They started small, they’ve built big reputations: Denise Irvine visits two much-loved Waikato artisan businesses marking their 25th anniversary, this time Wild Country
‘We’re always looking to create something different’
Lunch today is slow-cooked lamb shoulder, served with fresh green salad and Volare bread, and the bit on the side that makes the plate and palate sing: Mint & Apple Lamb Jam, from Wild Country Fine Foods.
The Lamb Jam is a finely balanced, sweet-sharp hit; there is a nostalgic echo of old-school mint sauce but this one embraces bolder 21st Century tastes. I can barely hold back from scraping out the bowl.
The Wild Country team – husband and wife Angelique van Camp and Stephen Wilkinson – are at the lunch table; we’re at their home at Te Kowhai, near Hamilton, and Wild Country’s commercial kitchen is a short stroll across the paddock
From this under-the-radar rural base the pair sell their flavoursome handmade chutneys, sauces, jams, aiolis, mustards and dressings to more than 200 outlets nationwide, as well as to clients in Singapore, and Houston, Texas. And, of course, at Te Kowhai they’re handily placed for Waikato-grown berries, tomatoes, quinces, figs, and more, to fuel their products.
Wilkinson and van Camp started Wild Country in September, 1995, when they both worked in marketing in Auckland. They produced infused oils and vinegars as a side-hustle, and five years later they took a punt on going fulltime into condiment manufacture. They relocated to the Waikato where Wilkinson was raised, and he recalls their move south: “We had the dog in the back of the car, we were both unemployed, and Ange was pregnant.”
One of their earliest condiments was Onion Balsamic Marmalata, still popular, and a shelf-stable aioli. Nowadays they make about 60 different small-batch products across their two brands, Wild Country and 362 Grillhouse. Bacon Jam, in the Grillhouse range, is another big seller. They’ve also had major success with Old Yella Habanero Mustard, developed in partnership with Auckland chef and cookbook author, Al Brown.
They met Brown some years back when he was doing culinary demonstrations at Fieldays, at Mystery Creek. He said to them, “I might have a project for you.” The punchy Old Yella was originally made for Brown’s restaurants, nowadays it’s sold throughout New Zealand. Wild Country also makes condiments for fast-food chain Wendys Hamburgers, and it does a range for Hamilton Gardens, using the Gardens’ own fruits.
Now 25 years on, Wilkinson and van Camp are marking Wild Country’s silver anniversary with a special birthday condiment: their full-of-flavour Honey Peach Spicy Bootleg Meat Sauce, made with Golden Queen peaches, local honey, bourbon and spicy habanero.
There is also a “celebration collection” developed earlier this year in Covid lockdown. The Lamb Jam is part of this, as is a grainy Raw Honey Bourbon Mustard; Tarragon & Dill Lemon Mayonnaise; Tomato & Chilli Hot Ham Jam; Maple Dijon Ham Glaze; and Port & Orange Cranberry Sauce. All the tasty trimmings that you could wish for on your Christmas Day table, and beyond.
In lockdown, says Wilkinson, they had time to play around with ideas, and unexpected things happened. They were offered 200kg of heirloom tomatoes which otherwise would have gone to waste. So they took on the ripe red mountain, processed and froze untold batches, and van Camp developed a new Farmhouse Tomato Relish for Wild Country’s 362 Grillhouse range. As well as a spicy tomato kasundi, now on the menu at Mr Pickles Eatery & Bar in Hamilton.
And therein is the key to Wild Country’s success: “We say yes to everything,” says Wilkinson, as they tell the tale of the tomatoes. “Then we hang up (the phone) and think, uh, oh.”
He recalls a late-night urgent request for a ham glaze from a big producer; Wilkinson said yes, they got the job done, despatched a pallet of ham glaze on deadline. “If you don’t work hard, you don’t get rewards.”
Wilkinson and van Camp are hands-on owner operators, they share most roles in the business but the kitchen and recipe development is van Camp’s domain. She has Dutch and Lebanese heritage, she grew up in a family of food-lovers and commercial chocolate-makers, and an appreciation of condiments is in her genes.
She says: “We’re flexible and adaptable. We’re always looking to create something different, something original, we’re not here to replicate. Tastings with our staff are important; everyone has a say. It’s a team effort.”
Sometimes it takes a while to get a new product right. Van Camp says her first run at the Lamb Jam was a flop. She reworked it, finally nailing the perfect sweet-sharp flavour and syrupy texture she’d envisaged.
Van Camp also does the meticulous methodology, microbiology and record-keeping required in such a business. Wilkinson adds another element, tongue-in-cheek: “I have to understand that although I might have a lot to say, I’m never right.”
Team-work, though, is everything at Wild Country. Pre-Covid, the pair travelled regularly to the US on research trips, checking trends and developing a client base in Houston, Texas. They’re also on the road in New Zealand, looking after customers, looking out for new condiment ideas.
As Wilkinson says, “a snag in a rag is nothing without tomato sauce; it all starts from there”.
Van Camp’s view is that everything tastes better with some condiment magic.
Quite right, both of you: that divine Lamb Jam has certainly lifted several meals to the next level at my place. – Denise Irvine