Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Search of the Elusive Bad Meal

What if I told you that I've just visited a country where I can remember every single meal I ate during the two-week period that I was there? Not only can I simply recall the meals, but I've indulged myself in obsessing over them ever since I departed this culinary paradise.

I've just returned from a trip to New Zealand and Tahiti. I can tell you, very, very firmly, that Tahiti is not the culinary mecca to which I refer. Quite the opposite in fact.

Sidebar comment: If you ever decide to go to Tahiti, change your mind immediately and do not change it back.

Jesse and I flew into Wellington from Manhattan via Tahiti (don't forget my advice to never, ever, go to Tahiti). After snacking at the airport (yes, the airport) on delicacies usually found in gourmet sandwich shops, we drove into the kiwi capital. First up: dinner. Jesse's stepmom Susan Harper and Dad Jock Phillips quickly whipped up a side of salmon that was smoked and slow-roasted. That is to say, they smoked it themselves. In a smoker. With tea leaves. Real ones. The resulting tender succulence was so good that we did it all over again just a week later.

A few days later (and a lot of meals in between involving wickedly robust coffee from Caffe L'Affare), Jesse and I drove up to Napier for Dave Arnott and Jane Caldecutt's wedding (snaps to come). On the way, we stopped roadside in Shannon for a snack. Hailing from America, I expected a roadside snack to consist of something awful involving wilted lettuce, gray processed meat, and a slice or two of that ubiquitous white bread. No, not in New Zealand. In New Zealand, roadside food apparently means fresh. It means green. And tasty. Healthy to boot! I devoured a sandwich of fresh-baked bread with seeds (real seeds!), sprouts (from the garden out back, presumably), honey (probably had bees on staff), and a delicately sliced brie. I nearly wept, but saved my tears for the roadside blueberries and plums, both about the same size as each other. Okay, okay. That last bit about the berries and plums being the same size is an exaggeration, but it's the only exaggeration in this blog post.

Anyway, in case I wasn't clear, Jesse and I were in the middle of a drive. Not necessarily in the middle of nowhere on this drive, but on a road passing through a small town. Never have I ever, in any country, visited a small town with food as fresh and scrumptious as this little town offered. Never mind the whole of the country! You know how it is: you stop for food on a drive and you have low expectations. And they're always matched. Not so in New Zealand.

But back to the drive and its destination.

Once we'd arrived in Napier, which is a paradise all its own with mouth-gaping-open scenery, fine wines, and black sand beaches, the groom's parents invited the ladies to dinner. The gents were busy on an all-nighter stag party, dressing the groom as a clown and "forcing" him to drink copious amounts of (probably delicious) beer. At the groom's parents' house, I was immediately offered a crisp, dry, watermelon-and-honey colored glass of rose. While the rest of us sipped, Barbara Arnott, the groom's mother, threw a lot of indescernible things in a pot and, an hour or so later, produced a stew made of chicken cooked so gently that its little muscles fell off its little bones, and I barely had to chew. I'd like to mention here that the groom's mother, the chef of this particular meal, is also the mayor of the town of Napier. Which is to say, she's probably a very busy woman. Not only did she have her son's wedding to plan that week, but she had a city to run, too. I was surprised she could spare the time to prepare any sort of meal for guests she'd only met once (like me), much less prepare one that exceeded my already rapidly ascending expectations of food in her country.

As I finished my second and then third helping, I noticed with a heavy heart that I was leaving behind a lot of sauce on my plate. Could licking your plate be considered a compliment? I wondered. Probably not, I worried, looking lasciviously at my leftover gravy. Barbara must have read my mind, because she offered me a slice of bread and nodded at my plate.

Now about this bread. I could write an entire book solely on this slice of bread. It had been so recently yanked from the bosom of somebody's convection oven, that it felt like silk in my mouth. As I sit here recalling that meal and that bread, my only regret is not having a fourth helping of the spicy tomato-y chicken stew.

After the wedding, which offered the finest fare of any wedding I've ever attended (I know, I know, 'good' wedding food?!), and after taking quite some time to laboriously peel my now too-tight dress off my bottom half, Jesse and I drove to Otaki on the western coast of the North Island to spend some time getting to know the surf and the hills. And the fish and chips. We spent a day hiking up a couple of inclines that I hadn't expected to be so steep (and where I fell no less than three times), and hiking down into a stream as cold as melted ice. Just when I thought the day was done, Jock and Susan led the way to the beach, where we were supposed to be body-boarding. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the waves and rip were so strong that we nearly had to turn back. But we didn't. Bracing against the rip, we caught the shortest and strongest waves I've ever encountered. They were like body-building midgets, and they didn't just roll us back to shore; they catapulted us. Time to cue in the fish and chips (or, "fush and chups" as the locals say). I think Ramona Quimby said it best as protagonist in Beverly Cleary's "Ramona & Beezus", when she describes her french fries as "crispy on the outside, mealy on the inside." Come to think of it, mealy sounds better for fries than it does for 'fush', but suffice to say, neither the fish nor the chips disappointed.

A few days later, Jesse and I took the ferry down to the South Island to meet his sister, Hester. Hester's boyfriend just happened to be (just happened to be) the wine buyer for a supermarket. Why hadn't I ever thought of that career? Guy and Hester proceeded to introduce us to Johanneshof Cellars in the Marlborough region not far from their homes in Nelson. If you know even a little bit about wine, you know that European winemakers can get pretty territorial about their vintages, as well as the heritage of their vintage. So it was not without some outrage that this non-European winery took the gold medal for their 2004 Gewurtztraminer at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London. After tasting some of their other award-winning wines, a grappa, and a gorgeous Pinot that could have shouted a curry for spice, we headed to lunch.

A tome, honestly a tome, could be written on the souffle that I ate that afternoon. I wasn't even hungry, which is saying something. Nothing tastes all that great when you're not hungry. Unless you're eating this souffle. Baked so gently as to leave just a suggestion of carmelization, yet firm enough to protest my hacking at it, it was buttery, light, moist... I didn't share.

After lunch, I immediately passed out. When I woke up from a sugar-induced coma (and could have used an angioplasty at that point), we had driven to a lake. Jumping in, I woke up right away. The water is cold in New Zealand.

Wow! I just realized that I've written more in this blog than I've written in my book today, so let me finish, too briefly, with Auckland.

Ever ordered food at a bar? Ever been impressed? No? You and me both, then. In Auckland, Jesse bought tickets for me, his friend Truman MacCarthy, and himself to ride a reverse bungy. No matter how I'd prepared myself with the words "reverse" and "bungy", nothing could have prepared me for how it feels to be a bullet shot straight out of a human gun. Anyway, after all that reverse-bungying, we needed some liquid. And after all that liquid, we needed some food. I ordered bar food, the usual, I thought: some cheese, some tiny quiches, some meat. I got the decidedly un-usual: cheese drizzled in honey complete with the honeycomb intact. I kid you not, I ate the entire triangle of cheese, which was a heady bleu. The tiny quiches were not of the boxed variety, but seemingly freshly baked, and topped with a sliver of quince. Yes, quince. At a bar.

To be honest, I was almost disappointed -- that my expectations could be outdone, again. I guess I'll just have to go back to New Zealand. But next time it will be in search of the elusive bad meal.