Kiwi Cuisine Is More Than Kiwi Fruit

New Zealand's innovative chefs tap the sea's bounty and local cheeses for their tables

The trout swim in some of the world's cleanest waters. The green- lipped mussels siphon the cold, aqua waters of the South Pacific. And the cheeses come from some of the most scenic dairy farms on the globe.

The result is kiwi cuisine, a food that celebrates freshness and puts the flavor of New Zealand on the table.

"It is a simple food, uncluttered by unnecessary ingredients, emphasizing fresh produce and great tastes," says Lauraine Jacobs, author of "new Taste New Zealand" (Ten Speed Press, 160 pp., paperback, $19.95).

The concept coalesces on the tables of Vinnies, a restaurant run by Prue Barton and David Griffiths in the Herne Bay section of Auckland.

In a sunny residential neighborhood, the simple white-washed restaurant serves up seasonal produce, which includes fall dishes (the seasons are reversed) such as Eggplant Chutney with Warm Home-Baked Bread and Rosemary-Infused Olive Oil, and Prawn Raviolis in Saffron Broth.

Mr. Griffiths and Ms. Barton shared some of their local sources with us at their restored colonial home in sunny Herne Bay, just minutes from their restaurant.

First, they directed us to the Kapiti Cheese Store, which they rely on for its vast array of wonderful New Zealand cheeses.

The Gladstone goat cheese is fresh, tangy, and creamy.

The Whitestone farmhouse - a cross between French soft cheese and English Cheddar - is a unique Cheddar-flavored brie-like creation.

The Kikorangi blue is another blend of flavor and texture - a rich blue vein in a creamy, golden base.

Whitestone has introduced a twist to sheep's milk by preserving the semisoft cheese in oil infused with garlic and herbs. The high quality and range of cheeses truly reflect New Zealand's agricultural heritage.

The menu at Vinnies highlights the wonderful aquaculture of New Zealand as well. Americans on either coast frequently see New Zealand orange roughy in supermarkets, but you won't find it on menus in Auckland since kiwi chefs find it bland and frequently frozen, even in New Zealand.

Instead, they prefer the fleshiness of fresh hapuka (grouper), scallops from the Marlborough region, which are served on the shell with the roe, Bluff oysters which are creamy and meaty when eaten raw, crayfish (lobster) found in the icy waters off the South Island, and paua (abalone) which cling to the rocks at the seashore.

One of the special degustation menus at Vinnies featured Waimimi Paua Steaks with Onion, Bacon, and Spinach Risotto. Burton loves the paua's mellow sea flavor with the richness of a scallop, but with the texture of a steak.

Paua must be beaten after being removed from its multi-hued opalescent shell and is only cooked briefly, so as to not become tough. Burton also likes to make a soup with paua, which turns a soft green color when pureed.

The wide array of fish is not limited to the restaurant purveyors. At the Sea Market in Auckland, live lobsters, eels, and snails are kept in holding tanks.

Live mussels, including pipis, cockles, and green lips, are scooped up to be eaten raw or steamed just until opened and served with a simple sauce of lemon and onions.

There are small local crabs and larger crabs from the colder waters of the South Island. The bounty of the sea has given New Zealanders an appreciation for fresh native seafood. New Zealanders have always had an interest in the outdoors and many are now making a lifestyle decision to return to the country to farm.

Walnuts are being farmed and beekeepers have become a source for wild honey. Vinnies' supply of organic herbs comes from a woman from south of Auckland who knocked on the door of the restaurant a few years back.

"With fabulous fresh produce and the influence of talented European chefs in the major hotels, New Zealand cuisine is coming of age," writes Jacobs.

Smoked Trout Rillette

Rillette is a French spread, much like Britain's "potted" dishes - usually served as an hors d'oeuvre on crackers or toast. It consists of bits of meat (usually pork), poultry, or fish, spiced with added fat.

In New Zealand, kahawai - a large river-running ocean fish, rich in flavor and texture, is sometimes used. A suitable substitute is any hot-smoked fish, such as the smoked trout fillet from Ducktrap River Fish Farms in Lincolnville, Maine.

At Vinnies, in Auckland, rillette is served with large, black Ligurian, or Nioise olives; Sicilian, or any large capers.

1/2 pound smoked trout fillets

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup finely minced onion

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1-1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Ligurian or Nioise olives

Large capers, rinsed

Watercress, or parsley, as optional garnish

1 baguette, thinly sliced on the bias, lightly toasted in a moderate oven.

Skin and flake fish into very small pieces; remove any visible small bones. Heat butter in a small saucepan. Add onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until golden. Remove from the heat. Add marjoram and pepper. Thoroughly mix fish, onion, and balsamic vinegar together.

Press rillette firmly in a ramekin or small bowl; garnish; serve on toast with olives and capers on the side.

Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer.

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