Hauling on my hiking boots and adjusting my backpack I am ready for a cross-country hike Hawke’s Bay style, versus the Spanish ‘Santiago de Compostela’ one. I’ve heard there are fossils in ‘dem hills’ and I am ready to investigate the flora and fauna for any potential culinary gems.

Missy P is Prue Barton, proprietress of Mister D.

Ambling down the circuit path my first native encounter is a kawakawa bush. It is easily recognised by its heart-shaped leaves and jointed stems. Known loosely as ‘bush basil’ this small evergreen shrub-like tree has culinary value. The leaves can be used fresh or dried.

To make kawakawa powder, wash the leaves and place on a baking sheet and dry at around 100 C for about 20 minutes. Cool and then grind in a mortar and pestle and use to pep up an aioli or sprinkle over fish when baking. Rub into your favourite cut of beef and roast medium rare. Another idea for fresh kawakawa leaves is to use as you would vine leaves and wrap around baked fish or cheeses to impart a peppery flavour. Wash the leaves first and then blanch in salted water to soften.

Traditionally the Māori used it in cuisine and medicine. The fruit, bark and leaves of the kawakawa all have medicinal properties. The leaves were placed over cuts and boils to speed up healing and a tea was made from an infusion of its leaves. A tea made with half a teaspoon of dried kawakawa leaf mixed with manuka honey and a slice of lemon makes a delicious modern day infusion. It is said that the leaves were also chewed to reduce toothache (not something I have personally tried) and that leaves tossed on to a fire created an excellent insect repellent (something to remember for that next camping trip!).

Another option is to purchase these native herbs from a company called Great Taste NZ, which offers wild harvested kawakawa and flax seeds. They are based in Albany, Auckland and provide a wide portfolio of NZ ingredients to chefs and specialist companies.

Heading farther into the bush, clusters of flax line the path. Common flax (known as harakeke) can grow up to three metres high and the seed pods stand upright. The seeds are edible and if harvested young when they are white or green are sweet and meaty. Grind in a mortar and pestle and use in recipes that would call for seasonings such as dukkah. Black seeds, which have a more bitter taste, can be collected a little later on and when dried make a good coffee substitute. To prepare, break the pods open and remove the black seeds. Heat in a dry frying pan until the seeds start popping. Cool and grind in a coffee grinder. This black flaxseed powder can be used as a spice for marinating meats such as venison.

If you don’t know it, don’t pick it!

As I adjust to the filtered light a tui swoops overhead and lands in a large karaka tree just in front of me. The tree is laden with ripe orange-yellow berries and many are scattered on the ground. Karaka berries were also highly important to Māori as a source of food. The ripe yellow flesh could be eaten raw with a texture apparently likened to that of a date but the kernel proved to be poisonous, causing paralysis if eaten. Māori however made the kernel safe to eat by steeping it in water and cooking it for up to twelve hours. To make flour the processed kernels were sundried and then pounded.

Following the track deeper I come across an old fallen log that is sprouting wood ear mushrooms. These edible fungi like to grow in cool, damp bush areas and resemble the shape of an ear. Cook as you would any mushroom recipe and you will find they are more textural than flavoursome. However a golden rule to remember when foraging for any food, especially mushrooms is, if you don’t know what it is don’t pick it.

The track now winds out into the valley and I decide to venture a little ‘off piste’ so I can cut back to the car. Remembering that The Peak restaurant has recently been refurbished I duck in for a look. The views can only be described as breathtaking and the new fit-out feels relaxed.

Knowing in which direction to look you can almost see the iconic vineyards of Black Barn and Te Mata Estate. I decide to pop into Te Mata Estate later on to find a suitable wine to match my mushroom and kawakawa pizza. I arrive to a hive of activity to find that there is a ‘pickers’ picnic’ about to happen later on that afternoon. A pyramid of Estate Chardonnay is stacked and ready to be collected. Heading to the Cellar Door to sample some wines I taste the Gamay Noir 2013. Having researched that it “smells like cru beaujolais, tastes like cru beaujolais” I cannot disagree. Perfect for the pizza and picnic.

Into the Village

Off with the boots now and into the car I decide to head down Te Mata Road to search out some tried and true produce. Hungry and thirsty I head into Havelock Village and pop into Hawthorne Coffee Roasters for a quick fix. A little further along I get drawn into Bellatino’s due to their vibrant street display of vegetables. This shop is brimming with the best local produce plus an extensive range of specialty imported goods. They even make picnic baskets and will do catering on request. Glancing around, two sauces catch my eye – ‘Te Mata Tomato’ and ‘Magical Mushroom Essence’ – both made by Aromatics. I worked with Noel many moons ago in Wellington and was saddened to hear that he had recently passed away. This magic essence will create an extra flavour burst on my pizza.

Rather than trusting mushrooms that you have foraged, an easier and safer option is to visit the Te Mata Mushroom Company to purchase your mushrooms. Tucked in behind Te Mata Road on Brookvale Road this farm shop is open seven days a week. Their tempting displays mean you will not leave empty handed. Picked daily and grown in traditional Douglas fir trays, they pride themselves on growing the highest quality mushrooms in New Zealand.

Dotted along Brookvale Road are orchards and small home growers. Apples, feijoas and limes are plentiful and I drop some coins into the numerous honesty boxes. Apples and feijoas make a delicious crumble tart, so that’s the dessert decided.

Arriving home late I decide to cheat a little and cut down on cooking everything from scratch. Remembering that I can purchase Poesy bread from Pipi for the pizza, I head back into the Village to gather last minute ingredients so I can start cooking for the Easter break. With friends arriving for the weekend the suggestion of a picnic on the Peak sounds fun.

The sky is illuminated and I watch the eclipse dissolve over Te Mata Peak. At that moment I understand that there is way more magic in those hills than I first realised. But then that’s a whole other story.

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