Eat, drink and be merry

March 25, 2009

I’m sorry to do this, but this is going to be a largely negative posting.   I had high hopes for gastromic experiences down here, owing in no small part to the hype of all the publicity I’d read from the NZ immigration department and other travel literature.  Much is made of New Zealand’s position as an agricultural economy, and also of the natural resources that are the surrounding seas, with the emphasis upon the resulting availability of fresh ingredients, and hence high-quality food.  Well, it’s bollocks.  I didn’t want to believe it when I was told that all the best products are exported, and I still don’t totally, but as an example over 90% of kiwifruit production is exported.

So what is the food like?  By and large, underwhelmingly average.  When doing grocery shopping, there’s a sense of everything being at the lower end of the quality spectrum, and all but the best delicatessens are not worthy of the name.  There’s no cheese counter in the supermarket, and production is very centralised with monopolies such as Fonterra.  So while you can buy loose ham over the counter in the shop, it’s not freshly carved off a joint the way it’s easy to get accustomed to in Sainsbury’s.

When it comes to eating out, in many places you’ll struggle to find a good restuarant.  I consider myself very fortunate to live so close to Wellington, which does have excellent restaurants with varied specialities.  Away from the big cities the choice is fast food or a pub.

Two foods that are endemic are sausages and pies.  I’m not sure if there’s generally any meat in the sausages, some are worryingly labelled as “pork flavour”, while others are simply sold as “breakfast” or “BBQ” sausages.  To say such sausages are bad is an understatement, yet whenever I see a charity “sausage sizzle” I end up buying one.  Onions and sauce are a saving grace, as it’s difficult to distinguish between the slice of bread and the sausage.  Still, decent sausages are available, so it’s just a case of being a choosy customer in the butcher’s.  As for the pies, these vary in quality enormously, and I’d actually say they’re generally better than a Pukka or Wright’s pie that you might buy in a British chip shop.  In some places the filling variety is huge, but my preference is for steak or lamb and cheese.

Another over-hyped but actually uninspiring aspect are the wines.  Forget tourist board publicity, just about every person who I talked with about New Zealand mentioned wine, and said they’d heard it was good.  Note heard, they often didn’t actually generally buy kiwi wine themselves.  As it turns out, I buy far less wine now I live in New Zealand than I did before, simply because there is so little variety, and it’s so hard to find a decent bottle without having some tasting notes available.  Generally I find that the wines lack body, are a little acidic, and generally leave my taste buds unfulfilled.  As a result I avoid anything described as “subtle”, because that seems to actually mean flavourless.  I wish there was the international range available in supermarkets here that the UK enjoys.  I’d like a nice selection of European wines to choose from!

I must at this point emphasise that this is the general case.  Hawke’s Bay wines seem generally far superior, especially those from the Gimlett Gravels area.

Like the UK, New Zealand has a burgeoning craft/microbrewery scene.  Sadly, these are not widely available in supermarkets or “bottle shops” (off-licenses), so to enjoy a variety of different beers can mean travelling to the source.  The best beers widely available are those of Monteith’s and Mac’s, although even these are not exceptional.  Two breweries, Lion and DB, account for some 90% of NZ’s beer sales (and own the above two brands), and everything a typical bottle store or supermarket sells is from these two stables.  Of all the beers they produce, the two worst which I have tried are Export Gold and Tui.  It’s not that they’re unpleasant, it’s just that like the wines, there’s nothing to them.  I ought to say now that there are other brands such as DB and Lion Red which I have avoided on the advice of friends.  I couldn’t resist adding my own take on Tui’s well known marketing.

tuibeer

Again, I must extol the merits of living close to Wellington.  There is a fantastic bottle shop called Regional Wines, which provide detailed tasting notes on the wines they sell, and also offer beers from a variety of smaller breweries, both on-tap and bottled.  It’s a lifeline!

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It’s been a while

March 25, 2009

I wonder how many bloggers go through this cycle?  I started this blog, and then the post frequency steadily decreased.  This is partly due to my own lack of motivation to do so (in lovely summer weather, why would I want to be sat at desk when I can instead by going out and enjoying myself?), partly due to just getting used to the place which is my new home, and also partly due to having a greater social life developing.  Although the familiarity hasn’t exactly bred comtempt, as living here become “normal” there’s less which immediately springs to mind as being something to write about.

I do intend to commit more of my thoughts to the blog, but I’ll do these under seperate postings so they’re more ordered.

EARTHQUAKE!

December 19, 2008

Today I was aware of an earthquake for the second time in a month.  I was sat at home reading to Anita when the whole house started shaking, rattling the plates and causing the lights to sway.  It went on for a few seconds, died down and then intensified again.  Remembering a website I had been shown, I went online and visited www.geonet.org.nz to find out the epicentre and magnitude, and was fascinated too see how widely felt the quake was- pretty well every recording site on North Island and many on South Island were recording tremors of MM4 and above, and even as I sat looking at their site seismic activity was being recorded.  Sliding the time bar backwards showed the spread of the shock, and after a short while I could look the quake up- http://www.geonet.org.nz/earthquake/quakes/3017161g.html

Down here it measured 4.0 on the richter scale, a magnitude that would make headline news in the UK.  Here, it barely warranted a mention in the Dominion Post.  At the epicentre it had a magnitude of 5.1.

Adventure Playground

November 18, 2008

I should probably start at the top here.  Three weeks ago, we moved from our temporary lodgings in Petone to a longer term let in Belmont, one of the suburbs clinging to the Western Hills of the Hutt Valley.  Although lacking the convenience of Petone with all its shops and public transport, we have a north-facing house with a fully fenced garden, great for Anita to play in while I sit on the deck drinking tea.

Being a whole new area, we have another set of surroundings to familiarise ourselves with.  Running the length of the hills is the 3500 hectare Belmont Regional Park, with picnic areas and campsites.  The terrain varies, with bush-clad valleys, farmland, native forest and tussocky grasslands.  With all this, there’s no shortage of somewhere for a weekend walk.  However, with a toddler, activities without so much climbing are better!  Looking at the street map of the area, I noticed a playground on the next road over, with a pathway cutting out a long walk to where the two roads join.  Today, Anita and I wandered up, and found the shortcut to be through a “scenic reserve”.  Amidst the suburban surroundings, there is a small amount of forest, and the path takes you through the middle of it.  Even just two minutes in all sight of houses is lost, and the only sound is New Zealand’s ever present birdsong.  A couple of small streams cross the path, and it’s really quite idyllic.  It’s not a very quick shortcut though, as the path winds, falls and climbs across the small valley that seperates the two roads.  With todays sunny weather we were in no hurry though.

Luckily, the path led directly to the playground I’d been looking for, and Anita happily played for some time, and demanded ever higher pushing on the swings.  I couldn’t let her tire out completely, as we still had to walk home!

The appropriately-named Wellyfest

November 3, 2008

The fourth Monday in October is New Zealand’s labour day, and as such marks the first bank holiday of Spring.  As bank holidays at home, over the weekend there are all sorts of events, and one which we chose to attend was the Wellington Folk Festival.

The festival wasn’t in Wellington city, rather it was at an outdoor education centre some 6.5km out of Wainuiomata, the other side of the harbour to Wellington.  Unlike most British folk festivals there wasn’t any integration into a town or village, as there wasn’t a town in walking distance of the site.  This gave quite a different feel to the event, making it closer-knit, perhaps more like a folk camp in atmosphere.  For us, as newcomers to the local scene, it was an easy place to strike up conversations with people, and I quickly found myself volunteered to join the local Morris dancers.

Still having very little in the way of “stuff”, we spent the week leading up to the festival running around equipping ourselves for family camping.  I browsed the net to find a suitable tent available at a local dealer, and settled on one from Dwight’s in Upper Hutt.  The tent may have been just the ticket, but the sales assistant clearly didn’t believe in letting people browse unhindered, and everything we looked at was commented on, while she extolled the shops superiority to it’s competition.  Sorry Dwight, but when we can get the exact same products for 1/3 less anywhere else, and sometimes for 50% less, we won’t be coming back.  The sales staff elsewhere aren’t nearly as damned annoying either.

Back to Wellyfest.  The main attraction was superb British singer, Tim van Eyken.  But it was also a chance to get a feel for the local scene, and it seemed that a lot of the festivals organisers were also performers.  I got the impression that the local talent were not professional musicians, rather they were performers for the love of the music.  As such, while the acts were not polished by the standards I’m used to, they were rich in charm and enthusiasm.  There were a wide range of workshops for such a small festival, which suggests a willingness to teach and to learn.  My favourite was the homebrew comparisons workshop, though I gave Cotswold Morris a try too.

In true Spring style, the weather was unpredictable.  The nights were cold, the rain heavy, but come Sunday the sun was shining brightly.  The weather had no ill effects on our enjoyment of the festival though, as our tent kept us dry and our wellies did their job.  Even though welly boots are called gumboots down here, I had the feeling that perhaps the nickname “Wellyfest” didn’t only refer to the locality.

The site on Friday…

And come Sunday…

It’s hard to see, but the main site became muddy nearly all over.

New shoes & automobile

October 23, 2008

I’ve recently learnt the appeal of The Warehouse, the large discount store which seems to sell everything.  I popped in looking for some camping gear, and came out with a pair of trainers, a Pingu DVD and the Best of the Cardigans.  All for less than $70.  The trainers, a pair of Airwalks, were less than $40.  Sod paying $200 on the high street!  They also stock Reeboks and Converse at similar prices.  For comparison, NZ$1 is roughly 37p. 

I ended up coming back the next day for the camping gear…

We also bought a car yesterday.  We didn’t want to mess about getting finance, so bangernomics was the order of the day.  Eventually we settled on a 1994 Nissan Maxima, a type of car I hadn’t heard of before arriving in New Zealand.  It’s a saloon car the same sort of size as a Vauxhall Omega or Volvo S70, with a 3 litre engine, something that could be an advantage on the hills round here.  Like most of the cars on the roads down here, it’s an automatic, but our main consideration was to get a smooth runner at a low price, and beggars can’t be choosers.  We paid just over £800, and the car has a new Warrant of Fitness, so all’s dandy.  Our plan is just to run it into the ground or trade it in for a newer car if we decide to stay longer term.  Anyway, it’ll certainly do for now, as it’s comfortable and powerful.

Househunting

October 20, 2008

Aside from bureaucratic matters and familiarising ourselves with the area, our main concern since we arrived has been finding a house to rent.  Nice as the temporary apartment is, it’s not really suitable for a three year old as it has no garden and high balconies, Diane’s kayak has to be stored outside, and I have no workshop/modelling space.

The letting agents have a simple system.  They give you a list of the available properties with their addresses, and you’re free to drive around and have a look from the roadside.  This lets you quickly rule out places in a poor state of repair, iffy neighbourhoods or places that would be too small.  Returning to the agent’s office you can then take keys for properties you are interested in (if they’re presently unoccupied), and look round unaccompanied.  It’s a lot nicer than having someone making excuses for any issues you spot, and there’s less pressure to make any sudden decisions.  They do make a follow up call on visits, but if you’re as rude as I am you can just hang up on them or reject the call!

For all I liked the system, we have ended up choosing a property by one of Diane’s colleagues.  This cuts out the finder’s fee for the agent (meaning lower upfront cost), it’s furnished, and so if we don’t stay in New Zealand for more than a year it’ll save us money and hassle there.  The rent is more than we were planning to pay, but it’s offset by the value of the furnishings.

The run of good weather has ended for the time being.  After a fortnight of being generally sunny, it’s been raining since I got up this morning, and it’s so gloomy I can’t even see Somes Island.  I’m really hoping that it will clear up by the weekend, as it’s Wellington Folk Festival and the North Island Main Trunk railway centenary celebration.  Both would be spoiled somewhat by rain, although I’m sure they’ll both be fun anyway.

Hot dogs and geocaches

October 13, 2008

I wouldn’t claim to be a connoisseur of fast food.  But still, for as long as I can remember, I’ve regarded a hotdog as being a sausage in a bread bun, with optional onions and sauces.  Yesterday I learned that a hot dog in New Zealand is a sossidge onna stick, battered.  Sauce is still an option though.

Excuse the phone camera picture.  Hardly looks appetising, but actually tastes better than most hot dogs.

Amongst my interests is an activity called geocaching, where GPS is used to find … caches.  These can range in size from the size of a pool cue tip, to an ammo tin of 2 litres or more.  Anyway, I’m using these as a motivation to explore my local area, and through the search for them I’ve found viewpoints, playparks and upteen forest parks.  Possibly the best find was a viewpoint accessed through a winding residential road, which had stunning views of Wellington harbour and the Hutt Valley.  It was late evening, and we watched the sun setting over the western hills.

Other finds have been more immediately local, such as this sculpture which doubles as a spring for untreated water from the Waiwhetu aquifier.  There are drinking fountains and taps for filling bottles- and there is a constant procession of people arriving, and taking litres of the stuff.  So far I’ve only filled a couple of small bottles, but it is nice water- crisp and sweet in taste.  I’d only paid attention to the location by virtue of a geocache hidden by it!

We have found other nice places without searching for caches, but finding walks suitable for a three year old is challenging.

Getting to know you

October 9, 2008

For all I’d read wikipaedia, browsed Google Earth and searched Google Images, I couldn’t have claimed to have any expectations of Petone. So driving down the street that first day, with talk of Maori gangs (almost on cue, a patched member of the Mongrel Mob had walked past), I was a little nervous that we’d pitched up in a ghetto. The slightly ramshackle appearance of the buildings coupled with the general age of the cars driving past reinforced this perception. However, after a couple of decent nights’ sleep, I felt a lot more comfortable. No ghetto could support the café culture so prevalent here, and the number of artisanal shops led me to make mental comparisons to Stroud or Hebden Bridge, although without the prolific inbreeding or lesbians.  Jackson Street, Petone’s main drag, has cafés and restaurants to cater for almost every taste. From the pub grub to curry with pizza, fish and chips or Chinese, the choice is wide. The only two global brands are the omnipresent McDonalds, and Domino’s Pizza. Better quality and more popular are the home brands of Burger Wisconsin and Hell Pizza. Somehow they manage to fit shops in too, and as well as small grocery stores (Dairies), there are banks, bookshops, kitchen utensils, outdoor gear, a toy shop, gifts, and even two sex shops. We can walk out of the front door onto the street, and without having to walk further than a block I can buy meat, books, kitchenware, a PC, toys and porn. And of course useless gifts, an industry which New Zealand seems uncommonly well provided with.

Kiwis seem far less obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses than many other people, and there is much witness to be borne to this. Many people happily drive round in cars 10-15 years old, and there isn’t the fear of the 100,000 mile mark that brits irrationally have. When the seats wear out, they simply put covers on them. The Warrant of Fitness (akin to the MOT in the UK) ensures that they’re by and large roadworthy, though there are almost certainly dodgers like anywhere else. Second hand white goods are easy to come by, and auction site tradme is a religion second only to the All Blacks. Discount store The Warehouse is also popular, and we were recommended to visit for everything from a pushchair to mobile phones. That’s not to say New Zealanders are tight, theirs is simply a culture of practical economy.

As a break from the endless beurocracy that has marked our first few days, we’ve taken a few drives out beyond the local town. Within half an hour’s driving there are wooded mountains, deserted beaches, a cosmopolitan city, museums and enough Lord of the Rings filming locations to excite the most hardened of film buffs. I think that there will be plenty to occupy us in the upcoming months.

Jetlagged shopping

October 9, 2008

I think we started exploring too soon. The day we arrived, we decided to head to the supermarket to grab a few basics. But first, we needed to fortify ourselves. A little Turkish café called Zilli’s grabbed our attention, and we were well catered for. The owner had just baked fresh bread, so anything on the menu served with it was the recommendation. My frazzled mind could get more imaginative than soup, and Diane opted for a Turkish breakfast (which I was convinced was a sex act- turns out I was thinking of a snowcone). Anita had some meatballs and rice prepared, on off-menu option offered as they didn’t have a children’s menu. One kiwi custom which I first encountered in Zilli’s was the automatic serving of water- a happy tendency when you have a thirst like mine.

The local supermarket is an establishment called Pak ‘n Save, a name which causes Diane great amusement. Apparently they are cheap because you have to pack your own bags. That seems like no great hardship for a British ex-pat, as UK supermarkets have only recently begun packing for the customer. Whatever the case, I would not recommend visiting any supermarket the afternoon after disembarking from a long-haul flight. The shelves seemed to tower above me, the labels could have been in a different language, and I felt like I stood out a mile. Somehow we managed to get the basics that we needed (see previous post for a couple of examples), and then I went home for an afternoon nap. 14 hours later, I woke up…