Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sacred Hill wine tasting

Our final wine club tasting event for this year was hosted by Sacred Hill. This winery is around 30 years old and based in Hawke's Bay with vineyards also in Marlborough and the Matakana Coast near Auckland. Grapes such as chardonnay are picked overnight in Marlborough, then shipped north to the winery in a cool truck where it is processed within eight hours of being picked.

The tasting was hosted by a sales rep and a very bored territory manager who looked like she'd rather be anywhere but there. Never mind. It was still good to taste six new wines from Sacred Hill and Ti Point, even if the session was unnecessarily drawn out. I can't help but wonder how their sales figures compared to those from other wine tasting evenings we've been to.

Onto the wine. The chardonnay and a sauvignon blanc made it onto the yes list. Much fuss was made of a special white Merlot, something we were keen to try only to hear that they didn't actually have that sample for us after all. Maybe next time?

2014 Ti Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. This sav was fruity and smooth, well balanced and not too light with low acidity. It got better with every sip until it made it all the way onto the yes list.

2014 Sacred Hill Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Described as a Halo quality wine in grocery store packaging, the reserve label sav was more up front and fruity than its Ti Point counterpart. Although it's probably a more refined drop, it was only a maybe for us.

2014 Sacred Hill Reserve Hawke's Bay Chardonnay. Chardonnay has been a bit out of fashion lately. This one had a smooth finish and the level of French oak was neither unpleasant nor overbearing, making this a surprise yes.

2014 Ti Point Matakana Coast Ruby Rose. Not awful, but not something we'd buy a bottle of. Meh.

2014 Sacred Hill Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir. A dusky red colour and a heavy oak finish. No.

2013 Ti Point Merlot Cabernet Franc. Nope. I'm still not a heavy red wine drinker.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Elton John in concert

"She packed my bags last night, pre-flight
Zero hour, 9 am."
Elton John, Rocket Man himself, touched down in Wellington yesterday for a rocking night at Westpac Stadium. It would be his final time touring this part of the world - or so the promoter said. The man himself may have other ideas, insisting that he will be back. After seeing Elton John in concert twice now (at the same venue), I hope he makes it a hat-trick.

I'll openly admit that I became more of an Elton John fan after seeing him perform live in Wellington in 2006. Sure, I'd played and listened to a significant chunk of his back catalogue while growing up as a pianist but had written him off as a performing peacock, strutting and preening on stage while his amazing band of tireless musicians did all the actual work. How wrong I was! From the moment those ethereal opening lines of Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding blasted out, to the instantly recognisable opening staccato piano chord of Benny and the Jetssss, I could see we were in for a huge night.

Fast forward to 2015 and much of the set list was the same. But just like a vintage wine, it sounded even more mature and enjoyable this time around. Wow, what a performance! With around 2 1/4 hours of solid piano playing and entertaining, there are too many highlights to single out. Hits, B-sides, lesser known numbers and stellar megahits rang out right through to the Crocodile Rocking encore that had the whole crowd on their feet. Also, the glow sticks and battery-operated candles that used to be for sale outside events have now given way to a sea of cell phones lighting up the stadium for Candle in the Wind. The cell phone lights also made an appearance during Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, which Elton dedicated to the late Jonah Lomu.

Elton talked about how his writing partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin is now into its 48th year. He also introduced long serving members of the Elton John band: Nigel Olsson on drums and Davey Johnstone on guitar. They've collaborating for more years than I've been alive. What an achievement!

The only fly in the ointment (apart from the cold wind - but a beanie and coat fixed that problem) was intermittent sound quality, with keyboards and bass out of balance and the top end missing during some key numbers. I crossed my fingers that it wasn't a local sound mixer on deck last night.

Will he be back? Here's hoping. Maybe then I'll finally get to hear him perform his elusive tribute to John Lennon, the legendary Empty Garden.

Friday, 20 November 2015

This American Life

2015 has been the year of the podcast for me. I'm very late to jump onto this bandwagon. I've always been more of a reader but commuting by bus armed with an iPhone has now made me a more captive audience for media I can consume via audio and video. Also, podcasts are a great option on days when my eyes are too tired to stay open and read my Kindle.

For quality and consistency, I can't really go past This American Life. I was introduced to this podcast via the first series of Serial and quickly became hooked. Described as "a story in [two/three/four] acts", This American Life is a one-hour radio programme that centres around a theme. The show's format is slick, well produced and features punchy writing. It doesn't ramble or go over time and you know that what you're going to get will be good, even if the subject matter is unfamiliar. Episodes are often told in first-person narrative and approach themes from personal viewpoints that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

This week, This American Life celebrates 20 years and fans are encouraged fans via Twitter to name their favourite episode. Being 19 years late to the party, I'm not in a position to nominate my favourite episode. There are a few episodes that stand out for me:
This morning, I listened to a back episode of Alec Baldwin's Here's The Thing featuring an interview with Ira Glass. (Wow, a podcast interview about podcasting - how meta!) It gave a glimpse into how Glass's personal life and background may influence the show and its topic and how he often deviates from the neutral default position expected of mainstream journalism. It's an interesting listen.

If you're new to This American Life, I'd suggest choosing a few episodes by diving into the archive then subscribing to future podcasts. You'll be hooked in no time.

Monday, 16 November 2015

10CC in concert

From time to time I get emails from my dad with a band name in the subject line. It usually means one of two things:
  1. Dad is asking whether I have a particular CD that he'd like to borrow and, if not, whether I'd like to buy it for him.
  2. Dad is suggesting an upcoming concert that I should buy tickets for us to go to.
Last week's email from Dad said 10CC. This time, however, there was a slight twist. Dad had been given two tickets to 10CC in concert in Wellington and wondered if I'd like to go with him. That makes a nice change!

I delightedly announced my news to those around me. Here's how the general conversation went:
Me: "I'm going to 10CC on Friday!"
Them: "What does that mean?"
Me: "They're an English rock band from the 70s ..."
Them: "What do they sing?"
Me: "*Play* - what do they play."
Them: "Do they sing I'm Not In Love? I like that song."
Me: "There's so much more to 10CC than I'm Not In Love."
Them: "Oh, that's right! They also sing the cricket song!"
Me: *shakes head and sighs*
On to the show. We were promised an opening acoustic set of songs written by front man Graham Gouldman that were performed by other bands in the 1960s - something I was really looking forward to. The lights came up to a Gouldman acoustic guitar solo version of Pamela Pamela by The Mindbenders. Band members were progressively introduced and they each joined the stage with an acoustic guitar in hand until there was a full compliment of four guitarists, playing beautiful versions of classics such as A Heart Full of Soul and For Your Love (The Yardbirds), No Milk Today (Herman's Hermits) and Bus Stop and Look Through Any Window (The Hollies). Gouldman described the circumstances behind the songs and how they came about, the common element being good storytelling as the starting point for each song. Perfect harmonies rounded out a feelgood set of happy vibes.

The 10CC concert set list itself was a well polished selection of the band's biggest hits along with a few of their more obscure numbers. For a band renown for their top notch studio production, they managed to authentically replicate their sound on stage without jeopardising any of their 'live' vibe. One of my favourites was played early on, a detuned version of The Things We Do For Love that still featured great harmonies but just didn't spark as much in a lower key. An extended version of Art for Art's Sake was a highlight, complete with fades in all the right places and great bass solos.

The true test, though, was whether the band could pull off I'm Not In Love with its gazillion overdubbed backing tracks live on stage. I'm almost disappointed to report (refer to above conversation) that it was absolutely note perfect. Not a single harmonic gap and a perfect balance between the backing track and live performance. Damn! I really didn't want to like it so much but this song was totally impressive, even for this cynical musician. The crowd were on their feet for an over-pumped version of Dreadlock Holiday and the extremely fun Rubber Bullets, which I'm proud to say I still remember absolutely every word of and sang all the way home.

For me, the secret to 10CC's appeal is well crafted storytelling coupled with excellent instrumentation and production, performed seemingly with ease by skilled multi-instrumentalists. I was surprised to see a single bass guitar makes it way around three different sized band members. Sharing a guitar, let alone a bass would be sacrilege in any other band! Ditto sharing a mic between four singers harmonising an a capella song (Donna as the first encore). The sound mix was really on form.

What a great concert! Fantastic musicians performing an excellent back catalogue, great company (Dad) and a happy trip down musical memory lane.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Bread making class

Bread making is something I've come to enjoy this past year or two. I never thought I had the patience for bread making; bread is not usually something you can whip up in an hour or on a whim. It requires planning in advance but the result is entirely worth it. With or without a bread maker and armed with a few simple recipes, bread making is actually quite achievable. Besides, it's practically impossible to resist freshly baked bread!

We were back at Crave Cooking School this week for a bread making class with chef Zoe Lloyd. Bagels, corn bread and sourdough were on the menu.

I love sourdough. One thing I've always wanted to do is start a sourdough starter - and keep it alive. This is not as easy as it sounds. We looked at the instructions and talked through the steps several times. Although I took detailed notes I'm still not entirely convinced that it's going to work for me, but I'm now ready to transfer my starter into a glass jar in preparation for feeding it this weekend. I guess I'll cross my fingers and hope for the best!

The mixing and baking process itself for sourdough is similar to most other breads. We began combining the mixture into dough form and kneading it by hand before finishing it off in this super duper dough mixer. The dough hook on my Kenwood mixer will come in handy when I make sourdough at home.

Is there room for one of these mixers in my kitchen?
We then shaped our dough, slit the top and left it to proof before baking. This is what they looked like straight out of the oven. You'll have to imagine the incredible smell for yourself.

Sourdough fresh from the oven
Next up, bagels. I can usually take or leave bagels; eating something with the texture of cardboard really doesn't appeal to me. Making my own bagels, however, opened my eyes to how good they can be - and no hint of cardboard whatsoever. Using basically the same ingredients as pizza (flour, yeast, salt, sugar, olive oil and water), these bagels were a really pleasant surprise in both flavour and texture. They're also easy enough to make and shape by hand. After they've proofed, they are boiled then baked.

I like the idea of everything bagels, where you top them with everything you can get your hands on (think poppy seeds, sesame seeds, flaky salt, peppercorns, fresh garlic, onion flakes ...) and fill them with even more yummy stuff. Here's my everything bagel filled with salmon and cream cheese.

Everything bagel filled with salmon and cream cheese
In between the sourdough and bagels proofing, we also made loaves of cornbread, a type of quick bread using cornmeal and with a teaspoon each of paprika and cayenne pepper to give it a little kick. This was my favourite freshly baked bread of the night and one that I went back for seconds. No pics for this one - I was distracted by the amazing taste and smell.

As a result of Tuesday's class, it's been a bread-filled week. The cornbread is in the freezer and will be defrosted this weekend. The sour dough was devoured at a family birthday tomorrow night and the bagels became lunch each day.

Thanks once again to the Crave Cooking School team (Zoe, Lucy and Marco) for a fun baking class. I've now got a few more skills to add to my breadmaking arsenal and a sourdough starter that I'm determined not to kill.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Kahurangi Estate wine tasting

Kahurangi Estate is a family owned winery situated in Upper Moutere near Motueka in the Nelson region. Kahurangi specialises in making quality handmade wines and features some of the oldest commercial vines planted in New Zealand. As well as producing wine locally, Kahurangi imports and distributes a range of wine, port, sherry and congnac from around the world.

Our host for last week's wine tasting evening was Wellington-based sales representative Sarah McCormick. We sampled five wines from two of Kahurangi's locally made labels (Kahurangi Estate and Trout Valley) and three imported wines, which is how I've divided up my tasting notes. We've now added an imported prosecco and a tawny port to our wine list.

Locally made wines
  • Kahurangi Estate Gewurztraminer 2013. At 13.5% alcohol and 9.5 grams of residual sugar, this off dry Gewurztraminer had an oily finish that I didn't like. Apparently it cellars well for three years.
  • Trout Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2014. The first of two sauvignon blancs we sampled was a very sweet, fruity wine with strong notes of passionfruit. It might have appealed more if it was better chilled. We'll add it to the maybe list.
  • Kahurangi Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014. This second sav smelled amazing! The strong passionfruit notes and a light, clear colour appealed. Unfortunately, it had an awful aftertaste that I couldn't pinpoint. Sadly, what started off so promising ended up on the no list.
  • Trout Valley Pinot Gris 2015. We had much debate at our table about the tasting notes talking about "dried pears". As far as most of us are aware, dried pears wouldn't smell like much, but fresh pears could add a subtle flavour. Sadly, I couldn't taste the pears at all and once again, there was something about the aftertaste that put this wine straight on the no list.
  • Trout Valley Pinot Noir 2014. Nope. I'm still not a red wine fan.
Imported wines