This year, in the RNZB’s 60th anniversary year, we wanted to do something a bit different to celebrate this amazing national treasure – today arguably at its height.
Over a cheeky glass of Nautilus or two with Morven McAuley from Antipodes Water Company, the idea of the Ballet Banquet was born. We were motivated by the similarities we saw between the hard work, exacting standards and painstaking attention to detail we saw in the ballet all aimed at producing something exquisite and graceful on stage, with the world of hospitality in which we spend most of our time.
Last night, 50 guests arrived at the Civic Theatre with little idea of what to expect. After a behind the scenes view of dancers warming up for Swan Lake, guests settled down to a 6 course dinner, each course inspired by a different classical ballet from the RNZB’s repertoire. Throughout the evening, they were serenaded by Claire Cowan’s Blackbird ensemble. Claire had written 6 original pieces for the evening – each interpreting the refrain from the relevant ballet.
This was at the same time one of the most fun and challenging meals I have ever had to choose wines for.
Take Chef Ed Verner’s description of the first course for example
Innocence. Brawling. Devastation.
Scampi. Pork. Black garlic.
I wanted the dish to be a blanket of white and flowers to symbolise the innocence and love of Romeo & Juliet. People have to break through the innocence, and underneath find unexpected dark shades representing destruction. I combined the textures of ingredients so that the lasting visual on the plate would be total devastation.
The white consisted of horseradish, coconut and squid with garnishes of rose, radish flowers and sliced turnips.”
We chose a Sauvignon Blanc to serve with this dish. With so many complex flavours going on a traditional “match” was never going to be possible. But it was fun to serve an older vintage of Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc. Our Sauvignon, unlike many others from the region, develops beautiful texture and weight with age, and the flavours soften whilst still retaining freshness. A slightly aged vintage of Sauvignon with food is my favourite way to enjoy this variety – and from the comments of our guests, I think they were impressed as well. The scampi, black garlic and horseradish worked well with the cleansing acidity and fresh citrus flavours of the Sauvignon.
Innocence. Brawling. Devastation.
Winter Vegetables. Sour cream. Pear
Turning a story consisting of so much sweetness into a savoury starter was probably my hardest challenge. I focused on the colour and playfulness I imagined from the story while pushing the sweet thematic elements as far as I could.
Chestnuts and hazelnuts, beetroot, leek, carrot and jerusalem artichokes, gingerbread, Dandelion and wild plum blossom.”
This was the course that gave me the most struggle to choose a wine. With so many sweet and savoury elements to the dish, I was a little nervous of how the wine would work. We considered serving a Gruner Veltliner – this is a new variety for Marlborough and one with which we are enjoying experimenting. Unlike a lot of the varieties planted in New Zealand, Gruner lacks the upfront fruitiness we are mostly used to, and instead has a leaner, more earthy/vegetal character to it. I thought this would work well with the root vegetables. However in a last minute change of heart I decided to serve a 2009 vintage of Nautilus Pinot Gris. And it ended up being my favourite food/wine combo. Pear, ginger and hazelnut characters in the wine all complimented Ed’s dish, and a few years’ age had brought out a delicious oily texture which worked really well with the texture of the root vegetables. Yum!
Spell. Fairies. Vines. Sleep. Lilac.
Monkfish. Sea Urchin. Licorice
Lilac, sleep and fairies were up next with the most magical story of them all for me. I wanted lots of purple and green ‘vines’ with a black plate to symbolise night and sleep. I knew I needed to create a fantastical fairy dust somehow.
Red cabbage and licorice fairy dust. Celery hearts, parsnip and violets.”
With this dish we served our current vintage Chardonnay 2012. Chardonnay is like my favourite child. I love all our wines and feel slightly guilty singling one out, but in truth, the Chardonnay is it. It is the wine that I always have in the fridge for unexpected guests. In this dish, the weight and texture of the monkfish and the slight sweetness from the lilac and licorice worked well with this oaked style of chardonnay but the fresh crisp acidity of the wine cut through the flavours to cleanse the palate ready for the next mouthful. It was delicious.
Forest. Mist. Haunting.
Forest Mushrooms. Celeriac. Duck
This was the easiest course for me because it invoked forest and nature: some of my favourite ingredients are natural earthy flavours. During my research I saw many images of mist covered woodland, which inspired me to bring that to the table through aromatics, taste and visuals.
Mushrooms, blackened celeriac, manuka smoked duck prosciutto, muesli. Leaves and flowers.
The broth was made using kilos of dried mushrooms Laura and I had foraged back in autumn and dried. The forest box was made from woodland elements Laura and I collected from around Auckland to give the mist and aroma I wanted.”
Definitely the most spectacular presentation – A box of woodland moss and herbs was brought to the table, and some Antipodes water poured over it to release a cloud of mist that swirled across the table releasing forest and earthy scents. Pinot Noir was an obvious choice for this dish – with mushroom, duck, celeriac and soy all being flavours that are classic matches for Pinot Noir. The current 2011 vintage has a beautiful delicacy to it which worked spectacularly will with the elegance of the broth.
Cauldron. Illusion. Glade. Evil.
Wagyu beef. Yolk. Onions. Lettuce
Witches, cauldrons and the part where the glowing cauldron reveals an illusion of a “lovely glade” instantly stood out for me. This was the simplest dish in terms of flavours and I wanted to finish in this way, after taking diners on a journey of some complex and unusual combinations. This is a dish about a countryside created with wild herbs and flowers shrouded in darkness. Thank you Firstlight for the Wagyu beef.”
With this course, we moved to an older vintage of Pinot Noir from 2005. This wine has a firmer tannin structure which combined with and was softened by the protein in the beef, and also a more savoury element due to its age. A beautiful complement to the delicious wagyu – and a much more straightforward (and yet no less stunning) combination of flavours made this the perfect finale to the savoury courses and wine matches.
Those who wished to continued to enjoy the wine of their choice with dessert, but to compliment Brian Campbell’s spectacular chocolate creation (People if you only go to one restaurant in Auckland this year, make it Milse) we chose to serve a delicious cold brew Kokako coffee with sparkling Antipodes water. This was my first experience of cold brew and the combination of a heady espresso scent, and yet the refreshing delicate palate is something I will certainly be looking out for again. Mike – do you have plans to come down to Blenheim any time soon?!
The evening was absolutely amazing. And it was exactly how I like to enjoy our wines – not in a line up where every wine is power tasted for 5 seconds only to be spat out and forgotten, but surrounded by great people and fantastic cuisine.
Thanks so much to everyone who was involved. Ed’s descriptions of the dishes are taken from the blog he and his partner Laura (our photographer for the evening) http://chefandphotographer.com/2013/08/26/standing-ovations/ and the photos were provided by Laura.