Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mutton birds, blue cod, wild venison and complicated menu items

February 12

After learning everything we were going to learn about green-shell mussels, and more about what New Zealand creations the Australians took credit for, we checked into the Hotel d’Urville in Blenheim, the largest town in the Marlborough region, which is of course known for its wine in general and its Sauvignon Blanc in particular.
I’ve been to wine growing regions before, but none with such vast vineyards. Marlborough is no narrow valley like Napa. It has wide, flat plains planted with rows and rows of vines that seem to stretch on for miles. It’s really spectacular.
We checked in to the Hotel d'Urville, one of those quaint hotels where each guest room has a different theme (I was in the New Zealand room, with shells, Maori artifacts, and banners from different sports teams — I assume mostly rugby).
We met with Kevin Parish and John Grant downstairs for drinks before dinner, but Bill and I got there early and had a chance to peruse the restaurant’s menu, and it filled us with mild dread, so convoluted did each menu item seem. The lamb had a chocolate mint sauce.
I had a cocktail made from a vodka infused with feijoa, a popular New Zealand fruit, followed by a local brown ale, and then we repaired to the dining room.
I started with a pâté of venison game (that is to say wild venison, not the farm-raised variety in which New Zealand specializes) and field mushrooms with pistachios, Cumberland jelly and mango gastrique and forest mini-mushrooms. (Look up. There it is!)
That was followed by lemon peppered “Chatham Island” blue cod resting on a shrimp and green pea risotto, trio of steamed mussels (by which they meant three mussels) with a tarragon, almond and orange hollandaise and Prenzels lemon oil. Surprisingly, it was all quite tasty.
We drank a couple of Marlborough Pinot Noirs: a 2006 Astrolabe and then a 2006 Clayridge. Marlborough is a fairly new region for Pinots, with more established vineyards on the North Island in Martinborough and Wairapara, and down south in Central Otaga, but I think the Marlborough ones are my favorite.
Kevin later showed me a picture of a blue cod, which doesn’t resemble a cod at all, although it is a bottom feeder and so it has a similar diet.
John says the blue cod fishery, unlike the North Atlantic cod one, is still robust, and fishing there is easy.
Over dessert (I didn’t photograph the dishes, but one of them was a “chocolate vision," comprised of a chocolate terrine sponge and Clayridge Excalibur chocolate mousse quenelle in a chocolate teardrop with a chocolate sorbet and citrus reduction), and a 2006 Konrad Sigrun Noble Riesling (also from Marlborough), John told us about the mutton bird, or titi, a delicacy of the Maoris on the small islands south of the South Island, appropriately called the Mutton Bird Islands. Only Maoris of the Naitahu tribe are permitted to go there. Mutton birds migrate there all the way from the Bering Strait to nest. They leave their hatchlings and return home, and then the Maoris catch the birds and eat them.
“So these birds migrate across the world to breed and then you eat their children?” I asked.
“It’s sustainable,” he said with a shrug. And it probably is. New Zealanders are serious about that stuff.
The hatchlings are about the size of quails and are sold brined in buckets for about NZ$10 per bird.
The next day, after a visit with Blair Gibbs of Spy Valley Vineyard, a medium-sized winery that produces about 130,000 cases of wine annually), we went on to the Blenheim airport, where the story of my visit to New Zealand began with me running into MJ Loza. It was great to see him.
With him was Brad Farmerie, the chef of Public restaurant in New York. I later learned that he had been cooking at The Dinner Series at Waterfall Bay. He was headed to Auckland to do a demonstration of Venison dishes for writers at Cuisine magazine. He looked well.
Our next stop: Canterbury.

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