Life is never dull on the road with Grant the Cook, writes Jason Burgess.

A whistle-stop food tour with Grant "Cook" Allen is never a straightforward follow-the-map excursion. Once this spirited kitchen sleuth enters the fray, best-laid plans are best discarded. The mere whiff of fresh ingredients is recipe enough to see us bouncing off down obscure back roads on the trail of a decent food story.

Even before leaving Maui's terminal in Christchurch, he needs little encouragement from staff to bag some victual surpluses left by fellow travellers on the exchange-larder shelves. A spicy chipotle sauce for instance will soon become a key ingredient in a spontaneous feast for 14.

Next stop is Deans Bush Farmers Market, set on the front lawn of the majestic Riccarton homestead. After stocking up on story leads and global flavours; French chevre and British Stilton cheeses, Israeli artichokes, Sicilian olives, organic Canterbury baby asparagus and finally Russian fudge, we hit the road.

Heading south, our campervan already resembles a mobile pantry, rolling office and soon to be repository of culinary devices collected from various charity shops. After a brief stop at the cavernous Chertsey Book Barn, the campervan's dining booth is weighed beneath a library-worth of vintage cookbooks.


Truthfully, driving SH1 from Christchurch to Timaru in Canterbury can get a little monotonous. Unless of course the co-pilot has must-see familial ties to such things as an 1870s tailors shop in Leeston, an ancient cemetery called Pleasant Point in Timaru and the divine deco pub in St Andrews. And then finally, Otago!

A truism heard around these parts says that the only thing that follows a nor-wester is a southerly. Arriving in Oamaru on the cusp of said change, a foreboding horizon-wide cloud bank is suspended over Cape Wanbrow. A frosty force field descends swiftly over Friendly Bay and the town's Victorian white stone precinct.

The four streets that feed the precinct are named after English rivers; Thames, Tees, Humber and Tyne. However it is in Harbour St where the townsfolk seek shelter at the Sunday farmers market operating from the castle-like recesses of the Loan and Mercantile building.

Inclement weather and consummate southern hospitality upends any notion of adhering to an itinerary. One wet night stationed in a friend's driveway soon morphs into three.

"You can't come to Oamaru for an overnighter, you simply can't hurry through," says Oasis gallery owner and Oamaru convert, Greg Waite, "there is so much to do. People here will genuinely talk to you. They have time, that is wonderful, the south is like that."

Waite is no stranger to small town New Zealand - he and wife Katy have owned antiques outlets in Te Aroha and Paeroa. Stepping into Oasis, however, is like stepping into a parallel universe. The place is stacked - floor to rafters - with an eclectic mix of South-East Asian antiques, collectibles, books and fabrics from across the planet.

So smitten is Grant the cook with the vibe of the place he proposes staging the aforementioned impromptu pop-up dinner at Oasis. Breads and pastries from HSB and Vinbrux are added to our inventory, plus Brydone Organic veges plus Whitestone mascarpone and eight fresh ducks sourced from a young Waitaki hunter at the market.

I leave the cook doing what he does best - cooking - and sneak out in search of some local personalities.

Apparently many visitors are unaware of the historic precinct, stumbling on it only after missing their turn on their way to see the Blue Penguin Colony.

At the portal of the old Lane's Emulsion building I meet guides "Lottie" the lace maker, "Winifred" the washer woman and "Lord - That's rubbing it in a bit - Linament", all swathed in Victorian garb.

"We surprise tourists," says Winifred.

"A Russian man recently ran up to me and began bawling his eyes out. Apparently this is how women still dress where he was from. I made him feel homesick!"

Inside is Maude's store, a community collective that makes and hires out faithful Victorian and Edwardian period clothing. They do a roaring trade on Steampunk and Victorian weekends.

Ever-present pairs of quizzical, curious, knowing and world-weary eyes, in paint and papier-mâché, follow visitors through Donna Demente's gallery. Ensconced in Oamaru for 18 years, Demente is a living artwork and leading light behind the creative revitalisation of the precinct. "It's a sleepy town and that is part of the charm. But people here are passionate about Victoriana. The more curious visitors are, the more they'll enjoy it."

Steampunk has taken the town by storm. Signs on the highway and around the standalone museum/gallery/HQ in the old Grain Elevator building declare, "Oamaru. The Capital of SteamPunk".

Outside HQ, custodian and engineer Rappo makes the rearing locomotive sculpture snort smoke and flame. He reckons, "Steampunk is all about letting your imagination run wild, creatives come up with an idea and I put it together."

"Steampunks?" laughs bookbinder and Victorian traditionalist Michael O'Brien. "Smoke bogans more like. A Dystopian view of fantasy; machismo running roughshod over reality, blasting away at it by ray-gunned toting jocks in tight pants."

O'Brien may be a curiosity to many but he's says he came here to fit in, not stand out.

"I'm a deep romantic, I was lured by the collective idea of living in a Victorian town at work. Now I'm the raving loony, just trying to see that idea through to fruition."

On the waterfront, near sculptor Don Patterson's Steampunked playground is The Penguin Nest cafe, the unofficial end of the line for the Alps 2 Ocean cycleway. As well as espresso, fresh baking and kayak hire, operators Scott and Dee-Ann Fitzgerald run Trail Adventures, which is set to cater for a new outdoor breed of Oamaru visitors.

"No one has really capitalised on the natural beauty of our harbour, with cyclists finishing here we're hoping we can convince them to stay a bit longer."

Our extended stay comes to an end when Oasis dinner guest Fleur Sullivan suggests we pop into her place on the way south. Skipping the boulders on Koekohe beach for Moeraki's other notable landmark, Fleur's Place, is a no-brainer for serious foodies. Her rustic fishing shack is world-renowned. Helicopters from Auckland and Queenstown regularly drop guests in for long lunches and most famously Rick Stein visited and declared Fleur's one of his top 10 eateries on the planet.

The self-effacing Sullivan has received a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to the food industry.

She says, "I'm not sure what the big deal is. The recipe is really simple; we use fresh local produce and wine from the region."

It doesn't get much better than this - succulent seafood that virtually jumps from nearby boats into the chef's pans served on a table over looking the bay.

It is tempting to linger but we have a date on the other side of the "Pig Route" at the Ancient Briton Hotel in Naseby.

There in the frosty high country we will seek an elusive local delicacy called "Hogget Backstrap".

But then that's another story.

Park up

• Oamaru:
• Hampden:
• Naseby:
• Moeraki:

• Fleur's Place:
• Donna Demente:
• Michael O' Brien:
• Steampunk HQ:
• Oasis Gallery:
• Oamaru Farmers Market:
• Deans Bush Market:
• St Andrews Masonic Hotel:

• Alps2Ocean Cycleway:
Jason Burgess and Grant Allen travelled with the kind assistance of Maui/THL.