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You do not need to look far to find innovative people in Wanaka who are passionate about adding value to the abundant natural produce in Central Otago.
They are generally one-man-bands or small producers of premium, artisanal products who have found a way to make their lifestyle work for them.
While Branch Creek Honey, Augustines of Central Otago, Taste of the Alps and Pure New Zealand Ice Cream all gained Outstanding Food Producer Award medals recently, there are many other small producers and makers in the district.
Outstanding Food Producer Awards head judge Lauraine Jacobs says Wanaka is in a fairly unusual position in New Zealand, as a small town with a very food-focused community that is very supportive of any local culinary talent, while still being known for extending warm hospitality to visitors and tourists from around the country.
"There is a group of extremely fine restaurants and cafes and specialty food stores that showcase new fine foods and wine produced by artisans, allowing them to flourish there."
While food producers have never been short of innovation, it has often been hard to get local products to a wider audience.
"Now, with farmers markets and inventive original restaurants, good marketing and web-based businesses, the future is assured for small batch artisans."
Winning an Outstanding Food Producer Award or gaining a medal helps these great products to achieve far wider recognition, she says.
"Everybody loves something new and exciting, and products that are authentically local are prized. Sadly, the art of home preserving is being lost, leading to opportunity for these clever artisans’ range of products."
Pure New Zealand Ice Cream regularly wins medals in the awards, last year winning the dairy champion title and this year claiming silver for two of its ice creams.
Owner Brian Thomas agrees Wanaka has more than its fair share of entrepreneurial thinkers who are innovators and value premium natural foods.
"You don’t have to look too far in Wanaka to find artisan food producers doing a really great job."
He credits the area’s outstanding beauty and natural amenities for inspiring producers to provide outstanding food.
Augustines and Taste of the Alps are in contention for the Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards’ supreme champion, category champion and special awards, which will be announced on June 22.
Fruit the old-fashioned way
For more than six years, Gus Hayden has been spending weeks of his summer bottling fruit the way previous generations did it:
pouring hot apricots and plums into sterilised glass jars to create a niche product reminiscent of those days when bottling fruit was the norm.
This year, he also added rhubarb in rose syrup to his list of products.
"I was working at a friend’s Kurow lodge so I asked the community to bring in their rhubarb stalks and I bottled them."
It has been so successful he has suggested his parents turn part of their Portobello property over to growing rhubarb for him.
His black Doris plums in pinot syrup won gold, as did his new apricot and date chutney.
Hayden has always made chutneys for himself, so making them to sell seemed like an obvious next step.
"It’s the first chutney I’ve sold, so I think it would be smart to go down that road."
Next year, he plans to start working for himself so he can dedicate more time to his business, Augustines of Central Otago.
He has run the business as a sideline alongside his "day job" as a chef.
"Up to now it’s sort of grown organically. If I get more customers, I make more jars. That is fine, but I can only source so much fruit."
This year, he expects to sell out of his products as he has noticed an upswing in interest in local products.
As well as developing more chutneys, he is also planning to develop fruit soft drinks.
"I’d love to grow the company as big as I can, but I’ll keep cheffing because I love that, too."
A growing family is behind Tineke-Maree Sutton’s business making small-batch natural preserves.
Sutton started Taste of the Alps in 2016 after she realised going back to work as a chef was not going to work with two young children.
"I was pushing the pram around the lake one day when I thought I need to get something on a shelf. So I looked around at what Wanaka had to offer and to me that was pinot."
Having worked at Northburn Station, where they did a lot of preserving as part of its farm-to-table ethos, she decided to start with a jelly.
Since then, her range has slowly grown to include curds, chutneys and sauces and is now sold wholesale around the country. Gourmet food shop Farro was an early adopter.
"Nowadays I get approached, but I have to be careful that I can keep demand up."
Sutton produces her products — including her gold medal-winning The Gardener, Beetroot & Date Chutney and The Gold Miner, Central Otago Apricot & Orange Sauce and the bronze medal-winning The Farmers Wife, Lemon Curd — in a commercial kitchen at home.
Each new product is developed and taste-tested before it becomes part of her range.
She was really pleased that the three products she entered in this year awards all finished with medals, especially her popular lemon curd, which has been around for a while.
"It’s good when you plod along every day to get recognition for your work."
Last year, she won bronze for her Central Otago Cherry relish and, in 2017, her pinot quince jelly won gold.
Keeping it in the family
Branch Creek Honey has been in business for less than a year but it has already won a silver medal for its creamed clover blend.
The recognition is a huge boost for Jessica Curtis, a young beekeeper seeking to make her family’s hobby into a business.
Curtis is the fifth generation to live and work at Branch Creek, a sheep and beef station in the Cardrona Valley.
Inspired by her grandfather Ray Anderson’s work with bees, Curtis decided to become a beekeeper and develop the family’s hives into a commercial enterprise.
Anderson brought bees to the farm in 1998 to help with pollination and regeneration of crops.
The honey that was produced from the 35 hives went to family and friends.
Curtis (20), who had left school and spent a year travelling around New Zealand, decided it would be nice to stay in the area.
"Everything lined up. There was a beekeeping apprenticeship that came up locally and my granddad needed help with the bees."
She loves working with the bees and has fond memories of her grandfather taking her along for a peek in the hives when she was younger.
"Granddad’s work ethic has been really inspiring."
Curtis is two units away from completing her two-year apprenticeship.
She has also been learning about marketing and launched a website in January.
Curtis is keen to educate people about bees and their importance and plans to write a blog about honey.
"Honey is a great way to have that connection to bees. I want to talk about how to use honey and what to plant in your garden to attract bees."
Having her grandfather there for support and to talk about bees has been really special, she says.
"It’s definitely been good not to do it on my own."