We’d planned a rail trail bike ride but — due to a munted knee — it became an indulgent restaurant journey by road. Central Otago’s culinary diversity is a major drawcard. Top-class eateries tucked away in the most improbable places attract not only outdoor adventurers but foodie vacationers who travel long distances just to enjoy award-winning chefs’ cooking.
In 1863, Olivers in Clyde was founded as a general store providing essential supplies to the hordes of gold-seeking prospectors. In 1980 it was transformed into a popular restaurant but when owner Fleur Sullivan left for coastal Otago, it faded. Two years ago, new owners Andrea and David Ritchie, with much energy and enthusiasm, refurbished Olivers and transformed it into a casual café plus a fine restaurant. The old homestead adjoining has also been beautifully renovated to accommodate house guests. Son-in-law James Waite is the executive chef and he uses his home-grown fruit and vegetables from his near-by farm. If you’re in the area, Olivers is an essential stop.
Central Otago’s eateries offer a huge smorgasbord of choices and others worth a visit include: Pitches in picturesque Ophir — also with accommodation; French food at Shaky Bridge Wines & Bistro in Alexandra under the clock on the rock; the wine flight and barrel-cooked wild meats at Wild Earth in the Kawarau Gorge; casual Italian at Armando’s Italian Café in the old Cromwell precinct; and the very slow-cooked lamb shoulder at the Wanaka Gourmet Kitchen.
OLIVERS’ BRAISED LAMB RAGU
Based on a recipe from Olivers’ exec chef, James Waite.
1kg boned lamb shoulder, cut into 3cm cubes
2 teaspoons paprika
4 tablespoons plain flour
salt and black pepper to taste
1 large onion, diced
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, diced
1kg cherry tomatoes, fresh or canned
100g pitted green olives
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 large red capsicum, roasted, peeled and sliced
Preheat the oven to 150°C.
Place the lamb, paprika, flour and seasonings in a plastic bag and shake to coat.
Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy frying pan, until softened. Add the garlic and cook until the onion is golden. Place in a casserole.
Heat more oil and sauté the lamb in batches, until browned. Add to the casserole with the remaining ingredients.
Cover and oven cook for 2 1/2 hours. Uncover and cook for a further 30-60 minutes, until mouth-wateringly tender.
Great served on orecchiette pasta topped with baby rocket and pecorino cheese shavings. Serves 6.
SMOKY GLAZED RIBS
My take on the barrel-cooked venison short ribs at Wild Earth. Pork or beef ribs could also be cooked in a similar way. I’ve used pure Manuka Smoke Concentrate made in Central Otago and available from delis.
1 teaspoon each: ground cumin, coriander, chilli powder, sugar
1kg venison short ribs
Glaze: 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 chilli, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 cups tomato juice
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
2-3 drops Manuka smoke concentrate
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
Combine the spices and sugar and rub into the ribs. Cover tightly in foil and refrigerate for a few hours.
To make the glaze, heat the oil in a saucepan and sauté the onion, garlic and chilli, until softened. Add the tomato juice and hoisin sauce and simmer for about 10 minutes. Pass through a sieve. Add the Manuka smoke concentrate and mustard seeds and simmer for 2-3 minutes.
Place the ribs in a large, heavy-based saucepan with a 1/2 cup of water. Braise, covered, on low heat for about 1 hour or until tender. Cool.
To finish the ribs, brush with the glaze and barbecue for about 5 minutes each side. Brush occasionally with the glaze during cooking. Serves 4.
Central Otago apricots are the best and if you can’t enjoy them fresh from tree then there are plenty of dried apricots to purchase.
24 plump dried apricots
3/4 cup orange or apple juice
8-9 rashers streaky bacon
3/4 cup spicy apricot chutney
Place the apricots and fruit juice in a bowl. Cover and microwave for about 3 minutes, until softened. Stand, until cool.
Brush each bacon rasher with chutney. Cut into pieces long enough to wrap around each apricot. Secure with small skewers.
Grill for 2-3 minutes, turning once or twice during cooking. Brush with more chutney and serve. Makes 24.
GOAT’S CHEESE SALAD
Based on Shaky Bridge Wines & Bistro’s Chevre Chaud.
Roasted pumpkin: 200g peeled and seeded pumpkin
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon honey
Crispy Kale: 8 medium kale leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
Bruschetta: 8 round slices French bread
4-5 tablespoons garlic-infused olive oil
125g soft goat’s cheese
Salad: 1 1/2 cups mesclun
3-4 tablespoons good French dressing
Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Thinly slice the pumpkin and place in a roasting pan. Drizzle with the oil and season. Toss to coat. Roast for about 15 minutes, until tender. Stir in the honey and continue cooking for 2-3 minutes. Place aside on paper towels.
Cut the kale into large pieces. Brush with oil. Bake at 190°C until crisp, about 6 minutes. Place aside on paper towels.
Brush the bread with the garlic infused oil. Bake on a tray at 190°C for about 5 minutes or until golden and crisp, turning once. Slice the cheese and place on the croutons. Grill until just melted.
To assemble, place the mesclun salad in two bowls and drizzle with the dressing. Top with the pumpkin, kale and croutons. Serves 2.