Monday, May 25, 2009

The Flying Fox, Whanganui River

On my second visit to The Flying Fox, a charmingly eccentric eco-lodge about an hour north of Wanganui, we almost went hungry.

Classic view of the Whanganui River valley from the river road.
River has an h, city does not. It's complicated.
We had arrived via the bright yellow Spirit of the River jetboat guided by Brent Firmin, whose iwi (tribe in the Maori language) has lived on this stretch of the Whanganui River since the 1300s. On our ride up the river he had pointed out his family’s ancestral burial grounds and the culverts his grandfather had helped build during the Depression to help divert rainfall under the then new road along the eastern river bank.

Polly, mom-in-law visting from US, Margo, Kiwi friend, and me in the jetboat and Brent, our guide, below.

The river valley and its stories are in his blood. As he and other local Maori say, “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.” (I am the river, the river is me.”)

Brent’s roundtrip tour of the river took us from his family marae (meeting house) to The Flying Fox and was scheduled around the mandatory New Zealand morning tea break for coffee (or tea) and freshly baked muffins made by Annette Main, owner of the lodge with her husband John. (I am lucky enough to have also gotten to know Annette through the book club I serendipitously fell into upon arriving here back in January, but her reputation had preceded her even before that. When I mentioned to one of the first people we met here that I was into food, she immediately said, “Oh, you must meet Annette Main.”)
View of The Flying Fox from the river below.

Annette greeted us warmly, but joked that we had almost missed out on muffins that morning. “I realized I didn’t have any eggs,” she confided. “So I was out there waiting for the chooks to lay some,” she said, referring to her flock of laying hens who happily scratch their way around the property. “I only found one so I could only make half a batch of muffins.”

The bottomline is that Annette doesn’t have much choice, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not a quick hop in the car to the dairy (corner store here) to pick up a dozen eggs. Perched on the western bank of the river in the middle of the Whanganui National Park, The Flying Fox can only be reached by boat or by zipline (a flying fox in New Zealand lingo) after you brave the drive, a snap for the locals but a little scary at times for those not used to narrow, windy, cliff-edged roads where, on one occasion, our car found itself smack-dab in the middle of a herd of cows who did not seem at all inclined to move out of the way.

Our boys, on a later vist, at the gong by the gondola landing spot on the river road side.

After you park your car via the river road, the only way across the river is by climbing into a small open gondola hanging from a zipline. (When Annette first bought the property 19 years ago, the airborne vehicle was an old iron bedstead. And, incidentally, people thought she was crazy. A steadily increasing flow of visitors from around the globe and media coverage, including a full-length feature in the glossy New Zealand Life and Leisure magazine, has proven them wrong.) You summon the gondola with a gong and then merrily sail it high across the river towards the red cupola and surrounding cluster of buildings partially obscured behind tall emerald-green tree ferns (pungas).

Like the eggs and the feijoas (a tart-sweet tropical fruit, shown above) that were baked into the huge, fluffy muffins we ate warm from the oven that morning, many of the ingredients Annette cooks for her guests are grown on the certified organic property, including avocadoes, apples, grapefruits, tamarillos (tree tomatoes, see below), pumpkins, and kumara (sweet potatoes). Everything else is sourced as locally and organically as possible and much of it sold from Annette’s stall at the Saturday River Traders Market in Wanganui, which she helped found three years ago.

Annette and John emphasize two things at The Flying Fox: respect for both the original Maori inhabitants of the river valley and for the natural environment. They are honored, they say, to be the kaitiaki (guardians) of the history and spirit that imbues the place. The two guest cottages were handbuilt using as much salvaged building material as possible and furnished with what Annette describes as “rescued furniture and family treasures.” A solar panel provides much of the hot water for the property and toilets are all compost-based. Local art, traditional weavings, quirky antique kitchenwares, and piles of books and records fill every nook and cranny of the buildings. (Yes, records; on an overnight family visit our 11-year-old product of the I-Pod generation learned how to use a record player.)
The two cottages, above.
Upstairs in the Brewer's Cottage Downstairs at the Brewer's Cottage

In the James K. Baxter cottage

One of the cottages celebrates James K. Baxter, arguably New Zealand’s most famous poet, who lived just a bit up the river during the late 1960s. His portrait is in the bathroom, his words written on the walls, and books by and about him can be found on bookshelves in all the buildings. Annette signs off all emails with a stanza from his Sestina of the River Road (see end of entry).

The Glory Cart, a cozy caravan for two

At The Flying Fox, connections , juxtapositions, and revelations pop up in unexpected places. The piles of records include Bob Dylan; Bing Crosby; the New Zealand country group, the Waratahs; and traditional Maori waiata. The guy pruning the bushes during my second visit turned out to be the artist of a striking print I had noticed in one bedroom on my first visit. I was fascinated to learn that avocado trees carry the harvests of two different years at the same time, one the green-black of almost ripeness ready to be harvested, a branch away from fruit of the new crop, shining a deep bright green. Beyond a badminton net and a sprawling grapevine lies a small guest caravan for two (endearingly named The Glory Cart) with an outdoor wood fire-heated bathtub and tiled shower where a wild goat might just peer in on you as you shampoo.

Or the visitor might be Billy, the companionable Jack Russell mix who will sit next to you while you enjoy the river and mountain view from under majestic centurion chestnut trees, accompany you on a walk along the river or up the hill, or perhaps pounce on your badminton shuttlecock and turn it into a chew toy – as Nikko and Alex, our two boys, quickly found out.

The chestnut trees

Each of the cottages has a small kitchen and Annette encourages self-catering, although she does cook for larger groups or sometimes by prior arrangement. The morning after we had our book club meeting/slumber party at The Flying Fox, she was preparing local lamb shanks for a crowd of guests expected over the next couple of nights. When our family of four went for an overnight a few weeks ago and stayed in the Brewer's Cottage, we brought our own soup and salad and Annette provided a loaf of her soft, lightly sweet kumara bread (a recipe from renowned Kiwi chef Peter Gordon, a Wanganui native), and a crumble (crisp in the US) made with her own feijoas and apples.

Annette and book club friends making supper in the main house kitchen --

and then singing for our supper with John, Annette's husband.

Annette in her kitchen The famous kumara bread

It came with a pitcher of frothy crème anglaise. “This is so good. Why have I never had this before?” demanded Alex, our 11-year-old. At my request, she had also included a jar of her really good muesli, laden with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, for breakfast the next morning. Normally she would also have had homemade yogurt to offer, but she is very involved in a range of regional business and tourism projects and had been too busy that week to squeeze in yogurt-making.

A big batch of muesli

We had been lucky with a mostly clear fall Saturday afternoon for my boys’ first and my second trip up the Whanganui with Brent on his jetboat.
We saw the embedded oysters shells that prove the river was once part of a huge ocean and the surprisingly round boulders stuck into the river bank that are believed to be fall-out from a long ago and far away volcano explosion. A few raindrops sprinkled down from a deceptively blue sky as Brent skillfully maneuvered the boat through a narrow spur off the river to show us where there was a government-sanctioned organic farming commune in the 1980s.

The moon shone brightly as we fell asleep, tucked warm in our beds with electric blankets and space heaters, but we awoke to rhythmically pounding rain on the roof. The chooks out the window didn’t seem much bothered by the wet weather and Billy was waiting patiently to play when we poked our noses out the bedroom door to go light the wood stove in the kitchen and lounge area.

The sun peeked through a few times, glimmering on rain-soaked leaves. It beat the rain back long enough for us to take the gondola back over to the river road whereupon a torrential downpour unleashed on the surrounding native forest and as we drove away from this very special corner of the world, we witnessed the reality of James K. Baxter’s words:

Hilltop behind hilltop,
A mile of green pungas,
In the grey afternoon,
Bow their heads to the slanting spears of rain.

Sestina of the River Road

I want to go up the river road
Even by starlight or moonlight
Or not light at all, past the Parakino Bridge,
Past Atene, where the tarseal ends,
Past Koriniti, where cattle run in a paddock
Past Operiki, the pa that was never taken.

Past Matahiwi, Ranana, till the last step is taken
And I can lie down at the end of the road
Like an old horse in his own paddock
Among the tribes of Te Hau.

Then my heart will be light
To be in the place where the hard road ends
And my soul can walk the rainbow bridge

That binds earth to sky.
~ James K. Baxter, 1972

The boys off in the gondola after our visit

Billy watches everyone leave from this same spot

Monday, May 18, 2009

From Muttonbirds to Gluten-Free Orange Cake: A few of the things we've been eating

Enough of the fantastic travel and natural gorgeousness of this country. What you really want to know is what we've been eating. So here are a few successes and explorations of the last month or so.
As promised, first the Mediterranean Orange Cake from the gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian book club I hosted here. Although people grimaced and made funny jokes about it on Facebook, I really enjoy planning a meal that, while it may have restrictions, is something everyone coming to an event can eat happily and free of worry no matter their diet. I always have so many things I want to cook, it helps focus me and reminds me of all the folks I've written about who struggle to eat out because they need to avoid certain foods. (Interestingly, New Zealand is very gluten-free-friendly as the ethnic roots of much of its European-descended population are from Scotland and England where I understand celiac has a very high prevalence. Almost all cafes and restaurants highlight gluten-free options on their menus and offer special baked goods and other dishes.)
We started with a version of the curried cauliflower soup from Vegetarian Times (easily found online) - with green apple, which intrigued me and added a nice hint of sweetness. I added a bit more garlic than called for and one small potato to smooth the whole thing out. I also sauteed one unpeeled, sliced tart apple in a bit of olive oil and honey to serve on top. (Credit to Shelburne Farms for that idea.) And for those who did indulge in dairy, I recommended they crumble a bit of the lovely hunk of Gorgonzola Sally had brought as her contribution. It's not a pretty soup (rather drab in color), but it was really good.
For the main, I served the cider-glazed butternut squash (used Crown Pumpkin, which a friend had given me from their garden) salad with arugula, hazelnuts, and cider vinaigrette from the cookbook (goat cheese optional) with brown rice and mushroom-stuffed yellow, orange, and red peppers. The base was veggie with veggie stock (gluten-free -- some aren't I discovered) and fresh thyme and red wine (reduced with the mushrooms and other aromatics; sherry would have worked too, really adds a depth of flavor). I did cheat and stirred a bit of browned pork sausage from the farmers' market into the filling of all except the red (veggie) pepper; that one got a little feta, since it was for a dairy-eating vegetarian.

The cake recipe was from my neighbor Chris - from The New Zealand Baker, in her stash of good cookbooks. The recipes come from all over New Zealand and this one is attributed to Pandoro Bakery. I served it with dollops of good thick Greek yogurt, my new favorite cake topping inspired by the cafes here, and a feijoa and passion fruit compote I had made and frozen a while ago when both were plentiful and people would practially pay you to take feijoas off their hands. (I literally walked by a house one day, which had bags of feijoas in front of the stone wall with a sign, "Please take some of these. The monsters are overwhelming me." They are a new favorite for Alex and me with a wonderful sweet-tart flavor and a little bit of a pear texture.)
Mediterranean Orange Cake (which just happens to be dairy- and gluten-free - although not vegan - but is deeelish for eaters of all things)
adapted from Pandoro Bakery as printed in The New Zealand Baker

For orange slush: 3 large or 4 medium oranges

For cake:
15g (1 T) baking powder
310g (about 2 cups) ground blanched almonds
8 eggs
310g (about 1 1/2 cups) white sugar
375g (about 2 cups) orange slush (see below)

For topping:
1/2 cup apricot jam plus 1/3 cup water
natural flaked (slivered in US) almonds, lightly toasted

Make orange slush the day before you're going to make the cake, which you will then make a day before you plan to serve it: OK - so the recipe calls for washing the oranges well and then slicing the tops and bottoms off them so they can sit flat in a pot, filled with water up to their middles, while you simmer them to softness for two hours. Guess what? the water completely boils away so you have to keep adding, which is fine but a pain. Next time I make this, I will simply put the oranges in a covered baking dish with water halfway up at maybe 275 F and bake for up to two hours until they are very soft but not caramelized. Much easier I think. Drain off excess water. Puree whole oranges (yes, including peel) to a smooth slush in a food processor. Place in a bowl and cover. Refrigerate overnight.

To make cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 170 C (335 F) and prepare a 23-cm (10-inch) springform or other round tin by greasing and lining the bottom with parchment paper.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together baking powder and ground almonds.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar just until combined.
  4. To egg mixture, add ground almond mixture and orange slush (only 375 g of what you made, not all of it - I had quite a bit left over from 4 large oranges which is why I suggest trying only 3), and mix gently just to combine.
  5. Pour cake batter into tin and bake about 60 to 80 minutes until cake is golden brown and cake tester comes out clean. (Recipe says 80. Mine took 60 and I don't know how true this oven runs.)
  6. Cool cake in tin overnight.
  7. Next day remove from tin to serving plate. Melt together apricot jam and water on stove or in microwave and bring just to a boil. Strain to remove any fruit lumps. While glaze is still warm, brush entire cake top and sides until glossy.
  8. Sprinkle cake with a ring of toasted almonds around top edge to make a wreath. Serve and refrigerate any leftovers.
Now for something British with a touch of India: Kedgeree, a cheap (here) and easy supper that my boys just adore. I've made this British Empire classic a couple times now because we are blessed with really wonderful smoked fish (the hot-smoked kind not the smoked salmon/lox kind) here in New Zealand and Mark, harking to his Finnish roots perhaps, loves it. It can be bought at the fish stall at the market and at any of the fish stores and is really inexpensive. I think my mom (Mom, can you verify?) used to make this when we lived in England and that's why I know and have such fond memories of it. It's so simple, it really doesn't need a recipe although Sally made it the other night from a fancy-schmancy recipe and it didn't turn out she said, so I guess it does need some instruction. I think the bottomline is, keep it simple.

Basically, to feed 4, you need 2 to 3 cups of cooked long or medium grain rice (I've thought of trying brown but I just can't). You will also need 4 peeled, hard-cooked eggs. Finely dice 1 medium onion and saute in a large saute pan until soft in a good knob of butter, or oil if you prefer. Add mild curry powder to taste here if that's your fancy - a couple teaspoons would be good - but you can do it without too. Stir in cooked rice and coat with butter and spice. Then stir in a couple cups of flaked smoked white fish like trout (in NZ, it's other types of fish like kahawai, kingfish, tarakihi, trevally, hoki as in photo...). We've used up to 3/4 pound since it's so reasonable here but you don't need quite that much. Cover the pan and leave it on medium low just to get the whole thing warmed through. Meanwhile finely chop the eggs. Toss them in and serve. Adults will want lots of freshly ground black pepper. You can get fancy with chopped parsley or finely sliced green onions for color if you like. And this belongs with peas.
A few other gastronomic experiences worth sharing. Before she left for her summer in Europe (smart idea to leave here in the damp, cool, uninsulated winter but I miss her!), Margo and her husband John made us a local foods feast - with muttonbird (titi in Maori), wild pork, and wild venison. Muttonbird is a highly prized Maori food. It is actually the chicks of the Sooty Shearwater, a species of puffin, and is sold in local fish stores (it is in the center of the fishmonger display photo above) as, one of my New Zealand food histories says, "an honorary fish." It is known for its strong flavor and oily texture. You boil it for a long time and then crisp it up to remove some of the fat. It is often cooked out of doors, as Margo does here, because of its overpowering scent. We actually found it quite interesting - flavor of anchovies (makes sense because of the diet of the bird) with texture of fatty duck. See cooked photo below right.

Margo also procured for us a haunch of wild pig (on left of photo below with tail at top) and one of wild venison. Both are hunted avidly around here and the wild pig actually came from Brent, who has now guided me up the Whanganui River twice and shared stories of his iwi (tribe) that has lived on the river since the 1300s. Wild pig hunting is done here by solo hunters armed only with dogs and a large knife. There is a whole magazine devoted to the sport.

And for a final, perhaps more mass-appeal treat, we did finally make it to the famous Raetihi Pie Shop, which is only about 45 minutes from here (although on the windy Parapara highway) and can definitely say that they are **by far** the best pies we've had in New Zealand so far with a lovely, light and flaky crust and very nice chicken filling without globs of gooeey gravy or other mysteries involved. (We have only tried the chicken so far as that was all that were left at 1 pm in the afternoon - he always sells out.) Considering pies are one of the Kiwi food icons, we've eaten more mediocre and truly bad ones than we can count at this point, many of which have been recommended or won awards. The Raetihi pies are not allowed into the national competition because they are too big. (They are single serving, and they are generous.) I think it's because they are too good and make everyone else look bad.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

But You Can Dress Us Up, or Travels with Wayne and Susan

We arrived home from the South Island trip with Polly, slept, and took off the next morning to bring her back up to Auckland to fly home. It had been wonderful to have her here -- to share our daily life as well as some of our travel adventures -- and we were a bit teary upon saying goodbye. But no time for that. We were on to the next thing.

We spent the night in Auckland, enjoyed a very nice Italian dinner on the hip Ponsonby Avenue (far too hip for us), did our laundry (washer and dryer had been a top criteria for the hotel), and managed to buy Mark a pair of golf shoes (unbeknownst to us the hotel was a block from Golf Warehouse!) before taking off for parts north where Wayne, Mark's dad, and Susan, his wife, were meeting us at Kauri Cliffs, a lovely, high-end resort with a world-renowned golf course. It was just a little different than campervanning.

The view driving into Kauri Cliffs on the northeastern coast of the North Island near Kerikeri, above the Bay of Islands.

This was one view of Mark's and my room. The place is seriously but tastefully luxurious and highly recommended to all those into golf by the golf aficionadoes in my family. For those simply into luxury, it would also be a sound choice of vacation destination. It was built by a Wall Street tycoon who fell in love with New Zealand and bought both this 6,500 acres and then the second property we visited a few days later. Both are on the prestigious Relais & Chateaux list and both still include farming on the property, quite close to the links in some cases.

In warmer weather we would have jumped into this pool, but we made do with the lovely indoor pool - see below. Our camera did not make it onto this golf course but Mark, Wayne, Nikko, and Alex, as cart driver, were on it within ten minutes of our arrival. The course is ranked 58th in the world and Nikko was quite excited, to say the least, to play it.

Every evening starts with a drinks and appetizers service in the main lodge, a practice to which the boys could easily become accustomed.

Nikko and Alex also were big fans of the pork belly appetizer.

Our own private dining room, below.

The next day, Wayne, Mark, and Nikko went out to try to get another round in before the poor weather descended and Alex, Susan, and I went on a tour of the property.

One of the highlights was a beach with infinite small pieces of pink shell instead of sand. There were also all sorts of pristine whole shells and striking Pohutukawa trees that almost look like sculpture. In summer they do guest bbq's and picnics down there.

We continued the tour, which combined the pastoral farming landscape we have seen elsewhere with spectacular ocean vistas and a golf hole every so often. Oh and there was a very cool hidden waterfall.

Simon, our lovely guide.
A Down Under icon, the Norfolk pine.

The property's most huge and ancient Kauri tree, one of those after which the cliffs are named. This one is estimated to be between 700 and 900 years old and is on the part of the property that the owner put under conservation. Simon shared with us the story of the kauri in New Zealand, a tree prized by builders for its rot-resistant wood, but now protected. Sadly the government policy was to disallow all harvesting after a certain date, so many farmers and other property owners just chopped all their kauri trees down before that date and now have it stockpiled. Simon, who had many thoughtful ideas, suggested it might have made more sense for the government to set a limit on number of trees harvested per year and require landowners to replant any they cut.
After the tour, Susan and Alex headed to the exercise room. I read a book.

Susan was quite impressed with Alex's workout mojo. He deserved his Zen hot tub afterwards.

A group photo before the Pasanens of Vermont/New Zealand took off by car to drive down to the next rendez-vous point, about a 10-hour-drive, highlit by a stop to see really cool mosaic bathrooms, have Indian curry for supper, and almost sleep in the car because our destination midway through the drive was unexpectedly and fully booked with V-8 car racing fans. It was midnight and we didn't have too many options, but luckily we found literally the last two rooms free in the city.The next day we drove through driving rain to Napier, renowned for its art deco architecture, where we stopped in at the national aquarium (fine but not worth a special trip, although we did get to see kiwis again), and did a little wine-tasting at a couple of the Hawke's Bay vineyards along the ocean. It was still pouring when we arrived at the second newer property owned by the same American, Cape Kidnappers (named in honor of a young deckhand on Captain Cook's ship who was kidnapped by locals). Staff were waiting graciously for us outside with huge umbrellas and welcomed us warmly with tea, hot chocolate, and cookies. We snuggled up in a round cozy room they call the Snug and read and played scrabble while we waited for Wayne and Susan to arrive.

The digs were equally posh although, we found, a little more "designery." Alex was especially impressed with the TV remote and we all appreciated the central heating, underfloor heating, and heated towel racks. (Central heating is not common in New Zealand.)

The interior of the main lodge where we had our customary pre-dinner drinks and appetizers. could get used to this.

It was just all so, well, civilized.
Dinner was lovely -- and dessert quite fanciful, as you can see below. (Real cheerios, not real Hershey kisses.) The only other group in the dining room were four representatives from a U.S. golf magazine.
The boys in jackets, required.

Next morning the boys woke up early to tee off, but breakfast first.

Alex gets credit for all these golf day photos -- including the one of his perfect Eggs Benedict. Yes, he knew mom would want to see the food.

The course came perilously close to large cows...and their waste. All that and it's ranked 27th in the world.
Nikko and Mark marveling at the fine 7-iron Nikko hit on the third hole.
Alex being artistic.
Out of the bunker -- luckily it hadn't gone over the cliff. That would have been a long way down to retrieve your ball.

The views from the course were something and the course quite challenging in a fun way, but Mark and Nikko have agreed they preferred the course at Kauri Cliffs.

The boys all proudly celebrating that they shot par 5 on the 16th hole.

After a beautiful walk through sheep being herded by dogs, lavender fields, and pine forests, Susan and I were driven out to meet the boys. Alex had played cart driver again this day and ably showed off his skills.

We left the property for lunch at a local winery, Elephant Hill, where we tasted the wines before choosing some to go with lunch.

In the summer, this deck bordered by an infinity edge pool with the grapevines and ocean beyond must be fabulous.

Lunch was good, although the kitchen was running very slooooooowly for some reason, given that the place was not that crowded. This corn soup was lovely and delicate.

Back to the lodge to pack up but first a quick dip in the hot tub and pool...
before we bid farewell to Wayne and Susan, who were staying another couple of days and then heading to Sydney for the weekend. Quite a wonderful way to wrap up the boys' Easter break -- thanks so much to Wayne and Susan for a very memorable and special time.
We were home that night. Back to reality. Joked Alex, upon exiting the shower the next morning to have his tender toes hit chilly vinyl rather than warmed marble, "Mom, the floor's broken."