Tag Archives: Travel

Stonebarn Truffles Pemberton

Stonebarn Lodge and Truffle farm

Oh the lure of the truffle! That delicate little nugget highly prized by gourmands and well to do pigs the world over for it’s musky and intoxicating aroma, and its ability to sex up any dish it’s added to.

I’ve been very lucky over the years to have my winters punctuated with some very special meals where I’ve indulged in my fair share of fungi, and so this year when I was invited to go and stay at a working trufflerie, I gladly accepted.

Now it might seem that truffles are popping up all over the place lately, but I can assure you they are no overnight sensation. A tree that’s been inoculated with the spores to produce black truffles (tuber melanosporum) can take up to 7 years to produce its first truffle. So it’s not exactly a business to enter into lightly.

Stonebarn Lodge and Truffle farm

Fortunately for us Sharon and Dion Rangé were just the hopeless romantics needed to pull such an undertaking off. They originally discovered a piece of pristine bushland 15 minutes out of Pemberton on the banks of the Warren River and only had thoughts of buying it so they could bring their kids up in the country. Of course a property like that tends to have a life of it’s own, and after ideas of planting grapes proved…fruitless, a fortuitous conversation with a former colleague of Australian truffle pioneer Dr Nick Malajczuk put Dion onto the right path and a plan was formed. A guest house and a truffle farm.

Stonebarn now exports it’s truffles to restaurants around Australia, and the world, and have increasingly large harvests each year. The trees are a mixture of Hazelnut and Oak (Dion sourced the acorns from the 100 year old Oak tree in the main street of Donnybrook), and Nick Malajczuk is entrusted with the important job of inoculating them with the truffle spores.

Stonebarn Lodge and Truffle farm

So there we were, a mere 12 years later, with my beautiful wife and son, owners Dion & Sharon, their business partner Graeme, Executive Assistant Adrianne, bride to be Hannah, and pasta guru Danny, eating one of the finest truffle meals of my life. Harold had a great time playing with Peri the truffle dog, and made some more new friends on Sunday when were joined by Aviva Shpilman and her kids. Aviva is the Paris based, Australian architect of the Stonebarn.

Stonebarn Lodge and Truffle farm

We took their generous offer to come and relax for the weekend in the guest house, and stocked up the pantry with some great produce from Newy’s Vege Patch in Kirup, enjoying a Jeruslaem artichoke soup, wood oven roast chicken, and the most decadent Colombian arepas with truffled scrambled eggs. Suffice to say we enjoyed ourselves. The accommodation is wonderfully luxurious and we felt immediately at home. With ducks and guinea fowl living around the house, and Peri the truffle dog entertaining our son, it was a magical weekend.

We managed to do some truffle hunting of our own, and watched the process as Peri marked locations in the trufflerie and every time a truffle was uncovered in that exact spot. It’s still a hard and very manual process mind you. Following a dog through a few kilometres of farm land and digging small holes is not a way to make quick money. Thus the lure of the truffle continues.

Stonebarn Lodge and Truffle farm

I for one am very grateful that people like Dion and Sharon are around to do the hard work to make sure we can enjoy a little taste of perfection every winter.

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Stonebarn Lodge & Trufflerie
phone +61 8 9773 1002
email info@stonebarn.com.au

Singapore Celebrity Concierge

Sambal Stingray from Adam Road Food  Centre

What do you do when you plan your trip to a new city? If you’re anything like me you spend days scouring blogs, twitter, and various travel sites on the internet trying to put together a list of the “must do” (realistically “must eat”) places to visit.

So what if instead of spending all that time, you just relaxed and put yourself in the hands of a trusted advisor. A well informed local who could put together a list of awesome things for you to do/eat? Such was the proposition I received recently as an opportunity to visit Singapore on behalf of the Singapore Tourism Board was put forward.

“Impossible!” I thought, as the email came in from the PR reps. There was no way the itinerary could possibly satisfy someone with my obscure culinary obsessions… Oh how wrong I was. Whilst being led through the dried fish and spice laden halls of the dry goods section above Bugis Food Centre with our celebrity concierge Audra Morrice pointing out where her mum comes to collect ingredients for her homemade sambal and curry. I was in the midst of musty, dehydrated food heaven.

Audra was part of Masterchef in 2012, and clearly made it a lot further along the way than I did, a fact which I tried not to hold against her, because her love of food and all that goes along with it is compelling. Based in Sydney with her young family now, she’s a Singaporean through and through, as evidenced in a small alley way in the covered markets of Chinatown haggling over the price of some freshly cut durian with a crafty operator. In short, she was the perfect person to show me the sights and tastes of Singapore that I’d been missing.

Now of course the rest of this post should be read with the knowledge that I was invited to come to Singapore on behalf of the Singapore Tourism Board. The flights, accommodation, and daily activities were all paid for. In fact, if I didn’t have a massive craving for Bakkwa that needed to be satisfied with frequent nightly trips to Lim Chee Guan, I’d have struggled to pay for anything. I stayed at the very trendy Dorsett Hotel in Chinatown and had a friendly mini bus driver named Steven who let us bring durian puffs on board as long as we double bagged them.

Disclaimers aside, I can’t think of many things on the itinerary that I wouldn’t have done of my own accord. The tour was designed by Audra to give us an idea of what her Singapore was all about, and it was a feast for all the senses. It was facilitated by local tour guide Wee Tee, a lady whose innate Singaporeanness is second to none, and who only got funnier as the days went on. She took great delight in introducing me to the wonders of foot reflexology, which should actually be known as foot murder.

So in no specific order here are the highlights in photo form for you to peruse:

Chin Mee Chin Confectionery

Soft boiled egg at Chin Mee Chin

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An old school bakery of much repute on East Coast Rd. This was the spot Audra chose to take us to experience the joy that can only come from a sweet cup of kopi (strong coffee brewed with or without a sock and loaded with condensed milk) and some kaya toast with soft boiled eggs. Kaya is a sweet coconut jam made with eggs, and the best way to eat it is on some plain white toast with a slab of butter. Our group fortunately arrived early as a line started forming out the door not long after we arrived. I managed to eat about 4 soft boiled eggs with liberal doses of soy sauce and white pepper sprinkled over them. The kaya toast just works, I could eat it anytime of the day. Soft white bread lightly toasted and loaded up with melty butter and thick coconut jam is a superb match.

Chin Mee Chin Confectionery
204 East Coast Rd
+65 6345 0419

Tiong Bahru

Chwee Kueh from Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre

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Tiong Bahru is an old area close to the centre of Singapore. It was Singapore’s first housing estate, built in the 1930s to the west of Chinatown, and has in recent years undergone a “gentrification” of sorts. With all kinds of new coffee shops, bars, and designer stores appearing in what previously was home to kopitiams full of mahjong playing old timers.

We took a little of the old and a little of the new on this visit. First up hitting up the hugely popular Tiong Bahru Bakery for breakfast pastries and specialty coffee supplied by hip new roasters Common Man Coffee (A collaboration between Perth locals Five Senses and Singaporean coffee trail blazers Forty Hands). My Kouign-Amann was crispy on the outside, soft inside, sweet and perfect. The coffee expertly poured by one of the most eager to please baristas I’ve ever met.

We took a short stroll down the road and Audra pointed out some pandan growing in a street front garden that I encouraged her to steal. We settled for a photo in front of it. Then onwards to the Tiong Bahru Food Centre and a little breakfast treat called Chwee Kueh. I discovered this on my last trip to Singapore, and was super happy when we made a bee line for the Jian Bo Chwee Kueh stall with aunty dutifully scooping steamed rice cakes out of their moulds onto a sheet of wax paper and lathering over a healthy dose of preserved radish and sambal. I played it cool for a while but when it was obvious that the rest of the party were lacking in the power eating department I stepped up and finished most of them. I can envision a future in which I eat this for breakfast everyday and am totally happy.

Tiong Bahru Bakery
#01-07, 56 Eng Hoon St
+65 6220 3430

Tiong Bahru Food Market & Hawker Centre
30 Seng Poh road

Lolla

Chargrilled octopous with chorizo and calamansi

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Now a slight divergence from the hawker stalls and local food as we headed to a little restaurant in Chinatown called Lolla. I was all ready to not like this place with its Spanish this, tapas that, and this is our version of what. Plus the distinctly not-hawker-customer-friendly price tags on the dishes… but damn if the food wasn’t good. Chef Ming is a young guy who is clearly keen to impress. We arrived for a lateish lunch and he was prepping pork skin for dinner service which was slow cooked overnight, then dried, before being deep fried into perfect crackling. The dishes I tried could not be faulted… a sublime seafood custard (think Chawanmushi with squid ink) topped with sea urchin. Then a slow cooked tripe that fellow offal fiend Rebecca and I could not go past, crispy gelatinous honeycomb. Then octopus, clams, smoked cheese. Washed down with a Spanish Albariño I could have quite easily forgotten I was still in the heart of Chinatown with ducks hanging in windows all around me.

Lolla
22 Ann Siang Road, Chinatown
+65 64231228

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To get us back on the local track, after lunch at Lolla we took a stroll around Chinatown, checking out the Buddhist temple (home to part of Buddha’s tooth), and the wet markets where old and young guys used very large cleavers to take the heads off very large fish. Small cages of frogs who had lost all hope of escape sat complacently awaiting their fate, and all manner of person haggled with vendors for the best prices. Outside the market old men played Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) and we wandered through streets of covered markets til that all too familiar smell of Durian filled our noses and Asian food novice Aleisha was given the baptism of fire into that most special of fruits. It didn’t go well.

Bugis

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Another day another market and this time it was Bugis. An area previously famous for lady boys during the second world war, we had no Adam’s Apples to be wary of unfortunately, just more great street food from the hawker centre and market stalls. Wee Tee our guide happily procured rojak for a snack and ice kachang and ice cendol for a snack dessert. I’m pretty sure it was mostly for her, but she let us have a taste as well. The hawker centre doesn’t just stop at the food level, head upstairs and you find yourself in the aforementioned dry goods section. Audra pointed out dried persimmon, all manner of dried mushrooms and fungi, giant bags of dried scallops and ikan bilis and a whole stall dedicated to dried sea cucumber, a food that must surely be close to the top of the list of ugly things that are crazy expensive.

Little India

Madras New Woodlands Restaurant

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Little India is an area like no other in Singapore. I have yet to reach India, but I have a pretty good idea of how it would feel from spending a few nights in Little India Singapore. The streets are heady with the smell of incense and dried flowers, and spices. Road rules and the regular orderliness of Singapore goes out the window and in the evenings an otherworldly noise envelopes you as the sound of thousands of voices speaking a hundred sub-continental dialects fills the night air.

On this trip Audra took us to a favourite restaurant of hers, the Madras New Woodlands Restaurant, which I was somewhat shocked to find was totally vegetarian. Of course the health conscious need not get too excited about that as plate after plate of fried breads like poori, dosai, and vadai rolled out onto the table. I mopped all of them up with coconut sambal and chickpea curry and washed it down with mango lassi. Meatless what?

Madras New Woodlands Restaurant
14 Upper Dickson Rd
+65 6297 1594

Adam Road Food Centre

Sambal pipis

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Back to the hawker centre for dinner, and one I’d never been to before. Adam Road has a wide selection of classic hawker dishes. We started with some excellent sambal stingray, and sambal pipis, dabbled with some hokkien mee, satay, and a little black carrot cake (not actually made from white carrots, but with radish and sweet soy). I may also have downed a few of bottles of frosty cold Tiger beer with the help of Rebecca. Singapore is so far the only place where I will reach for a beer before anything else. The humidity in Singapore can feel like walking around in a warm bath sometimes, and who doesn’t like drinking beer in the bath? Am i right? Anyone…

Adam Road Food Centre
2 Adam Road
Singapore 289876

Boon Tong Kee Chicken Rice

Boon Tong Kee chicken rice

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You know what has been conspicuously absent during this post so far? Mentions of chicken rice. You only need to go to Singapore once to realise what a phenomenon chicken rice is, and how hotly debated the “best” version is. Don’t know how to break the ice with that cute girl at the hawker centre? Ask her where the best chicken rice is. It is undeniably Singapore’s national dish and for good reason. The perfect chicken rice is a transcendent experience. Perfectly steamed chicken bursting with succulent juices and umami packed rice that’s been cooked in chicken stock with some fat mixed in for good measure. Paired with the right chilli sauce, and some sweet sticky soy (and a little broth if you’re lucky), this is about as good as food gets for $3-$5 on average per serve.

Audra chose to take us to the River Valley outlet of Boon Tong Kee chicken rice, a chain that features in mostly all the “best chicken rice in Singapore” lists. Despite having been eating constantly for 3 days at this point, I had no issue in partaking in lusciously plump steamed chicken and flavourful rice, the chilli could have gone up a notch for me, which I guess means I’m becoming Singaporean because splitting hairs over amazing/cheap food is pretty much a national pass time.

Boon Tong Kee
425 River Valley Road
Singapore 248324

Singapore skyline from the Super Tree grove

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On the non edible side of the country, we also visited the S.E.A Aquarium (which was amazing, but made Audra hungry for seafood), and the alien landscape that is the Super tree grove in the Gardens by the Bay. The one certain thing about Singapore is that it is constantly reinventing itself. For an island state that turned itself from a collection of sleepy fishing villages to a global financial power player inside of one generation is astounding. That it continues to morph and grow and adapt is certainly no surprise.

That does make it pretty tricky at times to find the real Singapore, which for me is tucked away in the back streets and hawker stalls, on the ground floor of the not so trendy shopping centres, and anywhere the smell of durian and charcoal mix together and linger in the humid night air.

In case it wasn’t obvious at the top of the post, here it is again at the bottom. This trip and tour was made possible by the Singapore Tourism Board and was a part of their Celebrity Concierge program where you can take part of a unique service that pairs you with a celebrity with local knowledge of Singapore to help plan your trip. Go check out the site and see if you too can be a winner.

Thanks again to Audra and her excellent advice, and to the lovely people at Singapore Tourism Board (and the fearless Larissa) for giving this glutton another 50 reasons to love this country. If you haven’t been yet, I’m not sure how much I can stress this… go.

Singapore

How to sum up a country in a single blog post ? It’d be fairly audacious of me to even attempt such a thing, especially after a single visit, but this is a blog, and if you can’t be self important and all knowing on a blog then where can you be ?

So I received an email last year that piqued my interest. It was from a girl called Venetia and she was inviting me to come to Singapore and visit the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Now I’m not sure if my stance on accepting freebies is particularly well known, but I generally decline most of the emails I get sent due to lack of interest or lack of time.

As of now however, I have discovered my breaking point. International travel. If you as a marketing/pr person are willing to fly me to another country and show me all the good things there are to do there, I will more than likely accept, whilst still writing what I genuinely think about the place… slowly, perhaps a year or so later.

What made the decision a little easier was that Singapore has been a destination on my radar for a long time. I have an uncle and aunt there who were recently married in Perth, and so it’s almost a shameful secret that I hadn’t been already. The Marina Bay Sands invited me for a culinary tour of the restaurants within the complex, along with a group of other Australian bloggers who were a lot more diligent than I am about writing about it. (Hey Helen, Jen, and Lizzie), as well as groups from Malaysia and Indonesia. The tour started on Monday and so Marcela and I arrived on the Friday beforehand to acquaint ourselves with this most curious of cities, and eat as much dodgy hawker food as possible.

So on the plane we jumped and a quick 5 hour flight red eye from PER -> SIN landed at us at Changi Airport at 6am, where even so early in the morning the humidity welcoming party was waiting for us the second the electronic doors slid open. Like a big hug from a sweaty Aunty you don’t really remember, but are sure you’ll end up liking. Then straight into a taxi and back to my uncles place on the East Coast where my plans for hitting the hawkers for breakfast faded as quickly as my head hit the pillow for a “quick nap”.

Of course it didn’t take us long to get into the swing of things. An MRT ride into Orchard Road and then a visit to Newton Circus for Oyster Omelet and Black Carrot Cake (actually rice cake fried with sweet black soy sauce), and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice with lemon. Perfect.


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Later that evening we were taken to the East Coast Park outpost of the famous Jumbo Seafood chain for chilli and black pepper crab and plenty of cold Tiger beer to wash it down.
I have never been a big beer drinker, but sitting outside, dripping with sweat, my lips slightly stinging from sucking all the flesh out of perfectly cooked crab drenched in a spicy tomato sauce… beer has never made more sense.


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The next day for lunch we did some covert surveillance of the Marina Bay Sands and visited the dumpling empire that is Din Tai Fung for as many dumplings as we could manage. What’s not to like about an army of face mask clad dumpling ninjas rolling and stuffing every dumpling with military precision inside a glass cage ?


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We then decided to head out of the touristy zones and explore an area called Tiong Bahru. This is a suburb that has traditionally been very local, but is undergoing something of a gentrification of late, with trendy cafes and bars popping up in formerly nondescript shopping centres. We tried that much loved “King of Fruit” the durian at a small market near the MRT stop. After watching a safety gloved young man deftly hack his way through a large pile of them, he eventually noticed the curious looking tourists and asked if we’d like to try. I’ve had durian before, but first time for Marcela. We’re both in the “interesting, but not for me” camp it would seem. My theory is that you have to have grown up with the stuff to really get a taste for it, but then the signs on the MRT saying “No Durian allowed” would seem to indicate that not everyone is a fan in Singapore either.

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From Tiong Bahru MRT station we wandered around in circles for a while before eventually finding a little cafe getting a decent rep of late Fourty Hands. I had heard the specialty coffee scene in Singapore was a little dire up until a few years ago, but that is all changing. Micro roasters, and committed espresso lovers seem to be flocking in droves and setting up interesting and thoughtful places that break the mold of the typical Starbucks style chains.


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Forty Hands felt like being in Fremantle, Surry Hills, or Fitzroy… Funky lighting, graffiti, Synesso espresso machine, latte art, and importantly quality coffee flown in by Five Senses from Perth roasted fresh each week… And Australian cider in the fridge. Definitely worth checking out when you need a little taste of home.

The next day we hit up Chinatown. Strolling down the laneways packed with vendors selling every conceivable crappy nick nack and tshirt you could imagine, we found solace and refreshment in the form of whole coconuts cut open for us, and the awesomeness that is Bak Kwa. If you’re uninitiated Bak Kwa is thin slices of pork mixed with a sweet spicy marinated, cooked, cut into squares, then basted with more sauce and fried. It is the stuff of legend and I could die happy with a giant pile of it as my last meal.


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Not done eating, we then made the short walk to the Maxwell Hawker Centre for the famous Tian, Tian chicken rice. As popularised by Anthony Bourdain and every other blogger under the sun. Now I’m sure how much better the Tian, Tian chicken rice is than the other 3 or 4 chicken rice places in Maxwells, but it was good. For $3.50 you get a plate of supremely succelent steamed chicken, intensely flavoured rice, and a trio of sauces – chilli, ginger, sweet soy, as well as bowl of the chicken broth and a few veges to make things look respectable. Chicken rice is (one of) Singapore’s national dishes and rightly so, this was fantastic.


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More photos of eating around Singapore and the actual Marina Bay Sands hotel to come…

Colombian Sancocho

I recently traveled to Colombia with my beautiful wife for the first time. It was a journey of discovery and adventure, great food, cheap rum, and quite a lot of time spent riding horses. In short, it was amazing.

I’ve been married for almost 2 years now, and with Marcela’s patient teaching, my Spanish is slowly getting better. But it’s safe to say that I was as out of my depth in Colombia as a cruise ship giving a drive by to a Mediterranean island (ie: run aground on a frequent basis).

Nonetheless I did my best to persevere and communicate with my mother in law, sister & brother in laws, and my niece as best I could. Which was entertaining for them if nothing else. But after a while the ¿Cómo amaneciste? and ¿Esta cansada? started to come as easily as “tengo hambre” (I’m hungry) and fragments of words and ideas slowly started to meld themselves into something that could vaguely be called communication.

I was introduced to many of the great things that make Colombians love their country. The food, the music, the dancing, the drinking, the family, the football, the landscapes and the zest for life that people have despite a vast majority of them being very poor.

If there is one dish that perhaps can sum up my experience in Colombia, it would have to be Sancocho. Sancocho is somewhere between a soup and a stew (depending on how you make it). But what is perhaps more important about Sancocho than what goes into it, is where you make it.

Sancocho’s home is the street. When Christmas time and holidays come around, Colombians take to the street with a bottle of aguardiente (the local spirit of choice), a blackened old pot, a bucket of water, and as many ingredients as they can get their hands on. A makeshift fire is lit on the sidewalk, and the pot lowered onto it, propped up by bricks, rocks, or whatever spare car parts can be found lying around. Then someone takes on the all important job of fanning the flames while the water starts to boil and the soup is built.

Into the soup goes pork (cerdo), chicken (pollo), oxtail (cola de res), potato (papas), green plantain (platano), cassava (yuca)
onions, garlic, mazorca (big corn that isn’t sweet), coriander (cilantro), and spices like cumin (comino), and paprika (pimenton).

Then the long slow process of the cooking begins. Each vegetable or meat being added at just the right time so that the end result is a deep rich stock (caldo), falling off the bone soft meat, and veges with just the right level of give. It should all hopefully coincide with the point where everyone is drunk enough from aguardiente and tired enough from dancing, and just before someone starts a fight over who gets to choose the next song blasted out into the street via the speakers that have been dragged outside. This is when the soul and body restoring qualities that only a great sancocho made on the street can provide are needed most.

I got to make sancocho twice in Colombia. Once on the street in San Antonio de Prado, Medellin, with my brother in law Hamilton (that’s him fanning the flames in the video), his friends, and all the family. And once just outside the small town of Andes, Antioquia in the heart of a coffee growing region, next to a river, after walking down a hill for a kilometre to get there. Some local kids managed to goad me into jumping off a bridge 3m above the river, and though I thought I was going to at one point, I didn’t die, and there’s nothing like escaping death to bring about a hunger. Sure as hell made the walk back up that hill more bearable anyway.

You can, of course, order this dish in many restaurants in Colombia (or make it yourself at home), but it will never be quite the same as this one.

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Sri Lankan High Country

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This is high country Sri Lanka, Nurawa Eliya more specifically. It’s the heart of the tea growing regions of Sri Lanka, and the place where the best tea comes from. Lipton, Dilmah, Bushells, they all own plantations here, and nearly every available piece of ground that can grow a tea plant, does grow a tea plant.

We drove from Kandy to Nurawa Eliya along winding roads of dubious quality and sweeping views of the valley floor below. We were shown hidden cave temples and trudged through leech infested waters for the privilege of seeing reclining Buddha’s carved out of a cave wall. We visited a tea factory at Bluefields and were shown the tea drying, roasting, and filtering process and tasted their teas. The smell inside the drying room was intense. A thick heady tea aroma hung in the air like someone with something to hide and happy trigger finger on a bottle of eau de toilette.

We did it again at Mackwoods Estate and were given a piece of chocolate cake.

We stopped and spoke to the tiny Tamil ladies who form the vast majority of the tea picking work force. They’d smile wide with gap filled mouths and simultaneously put out their hands for money. Don’t believe any of the things you see on tea commercials, the people growing and tending the tea plantations and doing the picking get paid next to nothing. An average income for a tea picker is around 400 rupees a day, the equivalent of $4 AUD. So any tourist is seen as an instant bonus and smiles come easy for the chance to double or triple their income in return for a cliched photo.

So we paid some money, we got our photos, and we hopped back into the van and continued on down the road. Lovely tea though.

Land of the long white cloud – II

Cloudy Bay vines

We arrived in Blenheim somewhere in the early evening and checked into a motel (somewhere in between seedy and luxurious). A spot of twitter and internet searching later and we’d discovered a decent sounding restaurant called the Hotel D’Urville. It certainly looked the part in a vintage building with fancy looking furniture, polished surfaces, dim lighting and well adorned staff. Sadly it all went downhill from there. The service was unwarrantably snooty, the food even worse. Everything tasted as if it had come straight out of a fridge. Bland lifeless salmon on top of pasta was a particular low light, as was the salmon mousse with pumpernickel amuse bouche, that did not amuse any bouches.

The only high point in the entire meal was opening the bottle of the 2005 Pegasus Bay Merlot Cabernet we’d purchased earlier in the day. A wine of great length and substance. It’s fortunate that credit card bills take a long time to come through, thus the sting of actually having to pay a substantial amount for blatant mediocrity was less severe than handing over cold hard cash.

The night was due to pick up though. I’d been in contact earlier in the day with Aaron, winemaker and internet marketer extraordinaire for family owned label Fiasco Wines. Aaron’s family had planted some of the first vines in the Marlborough region, and he was now taking the finest of them to make wine of his own. But the reality of the situation for Aaron is that whilst making your own wine is a labour of love that you hope will pay off eventually, you need some money to pay the bills in the meantime.

So in the evenings Aaron is a contract wine maker at a facility on the outskirts of Blenheim and makes wine for labels of epic proportions. We’d been in touch via Twitter and Aaron kindly offered to give Jon and I a tour of the facility.

Marlborough Sauvignon BlancFamous NZ Sauvignon Blanc in grape juice form

I had no real idea what I was in for when we got there actually, but to call the wine industry in Marlborough in any way boutique would be a complete misnomer once you’ve encountered this kind of operation. We sat in slightly bewildered awe as swollen trucks dumped tonne upon tonne of grapes into hungry hoppers. Then we were slowly guided by Aaron through the entire process as it was crushed, pulped, fermented and hit the holding tanks. Getting a chance to try one of NZ’s most popular export wines (no guessing) as a rather tart grape juice.

Apparently this one facility produces up to 15% of all of the wine in NZ… and can store millions of litres of wine in it’s tanks. I was torn between being fascinated and being disturbed by the scale of it all, but Aaron is no nonsense kind of guy and did his best to keep things real whilst showing us around, something I have a lot of respect for. Wine can be a very glamour focused industry, so seeing the scale of this was a great way to put things in perspective next time you hit the bottle shops.

After checking out the red wine area, where apparently you can quite easily die if you stick your head too far into a vat of fermenting grapes (note to self: too much C02 == bad), it was time to hand back our fluorescent safety vests and head back into town. Aaron very kindly gave me a bottle of his 2008 Tall Story Sauvignon Blanc, that went down a treat upon my return to Australia.

So the next day was all about Marlborough. We started the day completely by accident at CPR (Coffee Premium Roasters). My keen coffee sensing skills must have been on overdrive because we just happened to walk into this place and then noticed a roaster out the back. A quick chat to the girl managing and turns out we were in Blenheims only boutique coffee roaster, who also happen to hold coffee appreciation classes and tasting sessions. Score.
A quick test of the coffee via a flat white and an espresso proved that indeed they did know their stuff.

A breakfast of champions at a nearby restaurant fueled us for the day ahead and it was off to the vineyards. We sampled wines from Lawsons Dry Hills, Cloudy Bay, Fromm, Huia, Allan Scott, and Nautilus. Beer from Moa kept Jon’s palate refreshed and I almost started contemplating getting into some myself as the gooseberryesque Sauvignon Blanc that the region is famous for began to take it’s toll. Crisp, herbaceous, and refreshing in it’s best incarnations, bitingly acidic and grassy in it’s worst. I can see why it’s a contentious little varietal at the moment.

I did however get right into a lot of the Gewurztraminer of the area. It’s a lovely aromatic varietal traditionally grown in the Alsace region of France, and produces some delightful wines. Everyone in NZ seems to be very specific on letting you know the level of residual sugar in their white wines, so you can be quite certain as to the level of apparent sweetness before trying anything. Something I think makes a lot of sense when it comes to comparing wines of the same variety made in different styles.

I tended to prefer the off dry, spicy Gewurz such as that from Huia and Lawsons Dry Hills. Both of which I bought, and added to a small but growing collection.

Soon though it was time to keep on moving. We bid farewell to Blenheim and surrounds and headed on towards Nelson, passing through Havelock, supposedly the home of the NZ green lipped mussel. It being near lunchtime and with only cheese and crackers from various wineries in our bellies so far, we decided we’d better stop and sample the local delicacy. So it was off to The Mussel Pot we went.

I probably should have guessed it wasn’t going to be great from the gaudy tourist look of the place on the way in, but we figured we’d try it anyway. I ordered a pot of mussels with a thai style sauce (lemongrass, coconut milk, chilli), and Jon ordered something that had blue cheese in it. The flavours of the sauces aside, the mussels are just not good. NZ green lipped mussels are huge, chewy, horrible things, that spoiled any hope of my falling in love with them. Especially when I found a tiny crab living inside one… A basket of stale bread and a packet of butter didn’t go any futher towards sweetening the deal wither. Lets just say that this day the magic of NZ did not quite live up to what we were hoping.

So back into the car we headed, and other stunning drive from Havelock to Nelson up and down and around hills and mountains and lakes. I had never been through this part of NZ as a child, and so it was all quite amazing to see. The only problem being that New Zealand was beginning to become too beautiful. We’d stop at the top of a hill, take photos and gaze out across the distance, then drive around the corner and over another hill, and want to do the same thing all over again. Quickly becoming fairly blaise about the wonder of nature all around us as it blurred past us at 120km/hr.

We stopped briefly in Nelson, which itself is a very boutique little city. It’s becoming built up quite a bit, but still retains an edgy facade of coolness. With more local coffee roasters and enough decent sounding pubs and restaurants to keep the relatively discerning locals and tourists happy. But instead of lingering we decided it would be best to keep on driving down towards the west coast. Ending up for the night in Murchison, and old gold mining town that’s now a hub for whitewater rafters. Sadly nothing particularly adventurous was open when we arrived though, and the best we could do for dinner that night was a roast dinner at the local pub. Oh to have brought my camera with me, as a veritable feast of microwaved meats and formerly crisp vegetables was presented with a spattering of gravy. Memories of boarding school came flooding back with the stewed peaches and ice cream for dessert, and we left satisfied if not entirely fulfilled.

We had a nice example of kiwi hospitality as the lady motel owner handed us the keys without taking down any of our details or asking for any money, and a bottle of Nautilus Pinot Noir provided a very relaxing end to a full day.

Salmon mousse 'amuse'The best thing about this restaurant was the wine I brought myself*Lamb Rack with mash and dolmadesThe worlds most tasteless salmonThe whirly bit makes the grapes go somewhereFamous NZ Sauvignon Blanc in grape juice formBubbly goodnessMarlborough Sauvignon Blanc25,000 kg per loadCaution: Person In PressThe vats... they twinklea journey into the nightThe best stuff happens at nightAaron of Fiasco WinesA vat of pinot noirCPR: Coffee Premium RoastersCPR: Coffee Premium RoastersEspresso from CPR BlenheimBreakfast at Raupo : BlenheimThe best days start with a well poached egg.Cloudy Bay vinesChampagne fancierThe rowsHuia : Late Picked ReislingMoa NoirHuia : Marlborough Pinot NoirHuia : The lineupIf she didnt hate me then, she will nowlunchtime anticipationbread baskets & pNZ Green Lip MusselsThe best thing about the musselsAnatomy of a musselOk, so we still ate them.*Nautilus: Marlborough Pinot NoirFromm : Marlborough La Strada Pinot NoirMotel refinement

Land of the long white cloud – I

Fields of dandelions

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.

Moa BeerLe Cafe, ChristchurchFennel and Pork Meatballsslow cooked beef shin with hot and sour salad and riceDoneEarth Hour in ChristchurchA man of distinctionEveryone looks more poignant during Earth HourOutside Le CafeEarth Hour fire twirler

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 winesextremely palatable. Trying mostly Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer,anda 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 fritter sandwich

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.

Pegasus Bay  Merlot CabernetA fairly expensive approach to finding lighting fixturesInside Pegasus BayPegasus Bay dining roomSomeones been raiding the cellar*Sunscreen for vinesStrike a poseContemplating the tidesKaikouraKaikouraWhitebait fritter sandwichShots from moving carsShots from moving cars

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.

continued…