Thursday, June 24, 2010

New Zealand - The 2010 FIFA World Cup Bites and Boozes

New Zealand

Finally Bite and Booze will cover the World Cup from the Oceania perspective.  The "All Whites" (because their soccer team wears all-white uniforms whereas their rugby team, the "All Blacks" wears all black uniforms, though today the soccer team is wearing black so maybe somebody can correct me here) have had a great run at the tournament so far including a dramatic draw with Italy which may have been the largest upset of the Cup so far.  However, their days in South Africa could come to an end today at the boot of Paraguay.  Perhaps, just maybe, they can pull out a miracle.  A victory today gives them a spot in the round of 16, and crazier things have happened.  Still, they should not be forgotten on my series of World Cup country bites and boozes, so let's see what this island nation has to offer!

First, Robert Romero, who is a good buddy of mine that writes the blog Dead End, is currently living in New Zealand.  Undoubtedly he is excited about today's match! Hopefully he's had a chance to wine and dine like a king over there. New Zealand cuisine is largely driven by local ingredients and seasonal variations. Occupying an island nation with a primarily agricultural economy, the Kiwis enjoy quality local produce from land and sea. Similar to the cuisine of Australia, the cuisine of New Zealand is a diverse British-based cuisine with Mediterranean and Pacific Rim influences as the country becomes more cosmopolitan.  However, before the British arrived the Maori (New Zealand's indigenous people) had a cuisine of their own with influence from the Polynesian islands.

Central to this cooking method is hāngi, or using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. To "lay a hāngi" or "put down a hāngi" involves digging a pit in the ground, heating stones in the pit with a large fire, placing baskets of food on top of the stones, and covering everything with earth for several hours before uncovering (or lifting) the hāngi.  Traditional hāngi food is pork, mutton, lamb and chicken, with generous portions of root vegetables such as kumara (sweet potato), pumpkin, carrot, potato, onions and cabbage.  With a hāngi, no special preparation of the food is needed besides peeling the root vegetables, but adding herbs such as rosemary, garlic, or stuffing the chicken can add exciting flavors. A Polynesian addition of taro leaves wrapped around some of the food gives it a peppery spice.

There are three main components to the cooking process, all of which can be affected by many variables including but not limited to earth type, amount of heat in the rocks, quantity of food and portion size, type of food and food placement.  Water added at the start of the process creates steam instantly. Once covered, the pit oven becomes a low pressure cooker. Pressures in excess of 4 PSI have been measured.  Direct dry heat from the rocks creates an oven roasting or baking effect. Temperatures in excess of 300°C have been measured.  Finally, fat and juices from the meat drip onto the hot rocks and burn causing smoke which appears to be the key to hangi appearance, aroma and flavor. Often there is also ash and ember smoke that can add to the flavor and appearance.  I want to do this in my back yard!!

Unfortunately the Maori people did not have any form of alcohol.  So for that, we'll have to fast forward to modern day New Zealand.  While it would be easy to discuss the robust and exceptional wine region in New Zealand, I'd rather focus on something else: whiskey distillation.

This fine profession started early in New Zealand's history. The British, and particularly the Scottish, had a large influence on alcohol in New Zealand.  Owen McShane is credited as the countrys first moonshiner turning out Chained Lightning at Oue near Riverton in Southland from 1850. His range of whiskies, gin, brandy and rum were all produced from Cabbage Tree root. Moonshine distilling became a cottage industry and grew mightily until the government of the day, alarmed at the potential tax loss introduced the Distillation Act in 1865. This effectively barred all distilleries that failed to produce 5000 gallons (23000L) annually. However, two companies did receive licences: the New Zealand Distilling Co of Dunedin and Crown Distilleries in Auckland.

The Dunedin distillers went to great lengths to make a good product, importing Islay peat, Spanish Oak Sherry casks and a three year maturation period. But mistakes were costly, the resin from Kauri Pine vats ruined the first 100,000L of spirit. Later the distillery added 8 foot and 4 foot diameter copper stills, used American Oak shavings for ageing and produced 400,000L in 1870.

In Auckland by 1872 the Crown distillery was producing 18000 gallons (80,000L) annually using 2000 gallon wash stills and 500 gallon copper spirit stills. Wholesalers apparently purchased this spirit in bulk then sold it in reused (and presumably already labelled) whiskey bottles as the Crown distillery never had a bottling line.

Vogels Government in 1879 (perhaps in response to demands from the Scottish banks who were financing the countrys new railways) effectively closed both distilleries by increasing local duties to equal imported prices. For the next 83 years there was no official local distilling industry in New Zealand until in 1962 a gin distillery licence was approved. The plant was jointly owned by the two brewery giants Lion and DB (I'm sure you can read more about them on the BR Beer Scene. A new company, Hokonui Distillers Ltd (formed November 3, 1961) thinking they may get a similar licence also applied but Customs Minister Sheldon refused it stating ‘good Whisky needs blending’.

However just two years later after much lobbying by AO Davies of the Otago Development Council, Wilsons in Dunedin (known for their malting plant) and the Greggs Company obtained a licence on October 3, 1964. Stills were purchased in Scotland and installed by 1969. The first run used locally grown and malted barley and the peat was cut especially from the Winton area. After aging in Bourbon Barrels for the requisite 4 years ‘Wilson’ and ‘45 South’ went on sale in February 1974. That year Whiskey imports totalled 3.5 million litres and Wilsons target was 10% of this total.

History shows that they never did achieve this target, a glut of cheap Scotch Whiskey, hotel and wholesale licence ownership and brand loyalties all limited the success of the Wilsons and 45 South brands. Under Seagrams ownership, the last bulk whiskey was shipped overseas during the 1990’s and the plant was finally dismantled.  Today the scene is reminiscent of the 1850’s with many thousands of private stills quietly going about their task, in homes, workshops and small factories throughout the country, perhaps a small victory for free enterprise.  But significantly, Hokonui Whiskey is now legally available for the first time and its legend is celebrated every February at the Hokonui Moonshiners Festival in Gore.

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