Searching for Barliman Butterbur
Driving towards Arrowtown
by Thor Iverson
294° and sunny
Four weather forecasts, four mistakes.
Not that we’re complaining. Most of the forecasts have been for heavy rain, and we’re happy to have missed the larger part of the precipitation. One immediately suspects mountain effects, as the jagged peaks of the Remarkables have gained new dustings of powdered sugar snow each morning, and now similar white-flecked pinnacles are starting to appear on the ranges to the west and north.
Anyway, today’s predicted clouds and cold rain have taken on the guise of warming sunshine and bright blue sky, and despite yesterday’s chill the immediate post-dawn weather is just warm enough to consider wearing shorts. We’re up early for something we do surprisingly little of on vacations, especially considering how much of our summers back home are built around the activity: a round of golf at the Queenstown Golf Club, a course on the Kelvin Heights peninsula, crowned by the rich golden-brown pyramid of Cecil Peak and surrounded by the sapphire-blue waters of Lake Wakatipu. We’re the first ones out today, and the course is – for the greater part of the morning – ours.
QGC is an inexpensive public golf course, and as such isn’t exactly in pristine shape. That said, it’s a lot better than Ringa Ringa Heights (though perhaps that’s not saying a lot), and all it really needs to improve is a good overseeding and more tightly-mown greens. Still, the views can hardly be surpassed, and a few hours walking such a beautiful golf course is in no way time ill-spent.
The Little Nell of the Southern Hemisphere
We lunch back at our rental, making quick work of a composed salad full of semi-local fishy delights and a decidedly local bottle of wine.
Gibbston Valley 2003 Pinot Blanc (Central Otago) – Shy on the nose, showing crisp apple and pear with light minerality. Dry, sharp, and surprisingly intense (structurally), but not as generous as it was in the Gibbston Valley tasting room. It probably just needs decanting, but the bottle doesn’t last long enough for us to find out.
Theresa takes a midday nap – such are the luxuries afforded by long vacations – while I wander the streets of Queenstown in search of a few gifts. The change in the town vs. just a few years earlier is striking, with construction thrown up on every available hillside and a bevy of trendy new shops slowly crowding out the more rough-hewn adventure-oriented and knick-knacky storefronts that had still held sway on our previous visit. Pizza and pasta dives have largely been replaced by middle-class restaurants, touristy swag has given way to jade-, opal- and paua-hocking jewelers, and functional (though sleekly-designed) adventure-wear shops are met in equal measure by the sort of upscale “hey-look-we’re-‘roughing-it’” clothing boutiques one can find in most any area where looking the part is as important as the activities represented by the outerwear. There’s also a good deal of Lord of the Rings merchandise; some of it tasteful and familiar, some of it shockingly inappropriate (“the Lord of the Rings four-wheeler off-road tour & commemorative Andúril replica”), and there is a still-low key but obviously emergent focus on the viticultural output of the nearby Central Otago wine regions. I note a few restaurants and wine bars worthy of further exploration, the locations and prices of local internet cafés, and return home to pick up my well-rested wife.
Flight to the Ford
There are two major, and a half-dozen minor, ways to get from Queenstown to the heavily-restored gold rush village of Arrowtown. One path takes the twisty road to Lake Hayes, turns at the Amisfield winery, and heads past scenic lake, golf resort, and grassland views. Others shoot straight through featureless farmland; ideal routes for late-night, post-dinner escapes to the comforts of home and hearth. But the most scenic is the most direct, cutting a semicircular northeastern path up Ben Lomond Mountain, across the deep and rocky gorge carved by the raging Shotover River, through Arthur’s Point, and finally emerging onto the high plains of Speargrass Flat, passing through farms and artists’ colonies before descending gently into Arrowtown.
“Preservation Western,” we call it, and (not for the first time) we wonder why gold rush towns the world over all seem to look the same. Why should a “saloon” in New Zealand look like one in South Dakota, anyway...right down to the font on hand-painted signs? But Arrowtown is “frontier” in look only, and hides a peaceful, reserved, and somewhat more quietly upmarket aspect behind its bold façades. Plus, it too has its Tolkienesque site: the shallow Arrow River, which edges right up against the lower edge of this one-commercial-street town, is the (heavily-enhanced) site of the Ford of Bruinen crossing from the first movie. At the moment, however, there’s barely enough water to wet a child’s foot, and many of the aforementioned youngsters wade and splash with delight in its slow-moving waters.
The Ivy Bush
On our previous trip to Arrowtown, we’d fallen in love with the Blue Door Bar, quite possibly the most ambient room in all of New Zealand. Wood and stone form an interior that could as easily be from the Middle Ages as from the gold-seeking years, with rough-hewn benches along similarly-crafted tables and comfortable high-backed chairs bracketing upturned barrels, all centered around a roaring fire. The bar serves outflow from the nearby (and co-owned) Pesto and Saffron restaurants, with diners from the former often choosing to take their pizza into its cozy environs, and refugees from the latter frequently enjoying their desserts and digestifs around the fire as the evening lingers, but eventually – as at The Bunker – its own nightlife emerges, with patrons sipping, mingling and relaxing in a woodsmoke haze until the wee hours.
We, however, are here early, and aside from a friendly and adorable bartender/waitress setting up for the evening by industriously polishing brass, wood, window and leather surfaces, alone. We commandeer the key fire-fronting chairs and order a pair of by-the-glass wines.
Chard Farm 2003 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Dry pear skin with a faintly sweet midpalate and leafy anise notes on the finish. Texturally underdeveloped and simple.
Rockburn 2002 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Classic C.O. plum, spice and citrus (at least, these are my personal keynotes to the regions’ pinots) with earth and a good deal of underlying intensity pumped up by well-integrated structure. Full-bodied and almost vibrating with hidden power, yet on the palate it’s light and lithe enough to be unmistakably pinot noir. A fine, worthy effort, with excellent aging potential.
Thai times three
We linger over our wine, finally emerging back into fading early-evening sunlight for a ten-second trip down the alley to Saffron, a restaurant that greatly impressed us on our previous visit. It doesn’t disappoint this time, and in fact surpasses its previous performance…not just via its food, but by providing a better table and service (the last time, they’d “lost” our reservation despite a same-day confirmation and the eventual discovery of our name incoherently scribbled on the reservation sheet). Theresa revisits what she considers to be the ultimate expression of shrimp, a plate of deep-sea Stewart Island scampi much more akin to the most delicate Maine lobster (and, thanks to its sun-filtered life, a pale white crustacean from flesh to carapace) than to any similarly-constructed sea-creature, while I devour an expensive but wonderful small plate of crispy West Coast whitebait. I follow this with a flawless venison loin accompanied by Christmas-y nutmeg spaetzle and tiny dots of an incredibly intense mustard. But it’s Theresa’s main course that forms the culinary pinnacle of our evening: a trio of Thai-influenced curries – prawn , chicken, and duck, each with its own distinct preparation – served with a well-considered trio of rices (basmati, wild, and black “forbidden”). Each bite is an explosion of beautiful and unique flavor, and there’s little surprise that this dish is considered the signature offering of the restaurant.
Fromm “La Strada” 2001 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – This winery steadfastly maintains its allegiance to tree bark, and I suspect that this bottle has fallen victim to a very mild case of cork taint. It’s an indefinitive enough call that I choose not to exchange the wine, but this bottle definitely does not perform up to expectations, and ultimately I regret my reticence; at the very least, a consultation with the wine-savvy proprietor would have been worth the effort. The nose weaves in and out of a moody truculence that doesn’t entire mask the quality within: dark, heavily-structured black soil and leather with black fruit, and a finish showing lighter red berries and floral notes. Crisp acidity brings this rather deep wine back into the universe of pinot, but all-in-all it’s a very difficult bottle, and should perform much better in an intact state.
Dessert presents far too many enticing choices (Theresa is unwilling to suppress the lingering flavors of her curries and demurs), but I finally choose an exotic Asian-influenced notion: fried marmalade ice cream, utterly delicious in its mélange of flavors and temperatures.
The Golden Perch
After dinner, we return to the Blue Door Bar for drinks. A foursome vacates the central fireplace positions just as we enter, and the bartender (still adorable, but now fully focused on a busy room) immediately motions to us, saying “you really can’t pass up those seats.” Well, no, we can’t…and we don’t. Theresa dreamily sips fragrant green tea while I relax with the warm woodspice of a Cragganmore 12 Year Scotch Whisky (Speyside), which shows stone fruits and banana esters with a fluffy, quickly-disintegrating palate. The warm fire, the woodsmoke mingling with the smoke from my Scotch, and the incredible ambiance carry me softly away to another time…another place…
We take the flat, straight road back to Queenstown.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.