Auckland is one of New Zealand’s prime destinations for fine-dining and drinking. But an hour and a half south on the Waikato river lies the town of Hamilton, which offers an intimate dining scene driven by local produce and food.
Great produce is everywhere in Hamilton, thanks to the rich and fertile topsoil and regular rainfall. What’s made the dining scene even more vibrant in recent years are the relationships between chefs and farmers.
“The food scene in Hamilton’s much better than it used to be,” says Matt McLean, chef and founder of Hamilton’s award-winning restaurant Palate. “We are in better touch with our suppliers, getting to meet people who produce the food, and getting a bit of a bond going with them. It’s really cool.”
Established in 2005, Palate has become known for championing the region’s riches. We asked McLean for a culinary roadmap of the surrounding Waikato area.
Hereford Prime Beef
Australia produces some outstanding beef. Even McLean admits it. “Obviously you guys have some pretty great specialty Wagyu,” he says. “But the beef here is awesome.”
It is. The cut McLean prefers is a Hereford Prime (a specialised strain of the more common Pol-Hereford), a breed farmed on the clover-lined vistas of the Waikato. “It’s quite a light-coloured beef,” says McLean. “More of a pinky-crimson colour than dark red. It has quite good marbling and is consistently tender.”
One of the things to consider when selecting your meat is the way it’s handled. If you care about what you’re cooking and eating, it pays to know about its journey along the chain from farm to plate.
McLean uses a well-known local institution called Magills to butcher his Hereford Prime and look after it before it hits his kitchen. “It’s becoming industry standard to age beef now,” he says, “and I’ve seen a big improvement in the quality of beef just in the last few years. But the whole time I’ve been here, it’s just getting better and better.”
The Waikato region is a fine place to make cheese, in part thanks to its abundant grassy knolls – cows love the stuff. “Good-quality grass equals good-quality cheese, I suppose,” says McLean.
The nutty, melty Gouda produced here is world-renowned. When Dutch colonial families came to the traditional lands of the iwi, they brought with them their penchant for making super-tasty cheese. Their descendants continue to do just that.
“There are old Dutch families that have been making goudas here [for a long time] and they’re amazing,” says McLean. “There’s goat’s milk gouda that when it’s aged, it’s almost like parmesan. It’s got a real bite to it. It’s real rich, hard and crumbly. There are guys smoking whole wheels of it – it’s just amazing.”
Palate serves local gouda produced by the Meyer family, who’ve won nearly every cheese award known to man. Their aged cheese is served at Palate as part of a cheese board with accompaniments and on its dessert plate alongside handmade crackers and quince paste.
Fourteen minutes south of Hamilton in Bruntwood is Greenfern farm, where Bill Cummings and his family grow top-notch white asparagus. Cummings’s produce is sold at farmers markets – but only between September and December, when the little spears stick their pointy heads out of the dirt.
Growing it is a fairly complicated process. The Cummingses put little tents over the rows to make sure the spears never see the sun, and they harvest it before it turns green. Having no chlorophyll in the plant significantly changes the taste, but also gives it a striking appearance on the plate.
“I like that it’s the kind of product you used to only see on old European menus and now we’re actually seeing it here,” says McLean. “I eat it raw a lot, and it’s just delicious. It speaks of luxury. You’re looking for a point of difference. It’s a higher quality than green and [you can taste] the extra care that goes into it.”
Te Matuku Bay Oysters
The waters of New Zealand are famously clean, and McLean reckons the best oysters come from Te Matuku Bay, just south of the Coromandel.
“Man, they’re incredible,” says McLean. “They’re quite fat, but not massive and creamy. They’re more a fresh, briny oyster and quite plump all year round. We sell truckloads of them.”
Those truckloads are shucked live at Palate. They can be served au naturale, or battered, as the locals eat them. McLean himself is open to all the gastronomic pleasures the Waikato can provide.
“I like mixing it up,” he says. “I like pouring some champagne over them and knocking them back. They go pretty well with a medium riesling with some nice acidity, too.”
Get them at Palate as an appetiser (either natural with rose vinegar and lemon); craft-beer-battered with sriracha mayonnaise; or poached in a main alongside market fish, celeriac, grilled leeks, chives and smoked-butter sauce.
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