Ask Peter: Savouring Niue
This week isn’t so much about answering a reader’s question, but about telling you to head to Niue and explore and experience this fabulous Pacific island, known as “The Rock”.
In late September I led a foodie tour, Savour Niue, to a place I had never been myself, although I knew it was across the date line, almost four hours northeast of Mangere airport, between Tonga and the Cook Islands, and south of Samoa.
A few years ago I was asked by Felicity Bollen from Niue Tourism whether I could be part of their annual Kai Niue festival, but our calendars didn’t coincide. Luckily for me she was persistent and eventually we managed to settle on a date.
Along with Felicity and the team based in Niue, I began planning the menus and a foraging day that we all felt needed to be part of the experience — both for the guests who would attend, but also for myself and my two chefs from The Sugar Club — Naga and Elenoa.
Eventually we came up with a series of meals and a foraging morning that would entertain our guests over five days as I knew it wouldn’t just be meals and wine-matching they’d be interested in. After all, they had decided to come and experience this isolated but stunning island with me, a country with a population of only 1600, but with strong ties to New Zealand.
In fact Niueans are citizens of New Zealand, and there are an estimated 16,000 currently living here. The over-riding theme I was keen to explore was a celebration of Niuean produce. In my London pantry I have one jar of Niuean honey remaining from three that were dropped off at my restaurant, The Providores, by Andy Cory, the beekeeper and saviour at Niue Honey.
He’s a New Zealander who has resurrected the local honey industry with his hives of Italian bees, notable for not being too aggressive. Having written that, I was actually stung on my left shin by one — the sneaky thing had found a way into the overalls I was wearing.
When I’d tasted the honey in London I was thrilled with its dark and deep flavour — unique and delicious. We visited an organic vanilla plantation, Niue Vanilla International, where we were lucky enough to see a vanilla flower being hand-pollinated and witness most of the steps in the growing and harvesting of these orchids.
The vanilla we saw and experienced with the plantation’s founder, Stanley Kalauni, was fabulous and Elenoa made a vanilla honey parfait for dessert that night. We made a trip to a fabulous hydroponic farm (there are two on the island) set up by former Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky, his wife Pauline and local fisherman James Douglas.
Here were the bestlooking, healthiest cabbages I think I’ve ever seen, as well as aromatic herbs, baby cucumbers, capsicums and lettuces. They have been trying — not entirely successfully — to grow tomatoes, which is difficult in Niue because there is almost no topsoil on the island.
In fact, when you order a salad with your meal, chances are the tomatoes in it will have come on a plane from New Zealand. If you have salad, it’s likely thanks to these guys. Our last stop was a farm/allotment curated by and cared for by a wonderful couple Doris and John Ranfurly.
John took us around the plantation and I picked lemongrass, curry leaves, makrut lime (kaffir lime) leaves, and chillies which I used in a breadfruit curry I made the next day for a lunch for 130 at the High Commission.
I think these ingredients can and should be incorporated into the local cuisine to add a touch of freshness to the dishes available in this paradise. They aren’t traditional, but they blend in effortlessly.
And why is it paradise? Most days we’d see a large pod of dolphins swim up and down the coast near the Scenic Matavai resort where we stayed, and on the last savouring Niue day I was thrilled to see a whale, likely heading south to the Antarctic.
I swam with colourful fish, and respectfully kept my distance from the local sea snakes (the most venomous snakes in the world, apparently) and the rather ugly, but tasty, sea cucumbers. I also ate fruit bat.
But I’ll share that story with you next week — as well as a recipe for miso marinated beef shortribs that went down very well at the High Commission lunch. In fact Ross Ardern, our HC in Niue, said it was possibly the best beef he’d ever eaten!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to [email protected] and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.