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A well-oiled oyster (New Zealand pt. 5)

Pressed for time

It’s a rare traveler in wine country that will be able to avoid the lure of another ubiquitous dangling fruit: the olive. Wherever there are grape presses, there tend to be olive presses (save in the coldest of viticultural climes), and one of the most delicious accompaniments to the blood of the vine is the essence of the olive, extracted into viscous, greenish-gold sunlight.

At the lower end of the twisty, hill-ascending road that leads to our villa, Rangihoua Estate is an irresistible drop-in visit. We’re just a bit early for proper business hours, but the door’s open, and proprietress Anne Sayles finishes up a bit of backstage work and sets up an interesting tasting for us, featuring the estate’s four extra-virgin oils (two varietals and two blends), some delicious local bread which she warms in an oven, and a snacky preparation of cured and citrus-enhanced olives. Having done a little bit of professional olive oil evaluation, I always find the process fascinating in comparison to wine tasting. The functional similarities are obvious, but the descriptive palette is completely different, and there’s an inherent limitation on the exercise itself which doesn’t usually apply to the world of professionally-expectorated wine: only the strong of stomach can endure more than a few ounces of swallowed oil.

Rangihoua is, itself, a solution to a problem: what to do with the olives on the Stonyridge winery property that were, year after year, simply falling to the ground? Anne, then a Stonyridge employee, and her husband Colin decided to make a go of oil production (with a little bit of a nudge from Colin’s stint in Tuscany), and just a few years later are making oils that are gathering quite a bit of national attention, and even the first stirrings of international interest. Their olive sources are primarily 1000 or so trees near the property (including the aforementioned Stonyridge groves), supplemented with plantings all over Waiheke Island.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 Koreineki (Waiheke Island) – Smooth and silky, showing apple notes and a light, almost tannic bite on the finish. A pretty oil.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Waiheke Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Zingy, raw olive flavor with some midpalate bitterness and a brisk, sharp finish.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 Picual (Waiheke Island) – Peppered celery and a green, chlorophyll character with lemon rind and an undercurrent of minerality. Really striking and individualistic; our favorite of the bunch.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Stonyridge Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Raw peanut, pine nut, and more “oily” than the previous three, with a high-toned finish. This would seem to need food to tame its wilder qualities.

Anne, eventually joined by Colin, gives us a brief tour of their clean, modern facility, which has – and will probably need, given current trends – plenty of room for future expansion. We leave with a pair of oils and some of the olive mixture, weaving our way through a maze of ducks (different breeds, all of them) wandering the expansive yard and parking lot.

A moldy digression

Bread, wine, cheese and olive oil: the holy quadrity of Mediterranean staples. On the other side of the world, New Zealand needs a little help with two of them.

(Continued here…)

Fire and water (New Zealand, pt. 4)

The gift of morning

Mornings just don’t get much more beautiful than this one. Sun, blue sky, warm – but not too warm – air, and the freedom to do anything, everything, or nothing. Such freedom and its world of possibilities are truly a gift. Inspired, we express our gratitude for the gift of complete freedom by wolfing down several bowls of muesli and fresh fruit.

After all, what good is freedom if you’re not regular?

As we pack the car for relaxing, first-day-of-vacation beach slothfulness, Cliff (our host) emerges from his house toting a folding beach chair. “Here, you’ll want this,” he offers. Just then the phone rings; it’s Auckland wine writer (and friend) Sue Courtney, checking to see if we’ve arrived intact. And once more the refrain: New Zealanders are unbelievably nice, and though we should no longer be surprised by it, we are. Perhaps it’s the gift of the land they inhabit; a treasure in itself, and fertile ground for the cultivation of luxuries both prosaic and extravagant. Perhaps it’s remoteness from the more guarded, selfish centers of “modern” culture. Or perhaps it’s just the people, who approach life with an unstudied innocence that chips away at one’s cynicism and world-weariness. Either way, it’s exceedingly hard to be unhappy when it seems that an entire country is looking out for your well-being.

One with Onetangi

Onetangi Beach is a long, straight stretch of white gold gently lapped by a greenish-blue sea. Today, it’s completely empty, save for a few lonely seagulls. We park our car on the crumbling strip of sand-infused dirt between a narrow frontage street and the beach, park ourselves right in the middle of the sand, and begin the flesh-roasting process (though to be honest, we’re covered in enough high-octane sunscreen that a deep, dark tan seems unlikely). There’s no traffic, very little wind, only the soft murmur of waves, and even the gulls are mostly silent. It’s a little eerie, but it’s also profoundly relaxing, and every last bit of real-world tension drifts softly away, collected and carried to sea by the gentle motion of the tides and the winds.

We exchange brief naps and quickly restorative dips in the ocean, and oscillate between soft, sun-slowed conversation and the sweet silence of isolation. When hunger finally starts to gnaw, we climb back up to a street-side picnic table and unfurl a spread of garlicky green-lipped mussels and Ferndale “Brie” (absurdly simple, definably “cheese” but with no additional character beyond the bare fact of it) with a wine perfectly suited to the day and the location.

Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.

There are no shops or hotels here, just a clean and functional public changing room/bathroom combination, but there is a manageable breadth to the waterfront, and so we decide to stroll from one end to another. Low-hanging trees shadow water-etched rocks on one end, boulders which conceal a collection of tidal pools and, behind, tiny little beach alcoves to which a few sun-bronzed locals have retired…perhaps fleeing the masses (which, today, are…I presume…us). At the beach’s opposite end, tangled vegetation supports a teetering cliff onto which a quiet, leaf-dimmed bungalow has been perched. And still, the great length of the beach remains empty. OK, it’s a work day, but come on…where is everybody?

(Continued here…)

The land of the flat white crowd (New Zealand, pt. 3)

Prism sentience

Don’t talk to me about rainbows. Those partial-arc terrestrial versions are, at best, pale imitations of what I’m seeing now. I rub the crust of a long airborne snooze from my eyes and gaze, dumbfounded, out the tiny airplane window at vivid lasers of color streaking across the pre-dawn horizon. Above and below are two themes on uninterrupted grayscale, but in-between is the most wondrous display of prismatic brilliance imaginable, the pure refraction of the planet’s encircling atmosphere unhindered by the distractions and diffusions of earthbound land and sky.

I fire up the in-seat video screen and thumb the controls to channel one: the overhead map. The long, island-dotted crossing of the Pacific is, mostly, behind us, and Auckland – our destination – inches centerward. As I twist and stretch stillness-abused muscles and joints, cabin lights stutter and stagger into illumination, while roasted esters of morning coffee drift from the galleys. It’s morning, and New Zealand approaches.

Energy crisis

Perhaps just a little bit of familiarity breeds ease, but this trans-Pacific crossing seems much less body-destroying than the last one, and we arrive at Auckland International Airport fairly refreshed and energized. That energy is tested a bit by a long wait at the other end of customs (a reminder to self: carefully clean golf shoes before flying to a country with obsessive agricultural neuroses) but returns as we step out into the sharp, sunny clarity of an early summer morning. The sky is blue, the grass green, the air clear, and after many months of endless snow, wearying cold, and dreary gray back in Boston, it’s a wake-up call to surpass all others. Our senses are alive, our anticipation peaked. The heart of our long-planned voyage is finally at hand.

A half-hour later, all our energy is gone…sapped by the deadening heat of an airport shuttle caught in a rush hour traffic jam and without compensatory air conditioning (or windows that can be opened), but with the noisy and unavoidable drone of two monitors blaring an endless litany of touristy advertainment. Only the entry into Auckland itself stirs our senses, as we point out familiar landmarks and remembered sites like old friends in a crowd. We’re deposited at the end of Queen Street just across from the glowing orange-golf of the Ferry Building, quickly cross a street that’s nearly devoid of traffic (where’d the rush hour go?), and purchase a small handful of ferry tickets. We’re headed for the sedate retreat of Waiheke Island, a half-hour ferry ride from the sailboat-and-shipping-filled waters of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor and into the island-dotted expanse of the Hauraki Gulf. We’ve just missed the 9 a.m ferry – curses on traffic jams everywhere – and so, settled into uncomfortable red plastic chairs, we wait for the next…which arrives on the hour in a clanking, creaking din of metal against wood and a hissing vapor of choking exhaust.

The Gulf and its low-slung islands still glisten in bright sun, but every glance westward – back across the towered rise of Auckland and over the mainland – reveals an oncoming wall of rain. It chases us onto the ferry, pauses at the thermal barrier of the Harbor, and then rushes forward once again. It is thus that we have a clear, calm, and sunny passage – the brisk and sweet-smelling wind reviving our travel-dulled minds – but arrive at the sedate and rustic Matiatia passenger terminal on Waiheke Island just as a first few experimental drops of rain fall. The slow trickle of passengers through the cavernous and largely empty terminal is calming enough that the energy of the city already seems a distant memory. We collect a grossly expensive rental car (someone could make a lot of money offering a cheaper alternative to the island’s two rather larcenous automobile agents) and gingerly edge out of the parking lot, Theresa at the wheel and me repeating our British Empire mantra at each intersection and turn: “left…left…on the left…you’re driving on the left…left…left.”

(Continued here…)

The rediscovered country (New Zealand, pt. 1)

How do you go back to the place where everything changed…the place where the lens of your world reshaped itself and an unspoiled wilderness of perspectives was revealed in dramatic new light? And if you can point to the place, the day, the hour when all was renewed and reborn, can you ever really return?

The answer to the first question seems as easy as it is pragmatic: by plane, by boat, by car, and by foot.

Then again, perhaps that’s a foolishly glib response. Life – so the philosophers and the poets tell us – is about the journey rather than the destination, and any journey is a process through which one moves. Is the answer, then, in the process? Eleven tiring months of detailed and sometimes overwhelming planning are certainly one sort of process, but the notion that sparks and fuels the journey ignites long before that. In a very real sense, a new journey begins the moment an old one ends. Yet notions are no more than dreams, and it is we who fashion the ephemeral into our reality. So perhaps the key is what we do to enable the journey…and perhaps changes can only come from within. The place, the day, and the hour become mere spectators to our acts of will.

And yet…and yet…one place, at one time, in one life, can become the unquestionable arena for change, and that place, day, and hour branded on the conscious mind like a moment of rebirth. If it be mere will, why there? Why then? How to reconcile that truth? Maybe the answer is more complicated than any of these musings. Maybe it is the person and the place, in a blessed symbiosis elusive to the philosopher and the poet but understood in the blood of the voyager. If so, there’s only one path to this particular truth: bringing the person and the place together once more.

So it is that, two years, two months, and two days after returning to the familiar pathways of home with new lenses, perspectives, shapes and lights, we’re going back to where everything changed. Back through the lens, to a place and a time and a feeling that it might well be folly to try and recapture. Back to New Zealand.

Oh…and as for the answer to the second question? That is a matter for more deliberation and consideration. For while the answer is both known and undoubtedly contains a metaphor of revelatory metaphysical significance, I’m not sure I’m yet up to the decryptive task. In any case, here it is: no, you can’t, because it’s raining so hard that the road is closed to traffic.

Ah, but that’s a much longer story