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Capturing Kiwi Culture Through Kai: Inside Maori Culture

A bright green canopy of leaves envelops us as we enter the forest. Nature forming an umbrella which rises from the trunks of the 800-year-old trees. Ahead a carpet of thick brown leaves creates a soft track. It’s as if we’re the only ones in the entire forest, which of course we aren’t.

Words by Kirstie Bedford

This section of native forest in Horohoro, Rotorua, in New Zealand’s central North Island, is home to 70 kilometres of walking tracks. But it’s so quiet our Maori guide, chef Charles Royal, whispers when he turns to face us. “Listen” he says.

We all lean in and hear the high-pitched melody of the native tui echo through the forest. Royal points and we see a dark bird with a white crest leap the branches at the top of the ancient trees. Cameras are pulled out, but this boisterous Kiwi bird isn’t about to perch for anyone.

We walk on and are deep within the forest when someone near the back calls out, “Any snakes?” There’s a chorus of giggles as Royal patiently stops and explains that New Zealand has no venomous snakes, scorpions or insects. It’s proving a drawcard too for the growing number of international travellers who want to ‘go bush’ to do a food foraging tour much like ours, where you learn about native plants and their medicinal purposes and, in this case, can then return to the Treetops Lodge and Estate, which owns the 2,500 acres we’re exploring, to cook up a feast.

The Pioneer

Foraging isn’t new to our guide. Royal started taking people foraging decades ago, after incorporating native plants in dishes at his restaurant in Rotorua. Patrons wanted to know where he found them, and by taking guests to the forest he realised how powerful the tours were in helping educate people about the Maori culture.

Along with running foraging tours, Royal also supplies Indigenous herbs to restaurants via his business Kinaki Wild Herbs, where a team of family members and helpers harvest wild foods from family land – a scheme he says helps those in underdeveloped communities, and is meeting a growing need by restaurants for native kai.

As we move through the towering trees, Royal walks over to a shady area of the bush and stops at what looks like any insignificant tree. Lifting up a leaf he tells us it’s kawakawa – one of the most important herbs in Maori medicine, which has been used traditionally for everything from toothaches to stomach pain.

Kawakawa was also used as a blood thinner, and never traditionally used as food, but Royal could see the health benefits from incorporating it in his dishes. He began experimenting by making tea and realised by adding lemon, honey and soda water he could create a spritzer, and then started incorporating the plants in other ways into cuisine.

Another non-distinct looking plant Royal shows us is the horopito, which has similar medicinal properties to kawakawa and is known as the ‘Maori painkiller’. None of these would be easily found by the uninitiated, and we are all in awe at Royal’s knowledge and passion for New Zealand native plants. But it’s the pikopiko which proves to be the stand-out. The pretty curled tip of the fern is quintessentially Kiwi – even used as the logo for the country’s airline Air New Zealand. On the plate, pikopiko not only looks appealing, but it tastes pretty good too, much like asparagus. Royal explains there’s a natural snapping point and you have to run your thumb up the top and your second finger below, grab and bend before it will snap off.

It seems a shame to pick it, but Royal explains there are 312 types of these ferns growing in New Zealand, although only seven are edible.

Culture at Treetops

At Treetops, run by Andrew and Sandra Cullen, keeping the culture alive is something they are now extending from their tours to Maori massage, using manuka honey from the Estate to offer spiritually inspired massage to encourage your mauri (life essence) and wairua (spirit) to synchronise, aiding the central nervous system.

Spa manager Debra Sturm, who also takes food foraging tours (Royal’s tours typically run from Lake Rotoma), says it’s an honour to be able to share her culture through massage.

“It’s not just a bit of a rub here and there. It’s about helping your body get rid of the energy it doesn’t need and that doesn’t serve you emotionally and spiritually, because any Maori healing is about the spirit, and that’s always combined in the massage.”

Inside the lodge original Maori paintings feature throughout, and Andrew and Sandra work with a local school so guests can visit and talk to the children, rather than going on what Andrew calls, “a touristy cultural tour”.

It’s this type of unique and engaging experience he says guests are increasingly asking for.

“Our guests can afford to go and eat in any restaurant they want, and they are used to luxury lodges, but they are looking for a point of difference, and it’s all about creating an experience, and a story, something you simply can’t get at home.

“When Sandra and I worked in resorts in Indonesia, we were the only business on a tiny island, and they had a real genuine happiness and laughter, and this is what the guests embrace and people are looking to learn. They want the ‘real’ experience, not the tourist show.”

He says it’s why meeting the locals and engaging with them has proven so vital to their guests’ experience.

“We bring out the Maori kids from the local school and they do a completely unpolished show. It’s real, and it brings people to tears. That’s the sort of experience people want.”

Treetops is as mindful of ensuring a unique, immersive cultural experience as it is of ensuring visitors eat off the land.

“We’re building our own mushroom house, and we’re looking at expanding so we’re fully self-sufficient. At the moment 90 percent of meat comes off the property and 
70-80 percent of the vegetables.”

Impressively, 130,000 native trees have been planted here over 17 years and the property also has its own lake with rainbow and brown trout. You only have to stand here surrounded by lush bush and hear the native birds to feel that preserving this unique slice of New Zealand has been a priority.

Inside, the property feels like an extravagant country retreat, with leather couches draped in animal skins and a huge slate fireplace. I sit back in the grand dining room with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vast green gardens as another plate of cuisine is brought to me, and contemplate whether I need to eat any more.

“It’s medicinal.” The man next to me points out, reading my apprehension.

“Good point’” I say as I dig in to yet another course, before I add, “Hike tomorrow, anyone?”

Getting there
Flights depart from all major Australian cities to Auckland. From Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane it’s a 3.5-hour flight. It’s a 45-minute flight from Auckland to Rotorua, or a three-hour drive.

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