Over the Hills and Far Away

Day 26.¬† Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.

It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.

Driveway, mist over creek. Day 10

One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.

Cabbages of Yarra Valley, Day 10

I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off.¬† And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.

Moeraki Surprise, Fleurs Place. New Zealand.

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A Basket of Quince.

Sometimes fate sends you a nice little surprise. We were driving along the highway heading towards Dunedin, about 40 kilometers south of Oamaru, when I noticed a sign on the road promising a bowl of seafood chowder at the local tavern of Moeraki.  Moeraki, the tourist brochures informed me, is known for its boulders sitting on a beach: no mention of the nearby town or tavern. Stuff the boulders, I thought, just give me that soup. We detoured off the main route and pulled up at the Moeraki tavern only to find it well and truly closed. Chiuso. We knocked and banged a few times in the hope that someone might magically appear but it remained locked. Seats up. Lights out. I felt really cheated. My taste buds, alert and eager, now grieved as they slowly considered the inevitable exchange- a big bowl of fishy chowder was about to become a mundane home-made cheese sandwich in the back of the van.

Seaview from Fleurs
Seaview at Moeraki

At this point, still hoping for a loaves and fishes miracle, I peered down towards the sea and noted a rather large group of cars gathered around what looked like an industrial tin shed. It was a Wednesday and around 1.30 pm- a funeral perhaps, or maybe a fishing co-op? or a party? There were no other signs of life in this deserted holiday town.

Decor at Fleurs

We headed down a narrow one way road towards the tin shedded promontory and, lo and behold, we discovered the fabulous and very famous little restaurant, Fleur’s¬†Place, sitting right on the edge of the sea. It was busy, mostly with young Asian travellers who were obviously in the know. I hadn’t heard about Fleurs, making the discovery all the more serendipitous.

Upstairs at Fleurs Place, Moeraki, New Zealand.
Upstairs at Fleurs Place, Moeraki, New Zealand.

On entering, I felt very much at home. The wood lined interior, which utilised recycled materials, windows and staircases and lots of quirky decor, contained an upstairs mezzanine, reminding me of my old home and those of all my friends. Old hippy houses, hand-built idiosyncratic places that I have come to miss. Then I noticed the chalked sign offering freshly caught fish daily. It was a hallelujah moment. A table for two please.

Fleur buys fish from the lpacla fisherman
Fleur buys fish from the local fisherman daily.

Fleurs Place
Fleurs Place, fishy metal sculpture above the bar.

Quirky decor at Fleurs Place
Recycled decor at Fleurs Place

We chose an inside table- the last one available, although the upstairs section, with its few tables looking out to sea, was also very inviting.

Fleurs Place
Fleurs Place, stairway to the mezzanine dining area.

We shared a platter consisting of a generous serve of smoked eel p√Ęt√©, some smoked salmon slices, a beetroot chutney, croutons and assorted gherkins and caperberries. It was very good indeed.

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A generous serve of chowder at Fleur’s Place.

We followed this with seafood chowder. It was not the chowder of my imagining, but rather one made from a rich tomato and  home- made fish stock. Studded with local clams, mussels, fish chunks and scallops, it was a generous bowl and came with plenty of bread.

An empty bowl of chowder, Fleurs Place, Moeraki.
An empty bowl of chowder, Fleurs Place, Moeraki.

There were some lovely desserts on offer, including slow poached quinces, but we were ready to hit the road again. It was only much later that I found out a little more about Fleur and her life as a chef at Oliver’s Restaurant in Clyde, Central Otago, as well as the comments by Rick Stein. I recommend this place highly although beware, most main course fish dishes are costly, around NZ $40 or so,¬†but then the sizing is generous. Fresh fish includes¬†blue cod, John Dory, moki, blue nose, gurnard, sole, flounder, groper, and crayfish.¬†Regional organic growers supply most of the other ingredients, including unique New Zealand vegetable varieties and the wines come from Central Otago.

You can find out more about Fleur’s restaurant here

http://media.newzealand.com/en/story-ideas/new-zealand-chef-fleur-sullivan/

and I highly recommend this fascinating interview, which includes a wonderful story about the whales visiting again. 

http://www.dumbofeather.com/conversation/fleur-sullivan-is-a-restauranteur/