Cut­ting a dash

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Briar Jensen

IT’S hard to imag­ine culi­nary de­lights at New Zealand’s Wood­end Beach, with its sleepy 1950s hol­i­day feel. Thirty km north of Christchurch, Wood­end Beach, with its tow­er­ing pine trees and dra­matic shore­line, is at the end of a coun­try lane. There’s a car­a­van park on the left, a re­serve on the right and an old kiosk where I find the Tep­pa­nyaki Queens, sis­ters Cat Scott-He­witt and Anna Scott, who de­scended like a whirl­wind on Wood­end Beach, much to the be­muse­ment of hol­i­day­mak­ers.

I’m here with friends for one of the sis­ters’ reg­u­lar tep­pa­nyaki classes. While we’re rugged up in win­ter wool­lies, Cat and Anna wel­come us to their cheery pur­ple and turquoise brunch eatery, Wild Earth, sport­ing skimpy strap­less tops.

‘‘ Tep­pa­nyaki is all about tech­nique and prepa­ra­tion,’’ Cat tells us over the sound of clashing steel as she sharp­ens a wicked­look­ing knife whipped from a hol­ster on her turquoise-stud­ded belt. Cat trained in Ja­pan when she was 18 and is one of very few fe­male tep­pa­nyaki chefs.

We watch as she slices sashimi from a large, fresh Akaroa salmon. ‘‘ It’s about an­gu­la­tion and min­i­mal han­dling,’’ she says, lay­ing per­fectly even slices on a plate be­fore turn­ing some into rosettes. We could try this our­selves, but we’re thaw­ing our hands with warm bowls of herbal tea.

While pre­par­ing prawns, scal­lops, cala­mari and veni­son, Cat tells us how Wild Earth evolved from their cater­ing busi­ness, which of­fers gluten and dairy-free food, with fire­poi per­for­mances by Anna.

Out­side at the bar­be­cues, the morn­ing sun gives a hon­eyed glow to the huge At­lantic pine ta­bles fash­ioned by the sis­ters. Flames leap from the 350C hot­plates (hence their skimpy tops). When I ask, why Wood­end Beach, Anna tells me ev­ery­thing is just up the road: their fam­i­lies, or­ganic veg­eta­bles, freerange eggs.

Prox­im­ity to fresh in­gre­di­ents is also crit­i­cal for Dianna Hawkins of Karikaas Nat­u­ral Dairy Prod­ucts at nearby Loburn. Be­ing close to her milk sup­ply, Hawkins says, is es­sen­tial to the pro­duc­tion of her award-win­ning cheeses. The fresher the milk, the bet­ter the cheese.

Karikaas was es­tab­lished by a cou­ple from The Nether­lands who com­bined Can­ter­bury dairy pro­duce with tra­di­tional Euro­pean tech­niques to cre­ate preser­va­tive-free cheeses. Hawkins, a food tech­nol­o­gist, bought the busi­ness in 2004.

She leads us into the rind room where wooden shelves hold wheels of cheese in dif­fer­ing shades of yel­low. The colour strength­ens over time and the flora of a store­room con­trib­utes flavour. Apart from fetta, the cheeses are Dutch styles; the gouda and ley­den sold as young, ma­ture, aged or vin­tage. Slic­ing a wheel with wire (knives cause cheese to frac­ture), Hawkins tells us of the three gold medals she won at the re­cent New Zealand Cheese Awards.

As I com­pare the creamy taste of a two-month-old gouda with a slice of vin­tage at least 15 months old, Hawkins ex­plains that her vin­tage cheeses are made us­ing spring milk, which has just the right bal­ance of min­er­als, pro­teins and fat for per­fect age­ing. I also learn that hard cheeses should never be served straight from the fridge, but at room tem­per­a­ture, and that her maas­dam, a ho­ley cheese, tastes de­li­cious with ba­nanas.

Lunch­ing next day, cheese cap­tures our at­ten­tion again; this time it’s cau­li­flower cheese at the Wi­neshed Vine­yard Restau­rant in Tai Tapu, 20 min­utes from Christchurch en route to Akaroa.

Look­ing as if it has been plucked straight out of Brit­tany, the French pro­vin­cial-style restau­rant fea­tures a lime­stone court­yard, vine-cov­ered per­go­las and free-range pea­cocks and chooks. Beds of fra­grant laven­der sur­round weath­ered out­door ta­bles; rusty tools are fash­ioned into quirky sculp­tures and lo­cal pro­duce is dis­played for sale.

Eat­ing inside on this blus­tery day, we’ve or­dered a large side dish of cau­li­flower cheese to ac­com­pany our mains, and we’re on our third help­ing. How has the chef lifted a hum­ble dish to such culi­nary heights? Use of re­ally good cheeses is the an­swer.

Ex­ec­u­tive chef Julie Sokol­sky, puts three cheeses in her bechamel sauce, along with cream, onions, leeks, cloves and nut­meg, all topped with Ja­panese panko bread­crumbs.

Sokol­sky’s pre­vi­ous job was cor­don bleu di­rec­tor at the Cal­i­for­nia School of Culi­nary Arts in Pasadena. So what’s she do­ing in Tai Tapu? It turns out her mother, mar­ried to a Kiwi, bought the restau­rant in 2002; Sokol­sky flew out to of­fer ad­vice and fell in love with the place. She has a Kiwi man now, too, and will soon in­tro­duce cook­ing classes. It looks as if she’s here to stay. Briar Jensen was a guest of Christchurch & Can­ter­bury Tourism. www.tep­pa­nyak­

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