Plus: Flax, seedy
by Thor Iverson
The news is out. It’s front-page stuff: giant banner headlines, full-color photographs, etc. “Local convenience store reports cans fallen from shelf.” Obviously, the entire Nelson area is a-twitter with post-earthquake gossip.
At the end of a trip full of not-exactly-dire events.... fire on Waiheke Island, lost luggage on the Otago Peninsula, the slaughter of endangered animals, crucial byways closed due to flooding, harried helicopters escaping a driving storm, brides buffeted by the gales, mobile homes plopped in the middle of major intersections, and sweat-inducing winery equipment failures…the low-key local reaction to the earthshaking news is, perhaps, to be expected. But we’ve only time for quick amusement at yet another example of representative Kiwi understatement, for we’re off to Motueka…a road that’s getting awfully familiar.
This time, though, we’re not in search of grapes.
Tinker, Taylor, olive maker
In another interesting bit of symmetry, we approach the end of our New Zealand sojourn by visiting an olive oil producer, something we’d done way back on Waiheke Island. Though unlike the last time, this visit has been scheduled in advance by our ever-helpful Mr. Briggs.
The weather – universally and regularly described as “fine” by New Zealand weatherpersons no matter what the day or the obvious externalities – is most decidedly not “fine” this morning. In fact, it’s cloudy, brooding, and spitting rain, and things look about to take a turn for the worse. Apparently, though, the local weather stations are located in Motueka, for when we arrive at Linley Taylor’s gorgeous home (designed by the same architect who drafted our villa), it’s a beautiful day. Her wall-length windows look past an “infinite” pool and over a grove of olive trees to the open water, which sparkles and shines in the first bright sunlight of our day. It’s a breathtaking vista.
Taylor, scattered and often a bit self-confusing in the midst of her narrative, leads us through two hours of touring and tasting. Her oils are creamy and luscious – pretty much the opposite of the Rangihoua’s – with a sophisticated confidence similar to that of the better-established wine estates. These aren’t quirky reflections of a fleeting interest, these are oils meant to stand on the world stage…not at the top echelon yet, but with the ambition and focus to get there one day.
Spread over the site of an old apple orchard, the picturesque olive grove that now spans the land between window and sea wasn’t the result of deliberate intention. Taylor knew she didn’t want to plant grapes like everyone else, but while many fruits and vegetables seem to do quite well in the local climate, olives “just started to poke their heads” into her consciousness. Her partner John drew up a business plan whereby their company, Nelson Olives, gathered shareholders (who supply the cash) and sources (who supply the olives). For despite the on-site olive trees, the Taylors aren’t producers or growers, but rather a company that operates two arms: Olive Services Nelson for processing, and Nelson Olives for marketing.
Two oils are produced: Mahana (Maori for “a warm place”), which is a blend of the Tuscan varieties frantoio and leccino, and Oriwa (“olive” in Maori), which adds Spanish picual to the mix.
Nelson Olives “Mahana” Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Nelson) – Dark green aromatics in an old cedar-walled room, brooding citrus rind, raw walnut, brazil nut, and lemon curd. Smooth and silky, with an extremely lush texture and the slightest touch of faded pepper dust on the finish. Really gorgeous.
Nelson Olives “Oriwa” Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Nelson/Marlborough) – Intense sea salt-infused algae, dark black spinach, and dense pink peppercorns. Almost electric in intensity, but still fairly lush, with a balanced finish.
To my non-expert palate, the Oriwa tastes like many other New Zealand oils: zingy, aggressive, and somewhat experimental. The Mahana, on the other hand, is ready for prime time. I personally enjoy the piquant zing provided by the picual, but it’s an oil for the sort of person that likes personality-laden grape varieties, not an oil that’s going to dominate the mass-market.
“It’s been really exciting to start so unknowing,” muses Taylor, “but it’s not only romantic. It’s a delicious and beautiful part of world culture. To start from ground zero has been enormously exciting.”
But Taylor’s interest in culture extends to more than oil. As we discuss our journey and its many highlights, we indicate our interest in bringing something artistic but local back to the States. The Nelson area is, essentially, one giant artisans’ colony (grapes, olives, ceramics, wood…all different expressions of the same basic impulse), so this would seem to be the place. Taylor brightens, quickly rattling off a half-dozen artists whose home studios are worth visiting.
And then, in classic overly-generous Kiwi fashion, she picks up the phone and starts calling them, to make sure they’re home. It has happened so often, to us, and yet I’m surprised each and every time. I wish more people were like this. More importantly, I wish we were like this. Maybe we should try harder.
(2008 update: Nelson olives is for sale.)
The first shop we visit is, as Taylor warned us it might be, closed. The second, owned by Ann & Bob Phillips, is a woody wonderland of wood, turned and “sculpted” into myriad shapes, both useful and decorative. I think we’ve found our artisan.
The only problem is: what to choose? Here, nature and artist work together, with trees native to New Zealand are turned into beautiful works of craftsmanship, with visual details unimaginably exotic to the American eye. There’s no lack of beautiful pieces – in fact, we have trouble restraining ourselves – but we eventually settle on a gorgeous, grain-swirled bowl, plus some smaller items to give away as gifts.
Next, we move on to Katie Gold, who is apparently a bit of a sensation around these parts, but her vivid, delicate, smirk-inducing ceramic work simply will not survive the trip home, and (regretfully) we have to leave without purchasing.
Which brings us to midday. We picnic back at the villa, with leftovers from last night and transformed trevallly from The Smokehouse, limpid and sweetly smoked, that goes flawlessly with the difficult remnants of one of last night’s wines.
Te Whare Ra 2004 Riesling (Marlborough) – Still quite restrained, showing no signs of blossoming. Hold, and don’t let go.
Despite a warm and sunny Nelson afternoon – at last, it’s truly “fine” – we’ve got stuff to do, and so we huddle in a hip internet café, arranging ahead for a few details in yet-to-come Sydney. By the time we leave, at 5:30, Nelson is a ghost town. How did that happen? We abandon our plans to have coffee, head back home, change, and once more travel the well-worn westward path, this time to Mapua
Grain and bear it
Our gaze, for much of our stay here in the greater Nelson area, has been captured by the sea. Yet this evening, our eyes are drawn towards the effects of early-evening light on the encircling mountains, both to the south and, especially, the west. Peaks surround this verdant waterfront valley, and tonight they’ve come into striking focus. Those closer to us are Elvishly dressed in gold, brown, and green, while those in the distance seem more a mirage or silhouette than an actual presence. That we’ve barely noticed these light-fired pinnacles is, no doubt, an after-effect of our long stay amongst the most dramatic of New Zealand’s ranges, but it still seems like a loss. As the end approaches, it seems, nearly everything becomes a lost opportunity, a last chance, an un-captured memory.
The Nelson area has a lot of eateries, including one frequently-lauded establishment a few steps from our front door. But the locals I’d consulted had arrived at near-universal agreement: Flax (Mapua Wharf, Mapua) is the best of the bunch. And so, we choose it for our final restaurant meal in New Zealand.
Some choices one might like back.
When Flax is good, it’s quite good. The atmosphere is fun and casual, the room is littered with regulars, and the food is the sort of high-quality, simply-prepared, ingredient-focused fare that, properly cooked, never goes out of style or taste. The problems are all off the menu, with a staff that’s a little too numerous and pushy for the room, and that brusquely rushes us through our meal with a very un-Kiwi coldness and rapidity. A scant 35 minutes after our arrival, we’re a few crumbs from being done with our main courses. This is no way to run a restaurant.
Perhaps there’s someone wielding a whip in the kitchen, but the hurry and bustle seems to unbalance our waitress, who tosses food in front of us, turns, and knocks over every single one of our neighboring table’s wine glasses. (I note, with concern, that she replaces neither their glasses nor their wine, and surreptitiously hold onto both or ours whenever she returns.) The prevailing impression here is that one must eat quickly or suffer the consequences; everything possible is done to move us in and out as rapidly as possible. Yet other tables seem to enjoy nearly an hour of profit-free postprandial lingering. Maybe one has to be a regular? It’s all baffling, and highly irritating.
I start with a delicious mushroom and oyster soup, taken in an unusual direction with the inclusion of dill and lots of piquant local olive oil (I don’t inquire as to the source, unfortunately). It takes me a few minutes to warm to the combination, but I’m eventually won over; the flavors just need time to meld. That they don’t until I’m at the end of the bowl suggests, yet again, some sort of rush in the kitchen. Soups, as every cook knows, cohere with age. What’s the hurry?
Jenny Wheeler of Greenhough stops by the table to say hello, and seems much friendlier than she was at our previous encounter. Though it probably doesn’t hurt that I’ve got one of her wines on the table. Her partner Andrew, who seems even more casual, has an insider’s connection here: his brother owns the restaurant. I’m tempted to ask if I can take away his brother’s watch, but restrain myself.
Greenhough 2003 Pinot Noir Hope Vineyard (Nelson) – Extremely elegant, and perhaps the most feminine and restrained pinot noir we’ve tasted on this trip. Light, crisp red fruit – raspberry, strawberry, a bit of red cherry – with long earthen notes blends and intertwines until there is formed a beautifully soft, silk-textured finish. Lovely.
Pork belly in a tomato-based sauce, accompanied by kumara and grilled bok choy, isn’t a dish that the fat-fearful would want to contemplate, but I love it. The pork, especially, is delicious, and flawlessly brought to that perfectly-poised point between decadent juiciness and artery-preserving rendering. The skin isn’t crisped – a technique I’ll come to expect in later years – but the dish suffers not a whit for the lack.
For dessert, I’m served house-made ice creams that are rather melted by the time they arrive at our table. What’s the matter, couldn’t they get them out fast enough? (Sorry, sarcasm has gotten the better of me.) A rather dismal flat white – a drink that requires patience, so it’s no surprise that Flax can’t execute it – follows, both overly foamy and under-flavored.
As I’ve noted, Flax has good qualities, and I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from dining here, but despite its reputation it must be treated as a café that serves food, rather than the restaurant it has ambitions of being. (Adding to this feeling: one pays at the counter, rather than at tableside…a bit of info that isn’t made clear to us as we linger, post-coffee, wondering if the check will ever arrive. That could explain the permanently-occupied tables, though.) There is, however, one unquestioned positive aspect to Flax: it’s sinfully inexpensive given the quality of the food and the wine. If only the service met the same standard.
(2008 update: Flax has closed.)
After dinner, we drive a few minutes towards home, then pull into a tiny, dark road to stare at the stars. The brilliance of the universe shines down, unencumbered by terrestrially luminescent pollution, with an intensity absolutely unparalleled in my experience. And, above all, it is absolutely, perfectly quiet.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.