Last weekend I was lucky enough to go to Wellington for the second NZ Food Bloggers Association conference, and the opportunity to participate in a few of the Wellington on a Plate events. Food bloggers, wherever in the world you live, know only too well about community, and connecting and making friends with strangers from all corners of the world. So it was wonderful to come together again with blogging friends we had met at last year's conference; to meet for the first time bloggers we had previously only connected with online; and to meet and discover new bloggers. Now I would not be overstating things if I just told you that it was a positively amazing weekend and left it at that, but I'm sure you all want to know more, and there are also a lot of people who deserve a great deal of credit for their part in such a wonderful event, so keep reading. And as a reward, if you keep reading, I will give you cake ... not just any old cake, but an Upside Down Pineapple and Kawakawa Cake - now doesn't that sound worth waiting for.
My weekend began on Thursday night, along with several other bloggers, at a hosted dinner at Portlander restaurant in the Rydges hotel. It would be an over-simplification, and would not do it justice, to call Portlander a steak house; however, their steaks are definitely their specialty, and meat dishes make up the majority of their menu. For my starter I chose chargrilled baby paua served with panko crumbed calamari, cauliflower puree and lemon. This was beautifully presented, and although the paua was slightly chewy - which really is the nature of paua - the smoky flavour from the chargrilling was wonderful, and the cauliflower puree was a great accompaniment. Although I'm not a huge meat eater, "when in Rome" I figured so I chose the lamb rack wrapped in chicken, spinach & pistachio mousse served with whipped garlic mash on bacon & mushroom ragout. Again, this was spectacularly presented, and there was more than a little "menu envy" around the table when it came out. However, looks aren't everything, and some of the best looking dishes fail to deliver on the palate - such was not the case here. The lamb was sublimely tender and succulent; the mousse was delicate in flavour and clearly helped to keep the lamb moist and juicy; and the ragout was rich and flavourful. This was a dish that tasted every bit as good as it looked. With still just enough room left for dessert (seriously when is there ever not room for dessert), I chose the trio of ice creams - vanilla, triple chocolate, and fig and honey. The service was exemplary - knowledgeable and attentive - and our waiter went out of his way to make sure that even the vegetarian in our midst was satisfied ... no mean feat in a restaurant which doesn't for the most part cater for vegetarians. All in all, a great dining experience and I would definitely return.
After a good night's sleep, we all eagerly gathered on Friday morning at the InterContinental Hotel for a special preview and the official mayoral opening of the New Zealand Chocolate Festival. Is there any better way to start the day than with chocolate? Our visit to the chocolate festival began with a demonstration from Chef Juan Balsani of Kermadec restaurant in Auckland, who made a chocolate balloon using liquid nitrogen (he says that "as long as you can still feel your fingers, it's ok") filled with chocolate mousse, and decorated with caramelised white chocolate spaghetti and chocolate pink pepper sauce - simply stunning. Then, following the mayoral opening of the festival, we were free to visit the various exhibitors and indulge in chocolate to our hearts' content. The highlight for me - discovering Bohemian Chocolates salted caramels.
Once we were all filled to bursting with chocolate, we were whisked away to the brand spanking new Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts institute - so new it was not due to open to the public until the day after our conference and we were the very first to use this amazing state-of-the-art facility. All of the staff we engaged with were warm and welcoming; Le Cordon Bleu pastry chefs served us beautiful morning and afternoon teas; and I find it hard to describe what an extraordinary privilege it was for us to be able to use these facilities.
With formalities out of the way, our first speaker of the day was Jared Gulian, who writes the wonderful blog Moon Over Martinborough. Jared told us about his journey, from being dragged kicking and screaming from life in the city to life on an olive grove in the country, and his journey from storyteller to olive oil producer. It struck me, as I listened to Jared, that here in New Zealand we read books like Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun and fantasise about living such a dream. Yet, here is someone who has come to New Zealand and is living exactly that dream right here in our own country ... food for thought, isn't it?!
Our next speaker was Alison Brook, Head of Publishing for HarperCollins NZ, with some sound advice for those bloggers interested in getting a cookbook published. She had some surprising information with regard to the high proportion of non-fiction book sales in New Zealand, with a high percentage of those being cookbooks. It was also a revelation to learn that publishers are actually out there looking for food bloggers to publish. Some of her best advice if you want that to be you - originality, good writing, good photography, good styling, and most of all authenticity.
And now it was time for lunch, and excitement was high. Ten restaurants participating in Wellington on a Plate, were each sponsoring a table of four conference goers for a lunch. Along with Vicki from Nourish Magazine, Emma from Make Do Mum, and Asher from NZ Heart Foundation, I had the good fortune to go to Maginnity's. Located in the Wellesley Boutique Hotel, and with a kitchen ruled by head chef Marc Soper (an award-winning chef with an impressive background that includes working at the Langham and Mollies in Auckland, as well as the French Laundry in the Napa Valley), this was bound to be a good lunch and it certainly did not disappoint. I started with an entree of a beetroot & caramelised onion tart with blue cheese, roasted walnuts, wild rocket, and apple & port syrup, followed by a main of pan-fried tarakihi on roast potato hash, with rosemary sauce vierge, roast lemon chutney and baby rocket. Judging by all the ooh-ing and aah-ing around the table I think everyone was as happy with their lunch as I was.
Well sated, it was back to Le Cordon Bleu for our next speaker - Lucy Corry. Lucy writes the fabulous blog The Kitchen Maid, and is also a journalist by profession. Lucy raised the question is blogging "real writing"? A controversial question indeed, and I am sure there are food writers out there who will never agree that it is. That aside, Lucy's advice if you want your blog to be read (and really why else would you blog?) - get to know who your audience is and engage with them; learn to craft a good sentence; practice, practice, practice; leave the cat photos out of your blog; and keep your finger off the exclamation mark!! Lucy also talked a lot about how cooking, and the writing and exchanging of recipes, connects us to each other and to our past. This is exactly why I love to cook and to blog, so her words really resonated with me. If you'd like to know more about what Lucy had to say, check out this post on her blog.
Our next speaker was Sarah Miekle, GM Marketing for Positively Wellington Tourism. Sarah talked to us about digital marketing and social media, and though most of us use Twitter and Facebook to one degree or another, it was quite a revelation to discover the power of these social media and the important role they now play in the modern marketing mix.
After a gorgeous afternoon tea prepared by Le Cordon Bleu pastry chefs, we headed for the first of our breakout workshops.
I was torn between doing the food photography workshop with Viviane Perenyi (of the gorgeous blog At Down Under) or attending the Skype discussion with Emma Galloway from the very successful blog My Darling Lemon Thyme. Since my photography is still the aspect of my blog that I think needs the most work, I decided on Viviane's workshop, but thankfully Emma has posted her fodd blogging 101 here. After Viviane talked to us about the basics of light, frame and balance, textures, colours, and patterns. Then we split into small groups to take some photos - a great workshop - would have loved another couple of hours.
From there, was our second breakout session and, in my quest to try and become a gardener, I chose to attend a discussion of organic urban food growing by Kaye Reardon of Grow From Here. I think I still have a long way to go in the gardening department, but Kaye was an engaging speaker and had plenty of great advice and answers to everyone's questions.
That brought to an end the day's events and it was time to move on to dinner - a pop-up dining experience in a secret location. Keep watching this space for our dining experience and day two of the conference. And now I promised you cake ...
One of the first recipes to catch my eye when I purchased Tessa Kiros' Falling Cloudberries was her recipe for a pineapple upside down cake, and it's been on my mind ever since. When I dipped into my conference goodie bag and found a selection of teas from t leaf T, including some Kawakawa Fire (a flavourful blend of ginger, kawakawa and lemon grass), I knew it was time to make this cake. The original recipe called for a spice mix of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, which I swapped out for the Kawakawa Fire tea, and I replaced orange juice in the syrup with lemon juice and lemon zest to play up the lemon grass flavours in the tea. This is a beautifully moist and quite dense cake - definitely one I would make again. To play on the bright, tropical flavours of this cake I think coconut could be a nice addition too ... what do you think?
Upside Down Pineapple & Kawakawa Tea
Adapted from a recipe by Tessa Kiros from
Click here for a printable copy of this recipe
zest of 1x lemon
2 teaspoons Kawakawa Fire tea from t leaf T
2 teaspoons of spices of your choice (cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves)
juice of 1x lemon
60g (2-1/4 oz) butter
70g (2-1/2 oz) brown sugar
430g (15 oz) tin sliced pineapple
250g (9 oz) softened butter
200g (7 oz) brown sugar
250g (9 oz) plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup milk
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C (400 degrees F). Rub tea mixture between your fingers to break the leaves up a bit.
To make the syrup, put the lemon juice, butter, and brown sugar, along with 1/2 teaspoon of the tea, into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until you have a thick caramel syrup - about 8 to 10 minutes.
Grease and line the base and sides of a 23cm springform tin with non-stick baking paper. Pour syrup into the tin, and spread to evenly coat the bottom of the tin. Then fit pineapple rings into a single layer in the base of the tin. Set aside while you prepare the cake batter.
Using an electric beater, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Then sift in the flour and baking powder, and mix to combine. Add the milk and beat it in well. Then add the remaining tea or spice mixture and the grated lemon zest. Mix again to make sure everything is well combined.
Spoon the batter into the tin over the pineapple and syrup, smoothing the top and making sure that the batter is evenly spread.
Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F). Bake a further 50 minutes, then cover with foil to stop it browning any further. Bake another 15 to 20 minutes until cake is deeply golden and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before turning the cake out onto a plate.
Remove the bottom of the tin, peel away the parchment paper, and serve.
Delicious on its own, or even better with cream, creme fraiche, yoghurt or ice cream.