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We stayed with friends our on the beach on the weekend, and held one of our regular degustation meals, torturing or boring friends on social media with photos of the food and wine. It is our second this year, but it is 2020, so we figured we deserved an extra one this year! We tried to do more of an international theme this time, with British cheese, Thai soup, Sicilian cheesecake, and French, US, and Australian wines complementing the NZ sauvignon blanc and my homemade lockdown limoncello. A few days earlier I appealed to my US friends – what was an American savoury dish I could do as an entrée*/starter course to accompany a Californian chardonnay my friend had. The responses were fascinating – and thanks to those reading this who appealed – because defining what was “American” food didn’t seem to be clear. Of course, it would be the same here or also in Australia, because so much of our cuisine is borrowed from other cultures. Even in the UK, a national dish is Chicken Tikka Masala! So while the various seafood or other suggestions all sounded delicious, they didn’t sound particularly “American” to me. With the exception of grits, fried green tomatoes, or Maryland crab cakes, all of which I hope to try one day. I decided in the end to do a play on pumpkin pie, and made a savoury butternut pumpkin tart – much to the confusion of some who thought I was matching a sweet pumpkin pie with a chardonnay. After settling the cultural misunderstanding, we agreed that that sounded gross! The meal (with all seven courses) was delicious, we had used seasonal produce from their garden (notably, the last of their asparagus, and plentiful fresh raspberries), we had both tried some new recipes (mostly do-ahead, which was good considering that our recipe-reading skills deteriorated as the night went on), and we got to watch the rugby** during the cheese course!

* in the correct (!), “before” meaning of the word entrée.
** NZ won, for the record.

Overnight and the next morning, there was a major downpour, and we awoke to find the stream in the bottom of their garden had broken its banks, and was swamping some of their fruit trees, and even the asparagus bed was at risk. Oh no! Fortunately the rain stopped and the flooding subsided, so we set off home, only to find that we were stuck in traffic due to a road closure for further flooding. On the news last night, our eagle-eyed friends noticed footage including our car navigating a flooded section of the road just after it had been opened. Our five seconds of fame?

I’ve just finished watching the latest series of The Crown. It’s all feeling a bit too current, and the historical inaccuracies – presumably deliberate – are irritating if you remember the actual events. Margaret Thatcher’s son did not go missing at the same time as she went to war with Argentina – these events happened months apart. I remember discussing the war with Argentina with my flatmates at university. New Zealand has a long tradition of following Britain into war – one Prime Minister famously  said “where Britain goes, we go,” – and so my male flatmates were talking about whether they would be keen to sign up or not if it became necessary. NZers are miffed at another misrepresentation. When Diana and Charles visited Australia and New Zealand, they brought William. There was an official photoshoot of them with William at Government House in Auckland, on a lovely green lawn, with an iconic kiwi toy, the Buzzy Bee. In the series, the scene is hideously transplanted to Australia, on what looks like a patch of dust and dirt. It makes no difference to the story, but … it was annoying. There are many other examples too. We’re used to seeing history fictionalised in film and TV, too often to boost the reputation of the country funding the movie or film. A more recent example, Argo, the Oscar-winning movie of 2012, mentions that the British and Kiwis wouldn’t help, which was untrue. Diplomats I met just a few years later actually drove the Americans to the airport when they were making their escape. I understand using artistic license, but if a film-maker is presenting something as a factual account, I wish they weren’t so casual with the truth. Also, I figured out that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s was about the same age I am now, but Gillian Anderson makes her seem about 75! So I have to say that I’m now not convinced that I will want to watch any future seasons of The Crown. Even if it had been historically accurate, the dialogue (which is really the whole thing) just seems invented, and very manipulative.

I heard an interview with a Kiwi singer who had been living in Los Angeles, and has recently moved back to New Zealand. When asked if she was enjoying being “back to normal” here in NZ, she responded that it had actually been very scary for her. She had spent months seeing other people as a threat, and so the proximity of unmasked NZers at bars and restaurants was quite unnerving, and took her a long time before she could relax. It makes me wonder how we will all adapt in the future. I imagine travelling in Europe or the US or India, for example, and even if or when we have an effective vaccine, I think it will take a long time before I feel safe enough to get on a plane to those destinations. Not too long though, I hope.

On the bright side, 2020 hasn’t been all bad. NZ had a calm and decent national election in October, there is hope in the US for the coming years, my SIL has gone into remission from the cancer she was diagnosed with last year (and was able to tell FIL before he died), and in the US, a second friend who went through a very difficult radiation treatment during lockdown has also been declared to be in remission. That was all good news, and gives me hope for more in 2021. I just hope I haven’t spoken too soon!

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Kauri are native New Zealand trees that are the giants of our forests. They can grow to 50 metres tall, with a girth of 16 metres. In Northland there is a kauri known as Tane Mahuta, or God of the Forest, which we visited the visited the region. Its age is unknown, but it is estimated to be 1250-2500 years old. Due to a disease known as Kauri Dieback, Tane Mahuta and others in the forests are threatened with extinction, and many areas are closed to visitors, as the spores spread on shoes.

They were already too rare. Prized for their timber, by 1900 less than 10% of original kauri remained.

Knowing this, I didn’t expect to see kauri on our trip north this month. But at the sculpture trail, as I mentioned on Monday, there was a young kauri forest. I delighted in being able to walk among these trees (albeit on a raised footpath, with quarantine measures – shoe scrubs etc at the entrance and exit), and hope that they survive so that other New Zealanders can view the exact same trees I saw, hundreds – maybe thousands – of years into the future.

Another in the Thursday Tree Love series – find all the other bloggers doing it here.

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A road trip is, for a photographer, a series of missed opportunities. More so, when it is raining, which was the case as we headed north a few weeks ago. The rain and the mist created an ethereal atmosphere, the trees and the hills fading into layers of grey. I love that look – I always have. I was dying to catch it with my camera, but it was teeming, and so I wasn’t getting out of the car as my camera isn’t weather-proofed. Nor, to that matter, was I. So we drove up the coast and then headed into the hills in the centre of the island, just enjoying the scenery, taking artistic shots in my head. At least that way I couldn’t blame my camera or my poor photography skills for not being able to capture the beauty of what we were passing.

We stopped overnight in Taupo, which is only ever an overnight stop for us, and for so many domestic and international tourists. We secured our lake-front motel unit just as it started to rain again, meaning that the walk I wanted to take after five hours in the car didn’t eventuate. We sat inside and watched the black swans and ducks glide around on the calm water aas the rain fell steadily. One day, we’ll stay for longer, go for some walks in the nearby bush, check out the geothermal sights of mudpools and geysers (as it has been 30+ years since we have done that), and maybe finally get that walk around the lake.

After a few more hours drive the next morning, we arrived in Auckland. It’s been a long time since I have driven into the city there – usually we arrive by plane for business or a quick weekend away – and so the experience of the dense but fast traffic on the motorway unnerved me! I felt like the country bumpkin come to town, despite the fact that we’ve driven in and around much larger cities overseas. But since my rainy-day-but-very-gentle accident last year on our local motorway, I’ve been a much more nervous passenger – to my husband’s frustration. We both arrived at our central city hotel with some relief!

We were in Auckland both because it was a) on the way, and b) to indulge two passions, namely the Husband’s love of casinos (I am so grateful we don’t have one in Wellington!), and good food. So my husband headed off to the casino for an hour or so in the afternoons and later at night, when I had the chance to curl up for a nap, or read my book. During the day we walked through gardens, went to the museum, indulged in some food nostalgia with Thai food at lunch (lunchtime Thai food is very different – or should be – from dinner-style Thai food), and decided not to do any shopping!

After a very good meal and pampering experience at Sidart, NZ’s Restaurant of the Year last year, we drove further north. Apart from my sister’s wedding 11 years ago, I’ve only been north of Auckland once before. (I’ve been to Paris more often, which is shocking to me as I write this!) When we there for the wedding, I saw an area with vineyards and native bush and boats and coves and artists and potters, and vowed to return to spend more time there sometime in the future. We had planned to make the trip this time last year, but father-in-law care issues put paid to that, as did COVID in March. So it was good to finally get there, and prepare to relax and explore.

And that’s exactly what we did, as I anticipated here. We relaxed, and pottered around the region. It’s only an hour or so from Auckland, linked by one of NZ’s few toll roads (the fee is a whopping $2.40!), and I’ve heard of so many of the beach communities, which are the weekend playground of Aucklanders. But during the week in the middle of the school term and university exams it was perfectly empty, with just a few travellers doing what we have been told to do – go out and see New Zealand, and try something new. It is spring, and so the weather was warm, and typically we could have fine weather then torrential rain followed by sunshine again within a few hours. That at least meant that we could take things easy with a long lunch or coffee or nap on the couch as the rain came down, before heading out again.

One of the favourite things we did was visit a winery with a celebrated sculpture trail. “It’ll take you about an hour,” they said at the ticket desk, but that didn’t make allowances for a camera happy couple who enjoyed the art and the natural surroundings and wandered slowly. The art was interesting; amusing sometimes, weird others, breathtaking, and puzzling, and exactly what art should be. The natural backdrops were perfect, and the pathway led us through the native bush. This sculpture in the midst of the bush refers to the ghosts of kauri trees, so many of which were felled for their timber before restrictions were put in place. The sadness at the thought of the lost kauri (and those which are currently under threat by a spreading fungus) led to joy as the path wound up into a young(ish) kauri* forest. As we walked to the top of the path, we walked through gates with bells, reminiscent of the torii gates in Japanese temples, yet in a uniquely NZ environment.

The trail begins and ends at the Brick Bay winery restaurant, the Glasshouse. so of course we stayed for lunch, blissfully happy at the warm day, the sights we had seen, the water lilies and the pond and sculpture in front of us, and the particularly nice pinot gris I enjoyed. In fact, the food was just as good as everything else, and we booked to return a day later, when we knew the weather was not likely to be conducive to anything except a long lunch and wine-tasting!

We visited many of the seaside settlements, some more appealing than others. One was clearly the base for the rich and famous from Auckland, although I don’t really understand why you would want to recreate an upper class suburbia at the beach. But elsewhere there were endless inlets and coves, and uncluttered hills with winding roads and fabulous views, which is where I would built my holiday home if I had the money.

The famed local market was a little (or a lot) disappointing, perhaps partly because a) I found some gorgeous hand-made jewellery and didn’t buy any, and b) it was so much smaller than I had expected. I’d anticipated hours of happy wandering and tasting amongst artisans and fresh produce and food, and it didn’t deliver. Still, it was fun it itself, and the crepes we had for breakfast there were delicious! And a visit later to a local handmade pottery place saw the acquisition of a lovely large platter that – surprise of surprises – we both really liked.

The only other disappointment was discovering “Charlie’s Gelato” (albeit without the required apostrophe in their roadsign, which almost stopped me trying it but not quite!) on our last day there. It was only a few minutes from where we were staying, and was so good!  The summery temperatures were perfect for gelato, and it would have been hard to resist if we’d gone earlier in our stay. (As you might know if you followed my Lemons to Limoncello three months in Italy, I adore gelato, and ice-cream generally). Maybe that’s a good thing!

An outing at a regional park brought us unexpected delights too. We’d hoped to walk some of the seafront trails, but again the rain arrived, so we only had fleeting stops at coves in between the rain showers. But the sheer number of pukeko, a native swamp hen, roaming free was surprising, and so many of them had young chicks, all fluffy and black and awkward and cute. We couldn’t stop smiling at them.

We called in at my sister’s place in Tauranga over the weekend to see them, catch up with almost-teenage Charlie (!) and watch her volleyball game, see their new kitchen (which still needed a few finishing touches, including plumbing!), have a good catch-up, enjoy the beauty of their region, and of course to pick up some avocados from their orchard.

There was one more stop before we arrived home, but it was very special, and so I’ll write about that another time. The important thing is that we got home in time for my husband to go to golf, and for me to open a bottle of chardonnay in blissful solitude.

* I’ll write more about kauri on a Thursday Tree blogging day – they deserve more than a passing reference.

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