During my first trip to Ōamaru I joined a substantial group of people milling around on Harbour St. While in full chat mode I glanced down to see a tiny penguin waddling past; it wound its way through the crowd of ankles on that glorious road of stunning limestone buildings, with no one except me seeming to think this was unusual at all. Who wouldn’t want to live in a town where you can hang out on that magical street with litle blue penguins? That was where the allure of the Waitaki began for me and it has been calling to me ever since.

Three years later I’m back in Ōamaru, on the southern fringe of town heading to Pen-y-bryn Lodge (built in 1889), a magnificent historic homestead perched at the top of a hill. A warm greeting from hosts James Glucksman and James Boussy leaves me in no doubt that the Jameses are more than capable of throwing one helluva dinner party in this gorgeous old girl. The lodge tasting menu is filled with ingredients grown in the Pen-y-bryn gardens and prepared with a great deal of pride. To start, a sensational High Country Salmon with charred tahini, baba ghanoush-filled cucumber rolls, Kakanui tomatoes, radish and Canterbury quail eggs. Braised baby artichoke with caramelised artichoke purée, artichoke cream and perfectly sautéed Waitaki mushrooms are a highlight, as are the fabulous lodge-dug Jersey Bennes that accompany some seductive Ōamaru Beef short ribs braised in hoisin and golden ale from local favourite, Scotts Brewing Co. Breakfast at Pen-y-bryn is no run-of-the-mill continental. I find myself surrounded by an exquisite collection of fruit, homemade jams and baked goodies and although a cooked breakfast was also on offer I was more than content with the decadent spread on that table. There is something to learn or admire in every corner of this beautiful property with its antiques and furnishings that date back to the original owners. It takes an incredible amount of skill and dedication and energy to be as hands-on as the Jameses and the result is a unique and special experience. penybryn.co.nz

I say any time of the day is a good day for New Zealand cheese and it’s hard not to be swept up into the immense pride that the Berry family and their team have for their Whitestone Cheese. When founders Bob and Sue Berry decided to experiment with cheesemaking and put less focus on their farm and livestock, the township called them crazy. Now more than 30 years later, their son Simon Berry holds the family curds and is still taking risks and challenging the traditional. Whitestone Cheese is familiar at home as well as internationally recognised; its Vintage Winsor Blue is legendary and the factory now employs more than 50 staff and includes a cheese deli/ store and offers guided factory tours.

A visit to Ōamaru is not complete without popping in to the Whitestone shop and working your way through a wide range of the delectable blues, soft and semi softs as well as feta and vintage cheese. Make sure you grab one or two of the epic cheese rolls and ask for a taste of the new Ōamaru Blue. It’s a little bit creamy, a little bit tangy and a whole lotta delicious. whitestonecheese.com

After all that cheese perhaps a good craft beer is in order and Craftwork Brewery is something a little bit special  if you are that way inclined. Hand- crafted Belgian-style ales brewed in the heart of Ōamaru by Michael O’Brien and Lee-Ann Scotti are available at their tasting room in Ōamaru’s heritage precinct. Their cheese, biersticks, bread and pickled eggs are said to be the perfect foil for their unique beers. craftworkbrewery.co.nz

Lunch or dinner at Riverstone Kitchen (just 15km north of Ōamaru) is an absolute must. Owner Bevan Smith walks me through his outstanding kitchen garden while telling me the story of the family farm built by his parents Dot and Neil on a bed of river stone. He shows me photos that look like they were taken on Mars and it’s hard to comprehend that this lush, thriving oasis was once not much more than dirt and stones. Bevan can cook – I mean seriously cook – and he also knows a great deal about how to use good produce, most of which stems from the gardens and orchards that surround and define Riverstone Kitchen. The menu changes regularly to showcase ingredients at their very peak: the deep-fried zucchini flowers are plucked that very day from those garden beds and the Okaahu Lamb nestles with baba ganoush, roast zucchini, baby carrots and sensational sautéed potatoes.

Uncluttered, unpretentious and utterly delicious, this is a restaurant experience that is well worth travelling for. You could spend a whole day wandering the gardens and browsing through Dot’s quirky gift shops that are located within the compound. You might also take a tour of her dream home, an incredible stone castle standing proud and unmissable just beyond the restaurant. Keep an eye out for Dot beavering away in her three massive gardens and soak up the wonderful feeling of family, community and immense joy in what they do so well. riverstonekitchen.co.nz

Sometimes a girl just needs a good chicken salad and I have found one of the best. It’s called the Sal Royale and has super-crispy chicken bits served on a bed of voluptuous salad greens, with slivers of brie and drizzled with a honey mustard dressing and a sprinkling of cashew nuts, and I found it at Fat Sally’s. Owner Sally-Anne Donnelly seemed quite perplexed to have the editor of Cuisine pop in for lunch, which makes me giggle as there is life beyond dégustations… even for me. I’m as happy as the next bona fide food-loving traveller to tuck into some serious pub grub and that’s exactly what you will find at this local institution. Publican and restaurateur Sally is a hospo girl through and through: she’s been, and still is, the woman behind a number of successful hospitality venues in Ōamaru and is an important ingredient in the evolution of its unique flavour. Mention her name around town and you will hear endless stories of her devotion to dozens of charity and community ventures. Sally tells me she’d always joked about having a pub and calling it Fat Sally’s and never dreamed she’d do such a good job of growing into the name. I want to hug her, but as I’m a woman who eats for a living I reckon we’d both have to stretch. fatsallys.co.nz

Big-hearted, fearless and fiery, Yanina and Pablo Tacchini’s restaurant Cucina reflects their Argentinian, Italian and Spanish heritage and is a tribute to their passion for supporting local businesses and delivering food that is made with a great deal of love. I want the recipe for their ginger syrup, lime and coriander martini and wish I had squeezed in the raspberry pisco sour. Empanadas filled with hand-cut beef and capsicum sofrito; burrata with smoked peppers, Kakanui tomatoes, soft herbs, dukkah and balsamic flakes; and house-smoked chicken ravioli with sautéed mushrooms, baby spinach, parmesan and truffle oil are just a taste of what you can expect at Cucina. But I’d advise you to trust Pablo and go for the tasting menu, which is a steal at $70 per person. My cheeky strawberry panna cotta with marinated strawberries, elderflower syrup, dried meringue and strawberry sorbet was almost too beautiful to eat. Yanina and Pablo’s story is yet another of dedicated hospo people who just won’t quit and who find great strength in the face of adversity. This dynamic couple own two thriving Ōamaru establishments (despite the year that was 2020) with Cucina’s adjoining café Tees St serving up great coffee, brunch and lunch, and were opening their newest venture Del Mar the week of my visit. It doesn’t get much more waterfront than this stunning new location where they are dishing out fish and chips, house-made gelato and a family-oriented menu that sounds like it will become a firm favourite for locals. cucinaoamaru.co.nz, delmar.nz, teesstcafe.com

 

On the way back to Dunedin (or on the way in to Ōamaru) there are two spots in Moeraki that I think you should consider. The first is, of course, Fleurs Place where the powerhouse Fleur Sullivan continues to serve up delicious fare with a predominately seafood focus, using fresh fish from Moeraki Bay fishing boats. I adore this charismatic woman with her unshakeable southern spirit with all of my heart (as does pretty much everyone who knows anything about our evolving New Zealand food story), because Fleur is the definition of what great hospitality is all about. From a childhood in Tawai on the Waitaki River where all important conversations took place around the dinner table, through wild culinary adventures across the pubs of the west coast, to a glamorous 1970s hospo life in Queenstown, the establishment of her much-acclaimed restaurant Olivers in Clyde and, of course, now in her legendary Moeraki restaurant Fleurs Place, Fleur’s story is one of a deep connection to the landscape around her and an experience that you cannot miss. fleursplace.com

The other must-visit is a small endeavour created by John and Nicky Pile and operating from a couple of repurposed but very intriguing shipping containers on the Moeraki wharf. The FishWife celebrates the simplest of pleasures: crayfish pan-fried with garlic and served with lemon, pāua fritters, flaky blue cod battered and fried… all served with a scoop of chips. The seafood is supplied from the catch from John’s boat, the Chivalair; he’s a fourth-generation Moeraki fisherman and you can’t get much closer to the source than that. @moerakifishwife

WOULD YOU LIKE WINE WITH THAT?

Here are some outstanding local wineries whose wines will give you a special taste of the unique Waitaki region.

Bobbing Creek Wine bobbingcreekwine.co.nz 
Foothill Groves  facebook.com/FoothillGroves
Forrest/Tatty Bogler Wines forrest.co.nz/collections/tatty-bogler
Little Domett Estate littledomettestate.nz
Ostler Wines ostlerwine.co.nz
Q Wines qwine.co.nz
River T Estate rivertestate.co.nz
Sublime Wine sublimewine.co.nz