As readers of this blog will know, I’m somewhat obsessed with humanity’s relationship with grain. So it was a great pleasure to discover a single street (more or less) in the old Tyne-Harbour Street historic district of Oamaru, a town on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island that had not just an excellent bakery, but also a shop selling NZ whisky, and, just across the way, a craft brewery.
We had arrived in Oamaru on a wet and miserable Wednesday night. Our hosts at the excellent Oamaru Creek B&B warned us that it might be hard to find much open on a Wednesday, but had told us about the brewery, Scotts, which had a tasting bar (and, like so many names, seems to have lost its possessive apostrophe).
Soggy ghost town
Dashing under the Christmas decorations, which in the 12-ish C temperatures and rain felt very much like a familiar south of England take on seasonal festivities, over the railway line, which goes all the way from Picton in the north to Invercargill in the south but steadfastly refuses to run any environmentally pragmatic passenger services, then past the steampunk museum, with its steam engine lurching skyward, we went down Harbour Street, with its handsome 19th century whitestone warehouses – and found Scotts… just closed.
They gave us a few tips about where to find their wares, but the wine bar they mentioned was closed and the nearby Criterion Hotel only carried one, Nineteen 05, a kolsch – a lager-like ale style that, not being a lager drinker, I’m not a big fan of. Otherwise, the Criterion had an Emerson’s ‘Bookbinder’, but Emerson’s is one of NZ’s many breweries (Macs, Speight’s, Monteith’s) that’s been bought out by Lion – that is Kirin, that is Mitsubishi. So really not very NZ any more at all.
On this mission (and always) I’m much more keen to drink beer from independently NZ owned, smaller breweries. Like the decidedly rustic Brew Moon in Amberley, just north of Christchurch, which we visited while driving south.
We did however, have a decent dinner in a new, nominally Italian restaurant round the corner on Itchen Street. Oamaru is a place of streets named after British rivers, but this one was perfect for me as I grew up playing by, on or in the Itchen, in Hampshire.
The restaurant, Cucina, presented its menu in approximately Italian meal-structure terms (antipasti, primi, secondi, as well as pizza), but they didn’t have any Italian staff and much of the food was basically Kiwi. NZ seems to have confidence problems with its cuisine. Many places call themselves “French” or “Italian” but with a few tweaks, they could assert their food as proudly, distinctly Kiwi. Especially as NZ has such varied climate zones and is surrounded by relatively rich seas, so much good produce is available here.
Here comes the sun
The following morning, the sun, and the summer, revived itself somewhat, and we returned to Harbour Street. At number 4, there’s Harbour Street Bakery (site – may not be working), a small artisan bakery run by Dutch expat Ed Balsink.
Ed’s been in here around a decade, arriving at a point when bakers were among the skilled professions the NZ government was keen to encourage to immigrate. After a fairly frustrating sounding experience in a small town north of Auckland, he made his way south.
NZ, like the UK and US, is dominated by the industrialisation of the food chain, but people like Ed are exponents of and envoys for quality food made using traditional skills and no-nonsense ingredients. “Everything is available here,” Ed said. NZ grows a great selection of grains for flours (and brewing), and imports other stuff from Australia. He says his bosses up north just wouldn’t believe people would be interested in naturally fermented products, but that’s an argument his current success is disproving. Indeed, I’ve talked to other people who’ve faced similar prejudice and ignorance – like a north Devon publican who was told his clients only wanted industrial lager, but then they embraced his real ales, and his pub won awards.
Ed, who trained in a special Dutch school that focussed on baking, cheffing and waiting, and became a master baker, provides a great array of naturally leavened breads, breads made with fresh (aka cake, aka bakers’) yeast, in various European styles, as well as pastries and biscuits, including speculaas. This is a Dutch spiced almond biscuit, and Ed uses a 1742 recipe from Delft.
It contains cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and “a special mix”, and comes from that medieval tradition when such spices were worth a literal fortune. Indeed, Ed said the Netherlands had “the first stock exchange in the world because of the spices” and mariners returning from Indonesia would be searched much like contemporary diamond miners.
It was great chatting with Ed, and I’ve just very much enjoyed one of his almond tarts and some of his multiseed sourdough.
Southern hemisphere prohibition
Afterwards, we blundered into a whisky shop, New Zealand Whisky Company, down the street at number 14 in the 1882 Loan and Mercantile warehouse building, which also houses Housekeepers, a new café and design shop with some decent coffee and chocolate cake (“award-winning” apparently).Despite my love of beer and bread, I can’t really handle whisky, so am totally ignorant about it.
It’s an interesting place though – they have the last remaining stock, around 600 barrels, from the Willowbank Distilllery, in Dunedin, just down the coast from Oamaru. One of the world’s most southerly distilleries. It was bought out by the Canadian Seagrams in the 1980s, then later sold to Fosters (before that Austrailian brand itself became part of SABMiller). Fosters “mothballed the company in 2000, and sent the silent stills to Fiji to make rum!”
We learned a lot more about the history of boozing in this part of the world when we went back to Scotts – now open. Phil Scott, the director and head brewer, served us a taster of their three new beers. They have four currently (including a gluten-free beer), but are developing a new range, including a Vienna lager. Phil explained how they’d operated in Auckland for seven years but have moved back to his hometown, opened “last Sunday”, and are going to be fully licensed “hopefully by tomorrow”.
The brewery is something of a landmark for Oamaru, as it represents the first beer being brewed (openly) since 1905. The town was apparently the fastest-growing in the southern hemisphere, with four breweries (and sundry brothels), until an unfortunate election saw prohibitionists take power in Northern Otago. They killed the breweries and effectively put paid to the port as sailors really did have certain very specific requirements. Amazingly, the prohibition was only ended in the 1960s.
The three, very bright and direct, Scotts beers we tried were the kolsch Nineteen 05, which suits the Kiwi taste for cold, easy lagers but is top-fermented like an ale and doesn’t require lagering (cold maturation): “it’s grain to glass in a week and a half” Phil says, unlike the six-eight weeks for lager. Then the Boulder Pale Ale, which uses five malts and four hops, and is a mild balance between citrus, gooseberry fruitiness and a subtle maltiness. And finally the B10 Steam Porter, named after a local steam train. This is a sweet, fairly carbonated dark ale that’s much lighter than many porters.
All were served a bit cold, but Phil explains this is really just a requirement of the Kiwi taste for cold beer. Despite how much such beer-consumers are be depriving themselves of the full organoleptic smell and taste sensation!
Real Kiwi cuisine
Phil gave us some tips for other beer venues to visit, and we headed off down the coast, to the little seaside village of Moeraki, famous for a clutch of spherical boulders on its beach. And for Fleurs Place, another place that’s lost its apostrophe, but not its character. This is a great example of a place that does a uniquely NZ style of cuisine with a quiet pride.
They’re right beside the old jetty, and get their seafood fresh from a small cluster of boats that land their catch mere metres away every day. They also use local produce, such as asparagus from just down the road in Palmerston. They seemed to have a good local wine list, though their beer list was strangely at odds with the local, quality ethos, featuring no good local brews, only generic international tosh or Mitsubishi-owned formerly NZ brands. They really should start stocking Scotts, from 40km up the highway!
Our seafood tasting plate was stupendous – simply cooked, no nonsense, nice sauces, and couldn’t be fresher. The crème brulée and huge biscotto wasn’t half bad too. All in all a great day.
Now if only our hostel in Dunedin could include genuine WiFi I could finish this post a bit more damned easily. Honestly, internet in NZ really is like going back 10 years. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about that though, as when I first came to NZ in the 1980s it did indeed frequently conform to the old joke that said it resembled 1950s Britain. It doesn’t any more, at all, but the internet thing is frustrating, especially after the ease we’d experienced across most of the USA.
[It's now the following morning, and we're on the WiFi in the Octagon in the centre of Dunedin. It's infuriating hit and miss, at times as slow as dial-up, but at least it's genuinely free.]