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Best grow your own


BEST grow your own

Book well ahead, foodies are flocking to this true farm to table experience. 

Provenance is the farm owned by the B Group who operate hotels, lodges, bistros and bars in Wanaka and Queenstown.

Located just out of Tarras about a 20-minute drive from Wanaka, the 3-acre site comprises a large commercial vegetable garden, micro orchards with a huge variety of fruits and a cooking school.

My husband and I are booked on the ‘Provenance Experience’, a full day paddock-to-plate workshop lead by one of the B Group head chefs. The other seven students are waiting in the cosy dining room, warming themselves by a crackling fire. To the left is a wall of bottled preserves, to the right a white bookcase bursting with cookbooks – Perry, Blumenthal, Fearnley- Whittingstall; a who’s who of the culinary world. On the long timber table, a loaf of banana bread sits temptingly. The whole setting is so homely and so perfect, it could be the set of a British cooking show. 

A figure appears in the doorway. It is not Jamie or Nigella, but James Howdry, the head chef from the group who invites us into the kitchen. I involuntarily catch my breath. This room is a chef’s fantasy. Light streams through paned windows that soar from the sinks to the cathedral ceiling and overlooking the kitchen garden and the farm beyond. 

Oak floors are soft underfoot; a wood-fired oven is at the ready, and a stainless steel workbench, double the size of my dining room table, gleams. Did I mention the full-size fireplace?

There is no time to linger, today’s bread has to be made. James shows us how to work the dough – raising it above his head and slapping it down on the bench. After some initial surprise, the group joins in, the noise echoing off the walls. My efforts seem uncoordinated, but pummeling the dough is cathartic. We leave our white mounds by the fire to rise. 

A tour of the farm is next. Kitted out with gumboots, baskets and shears we are introduced to the friendly goats, that gently nose our bags looking for food. Along the way, Jame’s describes his dream for the farm.  “I have tried to create a food wonderland, to work with nature,” he explains. Crops are rotated around the property to preserve the quality of the land.  In single file, three brown and white pigs come trotting towards us. Poking their soft snouts through the wire, they affectionately snuffle the tip of my gumboot. They are followed by some friendly chickens. As much as I love a good roast chook, my heart melts. Can I take one home? 

Our curious group ambles through the gardens, harvesting supplies for the meal. Just past the asparagus lies the largest green cabbage I have ever seen; a beast that could feed an entire football team and more. My job is to bring it back to the kitchen. I hack at the thick stem until, like a falling tree, it collapses into the soil. There is a distinct feeling of satisfaction as I claim my big green prize. 

We make a slight detour to visit the smokehouse, where sweet peppers and chorizo hang from the ceiling. The Farm offers a charcuterie workshop where students make their own salami and smoked meats.  “They courier the salami back to your home after the class,” one of the other student's whispers. Now that is one heck of a souvenir. 

Today’s menu uses local produce and as much of the garden as possible. Handmade gnocchi, rabbit braised in Jame’s private cider, pumpkin, potato and walnut gratin, and a winter salad. For dessert, poached fruit and mascarpone will be sandwiched between coconut meringues and served with vanilla bean ice cream. James' finesse at creating recipes that match the seasons looks to be on the money... 

We split into small groups to work on the menu and my husband and I tackle the gratin. I search for the herb jars. “Where can I find sage?” I ask. “Growing by the back door” is the (now obvious) answer. I focus on infusing cream with cinnamon and caramelising onions, while my husband cracks a mountain of fresh walnuts. 

Despite being allocated to a particular dish, we are all encouraged to try our hand at different tasks. A ball of gnocchi dough suddenly lands next to me – the pasta is ready to be made. I roll the dough into a sausage and shape the gnocchi – this is easier than I had expected. James's patient tutelage and good humour make me think I could actually recreate the dishes at home. Unfortunately, my home does not come with the farm’s staff who magically appear, discretely cleaning up spilt flour, collecting dirty dishes and taking coffee orders to keep energy levels high. I am working for my supper, but also getting spoilt rotten as I nibble on another slice of banana bread.

All too soon it is time to plate up. I scoop a pile of gnocchi onto my plate, cover it with ribbons of James's pancetta and crown it with a feathery pile of Parmesan shavings. One of the staff has laid the dining table with antique cutlery and linen napkins stoked the fire and opened a crisp Marlborough white. 

The rabbit surfaces from the oven, its aromatic, garlicky vapour filling the room. My gratin is next. I taste it nervously – will it match the culinary finesse shown by the other students? My fears are unfounded, the creamy pumpkin and potato melt in my mouth while the walnut breadcrumbs provide a satisfying crunch. A bold red wine made from grapes off the farm is poured. 

After spending the day together, the conversation around the table is relaxed and convivial. I feel like I have known these people for ages, yet we only met a few hours ago.  I am full to the gills, but there is no way I could miss dessert. We return to the kitchen to assemble the finale, piping mascarpone onto the coconut meringues, covering them with sticky poached fruit and pulling out the blowtorch to create a decadent, caramelised top.  Back in the dining room, I tuck into dessert while another round of coffee and tea is offered. Shall I have the lemon balm or the mint tea? Both are grown in the garden, and both smell heavenly. Sadly, the day eventually comes to an end. I feel like I have been enveloped in a warm, homely cocoon where the food is plentiful, the wine excellent and where strangers have become friends. Perhaps it is the ethos of the farm, the simple pleasure of coming back to the land, or maybe it is Jame’s passion for food, but today was more than just a cooking class. I would call it a life experience, one I will remember fondly for years to come.