Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hello again

Hi foodlovers.

I've had a VERY long break posting anything on my blog, 1. because I've been doing a job in Australia's capital (Canberra) for the last three years that has taken absolutely all my time away from writing and publishing, and 2. because I forgot/ mislaid/ destroyed/ who knows what, my old email address and passwords to get into my blog.

But by chance I found them today. Hooray!

Firstly I want to thank everyone who has contributed comments to my recipe for slow roasted pork belly. There were about 50 and they are all now published. I apologise for the delay. And thank you for all the other comments on other recipes too, also now published.

Secondly, now I have my access back, and with a little getting-back-on-the-bike skill enhancement for blogging 101, I'm going to start back with the posts and immense backlog of recipes I've been collecting.

Stay tuned, and I'll be back around the block commenting on all your fantastic posts too.


Sunday, January 28, 2007


When I had Bellinis in Harry’s Bar in Venice it cost about $100 (aussie) for a round of four. But we WERE in Harry’s Bar and I guess you pay for the privilege. Take comfort in the fact that they are cheaper to make at home.

I know the health conscious among you will be appalled that I usually need to disguise things that are good for me in elaborate ways. Just like mums grate carrot into pasta sauce to get kids to eat it. I can think of no better way to disguise fruit than in luscious, come hither cocktails, especially in Summer. The bellini is to me the most succulent indicator of seasonal produce. When the heady fragrance of ripe white peaches hits me as I walk through the fruit market, I must immediately head to my local Italian wine merchant and buy some prosecco. Presto, bellinis. Bellissimo.

At Xmas, my darling cousins R and B treated us all with a bottle of imported Italian bellini mix which was very nice and put us all in the holiday spirit. But now that the peaches are here we must make the most of them, yes? Whip up a batch and laze around in the cool shade near the water and mutter things in incomprehensible Italian just to get in the spirit of it. This recipe is adapted from Walter Bolzonella, a barman at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice. Don’t ask me how I got the recipe … ah – La Serenissima ….

½ cup of water
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
4-5 large ripe white peaches
1 tsp sugar or more - optional
1-2 raspberries, if needed, to enhance the colour

1 bottle of good Prosecco, preferably Nino Franco (Prosecco is an Italian semi sweet sparkling wine)

Place the water and lemon juice on a non reactive bowl – glass or ceramic.

Peel, stone and slice the peaches and immediately immerse them in the lemon water. This stops them from discolouring. Place the bowl in the fridge and chill for one hour, allowing the peaches to macerate. Take the peaches out of the water and place into a beaker suitable for a stab blender, or in the jar of a blender. Reserve the water. Puree the peaches and add a little of the water – a few tablespoons or more – to bring them to a consistency about as thick as runny cream. Taste the puree. Bellinis are not supposed to be an overly sweet drink, so if the peaches are ripe you won’t need too much sugar. If they are tart, add sugar and blend again. If your peaches are ripe they should have deep pink veins around the stone and this will give the bellini its rosy hue. If they are very pale, add a couple of raspberries and blend again.

Pour the puree into a pitcher and top with the Prosecco and stir, or make them in individual glasses with a little puree topped with Prosecco.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sand pot chicken

New Year score card: Week 1 – go back to work after 12 months off (shock); Week 2 – spend nearly all week in bed with nasty summer head cold (sick). Universe 2, Reb 0. Here’s hoping week 3 starts looking better. Instead of having all day to muck around having lunch or deciding what to eat and preparing it, no matter how complicated, the strategy has to change slightly for combining job and food.

This is an easy weekday all-in-one meal that you can make for one or more depending on the size of your clay or sand pot. You can buy these sand cooking pots from Chinese grocery stores for between $7.00 and $20.00, depending on the size and style. You need to soak your pot in water for 30 – 60 minutes before putting it in the oven so it doesn’t crack. The outside has a sandy rough finish and the inside has a glazed surface so cooking liquids don’t penetrate into the pot. In a similar way to a tajine, the cooking vessel itself intensifies the flavour of your ingredients in a way a stir fry doesn’t. Use whatever meat and vegetables and sauces you have in your fridge or pantry, so this recipe is also a great way to use up leftovers.

2 chicken thigh fillets, visible fat removed, cut into 3 cm chunks
½ an onion, sliced into half moons
4-5 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp freshly grated root ginger
1 fresh red chilli, de-seeded and sliced
1 kaffir lime leaf, bruised

1 tbsp hoisin sauce (or oyster sauce)
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin or Chinese rice wine or sake
2 tbsp lime juice
¼ cup water or chicken stock

½ cup – 1 cup of fresh green vegetables. You can use broccolini, cabbage, asparagus, choy sum, gai lan, bok choy, been sprouts, snow peas or sugar snap peas etc.
1 shallot finely sliced and/or 1 tbsp coriander chopped

Preheat the oven to 180 (160 fan forced). Combine the chicken, onion, mushrooms and spices with the sauces and mix well. Put this mixture into the soaked and drained sand pot, cover with the lid, and cook in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes. Remove from oven, stir, and add the green vegetables, stirring again to coat them in the juices. Return to the oven for 5 minutes or until the veges are cooked to your liking. Remove the lid and garnish with shallots and coriander.

Serve with rice or noodles, and if it’s a meal for one you can put the rice or noodles straight into the sand pot to serve.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Turkey, ham and pine nut pies with cream cheese pastry

This Christmas I cooked my way through about $300.00 worth of meat that I ordered from the delectable Anthony at Vic’s Premium Quality Meats in Mascot. Honestly these guys provide THE best meat and it’s become my habit to get my Chrissy goodies from here.

Over the season I cooked for 20 adults and six children and my culinary paint pallette included a Thirlmere free range turkey, a boneless Kurobuta rare breed Berkshire shoulder ham, a 2.5 kg 100 day grain fed ‘Silver’ rib eye (scotch) fillet, and a Berkshire rack of pork. Plus dozens of salads. I’m not going to write about each and every one, but suffice to say with a top quality produce driven menu it’s pretty hard to go wrong. One thing I loved was that they threw in the stuffing for the turkey (chestnut and smoky bacon, made by Romeo Baudouin, Les Saveurs de Romeo, ex head chef of Prime in Sydney) which was absolutely spectacular. I would normally make my own stuffing but this saved time and I doubt I could have done it better even though I had the recipe for it. They also threw in the glaze for the ham which was pungently clove-y and sticky with maple syrup and cider.

There are heaps of recipes and pictures of hams and turkeys, golden and glazed and succulent, with all the trimmings, but what always interests me is what to do with the leftovers. Even after a panzer division of relatives has mown their way through the offerings of the Christmas table you’ll still have nearly ½ a kilo of turkey meat, the carcass, and a kilo or so of ham hanging about. There’s fried rice, omelettes and frittatas, sandwiches, salads, but you soon get tired of that. So here’s an idea I’ve adapted from December ’06 NZ Cuisine magazine which looked like it could easily accommodate the remainder of my leftovers elegantly and ready for a summer picnic. The finished product is a bit like a traditional English pork pie. I’ll warn you, there’s a couple of steps involved, so it’s a long recipe that you may choose to execute over two days, but you’ll be pleased with the results of your hard work.

First, make a stock from the bones of the roast turkey. Place them in a large pot with one halved onion, a halved head of garlic, 6 peppercorns, a few bay leaves and sprigs of thyme, a roughly chopped carrot and a few chopped celery stalks. (DO NOT salt the stock. It will be reduced after it simmers and salting it now could make it too salty at the end of the process). Cover with cold water and a glass of white wine until the stock ingredients are just immersed, bring to the boil, skim the mucky bits off the top and simmer for 2 hours. After 2 hours, strain the stock though muslin and return to a pan and reduce by half or until you have about 400-500mls of concentrated stock. Strain again and leave this to cool. (If you don’t have the opportunity to make your own stock this way, use a good commercial brand and reduce the same way. Campbells Real Consomme will work as it will set to jelly when cooled).

Cream Cheese pastry: (Cuisine credits Tim Duncan from White Tie Catering in Christchurch with this recipe, which he in turn adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible, so I am similarly crediting them).

2 cups plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
125 g cream cheese (hard philadelphia)
170 g unsalted butter, diced
2 tbps iced water
1 tbsp cider vinegar

Place the flour and baking powder in a food processor and pulse. Add the chopped cold cream cheese to the flour and process until coarsely incorporated. Add butter and pulse again until roughly combined. Add water and vinegar and process until the dough comes together. Tip onto a board, pull together with your hand, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or overnight. This is a great pastry to work with and is very forgiving. It’s soft and pliable and will push back together if it breaks. If you’re nervous around pastry and baulk at making your own, try this. It’s also the sort of pastry which tastes fabulous when cold, which is how the final dish is served.

For the filling:

400 g cold diced turkey meat (or you could use chicken if you don’t have any leftover turkey)
175 g diced ham
1 small onion finely chopped
1 clove crushed garlic
½ tbsp oil
1 dozen pitted chopped cherries
150 g toasted pine nuts
4 teaspoons of finely chopped sage
Grated zest of one orange
Salt and pepper to season.

Cook the onion and garlic in the oil until translucent. Cool and mix with the other filling ingredients.

To assemble and cook the pies:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (170 fan forced). Lightly grease four non-stick 7 cm diameter mini springform tins. Roll the pastry out to 2 mm thickness and cut out 4 disks big enough to line the base and sides plus 1cm overhang, and 4 disks for the lids plus 1cm overhang. Cut a small hole about the size of your little finger in the centre of the disks for the lids.

Fit the base pastry into the pans, easing it in at the edges, and fill loosely with filling. Fit the lids on, press the pastry together with your fingers, and roll the overhang inwards to seal the pies. Refrigerate for 40 minutes. Decorate with sage leaves and brush with egg wash. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and cooked through. Let the pies cool completely.

When they are cool and while they are still in their pans, use a squeeze bottle or turkey baster to pour the liquid room temperature reduced stock in through the holes in the lids of the pies until the level of stock reaches the top.

Refrigerate, and the stock will form a jelly around the filling in the pies.

Serve with your favourite relish: I used this Christmas cranberry and sour cherry relish.

Cranberry, sour cherry, apple and sage relish

Do you have any idea how hard it is to find frozen cranberries a week before Christmas? There was more chance of the dust at the bottom of my wardrobe self organising and marching up the vacuum cleaner hose while I was asleep, than me laying my hands on a box of these little puppies. All the clever cooks had bought their frozen cranberries in August and were laughing smugly behind their trolleys as I fossicked around the Creative Gourmet and Sara Lee sections of the supermarket freezer, flinging raspberries and mango cheeks about with gay abandon.

But the resourceful cook thinks of a way around these irritating hardships, so like Hannibal with a herd of elephants I switched to plan B and headed to the Craisins aisle. Hmmm ... an ominous shelf-gap yawned like an abyss between the dried apricots and the sultanas. Me and pachyderms slunk home, but the brain was still ticking over. Luckily dried cranberries last for a fair while and a decent rummage through the cupboard yielded a half a pack. It’s a start. A full scale expedition into the inner sanctum of the pantry saw me emerge with dried sour cherries, a remnant of the last time I spent the better part of a day tackling a ‘simple’ recipe from a Kylie Kwong cookbook.

So with these substitutions in place I went on to do create a luscious accompaniment for the Christmas ham and turkey, with the help of a basic recipe from Donna Hay’s Celebrate issue.

1 onion, chopped
3 tbsp light olive oil
4 granny smith apples, peeled cored and chopped
½ cup dried cranberries (craisins)
¾ cup dried sour cherries
1 cup sugar
¾ cup Chardonnay vinegar
¾ cup port
¼ cup chopped sage leaves
Salt and black pepper to season

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook slowly for 30 minutes until they start to caramelise. Add all the other ingredients and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer gently for an hour until the relish is thick and syrupy. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Will and Toby's, Manly Beach

This was exciting for a girl who rarely ventures any further than the imaginary borders of the CBD’s 2 km radius around Sydney Tower. Besides, I’m still eating my way through the restaurants from Paddington to Pyrmont and have predictably got a bit stuck in Surry Hills. Most things up to and including “R”, but then one closes, another re-opens and there I am retracing my steps to “B”. So to head north straight for a “W”, well this is progress. An adventure.

Left: Contorni - Green Beans with garlic lemon and olive oil ($10.00)

I’m not very good at public transport, with my competencies restricted to the monorail and aeroplanes. Luckily I had two old hands with me to make sure I didn’t freak out when it came to the thronging surge of holidaymakers and day trippers aboard the Manly Ferry. So with L & M to hold my hand, we set off across the waves to wild and strange shores (well to us inner city types anyway) to sample the fare of the so called Northern Beaches, and meet up with K & C back from Jakarta for a short Sydney sojourn.

As you march from the ferry through the tarnished discount shop and fast food strip of The Corso and break into a sunglass-crowned saunter heading up South Steyne to the ‘more exclusive’ end of the beach, you see Will and Toby’s tucked behind folding glass windows under the Sebel Hotel. Morocco meets adobe rendered concrete walls meets surf bum chic, and we notice that the last bum has left our muted striped banquette adorned with sand. Oh well, this is the beach I guess. The fold back windows immediately stamp ‘casual’ on the atmosphere and the coming and going of hotel guests immerses you in a holiday mood.
Below: Arancini balls (6 per serve, $8.00)

My patience with ‘casual’ is foreshortened while looking at the menu. As someone who writes a lot for work and pleasure, I find the sight of an unpunctuated menu unsettling. And I don’t mean casually under-punctuated in keeping with the laissez faire ambience of the seaside, but there is not one single punctuation mark anywhere. It’s holidays, so I fight the urge to get out a green pen. Maybe if I sprinkle that sand from the banquette on the page it will fall into random full stops or line up to resemble an apostrophe. M returns from the loo and declares they have not been cleaned. Strange fish, these northerners. I wonder what other unusual customs we will encounter in this new culture?

Left: Calamari Fritti with lemon and rocket ($19.00).

Rising above the comma-less string of offerings, we settle down to decide what to eat while sipping on a Bombay Gin martini. M orders a Bellini. While it tastes fine, I don’t think a place that prides itself on its bar should be making Bellinis with canned nectar at the height of white peach season. Tisk tisk. It’s a nice range of choices and considering the restaurant’s location and view, they are very reasonably priced with only two dishes in the low-mid $30’s. We surmise that the chef’s name might be Carmel as one of our choices is a ‘carmelised’ onion and goats (sic) cheese tart 16 (which we assume means $16.00 not 16 onions, or 16 goats, or that it serves 16). Or maybe it’s a dish created in the town where Clint Eastwood is Mayor?

Left: Cuttlefish Risotto with fennel and dill ($19.00/ $25.00 as a main)

The menu leans in an Italian direction, with a few Italian words thrown around randomly through the descriptions for effect. We order the Arancini Balls (6 per serve, $8.00) to share. They are well executed with a crunchy coating, but otherwise fairly unremarkable. The Calamari Fritti with Lemon and Rocket ($19) is tender and crisp, its oily edge countered by the peppery rocket and tart lemon. The Cuttlefish Risotto with Fennel and Dill ($19.00/ $25.00 as a main) bursts with aromatic aniseed, perhaps pushing the boundaries of balance, but the rice is deliciously creamy and wet, the way it should be in my opinion. Veal Scallopine with Crumbed Sweetbreads, Baby Herbs, and Eschallot Jus ($29.00) is declared good after a moment’s hesitation, but the sweetbreads are disarmingly scattered like a gland necklace around the main event. An interesting presentation of offal.

Left: Veal Scallopine with crumbed sweetbreads, baby herbs, and eschallot jus ($29.00)

We strike a hitch when the Roast Blue Eye with Boston Bay Mussels, Potatoes and Olive Oil Emulsion ($31.00) arrives disguised as a Pot of Mussels with Tomato, Chilli, Basil and Garlic ($19.00). Our waitress misheard the order and only caught the ‘mussels’ part and apologises politely and profusely. After a wait it arrives with a gorgeous golden burnished skin surrounded by the dreaded foam. Thank you Ferran Adria, will we ever forgive you? For the inconvenience (the wait and mistake, not the foam) our waiter announces the price of the dish will be deducted from the bill, and indeed it is, which was most decent of them. The wine list is compact with some interesting listings, but we wash our seaside nosh down with a 2006 Grove Mill Sauvignon Blanc ($43.00 / bottle). Overall, the staff seem very busy and a little stressed, but they manage to pull off service with aplomb, if not a little too much chaos. It’s the holiday season and I’m sure they are hammered and working long hours, but they’re all good humoured and happy to appease any requests.

Left: Roast Blue Eye with Boston Bay mussels, potatoes and olive oil emulsion ($31.00)

We press forward to dessert which is obligingly served at an outside table, allowing those in our group who wish to attempt to contract lung cancer to do so with impunity. The Almond Milk Panna Cotta with Lavender Biscotti ($15.00) is enticingly wobbly and subtly scented (picture below, top). The Passionfruit Ice Cream with Mango Cheeks and Pineapple Chips ($15.00) is lusciously creamy and tangy, and the Frozen Pistachio Nougatine with Candied Zest and Fresh Fruits ($16.00) is sensational (picture below, middle). Affogato ($15.00) is a little off centre. Described as “Warm vanilla shot expresso (sic) ice cream and frangelico” it’s hard to work out what’s what, let alone the travesty of calling coffee ‘expresso’. What appears is a predictable shot of Frangelico – tick, a glass of two scoops of coffee ice cream – inventive, nice ice cream, along with a shot what resembles room temperature evaporated milk. Huh? It seems there’s confusion in the dessert section – I shouldn’t wonder with that punctuation – and we get a couple of espresso shots to go with our dessert, easily fixed (picture below, bottom).

Then I see it. Nestling between ‘capsicum’ and ‘Persian fetta’. It’s a comma! I try to move it with my finger thinking it may be a trick of the light or a stray splash of balsamic. But peering closely, there’s no mistake. A lone warrior for the written English language standing up to be counted! Someone’s head will roll for this I’m sure.

Will and Tobys (sic)
8-13 South Steyne
(Under the Sebel Hotel)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Pommes de Terre Anna

An oldie but a goodie from Larousse Gastronomique, I've rediscovered this as a great way of turning out deliciously crisp potatoes. My research has told me that the original dish - a large layered potato cake cooked in heaps of clarified butter - was created for the 19th century Parisian courtesan, Anna Deslions, by chef Adolphe Dugléré at the Cafe Anglais. All I can say is that Anna must have been doing some serious 'exercise' to work that butter off. This version is truncated and adapted to make it easier to do at home and somewhat friendlier on the arteries. Two large potatoes will make about 6-7 individual serves as pictured here. I use unwashed sebago potatoes.

Preheat the oven to 180C (fan forced). Peel the potatoes and slice into thin rounds - you can use a mandolin if you have one but a sharp knife will do just as well. In a bowl add the potatoes, a tablespoon of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Toss with your fingers separating all the slices so they are all coated with oil. In a non stick muffin tin, pile the slices into the holes and press down.

Add a teaspoon of cold butter to the top of each one and bake for one hour (I've tried it with just oil and the result is not as good. You do need that little bit of butter to produce the crisp burnished look at the edges). About half way through, remove them from the oven and press down gently with a small spatula or the back of a spoon to compact them slightly, then return to the oven. The resulting potatoes with be rich and crisp on the outside with a creamy interior. Serve them top side up for a rustic look or upside down for a more uniform rounded base. I usually make at least double the recipe because I've found no one can resist just ... one ... more.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pizza e Birra

I've been trying to get to this restaurant ever since it opened. So many good reviews coupled with the sort of atmosphere I was sure to love, but I've either been dragged elsewhere, it wasn't open when I could make it, or it was simply too full to get in.

So finally, as a last minute decision on a Saturday lunchtime, we made our move to sample the delights I've read so much about.

I know I'm not in Italy because I'm looking at Crown Street and the cars are driving in too orderly a fashion. If this were Italy there would be more shouting and beeping and ducking and weaving. But look inside or catch the attention of a waiter, and you're back in Italy. Uncle A (008) was down from BrisVegas and his mate M came along as well. Mmmm More pizza to share?

Left and below left: Olives all'ascolana - crumbed deep fried fat green olives, stuffed with seasoned pork and veal $5.00 for four.

Without even a second thought, two plates of stuffed olives ordered, tabled, chomped, great. Washed down with a Montenegro and soda, beer, whatever.

Kisses, hugs and two bottles of bubbles delivered by A, the trusty courier, as a pressie for me (thank you so much Madame B) for helping source some tricky historical menus for a new book. Delamotte Brut, and Henriot Blanc Souverain Brut - there's New Year's Eve set up, yum, can't wait.

I want to try so many things on this menu, but we decide shared pizza is best today.

It's an easy order - M's fave is the prosciutto and rocket - no arguments there. Luckily we are all anchovy lovers so the Napolitana goes down just as easily. I know many of you readers follow the same predilections as I in the thin crust scant topping temple of pizza worship. This will not disappoint. Crusty and smoky with delicious flavours.

We're all tempted by the white chocolate panna cotta with cherries, but evening engagements beckon and we know we'll be worse off if we over indulge. I'm coming back for the calamari, the papardelle with duck ragu ... I could go on, but definitely will will next time.

Pizze: Rocket and prosciutto ($18, right) and Napolitana with olives basil and anchovies ($16, left).

Pizza e Birra - Shop 1, 500 Crown St., Surry Hills.

New Zealand: Kaikoura and the Coast

The east coast of the south island continues to reward a traveller with spectacular vistas. Driving from Picton or Blenheim you’ll saunter through endless vineyards of the Awatere Valley and sheep-studded grazing country until unexpectedly, with a gentle rightward turn, you’re wedged within a slim roadway with dramatic volcanic coastline to the left and soaring snow capped peaks on the right. Wow.

Cloudy Bay and Clifford Bay comprise the top of the coastline, and the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean dump onto the black sand of the shallow beaches.

Left: fireplace inside The Store, Kekerengu.

This is crayfish country. Hooray.

But no drive along this coastline is complete without a stop at The Store at Kekerengu. Set as close to the water as you can get without getting your toes wet, and with beach walk access, this restaurant come café satisfies food and bevvie requirements no matter what the time of day or the weather. Sit near the raging fireplace as the grey clouds roll in and the rain and wind pounds the windows, or catch the sun in the garden or on the deck as you gaze across the infinite sparkling blue water horizon that envelopes you.

Left: View from The Store.

Richard and Sue Macfarlane serve a range of local seasonal produce, as well as staple favourites, and the counter bristles with home made pies, cakes and tarts in an endless fresh baked procession from the kitchen. Exactly half way between Blenheim and Kaikoura, it is irresistible as a stopping point to replenish your energy with sustenance and breathe in the relaxing salt spray. A tip: Don’t eat before you set off because you won’t be able to resist the feast laid out for you here. The coffee is fantastic too.

The front of The Store opens onto a deck and the beach.

Baked on the premises: Blueberry and pear tart above,
Greek syrup cake and coconut syrup cake below.

Warming welcome: Eggs Benedict,
scrumptious and comforting on a cold morning.

But back to the crayfish.

As you near Kaikoura, lobster shacks dot the beaches. You can pick up a fresh cray, caught and steamed within a few hours, for $35-45 depending on the weight. You can take it away or they’ll also heat it through with a sauce of your choice so you can eat on the beach (well, not what Aussies would call a beach, but it is a strip of sand near the water). I like to stop at Nin’s Bin (left) because of the fun you can have saying it with a New Zealand accent.

Kaikoura is a seaside resort town. It doesn't take long to work out that the main industry here is marine tourism, but the most dominant is whale watching. The whale watch operation is possibly the most streamlined, best organised tourism venture I have ever experienced. The three hour tours leave on the hour (except in bad weather when tours can be cancelled), they have up to four boats out at any one time, and the entire process runs like clockwork. Although you get a partial refund of you see no whales, the geological and marine features of this part of the coast provide a supply of of resident cetaceans. A 2000 metre ocean trench mixes warm currents from the north with cold, nutrient rich Antarctic waters to create a stream of food that attracts everything in the food chain. Including a permanent population of single male sperm whales. Like a huge bachelor pad … or pod.

Left: Sperm whale diving, Kaikoura ranges in the background.

If you’ve never been near these amazing creatures in the wild, don't go past Kaikoura without booking a whale watch experience. You’ll travel a few kilometeres off the coast in a luxury purpose-rigged catamaran and chase whales as they surface to breathe before diving to feed. When you see that tail rise up out of the water and plunge into the icy depths you will come away a changed person. This time out we saw four whales, a pod of dusky dolphins annoying a diving whale, and albatross. We were two weeks shy of Orca season and the humpbacks, which migrate past here, were away up north. I’ve been on whale watch tours here before and always marvel at their majesty and beauty. How anyone could contemplate killing them is beyond me.

But maybe I’m a hypocrite because crayfish are another thing altogether. No compunction about putting one steaming on my plate any day. The Pier Hotel is recommended as serving some of the best seafood in Kaikoura, and on this visit I have to agree 100% on the New Zealand Cuisine magazine Restaurant Guide recommendation.

The Pier is an old Victorian era pub, shifted to the waterfront in pieces and re-assembled. It offers a traditional ramshackle, quirky pub atmosphere, the walls littered with briny mementos, where you can sink a cold one and gaze at the mountains and the sea, as well as a restaurant brilliantly served by French chef David Gondohla, and budget accommodation. Another brilliant plus is that they serve lunch all day. Yes, wander in at 3pm and there’s no 'sorry the kitchen's closed' futzing around, just sit down and have a meal, no problems. And what a meal. The John Dory was airily crisp, moistly fried in a diaphanous batter. The crayfish was – no kidding – the best I have ever had. Straight out of the water, steamed. Scattered with chives and served with a simple butter or aioli. I’m a sucker for legs, a leg woman if you must. I feel cheated if even one of those spiny appendages has been lost in transit to my plate. I crack and break and wrangle and slurp the sweet interior from the chitonous tendril from root to tip. Often when you get to the thinnest extremity all there is to reward you is a dried husk. Not so with this beauty. Succulent to the last morsel. I wish I’d had the time or the appetite to try the Paua ravioli on the Summer menu, but it was not to be.

Saunter around after lunch to the seal colony and see NZ fur seals rolling around sleeping off lunch (like you wish you were) right next to the car park.

Deep fried John Dory $18.90

Steamed half cray with butter or aioli $45.00.

Closer to the main strip of the town is The Olive Branch (54 West End) an Italian style café, where the menu is ambitious but not al all touristy, sensibly relying on the best of NZ produce. Run by Jo Broadhust with chef Hamish King at the pans, an early dinner was very satisfying and the casual feel of the venue adds to the seaside vibe. The cray was good, but not as outstanding as The Pier, but that was a very hard act to follow. The food presentation was superior as you can see from the picture below, but in a sense who needs a pretty plate when you only have eyes for the cray? The pork was succulent and the accompaniments were well suited to the dish, the veg on the side a little tired.

Above and below: Confit of tender belly pork,
apple and pear compote, crispy crackling, lemon and sage jus $26.00.

Locally caught steamed crayfish, wasabi and lime sauce $35 half/ $69 whole.

Crispy garlic and rosemary rubbed potatoes
and seasonal veg (included with mains).

Down at the tourism business end of the strip, the Café at Encounter Kaikoura (96 Esplanade) holds multiple interests. The main booking agent for swimming or kayaking with all manner of marine life including dolphins and seals, it also houses a gift shop with local arts, craft and souvenirs, as well as being a great place for a quick meal. Counter food, a la carte and specials cater for a range of tastes, with outward folding doors onto the terrace which looks straight across the beach, perfect for fine weather.

Hoki gougons with salad, fries and tartare $14.00

Grilled asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto
with Greek salad and New Zealand feta $15.00.

Where I stayed: Room With a View. Yes, the view. Oh, The View - the pictures here are what you see from the blacony (see the link above for pictures of the interior and booking details the interior). I’ve stayed here a few times and while not apparently on the seaside, it offers one of the best views you’ll experience in the area. It’s a small freestanding unit next to a house that accommodates a couple easily, but also has a fold out lounge in the main room. The balcony is secluded enough with vines and plants to have a fully functional claw footed bathtub on it that you can fill with bubbles and gaze at the sea and the mountains as you relax, iron out the kinks of the day and fill yourself with bubbles. It’s a few minutes drive from the town and gets you that little bit further away from the bustle of the main drag. At NZ$120-150 per night for two (we paid $135 in November) it’s hard to get better. The weather was gloomy when we arrived (see pictures below) and dark clouds dumped a few metres of snow on the peaks overnight. In the morning (picture above), it was clear and sublime with the snow covered peaks and flat azure sea looking intoxicatingly inviting. Just right for catching a glimpse of the whales.

Eating and Food Shopping in Wellington
Picton Havelock and Marlborough Sounds
Blenheim and the Wairau Valley Vineyards

Green Shelled Mussel Cruise