Christchurch: A sweet southern spot to savour

By Estelle Sarney

Chocolate-tasting sessions at She Chocolat are a revelation to those who think they know their sweets. Photo / Supplied
Chocolate-tasting sessions at She Chocolat are a revelation to those who think they know their sweets. Photo / Supplied

Here's how to truly appreciate chocolate. First, twirl a piece in your fingers until it begins to soften. Then raise it to your face, cup your hand around your nose and sniff. You might get a sense of a smoky aroma or hints of citrus, or a woody base overlaid by cinnamon or chilli.

Then place it on your tongue. Don't bite it, just let it melt and you'll enjoy a whole new wave of flavours and scents - spice, vanilla, caramel, nut or maybe liquorice. Feel its texture with your mouth - is it smooth or textured; fluid or gluggy?

As it runs down your throat look for the aftertaste - it may be clean or lingering, leaving you with a sense of artificial additives, or the satisfaction of quality. If you don't crave too much more, that's a good sign.

The chocolate-tasting session at She Chocolat near Christchurch was a revelation to someone like me who thought I appreciated good chocolate; I realised I'd only been embracing it on a superficial level.

This was a recurring theme through a weekend spent in Christchurch with three other women. We met for three days of shopping, eating and drinking but soon discovered that Christchurch won't let you get away with such light-hearted fare.

This city can't quite shake off its rather earnest reputation, but it shouldn't try. Our weekend was all the more satisfying for it.

We'd no sooner arrived from Auckland - not having had to fly out until the civilised hour of 9.30am on a Friday - and sat down to brunch at Alchemy cafe, when we were invited to have a look around the Christchurch Art Gallery next door. The moving, sparking, hissing sculptures by local artist Andrew Drummond were striking.

So was a brochure on the lifelike, larger-than-life sculptures of naked people by the internationally renowned Ron Mueck, coming to the gallery in October, which was left on our cafe table. It made for a very different kind of conversation over eggs and pasta.

Like Auckland, Christchurch has its High St which has become the centre of independent boutiques and high-fashion labels - Trelise Cooper and World recently opened here, beside Andrea Moore, Storm, Moochi and others.

And who should happen to be in World at the time we dropped in but one of the its founders, Francis Hooper.

A light conversation about World's prime location in the curved end of a corner building at the tip of High St led to Hooper expounding on why World is still made in New Zealand, rather than in Third World sweat factories.

You can leave here feeling good about your role in supporting the Kiwi economy and avoiding international labour exploitation.

Which brings me to fine coffee, mixed with fair trade. C1 Espresso, also in High St, has won numerous South Island cafe awards for its deserving brews and cool brick-lined decor. Owners Sam and Fleur Crofskey also featured on Country Calendar for their efforts in fostering coffee plantations in Samoa.

By the end of this year, 5 per cent of their beans will come from there; by the end of next year that figure will increase to 20 per cent and keep rising.

We were served by staff who have taken turns travelling to Samoa to spend time living and working on the plantations, who also went to help where they could in the wake of last year's tsunami. Any kind of chocolate from She Chocolat tastes wonderful, so practiced are the artisans that make it. Founder Bernie Prior takes an alternative approach to life - She stands for "spiritual human evolution" - and Bernie and her team make their chocolate as much by "feel" as by science (chocolatier Oonagh knows the chocolate is ready to work with when it's the same temperature as the skin by her lips - she spends half her day dabbed in chocolate spots).

This company, too, is taking a Pacific approach to sourcing its base product, rejecting South American cocoa beans in favour of those from organic plantations in Fiji. If the flavour and consistency of their chocolate is anything to go by, they've done the right thing.

Who would have thought a combination of lavender and blueberry could be so subtle, or that adding chilli in the right way does not make chocolate spicy, just intriguing? And so it was at every other turn we took in Christchurch - the trendy SOL Square collection of eateries that used to house shirt factories; historic homestead Mona Vale that was saved from developers 40 years ago and turned into a dignified restaurant perfect for playing ladies who lunch; and the Truly Scrumptious tea shop, which serves "girlfriend cupcakes" and is crammed with vintage jewellery and French Victoriana homewares, many of which are being respectfully passed on from deceased estates.

"The children of the people who owned these things bring them to us because they know they will be bought by people who will love them," says founder Michelle Calderwood.

So yes, Christchurch is a fine destination for a girls' weekend - I did all this and more and was still back in Auckland at the manageable time of 4.30pm on Sunday - but it offers much more than superficial fun. Savour it like a fine chocolate and it's eminently more rewarding.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Pacific Blue has daily flights to Christchurch from Auckland and Wellington.

Where to stay: The Hotel Grand Chancellor is in the heart of the city within easy walking distance of most shopping, eating and cultural attractions. Phone 0800 668 400.

Where to eat:

* Alchemy Restaurant in the art gallery building is a stylish spot for meals where you can wander through the adjoining galleries between courses.

* C1 Espresso is an award-winning cafe, with a conscience.

* SOL Square is a collection of cool restaurants and bars in a group of heritage buildings that were once shirt factories.

* The Bangalore Polo Club is one of the newest venues along Oxford Tce, a popular al fresco dining spot beside the Avon.

Further information: For tourist information and deals see christchurchnz.com or phone (03) 379 9629.

- NZ Herald

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