Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Great Cheddar Moments, New Zealand, Part 2

The South Island of New Zealand is like one big U.S. National Park, but with world-class vineyards, friendly and generous folks who live there year round, and an abundant amount of Cheddar. With so many stunning outdoor spots, a visit to New Zealand tends to be full of activity: hiking, climbing, surfing, kayaking, fishing, cycling, glacier walking, camping, and beer guzzling. What better way to restore yourself after all this exertion in the fresh air than a wee hunk of Cheddar cheese? I can't, and that's why my great Cheddar moments in New Zealand came in tandem with enjoying the great outdoors.

1. In part 1 of this post, I described my first full day in New Zealand, when I spent the morning hiking up the grassy headlands along the coast, south of Christchurch, without any coffee or breakfast, and came back down to the town of Sumner three hours later, where I gobbled a cheese and herb muffin, my first in New Zealand. With this hike and muffin, my Kiwi adventures had began.

2. It wasn't just Cheddar that brought me to New Zealand. It was also its wine. A fan of the crisp and fruity sauvignon blancs from Marlborough, I dreamed of exploring this wine region. When I learned from a friend of a friend in Melbourne that you could bike from vineyard to vineyard, I realized that this trip could become a reality. Anxious about driving, especially when there's wine tasting involved, I couldn't explore the area by car. Public transport wasn't an option either. There wasn't any. A bike was perfect--safer than driving, it provided me with much-needed exercise and a chance to sober up between vineyards. And such a lovely way to get around the dry and breezy valley and enjoy the stunning scenery! I spent two full days biking to almost every vineyard in the region. On the second day I splurged on a multi-course lunch at one of the few estates that offer meals. I arrived hot and sweaty from biking full speed in the heat and wind to arrive on time. The long, delicious meal provided plenty of time recover. Key to this was a slice of very young Cheddar (perhaps too young, even by the cheesemaker's own admission), from local Sherrington Grange, that had been aged in bee's wax, from the cheesemaker's very own hives. It lacked the complex flavors of an aged Cheddar, but it was yummy and milky and I appreciated that it was made locally by the Harper women and that you could eat the wax. After polishing off everything on my plate(s), I staggered back to my bike and hopped on. By the next vineyard, my bulging stomach was less full and I was ready for another tasting of wine.

3. In between my two days of biking around the Marlborough wine region, I went out for a boat ride on the Marlborough Sounds. My hosts were an extended Kiwi family, whom I had met just the night before at a local English-style pub, the Cork and Keg. Two English couples came along as well to fish. The day out on the sounds was great for a number of reasons. First, it got me to the sounds. Until David offered to take me out in his boat, I was stressing about how I was going to get there on my own. If time weren't an issue, I would have taken a few days to hike the Queen Charlotte Track, but time was an issue; I didn't have enough of it in New Zealand. How could I go to Marlborough and not go to the Marlborough Sounds, I fretted. Another bonus was that I got to meet a real, live local family, who took me on board, so to speak. Our time together wasn't limited to the trip on the water; the next morning, I toured the bountiful farmer's market in Blenheim with them and then went over to their house that evening for dinner. To top it all off, I got to eat Cheddar sandwiches, Kiwi style, on the boat. There was the pineapple and cheese sandwich that I had bought that morning at the local dairy, i.e., the convenience store, and then there were all the sandwich fixings that the Bryces generously shared with me: New Zealand block Cheddar that one sliced with a wee nifty wire cutter available at supermarkets (which I forgot to buy to bring back to the U.S.), lettuce and tomato, tamari roasted seeds, hummus, and an assortment of chutneys and thick, flavorful spreads. I made more than one sandwich so I could try as many combinations as possible, all washed down with cans of beer while sitting on the deck in the sun, gazing out at the wooded hills sloping steeply down to the water. A great day out, even if no fish were caught.

4. Can beer drinking be considered an energetic outdoor activity? How about walking to the Montieth's Brewery in Greymouth, instead of taking the van from the hostel? Well, Eowyn, Brian, and I certainly got a workout from drinking numerous glasses of beer at the end of the corporate-feeling tour of the South Island brewery. Having gone for the gold, we needed food. Instead of joining the tour group at an all-you-can-eat barbecue, which didn't tempt us non-meat eaters, we went to a local chippie, as recommended by the tour guide. We each ordered the veggie burger and fries with garlic sauce. Only after I had ordered another burger the next day, before my train to the Southern Alps, did I realize that there was no veggie patty on this sandwich of grilled goodness; it was just a thick square of processed cheese, onions, a slice of pineapple and beetroot, and a fried egg on a hamburger roll. No matter: it was a satisfyingly sloppy, oozing mess of a sandwich that vegetarians rarely get to enjoy. We had the "Cheddar" to thank for cementing most of the fillings together. And we had the beer and the Central Otago Chardonnay to thank for keeping us smiling as we struggled to get everything into our mouths.

5. If I could fool myself into believing that biking to vineyards, sitting on a boat, and walking to a brewery tour were action-packed pursuits, I was certainly in need of some real exercise by the end of my trip to New Zealand. It came in the daring form of hiking up Avalanche Peak, in visibility that was so poor that I actually turned around, before reaching the summit. I turned around again when I came across another solo female hiker. We had met before, a few hours earlier, when we were registering at the Department of Conservation before doing the physically challenging climb. We teamed up and reached the summit together. It was a stunning view from the top. The clouds finally lifted to show the whole range of the Southern Alps and a glacier glowing blue on a mountain to the southwest. After waiting for some more clouds to clear, it was time to head back down. The sign at the base of Scotts Track, one of the two ways to reach the 1,833-meter peak, says that it takes 3 to 4 hours to reach the top. I did the whole climb, up and down, in 4 hours. I had to. I was catching a train later that afternoon to head back to Christchurch. This meant that I had to boogie. It also meant that by the time I made it back down to my hostel in the quaint village of Arthur's Pass, I was knackered and my legs were jelly. Guess what I had to restore my energy. Cheddar cheese, of course, but on a veggie pizza, left over from a rather lonely dinner the night before. It was tremendously satisfying, especially since I had a cold Monteith's Dark Beer with it. That was New Zealand: a tramp (a hike), Cheddar, and a beer...and a two-hour-late train. But it's all good.

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