Category Archives: Travelling

Sardinian holiday – dinners and despair

Fishing boats and Il Ghiottone (centre rear), La Maddalena

Talking about the evening meals we had on our holiday in La Maddalena, Sardinia, probably isn’t quite in the bread, cakes, ale purview, but it connects with something that troubles me deeply. And, well, we did eat bread. There’s always bread with Italian meals.

Whenever we go to Italy, I despair somewhat getting home and looking at our eating scene here in England. Now, I’m in small-town England, but it is a fairly affluent small town, not far from London – yet even here it’s hard to eat well at a reasonable price.

I’m not suggesting that Italy doesn’t have bad food. There are plenty of terrible restaurants in Rome, plenty of junk ready meals in the supermarket, plenty of engagement with the pervasive corporate-industrial food complex. But on our trip to Sardinia we were able to stay in a small town and still find places serving real food, made with fresh, local ingredients, at a reasonable price.

Geezers outside Il Ghiottone

The big gourmand
We had a few average meals in Sardinia, but we also had three excellent ones, two in the same place. This was Il Ghiottone, a tiny bunker of a restaurant with just 15 seats, on Via Guglielmo Oberdan, the quayside. You almost certainly have to book.

The name, I believe, means the “The big gourmand”, and it’s definitely a place for people who enjoy food – real food. The main emphasis, understandably, is on seafood. The restaurant faces the harbour, and Giorgio the co-owner with chef Paola, even offered to point out the fishing boat that supplied them, a small vessel moored about 10 metres away from where we were eating.

Giving thanks to the gods of food

The first time we stuck with antipasti (starters) and secondi (main, “meat”, courses), the second time we went for the primi (pasta or stodge courses – Italians generally don’t like their meat and potatoes on the same plate). We had a brilliant mixed seafood starter, the highlight of which was probably mussels served with a small amount of pickled or macerated red onion on top. Now, normally, we both dislike mussels, but these were great. I also had paranza – deep-friend whole small-medium fish. The sort of fish that in many places (eg here) would be by-catch, thrown back into the sea dead. It was great. The tails were the best bit.

The second visit we had their pasta. They called it manccaroni, a word that’s presumably avariation on macaroni. To most Anglophones, this just refers to small tubular pasta shapes used for macaroni cheese (aka mac ’n’ cheese). I’m not going to go there with the etymology of the word (see Wikipedia if you’re interested), but historically it was used more generally for various pasta shapes. In the essential book on Italian food history Delizia, John Dickie says, “Maccheroni, spelled in a variety of ways, was the most popular medieval pasta term.” In this case the freah, pasta was in little ear shapes – orechiette. These were freshly made and served with mixed seafood. It was stupendous. I want more right now. I’m suffering as that’s not possible. The crappy phone photo doesn’t even come close to doing it justice.

Il Ghiottone pasta

We also tried our first seadas at Il Ghiottone. I’d not encountered this Sardinian dessert pastry fritter, or fried sweet pasta, before. It’s a palm-sized concoction, with a crimped edge, citrusy cheese filling and honey drizzle. It’s good. Not sure I could eat it every day, but I’d definitely eat it again. In fact, I did, a few days later at an otherwise very inferior meal in Olbia.

Looking up seadas now, many recipes use “pecorino” for the filling, but this is such a broad family of sheep milk cheeses – not just the salty parmesan equivalent you get here. I asked Giorgio about the cheese and he said “vaccina” – cow’s milk cheese, more specifically a young, unsalted curd type cheese. I had this corroborated later on an ingredients list on a packet in the surprisingly good airport shop – cagliata vaccina, cow’s milk curd cheese. I’ll have to scratch my head about sourcing that before I try making it at home.

Seadas

The pleasure of these meals was completed by being given a digestivo on both occasions – firstly mirto, then what Giorgio called “acqua sarda” – literally “Sardinian water”, but used in the same sense as eau de vie, the potent French “water of life”, or the Latin aqua vitae. Serious xenomorph blood, like grappa. Yowza.

Street barbeque
The other great meal we had was just round the corner. We’d walked past Da Ninì, Via Vittorio Emmanuele, several times and I’d been intrigued. I was particularly drawn by the brief whiff of a menu – a few scribblings on a board on the roadside, another on the frontage.

A small menu is generally a very good sign. A long, long menu can be the exact opposite – indicating no consideration, no variation and a dubious relationship with the industrialised food chain. With the implications of the latter a prioritising of cheap-as-possible over quality or seasonality.

Basically they were just serving fish, caught a few miles away, unloaded down the road, and cooked on barbeque set up on the road-side. The best seafood I’ve eaten in my life has had this sort of immediacy – mackerel we caught ourselves in Devon as kids; prawns in a Hong Kong night market that we alive moments before; the first tuna steak I ever ate in Bali; mussels straight from the rocks in New Zealand. OK, maybe not the latter. We weren’t experts and, well, see above.

Barbeque and Fran at Nini'

We had orata (bream; Sparus aurata) and spigola (seabass; Dicentrarchus labrax).* They had a salt crust and, well, that’s it. Fresh, simple, delicious. We also had some large prawns, which I doubt were local or sustainable. They’re among my fave foods, but I try not to eat prawns too much as they’re probably the most environmentally problematic seafood. Never mind the recent reports of slavery in the trade. I wish I’d asked, but it’s done now.**

These three meals were all excellent and frankly the ethical issue of a few prawns at Ninì is arguably minor in comparison to the ethical issues related to the large scale industrial food supply chain that most British restaurants and pubs engage with. I was about to rant about this issue more here, but I don’t want to sully my holiday memories, so I’ll save it for a later post.

 

(Check out my first two posts about this Sardinian experience: first and second.)

 

* If you’re on holiday in Italy and want to know what fish you’re eating, check out my list here.
** I won’t go into my attitudes to seafood here. I’ve done that before: here.

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Sardinian holiday – snacks and sweets

Picnic with durum roll

Considering we only had about five days on this holiday, we did manage to do a pretty impressive amount of eating, drinking, sampling and culinary exploration.

I didn’t really know what to expect food-wise of not just Sardinia, which is culturally distinct from the mainland regions of Italy, but also the small port town of La Maddalena, on the island of the same name, off the northeast coast. But as I was very gratified to find some Sardinian craft beers, I was also very pleased to encounter some snacks and treats I’d never even heard of before.

La Maddalena is a town of about 20,000 people, yet it had at least half a dozen bakeries and pasticcierie. Compare that to a British town of a similar size – it might have one dreadful chain bakery stinking of powdered cheese and onion mix, and perhaps a fake bakery (where pre-made dough is simply baked off) inside a supermarket.

Needing picnics for our days at the beach, we went to the small market and stocked up on local salami and pecorino Sardo (various local variations on sheep’s milk cheese) then bought breads and biscuits from a bakery on Via Vittorio Emanuele, down by the port. Called La Panetteria del Porto. (Love the Street View here, with a dog wandering around in the middle of the road.)

Biscuits

It was a small, gloomy bakery with a padrona who seemed determined to sell us more than we asked for or needed. But hey, I’m a glutton for baked goods, so was an easy mark. There was a display cabinet packed with biscuits, sold by weight, and breads in niches against the back wall. We bought rolls – notably yellowy ones made with grano duro (durum wheat, semolina) and dark, grainy ones she simply called pane nero (black bread). Our picnics, tweaked slightly every day, were completed by Sardinian-grown melon.

Acciuleddi

From the biscuits, I chose the twisty ones – unfamiliar looking, unfamiliar sounding. These were acciuleddi – a word with that distinctive “dd”, which seems to be not just Sardinian, but even specifically gallurese, a language spoken in the north of Sardinia and the south of Corsica. Eating them, I discovered they’re not unlike frappe, the deep-fried sweet pasta I gorge on during Carnevale in Rome, but with the added bonus of being drizzled in honey. I will make some at home at some stage, as there are recipes available.

Ficareddi in window

Another biscuit-type treat we bought from another bakery, doesn’t seem to have any online traces. So it may not just be specific to this part of Sardinia, it may be a speciality of this one pasticceria, Abat Jour on the pedestrian-only Via Giuseppe Garibaldi. These were ficareddi – a kind of figgy macaron concoction with a peaked form. They’re made with ground almonds and liquore di mirto, the quintessential Sardinian digestivo made from the berries of common myrtle (Myrtus communis), a shrub we’d passed regularly on our walks in the macchia scrub.

Ficareddu bite

We also bought some bastone di cardinale (“cardinal’s staff” or “cardinal’s stick”), a kind of sweet salami made with dried and candied fruits and nuts. It’s a gift for our friend who looked after our cats and tomatoes so the padrona wrapped it up beautifully. Again – compare this with the experience you’d have in your local Greggs. It makes me weep for our impoverished food culture and culinary self-respect here in England.

Bastone di cardinale

The morning we were catching the ferry back to the mainland, we thought we’d better get a snack for the journey, so went to Paposceria L’ Isola che non c’é on Piazza XXIII Febbraio. No, I’d not heard of a paposceria either, and I get the impression I’m not the only one as they have a big sign outside explaining the meaning of the word paposcia. Basically, they’re another variation on the theme of snack flatbreads, related to pizza. The paposcia was the piece of dough used to test if a wood-fired oven was hot enough to start baking the bread. If the oven was ready, the paposcia would rise and bake well. “Per non sprecare nulla” – to not waste anything – it was then used to make a sandwich.

Paposcia

It’s not specifically Sardo, but neither is it something I’d ever encountered in Rome. Indeed, I’m not even sure where the word paposcia is from, possibly Puglia or Naples. It may well be a dialect version of babbuccia (babouche in French) and, like ciabatta, also means slipper, for obvious reasons.

It was only 11am when we went in, and L’isola che non c’é (“the island that isn’t”) was pretty quiet, but the guys were friendly and the mozzarella and tomato toasty served us well, sitting on deck in the sunshine as we made the short crossing back to Palau on mainland Sardinia.

 

(I’ve written two most posts about this holiday: first one and third one. I’ve also done a recipe for acciuleddi.)

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Sardinian holiday – sun, scrub and craft beer

A beach on Isola Caprera, Sardinia. Pic: Fran Hortop

Last week we went to Sardinia for a holiday. During our two years in Rome we tried to explore Italy, but it’s a disparate, varied and not always easily connected country so we left with a long list of places we’d failed to reach. Sardinia was high on that list.

Our friend Annely recommended Maddalena archipelago in northeastern Sardinia. We plumped for it without too much agonising as it seemed to fit the bill for us – beach, some wilds, and a fairly easy journey.

The islands have a long historical association with the Italian navy, and even NATO (a US nuclear sub ran aground there in 2003; oops). There is still a navy presence there, but mostly the archipelago is defined by being a national park, and a destination for people who like to play about in boats. We don’t do the latter – instead we stuck with buses and hiking on Caprera, a largely unpopulated island to the east of La Maddalena island itself. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great unifier, had a house there, and indeed we saw his deathbed on a tour. I was more interested in seeing his windmill and forno (oven), both perched on a rocky hilltop.

Garibaldi's forno (under tree on right) and mill (left,without sails)

Pleasant surprises
After our days wandering the scrubby, aromatic macchia*, with its thickets of wild lavender, helichrysum, juniper, myrtle and cork oak and lying around reading by turquoise seas, we went back to La Maddalena port. There, we were very happy to find that one bar had beers from a couple of Sardinian craft breweries. Funny really, as this place – Bar Fiume di Serra Francesco – looked very ordinary but had the interesting beers, while a hip bar a stone’s throw away just had industrial crap beer.

One of these is Ichnusa – a lager that pertains to be Sardinian, and brewed since 1912. Thing is, these days it’s owned by Heineken, and I’d challenge anyone to really distinguish between the two, or a dozen other best-selling industrial lagers, in a blind tasting.

Macchia scrub on Isola Caprera. Pic: Fran Hortop

Real Sardo beer
The real beers we tried were from Marduk Brewery and P3 Brewing Company. All the ones we tried were excellent, and a great reminder of how exciting Italian craft beer is.

I’m enjoying being back in Britain, and having access to our dual cultures of traditional, CAMRA-endorsed, cask-dispensed real ale and lively US-influenced craft beer, but I really miss Italian craft beer. It’s such a dynamic scene, partly influenced by Italy’s food and drink great traditions, partly free of them and able to be experimental.

I love how I can drink something like P3’s 50 Nodi (“50 knots”) and not only get a whiff of the heady juniper macchia we’ve just been walking in but also get a whole long trail of heritage. It’s an Italian beer that’s called an India Pale Ale, but really it’s an IPA in part inspired by US IPAs, which have themselves evolved from the less intense older British IPAs.

The spiel on these beers is such fun too. This one says it has “high notes of caramel and intense floral, citrus and exotic fruit perfumes”. Me and Fran got pineapple and Parma Violets, among other things. Furthermore, “Il suo carattere forte deriva da una miscela di luppoli inglesi, americani e neozelandesi che vi accompagneranno in un viaggio sensoriale ineguagliabile” – “It’s strong character derives from a mix of English, America and New Zealand hops that accompany you on an incomparable sensory voyage”! Love it. (Those hops are Simcoe, Pacific Jade, Citra, Goldings.)

P3 Riff and Marduk American Pale Ale

We also enjoyed P3’s Riff, which they call a “Session White IPA” and, along with two (barley) malts also contains wheat malt, wheat flakes and oat flakes, along with four hops of US and English origin: Fuggle, Styrian Golding, Willamette and Citra. And coriander. And orange zest. All of which makes its presence felt, but in a neatly balanced mix.

Grow your own
While P3 is in Sassari, Sardinia’s second-largest city, located in the northwest, Marduk, meanwhile, is in Irgoli, in the east. Their tagline says they’re a Birrificio agricolo – a farm-brewery, or words to that effect. Another blurb in Il Fiume’s menu about Marduk says, “Le nostre birre nascono da un’accurata selezione delle materie prime che produciamo direttamente in azienda” – that is, “Our beers are born from a careful selection of ingredients produced directly within the farm/business.”

Marduk label

They grow their own barley and “diverse varietà di luppolo” (“various types of hop”) to maintain a close control on the process – and food miles. I mean, we were about 60 miles (92km) away but it was the closest craft brewery. We tried their American Pale Ale and American IPA, which were both great, though surely an APA segues into an AIPA? And surely these are uniquely Italian pale ales now anyway?

My local brewery here in Lewes, Harveys, similarly sources its ingredients locally, but this is something fairly new in Italian brewing, as hops weren’t grown there. When we left La Maddalena we had one night in Olbia, and found a bar that claimed online to sell local craft beers. They didn’t, but they did have a bottle of Nazionale from Baladin.

Baladin is the brewery that both started the Italian craft brewing scene, and the owner of the bar in Rome that introduced me to it, so it was nice to have a Nazionale – which Baladin developed to be the “first 100% Italian beer made with Italian ingredients.”

Marduk American IPA aperitivo snack

So all in all, very pleasing beer drinking on holiday. Even more so as we were back in the land of the aperitivo snack. Now back in England, we went out for a few drinks for Fran’s birthday yesterday at the Brighton Beer Dispensary and while the beers were great, the table did seem a bit bare without a plate of cheeses, salumi and breads. While Fran loved the cured meat products, I enjoyed the local Sardinian crispbread, pane carasau, sprinkled with Sardinian pecorino and melted. So civilised.

(I’ve written two more posts about this holiday: second and third.)

 

 

* In English, we use the related French word maquis for this kind of scrub. Not much point us having a word for it I suppose, as we don’t have any – it’s specifically a Mediterranean environment.

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From building site to castle. Real, actual castle

Kingswear Castle sunflare
As our building works were plodding into their most inconvenient stages we’d arranged to go away. I went down to Devon to see my folks, visiting a strangely dead village on the way down where all the cafes were closed but there was this great carving on an old pub.

Wheatsheaf

Being in Devon was lovely in itself as we got to enjoy the last vestiges of summer while mowing a meadow, but also because staying at my parents’ house meant I had use of an actual kitchen, something I’ve not had for 13 weeks now. So I could get stuck straight in with the baking, using up some something aging ingredients to make a surprisingly good loaf and okay almond and candied peel cookies.

Bread and biscuits crop

For the weekend, thanks to a generous gift for Fran’s big birthday and my less significant one from my folks, we went and stayed in a castle. An actual castle. Surely all boys – and many girls – fantasise about living in castles when they’re young, and this was about as good a fulfilment of that as I could hope for, aged forty-something in the 21st century.

Dartmouth and Kingswear castles

Kingswear Castle is a small defensive fort built a few meters above the waterline of the mouth of the river Dart. It was constructed at the turn of the 15th century to form a pair with Dartmouth Castle just over the river. Both were fitted with cannons to cover the mouth of the river in case of attack by enemy ships trying to take advantage of the sheltered port of Dartmouth. Improving technology soon made Kingswear Castle obsolete and it fell into disrepair. A Victorian aristocrat owned it in the 19th century, then the local MP in the mid-20th century, but I can imagine it wasn’t the easiest home. The gardener there told us the winter 2013-2014 storms involved waves breaking into not just a small Victorian bedroom in a turret at ground level, but also into an upstairs bedroom. Like Dartmouth opposite, it was also a significant spot in WW2, and there’s a blockhouse in the garden.

Shadow, blockhouse, rocks

As a place to visit though, with some mixed but not extreme weather, it was a wonderful experience. Partly, again, as it had a kitchen so I could do some cooking and baking, but partly because it had a kitchen with a view across the mouth of the River Dart or out to sea.

Apple cake, Dartmouth Castle

Among the things I made were the Dan Lepard apple and orange crumble tart I mentioned in my last post. It was delicious, especially with some of that divine dairy nectar clotted cream. (In this case, from Riverford Dairy. So good.)

Apple cake 2

I also made a loaf, about 80 per cent spelt, given an overnight fermentation. First I put it the dough an embrasure on the spiral stairway to prove.

Spiral staircase long prove

But I think there was too much warm air coming up, so I moved it to the ground (or rock) floor, where the old gun ports are. The finished loaf looked a bit like a seal, suitably enough as I’d seen one on the evening we arrived.

Gun floor

On our final morning, the weather was a tad wild and windy, and the waves were breaking into these ports. No wonder it wasn’t an easy place to live, especially for the MP, who put his kitchen in here and presumably watched it floating around in the surf on regular occasions.

Kingswear Castle panorama

Before the final wet and windy morning, however, we had some lovely weather. Good enough for a sunny walk along the coast path, via the old WW2 installations and current Coastwatch station at Froward Point, to Coleton Fishacre. This is a National Trust property, built in the 1920s for the D’Oyly Carte family, founders of the Savoy Theatre and patrons of Gilbert and Sullivan. I loved the 1920s styling, but particularly enjoyed the kitchens, replete with their fake loaf of bread.

D'Oyly kitchen

The sunny weather also gave us a nice backdrop for a patriotic moment and some beer tasting. This included a range from a new brewery near Winchester, my home town, called Mash. To be brutally honest, we found most of their beers insubstantial, not ready for release. But good luck to them. I always enjoy encountering a new brewery.

Mash and flag

Then we had some more local beers from Teignworthy Brewery in the Devon village of Newton Abbot (which we’d driven through.) This mild was almost a porter, with charcoally hints and a medium body.

Teignmouth Martha's Mild

The (sensible) boozing didn’t stop when we’d left either. We tried some more beers from Clearwater Brewery, in the north Devon village of Bideford.

Clearwater beers

The baking didn’t stop either. I was able to make one more loaf, this time with Wessex Mill‘s Wessex Cobber, a lovely malty flour I’ve tried before. As well as being an amazing holiday, it was just such a relief to have an opportunity to do some baking. For someone who makes bread every week, being without a kitchen for so long has been an interesting trial.

Wessex Cobber loaf

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There and back again

This blog is still alive. As are we – perhaps against the odds, as Britain has had the worst winter storms for 20 years and we arrived home right in the middle of them. We touched down at Heathrow 22 December, when large swathes of our fair isle were already flooded, and repeatedly buffeted by high winds. We even managed to get down to the southwest of England on a train, then across Devon for Christmas (with no water on Xmas morning – but hey, between me, my dad on the phone and my father-in-law we fixed it), then back up the country to my folks’ place, then across to the southeast, to finally settle in Lewes, Sussex.

We haven’t got any proper internet yet, but before I even think about complaining about the two and a half week time between ordering and connection I have to remind myself it took us five months – five whole flippin’ months – to get internet in Italy’s great capital.

So in the meantime, here’s one of my last drinks on our travels, in Singapore. It’s a lager made with spirulina from RedDot (or Reddot, or Red Dot) brewery. We also visited Singapore’s other key brewery, Brewerkz, that night. It all seems like a very very long time ago, but it’s only just over three weeks.Monster Green lager at Red Dot, Singapore

And here’s me back in wet, wintry Blighty drinking ale (cask Old Ale, then bottled IPA) from Harvey’s, the small-ish, traditional family brewery that’s survived here in Lewes since 1790.

Drinking Harvey's at The Swan, Lewes

I’ll probably talk more about Harvey’s, but sadly I don’t think I’ll be on a brewery tour any time soon. Apparently they’re booked for two years.

Having posted those pics, however, I’m not actually drinking that much beer at the moment. My tipple of choice is currently hot chocolate, and I’ve been trying various varieties, and making biscuits to dunk in it. I’ll report back on my findings soon. Via the miracle of real – indeed fibre optic – internet. Fingers crossed the installation goes without a hitch tomorrow. Touch wood. Touch cornicello. Make inverted mano cornuta gesture. Etc. Not that I’m superstitious.

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High tea, post-colonial-style, at Raffles, Singapore

View of Raffles
Last time we visited Singapore, we were arriving from India, barely recovered from a nasty dose of food poisoning garnered in the picturesque squalor of Kerala’s backwaters and were so relieved to be in this generally clean, orderly city with its reliable food hygiene. This time round we were coming from amiable, underpopulated New Zealand. We did frequent one food hall in Auckland for a bit of Asian food, but Singapore really is an amazing place for such affairs, known here as hawker centres.

I love hawker centres. For a few dollars and you can indulge in all sorts of Asian goodies – predominantly representing Singapore’s mix of Chinese, Malay and South Asian/Indian ethnic groups, but also Indonesian, Japanese, Thai and more.

Singapore really is an amazing food city.

Not that it’s all about the hawker centres though. The city boasts eating options in all price categories and styles. Indeed, our first morning we had breakfast in a place called Prego, which was a pizzeria by night and had walls covered in Italian sayings (such as “A tavola non si invecchia” – at the table, one doesn’t age). Elsewhere are fancy cake shops, restaurants with French or American-trained chefs, fusion places, and a gazillion other eateries tucked away in the endless malls, quaysides, hotels and science fiction developments. (Wandering around the Marina and some of the malls was like being in the sets for Logan’s Run or THX-1138, and entering the Marina Bay Sands – a trio of skyscrapers with what looks like a giant ship laid across the top – gave me a flashback to playing Halo 3 ODST.)

Then of course there’s the colonial heritage. Which of course means Raffles.

Raffles Tiffin Room

Named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), the founder of Singapore, Raffles is the quintessential 19th century remnant of the British Empire’s endeavours in Southeast Asia. It started life as a modest harbour-side bungalow in 1887 then went on to expand into an array of white, colonnaded, neoclassical buildings that seem to cover at least an acre and, miraculously in a city of thrusting capitalistic redevelopment, managed to survive the wrecking ball purges of the 20th century.

We’d had discussions with various friends about visiting this place, but the fact that we were in a room in a modern hotel across the road, overlooking the Raffles complex, decided us that we just had to go, despite the costs. But would it be? A bar? Which bar? An evening Singapore Sling? No – it had to be high tea in the Tiffin Room.

Raffles Xmas cakes w Santa

I love afternoon tea and high tea. It’s my favourite form of party (okay, when it sprawls into the evening and some boozing that’s even better). I love to make cakes, scones and biscuits. We’ve had afternoon tea at various venues over the years, but this had to be the most storied. And certainly the most expensive. The Raffles cake stand and buffets set us back way more than the combined cost of all our other Singapore meals put together. They’d even bumped up the price about 30 per cent to celebrate Christmas. Yay.

And although the food itself wasn’t exactly the most refined – there were no fine pastries, no choux, no macaroons – it was still lovely. What you were really paying for was the venue – a beautiful high-ceilinged room – and the service – dozens of staff moving between the tables, removing your used plates to make room for another trip to the buffet, topping up your teacup so you end up consuming litres, and generally being very courteous. If slightly haphazard with their info – our first guy got his scones and mince pies mixed up, called marzipan “cookies” and flapjack “fruitcake”.

It was all good fun, though I had to restrain myself from starting to refer to the staff as “My good man” and wishing people a “Frightfully good Christmas.”

Anyway, we started with a cake rack, with white sliced bread triangular cucumber, salmon, egg etc sandwiches, crusts removed of course, mince pies (nice crusty pastry, mild mincemeat) and a white chocolate high-heeled shoe, dyed red, and filled with brandy flavoured whipped cream. Oookay. This latter didn’t seem so popular with the other diners; I felt kinda sorry for whoever laboured over them in the kitchen.

Then there were several buffets – one with dim sum, one with an array of cakes and scones, one with fruit, and even one with a variety of iced teas.

Stollen, panettone, yule log at Raffle Christmas high tea

I enjoyed being able to fill up a plate with various national Christmas cakes – panettone, stollen and chocolate yule log. Fran favoured a white chocolate, rose, guava and champagne log thing. The stollen’s label had migrated several metres to the right, somehow, to beside a bowl of cream – clotted cream! Miraculous. A scone with clotted cream on the Malay Peninsula at Christmastime.
The German marzipan-filled enriched bread even inspired me to create this Christmas-cracker-worthy joke: “Where did you buy your German Christmas cake?” “I didn’t, it’s stollen.”

Too much tea perhaps…

What a fab experience.

They even had a harpist playing ‘Greensleeves’, ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,’ and ‘Here, There and Everywhere’.

The only real disappointment was the fact that they have a dress code – smart casual, shirts with collars etc – but don’t enforce it enough. Call me a snob, but spending all that money, and enjoying the opportunity to dress up a bit (as much as possible when one’s lived out of a backpack for two months), it was a bit shoddy to have people in jeans, T-shirts and trainers sitting nearby. Come on Raffles – standards! Standards!

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The Last of New Zealand

Brothers shelves

The past week or so we’ve had a great time catching up and hanging out with old friends. Hence a bit of slackness on the blog. Plus, well, I’m aware this has really become a beer blog the past few months, and I’m slightly sick of the sound of my own (typed) voice on this subject.

That said, we’ve finally left NZ, so I wanted to write up some final thoughts on NZ craft beer, and in some ways retract some of what I said earlier.

I won’t be talking about bread and cake, though I’ve really enjoyed the baked goods of Bread and Butter, a small chain of real bakers in Auckland. Great breads, and I came to crave their almond croissants the last few days I was in town.

Strident ales
I’ll say straight away that in our final days in NZ, we finally drank some beers that had a lot of assertive hoppy character, something I’d started to begin to think didn’t exist in the craft beer scene there. Specifically, we went to a few places in Auckland that I wish I’d known about when we’d been there five weeks earlier. These places were recommended by the very genial Simon Nicholas of Hop Federation, one of the last breweries we visited on the South Island.

Simon Nicholas at Hop Federation

Simon was the head brewer at Hallertau, the Auckland brewery whose beers we’d enjoyed at The Golden Dawn on Ponsonby Road. He had recently relocated to the South Island, buying up the former Monkey Wizard microbrewery in Riwaka, outside Motueka in Tasman.

This small operation was previously run as a hobby by an English dentist, so Simon was in the midst of transforming the place into a full-time serious operation, and was also in the midst of tinkering with the beers he was developing. It was a really pleasure to chat with him and enjoy the beers he kept saying he was still “mucking about with”. Frankly, they were all superb already, but I’ll be interested to go back when he’s satisfied with them. (Or, ideally, find a few bottles at a decent beer pub in Britain, like London’s Cask Pub & Kitchen.)

His Red IPA was his biggest success so far, and it was delicious. He called it a “bit of a muck about”, but this lovely dark amber beer is sharp and resiny smelling, and has a great balanced taste from dry hopping with Simcoe and Cascade hops and mellowing it with Gladfield malt from Canterbury.

Driving past Hop Federation, Riwaka

Hop shortage
He said he wanted to make it with exclusively NZ hops, but they just weren’t available – indeed, he explained despite the Motueka area’s fame for hop-growing (something that was affirmed in a mid-19th century painting we saw in the Nelson museum), half a decade or so ago many were pulled out and replaced with jazz apple orchards. Just when NZ hops were becoming even more in demand in the international craft brewing scene. Ooops.

“There’s a worldwide hop shortage for our hops – it’s a real shame,” he said. Furthermore, as hops are all centrally controlled in NZ, it’s not even possible to grow your own adjacent to your brewery.

Before leaving the South Island we visited Bays Brewery near Nelson Airport, which was more traditional than craft (for example, they pasteurise and filter, like McCashin’s; Simon wrinkled his nose at the very idea of this. Indeed, why make a product that’s carbonated by an organism then kill that organism?) and Golden Bear in Mapua.

Golden Bear, Mapua, NZ

The latter has an American brewer, so I was intrigued to chat with them, as US craft beer tastes seem very unlike those of NZ, but when we arrived on a beautiful summer evening, there was a gig and a lively crowd in their brewpub, so that wasn’t really on the cards. Their Seismic IPA wasn’t bad though.

Golden Bear beers

Though TBH, I enjoyed a bit of the Mussel Inn’s Captain Cooker manuka at the café just over the yard from the brewery more. That was one the few beers I mentioned on my old blog during our previous visit to NZ back in 2007.

Back in the big sprawl
So yes, Auckland. When we got back, we first had a few days staying at the Piha bach (Kiwi English for holiday home) of our friends Jude and Roger. I bought a few beers to take with me, and was tricked by yet more “faux craft” branding. This was Hancock & Co, whose branding emphasised a whole yarn dating back to the mid-19th century; in reality, the brand is actually new, created by an off-license chain and exploiting some NZ brewing heritage. (See here.)

This wasn’t a trap one could fall into at Brothers Beer though. This was the place recommended by Simon: a small brewery close to the town centre in a funky development called City Works Depot.

The brewery has been in operation for about a year, according to the slightly unfriendly girl serving, whose too-cool-for-school attitude contrasted with the friendliness of most of the brewery folk we met on our South Island road trip (3095km – god help me. There go the last tatters of my green credentials when combined with all these aviation crimes).

Tasting paddle at Brothers BeerShe warmed up a bit when we got chatting more about beer. We had a tastling padddle of five of their brews. Alongside their own beers – brewed, with a cloud of malty mashy odours, right there – they had some representation from other breweries, like Yeastie Boys (based in Wellington). The venue also has some slightly sagging shelves laden with bottles of genuine craft beer – so no Hancock’s, Boundary Road or Founders and plenty of Mike’s, Parrot Dog, Townsend’s, Invercargill Brewery and 8 Wired etc, and even some overseas stuff like Speakeasy, which we’d had in its native San Francisco.

Brothers’ beers proved something of a relief and a revelation. When we were in Auckland before, other than Hallertau at The Golden Dawn, we’d struggled to find any decent craft beer on tap. Here, though, was a brilliant selection – and not only that, some of them were fantastically dry and bitter, displacing our experiences of so many mild-mannered, she’ll-be-right malty lagers and under-hopped ostensible IPAs. Yay. Flipping yay.

So their El Dorado IPA (6.7%) came with a scent of ginger and lemon, and a big-bodied taste of hoppiness, and a dry mouthfeel. Their Aramis pale ale (5.3%) had a smell and taste that was both minerally and yeasty, reminiscent of Marmite, along with a bitter-sweet balance of hop and malts. Surprisingly, the one we liked best was their Gronholm Imperial Pils (8%). I’m really not a fan of lagers, pils and pilsners generally but this was a really complex beer. Fran said, its odour was of “something very green – peas? Smells amazing.” I got grapefruit and a real astringency akin to tea tree or eucalyptus essential oils. Fran also said it had a “Strong male sweat thing”, which might sound off-putting, but it really worked. Big, bitter and delicious.

No blimmin’ NZ draught mild brown lager here.

Though I’d still say their taps are pouring a little cold. And they need some hand pumps.

The latter we found at our next Auckland port of call, another recommendation from Simon: Vulture’s Lane, a pub on Vulcan Lane, just off the unprepossessing Queen Street in downtown Auckland. Why didn’t I find this place before?! Guidebooks and Google both failed me.

Chur at Vulture's Lane

They had a great selection, including yet more breweries I’d not even heard of before: like Hot Water Brewing Co, a new outfit in the Coromandel (close to the famed, freaky Hot Water Beach) and Behemoth Brewing Company. We had a golden ale from each, Golden Steamer Ale and Chur. I had to have the latter as the label was cool; it was delicious too, even, crisp and fresh, sweet, bit of hop, resin. A really nice, balanced summer ale.

Finally and farewell
My final few bottles of NZ beer before our departure were a Taranaki Pale Ale, from Mike’s, which Kelly at Green Man in Dunedin had mentioned as NZ’s only other organic brewery currently, and Scallywag Rich Amber Ale, from Schipper’s, in Auckland.

Scallywag

The latter I had to buy as it had another cool label that not only reflected the great dog company we’ve had on this trip (notably, in a bit of utterly coincidental alliteration, from Baxter, Bandit and Betty) but even listed all the hop varieties, malts and even the yeast used in the brew – what an excellent touch, for an excellent beer, a sweet, deep, rich, crisp ruddy brew that’s not unlike Hop Federation’s Red IPA.

Schipper's Scallyway label

Now we’ve gone I wish I’d had more time, and more prior knowledge, and someone to share the driving with.

Never mind.

We’re in Singapore now, enjoying the monsoon, and having a day off the booze to help with the jetlag. Though I do hope to get to Brewerkz and Red Dot (Reddot?) before we head on home to Blighty for Christmas.

Me at Scotts

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Nelson – small town big beer city

Nelson contradiction

I love the city of Nelson, in Tasman Bay at the top of NZ’s South Island. It has a cathedral and a royal edict, so it can call itself a city, but really it’s just a quiet small town.

When I lived in NZ in my mid-twenties, it was where I came for a break from the intensity of the sandfly infested, bush-clad hills and cliffs of the Buller Gorge, with its reliable rains and very short window of sunlight opportunity in the winter. The sun always seemed to shine in Nelson. And indeed, when we drove up on Sunday night, after two days of torrential downpours on the West Coast and in the Buller, the clouds parted.

We’d had a lovely, though brief visit to the farm and old friends I used to live with, and we even managed an Italian-ish lunch, with pizza, caponata (south Italian artichoke stew) and carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes; though without the Romanesco artichokes, it was a little challenging) but as we don’t have that much time on this trip, we wanted to move on: to Nelson, with its claim of being the Craft Brewing Capital of NZ, and its dozen or so breweries. And population of not much more than 50,000; my home town has 35,000 people and a big fat zero breweries.

Pizza at OMM

Clear skies, empty stomach, free house
The clearing skies of Nelson were a welcome sight though. I dreamed of dry shoes and, enthused, we rushed out and started drinking beer. I thought the lunch would see us through, but my stomach was actually rather empty and the beer caught up with me. Oops.

Still, the venue was fantastic. The Free House is an ex-church on Collingwood Street in Nelson. Enter via a gate, past a large yurt (for events), and there’s the little chapel, with rendered walls and corrie iron roof.

It was a quiet Sunday evening, and the place reminded us a little of the village halls of our generation’s coming-of-age discos. Except for the giant cockroach sculptures on the wall. And the beer: 10 keg taps, three handpumps.

Stephen, the guy serving, said they’d been going since 2009 – so a few years after our last visit. The handpumps – which, he says are getting “more and more, more and more” attention from drinkers more used to the bubbles of kegs – were at this time all dedicated to Townsends, a independent local brewery, founded in 2005 and using Nelson hops and 25,000 year old water, “drawn up from over half a kilometre under the Moutere Valley Clay.”

We tried their JC IPA, which had nice resin, citrus, pine smells but a fairly mellow, malty taste. Nice medium body, but pretty minimal bitter crispness – a bit too mild for my idea of an IPA.  Also Sutton Hoo, an “American amber ale” which was very rich and smooth.

When I asked Stephen for the most assertive beer they had on, he gave me a Volcano Red from Mata Brewery on the North Island. Fran also tried Mata’s Black Brew Stout. Both were great, but the former was 7% and really got me on the aforementioned empty stomach.

Brewing founders
The next day, my beer cravings had abated somewhat. So we first focussed on food, and culture. We visited a great Nelson bakery, the Swedish Bakery at 54 Bridge Street, and had some quality pastries for breakfast.

After some museum action, we headed out to Founders Heritage Park, a kind of Truman Show set with old NZ buildings, few hundred metres of train line, a recreation of a windmill, and a brewery, also called Founders.

It’s a brewery that’s been relaunched this year with some great artwork, but the standard of the branding made me a bit suspicious, as did the blurb’s insistence on saying things like “Spanning over 6 generations and almost twice as many brewers, Founders has been brewing beer in Nelson for almost 160 years”.

Founders taster

Indeed, dig a little deeper and it becomes clear there hasn’t exactly been 160 years of continuous, independent brewing. Indeed, from 1969 to 1999, they were owned by DB (one of the two big NZ brands). Between 1999 and 2012 they did seem to be an indie, at Founders Park and the “First fully certified organic brewery in the Southern Hemisphere and only one of six in the world.” In 2012, however, they sold to Boundary Road Brewery, which is itself part of the so-called Independent Liquor Group, which is part of Japanese drinks giant Asahi.

We did a taster of their six current brews and while they were all nice enough (albeit on tap and served too cold), some bordered on bland and the 2009 IPA was again a case of not enough hop bitterness.

Later on, we went to the State Cinema (where I’ve been seeing films since 1994), which has a pizzeria, Stefano’s, where the pizzaiolo is dubbed “The King of Pizza”. Maybe him and Rome’s Gabriele Bonci need a pizza-off. Stefano’s looked pretty awesome, though we’d just eaten elsewhere so didn’t sample.

After a film, we did managed one more beer (a half each) from one of the ever-increasing number of Sprig & Fern outlets. This is another Nelson small brewery brand, that is slowly but surely expanding, to Wellington, to Auckland. I tried their IPA, which was pleasant enough, but lacking in the hoppy bitterness. Again.

Return of the Mc
As I’ve said several times recently on this blog, between the ages of about 18 and 24, I didn’t drink, put off booze by bad 1980s corporate lager, which dominated the pubs of my teenage years. It was NZ’s Black Mac, a kind of schwarzbier (black lager), that subsequently got me interested in beer. So I felt I had to go to the new McCashin family brewery.

Rochdale ext

Terry McCashin, who first started brewing Mac’s beers in 1981 had sold his brewery – which really kicked off NZ craft beer – to Lion Nathan in 1999, killing its craft credentials. In 2009, though, his son, Dean, moved back into their original premises, the 1950s Rochdale Cider factory in Stoke, just outside Nelson, and started brewing again, as a fully NZ-owned operation.

Bravo. Kinda convoluted. But bravo.

The brewery has a great café and woman at the bar who greeted us was charming. The guy who guided us and five others was sweet too, though he didn’t introduce himself and seemed to struggle when questions took things off-script. He did have an interesting take on how to define “craft beer” though – “a craft will adhere to the materials – water, yeast, hops and malt”. So while industrial brewers can and do add sugars, craft brewers rely on the complex sugars from the malts.

Malts at McCashin's

He talked about how the brewery is producing beer (under the ‘Stoke’ brand), ciders, wine and is even embarking on vodka and whisky distilling. They also contract brew: we watched Moa bottles coming off the bottling and pasteurising line.

Yes, they filter and pasteurise. They also add CO2. The guide said the gas was to please the Kiwi taste for fizzier beer, but this seems to contradict what Stephen of the Free House was saying about their hand pumps. Plus, the guide also said that without pasteurisation beer wouldn’t have the longevity (“Lucky to get two weeks”), but this is contradicted by hundreds of traditional and craft brewers the world over who are bottle conditioning with live yeasts.

After a wander round the brewery, we tasted about a dozen Stoke beers. Now clearly these guys know their beer and know the beer business, but several of them seem fairly similar – mellow, malty, bubbly, not much in the way of bitterness or strong hoppiness.

Their most popular and garlanded beer, the Stoke Amber, is a really pleasant summer beer, but doesn’t have much character beyond a nice colour and a slightly strawberry smell. Their Lager, Pilsner and Gold are all fairly similar, and their Stoke IPA isn’t far off – it’s too mild to really stand out as an IPA. (Again.)

They do have more interesting beers, like the Cirrus Wheat, with its big banana smell and taste, and Smokey Ale, with its overtones of bacon-flavoured crisps or even kippers, and their Double Pale Ale finally has a bit of bitterness (it’s dry-hopped), but all in all, I found their wares a little underwhelming.

McCash still life

But then maybe nothing they could do would hold up against my memories of my 24-year-old self’s first revelatory experience of a rigger of Black Mac, filled up in a rough Murchison pub and drunk on the veranda of my friends’ place in the Buller.

So we drove on, leaving the other Stoke breweries – Lighthouse, Bays – for another day. Thankfully, on our way around Tasman Bay we went to another brewery, which really restored our faith in the NZ beer scene. But this post is getting far too long, and the view outside is far too splendid to ignore, so I’ll save that for another day.

Right, I’m off to see some glowworms.

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The long way round to whitebait pizza

Whitebait pizza

Whitebait fritter is a classic NZ dish. In the season – or all year round if you catch enough and freeze them – whitebait is mixed with egg and fried up like a fishy omelette. Done well, it’s delicious. Done badly, well, it’s a bit of a pointless slaughter of many little fishies. And added to a pizza, well that’s a whole different story, and one we encountered this evening.

This morning, we left Mount Cook/Aoraki and headed for the South Island’s wild and woolly West Coast. Although Mount Cook is only about 50km from the coast as the crow flies, by combustion engine it’s more like 500km plus.

Cars can’t really manage the bloody great glaciated mountain range, you see. You have to drive all the way out from Mount Cook Village’s dead end highway, then east, then northeast towards Christchurch, then finally northwest and west over Arthur’s Pass, an impressive route that saddles at 920m. Alternatively, we’d have had to backtrack to Wanaka in the south, then loop up north over the Haast Pass. Either way is a mission. But Fran was determined to go to Hokitika – she’s reading Eleanor Catton’s award-winning, 832 page novel The Luminaries, which is set in this West Coast town in its 1860s gold-rush days.

Luminaries and beer

It was a great journey though. We left our hostel, visited one last, epic glacier (Tasman), then drove out along the massive glaciated valley, past bright blue lakes, hydro projects, and onto the Canterbury Plains, along very English, or even French, avenues of poplars, oaks and willows. Through alpine tussock grasslands, past the incredible rock formations of Flock Hill and Kura Tawhiti, aptly named Castle Hill in English, past various ski areas, and then we got back to some areas that hadn’t been deforested for sheep stations.

Arthur’s Pass, and the descent toward the West Coast is precipitous in places, an amazing route, surrounded by peaks and native forest, frequently by keas (NZ’s unique alpine parrot) but not always entirely fun when the inevitable speeding local in a 4WD tries to chase you at 100kmh around every sharp bend marked with a 45kmh sign.

Pinwheel and citrus slice in Geraldine

En route, we stopped at Geraldine, famed for a Bayeux Tapestry replica made with sewing machine needles (or somesuch). We didn’t check it out, concerned about our timing, but did eat a few idiosyncratic Kiwi snacks like a pinwheel, a savoury bun stuffed with cream cheese and red pepper, and citrus slice, a kinda of granola bar whose health benefits were undone by a thick layer of lemony icing. We also bought a few beers from the nearby Valley Brewing Co, a double hopped Pale Ale and Muster Red Ale (“Local barley and Nelson hops”), which we’re enjoying now.

The culinary highlight of the day, and indeed of the last week, however, was the abovementioned whitebait pizza. Rome’s renowned pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci has opened my eyes to new levels of pizza inventiveness (with seasonal delights like Brussels’ sprouts and mortadella) but even he didn’t prepare me for this.

Fat Pipi Pizza

The venue was Hokitika’s Fat Pipi Pizza, and this is their signature dish. The full 26 inch version supposedly includes a quarter pound (114g) of whitebait. I had the slightly more modest 20 inch, which still featured a serious amount of whitebait fritter, combined with mozzarella, capers and parsley, and served with lemon wedges. It was delicious. The capers and lemon cut through any fattiness from the cheese and egg, while the fish offered some slightly salty protein, care of the Hokitika River.

Tomorrow we plan to visit some of the remarkable old gold workings in the Hokitika Gorge, but in the meantime, we’re enjoying sitting in a hotel room, digesting pizza and feeling vaguely threatened by the sea. The room was going cheap, as recent storms have been trying to scour away the beach, and by extension the town, and apparently we’ll be woken by diggers working at low tide tomorrow morning trying to shore the place up. No matter, it’s still a delight to be listening to the waves a mere 20m away, and watching a line of sunset brightness slicing through the grey cloud.

Addendum
Whitebait is a big deal in Hoki. The town’s history museum dedicates about a third of its space to whitebait, including a lot of blurb from Booker-winning author Keri Hulme (The Bone People), who says “she’s not particularly serious about anything except whitebaiting.”
image

 

Oh, and months later, after Fran had finally had a chance to look at her pics, I found this. I don’t look quite convinced at this point:

Whitebait pizza

 

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Round the bottom of Down Under, and to its highest point

Pork sandwich and pizza at the Hermitage, Aoraki/Mount Cook in the distance

We’re currently in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, the cluster of accommodation, Department of Conservation (DOC) buildings and an aggregates operation that lies just down the magnificent, glacier-carved valley from the mountain – “Cloud Piercer” in the Maori – that is New Zealand’s highest, at 3,754m (12,316 feet).

We arrived yesterday lunchtime and as the room in our slightly shambolic hostel wasn’t ready, we headed up to the DOC visitor centre and the Hermitage, a version of which has been hereabouts since 188something (first incarnation destroyed when a glacial lake broke its moraine and flooded, second in a fire in 1957) and providing succour to generations of climbers, hikers and bus loads of Japanese tourists. We had a pizza on their balcony. The pizza was nothing to write home about, but you couldn’t argue with the view of old Cloud Piercer. Thankfully not too shrouded. Friends had warned us it’s very commonplace to visit here and never actually see the peek for the clouds.

Green Man brewery, Dunedin

After my last post, we had another day in Dunedin, and visited Green Man – which is not only possibly the last independent, New Zealand-owned brewery in town, it’s one of only two organic breweries in NZ. (The other is Mike’s in Taranaki.) It also uses a foliate head as its logo, which is cool, especially for an Old World kid like me who used to enjoy spotting them in England’s great cathedrals and chapter houses.

Looming large over Dunedin is the Speight’s brewery. The brand, which was established in 1876, still pushes its tradition and heritage, but, like so many NZ companies, it was bought out. And like so many NZ beer brands this means it was bought out by Lion, part of Kirin, part of Mitsubishi. We toyed with a brewery visit, but didn’t really have the time. Possibly a shame, as I’d composed a load of questions to ask the guide about how the production, and the nature of the product, has changed over the decades, especially with becoming part of such a conglomerate.

Really Kiwi
A visit to Green Man was far more rewarding, as the guy there, Kelly, gave us plenty of his time, and we went away armed with several of their brews. They have a core range of six brews: a Czech Pilsner, a Premium Lager, a Schwarzbier (which I’m drinking now – fairly mild, bit metallic, but sweet and refreshing), an alcoholic ginger beer (which I found a bit acrid), a Tequila Beer (lager, lime) and an IPA (which was pretty good – more robust and flavoursome than many NZ beers I’ve been trying). In summer, they also do a wheat beer and Cyclist, a shandy (or a “radler,” as it’s known in NZ – except that name’s been part of a controversy when someone, mentioning no names, tried to copyright it). Kelly said they’re also working on a cider and a bock aged in whisky oak.

It sounds like it’s been a difficult year though – not only do they only have only four hop varieties to choose from due to the limits of organic production, there was also a bad summer last year that resulted in a general shortage.

Open Fermenter md

It was a great brewery, with its open fermenters and open attitude, and a relief in the face of all the corporate and no-longer-NZ that seems to dominate here. Kelly even gave us a recommendation for a pub. The Octagon, Dunedin’s centre, has a Macs (ie Mitsubishi) pub and a Monteith’s (ie Asia Pacific Breweries) pub, but it was trickier to find actually NZ beer. Kelly pointed us towards the Albar, which not only had a couple of beers from Cassels and Sons (The Alchemist, a citrussy pale ale, and Milk Stout, a stout with a lot of dark fruit syrup and charcoal) a craft brewery in Christchurch, they were even on handpump and kept at the right temperature! The barman (Scots) said the Kiwis “just don’t understand” about keeping beer at the right temperature. These were the best pints we’d had so far in NZ, I reckon – not too cold, not too gassy.

Cassels and Sons beer at Albar, Dunedin

The true South Island
After Dunedin, we headed on down to Stewart Island – a decidedly not summery, magical place, and as far south as we’d been not just in NZ, but ever. Really right round the bottom of down under. The signpost at Bluff, where you get the Stewart Island ferry, said London was 19,000km (11,800 miles) away. (We had visited the equivalent signpost at the top of the North Island six years ago.)

I believe it used to have a brewery, but now the pub only served Speight’s – dull, generic and far too cold, especially when served in glasses that were kept in the fridge! Still, the Sunday night pub quiz was a blast after we’d done some hikes in the Antarctic winds and surprising sunshine. We – me and Fran, a Scots couple, a young Californian orthnithologist (who even managed to see a kiwi) and our hostel host, Jacqui (who was Welsh-Scots with an Irish boyfriend, NZ employment and a unique accent) even managed to come fourth out of 16 teams. If only we’d guessed the Wallace and Gromit clue!

Cardrona Gold, Wanaka

Drinkable Lager Shock!

After Stewart Island we had a few nights in Wanaka, a rapidly growing, temperate town in Central Otago – an area defined by the rapid introduction of British style sheep farming, the ensuing deforestation highlighting the drama of the local mountains. I hiked up one (Roys Peak, that is a peak of many Roys, not a peak of one possessive Roy) and I’m still feeling it a few days later.

After my hike, we treated ourselves to a few beers, then a curry with a lake view. The beers were from Wanaka Beer Works, which is just outside town at the airport. The brewery only seems to produce lagers, which puts me off slightly, as I prefer bottom to top fermented beers, but actually their Cardrona Gold “All Malt Lager”, named after a high hill pass outside town, is pleasant, one of the few drinkable lagers I’ve had. (Even though it’s a variation on the classic “NZ Draught” formula – see below.)

Fran curry beer Wanaka

Wanaka also boasts not one but two idiosyncratic independent cinemas. Our friend Benny had recommend Cinema Paradiso, but it was all booked for an event, so we went to Rubys (which I assume is actually “Ruby’s”), a great place on the edge of town that has an atmospheric lounge bar – a great spot for a cocktail, glass of wine, or beer. I had an IPA from Three Boys, a brewery in Christchurch. It was served too cold, in a cold glass, and was more malt than hop, but was a pleasant amber, fruity ale.

Three Boys IPA at Rubys, Wanaka

She’ll be right
So now we’re spending our second night in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, parked up. As Designated Driver, I crave these moments where I can put the car keys down and actually enjoy some of the bottles we’ve been collecting along the way. The past few evenings, this has included a couple from Invercargill Brewery, both of which I found a bit metallic, as well as several Green Mans and even a few from Brew Moon still.

To be honest, as much as I’m enjoying visiting these breweries and sampling their wares, I’m a little disappointed by NZ craft beer. NZ changed how I feel about beer back in 1994, but now it’s changing how I feel about NZ beer. So much of it, even the craft beer, feels like it’s pulling its punches. Are NZ beer drinkers really so afraid of more body, more robust flavour, bigger hop hits? So afraid of anything other than cold pale lagers and pilsners and, more specifically, cold, too cold, “NZ draught” (a mildly malty, minimally hoppy amber or brown lager, like Tui, Canterbury Draught, DB Draught and Speight’s Gold Medal Ale, which isn’t really an ale).

So many of the beers, aside from being served too cold, are just so generic and mild-mannered, the liquid expression of the easy-going “She’ll be right” attitude. I’m really hoping that during our last few weeks here we’ll discover some feistier beers. In the meantime, I think Brew Moon and Garage Project might be my favourites so far. But I’m craving those big flavours, like the APAs we were finding in the US before we came here. Come on NZ, you have just great hops, so many skilled breweries, let’s have some attitude!

Green Man IPA, Mount Sefton

[PS – someone give me some real WiFi please. Another blog brought to you after hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth.]

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