Saturday, June 21, 2008

So here's the catch

I recently had the pleasure of embarking on a driving holiday in the South Island of New Zealand. And whilst the scenery blew me away and constantly reminded me why this beautiful country is a postcard photographer's heaven, the food was rarely as impressive. My opinion is (and it is only mine), that New Zealand cuisine suffers from an identity crisis - whilst there are a multitude of eateries in this now popular tourist destination, the Kiwis have yet to define themselves in the gastronomic world.
But what did blow me away on this trip was the quality of the seafood - and given that New Zealand is populated by many little seaside towns along it coast, this seemed to make perfect sense. Two particular highlights on this trip were located in tiny seaside towns - Fleur's Place (Moeraki) and Nin's Bin (Kaikoura)... both eclectic and sticking to the rule of simplicity in method of preparation using the freshest ingredients possible.
Fleur's Place
This highly acclaimed restaurant is housed in an old whaling station site and was constructed from collectables and demolition materials from around New Zealand. The freshest fish possible is brought in daily on fishing boats along Moeraki Bay and cooked simply (with fish this fresh - there is no other way). On this visit, I had the seafood chowder wich was made with in a tomato soup and was filled with salmon chunks, mussels, prawns and the freshest clams. How fresh? So fresh the clams tasted of the sea - an expression I only understood when I tasted this delicious dish.

Of course, I had to try the beautiful local fish and decided to go for the flounder whilst Mum decided to try the sole fish. The fish was only done one way - oven roasted in its skin with no marinade with a choice of accompanying sauce. I opted for the spinach oil whilst the sole was accompanied by tartare with capers. We were shocked when our mains arrived - they were HUGE! Even with a voracious appetite after the long drive before lunch, I had serious reservations about being able to finish my meal. But a bite into the incredibly moist flounder sent me to fish heaven (which is where I hope the flounder now happily resides - bless its soul). Fish from the sea could not taste any sweeter and the accompanying spinach oil was surprisingly moreish. Coupled with the lightly blanched swiss chard, carrots and potatoes from Fleur's veggie garden, I began to understand why this was the one restaurant where celebrity chef, Rick Stein, claims as his favourite spot to eat in the world (and also explains his photo along the stairwell leading to the upper dining room).

Nin's Bin

Kaikoura in Maori translates directly to crayfish - and this is exactly what this little seaside town has to offer. Aside from the beautiful sea views and seal colonies scattered along the coast, there isn't much about Kaikoura that gets visitors excited.

That is except of course, its pride and joy, the abundance of the freshest crayfish from the sea. Nin's Bin, a little camper van converted into a very basic kitchen and shopfront, sits alone along SH1 (heading north of the South Island) against the magnificent backdrop of the ocean. This place is famous for only one thing - crayfish caught fresh daily and served very simply - steamed with garlic butter. Each of these deep orange beauties are sold according to weight with their prices clearly marked on each crayfish's tail.

Once you've made your pick, the crayfish is split in half down the middle, steamed in a pan and topped with garlic butter and parsley... so surprisingly simple... so surprisingly good. The taste of the sweet cray meat whilst dining alfresco with the smell of the sea is something I'll remember for a long... long time to come.

These two establishments impressed me not only with their simple yet amazing food - but more importantly their faith in the unknown - their daily catch. Without an inventory of produce, the two eateries are completely dependent on what comes in on the fishing boats or in Nin's Bin's case, crayfish pots. This approach seems at first irrational - complete disregard for the potential, for one of a better cliche, of not being able to put food on the table. Nevertheless, in mysterious ways, both restaurants seem to reap the benefits of their... well, lack of effort. My take is that we often overestimate the necessity of planning, forecasting and analysing - which in turn often breeds stress, rigidity and inflexibility. No - I am not suggesting that prudent planning should be discouraged - but rather that this should be done with the faith that it will all be okay - that no matter how rough the seas may be, something greater is at work so that somehow... someway... your needs will be provided for and the catch will suffice.


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