Waipara Valley Wine and Food Festival (Glenmark Domain, NZ)


waipara_festival

The Waipara Valley Wine and Food Festival is an annual event that celebrates the wines produced in the namesake valley. Such festivals are generally fun to attend, so when our son-in-law told us about this one, it didn’t take long to decide on going. In order to reduce traffic and congestion at the venue, several buses provided for-fee service to the venue from as far south as Christchurch. We caught our bus in mid-morning at the Cashmere Club pick-up point and headed north, the shuttle stopping to pick up additional passengers at six more stations before arriving at the festival grounds at Glenmark Domain.

As we stepped off the bus, the warm northwest winds for which the Waipara Valley is known were blowing stiffly, causing me to wonder if it was a good idea to have come to the festival. Because the winery and food pavilions were set in a forest of trees that served as effective windbreaks, I soon lost interest in the weather and began to get down to the business of sampling wine and food.

First a rant. I paid NZ $57.50 for each ticket, which included the bus fare from Christchurch, admission, a “complimentary” wine glass and entertainment. It did not cover even a limited number of wine samples or the wine glass holders, basically lanyards with an ingeniously designed clip for securing the wine glass around your neck, sold for an extra NZ $3 each (2 for $5). Wine fees were generally $2 for a sample (little over an ounce per pour), $5 for a glass, a bit more if you purchased a vineyard’s logo’ed glass. Some wineries offered purchases of full bottles using EFTPOS, but not credit cards. I felt like I was being nickled and dimed to death, more irritating since I began to worry about running out of cash.

Waipara Valley is known for its zesty rieslings, gewurztraminers and pinot noirs, a result of the warm northwesterlies that blow in the fall. All the wineries had rieslings to sample, many had gewurz and sauvignon blanc, as well as pinot noir and pinot gris. The sampling fee policy restricted our wine tasting to only a few wineries, including one which we really enjoyed when we visited the estate in 2010, Pegasus Bay Winery. Their Aria, a beautifully crafted late harvest riesling, is one of two bottles we brought back home that year. At the festival, we enjoyed the few samples we did have.

Sample festival wines

Sample festival wines

What surprised me was the quality of the food. Not typical festival fare, at least by U.S. standards, the food was first-rate. While there were the standard offerings you’d find in the States—chips (fries), hot dogs and waffles—we weren’t so keen on getting those, seeking out Kiwi food instead.

The first place we came across was selling crayfish fritters and garlic scallops, both shellfish locally sourced. There was already a crowd around the booth even if the festival had only been open for an hour. The transaction here typified what happened at all other food stalls. You paid at one station and picked up the order at another, with no claim ticket, relying entirely on the honor system. Nice. The scallops were cooked just right with their corals still attached, a great nosh. More ordinary were the fritters where the eggy batter overwhelmed the mud bugs. Both fritters and scallops were served between two slices of bread to avoid the use of paper plates presumably. We didn’t sample the seafood chowder, which other customers seemed to be gobbling up.

Janene McIllwrick's food pavilion

Janene McIllwrick’s food pavilion

Crayfish fritters

Crayfish fritters

Garlic scallops

Garlic scallops

Three restaurants were involved in a cook-off, though unclear how it was being conducted. Regardless, food was being sold by all three, including Isabel’s, where we purchased an order each of bruschetta and grilled lamb kafta.  The tomato-basil salad bruschetta was topped with a triangle of grilled haloumi cheese, a refreshing and excellent snack. A sloppy but tasty sandwich to eat was a pita garnished with lamb kafta, very thinly sliced ribbons of cucumber, tomato chutney and grilled red onions and garnished with too much of a tangy mint yogurt dressing.

Grilled Lamb Kofta

Grilled Lamb Kofta

bruschetta

Bruschetta

The Whitebait People pavilion was offering whitebait fritters. Since I first learned of whitebait on our first trip to New Zealand, I’d wanted to try some. The first encounter last July was not so impressive, sold by the shop that otherwise makes excellent fish and chips (Coppell Seafoods), probably pre-frozen patties that were thrown into the frying oil. Today’s was a better example of how Kiwis like theirs, in the form of fritters simply prepared. Sprinkled with salt and a squirt of lemon juice, it was fine, though not something I’d have to have again.

Whitebait on the griddle

Whitebait on the griddle

Whitebait fritter

Whitebait fritter

At around 4pm, we piled back onto the bus to take us back to Christchurch, facing the same stiff winds that greeted us on arrival. At the rear of the coach was a group of boisterous, tanked revelers who eventually quieted down as we got halfway to town. All in all, a pleasant day spent in wine country, which would have been even better if I didn’t feel ripped off.

Fried Fish from Coppell Place Seafoods (Christchurch, NZ)


coppell_seafoods

Ask a bunch of Kiwis where they enjoy their favorite fish and chips and you’re likely to get a range of opinions, so ubiquitous is this kind of shop throughout New Zealand. As an aside, an odd fact in New Zealand and Australia is that hamburgers are often sold in fish and chip shops, too. After asking around among friends, our daughter’s family has started going to Coppell Place Seafoods, about 5km from their home, a small takeout (takeaway, as it’s called in New Zed and elsewhere) that isn’t much to look at from the outside. Though many items are on the fry menu, including donuts, the fish is what customers usually order. The most popular is likely the first fish listed on the menu, akaroa cod, enormous pieces that are over a foot long. Fish can be ordered either crumbed or battered.

Since Coppell is takeout only, much depends on maintaining quality when transported home, and their’s delivers. Wrapping the fish in newsprint paper helps. Even 45 minutes later when we sat down at the table, we dove into the fish, even our young grandson (not yet 4 years old) who devoured almost a single foot-long piece himself. The fish was mild, moist and flaky. There is a specialness about the crumbed coating, crispy, almost crunchy, and nicely seasoned. It also clung to the fish without falling off in pieces, culinary sleight-of-hand that makes you wonder how Coppell’s does it. The frying oil itself may not have been the freshest, registering an off-odor in the car on the drive home, but that was something I didn’t want to think about too much.

My wife and I both agree that the fried fish here is among the best we’ve had (☆☆☆☆). My grandson thinks so, too.

Fried akaroa cod

Fried akaroa cod with crumbed batter

Coppell Seafoods
3 Coppell Place
Hillmorton 8025
Christchurch, NZ
03-338 5440
 

Furikake Chips


One of the extras of Hawaiian Airlines service is the Pau Hana snack bar area at the rear of the airplane. There, you can purchase a variety of beverages and snacks or even pick up a gift or two, including leis. I was curious about the concept, so I went to check it out soon after the announcement was made that the snack bar was open. Two flight attendants were busy ringing up purchases.

One of the snacks I noticed in the basket were Kona Furikake Potato Chips, which I’d never heard of. Being a fan of furikake, I was intrigued and bought a bag. It would be easy to overdo a product like this, especially since furikake, a condiment used for sprinkling on steamed rice, by itself is pretty salty and almost always contains MSG. So my first thought was that the chips likewise would be over-seasoned. Instead, the recipe is an example of restraint. While the marketing on the bag claims a special process to reduce oil and enhance crispiness, the chips to the naked eye appeared to be no less oily than any other fried chip, though they didn’t leave big oil stains on a napkin like some. The flavor, on the other hand, was quite good. With the right amount of salt, they had a hint of sweetness and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Finally, to justify the furikake label, each chip was dusted with powdered seaweed flakes (aonori) that rounded out its taste profile. That’s it, no other ingredients.

Kona Furikake Potato Chips

Kona Furikake Potato Chips

When I get back to Honolulu later in the trip, I’ll have to look for the product at Foodland, where by the way you can pick up Ted’s chocolate haupia pie.

Trans-Pacific Surprise


I was pleasantly surprised in a most unlikely circumstance.

Nowadays, you eat a meal on an airplane flight just to help pass the time, to get your mind off the cattle car roundup in the cabin, engine noise, TSA, and the other discomforts of modern-day flight. The last thing I thought I’d ever blog about is airplane food. And yet, here I sat on a flight from Honolulu to Auckland with a slight grin on my face. Did my taste buds awaken ever so slightly?

Hawaiian Airlines likes to brag that it is one of the few remaining airlines in the world to serve meals on all its flights (except for short-haul). While breakfast between Seattle and Honolulu was forgettable, the dinner on economy on the leg to Auckland was a mild surprise. Mind you, we’re not talking about restaurant-quality food here, but what normally rouses grunts of resignation turned out to be a decent repast of chicken with rice. The bird, a small cut of breast that might’ve been brined, had light teriyaki chicken flavors and pleasant smoke flavor from grilling, topped with a tasty if limp mango-red bell pepper salsa. Rather than Uncle Ben’s, the rice was steamed Japanese short-grain rice. It was good to the extent that pre-cooked rice shuttled from kitchen to airplane tray can be, a little mushy, not ideal but decent. Oh, and the mango cheesecake was a pleasant surprise.

At the risk of harboring false impressions, the so-called Hawaiian Tea served an hour outside Auckland featured an unimpressive chicken salad sandwiched in a cold kaiser roll, which our neighboring passenger sniffed at, put back in the meal box and enjoyed her pre-purchased spam musubi instead—my kind of people!

Auckland Airport Sandwich Display—or Is This Italy?


Kiwis seem to make food displays a form of art. This was noticeable whether I was in the North or South Island. Pastries, pies, sandwiches, it didn’t matter. I didn’t take real notice until my family and I saw the beautiful displays at Copenhagen Bakery last year. I wasn’t so much interested in the confectionary arrangements as I was with the savory ones. The sandwiches there were so attractively presented that it was tempting to grab one of those rather than their meat pies, which turned out to be so delicious.

Even at Auckland International Airport, I admired the sandwiches at SumoSalad. The only other time sandwich displays made such a visual impact was all over Italy where the marriage of bread and Italian cold cuts is celebrated. But in the interest of sampling something distinctively Kiwi, I got savory pies from another concessionaire (Spotless), this time not so good a decision.

When we return to Auckland airport, it will be a no-brainer.

sandwich_display

Déjà Vu, All Over Again


Our grandchildren are growing up much too fast for my wife and me to be sitting on our bewtocks, so in a few days we are off to New Zealand again, this time at a more favorable time of year. It will be late summer when we arrive, a far cry from the chilly, wintry weather that greeted us the last two times. The trees will be leafed out and more flowers should be blooming other than winter pansies. And—again—I will have to adjust to driving on the left side of the road, a transition that left me exhausted and hyper-edgy on the last trip. But, there is nothing in the world that surpasses the spectacular beauty of this island nation.

As a bonus, a week-long layover on Oahu, which we haven’t visited for three years running now, awaits us on our return flight home. Island paradise and ono kine grindz.

Two totally different environments in under three weeks. Return visits, both of them. Déjà vu, all over again.

Stay tuned.

Ramen at Fu Lin (Seattle, WA)


This was interesting. A Chinese restaurant that serves ramen and large signs in Japanese clearly in view behind the expansive storefront windows. A good friend of ours recommended this place for ramen.

Located in the International District, Fu Lin has a special ramen menu, among which are included variations of shoyu, miso and tonkotsu ramen. Marketing ploy? An attempt to lure Japanese customers? It turns out that the owner/chef, born and raised in China, lived and cooked in Japan for ten years before crossing the ocean to settle here.

Though my wife and I were eyeing the same miso chashu ramen, I changed my order to tonkotsu chashu ramen so we could sample both kinds. The noodle soups were served in large bowls with the broth a good inch and a half below the rim. An important component of a good ramen is the noodle itself, in this case perfectly cooked and having great texture. In Asia, serious eaters will finish the entire bowl very quickly in order to enjoy the pasta texture throughout the meal. Eaters here don’t eat as furiously, so inevitably the noodles will soften.

The charsiu, five large slices in all, were lean, very tender and slightly sweet, wonderfully flavorful. Not pork belly slices that rameniacs like, these will appeal to diners who eschew too much fat. Five spice flavors infused the menma (seasoned bamboo shoot slices), leaning more toward Chinese flavors than Japanese. Bean sprouts, wakame (seaweed) and a good dose of sliced green onions rounded out the toppings of both ramen.

Miso charsiu ramen

Miso charsiu ramen

Tonkotsu charsiu ramen

Tonkotsu charsiu ramen

The miso broth was rich and thankfully not too salty, admittedly impossible to make a good, low-sodium miso broth, and having slight ginger overtones. Always in the hunt for a good tonkotsu broth, I found Fu Lin’s to be milky and flavorful, though middling on the pork-flavor intensity scale. The same friend who recommended the ramen here is of the opinion that, in the Seattle area, Fu Lin serves the best version. So far, I have no argument with that. Ramen addicts would do well to walk just a block up the street from the inconsistent Samurai Noodle and have their fix here instead.

Fu Lin
512 S King St
Seattle, WA 98104
206.749.0678
Menu
Map

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Mussel Bowl at Bayleaf (Coupeville, WA)


Among the many purveyors of mussel dishes for sale at the Penn Cove Musselfest was Bayleaf, a deli that ordinarily sells wine, cheese and other food items. In front of the store, a chef was preparing a large pan of mussels in a broth of chopped tomatoes, basil, garlic, ginger and other ingredients, a bowl of which we purchased and quickly ate up. Two slices of bread were used to soak up the delicious broth.

The chef at Bayleaf preparing its mussels

The chef at Bayleaf preparing mussels

Bayleaf
101 NW Coveland Street
Coupeville, WA 98239
360.678.6603
 

Penn Cove Boat Tour (Coupeville, WA)


I tend to take for granted the natural bounty we have here in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not alone either. This could be because the Seattle area is a highly developed, urban area where we have become physically and spiritually disconnected from our natural surroundings, here where mountain and sea are close at hand. Unless you spend time in the outdoors—and a significant number of Northwesterners do—you may not know more about what’s around you than anyone poring over the internet.

I digress. This is not a philosophical post but a lead-in to how sometimes it takes just a little effort to learn about a food available in your own backyard. Take the mussel for example, long regarded as garbage food in the West until the Belgians and French popularized them. With friends, we headed up north to Coupeville to be immersed in this bivalve at the annual Penn Cove Musselfest.

Other than stuffing our faces, what did we learn about mussels? The larvae after fertilization float around in the water until they reach 3 weeks of age, at which time they attach themselves to a surface. To assist, they exude a cement and their well-known threads. Once anchored, they never move, continuing to grow in situ. Gastronomically speaking, suffice it to say that favorable conditions in Penn Cove are responsible for the mussels’ sweet and plump meat and rapid growth.

Hungry starfish gather in hordes where mussels are plentiful

Hungry starfish gather in hordes where mussels are plentiful

The mollusk’s success here is primarily due to the efforts of Penn Cove Shellfish, LLC, a commercial enterprise that farms mussels in the nutrient-rich waters of Penn Cove. We took an hour-long boat tour of the commercial farming operations. We thought that favorable weather would stay with us on our early afternoon tour, but dark clouds moved in, the wind picked up and light precipitation ensued. The tour guide had lots of interesting information to pass along about the mussel and the company’s attempt to supply a growing market. Much of that information is available here.

The pier in Coupeville

The pier in Coupeville

Mussels at around 6 months are still rather small

Mussels at around 6 months are still rather small

Mussels are grown in socks suspended on ropes from rafts

Mussels are grown in socks suspended on ropes from rafts

For some reason, the festival’s organizers hold this event in early March when temperatures are still rather chilly. Never mind the rain, pretty much a given in the Northwest, although today actually started out surprisingly dry. The last time we attended, four years ago, it was freezing and blustery. When the wind picks up, as it did toward the end of our visit, the chill factor really takes effect. Even so, it was an enjoyable outing.

Children here have a lot of fun

Children here have a blast