store, a sharper version of the same, and Chesdale brand emulsified/processed cheese were almost all that we had, other than an occasional small piece of ridiculously expensive imported cheese (sky high import duties were in place to protect our domestic production).

The worst of the ‘boiled mutton’ days were thankfully receding as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, and by the 1970s the odor (some would say ‘reek’) of boiled mutton was uncommon rather than ubiquitous, being replaced by much higher quality hogget (one to two year old sheep) and lamb (under one year old sheep).  Grass fed beef was normal, but veal virtually unheard of.  Chicken was uncommon, and pork was an expensive ‘high end’ meat, with bacon very expensive (but much less fatty than American bacon).

Various types of locally caught white fish were abundant but expensive, salmon was uncommon and usually owned found inside of cans, and seafood was mainly in the form of oysters.

Like just about everywhere else, the word ‘organic’ had no meaning at all, and the best quality produce had been proudly sprayed every which way with all manner of pesticides and fertilizers, while frost control for the orchards was managed with abundant smudge pots – canisters of burning oil that gave off clouds of oily sooty smoke to blanket orchards and the land for miles around in smoke and preventing the frost from coming in!  So effective were they that the North Vietnamese used them to create smoke screens to protect parts of their country from US bombing.

Even to this day, the secret behind NZ’s iconic green countryside is aerial top-dressing – dumping of tons of fertilizer from planes over the pastures covering much of the country, and giving the country the high yielding primary production that it enjoys.  The run-off from the fertilizer (and from the intensive dairy farming that these days is displacing much of the lower density sheep farming) is destroying many of New Zealand’s creeks and streams and causing major problems.

NZ’s appetite for super-phosphate type fertilizers was so voracious that it almost mined a tiny Pacific island nation to oblivion (Nauru).  Not that Nauru objected – during the 1960s and early 1970s, Nauru had the highest per capita income of anywhere in the world, but the easily mined phosphate deposits dwindled and disappeared, and now it is one of the world’s poorer countries, with its sovereign wealth fund having suffered from bad investments and a ten-fold reduction in assets in little more than a decade.

New Zealand’s first acceptance of international food came from influences seldom associated with haute cuisine.  I remember such transformational events in New Zealand such as its first ever Kentucky Fried Chicken store in Auckland in the late 1960s, and the traffic jams for miles around as people drove from all over the region to sample this new type of food.  Fried spiced chicken – what a novel concept!  We greeted it with total puzzlement about how the chicken could be instantly ready, the concept of food being pre-cooked and waiting being something we never paused to consider.

Some years later, the revolution continued with New Zealand’s first McDonalds, in the Wellington region in the early 1970s, and their strange type of fries/chips and apple pies.

Prior to that time, take-away food in NZ comprised British style fish and chip shops, with the fish often being shark (it was inexpensive, what can I say) or Chinese takeaways (and sometimes one retailer offering both), together with ‘burger bars’ offering NZ style hamburgers, noted for the inclusion of such things as eggs and beetroot and pineapple as popular options, and toasted sandwiches, together with meat pies that had been made somewhere else and then dried out and hardened while sitting in a warming oven prior to being served some time considerably later.

Going slightly further upmarket, I also remember the first ever Mexican restaurant opening in Wellington in perhaps 1974, and how exciting and exotic a taco seemed.  There was almost nothing else in the way of ethnic restaurants prior to that time, a surprising state when you consider that very cosmopolitan Sydney and Melbourne were simple short flights away from NZ (one didn’t even need a passport to travel between the two countries back then) and those cities were both full of tantalizing tastes and flavors.

Talking about flavoring, there were three main ‘spices’ in NZ back then – tomato sauce, salt, and (with hesitant caution) pepper.  We did have a few herbs, often sourced on a ‘grow your own’ basis, but they were anxiously added in very small quantities so as to make them almost imperceptible.

A typical crush of men, all drinking as fast they could after work and before 6pm closing each day.
A typical crush of men, all drinking as fast they could after work and before 6pm closing each day.

An Unsophisticated Approach to Drinking, Too

As for bars, the country required all public bars to close at 6pm until 1967.  While designed to prevent public drunkeness and promote family life, it tended to have quite the opposite effect.  The rush out of offices and factories at 5pm (or slightly before) and then the extraordinary crush in bars as everyone (or so it seemed) raced to drink the maximum amount possible in the hour available to them, was quite impressive, and was termed ‘the six o’clock swill’.

So instead of spreading drinking in a leisurely manner over an evening, NZ males (most public bars were for men only, women not allowed) would get an entire evening’s worth of drinking done in a single hour, and then, ahem, drive home and pass out.  Perhaps it was just as well that no alcohol would be served or sold on Sundays.

Bars served beer by the 35 ounce jug, and tankers the size of large gas tankers were employed to transport the beer in vast quantities from the breweries to the bars.

If one were to drink wine – something which many men resisted for a long time as being a slur on their masculinity, then it would either be low quality red wine imported from Australia or similar table wine type white wine from Germany.  NZ wine was made from generic high yielding sturdy hybrids, and much of it was made into sherry, with McDonald’s Special Extra Strength Sherry being a best seller, being marketed on the twin pillars of having the highest possible alcohol content and the lowest cost per 80 ounce flagon of any of the fortified wines in the country.  No-one even considered what it tasted like, that being an irrelevant consideration for its enthusiastic devotees.

Repeatedly I’d go into a NZ restaurant with a date in the mid/late 1970s and ask for ‘the most expensive bottle of wine you have’ and be offered up something best forgotten, at a price below $10.  For all intents and purposes (other than for a few rare and delightful exceptions), good wine, either domestically produced or imported, didn’t exist.

During the day, very little coffee was consumed.  It was considered an ‘American affectation’, and when it was served, would invariably be instant coffee.  Tea was the drink of choice – usually with a way-too-generous portion of milk added – tea flavored hot milk rather than milk flavored hot tea.

Water came exclusively from the tap.  If you’d suggested bottling it, you’d have been looked at like you’d just arrived from Mars.  Why would you want to do that when perfectly good water flowed abundantly and freely from any tap in the nation?  I saw my first bottle of Perrier water in the early 1980s – an ultra rare curiosity and similarly ultra expensive.  We all looked at it in puzzlement in the one store it was briefly available in, and nodded to ourselves, confirming our belief in the ultimate strangeness of the French.

NZ Discovers Food

That is Food with a capital F, rather than food with a small f, as was formerly and most definitely the case.

Apart from its British heritage, there was no reason why New Zealand should have suffered such poor cuisine for so long.  The country was a net food exporter, and almost every ingredient of most food dishes could be readily grown locally, giving the country and its kitchens an abundance of choice of fresh foodstuffs to build dishes from.  In addition, although the country’s heritage was predominantly British, it was not exclusively so, and it had significant communities from other European nations with different and more food-centric traditions and priorities.

During the later 1970s and then 1980s, something changed in New Zealand, and the country underwent an extraordinary revolution in terms of its food (and also its drink, too).  And no, I’m not just talking about the coming of KFC and ‘the American Embassy’ (ie McDonalds).  The country as a whole became more aware of ‘good food’.

The first thawings of a food awareness might have been the appearance of ‘new’ vegetables in the country – broccoli, globe artichokes and avocados, for example, in the 1960s; the latter two of which couldn’t be cooked to death by over-boiling.  This occasioned a realization that ‘vegetables’ – a term of dread to all children raised on a diet such as I described for me, above – didn’t have to be as unappealing and awful as they generally were.  They could be a highlight of a meal, rather than something one drudgingly and dutifully ate.  Re-examining the role of vegetables lead to a wider rethink of all elements of diet and caused one to see food as more than a functional ‘chore’.

If pressed to ascribe the major root causes for a food renaissance, I’d point to three things.  The first was the abolition of the ‘six o’clock swill’ and the matching ability of NZers to drink in a more leisurely manner and to combine it with – new concept – eating a meal out at the same time.  Prior to the end of the 6pm closing, no bars served food, because there was ‘no time’ to eat food, only to drink.

The second factor was the rise of international travel – thank you, Boeing, and your wonderful 747.  Whereas in the early 1970s, any foreign visitor in New Zealand was an unusual oddity, by the early 1980s, international visitors were becoming more plentiful.  At the same time, the cost of international travel for New Zealanders was similarly dropping (also due to the 747), and the elimination of foreign exchange controls that limited the amount of money New Zealanders could take out of the country with them to fund their travels made foreign travel much more practical and enjoyable.

The other event was the replacement of an extended period of the country’s slightly right of center National party being in power as the government, with a slightly left of center Labour Party government.  Astonishingly, rather than increasing government controls and interventions, the Labour government largely abolished them all, including import duties, seeing both an upswing in foreign items and foodstuffs coming into the country, and also increases in immigration – firstly from traditional European sources reaching record numbers in the 1970s, and then from everywhere in the world from the mid/late 1980s.

This new Labour government and their economic policies also saw a rise in wealth and prosperity in the middle class, giving people more disposable income and greater aspirations as to how to spend it.

Perhaps television had a role as well – the popularity of two television star cooks made food related matters more a point of focus for everyone, and allowed food preparation and enjoment to become, rather than a means to an end, an end in itself.

The new exposures for all NZers to international cuisine – whether on television or in person; the growing demand from foreign visitors for better food, combined with growing populations of ex-pats from ‘other’ countries; a new time each day when eating out could be considered; and more disposable income to afford dining out – all these points combined to make food become more important, and food that was variously either ‘different’ or ‘good’ (and hopefully both!) more appreciated.

By the mid 1990s, New Zealand’s place on the global bandwagon of good food was clearly established.  An attendant and equally transformational revolution in the wine making industry saw NZ wine transition from something best avoided to a product that averages higher wholesale prices around the world than even French wine.

The Food Revolution in Full Force

From this time forward, good food had attained critical mass and importance.  The country’s massively expanded international tourism marketing helped boost an appreciation of the strategic importance of good food as a major tourism draw, while its increasingly well traveled residents were no longer willing to accept second best at home.  The result – there is now a wonderful variety of foods of all types, and restaurants galore to choose between.

Our October 2016 NZ Epicurean Extravaganza tour takes us to New Zealand and to one of their food festivals in Hawke’s Bay, sometimes called ‘the fruitbowl of New Zealand’ and suffused with wonderful food and wine as far as the eye can see in all directions.  Please consider joining us on that tour.

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