Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Picking raspberries is like milking cows

At this time of year the gardens are in full bloom and we reach a tipping point between anxiously waiting for crops to bear fruit, and being overwhelmed by a cornucopia of produce.  We seem to grow more every year and spend an inordinate amount of time taking photos of mounds of fruit and bunches of glossy vegetables, then texting the photos to one of my brothers with whom I engage in an arcane form of gardening as a competitive sport.
A selection from last year's harvest

I find home grown fruit and vegetables fall into a three categories:

  • those you won't/can't grow for various reasons - you hate them (swedes); wrong climate  or conditions ( tropical fruits); or repeated failures (celery, celeriac).  
  • those you grow just the right amount of and enjoy from first to last (raspberries, strawberries - in fact any berries, corn, carrots; radishes, fennel) 
  • those you initially enjoy, but by the end of the season want to poke out your eye with a needle rather than eat or, at the very least, wish you had only planted one (without question, zucchini).  
When I pick the first zucchini (a week ago) it is with a schizophrenic heart.  I love the vegetable and it is versatile enough to use in everything from pickles through fritters and slices to cakes - google "chocolate zucchini cake" or muffins and see how many hits you get.  However,  I know these first harmless green cylinders herald an ongoing battle which will last to the end of summer, as this too-prolific plant and I battle it out to see who dies first.  Typically I will surrender, and my version of raising the white flag is plucking out the offending plants by their roots.

From picking fruit to jam in less than an hour
But raspberries are a different matter.  Having engaged nets to stave of flocks of hungry birds, we happily eat all we produce, to the extent I find myself at the berry farm down the road picking a punnet or two so I can make some raspberry jam.  It is then I dwell on the act of picking each berry (you may think I have too much time on my hands).  It reminds me of milking cows by hand.  When you milk a cow you gently squeeze the teat to shoot the milk out into the bucket.  When you pick raspberries, you gently squeeze the berry so it slips off the stalk.  If it doesn't slip off easily, it isn't ripe enough.

I  saw Annabel Langbein  make her 10 minute version of Raspberry Jam on TV the other night, so had to give it a try.  

Berries (I used 1kg)  and sugar ( I used about 650gms. I can't remember what she used, but I think it depends on how sweet or otherwise you like your jam.  Some cooks go kilo of fruit to kilo of sugar which sounds too sweet to me).  Put the berries in the pan and heat til juice runs, add sugar and bring to the boil. Hard boil for 10 minutes, add a knob of butter, which gives gloss and reduces the foaminess. To see if the jam has reached setting point,  put a small spoonful of jam on a cold plate and see if a skin forms on top of the jam. This is my Mum's method and it works a treat. If it isn't ready, boil a bit longer and test again.  When it is ready, bottle in sterilised jars.  Delicious.

And it won't be long before I'm making Zucchini Pickle.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sweet and savoury together - yes or no?

I can not be the only person in the world who has an aversion to fruit in my savoury dishes.  I don't just mean that 1970's dinner party staple, Chicken and Apricot casserole - although I do have to raise my guilty hand on that one.  Hey! I was in my 20s and it was the height of sophistication.  Ahhh the food memories of those wild and wacky years: go on, admit it, you're sitting there in your caftan dipping chunks of French bread into gooey cheese fondue, or eating prawn cocktail out of a lettuce cup, or pumpkin soup - cooked in the pumpkin! How clever were we?  

Speeding ahead to this decade, I admit to enjoying the well balanced flavours of sweetness in or accompanying a meat dish, but to my mind there is something very wrong about chicken and apricot on the same fork, or a finding a strawberry in your otherwise green salad.

With this in mind, I struggle to explain some of the dishes I enjoy where fruit does make an appearance.  With guests for  the long weekend, one of the lunches I make includes apple in a root vegetable salad (below).  As I am explaining that I think the original recipe has sultanas in it but I can't stand fruit in my salad blah, blah, blah, the h-g innocently enquires as to whether apple is a fruit.  Well, yes.  So isn't this very salad a vegetable/fruit combo?  Hmmm, how to back out of this one gracefully?  I can't.  

However, in my mind and to my palate some things work and some things don't.  Pork and apple works.  Strawberries and lettuce doesn't.  Watermelon and feta cheese works.  Lamb and sultanas doesn't.  In fact, anything savoury with sultanas doesn't work in my book, even those otherwise delicious North African/Moroccan dishes made with fragrant herbs, soft couscous and crunchy pine nuts.  However, when I google 'apricot chicken' out of curiosity, 1,960,000 hits tells me perhaps I am a lone voice railing against fruity flavours in otherwise savoury plates.  

I am not sure where I first found the recipe for this raw salad - probably in one of the popular diet books of the 1980s, like the F Plan or Liver Cleansing, or one of the myriad of raw food plans that were around then.  If you would like to make it, it's delicious AND good for you AND easy to make.
Beetroot, Carrot, and Apple Salad 

Beetroot, Carrot and Apple Salad: 
  • Peel and grate raw beetroot, carrots, and apples. The one pictured is heavy on the beetroot but the relative quantities do not really matter. 
  • Layer on a serving plate or in a bowl - I prefer to layer so the beetroot doesn't bleed into the other ingredients, but again, it doesn't matter.  
  • Toast some sunflower seeds (or whatever other seeds and nuts you like) and toss over the top. 
  • Pour over whatever vinaigrette you like, but in this instance I use a dressing made from red wine vinegar, grainy mustard, honey, olive oil, salt and pepper. 

Also whipped up over the weekend, another easy and delicious, but not so good for you dish. This recipe is from Issue 62 of Cuisine, for many years the leading NZ food magazine (which incidentally also won a host of international food writing and magazine awards in its day).  Not many of you will have a 15 year old copy of Cuisine hanging around, so here's Julie Biuso's recipe.  

A dacquoise is not to be confused with a pavlova.  Pavlova, first made in New Zealand though often claimed by Australia, was created to honour the ballerina Anna Pavlova. It is a meringue disc, crisp on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, topped with cream and some kind of fresh fruit. 

dacquoise, on the other hand, is made with layers of almond or hazelnut meringue, sandwiched together with whipped cream. It takes its name from the feminine form of the French word dacquois meaning 'of Dax', a town in south western France.  

This is a smart looking dessert that will wow your guests and cement your reputation as a cook of note! 

Apricot Dacquoise
5 egg whites
The meringue discs are sandwiched with pureed apricot
swirled through whipped cream
250gm castor sugar
100gm blanched and roughly chopped almonds (I used hazelnuts in this one)
pinch of cream of tartar

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then gradually add the castor sugar. Fold in the almonds and cream of tartar until just mixed, using a large metal spoon. 

On two oven trays lined with baking paper, spread the mixture into two 20cm discs. Bake for at least one hour in an oven preheated to 140 C. When cooked the underside of the discs will have no sticky patches. Cool on wire racks. 

When completely cool, sandwich together with 
a 400gm can of soft apricots (drained) pureed with 1 Tablespoon of brandy, swirled through 300ml of whipped cream.

Layer the discs with the cream filling at least 6 hours before you want to eat it so the cream melts into the meringue a bit and softens it. In this way it won't shatter everywhere when you slice it in front of your awestruck guests. 

A standard rubber Custard Square

Speaking of shattering everywhere, what about the flaky pastry on a Custard Square?  

Typically the mass produced items seen in every bakery comprise a virulent yellow solid rubbery plug of "custard", and pastry which manages to bend rather than flake when you bite into it, all the while squishing filling out the sides.

It is a treat to get one where the custard is so light and the pastry so flaky it does shatter!  I know they are hard to make because the h-g had a hankering for some recently, so I made a batch. They were not pretty to look at, as you can see, but they did taste damn good.  

My sad, but tasty batch of Custard Squares

So when I come across the perfect Custard Square it is nothing short of a delight.  I find them at Bosco cafe in Te Kuiti (I am on a road trip, okay?)  I ask if they made them there. Uh uh, came the response - they come from Denheath Bakery in Oamaru in the South Island (this is over 1,000 kms and an inter-island ferry away!) and "we only have them here on Fridays". My lucky day!  These wee treasures have a fluffy delicate custard sandwiched between two layers of genuinely flaky pastry.  Coconut dusted lemon icing provides zing, along with a wee slash of passionfruit pulp.  Heaven on a plate.

Denheath's light as a feather Custard Square as served at Bosco.
So a road trip to Oamaru is in the planning - to see the historic stone buildings of course,. And go to the source of the best Custard Squares in New Zealand. 

Friday, 12 October 2012

Cruising the Pacific Coast Highway - Part two

Perching high on the hills of San Simeon, approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, sits Hearst Castle.  Not to be confused with Hurst Castle, Henry VIII's Device Fort near Lymington in England, this Hearst Castle's plans for construction began in 1919 when William Randolph Hearst instructed his architect, Julia Morgan, that "we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something". 

The front entrance of Hearst Castle, with
towers inspired by a Spanish cathedral
These words must surely rate as one of the understatements of all time.  Hearst's little something took almost 30 years and created an estate comprising 165 rooms decorated with imported European art and artifacts  and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools (indoor and outdoor) and walkways. 

The Neptune Pool, heated year round

A visit to the house, which is now owned and operated by the California State Parks, offers a choice of several different tours: the Upstairs Suites; the Cottages and Kitchen; the Grand Museum Tour.  We choose the Grand Tour to get the overall feel for the place. All tours include a 40 minute film about the history of the Hearsts (no mention of the Symbionese Liberation Army) and begin with a five mile bus drive from the Visitor Centre (run with military precision) up the winding road to the hilltop estate.  Still a working ranch of 250,000 acres, it is also possible to spot zebra (yes you read that correctly) grazing with the cattle, as for many years Hearst operated the largest privately owned zoo on the grounds.  The zoo was dismantled in 1937 when Hearst needed to liquidate some assets. Only the zebra remain.

Hard to spot, but the castle sits atop the hill
Inside the castle is akin to touring a museum that is a multi-cross between a European church, an American western ranch, a neoclassical art gallery and a movie set.  Hearst had agents in Europe seeking out pieces he could put into the castle  - you know, the odd fully complete C15th Church ceiling, or C3rd Roman mosaic floor -  and he never let practicality get in the way. The architect was frequently required to redesign rooms to fit new acquisitions, or in some cases rooms were torn down and rebuilt.  No wonder it took more than 30 years to build.  Just think, today there would be a multi season TV reality show that would give Grand Designs'  Kevin McCloud palpitations.

Hearst was a great host and invited the Hollywood glitterati and all manner of influential others to stay in the house and guest cottages in the grounds. The food was, apparently, excellent.  However, although he had a massive and well stocked wine cellar (to which only he had a key) the abstemious Mr Hearst deplored excessive drinking and rationed his guests.  This was particularly hard on the heavy drinkers of the Hollywood set and caused David Niven to remark " the wine would flow like glue during the meal" . 

We arrive out on the coast by way of the vineyards of Paso Robles which, locals tell us, is the fastest growing wine area of the US.  Currently there are about 26,000 acres planted with over 40 different varieties, some doing better than others.  In the early days (1950s and 1960s) Bordeaux varieties were mostly planted, and from the 1980s the emphasis shifted to Rhône  varieties including Syrah,  Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Viognier. The ubiquitous (in California) Zinfandel is widely grown and often blended with other varieties.  "Crazy Blends", is the nickname for Paso Blends, as these  wines do not follow traditional rules of wine making.  Lots of experimentation and, as you can imagine, the results can be variable. 

Wild Coyote Winery
We stay an adobe style Bed and Breakfast attached to the Wild Coyote Winery and vineyard, about 8 kms out of Paso Robles.  The location is spectacular: at an elevation of 550 metres we have expansive views over the vineyards, Santa Lucia mountains and the canyon.  It was just as well the location was great, as the welcome is cool, and not in a good way.  The owner/winemaker, who never actually introduces himself even as we do, adopts a patronising tone in our discussions of wine, grape growing and wine making, as if his way ("I've been doing this for over 20 years you know") is the only way.  I really hope our New Zealand cellar door  operators take a much more open minded approach with their visitors, particularly overseas grape growers and wine makers!  Overall the visit could have been enhanced by the presence of actual wild coyotes.  

Our final port of call before departing for home ex San Francisco, is Monterey. 

Monterey Bay
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."  So begins John Steinbeck's 1945 novel, set  on a street of sardine canneries in Monterey during the Great Depression (as opposed to the not-so-great depression). The paragraph continues "Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."
Breweries rather than canneries

Steinbeck wouldn't recognise 2012's Cannery Row,  now best described as a cup of clam chowder, a bus of Japanese tourists, shops full of junk trading on Steinbeck's novel, and the zip of a credit card machine. The closest you will get to a sardine is in the Aquarium, as the industry collapsed by the mid 1950s due to overfishing.   Even so, it is a pleasant enough area to stroll around and the bay itself is quite beautiful. 

And so ends our Pacific Coast Highway trip - we head up to San Francisco to exit the country.   Sadly, I do not find a yoga room in the International departures terminal.
The Pacific Coast Highway stretches ahead

Friday, 5 October 2012

Cruising the Pacific Coast Highway - Part one

In California the coastal road is known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH.  It isn't the quickest way to get from San Diego to San Francisco, but it is definitely the most picturesque.  
PCH north of LA
In reality, the PCH starts at Dana Point, some distance north of San Diego and the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton and extends beyond San Francisco to the north. It is a bit of a schizophrenic road, as at various points it shares itself with the 101 and various other highways. All that notwithstanding, it is worth the journey.  There is not a lot to recommend between San Diego and LA, but beyond that - an array of experiences and coastal driving punctuated with beautiful vistas await.  
The h-g on the beach cycleway

Our first stop is Los Angeles - of course - and we stay out at Marina Del Rey in a hotel right on the marina (shades of our stay in the South of France).  We rent bikes and spend a day on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, a paved bicycle path that runs 22 miles (35 kms) mostly along the Pacific shoreline. Indeed, it runs not quite along the middle of the beaches, but close to it.  We head north towards Santa Monica and the interesting bits in between.  First, Venice Beach, with its famous subset, Muscle Beach. Initially built in the 1930s for gymnastic and acrobatic performances, Muscle Beach has gone through a few transformations in its time and now the weight equipment is in a caged pen:  it looks like the workout yard in a prison.  All sorts of famous people have trained here, but I have heard of none except Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I'm not sure that's a great recommendation.  There is much strutting, posing and wearing of bandanas.  The beach is still the venue for weight lifting and the tanned and well oiled (if strangely hued) body building competitions for which it is famous. 

The doctor is in - just how bad is that back pain?
All along the street that opens up to the beach front there are stalls, shops and buskers of every stripe.  To me, Venice has a vibe that is still firmly rooted in the late 60s early 70s, complete with tie dye and incense.  There are several medical marijuana shops, where after a short "consult" with the doctor about your migraine/insomnia/ pain/anxiety you will get a prescription.  The pricing is quite competitive, and the spruikers are keen to describe the quality of their wares.

The pier at Santa Monica is part fun fair - the Ferris wheel and roller coaster have spectacular views of the ocean and back to the city. - art traditional seaside pier with an aquarium, arcade, shops and yes, fast food.
Santa Monica from the pier

It is easy to see why Los Angeles is a such a magnet. With a great climate, golden beaches stretching for miles, a laid back outdoor lifestyle and on the other hand plenty of glitz and glam, there's plenty to like, even for those with the most eclectic tastes.  But alas our days are numbered and we move on up the coast to Santa Barbara.  

The general word is Santa Barbara is beautiful, and I have vague memories of watching a TV soap opera of the same name back in the 1980s. Note, however,  I couldn't remember a thing about the show until I just looked it up on Wikipedia - then memories of Eden and Cruz came flooding (well, trickling) back.  I am pleased to read "The show was famous for its comedic style and offbeat writing." so I can't have been completely deranged to have watched it. 

Santa Barbara Mission
Santa Barbara IS very beautiful, set against the Santa Ynez Mountains and the coast, with a crescent shaped bay banded by an historic wharf at one end and a marina at the other. It has a small town feel and a history of Spanish and Mexican habitation that is reflected in the architecture.  The Spaniards built missions and set about converting the local Indian Chumash people to Christianity - as missionaries are wont to do.  The Mission Santa Barbara was founded in 1786 and today  continues to serve the community as a parish church but also contains a museum, a Franciscan Friary, and a retreat house. 
Main street of Santa Barbara

While we find the area, the history and the town engaging to point of considering how to arrange a house swap to live here for a few months, there is dark side to paradise.   While throughout this trip we see a lot of homeless, Santa Barbara seems to have more than its fair share for a town with a population of fewer than 100,000.  Walking up its very attractive  main street we see homeless people every block, either singly or in small groups. Many seem to be military veterans and many are likely to be suffering from disorders.  Creeping unemployment and subsequent loss of benefits, including health care, have seen a growing number of people untreated for physical as well as mental disorders.  It makes you uncomfortable on any number of levels.

Now this is getting a bit depressing - I will finish with a beautiful sunset and a promise of Part two of this trip: the vineyards of Paso Robles, Hearst Castle and Cannery Row. 

Moonrise over Santa Barbara 

Monday, 17 September 2012

On the other hand..

Having thoroughly disparaged a segment of the American populace for their love of coronary inducing deep fried food-on-a-stick, it is now time to celebrate all that is good about American food.  While for the most part the meals are seriously too big, this is not always the case and it is possible to find small, tasty plates.  This does not have to be in expensive restaurants or fine dining establishments. 

Smoked salmon tartine at Toni's
For example, while looking for breakfast in downtown Chicago and wanting something other than an over priced hotel buffet or a  Dunkin' Donuts, I happened on Toni Patisserie and Cafe on East Washington St.  While they offer a full range of light and flaky pastries, what catches my eye is  the range of tartines - open face sandwiches. The salmon is delicious: fresh bread with a light spread of cream cheese, thinly sliced but generous portions of elegant smoked salmon, topped with nicely acidic tomato, lemon and spring onion (In American speak) salsa.  Perfect. 

Sesame crusted seared tuna fillet
As I mentioned  a couple of posts ago when blogging about Maine, almost everyone who travels to this easternmost state eats as much lobster as they can.  I like lobster, though not as much as New Zealand crayfish, so seek other seafood pleasures.  I find a delicious sesame crusted tuna served in a beach side restaurant that is otherwise a tourist trap of gigantic proportions.  The tuna is perfectly cooked. More accurately, the outside is perfectly cooked and the centre perfectly raw.  This could have been a plate in a much more up-market restaurant, but the rather clumsy garnish and plastic pot of soy sauce tell the story of the restaurant's purpose  - serve them up and turn over tables.

Beef in a bun is arguably the food that defines America.  Well it isn't much of an argument: the argument is more around just how many burgers are eaten in the U.S. in a year.  McDonald's accounts for about 3 billion, and I find estimates for totals ranging from 14 billion to 58 billion.  Either way, it is a lot of minced beef, ketchup and buns.  

Bill's classic burger
Burgers come with all kinds of add-on ingredients including, as we know and love in New Zealand, beetroot, or  pineapple or egg.  In my opinion, basic is better. And at Bill's Bar and Burger in the Meatpacking District of New York, that's what we find. Bill's classic has a meat pattie (very juicy), cheese, pickle and ketchup and is pretty good, though maybe not the absolute best you'll ever eat.  I like it for its straightforward simplicity of flavours and easy-to-eat size - you don't need a hinged jaw to eat it. 

By the way, the Meatpacking District is now known as a fashion area rather than for its slaughterhouses, which was the case until the late 1990s. My New York  ex-pat Kiwi friend and I find ourselves on the lower west side as we have just walked the High Line.  This does not have anything to do with drugs.  Unless your drug of choice is the airy streets above the west side of Manhattan.

La Newyorkina ices
Initially built in the 1930s as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement, the High Line lifted rail freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan's largest industrial district.  However, no trains have run on the High Line since 1980, and in 1999 it was developed into a public park.  With attractive landscaping and planted out with hardy trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers, it provides a mile and a half long boardwalk (for walkers only - no bikes) giving a unique aspect onto the streets below.  No hawkers allowed, and only approved food sellers, such as La Newyorkina  - artisan ices inspired by Mexican flavours such as mango, chili, lime and tamarind. I was in two minds about trying the tamarind, but as it was such an unusual idea I went with it. I should've stuck with the mango.  The tamarind was a bit more insipid than I had expected, rather than that sharp, tangy flavour you expect.

Loungers at the 11th street end of the High Line

It is fortunate my friend has had a year in New York to locate drinkable coffee.  Finding good coffee was, of course, a major concern for a Wellingtonian moving to the Big Apple.  However, perseverance and multiple cups of terrible java consumed in pursuit of the Holy Grail, she found Sweetleaf, right there in her Long Island City neighbourhood.  She had even trained them to make flat whites!  This meant I was able to drink coffee again after two weeks of abstinence brought on by being faced with flavoured drinks masquerading as coffee (for example in the Seattle-based chain the name of which I do not speak), or bitter, thin beverages served in large mugs or massive takeaway containers.

Lobbying poster in a Dunkin' Donuts window
On that note, an interesting phenomenon has emerged in New York.  Mayor Bloomberg has been trying to introduce legislation that bans the super-size sugary drinks so favoured by "coffee" houses and fast food outlets.  Breaking news this week is that he has been successful, and despite lobbying by soft drink manufacturers, the Board of Health has a formal ban that restricts soda drink servings to a maximum of 16 ounces (475ml, close to half a litre) in fast-food and other restaurants and places of such as stadiums. A normal can is 330ml, yet some outlets serve a whopping 64oz (1.8 litre!) size drink, so this is a substantial reduction on the buckets that people commonly guzzle from in cinemas, sports arenas and so on.  The rule takes effect in 6 months time and attracts a $US200 fine for a breach.  
This cookie is half the size of my iPad

The purpose of the rule is to impact obesity.  While you have my support Mayor Bloomberg, good luck with that while everything else is still in super-sized portions. For example, cookies that are half the size of an iPad.

But any way, I digress. There is great food to be had across the US, it is just that the fast food joints out weigh (pun intended) the establishments that focus on quality rather than quantity.  You just have to seek then out. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes it's just your lucky day. 

Friday, 7 September 2012

Food on a stick

Let me begin with a firm statement that I like the United States - a lot.  I like the American people in general and some of them in particular.  The ones I meet tend to be friendly, very hospitable, generous, kind and polite, and  I am sure the Americans I know represent the great proportion of others in that vast country.  

However there is a segment of the American population I just do not understand.  

I can best explain this through the following true story I read in Dining section of The New York Times on my recent visit.  The article relates to the Iowa State Fair and their annual effort to create new and exotic food, preferably on a stick, as food on a stick accounts for a 30 to 40 percent increase in sales.  I understand the economics, but the execution leaves me faint with disbelief.  It is not the 2012 treat that amazes me -  a "deep-fried pickle dawg". This concoction is a pickle slice, pastrami or ham and cream cheese. The creators of this treat were sadly defeated in their efforts to make it stay on a stick and had to serve it in a cardboard boat. 

Which makes the 2011 creation even more marvellous in both inception  and execution.  

If I give you 10 guesses I bet you will never come up with the answer.  

If I tell you the symbol of the Fair is a giant butter sculpture of a cow,  you may start to think along the right lines.  As an aside, the Butter Cow starts with a wood, metal, wire and steel mesh frame and about 275kg (600lb) of low moisture, pure cream Iowa butter. Layers of butter are applied until a life-size butter cow emerges - measuring about  1.67 meters by 2.4 meters (5-1/2-ft  by 8-ft ).

Is it an ice cream on a stick?  Too easy, besides, it has to be deep-fried to be truly delicious.  How about something cheese-y.  We all know melted cheese is good to eat.  No, let's go for gold.  

The Iowa State Fair PROUDLY brings you, for the second year by popular demand, at a price of just $4, DEEP-FRIED BUTTER ON A STICK.  If you would like to try this at home, take 60 grams of butter and put a stick in it, keep it close to frozen and dunk it in funnel cake batter (what the hell is this? I am afraid to google it) with cinnamon and spices, then fry in vegetable oil heated to 200 Celcius (400F).  Cook for 60 to 90 seconds then drizzle with a honey glaze - go on, I dare you.
Larry Fyfe, the brilliant man behind the concept

Kids, don't fry this at home.

In case you are thinking of a trip to Iowa in 2013, the website tempts you with a list of foods on-a-stick, but be warned - not all foods are deep-fried.

Here's the list of foods on-a-stick as of Fair 2012

Too many deep fried foods on-a-stick?
  1. Chocolate-Covered Chocolate Chip Cannoli - NEW in 2012
  2. Chocolate-Covered Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Pop - NEW in 2012
  3. Fruit (with yogurt dipping sauce) - NEW in 2012
  4. Double Bacon Corn Dog (a hot dog wrapped in bacon, deep fried, dipped in bacon bit enriched batter and deep fried again to golden perfection) - NEW in 2012
  5. Bacon
  6. Chocolate-Covered Frozen S'more
  7. Fried Butter
  8. Peanut Butter & Jelly
  9. Chocolate-Covered Deep Fried Cheesecake
  10. Griddle Stick (turkey sausage wrapped in a pancake)
  11. Cake Pops
  12. Fair Square
  13. Chocolate-Covered Tiramisu
  14. Chocolate-Covered Turtle Mousse Bar
  15. Twinkie Log (frozen Twinkie dipped in white chocolate and rolled in cashews) 
  16. Octodog (hotdog in the shape of an octopus)
  17. Chocolate-Covered Peanut Butter Bar
  18. Chocolate-Covered Key Lime Dream Bar
  19. Carmellows
  20. Pickle
  21. Pork Chop
  22. Corn Dog
  23. Cheese
  24. Cajun Chicken
  25. Sesame Chicken
  26. Carmel Apple
  27. German Sausage
  28. Teriyaki Beef
  29. Corn on the Cob
  30. Cotton Candy
  31. Veggie Corndog
  32. Turkey Drumstick
  33. Nutty Bar
  34. Hot Bologna
  35. Chicken
  36. Monkey Tail (chocolate-covered banana)
  37. Honey
  38. Ice Cream Wonder Bar
  39. Deep-Fried Snickers
  40. Deep-Fried Milky Way
  41. Deep-Fried Twinkie
  42. Breakfast Lamb Sausage (brat)
  43. Deep-Fried Ho-Ho
  44. Deep-Fried Cupcake
  45. Dutch Letter
  46. Chocolate-Covered Cheesecake
  47. Pineapple (Fresh pineapple dipped in funnel cake batter and deep fried)
  48. Hot Lips (breaded chicken breast smothered with hot sauce, served with blue cheese      dressing)
  49. Cornbrat (bratwurst dipped in corndog batter)
  50. Chocolate-Covered Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich
  51. Rock Candy
  52. Salad
  53. Hard-Boiled Egg
  54. Unicorn Lolipops
  55. Rainbow Popsicle
  56. Push-ups
  57. Turkey Tenderloin

Monday, 3 September 2012

Taking the Maine chance

Fresh cooked lobster 
Lobster and clams.  That's why people come to Maine, the most eastern and northern, and least populated state of the US.  It is a state also known for its scenery:  a jagged rocky coastline, trees, lakes and waterways.  

For my part, the scenery features only a little in my decision to join a cycling trip in Maine, but mostly it fits into my travel dates: tucked neatly between visiting the foodies in Milwaukee and a friend in New York.  I also mistakenly think it will give me the incentive to get fit in the scant month we have back in New Zealand, between eating our way around France and Italy and coming to the US.  

Bar Harbor, Maine
Just off the coast of Maine, on an island reached by a two lane causeway, lies Mt Desert Island home to one of the most unspoilt areas of the US.   Acadia National Park was designed and financed by John D. Rockefeller.  Between 1915 and 1933 he oversaw the construction of over 80 kms of trails, 17 granite bridges, and two gatehouses.  Beautiful as the park is, I'm afraid any biking I did was no preparation for cycling the undulating gravel carriage trails so lovingly designed by Rockefeller's landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand.
One of the 17 hand hewn granite bridges in Acadia 

I arrive the day before the rest of the group joining VBT's Purely Acadia tour, and spend time getting to know Bar Harbor.  Not unlike Kaikoura on the east coast of the South Island of NZ,  it has a population of less than 5,000 which swells to three times that with summer visitors, who come not only to eat lobster, but hike, cycle, canoe, kayak, whale watch, sail, and generally relax and enjoy the outdoors.  However, unlike Kaikoura, many of those coming for the summer are the rich and famous who have  "cottages"  - a term surely rich in irony - on the island.  

A summer "cottage" 
On the afternoon of day one it is drizzling.  As tour members arrive throughout the afternoon, the tour leaders, Anne and Tony, fit us to our bikes and send us off with directions for a seven mile (11 km) warm up ride.  Given it is constantly wet, warm up is a bit of an exaggeration.  I throw in - or perhaps more accurately grasp - the towel about 2/3 of the way and retreat home to a hot shower and the comfort of our base, the Bar Harbor Inn.  At dinner we meet the whole group of 14: aside from yours truly, we have one woman from California; two couples from Virginia; one couple each from St Louis and Philadelphia, and four women friends from Florida.  As becomes apparent over subsequent days, Anne and Tony  are probably the best tour leaders on earth.  Not only are they passionate and enthusiastic outdoors people, absolutely nothing is too much trouble for them to organise or arrange so every member of the group has a great vacation. 
The best tour leaders on earth

Day two dawns sunny and everyone is ready to go - me with justified trepidation, given my lack of preparation.  The ride is rated easy-moderate which apparently means some "moderate" hills.  Tony heads off in the support van and Anne rides shotgun on the group. The support van is not really there to scoop you up when you lie exhausted alongside the road, nice as that would be. The carriage trails are just that - for horse drawn carriages, walkers and cyclists.  No vehicles are allowed within the Park.  It is not long before I am hoping a well timed heart attack will relieve me of having to continue on the ride.  It is quite hot, the carriage trails are gravel, and harder work than the nice flat asphalt I ride on at home.  By banana o'clock  I am gasping, but after a break and words of encouragement from Anne, I  complete the 13 miles (20 kms) to Jordan Pond House and lunch.  With survival my main goal, I elect to take a ride back to Bar Harbour rather than continue for another 13 miles in the afternoon.

Bar Harbor Inn, our base for 3 nights
That night it is a lobster dinner on the terrace of the Inn.  Having ready access to crayfish in New Zealand I am not as excited as most others by the delicacy.  Many make it their aim to have lobster at least one meal a day while on the trip, and successfully do so, including lobster omelette at breakfast. 

Looking back across Sand Beach
Day three is a much better day for me.  I seem to hit my stride and Tony gives me excellent tips for getting up the hills without exhausting myself and without stopping.  I feel like Lance Armstrong - without the blood transfusions.  We do a beautiful ride along the coast (no gravel) and before lunch take a break from the bikes to hike for an hour and a half across the only sandy beach on Mt Desert Island and up along the rocky outcrops which characterise most of the coast. The view is very similar to parts of New Zealand. Tony has great information about the flora and fauna and history of the place.  After this it is a short ride to where Anne has set out a delicious (and healthy!) picnic lunch.

The afternoon sees the group divide into two: the masochists who cycle up Cadillac Mountain - a 45 minute uphill (1,500 ft or 440 metres) grind with a 12 minute adrenaline filled downhill run;  and the rest who take a leisurely ride back along the loop road.  No prizes for guessing which group I join.

The next day we bid farewell to our accommodations and cycle south to Northeast Harbor - I know, it doesn't make sense to me either.  We stop for lunch at a microbrewery (yay) and enjoy a beer tasting and barbecue lunch to fuel the continuing journey.  There are spectacular views over Somes Sound, a deep bay which almost splits Mt Desert Island in two.  Although (Wiki tells me) "it lacks the extreme vertical relief and anoxic sediments associated with Norwegian fjords", it is popularly described as the east coast's only fjord.  As gorgeous as this is, the highlight of the day is when Anne and Tony take us to meet Harry Owen, a true character of Acadia.  At 86 or thereabouts, Harry is a long term resident with a wealth of stories to tell.  He is an inveterate collector of antique vehicles and has beautifully restored motorbikes, tractors and a 1929 (I think)  truck which he still drives to town.  

Having enjoyed weather that can only be described as hot over the first few days, it is a surprise that the next day it rains. And rains. And rains. However, as luck would have it, this is the one non cycling day, assigned as it is for a ferry trip to an offshore island. Hardy souls decide to take the ferry anyway, some opt for a trip to a car museum, and I enjoy sitting in the comfortable lounge of the Asticou Inn, drinking tea and gazing out over the brooding harbour.  It stops raining about mid afternoon and a mile walk into the village  is a pleasant respite and provides a surprise.  I find the best home and kitchenware shop I have ever seen!  They seem to do very well out of the summer people equipping their "cottages".

Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park
It dawns clear again for our final day and our last ride back up through the carriage trails.  I find the gravel riding much easier, and as the temperature is a little cooler it is a very, very pleasant ride back through the trees and alongside Jordan Pond to Bar Harbor.  

It has been a wonderful trip and everyone has enjoyed themselves immensely. There is enough challenge for the fitter, faster riders, and enough options for those who don't want to ride as much, or like me, need a couple of days to get up to speed.  The accommodations were  very comfortable, the food great (especially the picnic Anne prepared including her home preserves), and the company fun and congenial.  Apparently the Maine state motto is "life the way it should be". Sounds good to me.

14 happy bikers