Foraging in Fiordland with the Chef of Redcliff

Chef Ryan Murray of The Redcliff in Te Anau took us out for a day fishing.

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Sung Han and Jack Seemer

Chef Ryan Murray goes by “Muzza”, a name he adopted in grade school and hasn’t been able to shake since. When I pull up to The Redcliff, Fiordland’s famed restaurant in Te Anau, he’s on the front porch, having a coffee and a smoke. He rolls his own cigarettes; Kiwi tax on tobacco is among the highest in the world, and RYO cigarettes cut down on the cost.

He offers to make me a “long black” before we head out on the water. I oblige, knowing the coffee in this part of the world is good, before walking to the nearby sporting goods store to purchase fishing licenses for the day. His father and girlfriend greet us, both employees here, and we ask to borrow a couple of rods from the store. They know Muzza is good for it.

The plan is simple, really: catch a fish in a nearby river, cook it up, glean some insight about Kiwi cuisine and Muzza’s way of life here in Fiordland. He came to the restaurant after school, working his way up through the kitchen. Today, he’s head chef and a co-owner of the cozy, award-winning restaurant a stone’s throw from Lake Te Anau. Muzza is an advocate for the quality produce of Southland, and it shows in his menu, which is centered around locally sourced hare, venison and lamb. The house-smoked Manuka salmon comes from Stewart Island, just off the coast of the South Island.

The sun’s hitting hard…One hour passes. Then two. No fish.

Today, however, we’re fishing for a trout from the Waiau River, the largest in Southland, the lifeline between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. Muzza promises both brown and rainbow species. “The reason people come here to trout fish is because we have big trout,” says Muzza. “The average size here is about three to six pounds.” That’s a big trout.

We dock Muzza’s vintage Hamilton jet boat, which he dubs “old hack”, on a nearby bank. The shoes come off and we wade into the water with our fishing lines. The sun’s hitting hard and the sky, open with blue, which Muzza says is a rarity in these cloudy parts of the country. One hour passes. Then two. No fish.

Despite the crystal-clear waters of Fiordland’s waterway network, the waters here are not as healthy as they once were. In 2004, didymo, an invasive species of freshwater algae, was first discovered in New Zealand’s South Island. Today, it blankets the shallow bedrock bottom of much of Fiordland’s waterways, and has shrunk the trout population to a fraction of its former glory. For recreational anglers like Muzza and his father who grew up fishing these rivers and streams, catching any fish at all can be struggle.

The afternoon is fast escaping. My cheeks are sunburnt and I’ve stopped casting my line with hopeful purpose. I’m pretty sure Muzza would have stayed out on the river until nightfall, though. He seems to be enjoying himself and reveals that this kind of recreation is hard to come by these days, with the arrival of his newborn at home the beginning of a new chapter in his life. As we pack it up and toss our shoes back in the boat, he looks unconcerned about the lack of trout in our possession. He says he has a plan.

“Number 8 wire mentality is doing everything you can to solve a problem.”

He drives me to other side of town, pulling into the driveway of a family friend. A burly man greets us. He talks fast with a heavy accent, telling me his name, which I don’t understand. I nod, worn out from the sun. He guides us to the backyard where he keeps his garden and roots up a handful of short chubby carrots, which he stuffs in a plastic bag, along with fresh basil, lettuce and tomatoes that grow in a small makeshift greenhouse. We thank him, he says something, which I take as “you’re welcome”, and we shake hands goodbye. When we arrive at The Redcliff, Muzza escapes to the kitchen. He returns with two flanks of wild hare, suggesting we cook at his house; the staff at the restaurant is already gearing up for the night’s service.

On the way, Muzza pulls off the road grabbing a bucket on his way out of the car. “I’ve been picking this since the first day I started at Redcliff,” he says. He’s talking about the watercress that grows naturally around town. We come to a small stream overtaken with bushes of the vegetable. I pick a leaf and taste it. It’s got a bite, but it’s not overly bitter. It’s subtle.

Muzza’s home is humble but sincere. The living room looks out to the mountains that sit just beyond Te Anau; his mellow, aged dog lies on the ground. He’s unaffected by our presence, the only signs of life being an occasional blink and twitch of the nose when Muzza starts cooking.

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Muzza says he’s going to make a watercress salad for me, garnishing with the freshly picked vegetables and wild hare from the restaurant. I ask him about a Kiwi term, the “Number 8 wire mentality,” which I’ve heard multiple times throughout my travels in New Zealand. He laughs, and admits that our day happened to fall that way. “Number 8 wire mentality is doing everything you can to solve a problem,” he explains. It’s something that originates in New Zealand’s rich history of farming and agriculture. “Number 8 wire was the staple fencing wire,” Muzza says. “But you can pretty much make it into anything.” Used to describe any form of DIY ad hoc-ery, the term reflects the Kiwi can-do sensibility shared by many native New Zealanders, and certainly Muzza this afternoon.

While the hare sizzles in a frying pan, Muzza fashions a vinaigrette from wild thyme honey and some pinot grapes he has in his kitchen. He tosses it into the watercress, topping with chopped basil, tomatoes and shaved carrot. After the meat’s cooked and rested, he slices the flanks into thick chunks, which he plates on top. I take a bite. It’s refined, but soulful — organic, clean and delicious. I ask him to come up with a name for the dish and he takes the direct approach: “End-of-summer veg’, fresh watercress and wild hare.” It’s one of those meals you’re not forced to think too much about — you just put your elbows on the table and enjoy. I forget about the fish. This is feels right. The sun starts to set outside and the light dims inside the house. Muzza’s dog yawns and I think we’re all ready for an afternoon nap. Call it your perfect day in Fiordland.

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