Thursday, February 14, 2008

Land of the Long White Cloud

February 12
MJ Loza was kind of angry with me today when he saw me in the Blenheim airport.
“Not forgiven!” he said.
He had a point.
MJ was one of my hosts and guides the last time I was in New Zealand. Usually you get along fine with hosts on press trips, occasionally you develop a seething hatred for them, and every once in awhile you become friends.
MJ and I were friends, and if I were to fly nearly half way around the world back to New Zealand, it would seem reasonable that I’d pick up the stupid phone and call him.
He’s right, of course, but my schedule here is quite full. I won’t even have time to pop over to Wellington to see my old friend from my Bangkok days, Daniel Eaton.
Then again, I mean, I could have extended my stay, or asked Dan to hop over to Nelson. It would be an imposition, but if he were in, say, Washington, D.C., I’d pop down from New York to see him. I can’t imagine asking a friend to do that for me, though, or for MJ to be terribly interested if I’m in his country, even if he had made sure to contact me the last time he was in New York.
This might require therapy.
At any rate, I’m the guest of New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, which in its effort to raise the profile of all foodstuffs from this Land of the Long White Cloud — the translation of its Maori name, Aotearoa — invited me and Bill King (favorite color: blue), corporate chef of the McCormick & Schmick’s chain, to check the place out.
Nelson, on the northern edge of the South Island, and just a quick trip from Wellington, which is on the southern tip of the North Island, was our first stop, on Sunday. We were supposed to spend the afternoon sailing around Tasman Bay on a catamaran, but the weather was drizzly and overcast, and instead our hostess, Nicola Mitchell, took us to Mapua Wharf, where we spent some time in a restaurant called Smokehouse, drinking a 2006 Neudorf Sauvignon Blanc and snacking. We split a fish platter, and Bill had a calamari salad. I had a cup of seafood chowder with fish, mussels, scallops and prawns.

The fish platter, on the left, had two fish I’d never had before — terakihi, on the far right of the picture, behind the mussels, and warehou, on the far left — along with hake (hiding behind the bread), mussels and salmon. They tasted a lot like light, warm water fish, although the warehou had big, meaty flakes, something I would learn more about at dinner.
Then we sampled local ice cream. Bill tried fruit flavors while I went for indigenous kitsch. I got two scoops. One was Jaffa, which is orange and chocolate and which I assume is named for the ancient port city south of Tel Aviv now known for its oranges, although Jaffa also is an unkind nickname for someone from Auckland (just another you-know-what Aucklander).
I also had a scoop of Pinky Winky, named for a candy bar of that name with strawberry, chocolate, marshmallow and caramel.
The sun came out, and to pass the time before our dinner at The Boathouse Café, we drove along the coast, enjoying the view of gentle waves splashing along the beach.
Nelson itself has many pretty rolling hills, something I didn’t notice until the next day at breakfast, which I had on the second floor of our hotel, the Rutherford, named for physicist Ernest Lord Rutherford, a Nelsonian and the first man to split the atom.
Anyway, back to dinner.
Here’s a picture of Nicola and Bill at dinner.
I started with half a dozen Pelorus oysters, which I would learn the next day came from Pelorus Sound, not far away, off of nearby Havelock, which you will learn about shortly.
Interestingly, the oysters were removed from their shells and served in those soup spoons you get in Chinese restaurants, topped with wasabi tobiko.
My main course was more Warehou, served with crushed rosemary-infused potatoes, zucchini linguini — which is to say zucchini shredded into the shape of linguini and cooked — and smoked fish mousse. The plate was drizzled with saffron vanilla reduction.
Here it is, on the right.
The zucchini linguini was called courgette linguini, as is the custom with zucchini here — Kiwis prefer that squash’s French name to its Italian one.
Warehou is a meaty fish with big flakes and reminds me quite a bit of Chilean sea bass. I think it has mass-market potential.
We drank Te Mata Elston Chardonnay with that.
Nicola’s main course was scallop ceviche served with, among other things, hemp oil, which we all agreed tasted like marijuana.
Who would have thought?

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