Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted - watch the six-part series on Mondays 8.30pm AEST/NZST from August 5 on National Geographic.
Slashing his way through the lush New Zealand forest with a machete, Gordon Ramsay steps between emerald ferns and a tangled wall of vines. “This is not like a supermarket aisle,” he says, but he doesn’t have to fend for himself in determining which plants are merely hurdles and which can be harvested to add to a meal. Chef Monique Fiso leads the way and points out edible wild plants, including peppery horopito, asparagus-tasting pirita (supplejack) and sweet purple fuchsia berries.
It may be the adventure capital of the world, but New Zealand flies under the radar in the culinary universe. With European, Asian, and Polynesian influences, contemporary New Zealand cuisine also draws heavily on Maori food. In traditional life, Maori peoples were hunters and gatherers who harvested their food from the mountains, forests, rivers, and ocean. Fiso, with her restaurant Hiakai, aims to shine a light on Maori cuisine, proving that there’s a modern home for it in the world of fine dining.
Gordon Ramsay and local New Zealand chef, Monique Fiso, carry machetes while foraging the forest for wild ingredients.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/CAMILLA RUTHERFORD
From the traditional hangi (earth oven) to foraging for ingredients harvested from the land and water, the indigenous Maori people possess a tradition of food that is uniquely their own and boasts flavors found nowhere else in the world.
“Foraging is big on the menu,” says Fiso, and indeed the foraging tradition stretches back into history, to the earliest Polynesian settlers, and connects them to the natural environment. New Zealand has a lot of old, dense native bush, and its ferns, vines, palms, fungi, berries, fruit, and seeds became important foods. Much of the forest has been around for hundreds of years, since the time of Maori ancestors and was used by those ancestors for food and medicine—so it’s sacred to today's Maori people.
Medical practitioners passed their knowledge down through the generations, and modern Maori healers still use the concepts and practices they learned from their predecessors. Thoughtful foraging practice, whether for kai (food) or Rongoa Maori (herbal medicine), is to prioritise great respect for the forest, for the Maori people, the bush and the native plants are also ancestors. From pikopiko fern tips to wood ear fungus to heart-shaped kawakawa leaves, they’re all generous resources from Papatuanuku—the Mother Earth figure in Maori tradition.
Left: Local fishermen, Fluff (L) and Zane (R), teach Gordon Ramsay (centre) how to cook paua, a kind of abalone only found in New Zealand.
Right: Gordon Ramsay and local chef Monique Fiso serve the meal they prepared for Maori elders in New Zealand.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/CAMILLA RUTHERFORD (LEFT) AND PHOTOGRAPH BY HUMBLE PIE RIGHTS LIMITED/JUSTIN MANDEL (RIGHT)
“You didn’t tell me at the beginning of the week we’d be digging a hole and cooking in a pit,” says Ramsay, when Fiso informs him that some of their dishes for the Big Cook will be cooked in a hangi. Into the earthen oven goes goat meat rubbed with spicy horopito leaves foraged from the forest, and wrapped in puka leaves instead of foil. “I can’t touch anything,” says Ramsay. “I can’t double check for that level of perfection, because that’s it—it’s in there now.” It may not be the easiest practice for a chef who’s used to checking the oven, but the hangi is an integral part of Maori culture and part of what Ramsay wants to highlight on Uncharted.
This article was produced by National Geographic Channel in promotion of the series Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted.