Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Oamaru - New Zealand's finest Victorian town

Main Street of Oamaru
Oamaru is an easy 115 kilometre drive north of Dunedin and for a heritage or Victorian era buff it is well worth the trip, in fact, I'd say, it's not to be missed.  I quite like this quote from Peter FitzSimons, a well know Australian former rugby international and raconteur who called Oamaru "New Zealand's best kept secret, which is itself the world's best kept secret".  Reputed to be the finest built town in New Zealand the scale and grandeur of many of its civic buildings is astonishing and unexpected in what was originally settled as a small service town for the surrounding farming industry.   It was Oamaru's good fortune to be an early player in the export of frozen meat to the UK bringing great prosperity to the town. That and  the ready availability of fine white local limestone meant it wasn't long before grand banks and offices were being erected in the then fashionable classic style.  It seems  almost bizarre that  a town of only 13,000 inhabitants should have such huge, grand, pillared banks, grain stores, an opera house, a courthouse, churches and a post office, none of which would look out of place in London, Paris or Washington DC.  A stone's throw from the main street is the town's Victorian Heritage Precinct. The shift of commerce to other areas and the closure of the port in the 1970s left this area largely original and untouched. Now old grain warehouses and storage buildings  house shops, galleries, and food stores.  There is even a whiskey tasting shop and the Loan and Merc, the second restaurant belong to Fleur Sullivan of Fleur's Place, Moeraki.

The Victorian Heritage Precinct.  The large building at the far right houses
the Loan and Merc restaurant
Mary in the Victorian Heritage Precinct
My sister-in-law, Mary, and I spent a happy afternoon picking and poking around Oamaru.  I had been there many years ago but could barely remember it so it was a novel experience to see it as if for the first time. We wandered the main street admiring the fine buildings and then  past the Steampunk HQ...for those of you into Steampunk, Oamaru calls itself the Steampunk capital of New Zealand. We visited art and craft galleries and marvelled at the penny farthing bicycles for hire and, no, we weren't tempted! We poked our heads into the Victorian Tea Rooms where the serving staff dress in Victorian costumes - the waiter was sporting a luxurious pair of mutton chop whiskers -  and serve delicate teas on pretty china cake stands.     Then it was on to Fleur's Loan and Merc for a drink where we sat back on large comfortable leather settees and enjoyed watching the clientele come and go.  The Loan and Merc is located inside a large old grain warehouse, and is a completely different style of restaurant from Fleur's Place at Moeraki. This restaurant is vast and filled with long refrectory style tables and benches, the grain mill equipment  still in place.  The meals served here are carvery style, totally in keeping with the venue, but as it was the afternoon  we just had a drink in the comfortable bar enjoying the views out into the harbour.
Serving maid in the Victorian Tearooms.

There is a lot more to explore in Oamaru including little blue penguin and  yellow eyed penguin colonies, vintage train rides, attractive gardens and the popular Whitestone Cheese factory. Oamaru's Riverstone Kitchen was named New Zealand's Restaurant of the year 2010/2011. Oamaru  is also the birthplace of a number of famous New Zealanders, including one of our best known writers, Janet Frame.

However, as we were staying in Dunedin we didn't have time to investigate everything before making the drive back....a good excuse to return to Oamaru some time, I say!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Fleurs Place - There are Outstanding Chefs...and then there are Celebrity Chefs

I have an absolute aversion to the current cult of the "Celebrity Chef".  It seems to me that a chef is someone you pay to cook you a meal...some cook well, some don't.  If the meal is good you will return to their restaurant and they will be successful, if not, you won't return and their business will fail.  In Auckland I have favourite restaurants which I return to time and again...I have no idea who their chefs are, I just know their food is good.    I know, many won't agree with me. They will say cooking is  an art and artists should be acknowledged or that they are entertainers who bring pleasure to people.  Yes, I reply, but what about the surgeon who saves your life, or surf life savers, or plumbers or any other number of people who work hard to make our lives better.   Don't get me wrong, I love good food, enjoy trawling farmers' markets and am always interested in new products and food trends it's just that I detest the pretentious nonsense associated with "in" restaurants  like tasteless foams and ridiculously high prices so tend to avoid them. I am always amused when "the" place to be this year is  discarded the next in favour of some other new "in" place. Maybe my rather jaundiced view has been coloured by the arrogant celebrity chefs on television who strut around their kitchens abusing their staff or make an art form of their lisp or plunging neckline.
Fleur's Place, Moeraki, South Island, New Zealand
Having said all of the above I  am now going to contradict myself and admit that I do have a very soft spot for Rick Stein.  Maybe it is because I love his foodie travelogues or maybe it is because I find him kind of attractive.  Either way, I'm a fan so it is interesting to note that when Rick Stein was told that he could choose to go anywhere in the world to research a travel article for England's Daily Mail he chose Fleur's Place in Moeraki, South Island, New Zealand.   Coincidentally Fleur's Place was somewhere I had  wanted to visit for a long time so  last weekend I was delighted to finally get there. 
Fleur with me before lunch
Fleur Sullivan, chef, restaurateur and owner of Fleur's Place is in her 70s, larger-than-life, eccentric, warm, friendly,  and  an astute and clever business woman.  After many years running Oliver's restaurant in Clyde, Central Otago, she "retired" to the village of Moeraki, on the coast, but it wasn't long before she saw the possibilities of running a restaurant using the rich harvest from the sea provided by the small fishing fleet based there. Starting with a caravan selling fish soups and stocks on the seashore, because she hated seeing the fishermen's off cuts go to waste, she saw restaurant possibilities as her   business boomed. Before long she was building her new restaurant from recycled bits and pieces she had collected over the years.  The result is a charming, quaint seafood restaurant, with its own adjoining smokehouse surrounded by the sea and right beside the fishing harbour. It delights her that it is unshowy and a bit cobbled together looking, like a real fisherman's hut. Her vast collection of china and cutlery gathered from antique and op shops over her life time are also put to good use in the restaurant giving it the feel of eating in someone's seaside home. Fleur has a passion for using fresh, local ingredients so will often wade into the sea to collect seaweed for one of her recipes and is an avid supporter of local growers and wine makers. Her mantra is : Simple. Good. Honest. Fresh. Local. She also managed to negotiate a fishing quota for the restaurant and is one of very few  allowed to serve fish straight off the fishing boats, making her food deliciously fresh....caught in the morning and served for lunch.

Mary with Fleur
My sister-in-law, Mary, and I traveled the 70 kilometres up from Dunedin for Sunday lunch at Fleur's Place.   Fleur, the consummate host, is generous with her time and with a wealth of stories to tell she chatted to us for some time before we took our seats.  Our view out to sea and across the fishing boats kept us well occupied until our main courses arrived.  My main course is a signature dish at Fleur's: Bacon wrapped Blue Cod with Littleneck Clams served with a light white wine and cream sauce and fresh herbs and vegetables.  Absolutely delicious...so fresh the fish was almost jumping!  As we sipped on a  crisp local chardonnay we got chatting to the three women at the next table...two sisters aged 100 and 90 and the 90 years old's daughter aged 60. All three of them looked decades younger than their age.  Very inspiring. 

We lingered before ordering dessert, trying to delay our departure, but in the end succumbed to the menu.  My dessert was  Lime flavoured Creme Brulee  with Poached Apricots and the best almond biscotti I have ever eaten.  Mary chose the Chocolate Fondant with Cherries and Tamarind Syrup.  We both declared dessert the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Our divine desserts

  I'd waited years to get there but I agree entirely with Rick Stein:  "Fleur's Place is everything I hoped it would be". Fleur's Place is definitely my kind of place. Fleur would loathe being called a celebrity chef, indeed, she now has chefs who do the cooking, and my admiration of Fleur's Place is really based on the whole package...Fleur as a person, what she has been through in her life, including cancer, what she has achieved, the quality of the ingredients, the lack of pretension, the very reasonable prices and the idyllic location.