AN EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD meal stimulates not just conversation, but thought. The recent dinner for the Wellington Symposium of Gastronomy at Hillside Kitchen and Cellar encouraged reflections on the distinctive, at least to an outsider, Kiwi aesthetic.
Admittedly, I’m only a partial outsider, having lived in Wellington from mid-2000 to the end of 2007, but that provided preliminary data for ruminations on the notable contrasts, culturally, with Australia.
Hillside is a tiny café-restaurant in Thorndon, near the centre of the New Zealand capital. It runs from breakfast until dinner, and was chosen for the symposium by Duncan Galletly, who had previously rated the place:
interesting, brave, cerebral and simply delicious. On Saturday we did a mr creosote and ordered “one of everything please” – asking for wine “that was interesting”.
Of twelve plates all except one, the bluenose, were brilliant and the fish was still good by any standards… [etc]
For confirmation of the “cerebral” quality, check out chef Asher Boote’s comments on Hillside’s website. He exposes himself every meal, but for a reason:
The one true reward in this profession is not the pay (for this is always crap), it’s being a facilitator of a good time, creating a reason for people to sit down, stop for a bit and be with each other
The symposium menu narrowed down to: snacks; sourdough, cultured butter; vegetables, marrow; sea egg; wild sheep, garlic, greens; elder, pine, rosemary; treats. And the courses got progressively better.
I would happily have had more of the delicious marrow dip with raw vegetables, all placed in a bone, split length-wise. Real-seeming seaweed, sea urchin and other sea creatures arrived under a halved, boiled egg.
Next was the “wild sheep”, cooked sous-vide, pulled and pressed into a block. One person meanly described it as looking like “Spam”.
The plate of elderflowers, crunchy bits and rosemary cream “quenelle” was perfect, in anyone’s language … likewise, the final, tiny “treats” of mint marshmallow, strawberry meringue and mascarpone fudge proved yet again that this kitchen can cook.
But back to the block of “wild sheep”. Along with the split bone and “sea egg”, it aroused contemplation about the distinctive New Zealand style.
The Kiwi aesthetic is so ever-present that locals hardly notice. The numerous elements go beyond the prevalent black, reflecting the dark beaches and rocky outcrops, and the old-fashioned textures of wool and wood, and, importantly, permit flashes of brightness.
The boast of “Kiwi ingenuity” is said to involve “number 8 wire” – the softer, thicker, fencing gauge with which a bloke could mend anything. That’s the sheep farmer, who supported founding Calvinists in eschewing flashiness or pretension. The resulting non-style mixes with traditional, Pacific islander motifs and tattoos. The ever-present driftwood contributes randomness, while native rimu provides smooth, warm timber surfaces.
The drabness is comforting, and makes a backdrop for subtlety, along with drollery. Think farmer Fred Dagg (comedian John Clark), who in the 1970s always responded to a knock, “That’ll be the door.” More recently, the Flight of the Conchords took a similarly glum gleam into the wider world.
The Kiwi aesthetic shows in fashion, or perhaps avoidance thereof. Not only the hoodies, clothing is deliberately dressed down, although designers aim for well-made comfort. In any case, undue devotion to grooming would soon become windswept. Yet all that enables unapologetic touches of whimsy. Here in Wellington, the twist of a hem, flash of garish stocking or the natty dress of post-gothic dandies quickly makes street-wear fascinating enough for Bill Cunningham.
During our visit, friends received voting papers to select a new national flag. We are all now run by merchant bankers (think Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and NSW Premier Mike Baird), and everyone seemed so angry at theirs (Prime Minister John Key) that they would rather keep the present flag, with no fewer than four Christian crosses, than let his campaign succeed. The four logos on the shortlist were so unloved that they had, belatedly, to be supplemented by “Red Peak”. It encapsulates the aesthetic, albeit unbalanced, so that the joy of the red volcano and white mountain push the grim black into a corner.
I’m probably the first visitor to New Zealand to have photographed nothing but a kitchen sink. I snapped it as the best example of tonal-depressiveness-with-moments-of-brilliance. For many decades domestic benchtops were custom-made in stainless steel with the sink or sinks set in, sensible, sturdy and easy to clean. They look beautiful, set against rimu woodwork. More than that, however, with corners and splashbacks fitted to even the oddest room, they lend themselves to quirkiness. Unlike hard, polished white Caesarstone, the grey patina could not be more homely.
Such cultural references were made by the central dishes at Hillside the other night. While I heard secondhand that a huddle of senior restaurant reviewers grumbled a bit about the meal, I suspect they missed an aesthetic more noticeable to the outsider. The Kiwi aesthetic – exemplified by the decorated bone, the slices of underwater life in a dark pool of broth, and the equally grey slab of sheep, hidden amid the green.
As fate would have it, a few days later, artist and cabinet-maker Duncan Sargent told me about his sculpture at Lower Hutt. It’s a properly engineered geodesic dome with a timber plank through it. The Hillside meat dish was much the same – intricate cooking stuck through with a sheep block.