Shelves popping with a raft of foreign and Asian specialties, Anita Burrell-Smith’s Queen Street shop is a hub for migrant workers who trek to Marlborough each year for harvest. Wine still rules the roost here, but Essential Asian Ingredients, a cosy, unassuming wood-floored emporium, boasts such a variety of locally-grown products that it even surprises some locals.
Anita is adept at finding customers what they want, so much the better if it’s made or grown right here. So, tucked next to New Zealand avocados, honey, and lentils, you’ll find organic and conventionally-grown Marlborough gems such as pinto beans, tomatillos, and even pumpkin seeds, the latter coming from Blenheim farmer and entrepreneur, Garth Neal – one of the producers Anita deems “vital” to the diverse regional food scene.
Like most of her small, independent growers, Garth and his pumpkin seeds came to her serendipitously. After a mutual friend noticed him posting a package of the seeds to Australia in the hope of tapping a new market, she quickly demanded he pay the shop a visit, knowing Anita’s penchant for local producers. That was nearly five years ago.
Garth Neal and his wife Barbara have deep family roots here. He’s from a long line of seed croppers who added sheep to the mix before devoting most of the family land to grapes 30 years ago. Garth has grown commercial seed pumpkins for nearly 25 years but admits to a soft spot for edible seeds. He’s a dab hand at crafting award-winning, cold-pressed oils under the Uncle Joe’s Marlborough label, but it’s the Neal family pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed flour that are prized by Anita’s customers.
Garth is tight-lipped about just how much of his land is devoted to the ‘naked seed’ pumpkin (so-called because it has no shell and is known not by name but by a number) that gives him his edible seeds. It’s easy enough to harvest, he says, but is a finicky grower with relatively low yields (about 300 kilograms of seed per hectare). The dilemma may see him grow more seeds outside of Marlborough. So, you might wonder, why grow them at all? Because like Anita’s shop, there’s more to what Garth does than meets the eye.
“I grow them because I like doing it, really, not because it’s making me a fortune at the end of the day,” Garth says with a soft chuckle. “(Pumpkins for seed) are one of the more difficult crops to grow, but I started growing it because it’s the thing I really do have a passion for.”
Like Garth, Anita works with more than dollars in mind. She seems an unlikely shopkeeper, having had a hand in every field but retail, but her love of good food comes naturally. A Wellington native with Italian roots, Blenheim was home early on for Anita’s family, avid home gardeners who grew, ate, and shared with neighbours what came from their backyard. Heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and spinach were mainstays. “We always had a very big garden and grew everything we possibly could,” Anita says. “Whenever we moved house, the first thing we did was start the garden. In fact, when I was about four, I wouldn’t eat vegetables, so I was given a little patch in the garden, and I’d eat them, of course, because they were mine.”
Anita’s foray into retail, like her connections with most of her growers, was equal parts good fortune and right-time, right-place. With no previous experience, she took over a small Asian foods shop in 2005. Shortly after, the tiny storefront was near bursting, so she moved to her current digs, taking over a lease and business from the previous owner who focused on organic goods. Anita’s Essential Asian Ingredients was born, and the business is suiting an ever-growing cadre of customers who are concerned about what they eat and where it comes from.
Anita concedes grapes brought booming success to Blenheim but she’s seen them also turn a landscape once known for livestock fodder along with cherries, pears, apples, and asparagus, into terrain with a singular focus, a slow change that unfortunately coincided with newfangled notions toward food in our culture as a whole. But it is changing.
“I think the Kiwi dream was a quarter-acre section with a house and a garden. Life was slower not too long ago, but now everyone’s under so much more pressure,” Anita says. “People don’t have time to garden, so they buy what they need and not necessarily always the best stuff. My grandfather always had a big garden and gave all of the extras over to the neighbours, so I learned then it’s really important to have good, quality food and if you grow it yourself you know where it comes from. If you can’t grow it yourself you have to buy it, so I try to supply what I know is good food.” The ethos keeps Anita, one full-time staffer, and four part-timers buzzing seven days a week and draws customers from near and far.
“I think she appeals to all sorts of people,” says Helen Redshaw, one half of the duo behind Na Clachan (pronounced Nah-Clack-An) Organics, one of Anita’s long-standing producers. “She has a lot of Asian customers going into the shop, a lot of temporary workers going there, a lot of long-time Blenheim residents, plus people from Picton who’ll come in once a week. She’s really good at promoting the ideal, if you like, and we want to be associated with someone like that. In her shop,” Helen says, “we’re not just in a little corner as the organic funny-bunny people, we’re sort of centre stage because that’s what her shop is about. She really supports the organic stuff.”
Along with a bustling winery tour business and on-site farm cottage rentals, Helen and partner Wendy Mein grow a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables on their small-but-thriving 1000-metre-square certified organic plot. Rain and cold hit Marlborough early this spring, but a stroll through the garden reveals lush ground still heaving with kale, chard, and courgettes. It’s a fact not lost on the couple who, until two years ago, grew wine grapes before pulling up decades-old vines in favour of organic vegetables.
“Everybody was pulling everything out and putting grapes in, so we thought we’d go the other way, because we’re just so contrary,” Helen says with a chuckle. “It seems such a shame to have such a lovely climate and everybody growing grapes, but that’s the thing, you see, we loved the grapes, and we’re definitely still part of the industry, but we can look out there and see some of those vegetables, and they’re not affected by this weather.”
“Vegetables are more work but less stress,” says Wendy, “because we have time to make up for it if things go wrong. If grapes go wrong, that’s it, we’re done for the year. With our courgettes, for instance, they’re just sitting out there, but this weather isn’t going to ruin them.”
Organic Concord table grapes were their first sellable crop in Anita’s shop, but they now grow what Anita and her customers want which means everything from galangal and tomatillos to daikon radish and Berlotti beans. In fact, Na Clachan is one of a few certified organic growers in Marlborough making their connection with Anita all the more valuable.
Back at the store, a husband and wife just returning from Thailand for harvest are tackling their weekly shop. Anita greets them like family. “I guess this is more than a food shop, really,” Anita says with a bright even bashful grin. “It’s about building trust with the customers, the growers, the producers. We’ve helped some people with residency papers, some with appointments, that sort of thing, so it’s sort of a catch-all, really. Anybody who comes through the door is special, though, and we need to treat them like that. We can’t always succeed, but we sure do try.”
Essential Asian Ingredients
03 579 5684
Na Clachan Wine Tours
03 578 8881