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, 30 September 2014

Swimming with iguana

Darwin dubbed them a "disgusting clumsy lizard"  but I find them ugly-fascinating-amusing in equal measure: the Galapagos marine iguana. As their habitat is volcanic rock with no vegetation they have evolved to eat the seaweed and algae growing on the rocks under water, the only iguana to do so.  

After the excitement of seeing the first one it is then iguana for Africa, so to speak.  The first time we meet them they are lying about soaking up the early rays: they lie flat changing orientation as the sun moves. Unable to internally regulate temperature the iguana raises its body off the ground to let the breeze circulate when it needs to cool off. When warm enough to withstand some time in the cold waters of the Humboldt current it goes for a swim to feed, hanging onto the rocks with its sharp claws,  before returning to reheat enough to carry it through the night.  

You need to be careful where you walk as you are in danger of creating squashed iguana, which most certainly would be a breach of Park rules.  Yet it's often hard to see them as their sooty black skin is perfect camouflage against the lava rock, right down to the crusty white on their heads which mimics the lichen growth. This white mohican comes from their habit of sneezing salt when they emerge from the water.  A long spiny crest runs down the centre of their back from head to tail.  

When we snorkel with them I almost choke - laughing and breathing through a snorkel are not complementary activities. Iguana are comical to watch as they swim along beside you, heads proud above the water, propelled along by their muscular tails.  You can keep your swimming with whales or dolphins, I'll take swimming with iguana any day. 
Marine iguana swimming ashore after a day grazing on algae
Almost 1,000 kilometres from mainland Ecuador, we land in the Galapagos at Baltra, a desert landscape of tree cacti, scrubby bushes in sandy soil, and subject to a hot wind.  Within 40 minutes or so we are donning rain jackets to protect against misty rain as we traverse the topmost point of the island of Santa Cruz at 900 metres. It is as if space travel flings us across continents, but in reality the distance is only a few kilometres. One side of the island is hot, dry and inhospitable; the other wet, lush and luxuriant. The contrast in the landscapes of the islands we visit is part of the wonder of the Galapagos.

How big?
The south side of Santa Cruz is one place giant tortoises hang out: big shiny reptilian boulder-like creatures intent only on grazing.  If you have ever wondered just how giant a giant tortoise really is, the answer lies here - bigger than an average sized teenager. 
Bigger than a 13 year old
We spend some time watching these prehistoric beasts in action, slow action,  before travelling further south to the small settlement of Puerto Ayora to board our home for the next six days, the 16 berth Galaxy.  It isn't a luxury super-yacht but certainly not camping. We have eight crew including a Captain, first officer, engineers, sailors, and most importantly a chef. I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of our meals though I find it very easy to resist the desserts which are excessively sweet and generally lurid in their colours.  Roberto is our excellent bilingual guide moving effortlessly between Spanish and English all day every day.
The Galaxy at anchor
At night the ship motors and we wake up (those of us who sleep) in a new location where we spend the day snorkeling or walking or both.  

In keeping with the diverse geology, different species inhabit different islands.  Even when something lives on more than one island, it will be another species - for example there are ten species of Galapagos tortoise. 

sea turtle gliding along just under the surface

While I am on this trip the hunter-gatherer is on a dive trip around the Wolf and Darwin islands further north, and on his return regales with stories of dozens of hammerhead sharks, manta rays and whale sharks as big as the Hindenburg. I am happy with my iguanas and the graceful sea turtles. 

On our forays ashore we encounter more iguana - larger, more colourful and land based. They live in burrows and feed on vegetation. It is wonderful to be able to get so close and observe all the various reptiles without them skittering away. Unlike the rest of us, they have little to fear from human behaviour. 
Land iguana emerging from its burrow

Sea lion pup feeding

Crabs sizing each other up
Blue footed booby

And off course there are birds, birds and more birds: Galapagos hawks, blue footed boobies, flightless cormorants, pelicans, frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, flamingos, not to forget a few dozen varieties of Darwin's finches - it was his study of the finches, after all, that kicked off Darwin's theory of natural selection and evolution. 

It occurs to me only once I have returned home that aside from domestic animals near the couple of villages on the inhabited islands, everything is reptilian, avian, or lives in the water.  The trip is akin to visiting a massive natural zoo of unusual species, not surprising when you consider the location and habitats.  It's not a zoo I need to go back to, but it is one I am pleased and privileged, to have experienced - especially swimming with iguanas.
An iguana passed this way

Friday, 19 September 2014

Late addition: photos for Rocky Mountain High

Finally able to load photos  - these accompany the previous blog. Tales from the Galapagos Islands to come within the next few days.....

Three of the spectacular Chihuly glass sculptures at the Denver Botanic Gardens

The modest Maroon Bells, two of the 59 peaks in Colorado that exceed 14,000 feet

Cycling from Glenwood Springs towards Vail - the cycle trail runs adjacent to the highway through the narrow gorge. There is a railway line on the other side of the river. 

The small sign on the right of the photos is a warning that there are bears in the area - we don't see any, but do see lots of bear scat (that's poo to you and me)

Home of the Rocky Mountain high

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Rocky Mountain High

In all senses of the word!  I am in Colorado, the first state in the US to legalise cannabis, and in Denver, known as the "mile high" city as it's one mile above sea level - that's 5,280 feet or 1,600 metres for us metric folk.

And it's a great city, even Americans think so. Denver came in at number seven in a list of the best cities in America.  I am gutted I have only one day here before I join my cycling trip in Aspen. The great news is there's a Chihuly (fabulous glass sculptures) installation at the Botanic Gardens so I make that my priority.  As it turns out the Denver Botanic Gardens are probably the best I've ever seen anywhere in the world, and that includes London's Kew Gardens.

But I'm in Colorado for the cycling. A six day ride in the Rockies, about which I may have had just a few quiet misgivings. I rely on VBT's (the tour company) assurance that there is van support. Now it's not just that I'm being wimpy; at least not much. After nearly a month in South America with no biking I'm not feeling fabulously fit, and at altitude it's not just the scenery that takes your breath away.

A group of 18 plus two guides, on this trip. Aside from me, everyone is American and everywhere from New York to California. We start in Aspen at an altitude of just over 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) with a ride up hill to Maroon Bells. These are twin peaks of over 14,000 feet and appararently the most photographed scene in Colorado, if not America. The two peaks reflected in the lake make a nice picture, but a it's bit over hyped.

All of the mountain towns are ski villages by winter and biking and hiking towns by summer so there are quite a lot of vacationers around,and it turns out it is also US school holidays. The architecture tends to the Swiss chalet flowering window box style especially in Vail, which to my surprise is a new ski area developed in the early 1960s.  Our riding over the six days covers riding paths in many of the ski resort names you recognise, such as Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge.

We are almost always on purpose built and sealed recreational paths which make for easy-ish riding. The longest day we ride 42 miles (67 kilometres) down the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. As we lose 2,100 feet of elevation over the distance it is a really enjoyable and picturesque ride with the Roaring Forks river on one side and with the mountains on the other. We stop for lunch at Carbondale, a one horse town and home of Senor Taco, a great little hole in the wall restaurant, and for $3.50 Senor makes a great mahi mahi taco!

Unfortunately the next 10 miles is in the heat of the day (now 32 degrees C) with a bit of a head wind. By the time I arrive at our hotel my face is scarlet and I feel like I am about to have a heart attack - or at the very least collapse of heat stroke. However it's back in the saddle, or in this case grab the paddle, and we are off rafting the Shoshone Rapids for the afternoon, down through the Glenwood Canyon (which we cycle the next day), and it is spectacular.  I am not tempted by the hot springs after dinner. I've had enough heat for one day.

We also cycle the Ten Mile Canyon National Recreational Trail from the top of Vail Pass - thank God the shuttle has brought us up to the top - it is 10,662 feet!  We ride down a fairly steep (read smoke coming off the brakes) path on the east side to Copper Mountain village, then a more gradual path to Frisco then on into Breckenridge which is a lovely historic old mining town and lacks the whiff of elitism you sense in Vail and most especially Aspen.

It transpires there is not a drugstore (ie cannabis not pharmacy) on every corner in Colorado, and the state does not reek of weed. Not every town has a cannabis store. However Breckenridge is where I get to ask the question you don't get to ask much: do you sell marijuana here?  Even though the store  looks suitably hippie-ish the reply is a genuinely heartfelt: I'm so sorry, we only sell pipes. But she directs us down the street to the Breckenridge Cannabis Company.

It turns out these stores are very carefully run professional places, even if they only deal in cash! You wait in a waiting area until a room comes free. When its your turn you have to show your ID or you are not allowed in the room. The sales dude (there is no other word for a guy with waist length dreadlocks, multiple piercings and a riot of tattoos ) asks what you are looking for: eg an 'amped' high, or more mellow, or a heavy stone - that's the brownies apparently - and makes recommendations. There's all kinds of weed and varieties of edible product.  Any purchases (since I am in America I'm pleading the 5th) are placed in a childproof ziplock bag - who knew such a thing existed.

After the cycling I return to Denver to meet up with my dear old friend (the expat living in Milwaukee). We  pick up our rental and embark on a Thelma and Louise road trip - sadly without the convertible or Brad Pitt and happily without the finale. We do have scarves, sunglasses and lipstick.

We are heading south through the mountains and canyons in the South of the state and then on to Albuquerque.

Yes folks, we're Breaking Bad! More Rocky Mountain highs to come....

(Sorry for the lack of photos - having trouble loading them by iPad)

ATM cash only, ID requires, one at a time

Friday, 1 August 2014

Meat, meat, Malbec and oh yes - more meat

We have arrived in a country that asks for the make and model of your cell phone as part of the immigration declaration. I was afraid I would be refused entry because my iPhone is not the latest model.  The hunter-gatherer wonders if there is a set of random questions they draw from, such as "Do you have a dog? What breed?", or perhaps "How many sweaters do you own? What colours are they?"  

We are in Mendoza, a short but spectacular 50 minute flight over the Andes from Santiago.  

Flying from Chile to Argentina over the Andes
I decide against reading "Alive: the stories of the Andes Survivors" before the trip. Remember the Uruguayan rugby team members who  survived for two months after their charter plane crash in the mountains? They had to eat their dead friends.  Our flight is uneventful - so uneventful the cabin crew do not even pass through the cabin - I guess they are just there to hand out cutlery in the event of an emergency.

Speaking of cutlery, you need a good set of sharp knives in Argentina, the home of beef - and Malbec. We are consuming more than our fair share of both. Indeed, I have eaten more steak in the past two weeks than in the past two months. The hunter-gatherer has even been heard to say "I don´t feel like eating meat today".

We love Mendoza: The tree lined streets are an easy to navigate grid bounded by four avenues.  The traffic isn't too manic, however any standards for what might constitute road worthiness seem voluntary. There are some real wrecks (usually decrepit Ford pickups) but mostly late model European and Japanese cars abound.

Feeling bold, we spend a day in General San Martin Park. It is now notorious in New Zealand as the place a young New Zealander was shot dead earlier this year. Two guys on a motorbike tried a bag snatch and it went badly wrong. If this hadn't happened to a New Zealander we would probably never have heard about it it, but on a sunny winter's day in a park full of families, couples and groups of friends strolling, picnicking, cycling, jogging, I am hyper vigilant. Yet it is just like any other large city park anywhere in the world.

But really, the country is a mess. Inflation is rampant and there is a currency black market, known as the 'blue' market for reasons too obscure to mention.  We  cruise the street looking to make a transaction: the only difference between this and a drug deal is the dealers are armed with calculators not hand guns. The bank rate is 8.08 to the $US, but on the street it's 11.7. Inflation is rampant, and so you see half finished houses where people have run out of money. There is 21% goods and services tax, but businesses work around it when they can as they don´t trust the Government to pay them back any refund due.

Yet there is always meat! The country is a veritable celebration of the carcass in all its glorious forms. They can´t help themselves - we spend a couple of days visiting vineyards and wine tasting in the two main valleys south of Mendoza - Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. On both days we enjoy a multi course degustation lunch paired with wines.  All the courses are small, as befits degustation, however when it comes to the steak it is a great piece of fillet served as a full sized main course. New Zealand should be establishing beef farms here, not dairy farms.

Barbecue restaurants are everywhere, and every night they are full. I do not always recognise the cuts and it is the first time I have seen a kitchen with a band saw permanently in place. 

Standard fare - the Argentine barbecue restaurant

Not entirely sure what some of these guts and cuts are
Meatlovers everywhere, this is the place for you!

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Handy hints for travel

I wish I would remember my own good advice when travelling. Treat this as a handy rule guide... I am sure you have your own handy hints - feel free to add to the list.

1. When you are packing, it helps to remember you are the only one who cares what you  wear.  Really. Other people won't notice if you have the same two outfits on high rotation for six weeks - unless you begin to smell.

2. You will end up wearing your most comfortable shoes every day, even if they are not stylish. See rule one.

3. Despite what your mother told you, lightning will not strike and nobody will die if you wear the same undies for two days.

4. No matter how good your haircut, your hair style takes its own vacation. It will look a mess. Especially if you dry it with one of those completely gutless hotel hair dryers. You know the ones, hard wired into the wall in case there is a world wide conspiracy of hair dryer thieves.

5. Don't make jokes at Immigration or Customs. Anytime.  Anywhere. 

6. It is ok to eat cake and pastries for breakfast.  Within reason.

Mmmm - cake for breakfast

7. Sir Peter Blake was right. You can wear merino for days on end and it will not smell. See rule one.

8. If you research the weather of your destination before you leave, and it strongly suggests boots, gloves and a hat would be a good idea, reconsider rule one.

9. There will always be something you wish you'd packed and something you did pack you won't wear.

10.  Pretty much wherever you go, there will be shops. See rule one.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Oh what a different world it is to go wine tasting in Chile.

Typically the experience of vineyard visits and wine tasting in Chile could not be more different from what we do in New Zealand.  However before we encounter that experience we find a slice of New Zealand in the Casablanca Valley about 45 minutes west of Santiago. 

Here we have arranged to meet Grant Phelps, a NZ winemaker who has been in Chile for 14 years and is Chief Winemaker at Vina Casa del Bosque. It´s a great visit and Grant shows us all over the property and fills us in on Chilean viticulture, vineyard management, grape varietals and winemaking.  This is one of the few places in Chile where the climate is suitable for Sauvignon Blanc, but Grant is at pains to point out he makes a Sauvignon that is not in the New Zealand style.

Viña Casas del Bosque in the Casablanca Valley
He is a friendly and colourful character and we spend some time tasting from tanks and barrels before we sit down to a delicious lunch in the vineyard restaurant.  

From Casablanca we drive three hours south to Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley, a much bigger winegrowing area than Casablanca. It is here our visits become more typical and more formal. There's no rocking up when the mood or road takes you. You make an appointment. On arrival at the vineyard you stop at the imposing gates (closed). A self important man in a uniform struggles to understand your version of Spanglish (unless you have arrived with a guide), eventually checks your name against his list and grants entry.  For this area we hire a driver and guide who arrange the appointments and smooth the way.

At each winery everything is already set up for your visit: shiny glassware at the ready, and a well schooled young man or woman to take  you through a guided tasting.  In all cases we are given personalised service - labour is cheaper here than in New Zeland!  All of the hosts we meet speak excellent English, specialise in wine tourism, and are incredibly knowledgable about their winery´s vineyard and winemaking practises. Post tasting they relieve you of anything between $10 and $40 per person (that's not a misprint) and send you on your (slightly more) merry way.  Well, we do use spitoons but some wine is bound to find its way down your throat!

The expensive tasting is at the most spectacular and interesting winery, Lapostelle, in the Colchagua Valley about two and a half hours south east of Santiago.  The owners are the French family Marnier Lapostelle, as in Grand Marnier, and while the total production is massive, their top tier label, Clos Apalta, is totally (and you might think excessively) biodynamic. This is seriously over the top. The individual grapes are hand picked off each bunch by 60 virgins.  Well maybe not virgins, but 60 local women. After this, every process is designed to minimise air contact and handling. There are no pumps - everything is moved by gravity and the winery, dug down into the hillside, is designed on seven levels to facilitate the process.

The internal staircase at Lapostelle in the Colchagua Valley

The whole winery is a beautiful piece of architecture and engineering, and the two barrel rooms are the most elegant I have ever seen. I strongly recommend checking the website and taking a virtual tour - the family wine library, which we only saw from above, looks spectacular. It gives a great look at the scale and level of detail involved.

I find biodynamics all a bit woo-woo and I don't believe many people will pay the extra cost -  the Apalta labels are well into the hundreds of dollars, but it was interesting to see how far people with strong beliefs - and the money to back them up - will go.

All of the wineries we visit seem to have money to spend both on the public buildings and on the infrastructure - equipment, tanks, barrel rooms.  The number of wineries in Chile has grown from 12 in 1995 to over 70 in 2005, so it is still relatively young.  Generally French varietals reign and for us the introduction to Carmenère was an eyeopener - an early drinking (early as in young, not so much early in the day, but suit yourself) lighter style red. If you see Chilean Carmenere on the shelf, give it a chance and see what you think.

Off over the Andes to Argentina now. Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Chile's new economy: Gone to the dogs?

 It's interesting what strikes you when you visit a new city.  In Santiago as we walk around the streets we can't help but notice the many stray dogs weaving in and out of the traffic and ranging the parks and squares.  These dogs look well fed, don't appear mangy, and are not aggressive.  They look as though someone cares for them. Who?? A New Zealander we meet who has lived here for 14 years says -tongue in cheek- they are pets and a Chilean's idea  of having a dog is to feed it and let it roam. I disagree: I could tell the pets - they were wearing little sweaters.

At the traffic lights, rather than the usual windscreen bandits, jugglers, ventriloquists and acrobats perform between the lines of cars then hold out their hands for tips as red turns to green.  Looking for a car park? Some entrepreneur in a faded hi viz vest, possibly liberated from a work site, will guide you into a parking spot then stand over you  until you produce monetary evidence of you eternal gratitude for his assistance.

Our first two days  here in Santiago are an unseasonably warm 25 degrees Celsius, right in the middle of winter.  We are not complaining. Our friend (of a friend) Ricardo meets us at the aeropuerto (note how fluent I am in the old espanol) and takes us to our hotel, a little boutique place in what he has recommended as a safe area.

Day three and we are cast, glorying in not eating dinner. I have never looked forward to not eating as much  as right now.  We've barely taken a break since we touched down and last night our dinner booking was at 10:30. I glance at my watch as our main courses are set down and it is just midnight. Seriously, when do these people sleep?

Mind you, our lunch the same day comprises a Chilean specialty - a small herd of bison and farm animals barbecued and served on a hot plate.

Hungry much?
We are lucky to have Ricardo show us Santiago then bring us to beautiful Valparaiso on the coast. We stay at Vina del Mar a little up the coast for another couple of days.  Valparaiso reminds me of an old movie star who has succumbed to the drink; rather faded, with bright lopsided lipstick and hair a bit askew, putting on a valiant show.  Tipsy,  she slides down the surrounding hills with her skirts up and flashing her undies.  As you look up the hillsides from below, the houses are painted all shades, murals adorn walls, steps shout rainbows. However down by the sea it all feels a bit tawdry, and the change in weather doesn't help.  It is damp and cold. Sorry about the lack of photos, I am on the iPad mini and facing technology challenges getting photos from the camera.

But that doesn't stop us from having drinks and lunch.  The Hunter-gatherer exhibits addiction to Pisco Sours from the moment we are offered one on the plane. So do I it must be said.  If you like a Margarita you will love a Pisco Sour.  When you order one you have to state which brand or strength, like single malt whiskey.  What is Pisco? Wikipedia tells me it is a distilled grape, so perhaps we need to replant our vineyard at home!  Just an idle thought.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

There's whisky in the jar

There are few better reasons to visit a town than to taste the local produce, whatever it may be. Indeed, aside from wining and dining, what other reasons are there??  

Okay, there's splendid scenery, sedate or death defying activities - depending on your proclivities -meeting new people and so on, but in my case at least, these tend to take place against a backdrop of gastronomic pursuits.  

Case in point Oamaru: a small rural town in north Otago which, on the face of it, has little to recommend it other than as the home of the Denheath custard square  immortalised in this blog two years ago.  Yes, it has taken me that long to make the pilgrimage.

Once upon a time Oamaru had more taverns and brothels than any other settlement in the country - obviously a fun place to visit in the late 1800s.   We learn this and more about the development and heritage of Oamaru in a fact filled 10 minute video at the information centre.  While we do pay cursory homage to the Victorian historic stone architecture, our attention turns to more edifying activities. 

Duck confit at Riverstone
Here are my top reasons to visit Oamaru:

Eating at Riverstone Kitchen where chef Bevan Smith creates fabulous plates of food such as the Duck confit on char grilled brussels sprouts (more delicious than you might think!) and pureed jerusalem artichoke.

While Bevan builds the reputation of the restaurant as a dining destination, his mother is building a castle not far away. True. 

Dot Smith, aka Queen of Riverstone Castle, has always wanted to live in a castle so now she is building one. No half measures for Dot - there will be a moat with drawbridge, a secret passageway and yes, a dungeon - possibly for those only remotely less eccentric than Dot. 
Dot's castle under construction. photo Philip Matthews, Stuff.co.nz
 But good on her for following her dream. I may even stay there when she opens one wing as a bed and breakfast.  Especially if it means I can eat all my meals at Riverstone Kitchen.

Tasting the range at Whitestone Cheese Factory which credits the favour of its cheeses to the "local milk produced on sweet limestone country".  I have to agree the flavours are clear, clean and tangy, so much so we spend a minor fortune (but not enough for a castle) on hunks of delicious Highland Blue and Five Forks 50-50, a combo of goat and cow milk that is creamy and nutty and perfect in a beetroot and walnut salad.

But the title of this blog is about whisky, a drink more typically associated with Scotland.  

There is quite a history behind New Zealand whisky but here's the short version. Leaving aside the efforts of early Scottish settlers in the 1800s, the Baker family established a distillery in Dunedin in 1974.  (An 18 year old at that time I remember clearly - or not so clearly - the two brands they produced: Wilsons and 45 South.)  Bought out by Canadian distiller Seagrams in the 1980s the company flourished and produced the highly regarded single malt Lammerlaw. Seagrams sold on to Australian brewer Fosters in 1997, and Fosters mothballed operations taking the stills to Fiji to make rum. 

Oamaru's historic Victorian precinct - chilly in winter
The New Zealand Whisky Company bought the last 443 barrels of mainly Lammerlaw malt and have had a merry old time maturing the product for the past 20 years.  Situated in a bondstore in the Loan and Mercantile Building in Oamaru's heritage precinct on the harbour, it is a most delectable way to spend a couple of hours on a cold winter afternoon. 

We taste our way through several styles (variously aged) of international award winning whisky - yes it's true - the company has been entering the World Whisky Awards and racking up gold medals from here to Scotland and back.  As we look the types to enjoy a dram or three the local manager invites us upstairs to the bondstore to check out the barrel stocks. They are kind enough to bottle a malt that wasn't in the retail store for us. As these are also exceptionally rare drams, the medals are not the only things racking up, and we stagger away having spent almost enough for a castle drawbridge on rare whisky.

Prohibition stopped beer brewing in Oamaru in 1905 and it has taken over 100 years for it to return.  Former local boy Phillip Scott moved his Scotts Brewing Company home to Oamaru from Auckland in late 2013. As he shows us around the brewery which can produce 5,000 litres of beer a day,  he describes plans to landscape out the front (they have set up in the old railways goods yards on the harbour) and create an outdoor area that will spill into the weekend Farmers' market.  Despite the June chill and a streetscape so empty you could fire a champagne cork down it without causing bodily injury, it is easy to imagine more vibrant summer weekends down by the harbour. 
The small harbour of Oamaru
In fact it is easy to imagine lingering around Oamaru for quite some time, not least to continue the tasting experiences, but we know there is more to the town and the area.  I have only briefly mentioned the beautiful Victorian stone buildings, of which there are more than a few; there are two penguin colonies where you can watch little blue penguins or their yellow eyed cousins waddle up to their nesting boxes at dusk every evening; there's wineries up the Waitaki river; the beautiful Waitaki itself.  And I must mention Oamaru is where we would have ended had we cycled the full Ocean to Alps as described previously in this blog. 

 We bring our bikes in the hope of doing more of the ride but the  weather was against us for most of the time. We manage a short ride up through the Botanic Gardens - again, most likely very picturesque in summer - and along the tail end of the cycle way.  Besides, there was too much else to do - all that local produce! 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Harvesting the bitter fruit - what to do with olives

Living on a vineyard the biggest and most important harvest of the year is, of course, the grapes. Once that is out of the way and we heave a massive sigh of relief (until the whole cycle starts again) and look at harvesting and curing our olives - and they must be cured. If you have ever eaten a raw olive you know they are bitterer than lover scorned. 

We have only half a dozen or so olive trees in three different varieties, however just which varieties remains a mystery as I lost the labels before recording the names.  Most years we have more fruit than we need for curing and preserving but nowhere near enough for olive oil - more on that later.  I didn't weight the yield from our few trees this year, but I suspect  seven to eight kilos would be a generous guess.   

In the past I have cured them using the water or brine method.  This is very straightforward and means soaking them in water or brine, which needs changing daily, for about 30 days to extract said bitterness.  After draining the final time, the now more tasty olives can be bottled in a 10% brine solution.  At this stage it is possible to add chillies, various spices, lemon peel or whatever else tickles your taste buds. 

This year I experiment with a couple of different methods, drying  the olives instead of soaking them.
olives colour change on ripening
I stand to be corrected on this, but my understanding is green and black olives are the same; it is all a matter of ripening. The olives shown above all came from the same tree and show how the colour develops.  I find the best stage for brining is as they change from green to the slightly purplish colour - if they get too ripe they become soft in the brining process. I don't know about you but when I bite into an olive a want a firm texture, not mush.

from the dehydrator, then coated in oil
Having said that I pick ripe but firm black olives for drying  - I put some in a food dehydrator and the others aside for salting.

I run the dehydrator for 24 hours then, having to go out of town, trust the hunter-gatherer to judge when they are ready.  "Job done" he said. I think  these are still a little bitter and need more drying, but he says he likes them - I guess he has to!

salt cured before cleaning, coating in oil and bottling

The salting method is my new favourite, not just because it takes the least effort.  It gives a great result. Completely cover the olives in sea salt (though I used ordinary table salt this year as I didn't have enough sea salt) and let the salt draw out the bitter juices. If the salt becomes too wet, replace it with fresh salt.  I leave these for about three weeks, rinse off the salt and dry the olives again before tossing them in olive oil.  They will keep in the fridge for 6 months, though I doubt they'll last that long as they are delicious.

Olive oil is a whole different kettle of fish - or olives in this case. You need tonnes to get any meaningful yield. Unlike grapes, which cropped at a very high rate this year, the olive trees around the district were variable in yield.  One of our neighbours doesn't bother harvesting her trees so we raid those and join forces with other contacts who have olives but in short supply. 

The method of choice for collecting vast quantities of olives is by a frenzied whacking of the branches with long sticks in what must look like a Fawlty Towers sketch.   It is very effective and  the fruit falls onto tarpaulins spread underneath,  then is transferred to large bins for transportation to the press. On a couple of tree-thrashing days we harvest about 800 kilos over three properties (plus a couple of meagre kilos from our "grove".  This gave us a surprisingly good yield of 15% so all in all we had over 100 litres to share out. 

The colour, taste and smell of fresh olive oil bear little resemblance to the imported oils you find in supermarkets.  
fresh home grown olive oil
If this blog were scratch'n'sniff you would be able to scrape your fingernails on the photo and inhale the heady aroma of freshly mown grass  - just what you want on your salad!

So, you see, with the right treatment even the most bitter fruit becomes palatable. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Rough and ready on the Pacific edge

Great Barrier Island or simply the Barrier is a perfectly named landmass, sitting as it does between the vast Pacific Ocean and Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. The craggy landscape initially formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago is further shaped by the ocean and weather - and the people are similarly rough and ready.

On an overcast and slightly breezy day we leave our boat on anchor and go ashore at Port Fitzroy.  We see a rental car and call the number printed on its door.  No problem.  But he's not sure “what state the car’s in” and it’ll take a half hour for him to come over to us, driving from a neighbouring bay.  He duly rolls up, cites a price of $85 a day but if we don’t want him to wash the car  "call it $80".   We call it $80.  I point out the vehicle has no registration (“yeah, I renewed it on-line and I’m waiting for it to come in the post”) and no warrant of fitness (“yeah, it has to go over to the only garage on the other side of the island and it’s booked in tomorrow”).  This has a Tui billboard feel about it, but we're in the equivalent of Mexico here, so hand over the cash.  As we head off he heads to the general store and emerges minutes later with a slab of beer. 

At 90 kilometres north-east of Auckland, the island is not that remote yet only 800 people live here year round.  By necessity everyone generates their own electricity through solar or using generators, and access to what most of us consider daily necessities is limited or non existent.

The sheltered waters of Kaiaraara Bay

The severity of the landscape is a surprise after the benign islands of the inner Hauraki Gulf where we have been cruising for the previous three weeks.

The west coast is a mass of native-bush covered ranges plunging into the sea, nicked by bays and dotted with bony islands.  Port Fitzroy is the result of a drowned valley system and forms a protected bay.  The settlement there is tiny, comprising a wharf, an info centre that rivals a phone box in size, and a general store selling various necessities including bait and the aforementioned booze. Half gallon flagons of sherry seem to be popular items.
Port Fitzroy - a wharf and the general store up the hill

In contrast the east coast is exposed to the expanse of the South Pacific – next stop Chile. This coast is varied, with wetlands in the north and graceful curves of white sand beaches showcasing good surf along the waist of the island, then more rocky coves to the south.
Awana Bay on the east coast
Between the two coasts the land is steep and brutal and covered in dense bush, yet over the centuries whalers, miners and loggers have had at it.

The island has a number of  Department of Conservation (DOC) walks/hikes, some more rugged than others. The 25 km Aotea Track is a manageable 2-3 day circuit for a reasonably fit person, and includes the ascent of Mt Hobson, at 621 metres the highest point on the island. You can count on plenty of up and down terrain, stunning views, interesting historic sites and beautiful native bush, including the surviving kauri trees.  The island is free from predators such as possums, goats and deer, so the bush has regenerated well. However the presence of rats means the native bird life has not fared as well. 

steps, steps and more steps
We spend our first few days around the various bays of Port Fitzroy; not just for the cheap sherry -  there are many very sheltered anchorages with access on to some beautiful tracks through the native bush. Although it is the very end of April and we are well into Autumn, the weather is still warm. 

We hike up the Kaiaraara track towards Mt Hobson; our destination is the old kauri dam about two hours up.  The  DOC tracks are well constructed and maintained, so the hike up is only moderately taxing; parts of the track are very steep and there are lots of series of steps to take you to the next section.  While you appreciate these early on, the sight of another flight becomes less joyous as time goes on.

The old kauri dam
The kauri forests were logged heavily between the 1880s and 1930s and the dam was one in a linked series used to transport the logs down to the bay.  The dam is a feat of clever engineering built by men with no formal training who just figured out what would work.  An estimated seven million feet of timber were logged out and sent down the dams.  Not without cost – John Mowbray in the New Zealand Observer in 1931 wrote “I saw what had happened to the Kaiaraara stream. The banks of the stream had been torn and mutilated. Its bed was four of five times its former width…The defacement of that valley was complete”.

The valley has regenerated to a large extent but of course the magnificent kauri don't grow back overnight. 

Great Barrier is, in a practical sense, quite accessible with daily flights (30 minutes) from Auckland, and a ferry service (4.5 hours) operating every day in Summer and three times a week in Winter.  However it feels very remote and is a little like a step back to a simpler life - rough and ready is exactly the right way to be. 

time to put our feet and pour a glass from that flagon of sherry