2nd February 2010
Insatiable foodie that I am, one of my earliest concerns upon arriving in New Zealand was establishing what sort of relationship the Kiwis have with their grub. In my previous forays abroad, I have always tried to throw myself tonguefirst into the local cuisine; whether it be bratwurst in Germany or cuisses de grenouille (aka frogs' legs) in France, I love to indulge my taste buds with new flavours and textures, no matter how strange or forbidding they might initially appear (and, believe me, German sausages are pretty intimidating when you first encounter one).
Wherever possible I would try to avoid food that was readily available back home and only as a last resort would I allow myself to be caught stuffing my face in an international chain or fast food joint (see earlier blog entry on Tangier for one such regrettable episode). Of course, it was significantly easier to be gung-ho about sampling new dishes knowing that I would be able to return to my staple British comforts as soon as I returned home from holiday. Now that I’m ensconced in a foreign country for a significantly longer period, however, I have no such consoling thought and I knew, when I first came to New Zealand, that it might be some time before I would be able to salivate over another Marks & Spencer Cherry Bakewell or Brick Lane Tikka Masala.
I needn’t have worried, of course. As several sagacious individuals remarked before I came here, New Zealand isn’t really all that different from the UK, and that is no less true of its food. The supermarkets here might have different names and logos – for Tesco, Sainsburys and Asda, read Pak ‘n’ Save, Countdown and New World – but inside they’re very much the same as those back home (except, oddly, for the lighting – NZ supermarkets are a lot darker than ours, which at least means that sunglasses aren’t required in the dairy section). At a rough guess, I would say that around 90% of the items in NZ food stores are the same as their English counterparts. They even have a brand called Watties that is, in every respect but its name, a carbon copy of Heinz, selling the same baked beans, tomato ketchup and tinned soups that you would expect to find in your local Tesco. Curiously, they have the Heinz brand too, for certain products – the company’s “Seriously Good Mayo”, for instance, is marketed under the Heinz banner rather than Watties. Perhaps they want to hold the UK name back for their premium ranges over here…
Look a little closer though and it becomes apparent there are numerous subtle and not-so-subtle differences between NZ and British supermarket shelves. Take tomato sauce, for example, an essential item in any self-respecting Brit’s kitchen cupboard (or fridge, if you’re one of those strange people that likes their t-sauce chilled). In the UK, tomato sauce and tomato ketchup are interchangeable terms and we like ours to drip from either a glass (if you’re an old school Heinz traditionalist) or squeezy plastic bottle. Watties in NZ, though, not only market sauce and ketchup as two entirely separate products, but also offer “tomato sauce lite” and “tomato sauce homestyle” to those not satisfied with your bog standard version. To this uncultured palate, these four “twists” on ketchup are barely distinguishable from one another and would, I suspect, flummox most Brits if they were asked to identify them in a blind taste test. It might be that the “sauce” is thicker and more tomato-y, while the “ketchup” lighter and more sugary but really, they’re much of a muchness. (God only knows what this “homestyle” stuff is but according to the pretty picture on the label, it goes very nicely with a fry up). More bizarre than any of this, though, is that Kiwis buy tomato sauce in tins. Yes, tins. Like the tins you get baked beans or cat food in. Apparently the idea is to use these tins as refills for your glass (or plastic) bottles when they run out but to me, it all seems like a big fuss over nothing. Tomato sauce is tomato sauce at the end of the day – unless, of course, it’s ketchup.
After four months here, I have come to the admittedly rather woolly conclusion that Kiwis do some foodstuffs better than us, and some not as well. Take bread, for instance. They have some truly excellent pre-packaged brands over here, and none tastier than Vogels, which, I have recently discovered, is now being sold at certain branches of Waitrose back home. This is almost certainly a masterstroke on the part of Waitrose’s owners as I feel confident that once the secret’s out of the bag the British public will quickly come to realise that Vogels pisses from an almighty height on the bread brands they’ve been unfairly saddled with their whole lives. Whatever type of Vogels you choose – whether it be original grain (in both “sandwich” or “toast” versions – the latter being more thickly sliced than the former), spelt & flaxseed or soy & linseed – it has a flavour and crunch that surpasses all other pre-sliced breads I have ever known. Honestly, it is so much nicer than anything Hovis or Kingsmill have ever put out that it wouldn’t surprise me if it eventually drives those two out of business. The only downsides to Vogels are cost - it can set you back up to the equivalent of £3 a loaf - and the fact that each slice is about two thirds of the size of your average British bread tranche. But, I suppose, breaders can’t be choosers. Ahem.
One area where us Brits have a definite edge over the Kiwis is in cheese – a concept I found odd to grasp given how renowned New Zealand is for its milk and dairy products. I suppose this is where the European influence helps us Brits, as it’s very easy for our supermarkets to import all manner of weird and wonderful cheeses from the continent. Being so far away from, well, just about everywhere, New Zealanders, by contrast, mostly have to make do with their own fromage creations. As such, the choice of cheeses in supermarkets here is generally limited, and the majority of the market revolves around three staple types – “Tasty” cheddar, Edam and Colby, all of which are sold in either 1kg or 500g blocks and are, going by all my accumulated evidence so far, resident in the inner door of every fridge in the country. Personally, I find the latter two cheeses bland and rubbery, but while the cheddar is certainly at the milder end of the spectrum, I can confirm that it lives up to its “Tasty” sobriquet. And I eat a lot of it.
The pendulum swings back in favour of the Kiwis when it comes to fresh produce, particularly fruit and vegetables, which are generally so much fresher than their UK counterparts. There are a lot of what we would term green-grocers here, and significantly more specialist food stores than there are back home. One Auckland shop we visited boasted the most spectacular array of nuts, dried fruit and pulses, all displayed in a gigantic wall of transparent plastic dispensers. Meat and fish are generally of a higher quality here too, though they perhaps lack the range of British supermarkets. And they don’t do bangers half as well. The main difference in food culture generally is that Kiwis like to cook from scratch and haven’t bought into the whole ready/convenience meal thing to anywhere near the same extent as we have. I don’t even think there is a ready meal section in the local supermarket we frequent, though that’s not to say New Zealanders don’t enjoy the odd pre-made can of something. Creamed sweetcorn in a tin – something that either doesn’t exist in the UK, or I’ve been unobservant enough never to have noticed – is massive here.
Overall my impression of Kiwi food has been a good one and I’ve really enjoyed trying those products that don’t even have a British equivalent, such as tamarillos, feijoas (both types of fruit; both excellent in chutneys), ginger crunch, lamingtons and lolly cake (all form of highly indulgent and very bad for you baked sweet things). But equally, I do find myself hankering for the occasional tin of mushy peas or toasted crumpet, items that are notable by their absence in Kiwi supermarkets. If I’m really desperate it’s good to know that I do have options for sourcing such items, not least in Bramptins, a dedicated “pommie” food shop in the beachside suburb of Devonport that sells all manner of classic British goodies, from Marks & Spencer’s jams to Paxo’s sage and onion stuffing. If it wasn’t for the rather embarrassing similarity between me and the cartoon Brit bloke who appears on their signage, I’d be in there all the time.