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Al Brown came to Dunedin in March thinking of cold weather, haggis, oatmeal and root vegetables, but found summer berries, peaches and plums along with winter vegetables, such as kale and cavolo nero at the market.
He was researching and filming for his book and television series, Get Fresh, exploring New Zealand's provinces and their produce.
"The show opened up to me the regionality of the country and how they are very specialised. I am always blown away by what is grown in each region - whether it is in the Far North or Central Otago or anywhere in between," he said.
He was surprised to find watermelon, rock melons and Charentais melons growing in Canterbury, tropical fruit such as bananas and pineapples in the Far North, and, in Dunedin, the winter brassicas alongside late-summer fruit.
His first stop in each region was the local farmers market and he has come to the conclusion that the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin is the best in the country.
"The community's behind it supporting the growers and it thrives. I stood there and watched; the diversity of people walking round that market was extraordinary, from students with a little bit of money working out what they were going to buy, to those whose visit was obviously ingrained in their weekly routine, and the pleasure is immense. It was raining the whole time we were there and it was full of umbrellas. I guess that shows you the character of the people," he said.
He treated farmers markets like a window on the province then he would search out other producers.
In Dunedin he visited Southern Clams; in Riverton he found Robert and Robyn Guyton, who save and graft heirloom varieties of apples in their "food forest" of heritage plants; in Central he shot his own rabbits to make rabbit rillettes, a type of paté.
"You can celebrate the obvious in the provinces - if you're in Marlborough it's sauvignon blanc and mussels, but if you look a bit deeper, they are growing products like pinenuts and almonds and saffron and sustainably harvesting the Cloudy Bay clams. You are constantly uncovering these little jewels that to me are more exciting to show the rest of New Zealand the diversity," he said.
Brown grew up in Wairarapa although he hasn't lived there for 20 years.
He thinks farmers markets and supporting and eating local makes perfect sense.
"If we are adamant about flavour - and I think as a country we are certainly embracing and celebrating great olive oil or great sauvignon blanc or great pinot noir - the only way we can get the true flavour and best tasting anything is to eat close to the source and as fresh as possible. When you cook something as simple as a cob of corn that's been picked that day with lashings of butter and a pinch of salt, your eyes do roll back in your head," he said.
"I think there's a certain amount of warmth and happiness in a market and there's the smells and kids running round and there's laughter and it's a place where you feel you are supporting great producers and connecting with your community.
"You are catching up with friends and learning about the product.
"When you meet the people behind the product it somehow tastes better and you spread the love and tell the story - you met the woman who grew this rhubarb and for some reason and probably it's true, the rhubarb tastes sweeter. There's a story behind it all."
Littleneck clam and crab chowder
60 clams, about 2.5kg
1 cup white wine
¼ cup canola oil
1 cup finely chopped bacon
2 cups finely diced onion
1 cup finely diced celery
1 cup finely diced carrot
2 tablespoons finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon chilli flakes
liquor from the cooked clams
1½ litres fish or chicken stock
2 cups potato, cut into small dice
2 cups kumara, cut into small dice
1½ cups cream
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup crab meat
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Al Brown & Co. Lemon and Fennel Olive Oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preparing the clams
Scrub the clams under cold water to get rid of any remaining sand clinging to the shells.
Place the clams in a large saucepan, pour the wine over them and cover with a lid. Put the saucepan over a high heat then check on the clams after about 5 minutes. Remove the clams one by one with a slotted spoon as soon as they begin to open. Discard any that have not opened. Once cooled, extract the clam meat from the shells and keep the precious cooking liquor.
Clam and crab chowder
Place a large saucepan over a medium heat, and once hot add the oil followed by the bacon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is golden. Now add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, thyme and chilli flakes. Stir to combine, then turn down the heat and sweat the vegetables for 20 minutes until soft.
Heat a large clean saucepan to medium and add the butter followed by the flour. Whisk to make a roux by cooking down the flour for a few minutes until it goes a pale white colour, then slowly pour in the chicken stock and reserved cooking liquor from the clams, whisking continuously to form a smooth silky chowder base. Pour over the sweated vegetables and drop in the potato and kumara. Simmer for 15 minutes until the potato and kumara are cooked. Pour in the cream and lemon juice then let the chowder come back to a gentle boil.
Remove from the heat and lastly add the clams, crab meat and the finely chopped parsley. Add a slug of lemon and fennel oil. Check the seasoning: it will need only a little salt if any, as the clam juice will have added natural saltiness to the chowder, and a grind of fresh black pepper to finish.
Serve immediately with fresh crusty bread warm from the oven.
• This recipe is from the Dunedin section of Get Fresh.
Honey and thyme panna cotta with poached dried apricots and saffron
Honey and thyme panna cotta
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons honey, Marsh's White Clover if possible
4 gelatine leaves
Poached dried apricots with saffron
2 cups medium to sweet riesling
100g palm sugar, roughly chopped (or light brown sugar)
16 dried apricot halves
6 honey and thyme panna cotta
Poached dried apricots
whipped cream to serve
Honey and thyme panna cotta
In a medium-sized saucepan, add the cream, milk, sugar, thyme and honey. Place the saucepan on a moderate heat. Scald the cream, being careful not to boil it, and remove from the heat when the sugar and honey are dissolved.
Bloom the gelatine in cold water until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from the water and squeeze out the excess water.
Add the gelatine to the hot cream mixture, stirring until dissolved. Strain into a large bowl then place the bowl in an iced water bath, stirring the mixture until cool before pouring into moulds. (The recipe will make more than the required 6 portions.) Refrigerate until set for at least 6 hours or preferably overnight.
Poached dried apricots with saffron
Take a non-reactive saucepan and combine the wine and palm sugar. Place the saucepan on a medium heat and stir continuously until the sugar has dissolved.
Now add the apricot halves and the saffron. Cook the apricots over a low heat for 30 minutes until they soften up but are not falling apart.
Remove the rehydrated apricots from the liquid and set aside. Place the wine and sugar mixture back on the heat and reduce to a syrup consistency. Pour the syrup back over the apricots and refrigerate until required.
Run a thin sharp knife around the edge of each panna cotta and invert on to room-temperature or cold plates. Place a couple of apricot halves next to each panna cotta and spoon over some of the saffron and riesling syrup. Finish with whipped cream and serve.
• This recipe is from the Central Otago section of Get Fresh.
Meet the author
Al Brown will be launching Get Fresh (Random House) in the South next week.
Monday, November 5: Wanaka, Edgewater, noon. A fundraising event for St John.
Tickets from Wanaka Paper Plus.
The Shed, Northburn Station, near Cromwell, 6pm. Tickets available from Cromwell and Alexandra Paper Plus,
Tuesday November 6: Oamaru, Old Weston Bowling Clubrooms, Parkside, noon. Lunch with Al Brown and Fleur Sullivan. Fundraising for Save the Children. Tickets from Paper Plus Oamaru.
Port Chalmers Town Hall, 6.30pm. Tickets from Port Chalmers Library.