Well, you say I got no class
You know that can't be true
'Cause I got a taste for finer things
Ain't nothing finer than you
- Shane Clouse Finer Things
Frozen chocolate mousse - Mission Estate Winery
My grandmother used to say that I have champagne tastes and a beer pocket-book ... i.e. I wanted nicer things than I could afford. This naturally extended to the foods I liked to eat. When I moved away from home after high school, I didn't just move to another town, but to another country. I went from the suburbs of Toronto to Hawaii. Unlike most uni students, I couldn't just pop home for the weekend to do my laundry and enjoy some home cooking. And as a student, I couldn't afford to eat out. Of necessity, if I wanted good food, I had to learn to cook it myself.
I enjoyed cooking and found that over time I had become quite good at it. I would use recipes as a guideline rather than instructions. I could estimate volumes without measuring spoons, and I could read a recipe and know that I wanted to adjust it with a little more of this or a little less of that. I could "whip something up" out of almost nothing and what I put on a plate not only looked good, but tasted pretty good too. I had a window-ledge herb garden that was the source of endless jokes for my friends. I had become quite proud of my cooking ... until I met Kari. I don't think she was that much of a better cook than I was at the time, but she had a much broader culinary range and definitely enjoyed it more than I did. Over the years, she pretty much pushed me out of the kitchen and my skills have suffered from lack of use. Now I am less Chef or Sous-Chef, and more Kitchen Porter.
Kari's infamous tortilla soup
I haven't completely given up my man-card ... I'm still in charge of the grill.
We are fortunate to not have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We can pick what we want and splurge when we desire. We have also been fortunate to live in places with diverse influences and rich culinary traditions. From Texas to Washington DC, to Charleston SC, and brief forays to San Francisco and NYC, we have really stretched our boundaries. Even Iowa City, a small city with a big footprint, offered an amazing selection of food experiences. When we travel, we make a point of trying to stay in local areas and eat local foods.
Go on social media, or expat blogs, and people bash American food left and right. They complain of GMOs, unnaturally orange cheese, pale tasteless butter, and sugary everything. In New Zealand we have found our own culinary curiosities. Ever heard of Marmite? Along with Vegemite, the Australian version**, these might be two of the most foul food items in the world ... right up there with Surstromming. If an American tried to feed these to their kids, we would be hauled away by child protective services.
**If you want to start a fight, tell an Aussie or a Kiwi that there's no difference between the two.
Kiwis have a love affair with sauces. You generally get to choose three from a list of many, and they don't just put on a small dollop. Every wrap, sandwich, and burger is dripping with them. They even drizzle sauces on pizza. The horror! I asked one of my Kiwi junior doctors about this and his first comment was on the number of sauces in his refrigerator. He then tried to defend it, saying "we want food to taste good." Damning evidence on the state of Kiwi food if I have ever heard any.
Joking aside (sort of), we have had some absolutely amazing meals here. New Zealand is a small, in many ways isolated, island. The "more sheep than people" refrain is true. There are approximately 4.6 Million people in NZ, and 27.6 Million sheep (2016 numbers) down from a high of 70 Million in 1982. As you might imagine, lamb features prominently. New Zealand lamb is still pretty expensive here, though. Reportedly, it's cheaper to by NZ lamb in the US or the UK than it is here (I haven't found any data to back this up). Venison, both wild and farmed, also shows up on menus. Unlike in the U.S. where just about any fruit or vegetable can be found throughout the year at a reasonable cost, they are highly seasonal here.
For our personal use, we have been growing fruits and vegetables in our garden. We also visit the weekly and monthly farmer's markets.
Pickings from our garden
Local vegetable market
Palmerston North has been called "the most American city in New Zealand" (Link: Yank City?) and not in a favourable way. There are many reasons for this impression, not the least of which is the ubiquity of fast food chains. When we first visited NZ on holiday 4 years ago (Link: Around NZ 1, and Around NZ 2), we immediately noticed the lack of chain restaurants. Not just familiar chain restaurants, but chain restaurants in general. We didn't see a McD's, BK, or Subway until we had been here almost a week and then only in Wellington. In the US, they can be found at nearly every highway exit and in every small town. What we did find was a huge array of small, independently owned cafes. They serve an eclectic mix of coffees, pastries, sandwiches, and the occasional pizza. And, of course, wine!
Pop-op garage coffee shop - Tauranga
Zepplin Cafe Gallery - Clive
Our regular stop at Foxton Beach
Friday night pizza night at Bridge Cafe
New Zealand has also embraced the food truck culture. Here in Palmy during the summer, Thursday nights in the square are food-truck nights. The usual local players show up, but we have had trucks from the South Island and Waiheke Island. At every festival and concert we have been to, food trucks have been present. Some of our local food trucks will announce on social media that they will be in a particular location for a few hours and they almost always sell out (sadly often before we can get there).
Waiting for our Long Black and Flat White
Mobile wood-fired pizza
Food Truck Thursday in the Square
Not all of our meals are taken on the run. We have had some fantastic sit-down meals, including High Tea for Little Highstead's Birthday. I was going to try to explain "High Tea" but couldn't quite come up with the words, so went online to get some ideas. It turns out that what most people call "High Tea" is actually "Full Tea" or "Afternoon Tea". High Tea is a hearty afternoon meal. Way too confusing for me, so check out this Link: Basics of High Tea if you are interested. Otherwise, just look at the pretty pictures.
Travelling to foodie cities, we always found that we couldn't eat at all the places we wanted to, so we started to do our own "progressive dinners". Before going, we scour the review sites looking for old favourites and new gems. Then we put together our plan of attack. We choose several restaurants and plan to spend the evening starting out with drinks and snacks at one place, appetizers at another, drinks and a small plate somewhere else, then onto a restaurant for mains or tapas, and finally drinks and dessert somewhere quiet. It's a full night of eating, drinking, and walking around the city. It allows us to try out a number of different restaurants. By walking and sharing plates, we don't get too full and it makes for a great date night.
Unfortunately, this is a grown-up experience so it only happens when we are out without Little Highstead. As such, we haven't yet been able to put it into action in NZ. Nevertheless, we have had a handful of truly fantastic foodie experiences here. Special occasion meals that have rivaled and sometimes surpassed some of our experiences in NYC, San Fran, Asheville, and Charleston. We were fortunate to be invited to dine with friends at per se in New York. It was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience and something I will always remember, but it's not something we would likely do again. Here in Wellington, we had a similar, though much more low key and approachable dinner at Logan Brown.
We also went to a whisky degustation dinner. Put on by our local Wine Trader, they paired some really interesting whisky choices with a one-off menu at one of our most celebrated local restaurants, Amayjen.
Logan Brown set menu - perfect for our anniversary dinner
Amayjen photos uploaded from the event website
We've found some pretty great restaurants whenever we have searched for one here. From Cucina in Oamaru to Nero here at home in Palmy, we really haven't had a bad experience. One of our favourite restaurants, and one we have gone back to several times, Trattoria alla Toscana in Napier, is not just one of the best restaurants we have been to in New Zealand, but it is one of the best Italian restaurants I have eaten at ... ever.
Deconstructed affogato - Cucina
Dinner at Nero with good friends.
Mussels - Trattoria alla Toscana
Perhaps not surprisingly, though, our favourite meals have been those we prepared at home. The best steaks come from our own smoker and Kari's cooking rivals any restaurant meal. Once we left Texas, we were in Tex-Mex limbo. I'm pretty lucky that Kari is one of the best Tex-Mex chefs I have met even in Texas, and outside of that state we haven't found a restaurant that compares. Before leaving the U.S., and now even more-so in NZ, she has been expanding her repertoire to include our favourite Middle-eastern and Indian dishes.
Home-made fresh snapper ceviche
I've barely touched on all the great food we've tried here. We have been amazed at the variety and the different approaches to familiar dishes. I think we will take away from this experience an appreciation for seasonal/local ingredients and the possibilities therein.
Stick a fork in me ...