The Helena Bay hotel complex
The area is called Helena Bay, located two-hundred kilometres north of Auckland, and the project is an amazing one: a restaurant surrounded by 832 hectares of rolling pasture lands, vegetable gardens, forests, streams and lakes. “A sort of giant Punta Campanella” - the place where Le Peracciole is located, the organic farm belonging to the Iaccarino family. From the words of Ernesto Iaccarino the enthusiasm is palpable. “The project is unique because of the almost total alimentary independence: think 200 heads of bovine cattle, 300 sheep, plus chickens and a variety of apple, peach, fig and cherry trees. There are also 8 beehives, not more otherwise the bees stress too much”. To complete the rich foraging scene are the Pacific Ocean fish species. It’s all the restaurant’s fingertips, which will seat a maximum of 30 or 40. The restaurant is due to open in November 2016 with the launch of the entire luxury hotel complex. At the helm of the kitchen will be chef Michele Martino (previously resident at the Grand Lisboa Hotel in Macao), with the arduous task of forming a brigade of eight New Zealander kitchen staff members.
Mediterranean cuisine with local ingredients
Who is behind this mega resort? A Russian oligarch – who prefers to remain unidentified – enamoured of Italian cuisine. After visiting the best Italian restaurants, he chose the Iaccarinos as food advisors, at least for the first 5 years. Reason for this is the family’s gastronomic knowledge based on the respect of local ingredients and for the ability to conjugate entrepreneurial skill with original ideas. Collaborations launched by the Iaccarino family around the world, from the hotel La Mamounia in Marrakech to the Grand Hotel Lisboa in Macao testify this: not a single format that repeats itself, rather an adaptation to the hosting location and philosophy. In this case “the guiding idea was creating a unique place in the world for quality ingredients. This was possible thanks to the local soil suited for cattle breeding and a tropical climate which lends lots of produce”. The local ingredients need to become one with the knowledge and interpretations in order to make the connection with Mediterranean dining that is so typical of Don Alfonso 1890 (the hotel and restaurant belonging to the Iaccarino family). “For this reason we have chosen to plan a full year of preparation before opening in November. During this pre-launch we will have the chance to study the soil and its products, understanding how to manage them in the fields and on the plate”. For example? “Thanks to the particular micro-climate, animals here are left outdoors 24 hours a day. For this reason their meats are in a sense wilder, tissues are bright red, with less marbling”. Same goes with poultry, whose thighs are very dark meat. “This implies different, longer dry aging times compared to what we’re used to. For lamb we’re looking at 24 hours, for example”.
Fruit and vegetables, fish, cheese and olive oil
Produce is another story. If peaches and apples are juicy and sweet, less can be said about the local figs: there’s less concentrated sugar in the New Zealand ones. There’s nothing that can be done for this. But as far as tomatoes and zucchini, the situation is different: “Because of the tropical climate, vegetables are rich in moisture. To concentrate flavors, it’s sufficient to pick them unripe. Let’s not forget this is volcanic soil, with high concentration of minerals”. The project is therefore similar to a large open-air oceanfront laboratory where ingredients are closely studied before being employed in the Mediterranean cuisine, varying conservation, canning, foraging and cooking techniques to suit this purpose. Ernesto further lists the characteristics of the ingredients available at the restaurant kitchen: in the two bays it overlooks, with dedicated fishermen, the catch possesses different levels of savory elements. “Obviously Mediterranean oily fish is unbeatable, but in Helena Bay oysters grow on the rocks!”. On the island the Iaccarinos have even found a local mozzarella producer which is not bad – the objective will be self-producing cheese in the future – and a decent olive oil. “For now we’re just testing it, obviously if it’s not up to standard, we’ll import Italian olive oil”. Import will also include pasta, truffles and caviar: products characterised by well-established manufacturing techniques or strictly native to other countries.
Focus on ingredients and origin
“This is a unique chance to improve not so much the dish in itself, rather the ingredient composing that dish”. The future of restaurant dining implies therefore investigating the origin of ingredients and the people who produce them. “Dining is now perceived like entertainment, on a par with cinema and theater, the only substantial difference being our health. Sometimes with cooking shows and demos we lose sight of the real content we’re supposed to convey: the ingredients we use, who produces them, where they come from, and so on”. This behaviour demands a direct relationship with the food artisans which is based on mutual trust, cooperation and reciprocal enrichment: “The artisan who makes our mozzarella in Punta Campanella used to not keep track of how much salt he brined his cheeses with. Now he does, and it's also thanks to our input. It’s all a question of talking with the persons who create the ingredients with their hands”. This concept can be exported to New Zealand with the cattle breeders and the beekeepers selected by the Russian oligarch. The one negative is that all this bounty, this careful work and research aimed at finding the perfect ingredients will be destined to a select few, given the distance to the closest inhabited town. Maybe only the resort dwellers will have the opportunity to savor the luxury of this place, and we’re talking three-digit fees.
by Annalisa Zordan
translated by Eleonora Baldwin