15 Mar 2017

Charcuterie queen brings Italy to the Wairarapa 

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 15 March 2017

Rachel Priestley had a successful career in Europe as a chef and restaurateur and it was while working in Italy that she developed a passion for traditional curing.

After ten years in Europe she returned to New Zealand and established a base in the Wairarapa, where she is bringing that expertise to the local market.

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Photo: supplied

She owns the restaurant La Pancetta at Wakelin House in Greytown and is now opening a plant in Greytown to process local free range pigs to produce an expanded range of pork products.

The plant in Greytown will process 25 pigs a week from Longbush Pork in Gladstone and will produce, among other traditional cured products, New Zealand's first nitrate free ham.

She told Kathryn Ryan Italy has a huge variety of cured products and when she came home she wanted to continue enjoying these regional delicacies.  

"I missed eating cured meats every day, we've got such good free range pigs here so I started making pancetta for myself at home."

That soon became a business and she developed a reputation making products such as guanciale and lonza under the brand The Prodigal Daughter.

Guanciale, for example, uses a boned-out a pigs head if you make a true carbonara you use guancharla rather than pancetta, while lonza is the loin  - the equivalent of a sirloin steak.

Priestley's career took her from head chef at the Sugar Club in Wellington to cooking for the New Zealand ambassador in Paris and then to Bormio, an alpine village in Italy.

When she arrived in Bormio she spoke no Italian at all but soon picked it up.

"Within seven months I was dreaming in Italian."

She went on to open numerous restaurants in Italy and set a truffle shop.

"Customer would say 'we love your food come and set up a restaurant for my cousin!'" 

Soon she was developing menus for various restaurants throughout Italy and came up against some resistance.

"Especially with the chefs when I had to teach them their own cuisine. There's this big gruff chef speaking dialect who's good at his job [but] can't handle a foreigner, especially a woman, telling him what to do. It's hurting his ego, hurting his pride."

When the GFC hit in 2008 life became a lot harder for a professional cook consultant.

"I opened my own wine and olive oil shop in Florence in 2008, US tourist ship customers went down by 30 percent in a year. I was consulting, and nobody wanted that because restaurants were closing. 

"I thought, OK I've been here more than ten years, it's now or never, there's nothing going on here I think I better go home."

That brought her to the Wairarapa and although she's from Wellington a chance job offer in Martinborough took her over the Rimutaka Hill.
"I loved being in Martinborough, being in a small town, people having the time to look you in the eye and say hello it did feel like Italy."

Her new business is New Zealand Free Range Butchery.

"At Longbush Pork the pigs are treated the way pigs should be treated and the owners said we need someone like you to add value to our pork." 

Now some of what she calls the best pork in New Zealand is being turned into products that have been enjoyed in Italy for generations.