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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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! 

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