As soon as my lips close around a portion of tender duck confit leg smeared in a golden kūmara puree, I let out a groan of culinary pleasure with my mouth full.
"Oh my gosh!" It is hardly an exclamation suited to the sophistication of my dinner scene; I have a private dining experience for one in the Library of Otahuna Lodge in rural Canterbury, surrounded by hundreds of books sitting on hand-carved bookshelves. The fire roars next to me, framed by two leather armchairs, and the soft guitar notes of Martin Winch plucking his way through Fields of Gold deepens the pensive tone of my evening.
I take another bite, this one adding a porcini mushroom to a slice of succulent duck breast, mopping up a little red wine jus. An umami explosion follows and I know I'll be raving about this very dish after my stay. I follow with a swirl of the Martinborough pinot noir that hostess Lucy has paired with my main course, putting my cutlery down between every bite, in order to savour each mouthful.
Food is an integral experience at the Tai Tapu luxury lodge. Situated on 30 acres of land, the gardens supply the house with more than 120 different types of fruit, vegetables, nuts and mushrooms. For 17 years, executive chef Jimmy McIntyre has been preparing meals here, tailoring the menu for guests each day to make the most of what is growing in their gardens. Each evening begins with canapes and bubbly, followed by a carefully planned four-course menu with a bottle of wine. Each dish is presented by the chef, who explains each component and is there to answer any questions about the food.
The previous night I'd dined in the turret for an equally exceptional meal, joined by my sister who had taken time away from her toddler in a well deserved night of luxury. It took both of us all of about 30 seconds after arriving at the grand estate to wish we were moving in permanently to recreate our own Downton Abbey experience.
The house was built in 1895. It was originally the home of politician and philanthropist Sir Heaten Rhodes for a little over 60 years until his death in 1956. Since then it's been through several hands - at one stage it was a Catholic commune - and through some much-needed repairs.
The current owners, American couple Hall Cannon and Miles Refo, bought the lodge in 2006 and have spent the last 14 years restoring and preserving its legacy. Today, it's a seven-suite luxury retreat, the largest private historic residence in New Zealand, and listed as a Category 1 historic building.
On arrival, Hall is waiting on the steps of the mansion ready to greet us and give the grand tour. His warm, friendly accent is a welcoming introduction as he points out details such as the original Japanese gold-leaf wallpaper in the ornate dining room, the dramatic carved kauri staircase and his impressive private art collection that he curated for the lodge. He advises that if either of us would like to have any of the 15 working wood-burning fireplaces lit, we just have to ask.
Rosemary and I settle into our suites - I in the Verandah Suite, named after the nine-metre balcony sweeping across the front, overlooking the expansive gardens and the lodge's famous daffodil fields, home to more than a million daffodil bulbs. I'm in awe not only at the number of armchairs that can fit into one bedroom suite, but also at the size of the bathroom with a large bath in the centre, sitting in front of one of the 15 fireplaces in the lodge and another armchair in the corner.
I imagine staying here in the middle of winter, soaking in the warm water in front of the fire, a glass of red wine in hand, with a soft robe hanging up on the wall for post-bathing comfort. An iPod sits on a dock on the bedside table with a playlist of light jazz and easy listening tunes including classics such as Danny Boy.
Rosemary is across the hallway in the Clark Suite, slightly smaller but still every bit as impressive, with dusky blue tones and stained-glass windows, and a spa tub in the bathroom. In the hallway, a shoe-shining box sits on a table between two large chairs, and a large unit is stocked with multiple teas, coffee, chilled beverages, and a supply of snacks we can help ourselves to at any time. The next morning, four freshly baked scones appear underneath a glass dome.
There are a range of experiences and facilities offered at Otahuna, including massage in the woodland studio, a swimming pool, spa and petanque area, walking and biking excursions, a garden tour, trips further afield such as a drive to Akaroa on Banks Peninsula, golf, horse riding, or a helicopter tour over Canterbury or Mt Cook.
But one that showcases the heart of Otahuna is a cooking class with Jimmy. Guests who participate in the demonstration can venture into the gardens to help pick some of the produce to be used, all part of the "potager to plate" culinary experience at the lodge.
While we sip on a glass of bubbles, Jimmy explains the key ingredients and techniques required for each dish. We make a homemade chilli sauce for a grilled scallop, globe artichokes braised in herb oil, and beef cheek tortellini, all of which we will consume as part of our canapes and main course.
As the chilli sauce heats over the stove, the intoxicating fragrance of freshly torn kaffir lime leaves wafts through the kitchen. Bright red chillies and handfuls of coriander are pops of colour in the pot, before darkening as they caramelise. We try our hand at pasta making and Jimmy teaches us how to fold the perfect tortellino. The best part, of course, is when we're lead to the drawing room, seated in front of the fire with a top up of bubbles, and Jimmy presents each canape, exquisitely presented and a pleasure on the taste buds.
A recent offering as a result of the impacts on tourism from Covid-19 is the chance to enjoy an evening meal at Otahuna, without an overnight stay. Previously, only staying guests have been allowed on the property.
Our four-course dinner follows the canapes in the turret, and once the last drop of wine is finished in front of the fire, we head upstairs for a cuppa.
The turndown service at Otahuna includes being brought a carafe of chilled water, a fluffy sheepskin rug at my bedside, a treats jar consisting of three pieces of rich, fudgy chocolate brownie which gets restocked daily, and a "bedtime story" - a piece of paper printed with a different story each night about the history of the house, further helping bring the estate to life.
In the morning, chef Nicky brings us a freshly baked scone to our rooms and hostess Eli makes us a flat white, which we enjoy on my balcony. Breakfast is a much more casual affair downstairs than the evening meals but just as extensive, starting with freshly squeezed carrot, ginger and orange juice, fruit, yoghurt and berry compote, homemade muesli, preserves and a selection of breads - and that's all before the cooked breakfast. There is no menu but the morning chef will prepare anything you like, from simple eggs on toast to cheesy omelettes bursting with whatever ingredients you choose, to eggs Benedict with smoked salmon or bacon.
A convenient segue is that Otahuna has four pigs. Jimmy even cures his own meats, including prosciutto. We get to see the pig pen during a tour of the gardens with Miles.
The surrounding grounds have been recognised by the New Zealand Gardens Trust as "A Garden of National Significance".
It was completely overgrown when Miles and Hall took possession of the property, but to see the beautifully manicured low box hedges and pathways of the windmill-shaped Dutch Garden now, reveals just how much work they have poured into restoring the property, with the help of Head Gardener Steve Marcham.
We wander through the pear and apple trees, through the potager garden, underneath grape and kiwifruit vines, past the cutting garden, the old horse stables, into the mushroom house and the greenhouse growing melons and limes. And that's not even exploring the rhododendron woodlands, glades, the nut orchard and the lake and frog pond.
In the afternoon, I head to the woodland massage studio, a simple warm little wooden enclave overlooking nothing but trees and a view out to the Port Hills. The massage therapist, Maria, gives me a full body massage in what is the closest thing to magic that I have ever experienced. Plagued with an ongoing hip injury, the days following my massage are the most pain free I've been in months.
When it comes to the final farewell, my bags are taken downstairs and loaded into my car, which has been brought round in front of the house. I have to force myself down the stairs, not wanting to leave this extravagant enclave. The staff stand on the steps of the property, waving goodbye until I'm out of sight, showcasing how Otahuna encompasses elegance, finery, sophistication and kindness from start to the very end of each stay.
CHECKLIST: OTAHUNA LODGE
Otahuna Lodge is a 30-minute drive from Christchurch International Airport. Rates start from $1725pp, including pre-dinner drinks with canapes, four-course set dinner with one bottle of wine for two people and cooked breakfast. www.otahuna.co.nz
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