Pairing for Parky

I state this with certainty:  There is more wine in our cellar than we can drink before we die.

What started as an interesting hobby, to accumulate a bit of nice wine to drink on special occasions, has turned into an obsession to never, ever have to drink young wine!

And while my other half tends (and continuously stocks) said cellar, I cook.  I cook to eat, I cook to share, but most of all, I cook as to create.  My children would know I’d had a rough day if they arrived home to find me chain-baking, tins lining up along the kitchen counter to take their place in the oven as others came out.  The perfect stress-reliever – particularly with a perfect glass of wine in hand.

When I taste good wine, there is an immediate question in my head:   “but what should I be cooking to eat with this?”  No doubt to the frustration of my fellow wine tasters, waxing eloquent about the nose, the floral tones, the spicy notes;  I instead am talking duck with cardamom, or garlicky rosemary lamb, sticky soy scallops, delicate poached salmon…

So when I was asked to donate an item for a charity auction, to support a colleague recently diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease, I hatched an elaborate plan.  A pairing for Parky, a matched food and wine dinner for 10 people – at home, because charity, of course, begins at home.  It sounded like a good idea at the time – but on the night, with close to a thousand dollars paid for what was simply “dinner at my place”, I have to admit to a small feeling of trepidation.

It’s an entirely different proposition, you see, serving up a dinner to invited guests of your choosing than to people who’ve actually paid (albeit to a good cause) to be sharing your food and wine.  I tried starting with the wine – but my husband was adamant: sort out the menu first, then he would match the wine.  So that’s what we did.


Our guests arrived to Hibiscus bubbles – a light but decorative flute of preserved hibiscus flowers in a local NZ Deutz methode champenoise.  As they sipped, they nibbled on red onion balsamic tarts, and blue cheese gougones, the tart richness offsetting the sweetness of the hibiscus.

Then on to the perfectly set dinner table, complete with bone china, silver and crystal…  usually reserved for very special family occasions; but nothing like a well set table to add a touch of “special” to an event.

A minor complication – one of our guests was vegetarian (thankfully declared well in advance, so easily accommodated).  More daunting, another an ex-chef…  Deep breath, let the service begin!

To start, herby haloumi cigars, on a salad of vegetable tabbouleh.  The crisp crunch of the phyllo pastry, with the interior richness of the cheese a perfect match for the rounded honey waxiness of a 2010 Alberino.  A grape so popular in Spain, yet little know here in NZ, where Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay tend to divide white wine drinkers into two entrenched camps, almost to the exclusion of all other varietals.

The main course was deliberately simple, designed to provide a backdrop for the wine, a beautiful perfectly aged 2002 Penfolds Bin 407, not quite at its peak perhaps, but a taste sensation nevertheless.  A classic cabernet sauvignon from an iconic Australian winemaker.  The roast beef fillet a tad overcooked – too much conversation at the table, my one near disaster of the evening – but no one seemed to mind.  Roast field mushrooms replacing the beef for our lone vegetarian (these too overcooked, go figure!).  I steered clear of the obvious chocolate sauce, preferring to complement the mocha and blackcurrant tones of the wine with fresh crisp green beans and bright tomato salad – and of course, the melt in your mouth beef fillet.

Cheese came next – a French custom that to my mind provides a perfect transition from the serious food just eaten to the frivolous food to come.  A beautiful blue and aged cheddar from Whitestone, a small local producer, with Pinot Noir jelly…  And a choice to stay with the Penfolds (definitely my pick) or move on to the aged Riesling that was to come with dessert.

Foregoing my natural tendency to equate dessert with chocolate, I went for an easy-to-match lime coconut pudding, with a tiny glass of homemade limoncello on the side (for pouring over the pud, of course) while sipping on the gorgeously rich and limey 2003 Mesh Riesling.

Our wines had taken us around the world, from New Zealand, to Spain, through the Barossa & Eden Valleys in Australia.  Our guests were replete, the cook self-satisfied, the cellar a little emptier…

Most of all, we celebrated that a simple dinner party could contribute so much to our colleague’s lifelong project to support Savong School in Cambodia, a mission becoming ever more challenging for him as Parky impacts his life.

And so we paired up for Parky, pairing our food and our wine, our cooking and our hospitality, our effort with our guests’ generosity, to support a Kiwi doing good work half a world away.  And it was good.

An entry into the #MWWC21 challenge

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An excessively excessive lunch!

Billed as the culinary highlight of our trip, Osteria Francescana did not disappoint.

Your first impression is the army of young men standing ready to guide you to one of just 11 tables spread across three rooms, all impeccably and inconspicuously clad in dark suits, white shirts and black ties… Fulfilling also a secondary function of repelling any interlopers thinking they might just swan in for a meal unannounced (our booking having been made in June!)

An aperitif perhaps? Why not? A glass of 2005 Spumante… Nothing like any similar named beverage tried before.

The trifold menus… Large enough to take shelter behind…. Offering two pages of a la carte options, plus two degustation choices, one the experimental menu (undeclared – just take what the chef happens to be playing with today); the other (Peter’s choice for us) the traditional tastes of the region, in many parts… Let’s see if I remember them all….

First, and before the actual menu starts, a few things to get your appetite going… Home made sour dough bread, with olive oil from their own press; a pink piped pile of mortadella (meat mousse, I can hear Howard saying), with some crisp bread and a touch of truffle oil on the side (dubbed “memory of a mortadella sandwich”) to be followed by a Parmesan wafer topped with lard and truffle shavings… Yum!

And so to the actual menu… Now accompanied by house made grissini, and a basket of savoury whole meal mini-croissants and tiny white sourdough rolls.

1. Eel swimming up the Po River… A small slab of eel, perfectly cooked in the must of aged balsamic, with a pale swipe of polenta down one side of the plate, representing the corn fields to the south and a bright green swipe of extremely tart apple something on the other side, the apples of the north.

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Peter reminds me that the evening before a local British expat, albeit clearly impressed by our reason for being in Modena, rather cynically told us that the chef here only became famous when he married an American marketer. Clearly she’s read the book on the value of story telling. But the food is delicious, and soon gone!  As is the artisan beer that accompanies it as the “wine” match… A working men’s match, Peter called it. Eel and beer.

2. My least favourite – something about the tastes of Modena. A rusk like biscuit topped with extremely rich sausagey meat of some sort, covered with an even more rich zabaglione made with the local sparkling red wine, with splashes of balsamic vinegar… Did I mention Modena is the home of balsamic vinegar?  In fact, we may well go on a tasting with a difference tomorrow.

Meanwhile, this course was honestly too rich for me, though thankfully off set by the cuttingly dry white wine.  At this point, Peter stops commenting on the teeny tiny portions, we’re definitely not going to need a Big Mac on the way home!

The solo diner at the next table strikes up a conversation with us… He’s a sommelier from a restaurant in Colorado, on. Business trip to Italy to learn more about their wine. Quite knowledgeable we discover, and also a part time cyclist. We maintain polite occasional conversation…. He’s having the experimental menu, and is photographic all the wine matches.

3. Caesar salad – described by the waiter as “our take on the traditional dish, with 25 ingredients”… Most of these, it should be said, schmoooshed up in the dressing that intersperses the leaves along with crispy shards of bacon and Parmesan crisps.

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Served, after the richness of the previous dish, with a rather strange drink… Aquavit, just a splash, diluted with lots of water. Waiter says it is to clean the palate. Peter unimpressed says it’s like drinking canal water – I hope he didn’t actually taste the canal water in Venice! I don’t mind it, it certainly clears the palate, as promised.

4. Parmigiano Reggiano 5 ways
One of the real highlights – different renditions of Parmesan cheese, ranging in age from 3 to 50 months, the melted “soup”, the mousse, the foam, the crisp, all different bu fantastically complementary. Definitely worth the trip!

imageParmesan is second thing they do here in Modena (the third is Ferraris – Enzo’s place, and the factory, is just up the road apparently. But there are no cars in our current samplings!)

5. Tagliatelle with meat ragu – a swirled pile of beautiful pasta, with a chopped (not ground!) meat sauce… Delicious as a meal on its own… By now I’m feeling I might need a little jog around the block! But wait, there’s more….

6. Veal not flame grilled… Actually a wonderfully rare slab of beef fillet, encrusted with ash and artfully placed amidst a modern-art-like swirling picture of different coloured sauces… With finally a red wine match.

We are slowly, very slowly, learning just a little about the dozens of unfamiliar grape varieties that make wine here in Italy. Today we seem to have had more than a few from the south – Sicily and Sardinia – but so far my favourites are definitely the Nebbiolo from our first stop (none of that on today’s menu matchings) and this Nero d’Avolo similar to the one we drank last night, and are now seeing featured to match our beef.

7. Surely dessert? The bread sticks and basket are removed, the tablecloth expertly swept of crumbs. A small Popsicle on a stick arrives… But no, this is the famous foie gras popsicle, dipped in 50 year old balsamic and crusted with chopped almonds. Wow!

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8. Finally, a small, but perfectly formed dessert. Three plump red cherries on a bed of chocolate and coffee crumble… Not real cherries, says our waiter… Great chocolate globes, filled with coffee and cherry juice – don’t eat the stick! he cautions, and use your spoon. They explode in the mouth, a fantastic accompaniment to the slightly weird final “wine” match of sour cherry juice!

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And so to coffee.. Of course! With a selection of bite size chocolates and sweet treats that we somehow found place for!

And so, three hours later, we waddled ‘home’, heavier of body and much much lighter of wallet… Our American dining companion stands and introduces himself as we are leaving, Austin is my name (I think, but not from Texas). He invites us to dine at his restaurant in Colorado if we’re even up that way. I invite him to come try some NZ wines… he knows a few, Waiheke Ironclad on the winelist at his place!

In a throwback to the days of olde, in this Italian restaurant, they still have a lady’s menu, with no prices! This despite all communications relating to the booking having been done by ME, the emails, the phone calls, everything… Peter gets the menu with prices, and of course, the bill at the end! I should not complain (and I don’t)… Just commenting, I say. He says: It’s only right, the way it should be! Everyone in their place!

So what an amazing experience! Definitely living on bread and water for the rest of Italy! Or so I thought…

But blow me down, at 8pm Peter was up and off again to find a wee bite for dinner!

Food, glorious food

Skipping breakfast year day morning was a very wise choice!

At the time, it was prompted mostly by being too idle to get out of bed to start my day with the cycle boys (and, if I am honest, being on a bit of a roll with Candycrush).  But 12 hours later, faced with a simple but delicious 5 courses of yummy goodness, there was a great deal of post-rationalisation going on.

A bit of fresh, fragrant mush melon wrapped generously in wafer thin ham to start, home made pasta shells with the lightest touch of bolognase sauce, lamb chops top cooked to perfection (even though our maitre’d was a little anxious about serving lamb to kiwis), a skerrick of Gorgonzola with honey and fat walnuts….   All topped off with a silky smooth tiramisu…. Heavenly!  And all this part of our half-board room rate at what has turned out to be the most perfect cycling hotel ever.

Not only is there a car park for the rental cars (by no means a given in this part of the world), but also a secure bike room, with cleaning bay and plenty of racking to store the precious two wheelers.  Best of all (at least from my perspective) is the fact that you get a mesh laundry bag each day for your sports gear which is taken away at 6pm and returned freshly laundered the next day, all part of the service.  Yay, no more smelly hotel rooms, bathrooms draped with dripping cycle gear, having been stomped clean in the shower with the help of the hotel shampoo!  This is all so very civilised!

And let me hasten to add, not costing us an arm and a leg either.  Just a lovely, family run establishment, with warm and friendly hosts who understand the value of attracting groups of crazy-mad cyclists, and seem to enjoy meeting their special needs.  Ten stars for Hotel Larice Bianco, I say!

On the cycling front, yesterday was Mortirole – by all accounts a truly brutal climb.  Perhaps a little optimistic the day after Stelvio?  Peter still recovering from his pleurisy, and Don pretty exhausted after a hard riding week, called it quits part way up the mountain – though probably both with a bigger ride under their belts than they get on an average Auckland day.   Gary and Alistair (Don’s son, who has joined us for part of the trip), slogged it out to the top, then down the other side, where they had a rather alarming unplanned excursion through an unlit 1.5km tunnel with cars whizzing in both directions at breakneck speeds.

if cyclists are crazy, Italian drivers even more so!  More about the tunnels and the drivers another time.

Some very tired people last night.  Mind you, didn’t stop us having a very robust conversation over dinner about the state of NZ politics, and the fat German.  I have to say, I wish I could have Gary’s faith in the electorate doing the right thing!

I have to say, following the commentaries online from a place where it’s easier to see the wider world view, I am losing the will to vote!  Anything you think I should see before Election Day, please feel free to pass on!

Until then, I will continue to enjoy my little bubble away from the world, filled with mountain air, daily helpings of gelato, five course dinners, enough (but not too much) sultry red wine – Nebbiolo in this part of the world, and some good long walks to make it all okay!

My morning walk

My morning walk

Not a bad place for a Sunday morning stroll

Not a bad place for a Sunday morning stroll