June 2010

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2010.

Brick Bay Sculpture Trail

Corrugated metal shavings curl up above a pond at the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail. Photos by David Lansing.

The Matakana Farmers Market was founded by a guy named Richard Didsbury and I’d be lying if I told you everybody in town loves him. The thing is, Richard is a very wealthy developer (because of the negative connotations, he hates being called that, preferring something like “investor,” but he is what he is). So here’s the quick story: Didsbury and his wife, Christine, first came to Matakana in the mid ‘80s when they bought some land where an old brickworks used to be and, in 1995, planted vineyards. They are also big patrons of the arts and in 2004, started construction on a Sculpture Trail next door to showcase contemporary sculpture in an outdoor setting.

You do stuff like this and some people are going to love it and some people are going to say you’re getting a bit too big for your britches (and, let’s be honest, most of that sort of criticism comes wrapped in envy). Now, if Didsbury had just stuck with the winery and Sculpture Trail, people probably would have gotten over it. But he didn’t. Didsbury had a vision of the way he thought Matakana should be. He wanted it to be both native and exotic, historical and contemporary, small-town but vibrant. Those are hard things to balance. In 1992, he bought a big chunk of real estate right at the entrance into the village of Matakana and sat on it for a few years trying to figure out what he wanted to do with it.

Eventually he brought in a well-known architect, Noel Lane, who has a reputation for building cutting edge, contemporary buildings. Which scared the hell out of a lot of the locals. Because at this point the town was kind of divided in half. There were the farmer/fishermen/crafts people whose families had been here for decades (think dairy farm co-op) and then there were the newbies who were basically Auckland refugees with money who came here for the beauty of the place and its small-town vibe but, frankly, also wished there were better restaurants in town and a place where you could watch foreign films.

As one observer put it, “The Matakana Coast is to Auckland what the Hamptons are to New York—a sort of rich people’s Woodstock. Every Friday afternoon, Auckland to Matakana is an unbroken procession of BMWs, Mercedes, and Jaguars ferrying people with expensive haircuts to weekenders with stainless-steel commercial kitchens and 15-metre-high sky domes. For them, Matakana offers the simple, natural informality of teaming Bulgari eyewear with bare feet. Its beaches, bays, and islands make it a natural habitat for sleek yachts and floating gin palaces.”

Okay, that may be a bit harsh, but you get the idea.

So Didsbury comes in, buys a big chunk of the old village and eventually builds a pretty eye-popping complex that includes art galleries, wine bar, and a stunning boutique cinema where one of the theaters has 32,000 paper flowers stuck on the ceiling. You can see how not every sheep farmer and blueberry grower in town is going to go crazy over the transformation. And why Heather, back at Takatu, says with a sly grin that meetings at the school house “can get a little animated” at times. I’ll bet.

Anyway, I love what Richard Didsbury has done. The Village Complex he developed with Noel Lane is brilliant. It is both of the past and of the future at the same time. And the second smartest thing he did was to donate the land, next to the Village Complex, for the Farmers Market. And that was brilliant as well. Some old timers may grumble about folks coming in selling handmade mustard and special cheeses to all the day-trippers from Auckland, but they’re missing the point: The town has taken on a new life, culturally and economically, since Richard and Christine Didsbury arrived. And this is a good thing.

This is all prelude to say that yesterday afternoon, I went out to the Didsbury’s Brick Bay Sculpture Trail and roamed, on my own, along the 2km trail that takes you past lily ponds where corrugated metal shavings curl up over the water like strange iron birds and six-foot high Easter egss, made of branches, sit whimsically in the middle of a field. I loved it. Every time I came around a bend, there was something just out there—in the woods, the meadows, the ponds—that both made me smile and made me think. It was, just like Didsbury’s other projects, absolutely brilliant.

Tags: ,

A cheesy market

Photo by David Lansing.

I said one of the things I liked about the Matakana Farmers Market was that, with only 40 vendors, there was just one of everything. I was exaggerating of course. There are several produce stalls and flower stands and lots of people selling jams, jellies, relishes, and chutneys.

There are also several vendors hawking local cheese, which is quite all right with me since there can never be too many small cheesemakers as far as I’m concerned.

The Puhoi Cheese people were there with their bohemian blue, basil pesto feta, gorgonzola, various cheddars, and a wheel of brie (for only $24).

And then there were Annie and Phil Armstrong of Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese Company who were bringing some of the first of their pecorino-style cheese, which they cal St. Malo, to the market.

Phil and Annie have a small herd of water buffalo, which they brought in from Australia, in the Whangaripo Valley, over the hills from Matakana, and have been making cheeses from buffalo milk for a little over a year now—mostly brie and a slightly creamy bleu, as well as fresh mozzarella balls—but the pecorino-style cheese was new and they were pretty excited about it.

I was excited about it too so I bought a chunk of it and took it back to give to Heather at Takatu, figuring she could whip it up something wonderful in the way of an appetizer tonight.

Tags: ,

Matakana Farmers Market

Saturday morning at the Matakana Farmers Market. Photos by David Lansing.

Busy weekend. Beginning early Saturday with a stroll around the now-famous Matakana Farmers Market, the very same gig that, supposedly, made my friend at The Vintry, Mr. Smith, abandon his career as a London wine merchant (or MI6 spy—you pick) and hot-foot it to New Zealand to pour flights of Rose in a wine bar.

The Matakana Farmers Market is small—about 40 vendors, I reckon. And designed in kind of a wheel with little stalls both on the inside of the circle and around the outside. For some reason I kept thinking of Shakespearian times, half expecting a play to break out at any second with men dressed as women and a jester being chased by someone with a sword. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Since it was barely 10 a.m., first stop was the little coffee bar at the front of the market where I could order a flat white from Matakana Coffee Roasters (“Hand Made Coffees, Slow Roasted in Small Batches”). Sipping that, I looked for a stand to get a morsel of something to settle the ol’ stomach. And guess what I found? A stall selling whitebait fritters! No kidding!

The only problem was that there was a huge line, everyone deciding, like me, that a whitebait sandwich was just the thing to have for breakfast. It must have taken me 15 or 20 minutes to get my order, but it was worth it. A lovely little Kaipara whitebait fritter served on a slice of white bread with just a little salt and a squeeze of lemon. Perfect.

The Queen of Tarts.

So why is the Matakana Farmers Market such a gem? Good question. Let me sit down on a bench in the sun with my whitebait fritter and cup of flat white and think about this. What I would say is that they’ve done a good job keeping out the junky vendors you’ll find at most farmers markets. No one here is selling trinkets or T-shirts. Plus it’s small. Sometimes when you go to a farmers market there are like 20 people selling strawberries and it can be overwhelming. Here it’s pretty much just one of everything. You’ve got the Mustard Guy (that would be Jon) selling jars of Bush Honey & Orange Mustard (the label reads “delicious with ham & pork”) and Manuka Smoked Mustard (“wonderful with beef & barbecue”), and the Beer Folks (Peter and Decima Freckleton) who make hand-crafted ales and lagers (“canned by hand!”), and the Lemon Tart Lady (“Just call me the Queen of Tarts”) with her luscious pastries (only $1) sold out of recycled egg cartons. And, of course, the Whitebait Fritter folks.

It’s all good and it’s all so manageable.

Tags: ,

Whitebait season

A handful of whitebait.

The last time I spent any length of time in Auckland was August 15, 2007, a day that just happened to coincide with the opening of the whitebait season in New Zealand. Opening day for whitebait is a pretty damn big deal for Kiwis. It’s like the third Thursday in November in Paris, when Beaujolais nouveau is released, and the Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Blanco d’Alba in Umbria, celebrating the beginning of the white truffle season, and the Kentucky Derby, all rolled into one.

Whitebait, if you don’t know, are tiny little fish, the juvenile of common galaxias or inanga, which lay their eggs on the banks amongst grasses in certain rivers in New Zealand, the most famous being Mokau River here on the North Island.

During whitebait season, crazy people take their nets and go stake out a spot on the river to try and snag as many of the little critters as they can. When you get too many people on the river (common) and throw in a few beers (even more common), it’s not unusual for people to get a little territorial and for fights to break out. Which only makes fishing for the sweet, tender little buggers all the more fun as far as the Kiwis are concerned.

When in season, you’ll see signs in the windows of just about every restaurant in Auckland and elsewhere advertising that they serve a whitebait dish, usually some sort of a fritter. But the real whitebait nutjobs have their own secret recipes. To get a sense of just how fanatical Kiwis can be about whitebait, here’s a story told by Martin Bosley about the opening of last year’s whitebait season and his 71-year-old mother-in-law (mind you, spring here is in the fall):

“It was the worst storm that spring and the river was in full flood. The whitebait were running and on one particularly large surge of the river my mother-in-law lost her net and in despair watched it tumble end over end, spilling its precious contents back into the river as it was washed out to sea. The only reason she wasn’t washed away with the net was because she had tied herself to a pine tree on the riverbank. Such is the stoicism of the true whitebaiter.

“Anyway, she leapt into her car and raced home to get a replacement net. In her haste she decided not to remove her waders, with disastrous consequences. As she pulled in to her driveway she mistook the brake for the accelerator and hurtled through a fence, across the patio, demolishing her hardwood outdoor dining table and chairs, and into the house.

“Along the way, the buckets of whitebait that she had so lovingly placed in the trunk spilled everywhere. I remain unsure what she was more upset about—the extensive damage to her home and vehicle or the loss of her precious whitebait.

“Undaunted, she was back on the river in late-August and I will not see her again until the end of November. The only knowledge I will have of her existence will be to find deposits of deliciously fresh translucent whitebait placed in my refrigerator, usually accompanied by a note proclaiming the amount of that day’s catch. With commercial prices reaching $100 per kg, I am deeply appreciative of this.

“Whitebait is one of the few freshwater fish we eat in New Zealand, and the fishing of it is symbolic of our culture. Anyone can do it. I cannot fish to save myself, but can easily catch whitebait; little skill is involved, just patience. While I personally believe that the best-tasting whitebait come from the Cascades River on the West Coast of the South Island, I have had vociferous arguments with those who believe the best comes from the North Island’s Mokau River.

A whitebait fritter, the preferred method of preparation for the little critters.

“I have had similar discussions on how to make the best fritter. I use one whole egg for approximately 100 grams of whitebait. First dust the whitebait with the lightest sprinkling of flour so that each fish is individually coated, and then lightly season with salt—do not use any pepper as it is too harsh for the delicate flavor. Beat the egg in a separate bowl and pour enough onto the floured whitebait to just bind it. Some say that the eggs should be separated, and the whites whipped to stiff peaks before folding them back into the yolks; the choice is yours. Melt a little butter in a frying pan and pour in the mix, cooking each side for about three minutes.

“Squeeze a little lemon juice over the fritter and serve it—preferably between slices of buttered toast. Couldn’t be easier really.”

Tags: ,

John Crone in front of the milking shed converted into a tasting room at Hyperion. Photos by David Lansing.

Yesterday afternoon I paid a visit to John Crone, a winemaker here in Matakana that Mike Smith at The Vintry told me was “kind of an odd bird.” When I asked him what he meant by that, he told me to just go out there and see for myself.

John and his wife Jill own Hyperion, the oldest winery in the district. To get to the winery, Mike explained, you go through the village, past the pottery and tileworks place, to the end of Tongue Farm Road. “Look for an old MG sticking out of a cow shed and you’ll know you’re there,” he said.

Sure enough, there was the MG, its tail end sticking out of an old shed and looking like it was blocked in by a clump of wild nasturtiums. Out in front of the house pushing an old mower through heavy, wet overgrown grass was a middle-aged woman who turned out to be Jill Crone. She told me John was in the milking shed. Evidently the winery at one time was a dairy farm (probably part of the old dairy co-op where they used to make Matakana Creamery Butter, “The Delight of the Table”) and John, being practical as, I’ve discovered, most Kiwis are, turned the old milking shed into a tasting room.

I parked my car on the just-cut grass. John, in a plaid red shirt and stained green khaki pants, was standing in front of the wide cellar door holding a couple bottles of wine. John, who is tall and lean, has the air of a retired university professor. He named the winery Hyperion, he told me, after the mythological sun god, one of the Titans, a race of giants descended from Gaia (the Earth) and Uranus (the Heavens). All of his wines are named after these gods (“I was going to name one of the wines Uranus but Jill didn’t think that was such a good idea,” he said, “but I may do it yet”).

We sat in the dark, cool milking shed, just the two of us, and John poured us both rather large tastings, beginning with his Chardonnay, named Helios (a later Sun God), followed by Eos Pinot Noir (goddess of the dawn), Zeus Merlot (son of Kronos), Gaia Merlot (Hyperion’s mother, the earth), and Kronos (god of agriculture), a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Malbec. “This is our main wine,” said John as Jill passed in front of the milking shed still pushing the lawnmower. “It’s our big exporter. You’ll find this in some very nice restaurants in London. A classic Matakana. There’s a dusty, earthy profile to it and a slight hint of smoke. I’ve always wondered if that comes from when, hundreds of years ago, they burned off all the bush around here and maybe some how that ash was mixed in with the clay soil. Could be, could be.”

We finished off with a glass of Titan Cabernet Sauvignon, which John tasted slowly and with relish, as if for the first time. “That’s a lovely wine, isn’t it?”

It was. Bold, elegant with a delightful aroma of cassis. John took another sip. “Do you know what wine is?” he said, holding his glass up to catch the rays streaming in from the open door. I figured this was a rhetorical question so I held my tongue. “Wine is sunlight held together by water.” I nodded. “Galileo said that,” he told me. He stood up, grabbed our glasses, and put them in an old stained sink. “I think I’ll go take a nap,” he said. And he was off.

Tags: ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »