Aotearoa, New Zealand, Home.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been back to the land that bore me. I would love to say 20 years to the day I left, but I have neither the organisational skills, nor the flair for melodrama to manufacture something quite so grandiose. Still, I left when i was 9 years old and came back for only the second time when I was 29, so there’s got to be some poetic license in there somewhere.
The occasion this time around (not that there needed to be one of course) was my grandmothers 80th birthday. She is my sole surviving grandparent and matriarch to an ever expanding (except on my behalf) army of grand and great grand children. Having had 9 children of her own, she tends to take things a little easier these days, though she’s no less feisty than I remember as a small child, trying to raid her cupboards for girl guide biscuits, making forts in her hedges, and generally causing mischief.
Before I reached the party, and as a way of reacquainting myself the country, I decided it’d be a good idea to hire a car and drive around. Reminiscing at former holiday spots, revisiting the scenes of near tragedies, seeking out wine regions and food haunts, and generally soaking up as much as New Zealand was willing to give. With my travel companion and apprentice wine sampler Jon as co-pilot, we did perhaps the fastest circumnavigation of the South Island possible in a Toyota Corolla. Which went a little something like this:
Day 1: Dinner in Christchurch at Le Cafe. We tried to get into “Cook’n with Gas”, which despite the name and the giant gas flame burner out the front of the restaurant, did look quite nice and had good reviews. Instead we ended up at Le Cafe, not my first pick, but a cute waitress and a glass of wine will do wonders to your expectations. The food was actually not bad, pork and fennel meatballs fueled our appetites and a slow cooked beef shin finished the job. I could have done without the 3 whole chillies chopped up and strewn through my ‘hot and sour’ salad, but all in all the meal was good. Added novelty when the lights were turned off for earth hour and we all got candles on our tables. Not the first or last time Jon and I would get confused for a romantic couple.
Big points go to the barista who looked like he knew his stuff, and convinced me it was worth trying a coffee. They were using Burtons (who are one of New Zealand’s main green bean importers, but also roast), and it was actually quite good. Latte art going out on every cup I could see and my espresso was very tasty, pulled as a short double with . All I could hope is that it was a sign of things to come.
Day 2: The starts slowly. A warm bed and a cold morning will do that to you. But soon we’re on the road and heading from Christchurch to Blenheim. A quick chat and a look at the road map says we’ll be heading through Waipara, one of New Zealand’s newest wine regions.
The main idea of the whole trip was to reacquaint myself with the country I grew up in, yet know so little about in a modern context. New Zealand is seen by the rest of the world as a wonderland of organic produce and down to earth producers so I aimed to find as many of them as possible.
Passing through Waipara Jon and I stopped off at Pegaus Bay and Fiddlers Green. Pegasus Bay is part of the Family of Twelve , basically a marketing initiative to group together some of the founding wineries that are still family owned. The homestead looked like a French chateau of grandiose proportions and a dark musky room for tastings decorated with vintage Premier Cru wine bottles as lighting. I found it instantly likeable and despite the lack of personal service because the tasting guy was run off his feet, we found plenty of the wines extremely palatable. Trying mostly Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, and a stunning Merlot Cabernet that was swiftly purchased.
After Waipara we headed north and towards the coast up to Kaikoura, snapping photos out of the window and generally being amazed at how even mundane little towns were full of wonderful things.
Kaikoura is a tiny fishing village in between Christchurch and Picton on the east coast of the south island… and home to a big crayfish industry. The Maori name ‘Kaikoura’ translates to ‘meal of crayfish’ (‘kai’ = food/meal, ‘koura’ = crayfish) . So you would have thought we’d try some wouldn’t you ?
That would have been the case except for when we arrived at the beach side shack selling crayfish they wanted about $60 each for a tiny one… which was sadly more cash than I was willing to part with whilst sitting on plastic chairs and drinking out of styrofoam cups.
Whitebait fritters on the other hand, were much more affordable, and are another famous Kiwi dish of much repute. I can’t say I had a taste for them as a kid, but things have changed a lot since the last time I was here. This was delicious.
After a brief stop for photos and some reflection on the beauty of nature, it was back into the car for more high speed rural action. Fording river and valley and all that was in our path on the way to Blenheim, and the heart of Marlborough.