A Farewell Dinner to a Villa on River Road

Some of you will have experienced an emotional good-bye to a home that you have loved, that holds the memories of your children growing up and the pain of renovation.  Usually the move is made easier by the thought of another family taking over the house to create a new set of memories.  How much harder it is to have to leave knowing that a demolition squad will erase that house forever.

In Christchurch this is just what our dear friends Jan and Wal have had to face.  A month ago Peter and I spent a special weekend in celebration of a fine old lady sitting on the banks of the Avon on River Road.  It was to be her farewell weekend.

Jan is a wonderful cook who will mark any occasion with a special meal.  Wal is the modern day hunter and gatherer, sourcing the fish, meats, vegetables and wine. On this occasion the gathering included a whole duck and a whole Moki.  What a wonderful team they are.   How many couples do you know that catered their own wedding?  Well Jan and Wal did.

A long table was set up in a spacious elegant room that reminds us of the style and craftmanship that went into quality villas after the turn of last century.  The most stunning feature is the ornate plaster ceiling with sunflowers.

Outside the real flowers on show were Sweet Peas. While Jan has given up gardening around the River Road property, the sweet peas were the one flower she grew and picked. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t love these dainty, sweet perfumed pea flowers that herald the approach of summer.

While out smelling the sweet peas, another delicious smell took my attention.  Wal was smoking the fish that was to be the entree for our special dinner.  

As Wal is a keen fisherman, he finds it worthwhile to invest in a good stainless steel smoker.  Trout and salmon are the usual guests in the smoker but today he went to his favourite fish monger and purchased a whole Moki.

The architect of the meal is Jan who could have had a career in a commercial kitchen. She’s not just a good cook, she’s strategic and organised. Jan plans a menu that can be prepared ahead of time.  When the guests arrive she has everything ready resulting in minimal time away from guests.   And I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to have a cleared bench at the time of serving a meal.

Wal’s smoked fish was presented on a large platter with water biscuits as the entree – simple and delicious.

Smoked Moki – simple and delicious!

The main course also appeared to be a simple dish … but looks are deceptive.

Jan took four evenings after work to produce a dish called Cassoulet featuring a whole duck cooked three ways, beans, lamb and sausage.

Mark Bittman who writes for the New York Times describes this dish beautifully and gives you the recipe if you want to give it go. How to Conquer the Cassoulet   It involves boning the duck to remove the breasts, making a stock out of the carcass and keeping the duck fat to produce a Duck Confit.
Next you cook the lamb and beans, followed by the sausage and seared duck breasts Whole Duck Cassoulet.

Dinner guest Matt is giving the Cassoulet the smell test – verdict…
smells fantastic!

The final touch requires heating up cassoulet, covering with breadcrumbs and parsley, then bake in the oven until golden brown.

Jan served the cassoulet with a big pile of fresh asparagus and a crusty bread baton from the superb bakery on Victoria Street called Vics.

Jan used baby green lima beans in the cassoulet.

I wanted to taste the sauce first so I dipped the bread into the juice and what a rich flavour I was rewarded with.

Cassoulet comes from France. It’s humble origin as a traditional peasant bean stew has been claimed by different cities in the south west.  While other traditional dishes have disappeared, Cassoulet has an almost iconic status in France.   Each region, city or home has it’s own particular recipe … but they all contain beans, meat and usually a duck confit.  Chefs debate the importance of keeping to the traditional Cassoulet versus making a version that better suits the current time, i.e. lighter, and less time consuming.

Carcassonne chef Jean-Claude Rodriguez writes “Cassoulet lives on, because it requires patience, respect, and it requires a lot of love.”

Yes all of us around that table that night knew just how well loved we were …but wait there was more.  A large wooden board made from the top of a wine barrel was brought to the table carrying dessert.

Jackie’s Rustic Semolina Lemon and Rosemary cake in the foreground.

Jan has an appreciation of good cakes and is an excellent cake maker.  She is famous in our household for her Simnel Cake (a dark fruitcake with marsipan running through the centre like a rich vein of gold.)

On this occasion she decided to outsource the dessert and asked Jackie who was well qualified for the task. Jackie used to own and bake for her local cafe until the earthquakes destroyed their building and business.

A great way of presenting crackers or biscuits on a platter – a layer of kitchen
paper and brown paper tied up with twine.

The presentation was as lovely as the selection of edibles.   There were two cakes with home made Mascarpone, three cheeses with walnut oatcakes and a bowl of dried figs marinated in orange syrup.

Rustic Semolina Lemon and Rosemary Cake

The  lemon cake was truly delicious – lemony with a great texture.  Both Jan and I thought it worthwhile to hunt out the recipe.   It’s Italian in origin and they sometimes slice it and have with coffee for breakfast.    
This cake would also be delicious with lemon curd 

My first attempt at making this cake was a bit of a disaster due to a combination of my oven “Mr Ferocious” and a limited time frame.  So, second time round, I thought I would halve the recipe and put it into a tin that would cook the centre before it burns on the outside.  I have given the ingredients for the loaf sized cake, but if you want to make an impressive small but tall cake like the one Jackie created in the picture above, just double the mix below.

1/2 cup Semolina
1 cup plain flour
1/4 cup coarsely ground cornmeal (I used polenta)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp of baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
grated zest of one lemon
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp finely chopped Rosemary
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon extract (I used 1tsp Lemoncello liqueur but I think the lemon extract would make it more lemony like Jackie’s cake)
1/2 cup thick Greek yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 175C.

Line and grease a large loaf tin.
Put the three flours together with baking powder, soda and salt in one bowl.

In a mixer or bowl mix together the sugar lemon zest and rosemary.

Add the oil to the sugar and mix on medium speed.
 Add the eggs one at a time, then the extract or lemon liquor and lemon juice, and beat until well mixed.

With a metal spoon, fold in half the flour mixture into the eggs, then half the yogurt until mixed.

Then add the rest of the flour mixture and yogurt and mix just until blended.

Pour the batter into the loaf tin, and spread evenly with the back of a spoon, then bake for about 1 hour, or until a cake tester comes out clean.
 Cool the cake for 10 minutes, then carefully run a knife around the pan and turn it over onto a plate.
 Cool to room temperature before slicing.

 I presented the cake as a dessert with marinated strawberries, lemon curd and mascarpone with Lemoncello liqueur.

The heart of the city of Christchurch has been flattened but there are early signs of the city’s revival.  It’s heartening to see some of the cleared land that once housed businesses being given over to wildflower plantings.  This is organised by Greening the Rubble Trust – a group a of people wanting to create a better place for the people of Christchurch now. 
In other regions of New Zealand we can all too easily forget the plight of the people of Christchurch.  A visit to that city is a big reminder and you leave feeling an admiration for the spirit and courage of it’s people.

Signs of a community working together with a
Community garden on Fitzgerald Avenue

Our weekend’s final stop was a visit to Pomeroys Historic Brewery on Kilmore Street for a taste of boutique brewery beers from the south.  Pomeroys has managed to stay operating after the earthquakes and it’s an important meeting place for locals.  

Peter giving a toast to Wal (centre) and Jan( right).

Jan and Wal have now moved into their new home across the river where land is stable.  It’s not as grand as the well loved villa on River Road but it has what both of them want – a safe and cosy home in a welcoming local community.

One thing I know for sure is that no matter where Jan and Wal are living we will be treated to great  company, good craic and wonderful new food experiences around their dining table. 

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