The sheer vastness of the landscape is the first thing that demands your attention when you arrive in Central Otago. It’s a place where Mother Nature boldly announces herself and where all four seasons are truly felt. Springtime frosts make way for new life, while the balmy, dry and long summers ripen the orchard fruits. Autumn sees auburn-coloured foliage transform the countryside, while in winter the pure mountain air freshens the land as it prepares for the next season.
This intensity of the seasons and schist mineral soils result in an incredible richness and depth of flavour in the food that grows here. The wide-open panoramas, sun-drenched valleys, snow-fed rivers and rugged high country are, at times, challenging, but for the people who have learnt to work with nature and take on the challenge with ingenuity, the results are incredible — naturally clean and intense flavours that you won’t find anywhere else.
Strike up a conversation with the locals and you’ll soon discover Central Otago has no shortage of secret gems.
One might not think of the balmy Mediterranean being tied to the southern end of Aotearoa, but as Cromwell-based honey purveyor Zoe Wood explains, they are the only places where you’ll find thyme growing in the wild. Through her sustainable honey business Forage & Gold, which she launched in late 2020, she produces pure New Zealand honey in a range of varieties, including wild thyme honey.
During the gold rush of the 1800s, miners brought thyme plants to New Zealand. The wild herb soon flourished in the hot dry summers and chilly winters of Central Otago, and it can now be found covering the rolling hills in an aromatic, lilac-coloured haze, attracting spring bees to drink up the sweet nectar. “It’s a strong, aromatic, herbal honey,” explains Wood. “It’s dark, rich, a little bit savoury and it’s my bestseller.”
While in Cromwell, make a turn off Bannockburn Road and visit The Honey Shed, a wooden roadside stall that has been running since 2011 and operates on a honesty-box system, where you can buy jars of Forage & Gold’s Thyme Honey, along with their unique Vipers Bugloss, Manuka, Kamahi and Clover varieties.
Take a drive down State Highway 8 that hugs the Clutha River, past lowland orchards and into the Teviot Valley where you’ll discover a flourishing farm growing one of the most sought- after spices in the world. Wendy King and Graham Strong started Wynyard Estate Saffron in 2012, intended as a small retirement project. But it soon turned into a thriving business, producing premium saffron for cooking and health supplements.
The vibrant purple flowers with the precious threads thrive in Central Otago’s unique microclimate of hot, dry summers and cold winters. Autumn is the harvest season and during those months, a small team of retired and semi-retired women are out in the fields, carefully picking flowering plants so as to not damage the precious stigma inside. The threads are then delicately picked out and laid out to dry.
Wynyard Estate Saffron’s free garden tours offer visitors a special chance to stroll about the gardens and learn about cooking saffron, along with tasting some unique products like saffron-infused spreads, honey and sea salt.
From the honey makers to the saffron growers, there is a common thread that weaves its ways through conversations with producers. It’s a genuine love for the land and with it, a strong duty of care. One who exemplifies this respect for the earth is David Crutchley, the hard- working farmer behind the award-winning Provenance lamb.
Situated in the high country of the Maniototo with breathtaking views over the Danseys Pass, the Crutchley family’s Shortlands Shed Accommodation has been running since 1946. In the early 2000s, Crutchley realised the harm industrial farming and agrichemicals were doing to the soil and set out to work with the natural rhythms and biological processes of the land in a regenerative way.
“Building living soil that does the growing for you has proved a powerful, natural solution for creative nutritious forage,” he says. “The animals are so much healthier, the land so much more productive.”
Provenance Ambassador and acclaimed chef Michael Coughlin says this holistic approach results in exceptional flavours and textures of lamb. “The clean farming system has created this incredibly clean-flavoured meat. The flavour is delicate and the texture is very fine.”
Crutchley’s pioneering spirit is shared among farmers in the region. Unafraid to work with the extremities nature throws at them, these people of the land are driven by a spirit of innovation. In the gold-mining area of Serpentine sits the Lammermoor Station. The working sheep and beef farm stretches across 5,200 hectares and has been run by the Elliot family since the 1900s.
Inspired by moonshine tales of the land’s gold-mining past, John Elliot set out to build their own distillery by hand and in 2017, they officially opened the Lammermoor Distillery, crafting unique whisky and gin ‘from paddock to bottle’. In each bottle they produce, you’ll find a true Central Otago story.
Barley grows on the station and peat is dug from the earth. Mānuka is harvested from the Maniototo and fresh spring water is collected from the hills to be distilled into barrels that are sourced from nearby wineries. “Central Otago is a unique place and you’re really drinking what you’re seeing,” says Susie Elliot.
Book a tour of the distillery (be sure to call first as it’s still a working farm) and sample Lammermoor’s unique selection of gin and whisky, such as their First Edition Single Malt Whisky, an expression that reflects the extreme hot and cold climate in its complexity.
A curiosity and openness to embrace something new is a must when tasting the cuisine of Central Otago. Head along to one of the many wonderful eateries and you’ll meet talented chefs, bakers and foodies creating exciting cuisine from scratch.
Over in the quaint heritage town of Clyde you’ll encounter Meredith Kerrisk, a foodie extraordinaire crafting inventive meals with a health-conscious approach. After experiencing her own health issues and cancer scare, Kerrisk opened up Dunstan House Café with her husband Ian, bringing raw, fresh foods that catered to a wide variety of dietary needs.
Here, you’ll find gluten-free baking, dairy-free salads and vegan cakes, along with classics like caramel slice and gourmet sausage rolls. When working with raw ingredients, quality is the most important thing, says Kerrisk, and there are a number of local producers she sources from, including hazelnuts grown down the road from Central Nuts.
Another local institution, Black Rabbit Kitchen and Bar in Cromwell serves up comfort food with exceptional flavours and close ties to the region. Chef Matt Crimp runs the kitchen, and has garnered a strong reputation among locals. His famous rabbit pie won the ‘Judges Award’ in the 2019 Eat.Taste.Central Pie Challenge.
Rabbit is sourced locally and the herbs from a grower nearby, says Crimp, who believes the freshness and quality of ingredients in Central Otago is unlike anywhere else. Like many of the other eateries around, here at Black Rabbit the bond between producer and chef is strong. Crimp even adopts a barter system with some of his producers. “I give them a pie and they give me plums, nectarines and apricots,” says Crimp.
For those wanting to learn how to cook with these wonderful local ingredients, Steph Peirce has a wealth of knowledge to share. Her business Local & Friday is a food concept born out of the pandemic lockdown.
A chef, health nut and self-described “dinner party extraordinaire”, Peirce opens her Roxburgh shop every Friday, offering a selection of delicious, seasonal foods, including homemade breads, sweet treats and her famous salads.
She also offers catering, private dining and cooking demonstrations where she shares her love for the seasonal variety of produce at her doorstep. “I grew up 15 minutes down the road from Roxburgh on an orchard eating wholefoods,” says Peirce.
“Central Otago is wonderful because we truly get all four seasons. So in each season, we can produce such great things. Summer is hot so we have this big fruit bowl and in winter, we get into really nice vegetables and start slow-cooking. We’re really lucky that we can eat very close to home.”
Eat and explore
Central Otago’s annual culinary event celebrates the region’s food and wine from 24 September to 26 October, 2021. eattastecentral.co.nz
Cloudy Bay’s Culinary Club
Head along to The Cloudy Bay Shed for their Culinary Club dinner series, starting from the end of July. In collaboration with chefs from around NZ, the intimate dinners celebrate beautiful food and wine, including Cloudy Bay’s premium pinot noir, Te Wahi. [email protected]
Cromwell Farmers’ and Craft Market
Over summer, discover fresh produce, artisan meats, preserves and more in the Cromwell Heritage Precinct. cromwellfarmerscraftmarket.co.nz
Explore the flavours of Central Otago’s wine and food on one of many bike trails. See Bannockburn’s stunning vineyards and more on the new Lake Dunstan Trail that winds along the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers. centralotagonz.com/tracks-and-trails-nz
Taste the region
Chef James Waite’s award-winning cuisine celebrates the beautiful flavours of local produce in one of Clyde’s iconic heritage buildings.
34 Sunderland Street, Clyde
Omakau Commercial Hotel
Sample ‘low and slow’ smoked meats, homemade beer crackers and craft brews at the local-favourite Omakau Commercial Hotel.
1 Harvey Street, Omakau
The Stoaker Room Bistro and Bar
Fancy your meal smoked in a pinot noir barrel? Discover ‘barrel cuisine’ at The Stoaker Room, where regional foods are steam baked, grilled and smoked right in front of you.
180 State Highway 8B, Cromwell
The Carrick Restaurant
Sample wild fermented and organic wines along with meals created by head chef Gwen Harvie featuring locally sourced game, fruit and vegetables at this stunning winery on the banks of the Kawaru River.
247 Cairnmuir Road, Bannockburn
Bannockburn Hotel – Wine Country Restaurant & Bar
Established in 1862, Bannockburn Hotel is a true Central Otago institution. Enjoy the region’s world-class wine and a menu of seasonal tapas with impressive views of the mountains.
420 Bannockburn Road, Cromwell
You can taste award-winning Provenance lamb while sitting fireside at the beautifully restored Royal Hotel in the heart of Naseby.
1 Earne Street, Naseby
The Courthouse Café
Situated in Alexandra’s original courthouse building, this popular café boasts great coffee, flavoursome food and welcoming service.
8 Centennial Avenue, Alexandra
Photography: Regional Identity / Shirley Howden: James Jubb & Will Nelson / Tourism Central Otago