Carol West finds a food scene that's sizzling, thanks to a fusion of global trends and local produce.
In the unlikely event I'm selected for the TV reality show Survivor, I want David Nicholls on my team. Watching him lash his ankles together with a strip of palm leaf before shinning up a tree to collect coconuts, there's no way we'd starve, go without shelter or suffer from dull and lifeless hair.
"In our culture it's called the Tree of Life and we use it for everything from hair-conditioning to nutrition and construction," says Nicholls as he offers a palm-plaited dish piled with tender coconut meat to a group of visitors sitting around the pool at Etu Moana.
Nicholls's ancestors came to Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands, from the Marquesas Islands 300 years ago; when it comes to surviving, he's old-school. For the rest of us, it's fortunate the aptly named Cook Islands offer five-star digs and the opportunity to get your teeth into some Pacific-rim cuisine. While the resident population of about 2000 people live a mostly traditional life tending neat taro patches and cultivating kumara and rukau, an island spinach, global gourmet trends are washing over both Aitutaki and Rarotonga at an appetising rate of knots.
"South Pacific fusion food is my passion," says executive chef Ricardo Gana, who moved from Chile's chilly climate to the tropical zone of the Pacific Resort Aitutaki. "I enjoy combining a classic quiche with local ingredients like rukau and kumara, plus kitchen-made ricotta cheese, or making osso bucco with local goat, house-made coconut milk, local tumeric and vegetables."
Gana brings home-made elements to the hotel's restaurant fare. An accomplished sushi chef, he can't wait to tackle the fresh tuna delivered 30 minutes ago.
At 11am, the smell of charcoal mixes with the aroma of freshly baked bread at Araura Bakery, in the island's small township. Long wooden paddles retrieve tins of Aitutaki's favourite bar bread from the dome-shaped coral and limestone oven. A family bakery for 40 years, Araura's loaves cost $5 a tin and are bars of baker's gold. "We couldn't make our whopping Big Koru steak sandwich without Aitutaki bar bread," laughs Treena Petero, who, with husband Steve Armstrong, runs the popular Koru Cafe. The New Zealand-born couple have worked in Sydney's cafe circuit yet nothing could match coming back to Aitutaki.
"My father is Aitutakian and, after five years of planning, we judged that the island could sustain a cosmopolitan cafe," she says. Koru is a Maori design that means new beginning and, since the Peteros opened their friendly, all-day diner a year ago, the Boema machine hasn't stopped producing cappuccinos and lattes.
With cargo boats calling in every six weeks, island supplies can run perilously short. That's when the family farmer network kicks in. No one knows this better than Tupuna, who for a decade has been welcoming visitors the coral floor of her eponymous restaurant to dine on seafood and local vegetables, washed down with an aitutaki sunrise.
At the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, a light breeze flirts with the skirts of our tablecloth in the Bounty Restaurant. Totems of Cook Islands culture decorate the open-sided restaurant and a stretch of the adjacent beach has been raked into a coral sand stage for a fire-dancing show. Guests who were welcomed with freshly made eis and coconut-milk cocktails this morning are now discussing the extensive menu options over a glass of New Zealand's finest.
"For a true taste of the Pacific why not try the ika mata," our waiter suggests. "It's raw tuna or mahi mahi marinated in coconut milk, lemon, tomatoes, onion and cucumber and ... delicious." While the menu carries the usual international resort fare, most guests want to eat local and the seared yellow-fin tuna served with creamed taro, local tomato chutney, tamarind, lime and soy doesn't disappoint. Tahitian vanilla creme brulee served with pineapple shortbread is accompanied by hypnotic beats from the pate drums and dancers playing with fire.
On Rarotonga, chef Tim Tierney's frustration at not being able to source produce led him to establish Deli Foods. "Everyone used to grow the same thing at the same time," Tierney says. "Now with hydroponics, the trend is to year-round growing, particularly lettuces and herbs, which do brilliantly here."
Located in Muri Beach, Deli Foods sells larder luxuries and prestige New Zealand wines while the commercial kitchen turns out traditional French sourdough breads, almond praline croissants, chutneys and desserts. Forget Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen, the atmosphere here is heavenly. Tierney rummages through a crate of golden pawpaw and ruby tomatoes readying for a new batch of chutney as groovy house beats fill the sun-splashed space just a few steps from the turquoise lagoon.
"Australians enjoy the authentic, unspoilt nature of the island while having a level of luxury they've come to expect from travelling throughout parts of Asia," Cook Islands Tourism spokesman John Dean says. The islands' recent development of luxury pool villas has led Tierney to create a sophisticated South Pacific menu for in-villa dining options, including gourmet barbecues, five-course degustation dinners and bespoke menus.
In a movie-star setting, palm trees perfectly frame the Little Polynesian's classically-proportioned swimming pool overlooking Rarotonga's protected lagoon. On this patch of paradise, Chilean chef Carlos Bachler shops daily for a boutique-size menu of four choices per course. Choices range from spice-crusted seared tuna caught just beyond the reef this morning to delicate chicken or piquant seafood spiced with a South Pacific salsa.
It's an easy bike ride to the main town of Avarua, where newcomer Le Bon Vivant offers freshly-filled foccacias along with classic salads, choice meats and gourmet goodies. At Cook's Fudge Factory, owner Tatiana Burn is part of the push to blend global with local. "Creme brulee and lemon meringue fudge are best-sellers and we've just introduced truffles infused with local mango liqueur," she says.
At Cafe Salsa, the wood-fired oven doesn't stop at pizza. Dishes include wood-roasted bacon-wrapped mahi mahi and parrot fish fillets served with a crunchy rocket and pawpaw salad. Across the road, nature fills the pantry every Saturday morning at the Te Punanga Nui market in Avarua. The name means "big gathering" and the square is packed as family members unload fruit, vegetables and fish for sale. Victoria Dearlove sells Turkish, sourdough and seven-grain organic breads while her croissants and bagels quickly sell out to tourists along with bags of her father's home-roasted coffee. Chutneys, pineapple cakes and tropical kebabs sell alongside island arts, crafts, sarongs and the fabled black pearls from the Cook Islands' Northern Group.
Even the humble coconut is getting a run for its money from locally-brewed Matutu premium beers. Eric Newnham and partner James Puati pour a glass of pale ale that contains no sugar or preservatives. "It not only tastes good, it's good for you, a winning combo," Newnham says.
On an island where you can never have too many cooks, and with more than 60 restaurants and resorts to choose from, surviving on coconut cuisine in the Cooks is easy.
The writer was the guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Rarotonga via Auckland, priced from $827.30. See airnewzealand.com.au.
Air Rarotonga has daily flights to Aitutaki, priced from $NZ149 ($118) one way. See airraro.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Rarotonga: For pool-villa privacy, try Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa, see temanava.com. For space and privacy for families and friends, try Sea Change Villas, see sea-change-rarotonga.com. For the complete holiday lagoon package, try the Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, see therarotongan.com. For sanctuary and sophistication, try the Little Polynesian, see littlepolynesian.com.
Aitutaki: For romance, try Etu Moana boutique beach villas, see etumoana.com. For high-end glamour, try Pacific Resort Aitutaki, see pacificresort.com. For barefoot luxe on the lagoon, try the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, see aitutakilagoonresort.com.
Phone (02) 9211 6590, see cookislands.travel.