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Food & Wine Travel February 10, 2015

Cuisine a ‘la New Zealand

Tucked away in the stunning midi-Pyrenees region of France, is a slice of New Zealand. A café restaurant named Pukeko that draws its inspiration from New Zealand cuisine. Run by born and bred Kiwi, David.

Verve: Hi David, let’s start off by asking how you came about opening this beautiful café in France?

David: I am a Kiwi, originally from Kaitaia, but was living in the United Kingdom with my English wife and four London born children. We both had been working at the BBC, (me as a producer on the BBC News channel, and Rosie as a producer/sports news reader in the sports department).

Life was good, with plenty of friends and fulfilling jobs, but it was all a little on the ‘safe’ side perhaps. Whatever it was, one evening after a little too much New Zealand sauvignon, we decided to cut loose and change up our lives. We aimed to start a business, give the kids a second ‘mother tongue’ and enjoy the space, clean air and rural living in France. So after numerous house hunting trips and some online French lessons, we found ourselves piling the kids into the car and heading for the Channel Tunnel, and onwards to Puy l’Eveque. Our house was big, drafty, dirty and with more holes in the roof and windows than we’d remembered from the viewing.

As for making a living? Well, we had a few business ideas but nothing finalised, so we had to get something started, fast. We couldn’t help notice the number of tourists who would park outside our house and take a photo of our stunning, quiet town and then hop back in the car and drive off. So we started small, with snacks and coffee, and were busy from day one. We wanted to fit in, and named ourselves ‘La Terrasse Rivière’ (The River Terrace). A friend asked why we weren’t going to be selling beer and wine and we told her that the mayor had specifically said ‘sans alcool’. That sounded clear to us, but she thought that was wrong and so we asked again. The next week he told us the same thing, that we can sell drink, but not alcohol, then added, ‘but beer and wine is OK’.

We looked at each other confused. I got him to repeat himself several times before it was clear – maybe he meant non-alcoholic beer? “No, you can’t sell alcohol, only beer and wine”. After much head-scratching we deduced that the French only call it alcohol if it’s the strong stuff. I wouldn’t recommend trying that one on the gendarmes though. “No ossifer I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol, just a couple of litres of vin rouge… “

V: How long have you owned Pukeko?

D: We opened shop back in 2008 as ‘La Terrasse Rivière’. We had a couple of Kiwi items on the menu from the beginning. However it was a few years later we realised that it’d be better to stand out, so embraced our New Zealand side more overtly. It made sense: it’s who we are, and they love New Zealand around here. People would ask ‘êtes-vous Anglais?’ When I answered that we were
from New Zealand their whole demeanour would change, they wanted to know all about us. From the rugby, the land, the rugby, the long flight and .. did I mention the rugby? They seem to have a real affection for, and fascination with New Zealand. They seemed so bemused by how on earth I ended up here.

V: Your café is called Pukeko, you must get many people asking the meaning of this name. If you had named it ‘Kiwi’ it would have been more self-explanatory.

D: Yes, I love Pukeko as our name. It’s a kind of off-beat, comical  looking, individual, and allows us a couple of great colours to use in our marketing. The problem with Kiwi, is that it’s a fruit over
here. I mean the fruit is called ‘kiwi’, it’s not called a kiwifruit. I’ve given up correcting people who say how we put ‘sliced up kiwi’ on our pavlova. You can’t slice up a kiwi, it’s a protected species!

They don’t get it, and calling it the Kiwi café would have led to a lifetime of having to unravel the confusion. We added an accent on the ‘e’ to make it Pukèko. This wasn’t to make it more fancy, but to tell the French how to pronounce it. They say it perfectly every first time now. Without the accent it would read Pu-ker-ko. Ok, so maybe it was a little bit about making it look fancier.

V: Does the food you serve have a Kiwi influence?

D: Most certainly, from day one our main dessert has been pavlova, which has gone down a storm with the French from the word go. Plus New Zealand style fish ‘n chips. New Zealand style: light, crispy beer batter, cooked to order and to perfection – as opposed to English style: cooked half an hour ago and sitting under the warmer, with bubbly batter so thick it takes three grease-squirting bites to reach the fish. I’m actually an Anglophile, but the fish ‘n chips in the United Kingdom are truly awful.

Now we do Kiwi style burgers, which were initially a challenge due to the tough food laws here. Minced beef in restaurants must be used or thrown out 12 hours after mincing. It’s kind of
awkward, but we decided to embrace it, and try to and produce the best, freshest burgers we could. Everything is made in-house including the buns, the tomato jam, mango chutney, spicy aubergine relish and the hand cut chips.

The French don’t have a long burger tradition, so have never tasted the likes of what we do. We’re now looking to open a second branch, in a more urban setting.

V: Can you see yourself staying in this beautiful part of the world for a long time?

D: We’ll have to just see how everything turns out. It is really beautiful here, and when we look across the river on a summers morning, we feel pretty lucky.

However our children will probably leave here to find work – 17 year old Scarlett, and 15 year old Louis are already away at boarding schools. There is no ‘Lycee’ in Puy l’Evêque so at 15 you’re off. Ideally? We’ll be back in New Zealand one day. We were in Auckland for Xmas 2012 and the kids adored it. For all its wonder, France is currently lacking the kind of can-do attitude more typical of New Zealand.

V: Thanks David! 

D: So please, if you are coming to visit France, make sure to stop off for a flat white at Café Pukeko in picturesque Puy l’Eveque.

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