New Zealand cafés still continue to surprise and delight me. A moist Spinach Risotto Cake at Reid’s Store during a break while driving to Nelson the morning after we arrived, eaten in bright sunshine outside on the decking was my re-introduction to café cooking, NZ style on this trip. There were other days of happy eating. Marinated Lamb on a Puy Lentil Salad with lemon yoghurt dressing at Nelson’s Morrison Street Café, with a glass of local sauvignon blanc; a sticky, dried fruit-packed, gluten free Ginger Slice with a long black, milk on the side (my coffee order of choice in NZ) in Muses Café, Motueka, en route to the Boyfriend’s family bach in Ngaio Bay; a last Christchurch breakfast of a fresh-baked savoury Spinach and Cream Cheese Muffin followed by an enormous date-studded sweet scone outside Veronica’s Café on New Regent Street, soaking up the last rays of sun as we watched the tourist trams going past.
The secret seems to lie with the fresh-baked, often on the premises, scones, muffins and slices, good ingredients – many cafés (try Under the Red Verandah or Vic’s Café, both in Christchurch) trumpet their use of free range eggs and local produce – and proprietors and customers who won’t accept stale, prepacked goods made at one location and shipped all over the country as is all too often the case in Ireland. One of the few cafés I’ve found in Ireland that comes close to the NZ ideal is Michelle Darmody’s Cake Café (there’s a short piece about it here) in Dublin, even down to the mismatched, old fashioned dishes and cups that feature in my favourite Kiwi cafés.
It’s often the small things in NZ cafés that make a customer feel cared for – a carafe of water either arriving on your table first thing or readily available; airy toilets which look like they have been cleaned recently; piles of things available to read while you eat, often including Cuisine, Taste and Dish and a couple of cookbooks. It’s always reassuring to see café staff interested in food-oriented publications! The only place I’ve seen something like this in Ireland is in the delectable Café Paradiso in Cork which, funnily enough, is run by a half-Kiwi couple.
There is always an exception, and on this trip it was the Cityside Café in the ground floor International Terminal of Christchurch airport. Pasty rolls were stuffed with an indeterminate green-flecked paste that went under the name of spinach and feta. A stale chocolate muffin topped with an oddly misplaced dab of raspberry jam made me feel right at home, being a good example of the kind of sweet thing on offer in many Irish cafés. My flat white was barely lukewarm and, for a last taste of NZ, it really was a disappointing experience. Next time I’ll make sure I bring in my muffins from Muffin Break – a shopping center café chain that manages to get it right, albeit in (usually) horrible surroundings, with decent muffins and lots of gluten-free options. At least their coffee is made with hot milk!