I went to Fleurs Place for dinner.
I called ahead to check that there'd be room for me. “Where are you coming from?” Oamaru. Can you be here in around forty minutes?” Sure, no problem. Sooner, if you like.
I was there in under half an hour. “You can sit anywhere you like.” I looked round. There was one table I actually wanted, and that's only because the other four diners were already using it. Instead, I plumped for the table that had been set for one when I called half an hour earlier.
In fairness, there were diners upstairs, too. I could hear the distant hum of conversation, and a steady stream of gorgeous dishes wafted past me to keep the other room happy.
This is a fish restaurant. Some fish feature all year round, while others are seasonal. There's always a fish of the day. The restaurant has its own fishing quota: Fleur's boat goes out to sea and brings back fresh fish to serve that very day.
I didn't have fish.
My reasoning was simple. I've had fish before but I've never had muttonbird.
Muttonbird, also known by the Maori name of titi, is a species of sheerwater which breeds on uninhabited rocks and islets off the coast of Stewart Island. The annual muttonbird harvest is managed entirely by Rakiura Maori, who go to their burrows and collect young birds before they fledge. At that point, the birds have few feathers, if any. Their necks are expertly wrung and they are taken way to be preserved in salt. In the past, they would be stored in baskets made from kelp: nowadays, they're put in food-grade plastic buckets.
As I waited, I looked around me. The restaurant is entirely lined with wood. Right round the room, up to head height or above, people have written messages in black marker pen.
- Barb and Theresa were here
- Life is a journey, not a destination
- This is the paradise of New Zealand
- Sista's are doing it for themselves [ah – so that's where the apostrophe went]
- To schoolgirl friendships – thanks for the memories
- The best fish meal north of the Antarctic
- Life is a party, but you have to hang your own bunting
- Fish heaven on earth
- Goin on the road of the world
- Great meal and good memory in here
- A great night with my beautiful wife [Glad to hear it, but how was the meal?]
Through the window, the sun was setting. The last rays were glinting on the bay. It's a beautiful place.
The muttonbird was served on a pretty vintage plate with wilted spinach and roast new potatoes. The waitress also brought a bowl of water with a slice of lemon and a tea towel. I drank the water straight away, dried the bowl with the tea towel and got on with my dinner.
I cut off the fatty skin and tucked into the dark meat. It's supposed to taste like mutton – hence the name – but it had the texture of duck, the oiliness of goose and the gamey flavour of a well-hung grouse. It's hard to get all the meat off the bones without picking it up and giving it a good gnaw.
I then wondered what to do about my sticky fingers. In the end I did what I always do and wiped them on my trousers.
I like a meal that involves hard work. I once ordered duck in a posh restaurant in Luxembourg. With great ceremony, it was wheeled to the table on a salver, hidden by a silver cover shaped like a duck. The cover was lifted to reveal a whole roast duck. For a moment, I thought I was expected to eat the whole thing. I was relieved when the waiter whipped out his carving knife and presented me with one breast and one leg.
This was not the sort of restaurant where diners use their fingers, and it took some work to cut the meat from the bone without making a hideous mess. But I managed it, leaned back in my chair and sighed with pleasure.
The waiter returned with the salver and gave me the rest of the duck.
No such challenge at Fleurs Place. I had ordered half a muttonbird, and that was quite enough. I really liked it, by the way, but I can see it wouldn't be to everyone's taste. Especially if you're vegetarian.
For pudding, I had chocolate mousse (because I hadn't had enough fat yet) and a freshly-baked hazelnut shortbread cigar.
By now, I was the only diner left downstairs. Fleur flitted about, sometimes sitting at a table to write notes, sometimes checking the presentation of dishes before they disappeared upstairs, always ready with a friendly word for departing guests. She is the antithesis of Dot Smith: no Technicolor here, just a black shirt, black jeans and wavy white hair, the colour of Oamaru stone.
Fleur has a worldwide reputation. On one wall is a picture of the British chef, Rick Stein, whose own fish restaurant in Padstow is booked for months ahead. Don't just pitch up and expect to get a table for two. You won't get one.
Anyway, when Rick was told he could go anywhere in the world to write a travel article, he chose Fleurs Place. He declared it “everything I hoped it would be.”
I met Rick once. It was a hospitality industry event in Eastbourne. I arrived late because the family car wouldn't start: a son who will remain nameless (I'm looking at you, James) had flattened the battery by leaving all the interior lights on over the weekend. I arrived in Eastbourne in our other car, a rear-engined Skoda that we bought for £600.
I sat down next to a complete stranger and told him why I was late. I added that at least the drive had been fun – which is true, because those Skodas were really good to drive. They won their class in the RAC rally many years running.
That didn't stop people telling jokes about them. How do you double the value of a Skoda? Put petrol in it. What do you call a Skoda with no roof? A skip. How do Skoda drivers keep their hands warm in winter? They put the heated rear window on when they're pushing it. Ah well. I knew a good car when I saw one.
Rick Stein made a warm, amusing after-dinner speech. Then, as proceedings wound down, the man next to me started talking about how he'd had to use his Bentley in the Mille Miglia – a race from Brescia to Rome and back – because his Maserati had broken down. He then said, “But you're a Skoda fan?” Yes, I squeeked, so faintly he could hardly hear. He got out a pen and paper. “What was your name again?” Er … why? “I write a column for a classic car magazine. This will make a great story – I found the man who likes Skodas!”
We gravitated towards the bar, which was on a balcony overlooking the ballroom. One hundred and fifty ironmongers were dancing. It was their annual conference. Music was provided by one of my teenage idols, Alan Price. His record, “Between Today and Yesterday,” sits alongside Ricky Lee Jones and the Beatles' Abbey Road as one of my top five favourite albums. The others are “Neck and Neck” by Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler and – in a demonstration of outright nepotism – an album of music by the Beulah Band, featuring the son who will remain nameless.
Appreciating the unexpected pleasure of watching ironmongers dance to the music of Alan Price, I scarcely noticed Rick Stein standing next to me. Then I did. So I told him what I thought of the quality of the fish on sale in my local supermarket. Yeah, like I'm an expert.
All in all, it seemed only appropriate to have a weird conversation with Fleur. We started by discussing compulsory military service. In Austria, all young men are supposed to do either military or community service – for example, serving in a mountain rescue squad – after they leave school. It's not compulsory for young women.
This led us to discuss the old rhyme about the Grand Old Duke of York and why, precisely, he marched ten thousand men up a hill and back down again. It's the obvious thing to discuss with a world-famous restaurateur.
We were about to discuss bakery training when the last of the upstairs diners came down to pay, so I never did get to tell Fleur my anecdote about the changeover from old to new season flour. She found the other guests rather more intriguing and that was that.
Well, almost. The chefs had finished for the night and were out front, reading the paper. I asked how they prepared muttonbird. “We put it in a large pan of cold water, bring it slowly to the boil, then pour the water down the drain. Then we start again. We do that three times, to get rid of the salt. Then we roast it for fifteen minutes. That's it. Really simple!” I also learned that Fleurs is the only restaurant to have muttonbird all year round. Which more than makes up for the year-round absence of an apostrophe.