Monday, 30 December 2013

Middle age begins

I read something more than a little disturbing this weekend. According to this article, middle age begins a lot earlier than we ever thought. Well, certainly a lot earlier than I ever thought. If you're not sure whether you're middle aged or not, there are some questions and scenarios that will apparently confirm it either way. See how many you reply "yes" to.

Oh dear.

How is this possible? If you Google images of "middle age", you'll find plenty of photos of people our parents' age, but surely nobody our age or our friends' ages? A couple of years ago I got to thinking about the telltale signs of ageing - none of which have entirely entered our vernacular yet but they lie threateningly near the border. Now, this article brings the middle age mindset dangerously close.

I couldn't bring myself to read the whole list, but certain entries jumped out. I can proudly say that Antiques Roadshow is not on our radar. No, it's Grand Designs for us. We have also set up a season pass on Tivo for the news each night. Hmm. We asked for (and were given) gardening vouchers for Christmas and were very excited to install a 200L emergency water supply (another Christmas present), which filled up after just one night's rain!

Let's see. We prefer house parties to noisy bars, which complicates things slightly when our original New Year's Eve plans were thwarted today. We congratulate ourselves when we manage to stay out after midnight. Considering it used to be my job as a musician to work until 4 am most weekends, this one was a surprise when it first started happening. Also, given my background as a musician, it's strange for me to admit that I no longer listen to commercial radio any more, except for The Sound when I am in the car. In fact, we almost exclusively fast forward through the new music segments of The Graham Norton Show and are disappointed when the song runs late, meaning there is no time for the famous red chair. Gasp!

So, to hastily rush through some more items in the list in my defense ... afternoon naps can be fun, policemen and especially doctors do look young these days, a night in with board games rocks over noisy pubs any day, ankle surgery means that my shoes have to be comfortable and well made rather than stylish, there is NOTHING wrong with wearing an anorak, tissues are essential handbag items and I don't know any songs in the top 10 (see above). So there!

Dare I ask how your list is looking?

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A moment of quiet

It's Christmas Eve and we're having a moment of quiet before the festivities tomorrow. Is this the calm before the storm? Perhaps. The weather has certainly turned. I think we're getting better at preparing for Christmas each year and even manage to miss much of the madness we see on tv and hear about via social media. For that, I am quietly but cautiously congratulating ourselves.

Let's see. The presents have long been bought and wrapped, ready for loading into the car tomorrow and distributing at two family homes. I've made a list (really) and checked it twice: certain things will go in one direction and others will head in another.

My final Christmas present cake was decorated and picked up by a friend yesterday, who enjoyed it with her family at a pre-Christmas dinner last night.
A splash of colour for my colourful, artsy friend.
I have iced a gazillion gingerbread cookies and can't wait to see the look on my nephew's face when he sees how the baking we did together yesterday has turned out. I'll have to explain to him that the four remaining large gingerbread men he made specially for certain family members were the lucky ones. One of the others was legless early in the afternoon, another was simply 'armless and none of the survivors were saying a word!
A gingerbread family of survivors in various states of (un)dress.
Yesterday's white Christmas crunch didn't last long after we divided it up between three homes. It's a great grazing treat and I'll definitely add it to my Christmas baking list for next year. There are chocolate truffles and salted caramel truffles packed up and ready to take with us. My Caramelising Sugar 101 session on Saturday night was touch and go but I found this guide to be absolutely invaluable. The golden rule is DO NOT stir the sugar while it is caramelising, as it adds air to the mixture and cools it down, so will not work. I can't wait to try it again. There are also chicken nibbles marinading in the fridge and a duck egg sponge cake cooling.

When thinking about this time last year, we were sitting outside in the heat until 10 pm with a whole bunch of friends who had come over for a homemade pizza party. It was so much fun waiting for Santa Claus together but, having said that, I'm also glad that we're having a quiet night at home tonight to rest and charge our batteries. There are only two (or two and a half) places we need to be at tomorrow instead of last year's four. It's also unlikely to reach 32°C this year, so I'm taking that as a good sign that things will be calmer this time around.

Have I forgotten anything? Perhaps - but that's ok, because for now we are enjoying a moment of quiet.

Wishing you a happy, safe and peaceful(!) Christmas, wherever you may be!

Monday, 23 December 2013

White Christmas crunch

Here is a super-easy Christmas treat recipe that kids (big and small) can make and enjoy. It came from a colleague who insists it doesn't have a name, so I've called it White Christmas crunch. There are no set quantities so anything approximate will work. It has a lovely, crunchy texture. The key is to work quickly before the chocolate starts setting.

White Christmas crunch

  • 400 g white chocolate melts
  • 1/2-1 cup rice bubbles
  • 3-4 crushed peppermint candy canes
  1. Melt chocolate. Stir in rice bubbles.
  2. Spread mixture on baking paper to make a flat layer.
  3. Sprinkle top of mixture with crushed candy canes, pressing in lightly if necessary.
  4. Set in the fridge then break into small pieces to serve.
White Christmas crunch

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas present cakes

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Christmas cake. However, fruitcake lovers are few and far between these days. I don't actually like Christmas cake myself but I do love chocolate and so have taken to making chocolate Christmas cakes instead.

This decadent chocolate cake recipe is not mine (it came from the Food Lovers site) but it truly is fail-safe so I have adopted it as my absolute favourite super-chocolate mud cake recipe. It has become my staple birthday cake and special occasion recipe. The mixture is large and so versatile. It easily doubles and halves. It can also be made in advance (several days - the flavour just gets better) or frozen. I actually made this cake a few weeks ago, cut it into quarters and froze them until this week when I was ready to decorate the cakes for gifts.

As for the chocolate, dark is good and I like using Whittaker's 72% Dark Ghana when baking for chocolate lovers. However, I substitute Whittaker's 50% Dark Block when baking for children as it gives a rich, chocolately flavour that is more mellow and not quite as bitter for the sweet toothed among us.

Decadent chocolate cake

  • 250 g butter
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee
  • 200 g chocolate
  • 2 cups (440 g) sugar or caster sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (210 g) flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 cup (20 g) cocoa
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
  1. Preheat oven to 140°C. Grease and line a 23 cm (9") round cake tin or 25 cm square tin.
  2. Place coffee, water and butter in a pot and melt together. Add chopped chocolate and stir gently until smooth. Add sugar and stir until dissolved.
  3. Pour mixture into a large bowl and stir in dry ingredients on a low speed until just combined.
  4. Lightly beat the eggs and vanilla essence together and add to the mixture. Mix well on medium speed with an electric mixer.
  5. Pour into cake tin and bake for 90 minutes NOT on fan bake. Check cake after 60 minutes to see how it is progressing. Remove from oven when cooked and cool in cake pan for 10 minutes, then turn onto a wire cake rack to cool completely.
Decorate any way you wish. A thick layer of condensed milk chocolate icing tastes great. Otherwise, you could cover it with dark chocolate ganache or buttercream frosting. I used a thin layer of buttercream for these Christmas present cakes, covered them in fondant and then decorated them with handmade sugarpaste decorations.

These cakes were decorated for the three ladies in my 'pod' at work. They reflect the colours they like and their personalities as I see them, along with a little bit of 'me' somewhere on each cake. This was my way of thanking them for a wonderful year working together while surprising them with a special, personalised gift each. Their reactions were priceless!

She's a serene, oasis of calm in an open plan office. A lover of all things blue with a desire to step out of her comfort zone and try wearing an orange scarf ... one day.
She's classic, elegant and simple sophistication. Less is more for this refined lady.
She's colourful, vibrant and the loudest person you will ever meet, with everything rushing off in every opposite direction - just how we love her.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Reading the instructions

I am quite renown for changing or adapting recipes with varying levels of success. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it happens inadvertently. I'm not always good at following instructions step by step - but I'm getting better at rescuing recipes gone wrong before it's too late. Apparently you can learn how to force yourself to read the instructions first. Sometimes, not following instructions correctly can lead to disastrous consequences.

I wonder whether there is anything similar for people writing instructions. As well as the multitude of Engrish instructions out there in the market, I often come across recipes that haven't been proofread or tested by a cook or baker. You can identify them by their missing ingredients, missing steps, ingredients that haven't been used, random steps that either don't serve any purpose or instructions that simply won't work.

How often do you see a recipe that has obviously been written to a formula but makes absolutely no sense? It's almost as though the writer is flying on autopilot; you start by preheating the oven, cream the butter and sugar, sift the dry ingredients, etc ... right through to serving with ice cream and enjoying (or whatever).

Take this Allyson Gofton recipe for lemon shortbread, for example. Predictably, it begins with an instruction to preheat the oven to 150ºC. Then, a few steps later, it says "refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or overnight".

Now, I'm all for being prepared, which is something I need to improve on when baking, but preheating an oven the day before cooking something is going a tad too far for me. I have also seen a muffin recipe that requires you to sift the dry ingredients first. The only problem is, one of the dry ingredients was six Weet-Bix. Good luck trying to sift them!

Common sense would save these recipes, if there was some to be found. Employing a good editor or a recipe tester who has not made that recipe before would be even better. This is especially important for experienced cooks or people attempting to transcribe family recipes that "Gran has been making for years". Sure, Gran can whip up the recipe from memory in no time at all and adjust the temperature automatically if it gets too hot or change something if it "doesn't look right", but this doesn't mean she is consciously aware of what she's doing intuitively after hundreds of hours of experience.

So, I'll make the lemon shortbread mixture on Saturday and refrigerate it overnight but won't preheat my oven until I'm ready to bake the biscuits on Sunday. Just as well I didn't follow the recipe this time!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The season for giving

'Tis the season for giving. The Christmas tree is decorated and the presents are piling up all over the place. Christmas baking is cranking up and our social calendar is pretty much full. But, sadly, not everyone will have a merry Christmas this year.

Our office Twelve Days of Christmas is in full swing. Perhaps the Christmas activity I am proudest of is one organised by a colleague, who is collecting gifts to be donated to Wellington Women's Refuge. The refuge centre organises Christmas parcels to go to the families that they work with during the year. We have been asked to think about the women and children who use this service and contribute gifts they might like. Specifically:
"So that they can ensure a fair distribution among the families, it would be great if the donated gifts included gifts for the women and for older children (often donated gifts tend to be for babies and small children). If you want to wrap your gift, please label it so that they know if it is for a boy, a girl, a Mum etc. Otherwise, unwrapped is fine, as it allows the centre to allocate it themselves."
I am thrilled to see that after only two days our little box is already overflowing and now there are extra bags and boxes in our collection area. I'm sure it will grow even more before next week's delivery date.
Women's Refuge gifts so far
I know that some supermarkets have permanent food bank collection points to collect donations during the year. My local Pak N Save has pledged to match 1-1 each donation made before 24 December, which I think is fantastic. However, I can't help wonder if the response would improve if they promoted it better and perhaps removed the empty supermarket trolleys parked up in front of it.

I implore everyone to think about what they can do to help someone in need this Christmas. Even the tiniest gesture can make a huge difference.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ...
We all know how the song goes, even if the order of gifts gets somewhat murky after seven swans a-swimming and a bit of Christmas spirit. This song is actually the stuff of earworms and, quite honestly, it usually leaves me feeling wound up and agitated like poor Frank Kelly in his Irish Style version below. Aaarrrgghhh!!!

On a more pleasant note, we are starting The Twelve Days of Christmas in the office tomorrow. The idea is that people take it in turns to plan a short Christmas-themed activity or event for everyone else to participate in so that the last twelve working days of the year are covered. We figure there has got to be a better way to wind up and celebrate a busy year than simply doing more of the same each day.

I plan to kick things off tomorrow morning by showing my colleagues how to make mini Christmas puddings over a cuppa. I happen to know that someone from our Christchurch office has ordered cupcakes for us from tempt for morning tea on Tuesday, so that's something to look forward to. Wednesday will see a progressive performance of Pukeko in a Ponga Tree (with ukulele accompaniment - eep, must practise!). Oh, our CEO is going to be delighted! Our Christmas function and a shared lunch on Christmas Eve are also on the list, as well as various surprises from willing victims colleagues who are exercising their creative Christmas muscles as I write. (Hopefully!)

The end of year countdown has begun! How are you winding up your work year?

Friday, 6 December 2013


We all know that toddlers and preschoolers are phenomenally infamous for repeatedly asking one of the world's biggest little questions: why? This short yet highly loaded question represents an inevitable stage of development that will initially intrigue then perplex adults to the end of their patience, when an equally short and highly loaded response suddenly becomes the ubiquitous answer: "Just because, that's why!"

Grown-ups also ask infuriating questions, although they are usually a bit more detailed than why?. There are also rhetorical questions, but they are generally quite recognisable and only require an acknowledgement of their cleverness in place of an actual answer. However, there are some big questions that start with a small word and truly befuddle me.

  • Why do people expect you to comment on their new haircut/shoes/outfit - to the point where they are incensed if you don't 'notice'?
  • Why are the noisiest people the first to tell others to be quiet?
  • Why do people who constantly talk to themselves expect that I'll be listening attentively and hear what they think is a hilarious comment hidden somewhere in the middle of their stream of consciousness?
  • Why do chuggers, who can see that I'm obviously listening to music in an attempt to block out street sounds, try and talk to me anyway?
  • Why do people call all bus drivers "Driver?" Surely they don't all share the same name?
  • Why is one of the first questions people ask when they hear a baby has been given a non-English name, "what does it mean?" Do they ask people who named their kids George, Jane or Mary "what does it mean?"
  • Why don't people who sign up for #nzsecretsanta (a Twitter-based project) tweet? I mean, I'm a pretty good online detective, but I'd appreciate more than a one word reply to someone tweeted on 25 November to go on.
  • Why do wannabe exercisers (usually women walking in pairs or small groups) insist on pumping their arms side to side as they waddle along the waterfront, holding water bottles and with their jerseys tied around their waist? Who are they trying to convince?
  • Why do couples walking hand in hand insist on stretching out the entire width of the footpath to do so?
  • Why do people think it is a good idea to stand at the top of an escalator platform and look around when the people still coming up the escalator behind them have nowhere else to go?
  • Why is it acceptable for people to talk constantly, either to themselves or others, but not ok to sing, hum or dance by yourself?
  • Why do people push the cross button at traffic lights several times in a row (instead of just once) or insist on stepping past you to push the button several times for themselves, even though it makes absolutely no difference to the light's phasing after the first push?
What other questions have I missed?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Every so often, a hashtag pops up on Twitter and goes crazy. (I won't say goes viral. I'd be happy to never hear that phrase again.) I found myself nodding a new one at lunch time today: #nzconfession. I just had to join in!

I am a proud kiwi, but there are some things that kiwi culture and I just don't agree on. It's not necessarily cultural cringe. I like pavlova (and I can make a pretty darn good one myself). I like kiwifruit, Vegemite (not Marmite) and Anzac biscuits. But there are some things that would make people gasp at my lack of kiwiness.

Thinking about it this afternoon and evening, I came up with some things to add to my #nzconfession list. I'm going to be brave and admit them here. I'm hoping to discover that I'm not alone in some of them.
  • I don't like L&P.
  • I don't like BBQs.
  • I don't like cricket and I have gone off rugby and rugby league in recent years. I'm not a netball fan, either.
  • I think most kiwiana is crass and embarrassing, especially the 'traditional' plastic fantastic hei-tiki.
  • I have zero interest in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
  • I sometimes find the New Zillund accent embarrassing, especially when listening to eye-witness accounts on the news.
  • I don't find Rhys Darby even remotely amusing. He is irritating to the point that I will deliberately boycott anything he tries to promote. Ditto many other self-proclaimed 'famous' 'comedians'.
What's on your #nzconfession list?

Friday, 29 November 2013

6th birthday bash

You say it's your birthday
It's my birthday, too, yeah
They say it's your birthday
We're gonna have a good time

It's time for a virtual party because Café Chick is 6 years old today! It seems like a veeeerrryyy long time since this first hesitant post six years ago, but at the same time it almost feels like just the other day. How does time play tricks like that? Join me in a song.

Six years of blogging about everything and nothing has been tremendous fun. There have been busy times and quiet times, ups and downs, excitement and everyday goings on. Undoubtedly the biggest bonus for me has been what I've learned from the online community over the years: recipes to try, music to listen to, books to read, movies and tv programmes to watch, places and events to go to ... and a million and one practical tips about almost every topic imaginable, as well as those I would never have otherwise dreamed about. Gosh, what a ride!

Thinking about things, I wonder how old I can become and still credibly tote a name like Café Chick; she is definitely a lot younger and far more fun than I am in real life. I have been ruminating on a new name for a while now but am not sure about making the transition to a new persona, or whether it's even worth bothering. The spelling could be a little confusing. I'd need new themes and art work and it would take a while to update all my social media accounts, but a change of name may better see me through more years online - or not. Time will tell.

Of course, it wouldn't be a blog birthday without an obligatory screen shot of my pretty red Clustr map. This is two years worth of dots, as it didn't reset last year. The map represents more than 46,000 coffee breaks from all around the world - 192 countries, in fact. Wow! Blogging activity feels quieter during the last couple of years but I realise that my online community has merely shifted into other spaces and Twitter is where most of my interaction and relationship building takes place now. I'm fine with that. :-)
Thanks for dropping by!
So join me with coffee and a cheese scone (it is Cheese Scone Friday, after all) and help me celebrate six years in the blogosphere. Thank you to each and every one of you for visiting, commenting, posting links, chatting and coming along for the ride. Cin cin!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Dyeing inside

I like a good curry. The aroma, the flavour, the colour ... ahhh. Oh, the colour. Have you ever noticed what colour your kitchen utensils become when you cook a curry at home? If yellowy-orange is your thing, then you're probably not too worried. If you prefer items to remain the same colour as when you bought them, then there are some cautions to be aware of. I remind myself time after time that I'll mix the spices in a glass or Pyrex bowl next time instead of a plastic one so it's easier to scrub the colour off. (I sometimes remember.) I then look at how quickly my new scrubbing brush bristles have turned yellow. Oops, I forgot to wipe down the chopping board right away! Hopefully the dishwasher will deal to that ... but what about the beetroot juice that spilled onto the kitchen cloth? And so it goes on.

Turmeric, with its rustic, earthy tones is actually a great natural dye. So is coffee, beetroot and spinach. Actually, there's quite a list and you can find plenty of tips about how to make natural dyes from plants and foods. That's all good and fine when you want to colour something, but people rarely need to dye cream carpet the colour of pasta sauce or white tops with splotches of red wine. Pale clothing and furnishings are a magnet for intensely coloured food.

It's not all bad news, though. Teenagers of my generation were well skilled in the ability to use lemon juice to add highlights to your hair. I went to a school where hair dye was strictly prohibited. It was a matter for suspension! Hair had to be of one natural colour (ie, yours!) and even highlights were banned. However, it's amazing how many girls came back from the summer holidays with 'natural highlights' from the sun. It didn't work so well for brunettes, though.

I can't help thinking that if the foods we regularly eat can permanently stain everyday items, then what colours are we becoming on the inside??

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Early birds

It's generally known that there are two types of people in the world: larks and night owls. Apparently it's all to do with our Circadian rhythm, which is a fancy way of saying "body clock" and controls a multitude of things that we do. I'm most definitely a night owl by nature, which is handy when you are a musician. It's not so handy when you are also a teacher, as the school bell waits for no-one. Over the years, I have had to work really hard to regulate my sleep pattern so that I can get to sleep at a reasonable hour (before midnight, but more like 11 pm these days) in order to get up at an unreasonable hour (anything before ... well, we don't need to be too specific).

There's a lot that's good about mornings. Beautiful sunrises, quiet streets with hardly anybody about, cheerful birdsong and all the excitement and promise of a new day.

I admire people whose jobs require very early mornings and don't know how they do it day after day, sometimes for years. As I race to the bus each morning, the driver has probably already been working for an hour or more. Couriers have VERY early starts and very long days. How about those people who check you in for overseas flights at 4.30 am? I look at fellow red eyed travellers, already weary without having gone anywhere yet, and wonder if there are hidden cameras set up to film a running joke among airline staff who make passengers arrive several hours before they are required to. Then there are bakers, breakfast presenters and, of course, parents of young children. However, I truly don't understand people who simply get up at 5 am each day to do ... well, I'm not entirely sure what they do but their hair usually looks great when they arrive at work, they wear full make up and they are annoyingly cheerful.

Don't get me wrong - I like mornings, but would prefer them to start a bit later in the day. I can do early mornings when required (occasionally). However, I usually end up looking and feeling more like this harassed bird instead of the ridiculously chirpy one above.

Take this morning, for example. It was an early start in our household and while I technically could have gone back to sleep when my partner got up at 5.30 am, it didn't happen. And so I got up and did stuff. Lots of stuff. I started out with breakfast while watching a few episodes of The Muppet Show, as you do. I dealt to my inbox and caught up on news and other online happenings. I put washing on (and out). And it was still early. I folded some of yesterday's washing. I went for a 1 hour walk. I even went to a dreaded shopping mall, where the car park was blissfully empty because hardly anybody else was up and shopping. Shoe shopping mission accomplished and a few more errands later and I decided to reward myself with coffee, which is when I realised it was only lunch time. How could I have been so productive on a single Sunday morning? I then had to resist the urge for a nana nap at 2.30 pm. How do people do this every day??

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Vanilla Shott

Sipping a latte this morning, I looked into my pantry and made a shock discovery: my little bottle of magical vanilla Shott coffee syrup was almost finished. Eep! How did it go down so fast? I quickly added it to both my shopping list and the list of my favourite things.

Vanilla is no longer a code word for "plain" or "flavourless" like I remember it growing up. True aromatic vanilla bean with its full flavour is seeing a resurgence in cooking and baking. When added to coffee (either black or white), it takes on a whole new form. Use vanilla Shott in place of sugar for a sweet, full flavour. Just 10 ml is enough for me but the sweeter teethed may prefer to opt for the full 25 ml recommended serving.

You'll see the Shott range in cafés and various food stores. In my humble opinion, caramel Shott is great in hot chocolate drinks but vanilla reins supreme in coffee. I also love that Shott is a local company.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Too early for diamonds

A friend and I have been training to become ladies who lunch. The training is intense but we're pretty dedicated. It mostly consists of drinking coffee and sampling high tea in various Wellington establishments. I'm pleased to report that it is going well and we are making good progress. However, a recent experience has made me realise that we need to step up our game.

A while ago, I was staying with a friend in Auckland when she mentioned that there was a jewellery sale "at someone's house" that day. Was I interested in going with her? I guess so; it doesn't hurt to look. We drove up to a semi-mansion in Castor Bay and I got a glimpse of how the other half live.

The jewellery for sale was Sensational Silver as the owner was selling her business and clearing stock. We enjoyed perusing a table covered with earrings, rings, bracelets and necklaces in a whole range of styles. We tried on some items, all the while thinking ahead and trying to match various upcoming birthdays to the jewellery on the table. Three other women were at the sale and we soon noticed that their shopping style was markedly different to ours.

Our conversations went something like this:
"Do you think [12-year-old] would like this for Christmas?"
"Is this necklace too big to go with my red top? It's probably a bit OTT if I'm wearing long earrings at the same time."
"These earrings are cute, but I've already spent $15 on those studs so I shouldn't really buy two pairs."
"Ouch! $50 is still quite expensive, even with the discount ..."
Their conversations went like this:
"Oh, that's nice! I already have it in gold and one with an onyx inset. I might get the bracelet to match and it will also go with my rings and that chain over there."
"Only $190 for a sterling silver choker? You'll never find something so cheap in the shops!"
"I want this for my next wedding ring. I tell husband that I'm a big woman and so I need big jewellery. He says no, so I tell him my next husband will buy me big jewellery."
As they were chatting, they were gathering up and putting aside pieces to buy, much like we were. However, their piles were overflowing to the point where the seller went into her kitchen to find plastic containers for each of them to fill so they didn't get mixed up or lost. (I had no such problem with my three tiny pairs of earrings for $45.)

Their chatter went on and these women suddenly had our full attention with their next conversation. "My husband tells me, 'I buy you gold jewellery. Why are you wearing silver now?' I told him, 'it's too early for diamonds during the day - I'll wear them with gold at night but it's now quite acceptable to wear silver during the day.' He just doesn't get it." And here's where I learned a life lesson. We've always been told that diamonds are a girl's best friend, even in this day and age, but I never knew that sometimes it's too early for diamonds.

I flew home realising that I may never become a lady who lunches, nor am I likely to own different sets of jewellery for different times of the day, but some days I coffee like a princess and dine like a queen. Surely that counts?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Welcome to the Happiness Hotel

I'm generally a cheap and cheerful kind of traveller. The old adage of "just a bed and a clean room is enough for me" usually applies – and it's just as well. Most of my personal travel has been on a backpacker's budget as I prefer to spend my money on getting out and doing things rather than paying for somewhere to store my bags during the day.

There's a common perception that you get what you pay for, and it's largely accurate. But sometimes cheap is not always that cheerful. We can all tell horror stories about places we've stayed at – and mine won't be anywhere near as drastic as some, but I'm sure some common themes would emerge. While rude (or non-existent service) has long been romanticised in a Fawlty Towers kind of way, some things just aren't funny.

A while ago, my partner had an overnight stay in Auckland. He found a deal at a budget hotel chain in a central city location close to where he needed to be. It looked fine. He checked in to find an untidy room and someone already asleep in bed – Goldilocks, perhaps? After reporting his finding to reception, they simply asked him who was in the room and did he want a late checkout tomorrow. Really?? The room he ended up in wasn't fantastic but at least there was no-one else in it.

I've stayed in a place with rooms that are so small that there was no room for luggage once we shut the door. (Luckily our large group had booked out the whole place so we could keep our bags outside in the hallway.) Multi-storey buildings with broken or non-existent lifts were commonplace when backpacking in Italy, making the Hotel California in Milazzo not so pleasant.

A South Island motel I stayed for a work trip was so cold that you could see the damp dripping down the walls. The heater was broken and so we opted for an early night, but I was still frozen even while wearing all of my clothes in bed and laying my coat on top of the covers. Then there was the congregation of cockroaches and silverfish hanging out on the wall ... I think this place takes out top prize for the worst ever work accommodation. I guess you just have to put up with what you've got when you stay in small towns with limited (or singular) accommodation options.

But apparently bed bugs also like luxurious hotels and are no longer content to just hang out in cheap dives. And why wouldn't they? If the conditions are basically the same everywhere, you'd may as well take an upgrade if it's on offer. (By the way, how do you get upgrades to better rooms, or even half-decent ones?)

I once complained about being given a tiny room in Auckland that looked nothing like the photo yet was called (and cost) an 'executive' room. It didn't even have an external window (as shown in the photo), apart from a tiny one above head height in the bathroom. The response? "Most hotels have a broad variety of rooms and will naturally display a photo of one of their better ones in a brochure or website." So apparently it's perfectly acceptable to show photos of just one room and customers have to accept that theirs will look nothing like the one they've paid for.

Then there was a place where the extractor fan in the ensuite wouldn't turn off ... until 6 am, when it finally decided to get some sleep. (We'd given up trying long ago.) Also, a hostel opposite a night club in central Auckland where I got a grand total of zero minutes sleep and ended up leaving at 4.30 am to catch the early airport bus, figuring that airport noise is preferable to thumping music and street fights outside my window.

A song comes to mind ...

Friday, 1 November 2013

Pravda cheese scones

What day is it? Cheese Scone Friday! :-D

By now, everyone who knows me (and plenty who don't) know that Cheese Scone Friday is one of my favourite things. The fact it happens on most people's favourite working day is an added bonus. However, for those of us who are scone challenged and not confident enough to make our own cheese scones, it pays to know where to find the best ones in town. There was a scone hunt in the Wellington CBD earlier this year that sought to uncover the secret. How I would have loved to been the food detective on this project! But, for me, nothing beats Dom's world famous cheese scones.

On Friday mornings, I get off the bus and head straight to Pravda to nab a takeaway cheese scone before they run out. Demand is red hot and I've been caught out before by thinking there would be some left by coffee time. Now, I don't take the risk. I had a close call this morning when my bus was late and the cheese scone cabinet was empty. The lovely lady at the counter must have noted my panic-stricken face and said the magic words: "We have some more cheese scones, if that's what you're after." Whew!

I was gutted to miss out on Dom's Cheese Scone classes during Wellington on a Plate and hope (with fingers and toes crossed) that he will agree to hold some more breakfast sessions for us cheese scone aficionados.
Cheese Scone Friday
A good backup for Cheese Scone Friday is Legato Cafe, with their light and fluffy cheese puffs, or Pandoro Panetteria, which has just opened up another cafe nearby. What better way to make Fridays even more enjoyable?

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Word of the day: pecksniffian

Quite randomly, a colleague decided that we should have a word of the day for today and that today's chosen word would be pecksniffian. The challenge is to use the word in a sentence, preferably one that is casually thrown into conversation or, even better, used in a meeting.

Not sure what (a) pecksniffian is? She provided us with this helpful information.

adjective: Pretending to have high moral principles; sanctimonious, hypocritical.

After Seth Pecksniff, a character in Charles Dickens's novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Earliest documented use: 1844.

Charles Dickens describes Pecksniff like this: "Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there."

"Dominique was in two minds about inviting the Thingammys to the party – Horace was a dear, but Mavis was a Pecksniffian old trout."
And so the discussion begin. Who do we know that is pecksniffian? Hyacinth Bucket would qualify, surely. Many (most?) politicians would also be pecksniffian. We tried out the word of the day in as many contexts as we could imagine but think it is going to take at least a few more days to a) remember how to say it correctly and b) remember to use it.

How about a Word of Every Few Days instead?

Monday, 28 October 2013

Fashion crimes

We've been talking about fashion crimes in the office recently - not necessarily because of outfits particular people have worn but more as a general line of conversation. We asked ourselves the big question: "What is a fashion crime?" Urban Dictionary's definition of a fashion crime is simple and to the point: "wearing clothes that do not match or look altogether stupid".

The old adage of "blue and green should never be seen" seems well known but can go just as well for any colour combination, so long as the second colour is green or cream and still rhymes (white and cream?). Surely that can't be right? I distinctly remember hearing that wearing red and green makes you look like a Christmas tree, but is that true for any combination?

We brainstormed a few more: double denim (especially double blue or double black), double leathers (unless you're immediately about to hop onto a motorbike), non-matching handbag and shoes, short shorts on people who are obviously not designed to wear short shorts (most people), mixing metals when wearing jewellery (gold and silver etc), brown and black, mixed patterns and prints (checks, stripes, different florals etc), red and pink, redheads wearing red (or pink), socks or stockings with open toe shoes ... the list went on.

But apparently fashion rules are made to be broken, as these examples show. That's when our resident office clown decided to put this theory to the test. She promised to turn up to work the next Friday committing as many fashion crimes as she possibly could while wearing one outfit. Then, we'd watch people's reactions and see if anyone called the fashion police.

She arrived at work in a blue denim jacket with tight black jeans, a patterned scarf (which is actually a dress) over a horizontally striped top, black suede high heeled boots with frilly white ankle socks that left a gap between the bottom of her jeans and shoes, then finished off the ensemble with a yellow smock and a brown belt.

How did she look? Strangely, quite fabulous. It would seem that certain people can get away with committing fashion crimes while barely raising an eyebrow. We didn't even take a photo as there was simply nothing to report - she even received compliments! I guess it's back to the fashion crime drawing board. Clearly, the rules don't apply to everyone.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Coconut orange pikelets

Afternoon tea is a good excuse to whip up something delicious and my tried and true pikelet recipe is a great one to make if you're in a hurry. Yesterday, I experimented with some different ingredients that I had on hand (half a tin of coconut milk in the fridge and a ripe orange) and am delighted to have discovered a new flavour - coconut orange pikelets. I also used a duck egg in the mixture as I have several left over from this week's sponge baking session.

The coconut flavour is subtle and the aroma was most noticeable when cooking. You can add as much orange rind (or a few drops of orange juice) as you like according to taste.

Coconut orange pikelets

  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • ~3/4 cup coconut milk
  • grated rind of half an orange
  1. Whisk together the egg and sugar.
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Alternately add flour and milk to the egg and mix well until you have a smooth, slightly runny mixture. Grate in rind of half an orange and mix well. Add more milk if required.
  4. Cook dessertspoonfuls of mixture in a non-stick frypan over a medium-low heat. (I spray the pan first with canola spray but you could also melt a little butter.) Flip when air bubbles start to appear on top and cook the other side. Makes about 30.
Serve warm as is or spread with butter and marmalade.
Coconut orange pikelets

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Duck eggs

Swapping baking notes with a colleague recently, she mentioned that she has ducks on her lifestyle block and prefers to use their eggs for baking instead of chicken eggs. Apparently they produce light, fluffy cakes and have a richer flavour when substituted for regular chicken eggs. She commented that her eleven ducks are "laying like machine guns" at the moment - so much so that she and her husband can't keep up with eating all the eggs they find each day and they also have chooks. Would I like to try baking with some duck eggs? You bet I would!

Yesterday, a tray of twelve duck eggs arrived on my desk along with some baking advice. They're a lot larger than chicken eggs, weighing around 80 grams in the shell as opposed to a standard large chicken egg weighing 59 grams. There are two options for using them: either measure out the same quantities of unshelled eggs until they weigh the same, or substitute them 1-1. Duck eggs will simply enrich and add bulk to a recipe. Although the yolk to white ratio is a little higher (and the whites are a really clear white), I've been assured that they make the lightest of meringues, which I find intriguing as I imagined more yolk would make recipes heavier.

It was time to put the theory into practice. I made hot water sponge cake today from the Gran's Sweet Pantry cookbook and substituted the eggs 1-1. The recipe certainly turned out bigger and the eggs whipped into a pale yellow colour. It rose beautifully (and evenly) in the oven and cooked and cooled perfectly ... but how did it taste?

Well, we all demolished the sponge tonight, which I had filled with lemon butter and whipped cream. I am thrilled to have had my first taste of sponge baking success and can't wait to use the other nine duck eggs when baking. I'm hoping that my duck egg supply will be ongoing ... unless we find a way to create our own duck pond in the back yard instead.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Strange encounters

A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre.

Well, not really. Unlike this classic gag, a strange thing happened on the way back from lunch today. I was walking along Lambton Quay when a guy was coming towards me carrying a bass drum. Sure, it's not something you'd expect to see in the middle of town during a work day. Next thing I know, the guy accidentally whacks the drum into my right forearm as we pass. "Oops, sorry!" he called and kept walking. Stunned, I couldn't decide whether it actually hurt or if I was just put out at being hit by something so random.

Back at the office, I can confirm that it does hurt and the pink mark on my skin agrees. "Put ice on it - now," colleagues said. But what is available in an office freezer? Ice blocks, a tub of ice cream, some frozen scones, but no ice pack - not even a proverbial pack of frozen peas. I returned my desk protesting that I couldn't find anything, when my colleague decided to search the freezer herself. "Here, use this," she said.

So here I am, back at my desk, holding a frozen Watties Meal Sensations meal for one (Teriyaki Beef, in case you're wondering) on my arm and pondering how my day came to this. My arm hurts in a couple of places, but I'm feeling bemused more than anything else.

How's your day going? Any eventful or bizarre incidents to report?

Friday, 18 October 2013

Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter

I've decided to introduce a new tag and occasionally blog about some of my favourite things. While raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens may have traditionally made it onto a list like this, my new tag will see me wax lyrical about whatever takes my fancy at any given point in time. Self-indulgent, much? Absolutely! :-)

Let's start with a foodstuff that I can't get enough of at the moment (but am careful to ration): Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter. You think you know good peanut butter, or don't see the fuss? Try Pic's and you'll change your mind.

I like to support local businesses and am impressed that there is a grand total of two ingredients in the salted peanut butter flavour (just peanuts and salt). No preservatives, chemicals or artificial ingredients to detract from the taste or quality. I'm really glad to see that Pic's is now exporting their wares overseas to a growing market.

I stocked up my supplies at The Food Show in May and am working my way through two crunchy and four smooth jars of the good stuff. To prove that I'm a occasionally a little bit generous with things that I love, I gave my dad a jar of Pic's smooth peanut butter for Fathers' Day. Now, Dad's pretty easy to please and not exactly fussy when it comes to food, but I know things are good when he asks me if I have any more of "that peanut butter" and reminds me that his birthday is coming up. It's nice to be able to share some foodie love.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

New Zealand Cheese Month

Here's something I learned yesterday: October is New Zealand Cheese Month. Seriously - a whole month dedicated to New Zealand cheese ... how did I only find out about this phenomenal event halfway through the month? Luckily there is still time to join the festivities.

The official sources explain that this inaugural event "... is about celebrating our country's delicious and diverse range of cheeses, trying new cheese, using cheese in recipes and discovering new cheese and beverage pairings." That sounds like something I can do well!

It doesn't look like there are any official events planned for Wellington, but we in the office are keen to get on board. There have been suggestions of everyone bringing a New Zealand cheese to share at work tomorrow. I don't think I could convince anyone to try cheese rolling and already know I don't have the patience for cheese making, so we might need to stick with what we do best: eat lots of cheese. As for cheese and beverage pairings, I thought Cheese Scone Friday with a coffee sounded pretty good but have been trumped by my colleagues who think wine 'tasting' with a wide selection of cheese is even better. They could be right.

Are you 'celebrating' New Zealand Cheese Month?

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Laser tag

We had a childhood flashback yesterday when a group of 15 technically grownup adults played laser tag for a friend's birthday party. Laser Force, Laser Tag, Laser Strike - call it what you will. There is something hugely appealing about having juvenile fun running walking madly (no running allowed - you'll be warned then deactivated!) around a 400 m² maze shooting coloured targets. Add flashy lights, loud music and kick-ass names like Gravity, Infinity, Enigma and Predator and you've suddenly got the makings of a winner-takes-all competition where friends become foes in an instant. So much fun!

Each 10 minute round flies by and before you know it everybody's back outside, puffing a bit and asking big questions such as, "Who's Gladiator at the top?" and "How did Rogue get me so many times?" as the scoreboard is dutifully checked. Then it's back in to home base to start all over again.

Just in case you're worried about the retro-geeky images laser tag conjures up, just remember that if it is cool enough for Barney Stintson then it's cool enough for us all. But a word of advice: skip the Timeout section while you're waiting. It's little more than a crammed collection of poorly maintained arcade games that swallow game tokens, accompanied by a single-sided air hockey table and some random shoot-em-ups with poor graphics ... but trust me when I say that laser tag is still as awesome as it was when we were kids.

Why don't we do this every weekend, or at least for every birthday?

Monday, 7 October 2013

Digital declutter

Every so often, I go through a decluttering phase that sees me attempt to purge some of the stuff I have accumulated. It usually happens after I reach a tipping point of sorts - something that is hard to define but I always know once I'm there. I feel like I'm currently at a digital tipping point. Something has to happen.

Much like cleaning up your home, there are lots of tips available for digital decluttering. However, I think they pretty much involve the same strategy: do it slowly but surely - and be firm.

A couple of years ago I unsubscribed to a whole pile of daily deal sites and it felt great! However, they have slowly but surely crept up again and the daily assault on my junk mail inbox was starting to spiral out of control. 17 emails with unmissable deals by lunch time, most of which I instantly delete? No thanks! So, during the past week or so I've started unsubscribing and removing myself from mailing lists all over the place. A few are precariously hanging in there until I make a final decision about whether or not they can stay. Some are proving harder to remove than others; they send me "are you sure?" messages then confirmations that they have received my confirmation. Enough, already!

My Feedly blogroll has also been included in this digital declutter. Sorry to all those who haven't updated their blogs in more than a year, but you're most likely off my list now! I am less brutal than I'd like to be with Twitter and Facebook, though. Every attempt at unfollowing or defriending usually nets just a few casualties at a time, coupled with more guilty pangs than any grown up should realistically be feeling. Digital zen is harder to achieve than it looks.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Black Forest gâteau

If there's one cake memory I have from growing up in the 1980s, it's Black Forest gâteau. This decadent cake represented the height of indulgence with its layers of dark chocolate cake, whipped cream, cherries and ganache. What's the difference between gâteau and cake, you ask? Basically, nothing - although it largely depends on which country you're from. As I see it, gâteau is a much more exotic name for layered cake and particularly fitting for this recipe.

I've made this cake for a couple of birthdays recently, starting with this BBC Food recipe as a base and adapting it slightly (of course). It takes a long time for the cake to cook and cool so I bake the cake one day in advance and assemble it a few hours before serving.

For today's cake, I replaced the cherries with chopped Black Doris plums and used reduced plum syrup instead of cherries and kirsch. Plums are (marginally) cheaper and have a slightly more tart flavour than cherries. Be warned: this is a very rich, dense cake and not for the faint hearted.

Black Forest gâteau

  • 340 g butter, softened
  • 340 g sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 240 g self-raising flour, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, sifted
  • 80 g cocoa, sifted
  • 850 g tin Black Doris plums, drained and coarsely chopped (remove stones)
  • 500 ml cream
  • 200 g quality dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
  1. Preheat oven to 170°C.
  2. Lightly grease and line a 20 cm (8") loose bottomed cake tin.
  3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then fold in the sifted flour, baking powder and cocoa.
  4. Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Smooth the surface with a knife and bake for approx 1 hour 30 mins until firm and springy and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
  5. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the pan for five minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Leave to cool completely.
  6. Drain the plums (or cherries), leaving 200 ml of the syrup. Boil syrup in a small pot until reduced by half (approx 10 minutes). Set aside to cool.
  7. Slice cooled cake horizontally into three layers. Place each layer onto a chopping board and spoon the plum syrup evenly over each disc, leaving it to soak in.
  8. To make the ganache, place 200 g of the cream (yes, weigh the cream) in a medium-sized pot and heat to scalding point. Remove from heat and add the chocolate, stirring gently until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside to cool and thicken slightly.
  9. Whip the remaining cream until thick. Spread one of the cake layers with half the cream then cover with half the coarsely chopped plums. Place the second layer of cake over this and repeat, finishing with the third layer on top. Gently press the whole cake together with the palms of your hands.
  10. Use a palette knife to spread chocolate ganache over the top or top and sides of the cake, starting with the top layer.
  11. Leave the cake to set in a cool place (not necessarily in the fridge) and cut into large wedges to serve.

Black Forest gâteau

Friday, 4 October 2013

Coffee for a good cause

A short while ago, @LocalsTrade started following me on Twitter. A few clicks later and I had learned about a great project that had me intrigued.

Basically, Locals involves donating a can of food (or several) in exchange for coffee, with the proceeds going to charity. I thought/tweeted about how good it would be if Locals set up in Wellington. It seems like @lafarre read my mind, or at least my tweet, and now Wellington Locals is ready to kick off with Wellington City Mission benefitting from the canned food donations.

I've been really impressed with Caffe L'Affare's anti-surcharge on public holidays this year, where patrons are not charged a surcharge and instead the cafe donates 15% of the day's proceeds go to a local charity. They seem like a natural partner for the Locals project and I'm really glad to see them supporting the local community in such a practical way.

Wellington Locals launches at Caffe L’affare, 27 College Street, Wellington, this morning from 9-11 am, then every Monday and Tuesday 9-11 am until 22 October. I'm hoping to make it up to that part of town with a can or two to support this worthy project and encourage other coffee lovers to do the same. Spread the word!

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Cool Runnings

How time flies. Mashable informed me today that one of my favourite feelgood movies, Cool Runnings (1993), was released 20 years ago on Tuesday. Nostalgia aside, this time frame seems extremely unlikely given that it feels like only a few years ago. Surely can't have been so long? Apparently so.

I loved Cool Runnings. It is loosely based on the true story the impoverished Jamaican bobsled team's debut in the 1988 Winter Olympics after a supposed foiled attempt by three runners to qualify as sprinters for the summer games. The characters are colourful, lively and resourceful. How else would a random group of guys from a tropical country be able to enter a winter event when they've neither seen snow nor a bobsleigh before?

The upbeat pseudo-reggae soundtrack helped the movie achieve slightly longer lasting fame. My first band formed in 1993 so naturally Jimmy Cliff's version of I Can See Clearly Now was part of our set list. It was lots of fun to play and really popular with audiences of all ages. Good times, great memories.

I love this list of 14 ways Cool Runnings is still relevant to your life made up of snippets from the film. The message is clear: anything is possible if you're prepared to work for it - even if you only have a bathtub to practise in.

Monday, 30 September 2013

The Muppet Show marathon

I am a huuuuuuuuuge Muppet Show fan. I was thrilled to be given boxed sets of Series 1 and 2 of The Muppet Show on DVD for my birthday and have enjoyed watching classic episodes during mini Muppet marathons (half-marathons, maybe?). Each episode is short enough to watch just one or two (or three) at a time whenever you need a pick-me-up. They're also incredibly addictive. Luckily I still have plenty more episodes to watch, then it will be back to the beginning again and again.

There is so much to love about the Muppets, with an endearing cast of characters and great running gags. I'd forgotten how many one liners George the Janitor quipped on the dance floor. I always preferred Veterinarian's Hospital to Pigs In Space. The two resident hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, are surprisingly sharp, as poor Fozzie Bear knows all too well. Then there's the perpetually hapless Great Gonzo, whose greatest admirer is Camilla the Chicken.

Here's Fozzie telling the world's funniest joke. "Good grief, the comedian's a bear!" Cracks me up every time.

While many of the special guests have faded into oblivion or weren't quite as funny as they thought they were, some were truly memorable. I loved Rita Moreno's dance sequence where she effortlessly, then exasperatingly, threw her Muppet admirers around the room. Her episode finished with Animal accompanying her on the drums while she sang "Fever". Of course it went wrong for her. I always remember Ben Vereen's smiley, happy cabaret-style episode. Although I don't really know what Avery Schreiber was famous for, he was certainly one of the funniest guests.

But really, it's the musical numbers that set The Muppet Show apart. Rowlf the Dog is an astonishingly good pianist and definitely one of my favourite characters. I love his renditions of classical arrangements, many of which I learned to play myself. He almost met his musical match when Bruce Forsyth played a beautiful version of "Let There Be Love" during his guest appearance. Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are my heroes and Zoot is an absolutely legendary sax player. Just listen to his fine form during one of my favourite numbers, "Sax and Violence".

Classic. Timeless. Hilarious. Muppets rock.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Accommodation available

We have accommodation available at our place. It's quite modest and might not appeal to everyone but would be perfect for the right tenant. It's a bit bare at the moment as it has been vacant over winter but we promise that the leaves will arrive soon, making it a cosily furnished home. Ideally, we like a tui or pair of tui to move in to this tree in our backyard for summer. A family of four would also be comfortable there. Guests are welcome to stay after summer but we usually find they migrate elsewhere for winter.

We can offer lots of benefits and are very hospitable housemates, as previous tui will attest to. There are other trees in the area that are good for visiting during the day or to shelter in when the wind picks up. Cats (including ours) don't tend to climb up this tree so safety is assured. There are also stunning views of sunsets all summer long. You could probably even see the beach from that high up! The best bit is the price tag: free.

We have been excitedly anticipating the arrival of tui in our trees ever since they started returning to the area at the end of winter, but none have appeared. Perhaps they just haven't found our tree yet or would prefer the furniture to grow first?

Others are gradually taking up residence nearby and we eagerly await our very own tui to sing to us each day. We don't expect spectacular whistling but enjoy recognising 'our' tui when we hear them in the neighbourhood. Last year's tui sounded like a car alarm, which was highly amusing. A baby tui singing a simple note or two would be welcome, so long as they move on to other sounds after a while. For those aspiring to tui greatness, they might like to watch this video of WoofWoof the talking tui, who lived to a ripe old age of 16 and entertained bird lovers the world over.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Flying Dutchman

The New Zealand Opera season of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman opened in Wellington last night. On Thursday night, I was at the final dress rehearsal. Wow, what an evening!

Originally set in 1843, The Flying Dutchman is given some pretty bold treatment. Wagner is the bad boy of opera; dark, brooding and dangerously mysterious. Sung in German with English surtitles, the phrasing is long and drawn out and the drama laid on thick. Why set the libretto into succinct phrases when several more will really hammer the point home? The theatre design is quite spectacular and the performance is edgy, even risqué. I've never been mooned by the cast at an opera before which goes to show that there is a first time for everything!

Irish soprano Orla Boylan excelled as Senta - now there's a voice to bring down an opera house. Her presence well and truly filled the stage. New Zealand born bass baritone Paul Whelan was resting his voice for opening night after recovering from a recent illness so unfortunately I missed hearing him at full capacity. Peter Auty put in a very heartfelt performance as the heartbroken Erik.

The orchestration was simply superb. New Zealand Opera's first partnership with New Zealand Symphony Orchestra since 2002 brings the show to a whole new level. The orchestra is first class and their performance was faultless. Here's hoping for more NZO/NZSO partnerships in the future.

The Flying Dutchman has three more performances in Wellington and moves to Auckland from 5 October. If the final dress rehearsal is anything to go by, the show is absolutely fantastic. Do see it!