Saffron, food from the Central Otago heartland by Pete Gawron

A local chef captures the essence of this stunning region

By Louise Johnson
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Mount Difficulty Vineyard, Central Otago, NZ

Mount Difficulty Vineyard, Central Otago, NZ

Coronet Peak towards The Remarkables after snow fall, NZ
Matakauri Lodge, Central Otago, New Zealand


On a recent trip home to New Zealand to visit family I found a deliciously gorgeous book in the local bookstore, full of blossoms and bunnies and Central Otago landscapes that made my heart ache.

That these images appear in a cookbook, Saffron, food from the Central Otago heartland, from one of the great restaurants on the region makes it even more special, and that the author Pete Gawron is an expat Aussie marries the two countries I love most.

Have you been to Arrowtown? When I was young we camped every year in the Cardrona Valley, stopping with our caravan in Arrowtown for a night before trekking up the steep hills of the Crown Range to find our spot next to the river. Arrowtown was always my favourite stop during the holidays – mainly for the playground and the tiny Chinese goldminer huts scattered along the river.

The Saffron bistro is a local icon, opened in the late 1990s by Adelaide-born Pete Gawron and his wife Melanie Hill. They had a boom opening - on the day Queenstown was in flood and Arrowtown was the only place open.

“At any other time this would have been a soft opening,” he writes, “ but Mel and I underestimated the dining population’s tenacity; they came in droves.

“Pavers on the footpath had yet to be laid. We ran planks from the street to Saffron’s entrance. The rain continued; Saffron began to appear as though it was surrounded by a moat.”

The floods cleared and the restaurant has thrived and is now part of a mini-empire in Arrowtown with the Blue Door bar across the alley and Pesto pizza joint further along the main street.  Bookings are capped at 60 a night, which Pete says makes sure everyone can be looked after.

“Saffron is the sort of kitchen where we peel and crush or chop our garlic to order. That’s incredibly important to me and I try to instil that in the young guys we train.”

Saffron, the cookbook, is split into seasons, each with three courses. We begin in autumn, which is the most strikingly beautiful time of the year in Arrowtown. The leaves turn a dusty red and litter the cobbled streets of the heritage mining town. Blue sky caps the surrounding mountains and the nights turn crisp, dark and long.

Beautifully presented ingredients and images make this book stand out from the crowd – an entree char-grilled calf’s liver with crushed kumara and sorrel has a juicy garnish of pinot grapes, a variety that has found a natural home in the Central Otago region.

In winter we find whitebait three ways, including a very credible whitebait patty recipe for an “Aussie” – kiwi’s may fight to the death over how their hard-earned whitebait are cooked. A delicious sticky date pudding recipe, with the inclusion figs that makes me wish it were cooler here in Melbourne, earned Pete a first-class ticket to London in return for the recipe. Given the cover price of the cookbook I think we’re getting a great deal here.

In spring we find fresh paua (also known as abalone), pigeon and Cromwell cherries just fresh from the tree. Summer has salmon from Canterbury, blue cod and roasted summer fruits from nearby orchards.

Well known New Zealand painter Grahame Sydney shares an essay on his inspirations from the Arrowtown landscape, and even better known actor and winemaker Sam Neill shares his thoughts on Central Otago wine along with a beautifully illustrated history of the township.

Books like Saffron are truly special. They offer much more than a collection of recipes, giving us a real sense of place and time and in a setting such as Arrowtown, to capture that is truly magic.

Saffron, food from the Central Otago heartland is published by Godwit, Random House New Zealand. RRP $A79.95. members and subscribers can purchase Saffron at a special 12.5 percent discount through our online book partner Seekbook. Postage and handling extra.


  • Central Otago (NZ)
  • NZ South Island (NZ)

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