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Mendoza, Argentina | Wine + Road Trip

Travelling through the Andean Mountains, Argentina to Chile 2016

Mendoza is Argentina’s premiere wine region, and as such, there was no way that we were going to miss a short stopover to indulge in one of our favourite pastimes. Our flight back home departed from Santiago, so we knew that we had to make our way back to Chile at some point. Mendoza is located at the foot of the Andean Mountains and sits virtually parallel to Santiago. It was the perfect place to relax and unwind before making our way back to Chile by bus, through some of the most incredible scenery we have ever seen.

View from balcony and the Virgin of Carrodilla

Mendoza itself isn’t the most spectacular town, and to be honest, after the beautiful architecture and vibrant atmosphere of Buenos Aires, Mendoza seemed dull and unattractive. We later learned that it had been levelled by a devastating earthquake in 1861, which destroyed the colonial architecture that we had expected to see. The town was subsequently rebuilt utilising sturdy construction techniques aimed at minimising the damage in possible future earthquakes – this explains why the buildings are uniformly squat and plain and why the extra-wide streets are organised around large, flat squares. It might not be an architectural destination, but what Mendoza lacks in beauty it makes up for in multiple other ways. The proximity of the Andean mountains and the surrounding desert and valleys lends itself to adventure sports (such as rafting, skiing, mountain climbing, fishing), and the presence of so many quality wineries in the area attracts wine connoisseurs who must be catered to with  excellent restaurants, spas, hotels and luxury retail outlets.

Cavas de Weinert, Mendoza Argentina

With  a late arrival, early departure and only a single full day up our sleeves, we were forced to focus our activities in Mendoza. We were there for the wine, number one, but after a whirlwind two weeks on the road we also needed a rest. We took care of that with an indulgent massage in the hotel’s chilly spa, ate a hurried and forgettable lunch, then joined an afternoon wine tour. Our first stop was the bodega (winery) Cavas de Weinert situated south of Mendoza in Luján de Cuyo. Paired with a guide who spoke English, we were treated to a tour of the atmospheric winery and underground cellar, which was originally built in 1890. Cavas de Weinert has preserved the beautiful architecture and conserved many old methods of wine-making such as hand-picking the grapes and ageing the wines in huge casks as opposed to smaller barrels. At the requisite tasting it was immediately obvious that we were sampling very special, complexly layered, old world wines. We tasted three vintages of their signature blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, marvelling at the intensification of mellow, Christmas-pudding-like flavours as the wine had aged. A bottle of our favourite, the gorgeous 2006 vintage, cost a mere $300 ARD (approximately $25 AUD) and subsequently found its way home, buried deep in our bags.

Wine tasting at Weinert winery in Mendoza

We moved on to a family-run olive oil business, Pasrai, in Maipú where we toured the factory and tasted the delicious products. My favourite was an unfiltered extra virgin oil where the presence of finely ground olive puree gave a cloudy appearance and concentrated grassy flavours. After a pleasant hour, we then drove to another bodega in Maipú, Vistandes; this time a relatively young winery that was established in 2006. The modern facilities, stainless steel tanks and designer lighting were in stark contrast to the old world charm of Cavas de Weinert, but it was still an atmospheric place. As the sun set we tasted wines in front of towering glass windows that looked west, over the vines towards the Andes. The wines at Vistandes were pleasant, but decidedly underwhelming given our earlier, far more memorable experience.

Atmospheric cellar at Vistandes winery, Mendoza

Beautiful red-pink Carmenere at Vistandes winery Mendoza

The next morning we rose brutally early, ate a hurried breakfast and made our way in the dark to the local bus station. We departed at 7am to begin our nine-hour journey over the Andes and back to Chile. We had pre-booked our tickets, choosing seats right at the front on the upper deck in anticipation of the stunning mountain scenery. We needn’t have worried; the bus had a total of 14 passengers and most of them promptly fell asleep so before long, we spread ourselves right across the four front seats, enjoying the panoramic view as we sped along the highway. As the elevation began to rise the windows misted up which caused much frustration. We rubbed and tissued and wiped and cursed, struggling for quite some time to get any decent photos – even so, I quite like the painterly effect that resulted in some of the shots:

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

The bus wove along the narrow road, through tunnels, over bridges, climbing higher and higher towards the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The windows stopped misting as the sun burned off wisps of cloud, revealing a brilliant blue sky. The Argentinian side of the Andes is much drier than the Chilean because the mountains form an effective barrier to the precipitation that sweeps in from the Pacific Ocean. The arid plains and red rock formations made for spectacular viewing, and when we weren’t snapping cameras, we were simply absorbing the incredible view. Our fellow passengers had clearly seen it all before as they continued to snore in the background, or pass comments about the Spanish film playing on a tiny television mounted above our heads.

Stunning scenery in the Andes Mountains - Argentina

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

Bus trip from Argentina to Chile through the Andes

After several hours of driving we suddenly hit snow. The bus passed through several tiny settlements, including one which was clearly a local army base with troops training in the dense snow. The traffic had been steady the whole way and it gradually increased as we neared the border. Although the road was narrow and conditions were harsh, it was clearly an important distribution route between Argentina and Chile.

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

When we finally arrived at the border, Paso Internacional Los Libertadores, we were initially confronted with a long line of backed up traffic, but our driver soon pulled out to the right and drove past truck after truck loaded with cargo. Arriving at the customs station we then waited for nearly two hours before beginning the relatively quick process of getting our passports stamped. There was so much waiting around that we snuck off to use the bathroom at what turned out to be a critical moment. Despite the frontier feel of the place, the staff took their roles very seriously indeed. While Colin was still occupied, our busload of passengers were shouted at to form a line in front of our bags. Stalking along the row, our driver demanded to know where my compañero (companion) was, and my response, baños (bathroom), was met with a torrent of Latin fury. No-one spoke any English and I was very relieved when Colin returned. As soon as he joined the line someone barked an order and we were marched past three guards and sniffed at by large Alsatians, while our bags were sent along a creaking conveyor belt to be x-rayed. After this frenzy, we re-boarded the bus, drove a short distance and passed into Chile.

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

After the long and gentle ascent from Mendoza (to a peak of 3, 207m/10, 521 ft above sea level) the descent into Chile was incredibly fast thanks to a stretch of road known as Los Caracoles (The Snails). This extremely steep road includes a total of 28 hairpin turns (each numbered Curva 1-28). Each time we swung around a curve we felt suspended in the air; an excitingly unnerving effect of our seats at the front. In the icy conditions, in the proximity of heavily loaded trucks and lacking any form of guardrail or barriers, it must have taken intense concentration for the driver to descend. Fortunately we were soon driving past an aqua lake and then down through the familiar cactus-dotted valleys that we had seen on our previous trip into the Andes. Some of the passengers got off the bus to travel south to Santiago, but we continued through the town of Los Andes and on towards the coast. After a total of nine hours travelling we arrived in Valparaíso, found our hotel and headed out for steaming bowls of seafood soup. We slept so well that night.

Travelling from Mendoza to Valparaiso

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Rummaniyeh | Aubergine, Lentil, Pomegranate

Rummaniyeh - Palestinian Lentil and Eggplant Stew

Last week Cyclone Debbie signalled an abrupt end to summer. The storm hit North Queensland as a category 4 tropical cyclone, devastating Bowen, Ayr, and the popular tourist destinations of Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island. The force of the wind soon reduced, but the storm continued a slow path south, dumping such a quantity of heavy rain that widespread flooding was experienced across south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales. It was a dramatic, intense week and for many people it’s not over yet; some areas are still flooded, and where the waters are receding the clean up now begins.

Persian red lentils for rummaniyeh

I was off work on Wednesday while Debbie was ravaging  North Queensland. Down in Brisbane we didn’t experience the torrential rain until the next day, but even so, the weather was dark and foreboding (the photos give a good sense of what the natural light was like). At such times I only wish to be in my cosy kitchen and so I made Rummaniyeh, a Palestinian stew of lentils boiled together with aubergine (eggplant). This might not sound appetising but I can assure that it is delicious. The aubergine becomes silken and savoury, providing a luscious textural contrast to the lentils, which retain a little roughness. The stew is spiced with ground cumin and fried garlic, and the whole thing is lifted with the addition of tart pomegranate molasses and lemon juice. In fact, Rumman means pomegranate, so this dish literally means “pomegranatey”. This is emphasised by the addition of fresh pomegranate seeds sprinkled over the top like little jewels.

Lentils, aubergine, pomegrante, lemon, cumin and parsley

This was the second time I had made the recipe. The first time was a complete disaster, probably caused by a misprint in the original source, which calls for 150ml pomegranate molasses. This rendered the dish inedible due to mouth-puckering sourness, so the second time around I reduced the quantity to a mere two tablespoons (30ml). I’m glad I persisted because at this quantity (with increased aubergine and slightly less salt), it made perfect sense. The stew is light, fresh and comforting, with a flavour so mesmerising that it is difficult to believe that it’s made with such humble ingredients.

Palestinian Lentil and Aubergine Stew

On gloomy Wednesday my freshly cooked Rummaniyeh went down so well with a hunk of flatbread and a glass of red wine. On stormy Thursday, when we were sent home from the office at 9am due to safety concerns, another bowl warmed my stomach as I monitored newscasts and waited to hear that friends and colleagues were safe. It was hardly chilly during the Cyclone (in fact Brisbane continued to steam with the increased humidity) but Rummaniyeh  was the ideal psychological fit; a nourishing dish for unsettled times, for stormy days, the waning sun and the promise of cold days ahead.

Palestinian Lentil and Aubergine Stew with Pomegranate

A few notes for the cook: choose lentils that will hold their shape somewhat after cooking. I was able to find Persian red lentils at my local deli, but brown or green lentils should also work. You don’t need to soak the lentils before cooking, but I like to do this anyway (for 3-4 hours) to help increase their digestibility. Don’t be tempted to skip the pomegranate seeds. Yes they are ridiculously over-priced, but these ruby nuggets provide little bursts of juicy tartness that elevate the dish from good to incredible. Good olive oil drizzled generously over the top is another key to the utter deliciousness of this stew. The stew is traditionally served with taboon or khubez bread, neither of which are readily available where I live. I used Lebanese flatbread instead and one day I might try this recipe for taboon bread.

My very best wishes to everyone in Queensland and New South Wales as the clean up from Debbie begins. If you would like to support Queensland communities impacted by the Cyclone, you can donate here.

Rummaniyeh - Palestinian Lentil and Aubergine Stew

Rummaniyeh - Palestinian Lentil & Aubergine Stew

Adapted from Joudie Kalla via The Guardian

250g Persian red lentils or brown or green lentils
1 Tbsp ground cumin
600ml water
2 medium aubergine, peeled and cubed into 1-2cm dice
2-3 tsp salt (the original recipe calls for 3 tsp (i.e. 1 Tbsp) but I prefer it a little less salty)
50ml olive oil
4–6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
Juice of 1-2 lemons
1 Tbsp cornflour

To serve:
1 pomegranate
Flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Good extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Flatbread (Taboon or khubez is traditional; Lebanese or pita are more available)

Wash the lentils well using the technique described here, then soak them for a few hours if you wish.

When ready to cook, put the clean/drained lentils in a saucepan along with the cumin and water. Cover and bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the chopped aubergine and two teaspoons of salt, then leave to simmer for another 25 minutes.

While the lentils and vegetables cook, chop the garlic and then heat the olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. Add the garlic to the hot oil and cook for a few minutes until it begins to turn golden. Pour the oil and garlic into a small bowl and set aside to cool.

When the lentils and aubergine have cooked for 25 minutes, add the fried garlic and pomegranate molasses, stir through and cook for another 5 minutes. In a small bowl mix the cornflour with the juice of one lemon and then add to the lentils. Stir through until the sauce has thickened. Taste the lentils. If you would like a more sour flavour, add the juice of the second lemon. Adjust the salt at this time too, adding up to a further teaspoon until the flavour tastes right to you.

Ladle the lentils into a serving dish and drizzle generously with extra-virgin olive oil. Remove the seeds from the pomegranate by slicing it in half, then holding each half upside down as you slap the outside with a wooden spoon. The seeds should release and rain down onto the awaiting lentils (remove any bits of white pith that become detached). Scatter over the chopped parsley and eat with hot flatbread of your choice.

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How summer feels

Far North New Zealand, January 2017

Summer is the season that appears universally revered. In the southern hemisphere the warming weather means that Christmas is on its way and the annual round of parties, barbecues, beaches and sunscreen. It’s no wonder that we long for summer all year round. The thought of warm nights rolling into bright mornings into long, lazy afternoons seems so good, so right and so essential as we grind our way through the long year. Summer is as summer does.

Sadly, I can only write fondly of summer because it’s on its way out. Brisbane has just experienced its hottest summer on record, which included 30 consecutive days of temperatures over 30°C. This year, summer has been about getting through and constantly making ice to chill the water that emerges warm from the tap. Even now when it is officially autumn I’m lying here on the couch, clothes askew, beer within reach, resenting the heat of the laptop on my thighs.

The saving grace of this challenging summer has been three mini-holidays away. Just before Christmas we had a weekend in Coolum Beach where we took long walks on the beach and unwound after our busy year. After Christmas we had a few days down in Stanthorpe, Queensland’s only wine region, where we sampled some excellent local wines and gleefully pulled up the duvet at night when the temperature dropped wonderfully low. In late January we had a glorious week back in New Zealand, enjoying the long twilight hours and the novel sensation of comfortably wearing jeans. Summer might have been a write-off back in Brisbane, but these three experiences reminded me of just how good summer can be. The following collection of photographs tries to capture this feeling of Summer 2016-17.

Coolum Beach, Sunshine Coast, Australia
Coolum Beach is one of our favourite spots on the busy Sunshine Coast. Unlike other beaches nearby, Coolum is relatively undeveloped which has helped to preserve its natural beauty and chilled out vibe. Things to do: hike up Mt Coolum for spectacular 360° views, shop for beachy clothes along the shopping strip, walk for hours along the white sandy beach, eat at Raw Energy for breakfast and Harvest for dinner.

Coolum Beach on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland Australia

Coolum Beach, Sunshine Coast Australia

Up Mt Coolum looking towards Mooloolaba, Sunshine Coast Australia

Stanthorpe, Southern Queensland, Australia
Queensland’s mild winters and heavy summer rainfalls aren’t conducive to wine making, but Stanthorpe is located just north of the border with New South Wales in the high country area of the Granite Belt. The elevation means that Stanthorpe is hot (but not humid) in summer and cold in winter; in fact, it even snows at times. We took a great half-day winery tour with Granite Highlands Maxi Tours, learning that wine has been made in the Granite Belt for nearly 150 years. Unfortunately, Queenslanders tend to prefer beer above all else, and for years the region produced sweet, unremarkable wine to cater to the underdeveloped palate of locals. The region now boasts several award winning wineries and we were impressed by most of the wineries we visited. Highlights included the excellent Tempranillo at Moonrise Estate, Malbec at Whisky Gully, Shiraz at Ballandean Estate and the delicious Viognier at Ridgemill Estate, where we also stayed.

Other things to do in Stanthorpe: wander around town, try the famous apple cider and apple pie at Sutton’s Farm, visit local potters, and look out for the McGregor Terrace Food Project (which was sadly closed when we were there).

At Ridgemill Estate Winery, Stanthoroe, Queensland Australia

At Ridgemill Estate Winery, Stanthorpe, Queensland Australia

Golden grass in Stanthorpe, Southern Queensland, Australia

At dawn, Stanthorpe, Southern Queensland, Australia

Winery tour in Stanthorpe, Queensland Australia

Far North, New Zealand
The Far North of the North Island is a little off the beaten track. It’s a solid four hours drive north of Auckland; more if you’re unused to the narrow, winding roads, but it will always be home to me. We spent a wonderful few days visiting family, soaking up the beautiful and familiar views and eating home grown produce from Mum’s garden. The highlight was a family outing to Lake Rotopokaka on the Karikari Peninsula, which is referred to locally as Coca Cola Lake due to the deep reddish-brown water (the colour is due to leaching minerals and tannins from peat). While the thought of brown water might sound off-putting, the water is clear and sparkling and is even considered to have healing properties. After a dip in the lake we drove over the hill to nearby Tokerau Beach and enjoyed a picnic on the beach while the sun gradually went down. It was after 9pm when we finally left and it still wasn’t completely dark (love daylight savings!). Sun, fun and fresh air – we all slept well that night.

Other things to do in the Far North: hang out at Ahipara to watch local surfers in action and visit nearby winery, Okahu Estate, take a walk in the quaint village of Mangonui and eat fish and chips at the infamous Mangonui Fish Shop, travel up to Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of New Zealand (where it is said that the souls of departed Maori pass on their way to their spiritual homeland, Hawaiki), book a fishing charter out of Mangonui or Houhora, or simply find a beach (you’re never far from one) and relax.

Shipwreck Bay - a popular surfing spot for locals

mesmerising-red-brown-waters-of-lake-rotopokaka-aka-coca-cola-lakes

At Coca Cola Lake - Karikari Peninsula

Coca Cola Lakes, Mum's vegetables and Loki the dog - January 2017

At Tokerau Beach, Karirkari Peninsula, Doubtless Bay New Zealand

Tokerau Beach

At Tokerau Beach on the Karikari Peninsula

Tokerau Beach on the Karikari Peninsula - Far North New Zealand

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Best brunch dish | South-East Asian Kedgeree

Freshly poached salmon for South-East Asian Kedgeree

Kedgeree is an “Anglo-Indian culinary mash up” of a dish, combining curried rice with smoked fish and hard boiled eggs, popularised in Victorian times by returning colonials who melded Indian spices with British haddock. Kedgeree doesn’t appear to be well known outside of the UK, which is a shame because it makes for a supremely comforting and restorative meal. I’m always struck by how kedgeree sticks to your ribs while remaining light, warming the stomach and reviving a sluggish morning brain. It’s a classic and favourite dish, which made it an obvious choice for our annual Christmas breakfast.

Kedgeree with poached salmon, coriander, lime and turmeric

Since moving to Australia and spending most Christmases away from our families, I have imposed a tradition of making a big deal about Christmas breakfast. Breakfast is usually the most unloved meal of Christmas Day, which makes it the perfect blank slate for a new event (the rest is down to pure laziness on my part – breakfast will always be easier to pull off than Christmas lunch or dinner). I have tended to make use of this opportunity to try a new recipe, but we all know that it’s a bad idea to make recipes for the first time when entertaining. Unsurprisingly, this practice has resulted in sub-par results, including the bland 2014 Corn & Feta Fritters and the weirdly textural 2015 Summer Celebration Breakfast Tart. I also tend to take too long photographing the freshly plated food, turning a good dish into a barely edible one (see the 2013 Poached Eggs in White Wine, which reached the table stone cold and slightly congealed). After five Christmas breakfasts of mixed success (clearly, I’m a slow learner), I have accepted the following truths:

  1. Only tried and true recipes are likely to deliver a perfect result under pressure; and,
  2. Christmas Day is not the time for a photoshoot (neither is any day really, if it means getting between hungry people and their food).

Christmas 2016 went off without a hitch partly because it starred this kedgeree, a recipe that I’ve been cooking and adapting for years. I know the recipe intimately and it does what I expect it to do. The flavours were balanced, the rice was fluffy, I didn’t take a single photo and the kedgeree was served warm(!!!).

Kedgeree with poached salmon, coriander, lime and turmeric

Kedgeree with poached salmon, coriander, lime and turmeric

While not traditional and therefore not acceptable to some, Nigella Lawson’s Kedgeree replaces the smoked fish with poached fresh salmon and takes the spice profile towards Thailand and Vietnam rather than India. Turmeric, cumin and ground coriander provide earthiness, kaffir lime leaves, lime zest and fresh coriander provide headiness, and salty, umami fish sauce brings the whole together. Kedgeree is best served warm and freshly cooked but leftovers are almost as good (which makes for sublime snacking on Christmas afternoon).

Kedgeree with poached salmon, coriander, lime and turmeric

Christmas 2016 was a small group of friends who gathered at our place for a three course breakfast. Over the course of three hours we ate our way through an abundant fruit platter, before moving to the kedgeree, then finishing with light and crispy Belgian waffles topped with fresh berry sauce and whipped cream. It was easily my most successful Christmas breakfast to date, and even if you did have to wait over two months for me to make it again, photograph it and post the recipe, at least it means that my guests might decide to show up again next year. I think I’ve just nailed my own tradition (at last!).

Kedgeree with poached salmon, coriander, lime and turmeric

South-East Asian Kedgeree

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites

500ml cold water
2 kaffir limes leaves, torn
3-4 salmon fillets, skin off (approximately 750g)
45g salted butter
1 tsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
225g basmati rice
1-2 tsp fish sauce (to taste)

To finish:
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
Small bunch coriander, roughly chopped
Juice and finely grated zest of 1 lime
1 more lime, cut into segments

Preheat the oven to 220°C / 430°F. Select an oven-proof dish or roasting pan into which the salmon fillets are able to fit comfortably, laid side by side. Pour over the water, add the lime leaves, and then cover the dish tightly with foil and cook in the oven for 15 minutes. Check that the salmon is cooked (barely cooked and still tender on the inside), and use a large spatula or fish slice to remove the salmon to a large plate. Cover the fish with the foil to keep warm. Reserve the poaching liquid but discard the lime leaves.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the oil. Saute the onion gently until it has become translucent, and then add the spice and cook for a few more minutes. Add the rice and stir together with the butter, spices and onion. Add 1 tsp of fish sauce to the reserved poaching liquid and taste to assess the flavour (we are after a subtle broth – not too fishy or salty) and add a little more fish sauce if it still tastes too bland. Pour the broth over the rice, stir through, cover and gently bring to a simmer over a medium-low heat. Cook for approximately 15 minutes.

While the rice cooks, wash and chop the coriander, peel and quarter the eggs and you can even zest the lime if you wish.

When the rice is cooked, turn off the heat, cover the saucepan with a clean tea towel and then replace the lid (this will help to absorb any excess moisture – a good tip for when cooking any sort of grain on the stovetop).

When ready to serve, pour off snd discard any further liquid that has collected around the salmon, then flake the fish into large chunks. Place the fish into the saucepan with the rice, most of the coriander, lime zest and juice, and eggs. If your rice still seems a little bland at this point, sprinkle over a bit more fish sauce, and then gently toss everything together using a couple of large spatulas. Transfer the mixture to a serving platter, sprinkle with the rest of the coriander, squeeze over a bit more lime and add lime wedges on the side.

Filed under: Eat