On the hill above Geraldine lies Talbot Forest, one of the last remnants of a huge podocarp forest that once covered much of mid-Canterbury. A few kilometres northwest lies another remaining part, Peel Forest Park. Within its 700 hectares grow 68 of New Zealand’s 200 species of fern, including the silver tree fern.
So it’s fair to say that many visitors to Geraldine head for the hills to marvel at ancient totara, kahikatea and native ferns, and walk some of the bush trails within the reserves.
My visit is connected with another kind of vegetation entirely. The same temperate climate responsible for its lush rainforests is also ideal for growing fruit and vegetables and the small farming town (population: 2500) is home to some of New Zealand’s most successful food producers.
Barker’s jams, pickles and cordials, Anathoth jams, Talbot Forest cheeses and Addmore elderflower drinks have all put the town on the New Zealand food map. I’m heading for their retail outlets in the town centre.
Barkers Fruit started producing fruit syrups in 1969 and many of us have grown up drinking its blackcurrant and lemon barley cordials. It’s since branched into jam, chutneys, pickles and sauces, acquired Nelson jam and pickle maker Anathoth and started producing sauces for restaurant chain Tandoori Palace. These products sell in supermarkets, but buying direct means you can sample before you buy – in my case, some of the savoury jellies. I also stock up on as many jars of Barkers’ morello cherry jam as I can carry – it makes the best chocolate cherry cupcakes on Earth and it’s on special for $2.50 a 370g jar.
Addmore Products doesn’t have its own outlet, but its elderflower cordial is sold in the Barkers shop, and at the local Verde Cafe Deli. Its cordial and sparkling drinks, made from locally grown flowers, are excellent alternatives to alcohol – a dash of cordial topped with soda water is the perfect pre-dinner drink, or you could substitute sparkling wine for the soda, or mix Sparkling Elderflower with vodka.
A couple of doors down from Barkers is Talbot Forest Cheese (the cheese is made in a factory behind the shop, which you can see through a viewing window). I pick up a wedge of Maasdam, another of Cumin Gouda and a Mt Peel Blue – all generously sized for the price.
Further along the main street, in what was formerly the home of Chocolate Fellman, is Coco, the Geraldine outlet for Queenstown’s Chocolate Brown. Its handmade confectionary is almost too pretty to eat: pralines decorated with intricate swirls of coloured dots, chocolate mice, turtles and butterflies. There’s also hot chocolate by the cup, made from melted Belgian chocolate and cream. How do they make hot chocolate this good? It’s a secret recipe so I’ll never find out.
Clearwater’s Organic Dairy doesn’t have a retail store either, but I find its Cream Top Yoghurt at the supermarket in Geraldine. It’s made using the “pot set” method, which maximises its probiotic content. It’s also made from whole, not homogenised, milk and makes up for every low-fat dairy product you’ve ever been persuaded to consume for the sake of your arteries.
It’s things like this that make Geraldine food producers so outstanding: their focus is on high-quality, unadulterated food, made with local ingredients (Barkers buys some of its produce from overseas and around New Zealand it it’s not available in Geraldine but sources locally where it can). It’s not the kind of fare that nutritionists would recommend, but there’s something to be said for putting flavour and freshness ahead of cholesterol levels.
The town has non-edible treasures, too. On Talbot Street is the town cinema, built in 1914 and still in operation. Around the corner in Wilson Street is the world’s biggest jersey (seven feet high, five feet wide) and a replica of the Bayeux tapestry made entirely of steel chips. The shop that houses both jersey and tapestry, The Giant Jersey, is unfortunately closed when I visit, but I can see the jumper through the window.
If I had more time, I’d find a picnic spot beside the Waihi River or in the forests on the foothills of the Southern Alps and have a late lunch of fresh local food. It’s not exactly doing this charming little river town justice, looking for the source of its reputation as a fine food producer, but it’s a good start.