Thursday, 31 January 2008

My latest addiction

Scrabble + fabulous = Scrabulous. I've been a Facebook addict for a few months, adding information and populating my page with useless trivia all about meeeeeeeee, resisting the temptation to add applications promising to reveal how many children I would have, what flower I would be, and who thinks I'm hot. Games have come and gone, but who would have thought that a board game from my childhood would become my latest online addiction?

I love Scrabulous. There's something oddly satisfying about logging on to Facebook before and after work to see who has played their next move, and what weird and bizarre words the dictionary will accept today. I can easily see why it is one of Facebook's most popular application. But Hasbro and Mattel don't seem to keen to share the world's excitement. The Facebook community have reacted with a mix of shock and horror. I agree. Aarrgghhhh!!

I have 3-4 active games going at a time, and my stats are generally 50-50. I even insisted on going online while on holiday to play my next moves. I'll eventually move on and find a new obssession, but in the meantime, I dread the day when I find a notification in Facebook saying that Scrabulous has been shut down or 'modified' ... heaven forbid it might happen while I'm still addicted!

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Sunset on the coast

Tonight is one of those picture-perfect evenings. The sky is clear, the air is calm, it's warm, the rock pools are still, and the sunset across the South Island is amazing. Here are some pics from my walk around the coastline of Island Bay this evening. Beautiful!

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Coffee snobs, be heard!

I'm a coffee snob. (You say I'm a coffee snob like it's a bad thing? lol) I'm proud of it! I figure that if you're going to drink coffee, you'd may as well be discerning and do it properly. None of this instant, filtered, or budget stuff!

Unfortunately, there are many who don't understand my disposition towards good coffee. Fortunately, there are a growing number who do.New Zealand Coffee Review lets you share your opinion about the coffee at a café, and not just the food, ambiance, service etc. The site is a bit clunky and in its early days in terms of being populated with reviews, but it's growing. I'll most likely start adding comments in the upcoming weeks. It is a national (NZ) site and you can post comment on existing cafés listed or start new ones. Coffee critics, unite!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Hooray for ...

Café Bleu! Christchurch has decent restaurants after all! Another work dinner, another crowd of 14, and this time there were rave reviews all round. Great menu, yummy food, excellent service … Café Bleu in the Cashel St Mall has restored my faith in Christchurch’s cuisine scene.

The chicken filo parcel was delicious with real cranberries (not just cranberry sauce) on top and lots of brie inside. (Mmm, cheese.) I had my arm twisted behind my back and was forced to share banoffie pie with a colleague. (Blame him; I was entirely helpless and had to go along with what he said.)

A great night out, and I'm glad to now have somewhere in Christchurch to recommend or try again.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Service in the South

I’m back at my work-away-from-home city, Christchurch. Not sure what goes on in restaurants in January, but I discovered last week and tonight that service seems like a dirty word at three places I’ve dined at with work colleagues. Either it doesn’t exist, or it’s questionable.

Tonight’s dinner was at South of the Border, a cheap and cheerful Mexican restaurant on Colombo St. An enticing menu with lots of appealing choices. I’m wondering why when two mixed platters were ordered at the same time for a table for ten that one end of the table finished sharing theirs ten minutes before the other one even arrived? Never mind – their main course arrived less than two minutes later. Drinks orders were forgotten; some of those that did make it to the table were mixed up or poured into tired-looking glasses. One guy managed to score a ‘bonus’ version of the margarita he ordered when it arrived with strawberry flavouring. Hmmm.

The meal was ok. Soggy buffalo fries and a limp and tasteless coleslaw, but the Cajun lamb (although fatty) tasted alright. Yummy guacamole saved the day. We were periodically treated to aromas wafting through from the kitchen – mostly burning meat, burning veges, or just plain burning without our being able to identify what the food was. Oh dear.

So we’ll see what happens at tomorrow night’s dinner at a venue yet to be decided.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Chocolate muffins

My muffins are legendary, especially my chocolate muffins. Making muffins (and other baking) is my preferred means of procrastination and stress relief. Some people clean the house or wash the car; I never understood that concept. For me, the bigger the deadline, the more people I manage to feed!

I have a basic muffin recipe that I modify and experiment with to get different varieties.

Basic muffins

Ingredients
  • 30g butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 150g pottle of fruit yoghurt (any flavour)
  • 2 1/2 cups self-raising flour
  • other ingredients for variation (see method)
Method
  1. Grease muffin tray or line with papers. (I use canola spray.) Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
  2. Melt butter and mix with sugar.
  3. Beat in eggs, then add milk. Spoon in yoghurt and mix well. (Fruit yoghurt, even in chocolate muffins, makes the mixture moist and gives the flavour a twist).
  4. Add either 2 T cocoa melted in boiling water, and/or 1/2 cup chocolate chips, or 1/4 cup of chopped dried apricots, or 1/2 cup sultanas (or other variations/combinations or ingredients - this is your chance to experiment!)
  5. Carefully fold in flour until just combined, taking care to not overmix. (The less you stir the mixture at this stage, the better your muffins will turn out.)
  6. Spoon mixture into muffin trays. (You can press in 1-2 chocolate melts if making chocolate/choc chip muffins, or a piece of Caramello chocolate into the centre of each one. Perhaps sprinkle the top with choc chips? Again, feel free to experiment!)
  7. Bake for 20-25 mins at 200 degrees Celsius.
  8. Leave to cool in muffin tray for 10 mins before turning out onto wire rack.

Recipe makes 12 medium-sized muffins.
(OK, a few ran away before the photo was taken.)

Monday, 21 January 2008

You can't beat Wellington on a good day

I love Wellington. It is a beautiful little city nestled around a harbour and built up on hills in quite a haphazard way. The roads seem to have been planned for a flat terrain and just go up over hills to where they are going as if they weren't even there. Yesterday, I flew into Wellington after a few weeks away from home. It was a picture-perfect afternoon and we approached from the south. Having grown up on the South Coast, I love this view of the city and looking out for various landmarks from the plane.

I came across this photo of Wellington in the news some time ago. It was taken by America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration on October 21. It shows the harbour, coastline, hilly demographic, and a couple of landmarks if you look closely (see the stadium near the top of the pic?). Today is Wellington Anniversary Day and it's warm with patches of sun peeking through the clouds. It's true: you can't beat Wellington on a good day.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Police and Fergie in concert

After a long saga which involved buying tickets for two concerts and flying between three cities, a friend and I made it to The Police concert at Western Springs in Auckland on Saturday night.

Fiction Plane started the concert with an average performance; nothing really wrong, but not much to grab my attention either. Fergie and her entourage were in fine form. Her band was made up of outstandingly talented musicians and her dancers added both colour and character. I was impressed with her Black Eyed Peas medley and some of her other rock medleys, although there were a few questionable inclusions there. The dance-off during costume changes was a great feature and really showed off the talent of the backup dancers.

The Police were back in New Zealand after a 27 year break, and family and friends had raved about the Wellington concert. I wasn't disappointed. With such a full sound, it's sometimes difficult to remember that The Police are simply a three-piece band, with no backup musicians, second guitarists, extra vocalists, etc (apart from a faint click-track on some numbers).

For me, there are always 1-2 songs at a concert that colour my whole experience. I was looking out for two things here: the drum interlude in Walking on the Moon, and the whole of Roxanne (pure magic, as far as I'm concerned). While I didn't get what I wanted from Walking on the Moon, Roxanne was fabulous. Plenty of other highlights and, overall, a very slick performance ... will wait until I get back to Welly to do the full post-mortem with my muso dad, who used my concert ticket on Thursday night.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Technology and innovation

I work for an e-learning research and development company. We pride ourselves as being on the cutting edge of innovative technology and development and have a state-of-the-art infrastructure, including the latest that the digital world has to offer.

I usually work from home in Wellington, but have spent the past week at our headquarters in Christchurch. It’s an exciting place to be and seeing our dynamic staff interacting with this technology means that the office is always a real hive of activity. Here is a virtual tour for you.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Boy food and girl food

A few weeks ago, I needed to quickly grab something to eat in between dance classes. I asked a male friend where I could find something and of course he suggested the usual greasy burgers and takeaways available in the area. I rejected each idea, and eventually said that I was after girl food, not boy food like he was suggesting. And so began the birth of a new language.

So what is boy food? What is girl food? Can some foods be both? Of course they can! (We called them bi food, ie food that can go either way.) Here are some examples of food for boys and food for girls (and food for both):
Boy food: burgers, chain-store pizza, steak, fish and chips, white bread toasties, pies, fries
Girl food: salads, panini, sandwiches, side orders of veges with your meal
Bi food: kebabs, gourmet pizza, Subway (possibly) … see how it works?

Now, that’s not to say that boys can’t eat girl food and girls can’t eat boy food, nor that if you eat bi food that it implies anything else. Remember, these categories are more of a continuum, ie some boy food has girl variations, and some girl foods have boy adaptations. You get the picture?

We went to Coyote restaurant at The Palms in Christchurch for a work dinner tonight. The discussion about boy and girl food came up, so we analysed the menu. Here’s what we came up with. Feel free to add your own suggestions to the list, or challenge ours.

Baja Catch of the Day – Probably bi food (depends what the fish is, how it’s cooked, and what it comes with, ie veges, salad, fries etc)
Hacienda Hog – Definitely boy food. Any dish with the word ‘hog’ in the title makes it automatically boy food.
Voodoo Chicken – Bi food (girl = chicken, boy = voodoo hot)
Canterbury Lamb – Boy food
Vegetarian Burrito – Girl food
Coyote’s Indulgence: A do it yourself fajita for two – Boy food. Don’t let the salady bits fool you.

See, isn’t this fun? It makes so much sense when you think about it. What do you think?

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Yanni - Live at the Acropolis

I’ve been writing a big report today. At times like this, my iPod becomes critical to my survival and what remains of my sanity. However, being a musician, it’s hard to concentrate on the task at hand while my mind is constantly and actively analysing what I am listening to. Music with lyrics can be really distracting, so a search through my iPod revealed an instrumental album I hadn’t come across in a while, Yanni – Live at the Acropolis (1994).

This album is sheer magic. Yanni has been around for a long time, and has been known for recording highly-synthesised productions, but this live album is the real deal. Here, he performs at the Acropolis of Athens with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra in one of the most powerful, passionate and musically intense concerts I’ve ever heard. Several of the musicians get to shine, with some incredible solo performances on the violin, bass, and percussion. The haunting ‘Aria’ was unfortunately over-exposed when it was used in the British Airways ads some years ago, but still stands on its own merits as a musical piece, as far as I’m concerned.

I remember seeing a video of the live performance shortly after it was released, then was shocked to discover my brother had this album in his collection. (Believe me, this is an unusual selection for him.) Mental note … must buy DVD. So thanks, Yanni, for helping a long and intense afternoon pass so pleasurably.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Indian cuisine

A couple of years ago, Indian restaurants were a dime a dozen around town. As with food from any culture, it's never as good as Mum makes at home (not my mum - she's Italian), but some places stand out from the others as being far better quality than the usual. Tulsi, in Wellington, has a name for being generally good, standard Indian fare. Not top of the line (no frills), but not bad either. Tonight, I was after a cheap and cheerful meal on my way home after a long day at work, so was pleased to see a Tulsi restaurant in Christchurch.

Hmm. Not a patch on the Wellington restaurant in Cuba Mall, even though the bar boasted a certificate from The Breeze saying they were voted Wellington's Best Butter Chicken for some year or other. (Not sure what that's got to do with a restaurant in Christchurch.) The waiting/bar staff looked completely bored, and the service was detached, bordering on rude as food was unceremoniously plonked at the far end of my table with a mumble which I'm guessing was the waiter announcing what the dish was. My lamb saagwala (usually a favourite of mine) was incredibly average, very salty and with little other flavour - certainly not the 'medium-hot' I ordered. In fact, I'm not sure I could taste any curry at all! Disappointing, really. I might give the original Wellington restaurant another go sometime, but now that I'm a part-time Cantabrian for work reasons, I'll be looking elsewhere for meals in Christchurch.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Shantytown

Near Greymouth is a cute little place called Shantytown. This old-style colonial village is reminiscent of the days when Huka Village was thriving, and even parts of Knott's Berry Farm. There was an old fashioned dispensary, hospital, chapel, jail, village pump, stables, railway station ... you get the picture.

I got to have my first ride on a real steam train. "Katie" was built in the late 19th century and chugged along a tiny railroad track in Shantytown. We wandered around the town and saw cute replicas of old town shops. There was heaps to read along the way and found out about the West Coast back in ye olden days, but the steadily-increasing rain made our meanderings a bit quicker than planned. There was a real-life wedding in the chapel.

Of course, there was a colonial classroom. What scared me was how similar it was to today's classrooms. Apart from the obvious cosmetic differences (slates, wooden forms, no computer, etc), the basic classroom set was exactly the same: students sitting facing the board, displays on the walls, aisles down the middle, and a very teacher-centred environment. (Sorry, I'm an educator and former teacher - these things strike me.)

At the end of my holiday, and after having traipsing from coast to coast of the mid-South Island, and on my way to work in Christchurch for a couple of weeks, I'm not really sure if I'm coming or going, so this sign sums it up nicely:

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Fox Glacier

Most of today involved driving, driving, and more driving. It’s a long way to the West Coast. We stopped for a minute in Haast (hilarious – a minute is all it takes to see the town, junction and beach!) before hitting the road again. At Fox Glacier where we were greeted by some incredible views. It was quite humbling to realise just how far the glacier had receded since 1750 and even 1935, as the markers pointed out. We got a couple of great views of the lower parts of the glacier. I couldn’t walk very far so had to make do with what I could see from the first couple of viewpoints. Here’s what we saw:

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Arrowtown and Wanaka

On the drive from Queenstown to Wanaka, we stopped in Arrowtown for a couple of hours. What a gorgeous little town! Very much ‘old style’ in design, the beautiful weather made for some great exploring. I went for a wander through the Chinese village. There were some remains of the original stone cottages that the original Chinese miners built when they first came to New Zealand to pan for gold. Their cramped interiors and stone floors would have been so cold in winter; I doubt they’d be called comfortable. Throughout the village, there were informative signposts describing some of the history of the Chinese settlers in this area.



What is real? Eccentricity at its best.

Wow, what a headline! We had a fun afternoon at Puzzling World, near Wanaka. This place is so much fun, and great value, too. The Illusions rooms are life-sized versions of those optical illusions you get emailed to you from time to time, and they look much more impressive painted on a big wall than on your monitor. The Ames Room was fascinating and showed how small people/objects can be made to look bigger or smaller on film using forced perspective, a utilised extensively when filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Tilted House was reminiscent of Knott’s Berry Farm and really quite freaky. Try it for yourself – you’ll see what I mean.

The Great Maze was really quite amazing (no pun intended). The object is to reach each of the four coloured corner points, then return to the start. The estimated time for this 30-60 mins, or 1 – 1 ½ hours if you find them in a certain order. It is waaaaay harder than you think and incredibly challenging. The heat was starting to get to me, so I retreated inside to play with some smaller puzzles. I was so proud of my tangram animal, and my ability to complete all 14 stages of the Tantrix puzzle in record time (see the blue loop?) that I just had to brag about them.


Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Queenstown gondola

I'm in Queenstown now. It's not quite how I imagined - no-one told me I'd be wandering up and down hills in late-20s temperatures - but still very pretty. By the time we arrived and got settled, it was almost too hot and too late to do much, so I wandered up to the Queenstown gondola. It's quite costly (like everything else in Queenstown), and I was told that I could just walk up to the summit to enjoy the view ... but come on, one look up that hill and I wondered how anyone thought I'd make it up there without a stretcher!

So, I took the plunge went on the gondola. I'm really glad I did. It's an amazing structure and a really smooth ride, even with a bit of a breeze. The summit is a fully-blown tourist trap, with lots of enticing ways to extract your dosh, but I guess it's got to be done. The view of Queenstown from the top is quite spectacular, and today the water was a picture-perfect clear blue. I didn't go on the luge and am mildly kicking myself about that now, but I was happy to just enjoy the view and soak up some rays on such a beautiful day. It turned out to be one of those days - when I finally descended the hill, I ended up wandering down to the waterfront and doing the same thing on a park bench. Bliss!

Monday, 7 January 2008

Natural fairy lights

I love fairy lights – they are so pwetty! I stocked up on half-price fairy lights in The Warehouse in the Boxing Day sales. I guess it's a girl thing. ;-)

Tonight, I got to see hundreds of natural fairy lights at the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. After a lovely evening cruise across Lake Te Anau, we got to enter the first part of the Aurora Cave system. The Glowworm Grotto is 250 metres into the system and the pathway is well constructed with handrails and safety barriers. Be prepared to duck as you enter; the entrance is reasonably low, and there are two other bends before you can walk fully upright. The caves are dimly lit and there are also a few (easy) steps along the way, so be prepared.

I was surprised how noisy it was inside the caves. There are constant rapids rushing past, and lots of mini-water waterfalls which are still carving out the rock formations. We then boarded a Disney-style boat, waiting for us in a dark little outlet and moved along by a pulley system. We were in total darkness at this stage, except for the fairy lighting provided by the tiny glowworms. As we were pulled into the grotto, I couldn’t help being reminded of a certain boat scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Definitely not one for claustrophobes, but enjoyable for the rest of us.

The Glowworm Grotto was simply amazing. It was serenely quiet; we could hear the rushing water in the distance, but our silence and stillness around these beautiful creatures seemed entirely appropriate. There were two different shades of pale blue-green light; we learned later that the dimmer lights were being created by newly-hatched glowworms, who might be 2-3 weeks old. How sweet! If you look closely, you can see what resembles miniature fishing lines hanging below each glow worms. The light attracts their prey, which are then caught in the fishing lines, much like a spider’s web.

If your time in Te Anau is limited and you’re wondering which excursions to fit in over others, I’d strongly recommend a trip to the Glowworm Caves. Not to be missed!

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Paradise on earth

They say you should see your own country before you see anyone else’s. (Who are they? Never mind – it’s what they say that’s important.) I agree, but have tended to do a bit of both, ie little bits of travel around New Zealand and overseas. It is not until now, however, that I have made it to the Deep South. I’ve heard from everyone how beautiful the South Island is, and believed it, but now have finally seen with my own eyes.

I arrived in Te Anau last night to a perfect sunset on the lake. Today, we went for a drive up to Milford Sound. The drive takes about 2 ½ hours depending on how many of the mini excursions you decide to take along the route and whether the traffic lights are in your favour at the Homer Tunnel. The view of The Chasm, a series of waterfalls over the Cleddau River, was absolutely breathtaking. Photos cannot possibly capture the power of the water rushing down across the rocks. I don’t even know where to begin describing it, so will let this movie clip give you a teeny tiny glimpse.
video

We had a picnic lunch at Milford Sound, then took a cruise. Technically, Milford is a fiord, not a sound, and we saw glimpses of snow on top of the mountains, even though it is currently the middle of summer. We spent an amazing 1 hour 40 mins going all the way out to the Tasman Sea, then cruising back through the sound to the harbour. Along the way, we saw stunning waterfalls, some of them permanent, but many formed temporarily several hours after rainfall. This cute little group of sea lions congregate at Seal Rock. This part of the world is truly paradise on earth, and it’s no surprise that Fiordland in New Zealand is considered to be one of the ten natural wonders of the world.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Chocolate heaven


I am a self-confessed chocoholic, even though I don't often let myself indulge in the most heavenly food on earth. So, today I visited Cadbury World in Dunedin. I knew that the reduced tour was running, as the factory is not currently operating. This means that you don't get to the chocolate being made, but instead watch a video of the process, have a wander around parts of the factory, and get to visit the giant chocolatefall. Yes, a waterfall made of chocolate (not quite as elegant as the one in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but you get the picture), which consists of 1 tonne of chocolate rushing down inside a massive silo. The smell is absolutely captivating, and the sight quite incredible. And its purpose? Pure entertainment value - delightfully indulgent.

We found out some really interesting facts about chocolate, most of which escape me now, but I recall something about 3 1/2 Fonterra trucks of milk being delivered to the factory every day for chocolate production(!), New Zealanders eating an average of 4kg of chocolate each in a year (is that all?!), and how it is recommended that we eat 75g of dark chocolate each day. (Can't remember who it was recommended by, but it sounded good to me.) As a bonus, these facts were delivered by our very own oompa loompa - yes, a charming purple dungaree-clad tour guide. Very cute.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Happy Hens

I made it to Dunedin after a 5+ hour bus ride. Another one to Te Anau tomorrow, even though I've decided that one night is definitely not long enough to spend in Dunedin.

I met up with an old work friend this afternoon and she took me touring the sights of Dunedin's peninsula. Among the beautiful scenery of the inlets, the beaches, Dunedin's harbour, and Portobello, we came across the home of Happy Hens. I love these creatures and have given them to several friends as birthday presents over the years. We met Yvonne Sutherland, the Happy Hens creator, and I rediscovered my love for the Pencilled Hamburg variety. I'm determined to buy a set of them once I am back home and don't have to carry them camping, but in the meantime will make do with a very cool hand-painted fridge magnet. I also discovered tonight that these adorable creatures have their own blog!

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Christchurch

I shudder at the thought of this blog becoming yet another travel blog, but I’m on holiday now so I guess that’s the order of the day for a while. :-)

First stop, Christchurch. It was hot today, 26 degrees Celsius. As I arrived mid-afternoon and my holiday time here is short, I followed the advice of friends and visited the Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House in Cathedral Square. It’s in the Information Centre, so really easy to find, and entry is $15. As far as aquariums go, it’s pretty small, but the displays are well set out and there is plenty to see, including two North Island brown kiwi in the nocturnal kiwi house. We also got to see these guys below being fed. Pretty impressive stuff.
I came across The Bog, an Irish pub in Cashel St. I'm not generally a huge fan of Irish pubs, but I was hungry and this one had a really appealing menu. The Cashel St chicken salad was to die for and included generous servings of two of my favourite foods: camembert and cashew nuts. Divine!

A little tourist tip for those with sore feet ... there is a free shuttle bus which does a loop of Christchurch's CBD every 10 minutes. What a great discovery when you have to walk everywhere! Tomorrow, it's off to Dunedin.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Brunch in the sun

Another leisurely brunch today, but finding somewhere in Wellington that was open on a public holiday proved to be a challenge. Never mind - fourth time lucky. We found Soi Café Bar in Evans Bay, which was not only open, but also didn't sting us with a 15% holiday surcharge.

Hidden behind the Evans Bay Marina where the old Greta Point Taven used to be, Soi has the most stunning view over Evans Bay. It's hard to find - you need to wind your way in amongst a few townhouses to get there, so look out for the little signs.

We were sitting right over the water by the floor to ceiling windows - definitely a location to wear sunnies inside. I think the morning is the best time to enjoy Soi's sunny views, but a clear evening would also be lovely. The brunch menu was great and prices reasonable. I've been here for dinner in a previous incarnation when the restaurant was called Eden, and must say that I prefer it as Soi. Well worth checking out.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Ambrosia

Speaking of food, here is the most indulgent dessert which can be eaten either on its own, or with fruit, pavlova, trifle ... almost anything else. It can be made either as a really sweet dish (with marshmallows) or with a more tart flavour. It's always a hit at dinners and parties, and incredibly simple to make, but I always make sure I only ever share the recipe after it has been enjoyed, as the raw ingredients often shock people! Here is the recipe for boysenberry ambrosia.

Boysenberry ambrosia

Ingredients
  • 500 ml cream
  • 1 punnet (150 ml) of boysenberry/fruit of the forest/blackberry yoghurt
  • 410g can of boysenberries
Methods
  1. Whip cream until very thick (almost overbeaten).
  2. Fold in yoghurt.
  3. Drain boysenberries well, leaving small amount of juice aside. Fold boysenberries into cream and yoghurt mixture.
  4. Add small amounts of juice to colour, if required.
  5. Refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours to set before serving.