Good food makes for slow travel, writes Anna King Shahab - as she treads the 'Way of the gourmet'
The route from Dunedin to Ōamaru is a pleasant 90-minute drive if you don't stop off – but if you have the luxury of time, there are plenty of delicious things to warrant putting the brakes to work a bit.
Coffee is something Ōtepoti Dunedin does extremely well so we're not going to miss getting a morning fix before we set off. We head to the Warehouse Precinct for a quick eyeful of some of the city's famous street art, and grab takeaway coffees at Precinct. Then, because it's just down the road, it'd be rude not to call into The Tart Tin for something sweet to-go: the salted caramel eclairs do the trick.
Blueskin Bay just north of Dunedin boasts estuarine scenery galore, and if you time it right, you can fill your basket with various goodies. Clams are farmed commercially there, but can also be gathered at low tide. Harvey Street Merchant in Waitati stocks a wide range of local artisan foods, fresh fruit and veges, breads and pastries. If it's a weekend, the taproom at Arc Brewing Co. on State Highway 1 opens at midday – order a tasting paddle of their small-batch brews to help you choose what to fill a growler or two with. Arc is a handy landmark just near the turn-off we make to take the coastal route via Karitāne.
One of the trip highlights we were most looking forward to was lunch booked at Fleur's Place, Fleur Sullivan's world-famous restaurant, perched on a historic whaling station and serving fish from the Moeraki Bay boats.
We brushed past big bushes of fennel as we walked through the door to be greeted by Fleur, in black jeans, an old black woollen jersey and her shock of white hair, who was waiting tables with plenty of chat in between.
Our table was soon piled high with fresh-baked bread, smoked eel pate, clams and scallops in a rich sauce of mushroom, bacon, and Pernod, a tomato-spiked twist on chowder, and plenty of locally caught fresh fish – gurnard, tarakihi, blue cod, and monkfish. That fennel perfuming the garden around the building was put to good use in the hollandaise embracing our fish fillets – which had been lightly dusted in flour, and cooked beautifully in the frypan.
Plenty to chew in Ōamaru
By chance, our brief time in Ōamaru coincides with the annual Victorian fete. Harbour St is bustling with actual bustles and lots of beards. I pop into Craftwork Brewery – punters clad in their Victorian finery are packed like sardines, so I choose a quick grab of a bottle of their Saison Citron from the chiller to take home.
Owners and brewers Michael O'Brien and Lee-Ann Scotti (Victorian dress is their every day – not just for fete) were born to craft. Prior to moving into brewing, David was the town's celebrated bookbinder. At Craftwork, they brew small batches focusing on Belgian styles – farmhouse and specialist ales, and barrel-aged sours. Across the road, there's just a handful of flavours on offer at Deja Moo – perfect for indecisive me, and my pick of licorice is the perfect late-afternoon refresher.
The day's heat has just started to temper as we arrive at Riverstone Kitchen for dinner. There's a big group of us and waitstaff cleverly suggest we order aperitifs and wander round the garden as a good way to relax into things (my Campari and blood orange perfectly complements the setting sun).
Dot Smith's home-and-castle across the moat is a story for another time, but we do manage a chat with Dot herself, as she throws food to the peacocks and peahens after completing her day's work in the garden. The impressive collection of raised beds here, tended by Dot and son and head chef Bevan Smith is verdant with kale, lettuces, fennel, artichokes, and strawberries all ripe for picking, bushes of gooseberries and stonefruit gearing up, and so much more.
In the kitchen, Bevan lets the garden goods talk the loudest on his menu, which changes every few weeks according to what's being harvested. Asparagus is still in its prime when we visit so we gorge on big plates of it topped with a poached egg, which, pierced, gives the tender spears a golden robe.
Swordfish, Havoc pork, Okaahu lamb, jersey bennes – all presented relatively simply so as not to clutter the plate or palate. A few bottles of local vineyard Ostler's Caroline pinot noir are shared and we all agree this silky, mellow wine to be a superb ambassador for the burgeoning Waitaki winegrowing region.
There's barely room for dessert but when we see Bevan plating up scoops of icecream sorbet in a rainbow of hues, we're in, and somehow we manage blackcurrant souffle and deep-fried Spanish custard, too.
● Around here, I learned, you don't just buy strawberries, you buy Matsinger strawberries, or you PYO from their farm.
● Scotts Brewing Co on the Ōamaru waterfront is famous for good pizzas and, of course, the beer – these guys were the first to brew a gluten-free beer.
● If you're in the market for a high-end meal, Cucina in South Hill is the spot.
● Or, if you book several days ahead, you might secure a dinner-table spot at Pen-y-Bryn. The historic luxury lodge is a member of the Slow Food movement – co-owner and chef James Glucksman sources produce hyper-locally and presents a multi-course dinner with optional wine match
● Inland from Ōamaru, Waitaki is our newest wine region and ripe for exploring – book with Waitaki Wine Tours for an insider advantage
For more information, go to waitakinz.com