Archive for October, 2015

It’s a long weekend in New Zealand this weekend, as today is Labour Day, and we’ve had a reasonably lazy time of it, enjoying a dinner with a friend on her birthday on Saturday, but we have suffered too for getting up way too early (4 and 5 am respectively) on both Sunday and Monday to watch World Cup rugby games (ie I almost forgot it was a #MicroblogMonday). Unlike the rest of Wellington that disappeared this weekend, we beat the rush and escaped last weekend, to Napier and the Hawke’s Bay, where we stayed in Ahuriri, an area that was lifted in the 1931 earthquake that the town, in a hotel with views of cliffs across the Bay, the Pacific Ocean, wharves, containers and cruise ships, tugs and fishing boats, and locals and tourists in kayaks and yachts.

Apart from bookings at a couple of highly recommended restaurants (one’s first class reputation was entirely justified and a highlight of the weekend, one was interesting but a bit disappointing), our weekend was unplanned. A small but stunning installation at the new art gallery and museum, focusing on the state of immigrant, itinerant workers in the region’s vineyards and fruit orchards, was a highlight, as was the very small basement exhibition on the earthquake, which featured the Morse Code transmissions from the navy ship – HMS Veronica – that was in dock at the time of the earthquake, and which led the first rescue attempts. A walk through the blossom and flower-filled streets afterwards had me looking up at the fabulous art deco buildings built as a result of the earthquake, now a tourist attraction in themselves.

The major reason for visiting the region – other than warm weather and a break away – is wine, and vines abound, along the coast where we enjoyed dinner, and along the Gimblett Gravels area that produces such fabulous Bordeaux-style blends, and more recently wonderful syrah that are fast disappearing out of our price reach, along with excellent chardonnay, tropical sauvignon blanc, riesling and more. Wine-tastings were, of course, compulsory, but these days if we are driving they have to be limited, so we only visited a few (though still managed to fill the boot of the car with some old favourites, and – always a treat – some new discoveries). A local farmer’s market on Sunday morning saw us tasting and buying treats to take home, from delicious macarons – consumed that night – made by the dejected but resilient Frenchman (the All Blacks had demolished his side earlier that morning in the World Cup quarter-final, but he was already joking that he had a black jersey ready for next weekend), to passionfruit and lime curd, Christmas and toffee and ginger puddings, olive oil, and plum sauce.



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Let’s take another drive together, this time to the north, up the valley, over the Rimutaka range and down through mile after mile of long flat fields of green, the dairy farms of the south replaced with New Zealand’s more traditional (and famous) sheep. We past the Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre – the only place I’ve seen a rare takahe – but don’t stop in, and neither do we detour into the Tui Brewery, unmistakable as it towers over the tiny hamlet of Mangatainoka, as we still have two hours to go, through the Viking centre of New Zealand at Norsewood and Dannevirke and beyond.

As the predicted winds rise, the windmills along the skyline to the north come into view, as my electrical engineer husband once again tells me about the size of the windmills, the span of their wings. When in Europe, I enjoy the sight of the modern windmills, ubiquitous from the Sierra Nevadas in the south of Spain, through to the plains of Hungary in the east, as they are elegant structures, all white and smooth and shapely. But in New Zealand, on the landscape I love and know so well, they do cast a jarring note, even though I still appreciate their clean lines and, of course, the equally clean power they generate.

As they fall behind us, the clouds clear, the sun comes out, and the temperature rises, and we take a shortcut, driving through pristine farmland with undulating hills, the grass so very green here in early spring, the sheep so white, the lambs so cute, the willows lining the meandering rivers a lovely, joyful, promising green, waving happily in the wind. If a set designer was producing a blissful rural landscape (think Hobbiton), then of course they’d come up with this. Finally we drop into the Bay, as it is known, and drive through hectare after hectare of grape vines – promising us a happy weekend – before we arrive at our hotel on the beach.




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For five or six blissful months, I have (mostly) felt safe from the sun. In the winter, I am covered up, out of the sun. But when I’m in it, I’m relaxed. This is not the case the rest of the year. Last Sunday, a lovely day, we considered walking over to our favourite brunch place. I sighed. It is October, spring is in full force, and I knew that if I was going to spend an hour or more outside in the mid-day sun, I would need to cover up, and use suntan lotion. We took the car.

New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. We (mostly) have temperate climates (if you can call Australia’s regular 40 degree plus temperatures temperate), and very active populations that spend a lot of time outdoors. The man-made ozone hole over Antarctica extends over New Zealand and parts of Australia. It is beginning to heal, but will not be healed until 2070. In the meantime, exposure to the sun in New Zealand brings real risks – risks that you do not see in Europe. Peak UV intensities in New Zealand are about 40% greater than at comparable latitudes in Europe. I shudder when I see Europeans baking in the sun in the northern hemisphere, smeared with oil, something that went out of vogue in New Zealand by the 1980s. Fair-skinned northern Europeans (and their descendants who have spread throughout the world) are at risk everywhere. Sunbathing and a tan – any tan – is a recipe for wrinkles and leathery skin, for freckles and moles, for skin cancer and death. I’m not being melodramatic. A friend of my husband’s, about our age, died of melanoma two years ago.

My father too died of metastasized non-melanoma skin cancer. I have his pale Irish skin and green eyes. I burned badly as a child and teenager when we didn’t really know any better, but I’m very cautious of the sun now. Sunscreen is essential – carried with me during summer, always in the car (I love the high SPF Neutrogena spray cans that go on and stay on dry), and I won’t buy a moisturiser or makeup that doesn’t have SPF protection. Hats too are important. If we’re going to be out for a long time, we might wear long sleeves, and a collar to protect the hard-to-cover back of our necks. Sitting outside for lunch is one of the joys of spring and summer, but I need shade. Huge umbrellas at a café table, or picnics under a tree, are perfect.

I get annual skin checks. Earlier this year my GP removed two moles, just to be careful. I have tried Mole Mapping, but frankly, I have so many moles and freckles, it seems like an impossible task. I try not to be too paranoid, but being conscious of the risk makes me alert and cautious. I hope that’s a sensible balance. Certainly, getting our skin checked regularly is the bare minimum we should do. Today’s National Skin Check Day campaign has reminded me it is time for my annual check.

Spring and summer. They bring light and warmth and hope. But they bring danger too. Beware!

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  1. It’s windy, really windy, spring equinox windy, windy even for Wellington.
  2. Out of the wind, there is real heat in the sun, even when the temperatures are still cold outside.
  3. Everywhere I look, I see splashes of yellow from beautiful kowhai trees.
  4. There is asparagus in my fridge – and on the menu of my favourite brunch place – and basil in a pot on my kitchen benchtop.
  5. It’s birthday season, and my little sister turned … well, I’m not going to tell you, because I think both of us are still coming to terms with the number.
  6. Cafes leave their doors open, thinking summer is here, on days when the sun is shining but it is still only 13 degrees outside, and shivering teenage girls are dressed in shorts or spaghetti strap T-shirts, when IT IS STILL ONLY 13 DEGREES OUTSIDE!
  7. Thursday night was my first pasta and chardonnay night in six months – though I was a rebel, and had pasta and pinot gris, just for a change!
  8. Cruise ships have returned – the first one over a week ago when it was cold, cloudy, windy, and quite miserable, and another today, when the harbour city is sunny, warmer, and much more welcoming.

 kowhai spring

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After our three-month Lemons to Limoncello sojourn in Italy, I wrote that the dish I most wanted to recreate when I got home was the Pumpkin Gnocchi from Trattoria alla Cerva in Vittorio Veneto.

Maybe part of the reason I loved this dish so much was that we ate it in an amazing location (see below), sitting outside in the Piazza Flaminio, in our favourite trattoria, where the owner would come around to his guests, and sit down at your table, and explain the menu – but only if it had changed since the last time we had visited.

Piazza Flaminio - The view from our dinner table

The view from our dinner table

Our last evening in Vittorio Veneto, temperatures had just started to dip, autumn was in the air, and pumpkin was newly on the menu. Foolishly, I suggested to my husband that we share it as a primo piatto (first course), a suggestion I regretted the moment I tasted the gnocchi. A luscious pumpkin flavour, with something else bringing a richness and strength of flavour – which I know now, after testing a few different pumpkin gnocchi recipes, was parmesan cheese – and dressed either with a virgin olive oil or butter (I cannot remember), and a light dusting of finely grated parmesan.

I tested a new recipe recently – here’s the link (as requested by Lemons to Limoncello readers two years ago) – on some friends who were unwitting guinea pigs, and after one bite, knew I’d found something close to the Trattoria alla Cerva’s gnocchi. The base is simply roast pumpkin and parmesan (the more finely grated it is the better), with a tiny bit of egg and flour to bind it together, and it was delicious tossed with the burnt butter and sage sauce. I roasted too much pumpkin, so have several more servings frozen, ready for when I have an urgent need to be deliciously transported back to a northern Italian medieval piazza again.

My pumpkin gnocchi

My pumpkin gnocchi

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