Be my guest: Ola Pacifica

Wish you could run away to Samoa right now? Me too. Heck, I’d settle for the sun-drenched climes of Hawke’s Bay. Even that seems like an impossible dream at the moment. Sigh. However, I’m making up for it by eating some divine chocolate made from Samoan-grown cacao beans, thanks to Hawke’s Bay entrepreneurs Nia and Phil Belcher. Intrigued? Here’s the full story.

The Belchers have been in the chocolate business since 2010, when Nia started looking for a way to help out cacao farmers in her mum’s village in Samoa. They’ve grown from very humble beginnings to now working with more than 200 farmers in different communities. Their chocolate – Ola Pacifica – is now made in Switzerland and shipped worldwide.

Recently – slap bang in the middle of lockdown – the Belchers launched three new flavours: coffee, orange and almond. Launching a new range in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t one of the topics covered in Small Business 101, but the Belchers reckon chocolate is an important small joy in these difficult times.

“I love producing chocolate that makes people happy,” Nia says. “The taste of Samoan-grown beans is very different from beans grown in other countries.”

The Ola Pacifica story starts near Apia, where Nia grew up making cocoa mass from cacao beans. “We’d make our favourite cacao drink from the cocoa mass, so I also knew we could make chocolate if we ground it further,” she says.

An interest in food and cooking, combined with a desire to revitalise a dormant but sustainable industry in Samoa, inspired her to experiment further. 

“Samoa’s cocoa industry used to thrive under the administration of Germany back in the late 1800s, but the industry basically ended when the Germans left,” Nia says.

“Samoans were still growing it – they love their koko drink  – but we wanted to provide an alternative market for the growers. We started with cacao beans and nibs and gradually grew into different products including chocolate.”

The Belchers knew they were onto a good thing when their first products, sugar-free cacao beans and nibs, flew off the shelves. By mid-2013, they’d grown the range to four products. Inspiration for their next move – making dairy-free chocolate – came after Nia discovered that she was allergic to dairy products in 2014. She threw in the towel on her corporate job as a town planner and committed to the business full-time in 2015.

Growth was good, but it brought hard decisions to make. If they wanted the business to succeed, the Belchers realised it made sense to have Ola Pacifica chocolate made in Switzerland.

“The question of ‘why Switzerland?’ is often asked, and there are many reasons,” Nia says.

For one thing, it’s cheaper to send a container of beans from Samoa to Europe than from Samoa to New Zealand. (I know. This is one to file away under ‘great mysteries of the universe’, like where odd socks go.) Then there’s the issue of scale.

“Our growers needed a bigger market than just New Zealand,” Nia says. 

“We’re a New Zealand-owned global business, supporting Samoan growers, and we can do a better job of that making the chocolate where our target market is. Many of our dairy-free//vegan consumers are in Europe and the USA.

“The ‘made in NZ’ branding may be attractive; but not everything can be grown in New Zealand and still be profitable for artisan makers,” she says. 

“Many of those who make chocolates in New Zealand do so with cacao mass that’s actually from Belgium or other places in Europe; with other ingredients (nuts etc) produced elsewhere and imported. But it can be put together here and called ‘made in New Zealand’ even if the ingredients have been processed in three different countries and sourced from many more.”

Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing, Ola Pacifica chocolate is certified as being carbon neutral – the packaging is recyclable and the Swiss manufacturers offset their carbon emissions with planting projects.

“The Swiss we are working with are not just any Swiss chocolate maker but one with similar values on sustainability,” Nia says. ‘They’re the leading world producer of carbon neutral chocolates; they actively support suppliers and growers and are very advanced in future thinking.”

Of course, no amount of future thinking can protect a small business from the shockwaves of a global pandemic but Nia is bravely optimistic.

“We are very fortunate,” she says. “We have not lost anyone or had anyone we love suffer. We were also so fortunate that the last container of beans arrived in Europe where it was warehoused and stored before the lockdown. Likewise, the first container of finished chocolates had just arrived in NZ, been warehoused and were ready for launch when the lockdown hit here as well. So luckily,  we had chocolates on the ground ready for distribution into our online store and physical shops where possible.”

It’s not every day that you can treat yourself to a taste of Samoa and support a small, sustainability-focused New Zealand business in one delicious bite. This is really very good chocolate. You deserve some, don’t you?

For stockists of Ola Pacifica chocolate, visit www.olapacifica.com, or check them out on Facebook or Instagram.

Are you a New Zealand food or drink producer with a story to tell? Let me know…

Feijoa skin syrup (and 9 other ways with feijoas)

I’m just about asleep when I hear it the first time. It’s a dull, definite thud, just outside the back door. There’s no wind and no traffic noise, just the moreporks saying good night to each other. Then it happens again. Thud. Thud. Thud. I freeze in alarm. “Did you hear that?” I hiss. “Mmmm, he says sleepily. “It’ll be a cat or something. Don’t worry about it.” I’m not convinced, but I’m not getting up to look either. I put my head under the duvet and go to sleep.

The next morning I’m standing in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea and it happens again. Thud. Thud. I look out the window. There’s no cat. Then I see them, half a dozen green fruit that have landed heavily on the deck. The feijoas have arrived.

About six years ago we planted five feijoa trees along a north-facing fenceline in our garden. One of them snapped in two during a gale, but the others have soldiered on. In December, they’re covered in beautiful red flowers, like early Christmas decorations. I’ve neglected ours terribly in the last year (it’s hard to care for your garden from the other side of the world) but this autumn we’ve had the biggest crop ever. The first fruits started dropping in at the beginning of April and we’re still collecting dozens every day. A fruit bowl isn’t big enough – we’re currently using a 5kg apple box that never seems to empty, no matter how many I eat. I’ve long since lost the piece of paper on which I wrote down what varieties of trees we planted (possibly a Mammoth, a Eureka, a Bambino and an Apollo?) but some fruit are giant, others are doll-sized.

Since this year’s harvest has coincided with quarantine, I’ve become obsessed with trying to find ways to use them up. Discovering Kristina Jensen’s incredible Chunky Monkey Feijoa Chutney was a revelation. This is an extremely low-stress, low-energy pickle. There’s no peeling, making it a genius way to use up all the little feijoas that are a pain to peel.

This Feijoa, Ginger and Coconut Crumble Shortcake recipe I created for Be Well magazine in the NZ Herald – and ironically had to buy feijoas to make it (when they were $16.99 a kilo back in mid-March!) – has been hugely popular, with lots of people sending me photos of their version.

My latest experiment has been making Feijoa Skin Syrup. Syrups are a big thing in France, with shelves and shelves of all manner of fruity versions in supermarkets. Some are organic, artisanal ones with hand-drawn labels and pretty glass bottles, others come in 2-litre tins and taste suspiciously of factory-generated ‘fruit flavours’. I don’t like fruit juices or fizzy drinks, but last year I became quite partial to a slosh of sirop au citron in a glass of soda water. This one is even better, not least because it’s zero-waste.

Feijoa Skin Syrup

This is as simple as it gets. If you’ve got access to oranges or lemons, add a squeeze of juice and some finely pared rind instead of the lemon verbena. Feijoa skins can be frozen for this recipe. Makes about 500ml.

  • 3 cups feijoa skins
  • 2-3 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • A handful of lemon verbena leaves

Put everything in a small pot set over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then leave to simmer very gently for about 25 minutes (or until the whole house is perfumed). Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then pour through a sieve into sterilised glass bottles. To serve, pour a splash of syrup into a glass and top up with ice and soda (or a splash of vodka or gin). Store syrup in the fridge.

Want more ways to use up your feijoas? Try these:

Meet 2020’s Outstanding NZ Food Producers

I’m a terrible liar (I like to think this is a good thing) but I’m excellent at keeping secrets. Want proof? I’ve known for the last month who the winners of the 2020 Outstanding New Zealand Food Producers Awards are, but I’ve kept it quiet until now. Drumroll… here they are!

Bostock Brothers, the Hawke’s Bay organic chicken producers owned by Ben and George Bostock, is this year’s Supreme Champion. The Bostocks’ Organic Whole Chicken took the top award and was also named the Giesen Wines Paddock Champion. Their Chicken Thighs and Chicken Breasts also won gold medals.

Bostock Organic Chicken

I interviewed Ben and George (without letting on that they were winners – see, I told you I was good) for the upcoming e-edition of NZ Life & Leisure. What top blokes they are! The Bostocks run New Zealand’s only truly organic, free range chicken farm, where the birds get to roam free in a former organic apple orchard by day and snuggle into French-designed chalets by night. As it says on their website, ‘the key to success is nurturing, feeding and raising the chickens well’. The Bostocks’ chicken tastes like ‘real’ chicken should – congratulations to them for putting in the work.

This is my fourth year as a judge at these awards, which are run with extreme precision and absolute attention to detail. Founders Nic McConnell and Kathie Bartley put in endless amounts of effort behind the scenes, not least of which is corraling 25 judges and eight stewards on judging day.

This year I judged the Dairy section, which meant a day of eating ice creams, yoghurts and other miscellaneous milky products. I’m delighted to share the news that Pure NZ Ice Cream’s Boysenberry Ice Cream was named Emerson’s Dairy Champion. My fellow judge and I couldn’t stop eating this one – it has an incredible fruity flavour (thanks to the Nelson-grown boysenberries) and great mouthfeel.

AHIA Freshly Smoked Kahawai (Manuka Honey) from Gisborne’s Ngāti Porou Seafood was awarded Seafood NZ Water Champion. Judges described it as ‘beautifully moist…moreish…a good honest Kiwi fish celebrated and treated with love.’

Closer to home (for me), Wellington’s Fix & Fogg Everything Butter was named Farro Earth Champion. It’s the second big win at these awards for the ambitious nut buttery – their Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter won the Earth category in 2017.

Forage & Ferment Wild Kefir (Ginger root) – a light, crisp drink with more probiotic properties than kombucha – is the Label & Litho Drink Champion. It’s the second Awards success for founder Kelli Walker – her carrot, ginger, turmeric and marigold Wild Kraut received a gold medal in 2018.

Sustainability plays a huge part in the awards – specialist judges assess each entrant on their sustainable practices and initiatives. This year Raglan Food Co. (owned by Mr and Mrs Coconut – Seb Walter and Tesh Randall) is the Outstanding Sustainability Champion. The company also won two silver medals for its Boysenberry Coconut Yoghurt and Organic Blackcurrant & Vanilla Gourmet Yoghurt.

Speaking of yoghurt makes me think of breakfast – if you’re looking to start the day on a winning note then you should try a bowlful of Blue Frog’s Manuka Honey & Hemp Heart Probiotic Porridge. This ‘porridge with attitude’ is the FMCG Business New Product Champion.

If chocolate is more your thing, you’ll be pleased to know that Foundry Chocolate is the Freshco.nz New Business Champion. It’s the second big win for the Mahurangi bean-to-bar business, after it was named Supreme Winner at the NZ Chocolate Awards.

Lastly, Zaroa Pohutakawa Smoked & Sous Vide Cooked Angus Beef Brisket is the Outstanding Free-From Champion. Zaroa is a family-owned business launched last year by Wilhelm Zabern, an Austrian ‘Master of Meat’ who has lived in Aotearoa for 30 years.

While winning awards is nice, all these businesses – and the other medal-winners in this year’s awards (see here for a full list) – need our help to stay viable in these challenging times. If you’ve got the means, do support them in the coming months.

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Crunchy cheese, potato and onion bake

When all this is over, I’m going to declare a fatwa on potatoes and cheese. We’re a potato-based household at the best of times, but right now it feels like we’re practically living on them. I’d do anything for a bit of variation on the cheese front, too. Just before lockdown started I had a wedge of my favourite Whitestone Aged Windsor Blue that I ate all too quickly. And oh, to be able to eat any of the cheeses I ate in France last year…

However, in the spirit of being grateful for small mercies, even the most ordinary potatoes and cheese can make life seem a little brighter. This is a riff on my sister-in-law Jenny’s famous cheesy potatoes (I aspire to make them as well as she can). If you squint, it’s sort of a poor man’s tartiflette – I made this Thomasina Miers’ tartiflette many times in France with enormous wheels of reblochon last year. And one day, I will again.

CRUNCHY CHEESE, POTATO AND ONION BAKE

Serves 4

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

If you’ve got cold leftover roast or boiled potatoes, you can use them instead – just blanch the spinach or silverbeet in boiling water, then add it to the potatoes and crush. Also feel free to swap the bacon for ham (or a small amount of anchovies, or olives). Other good additions include cherry tomatoes, little florets of broccoli or cauliflower, chunks of other cheeses – whatever your lockdown cupboards or fridge offers up.

  • 5 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 large onions, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 6-8 large agria potatoes, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
  • 200g spinach or silverbeet, washed and roughly chopped
  • 150g streaky bacon, diced
  • 2 cups grated tasty cheese

Heat the oven to 200C. Put 3 Tablespoons of the olive oil and the sliced onions in a roasting dish and toss well. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes while you’re getting the potatoes ready.

While the onions are cooking, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 15 minutes, until just about falling apart when prodded with a fork. Drop the spinach into the pot and cook for two minutes, then tip the whole thing into a colander and leave to drain.

Remove the onions from the onion and take most of them out of the dish. Layer some potatoes and spinach on top, crushing the potatoes with a fork, followed by some grated cheese and bacon. Repeat these layers, ending with cheese and bacon. Season well with lots of black pepper, drizzle over the remaining olive oil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, until everything is crunchy. Eat with lots of hot mustard and something green.

Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

You may well feel that life is too fraught at the moment to even consider making your own hot cross buns (you might feel like that all the time, in which case you have my sympathies). Even if you do like a bit of baking therapy, your plans might be stymied by a lack of yeast, or flour, or energy to do anything other than get through the day. I know the feeling. But in case you feel like making something, here’s an Easter-ish breakfast treat that uses basic ingredients, doesn’t require you to nurture a living thing and takes very little time to make. 

Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

A note on substitutions for these straitened times: using butter gives these a better flavour, but using oil is fine if butter’s in short supply. Use any sugar (white, caster, brown) – but don’t pack brown sugar into the cup. Use any milk and any flour – omit the baking powder if you’ve only got self-raising, use a little less if you’re using wholemeal (and be aware the pikelets will be a bit sturdier). If you don’t have honey, use golden syrup in the butter (I had to do this for the photo – it was still delicious). 

Makes about 20 pikelets, serves 3-6 depending on greed, hunger, boredom etc

Preparation time: 10 mins

Cooking time: 10 minutes

  • 1 tablespoon melted butter or oil
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ – ¾ cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp cocoa
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 cup plain flour

For the spiced butter:

  • ½ cup (125g) soft butter
  • 2-3 generous Tbsp honey 
  • 1-2 tsp cinnamon

Whisk together the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and ½ cup milk. Sift over the dry ingredients and stir together until just combined (don’t over-mix or the pikelets will be tough). Add a litte more milk if the mixture is very thick.

Set a large heavy frying pan over medium heat. Grease with a little butter or oil.

Drop dessertspoons full of the mixture into the pan (hold the spoon vertically to make the pikelets round). Cook until bubbles appear and pop on the top, then gently flip over and cook for another couple of minutes. Remove to a plate lined with a teatowel or a cooling rack.

To make the spiced butter, beat the butter and honey together until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the cinnamon. 

To serve, pile the pikelets on a serving plate and accompany with the butter. Any leftover pikelets can be frozen and reheated in a toaster. Any leftover butter is great on hot cross buns or toast.

If you fancy a few more Easter cooking projects, you might like to try these Pretend Hot Cross Buns (gluten-free) or these Homemade Marshmallow Easter Eggs (also gluten-free and dairy-free).

Hope you have a happy Easter, wherever you are. Don’t go anywhere, will you?