Whangarei Heads, buffalo cheese and the promise of scallops

Green salad, tomatoes and Buffalo Labneh with a coriander and rocket pesto dressing topped off with Amethyst basil.

I can’t believe that just a few days ago I was in coastal Otago.  Now at the other end of the country we are spending the weekend in the balmy and beautiful Whangarei Heads.  However, Whangarei Heads does remind me a little of home on the Otago Peninsula. It was a perfect way to complete our summer holiday with our friends Heather and Martin soaking in the stunning views, listening for the sound of kiwi at night and swimming in the clear blue harbour with the company of Kai, a rock diving Golden Retriever.

Kaiteremoana (loosely translates to ‘navigator’) aka Kai is not allowed to dive for rocks because it hurts her ears. She watches out to see when no one is looking and sneaks the odd dive. The rocks are then buried in a big hole in the sand.
Views from the Mount Manaia walk that took us two hours return. Lots of steps but the views are worth the puff. Top photo: view from Mount Manaia looking down towards Urquharts Bay at the end of the Peninsula where we stayed. Centre left: lots of hebes in flower on the walk; Centre right: me and one of the large Totara’s on the walk. There were also large Kauri trees. Bottom left: lichen growing on the walls glistening after a good rainfall the night before. Bottom right: an excellent  DOC track. I heard that there were 400 steps included in the track…too many for me to count.

I discovered it’s not only the shape of the land that is familiar to Otago Peninsula. This area has had its fair share of Scottish early settlers too. Unlike Otago and Southland, Scottish settlers here didn’t come directly from the Highlands but via Nova Scotia, Canada. Compared to Nova Scotia I think the Whangarei early settlers must have thought they had arrived in Heaven with the warmth and lush growing conditions of Northland. Little touches of Scotland remain as every New Year’s Eve in Urquhart’s Bay the sound of bagpipes welcomes in the New Year from a boat moored in the harbour. Heather is a wonderful cook.  I wanted to bring something delicious and new for the weekend, so we battled with the Auckland traffic to stop in at the Matakana Village Farmers Market.  There I met Jo from Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese Company who is  passionate about buffalo cheeses and proudly showed photos of the latest arrivals to their herd. The Whangaripo buffalo stock came from Australia but originated from Italy.

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This photo is from Jo’s Facebook site. Aren’t they so cute with those large soft ears? Apparently their moos are different from other calves – more like duck calls. Click on the link above to learn more about the Whangaripo Buffalo and the cheese produced from their milk.

We tried the Yassou Buffalo Haloumi and the Grado Buffalo Milk Labneh (soft balls made from Buffalo yoghurt coated in herbs and stored in a jar of oil). Both were delicious so we went onto Whangarei with both cheeses.

Grado is named after an Italian village. Labneh is made by straining yoghurt through muslin until the whey separates and the remaining thick cream can be fashioned into balls. You can also do this with cows milk yoghurt but the buffalo milk is supremely rich.

That night I offered to make the salad.  Heather had assembled a lovely selection of small green and purple coloured lettuce, large leaved rocket, cucumbers and a good quantity of coriander. I cut the cucumbers length wise and scooped out the seeds dicing into 1 cm pieces.  This is to avoid the salad becoming too soggy. pic20150118164751 If I wanted to use tomatoes I could go out and select them.  No need to wash them as we had just received a warm downpour courtesy of Mother Nature. I simply cut them up and seasoned well with salt and pepper before adding to the salad. Next I cut up three Buffalo Labneh balls and dotted them on top of the tomatoes and salad greens. Now all these freshly harvested greens,  tomatoes and cheese could just have a simple dressing, but I felt with so much coriander and rocket on offer I could make a pesto dressing that would add a real flavour punch.

Using a mortar and pestle is more work than using a stick blender to make a pesto but the oils of the herbs seem to combine better if crushed by hand and the end result is quite a different consistency to that of the machine blended pesto.

Using a lovely large stone mortar and pestle I first crushed a large clove of mild flavoured garlic with rock salt.  Crushing the garlic with salt makes it into a garlic slurry. Add a good handful of coriander and 2 or 3 rocket leaves slowly adding olive oil to ensure a paste develops. Now for the nut component: for pesto you can use pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and even peanuts but Heather suggested I use macadamia nuts.  As these nuts are grown in Northland I decided they would be perfect.  Their mealiness and mild flavour would be perfect with the strong flavours of coriander and rocket. I found them tricky to crush whole, so I took them out and cut them up before working them into the paste with the mortar and pestle.

Heather has developed a short cut method of preserving lemons. I am keen to try this myself so will feature this in a future posting.

I usually finish off a pesto with a squeeze of lemon.  Lemon also serves to retain a bright green colour in the pesto.  As we didn’t have any lemons,  I used one slice of Heather’s homemade preserved lemon. This turned out to be a great addition.  I really enjoyed the preserved lemon flavour. 20150117_180957 I set aside a couple of tablespoons of pesto for the dressing and put the remainder in a bowl for everyone to enjoy before dinner with crackers. For the dressing I dilute the pesto with olive oil.  Always taste at this point.  You might want to add a dash of vinegar but the preserved lemon made the dressing acid enough for this salad. 20150117_181828 - Version 3 Just before serving I drizzle the pesto dressing over the salad.  Even though coriander is the major flavour for this salad I couldn’t resist using some amethyst basil from the garden and placed some tiny whole cherry tomatoes in and around the cheese. pic20150118130711 The salad complemented a Maori potato salad with chopped spring onions and local extra virgin unfiltered olive oil from Pataua Olive Grove, and the sweet and juicy sweetcorn purchased from a local roadside stall.  Martin was in charge of producing the hot smoked salmon making this meal truly memorable. Talk of scallops in the bay became a challenge for Peter.  It was decided tomorrow when the tide is right he and Martin would attempt to free dive for scallops.

Above: Heather in the row boat while Peter and Martin diving nearby. Below: Scallop shells are easily spotted on the beach.

The promise of scallops for lunch depended on catching the tide at the right time and Martin and Peter being able to free dive deep enough.  It wasn’t looking good. Then along came young Rolf who is an excellent free diver and he saved the day harvesting enough scallops for us to share over lunch.

Rolf with the scallops that were the centre piece for our lunch.

I asked Heather to show me her favourite way of cooking scallops.

Heather on my question picked up a scallop and popped it into her mouth raw. I wasn’t quite quick enough to catch the action on camera but did catch the cheeky satisfaction.

She has tried a number of ways of cooking them but prefers this simple and quick method that showcases the flavour of the fresh scallops. 20150118_145332 Melt a dollop of butter and add chopped garlic (how much is up to your preference) and  a couple of kaffir lime leaves sliced.  Saute slowly so as not to burn the garlic and butter. Turn up the heat and throw in the scallops. 20150118_145450 The scallops are cooked and taken off the heat when the colour of the muscle goes from slightly translucent to creamy white.  They take less than 5 minutes but it depends on the condition of the scallop and how full the pan is. 20150118_145831 The finishing touch was some fresh coriander scissored on top of the scallops at the table. Yum… they were the most delicious scallops I have ever eaten.  I think they were so good because they were alive half an hour before we ate. How privileged we are to still be able to harvest a meal from the sea.  We only got a couple of scallops each but then a little of something lovely is sometimes more appreciated than a lot. Besides we had plenty of fresh salad vegetables and the rest of the Buffalo Labneh balls to add to our lunch time feast.

The lunch table, left is Peter, centre Martin and right Rolf.

Martin and Heather live in a beautiful part of Northland and are a major force in the local community based Backyard Kiwi action group restoring kiwi numbers in the surrounding bush on Whangarei Heads. Backyard Kiwi aims to have kiwi thriving on Whangarei Heads for the grandchildren of today’s residents.  Managed by the Whangarei Heads Landcare group and through working with local residents this project has been so successful that the aim to have 1000 kiwis living on the peninsula by 2020 looks like it will be exceeded. This has been one of the most successful kiwi breeding operations in the country and it has been completely reliant on the skills and passion of local residents to save their kiwis.

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The Backyard Kiwi website http://www.Backyardkiwi.org.nz has lots of photos and good stories about the kiwi of Whangarei Heads. The kiwi drawing that is the mascot of Backyard Kiwi was created by Heather Hunt and if you drive on the Whangarei Peninsula you will see her kiwi road signs made to shine at night to remind residents kiwis are out and about and could be on the road.

Heather’s an artist and she generously allowed me to use the image that she painted of her Swift Whip eggbeater for my blog. sm-web-Egg Beater [1] © Heather Hunt She illustrates children’s picture books and her drawings have really captured the personality of the kiwi. You can see her work at this link Heather Hunt. 

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Photo by Heather Hunt and art direction by Marita Hunt.

In this beautiful corner of New Zealand we ended our weekend with a long swim followed by sitting on the beach watching the sunset, sipping a refreshing Pinot Noir Spritzer (a mix of wine and soda water) and munching salty potato chips in the company of Heather, Martin, their daughter Marita and Kai the dog.

It’s bean a while…

It has been quite a while since my last posting…and I will later let you know what I have been up to. But right now the first harvest of our broad beans has to be celebrated.

Broad beans are one of the most useful and rewarding vegetables to grow for the kitchen and for your garden.

As there weren’t that many beans after podding my first harvest, I decided to make a broad bean couscous – that way everyone got to taste a bean or two. And somehow broad beans and couscous just seem perfect partners.

Broad Beans this young if cooked quickly do not need to be skinned and if really fresh can be munched raw.

The best thing about this legume Vicia faba is that you can eat every part of the broad bean plant at different stages of growth  before the pods are mature.

Late winter the beans will start to gain height and these new leaf shoots appear.
Late winter the beans will start to gain height and these new leaf shoots appear.

The fresh soft green leaf shoots are delicious harvested for salads or as an addition to stir fry.  They have a mild peppery taste.


Broad beans flower in early spring, and you can take some (not all or you won’t have beans) for inclusion in salads.

Here’s the immature pod compared to a matured bean pod.

When the bean pods are the size of a pea pod you can use them whole in stir fry or sliced raw into a salad

If you prefer not to eat broad beans or do not have ready access to them then you can use any other vegetable in their place in this couscous dish.

Broad Bean Couscous

Don’t you just hate it when Couscous clumps together?   I have learn’t a couple of tricks that will improve your couscous dish.


First step is to put 2 cups of couscous into a heavy pan and gently toast until it slightly changes colour but careful not to burn.


Tip into a bowl and add 100ml of olive oil. The toasting adds flavour and the olive oil will ensure the grains remain separate.


Add 2 1/2 cups of boiling water. At first it looks like soup…


But like magic in a couple of minutes all the liquid is used up. I


Fluff up with a fork. You now have the base for the salad.

Bring to the boil a pot of hot water to briefly cook the beans.  Make sure the water is boiling before adding the podded beans and cook for 30 seconds up to 1 minute.  I taste one after 30 seconds and if nearly cooked strain the beans immediately and run under cold water.

If you have large older beans you should skin the beans to avoid that bitter taste of the outer pods. But if the beans are young and the skins not grey then skinning is not necessary. There are bean varieties available that have a green rather than grey skin once cooked. This really assists with presentation issues for the broad bean.


Add beans to the couscous.


Lemon goes really well with beans so I scraped a preserved lemon quarter of its salty flesh and was left with just the preserved peel remaining.  Dice and add along with  half a fresh lemon’s zest. If you haven’t got the preserved lemon – no worries just use the lemon zest from one lemon instead of half.

Finely slice one garlic clove, then squash it into salt flakes. The garlic and salt goes almost liquid.


Chop a handful of parsley and a couple of mint tips and add to the mix.


Coriander is also a good addition to the mix and I reserve a little to sprinkle over the top of the finished couscous.

Now squeeze the juice from one lemon (or more if needed once you taste it), and mix with one tsp of honey. Mix through the couscous and add a good dollop of olive oil.  You should taste now and you may need to add more lemon juice and olive oil. The taste I look for is the balance of sharpness of lemon with the creamy oily taste of olive oil.

I like to add a touch of dried fruit that contrasts nicely with the beans and lemon. I used 2 tablespoons of currants that have been soaked in white balsamic vinegar (but you could use ordinary balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar). The reason you soak the currants in vinegar is to add bite to the sweetness and to plump them up a little.



Add some chopped and toasted almonds to make your couscous complete.

You can add or change what I have suggested with what you have in your pantry cupboard. Roasted pumpkin cubes  that have been sprinkled with ground cumin could be an alternative to the beans.  And after the broad bean season you can add some sliced string beans or snow peas. Cooked chickpeas are also a tasty addition to couscous.




The good thing about this dish is that you can prepare it ahead of time – in fact it will improve if left overnight. We had this with roast chicken, roasted new carrots and asparagus but it will work in combination with any meat, fish or vegetable dish.

Over the past few months my focus has not been on cooking but on gardening. I decided this year that I would increase my knowledge either in nutrition or growing food.  In the end I chose gardening as I felt the greatest nutrition comes from growing food in healthy soil and reducing the time from picking to the plate. I am attending an Agriculture NZ Organic Horticulture course once a week and already I realise just how much I don’t know about growing.

Garlic at foreground; beans background – Peter standing beside them shows their growth is not at all stunted.


Last week I learnt that you shouldn’t plant beans and legumes with garlic and onions… and that was exactly what I did this year at our garden plot.  Our garlic is growing magnificently and next to them our beans seem to be doing well. Why don’t legumes like the onion and garlic family? Apparently what makes garlic so good for us – killing bacteria – affects the bacteria that fixes nitrogen in the legumes.  The beans have started to get rust but are producing well.  I will keep an eye on them and next year keep the two apart – and they need a distance of over a metre.

Broad Beans are easy to grow and King’s Seeds have a dwarf variety available that just grows to one metre if you are short on space.

But what if you have a real dislike of Broad Beans?  Then think about planting them anyway  before Anzac Day (April 25th) – let them grow up in winter and just as they begin to  flower dig them back into the soil.  You won’t get to eat the beans but your soil will receive a good feed of organic matter and a dose of nitrogen ready for an early summer crop you just love to eat. It will take just a month in spring for the bean materials to break down. Before digging in – remember you can utilise the peppery green shoots in a stir fry or late winter salad. You will have your revenge on those beans your mother made you eat as a child and your soil will thank you!