A smallish, slim built man, 42 year old Charles Royal is huge among foodies in New Zealand. Winner of New Zealand’s 2003 Innovative Chef of the Year Award, he’s also the first Maori to win the prestigious award.
We meet in Rotorua, about a 45 minute flight from Auckland. Royal will be my professor for part of a day, giving me a quick course on indigenous herbs and roots. As a former restaurateur, he has also been a consultant on new menus being introduced on Air New Zealand’s first class in-flight service.
These days he’s under contract at the world renowned hotel to the rich and famous and hunting fanatics, Treetops Lodge & Estate, a ne plus ultra hotel, where I’m staying. Guests have the same opportunity as I do, to learn about Maori cooking and recipes. Royal doesn’t have to travel very far for my introductory lesson of Herbs 101. Right outside the well laid out isolated hilltop accommodations, set in a rain forest, are 2000 acres studded with various species.
I’m about to learn which is edible and what is poisonous, often looking very similar. His very pronounced Kiwi accent has me asking him to repeat various words. Ferns sounds like fears, baffling me completely. But soon I became accustomed to the twang.
“New Zealand is one of the few countries with such a high density of ferns. There are 312 varieties but only 7 are edible,” says the lithe slim man with huge loop earrings which have expanded his lobes in Maori tradition.
Charles Royal’s packaged herbs
Royal pulls off a leave from one plant. “This Ponga contains carcinogenics but can be safely used for stir fries and stews,” he explains.
Next is the very edible, Mouki. He offers a taste, which is certainly distinctive.
Royal is very definite about being “sensible and knowledgeable” when tasting and using any of these leafy vegetation. “If you’re a neophyte than always have someone who is an authority nearby,” he says naming each plant as we pass.
“They may look alike but one will kill and the other will cure.” The Crown Fern is for pharmaceuticals, a growing industry with great interest to drug companies. Then he points to the Koromiko plant which was used “in the old days” for stomach pains after being boiled like tea. He refers often to his grandmother who taught him about many of the facts which he is now passing on to me.
Matete, or Five Fingers, was used for food when “the old people were in the bush and had to experience various plant life since there was no meat except for small bush mice and dogs,” he says bending over a bed of plants “At that time, all other food was from the sea.
Two plants look very similar but to differentiate he says that in general smooth edged leaves are usually okay. “Stay away from the irregular edge ones,” he laughs knowing that I’m not about to start a non-vocational cooking school.
The rituals of the past are very meaningful and Royal is trying to preserve the drying, storing, ‘hungi’(very traditional way of cooking meat in the ground usually for over 24 hours.), steaming, and searching out secrets recipes from the older generation..
“So many have been lost since there was little or no interest in Maori food,” he says surveying the sprawling hotel garden.. But with the resurgence of pride of identity in the Maori culture, Royal has created a new venture. After convincing Maori land owners who have native bushes in their yards, to harvest edible herbs, they were happy to accept. From the get-go, after the first harvest, Royal had entrepreneurial plans. Now the dried herbs and spices, are packaged under the label, Kinakai Wild Herbs and sold throughout New Zealand. He expects to start exporting in the near future.
Charles Royal is right on top of the current health trends even though he lives in the land, “down down under.”
To contact Charles Royal Treetops Lodge & Estate, Tel 647 33 2066 firstname.lastname@example.org
Treetops was part of the Oscar winners goodie bag at the Academy Awards in 2004