Something in the water

One of the delicious meals at Cucina, the winner of a beef and lamb award three years running....
One of the delicious meals at Cucina, the winner of a beef and lamb award three years running. Photos: Lisa Scott

At dusk, the little blue and yellow-eyed penguins come ashore to put their jammies on. Cute, but rubbish eating. Oily, too many little bones and just not that satisfying. Pick your teeth with a penny farthing, 30 minutes later you're hungry again.

Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Luke's. "Hello," say the Omaroovians. They do that rural hand flap thing at passing cars, smile at strangers. I walk up Wharf St to get away from all the friendly, to Arun St where a line of verandas shade shops with giant windows. Drawn in by the orange of a 1950s picnic rug, I fang a right into Moa Bakery, Cakery.

Not everything is raw at Moa (which stands for Move Over Allergies), the slices and chocolate bars are, but everything is vegan, gluten-free, refined sugar free, dairy-free and egg-free and made on the premises.

Moa Bakery, Cakery.
Moa Bakery, Cakery.

Out the back, Jane Thompson's parents work like the world's sweetest woofers. Geraniums beam from window boxes while customers peruse the lunchboxes, four-seed bread, muffins, cookies, carrot and raisin spice cookies, passing the time of day, happy to see Jane for the two days a week she's open. The retro furniture, coffee cups and dishware are sourced from the op shops of Oamaru (uncommonly good, just quietly) and the shop is a mecca for vegans, options in the South Island being pretty limited two years ago when Jane started up after she got ME/CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), requiring an urgent change of pace and diet. I try the chocolate caramel cheesecake. With a base made from almonds, brown rice syrup and coconut - so good for you it's almost medicinal - may as well have a boysenberry, raspberry and vanilla one as well.

Vinbrux's stick-to-your-ribs sourdough.
Vinbrux's stick-to-your-ribs sourdough.

A hop skip and a jump away is Vinbrux Bakery, where sixth-generation bakers from Aachen, on the border of Belgium and the Netherlands, make stick-to-your-ribs sourdough. Spekulaas (a cinnamony shortbread also known as "windmill cookies"), Danishes, pastries and rolls; Vinbrux Bakery is open for breakfast and lunch with a focus on taste, not pretension, meaning the food is fresh, inexpensive and there's plenty of it. If you're lucky, you might be accompanied by the tuneful stylings of master baker Richard Vinbrux on the Gulbransen pianola. If there is anything better for the soul than munching on good German bread while listening to hurdy-gurdy honky tonk played by a man in a Panama hat, I don't know what it is.

Sonya Ramsay, of Nourish Me Almond Milk, uses dates as a sweetener, organic spices such as cinnamon and plays with flavours, introducing orange (like a jaffa cake) and more recently, coffee. The vitamin E in almond milk is great for your skin. Although ideal for the dairy and gluten intolerant, most of Sonya's customers aren't health nuts, just love the taste. Currently sold at Tees St Cafe, the milk is otherwise home delivered around Oamaru and beyond, Sonya a modern-day milkman without the paternity rumours, collecting reusable bottles and chatting to her customers about their favourite flavours. Milking almonds is a simple, soothing process, basically making a giant smoothie squeezed through cotton bags and Sonya's almond milk is really creamy with a much higher concentration (14% versus supermarket versions which clock in at 2-5%) so it can be watered down, making it go further. Expansion plans would ideally continue the delivery side which Sonya loves: how often do you get to meet your milk maker? After 10 years in business she says support from locals has been just incredible.

"Oamaru people lift you up, it's a great hub for small businesses."

Kelly Harvey, of Tutu Hill.
Kelly Harvey, of Tutu Hill.
After Kelly Harvey, of Tutu Hill cakes (a wee sherbet fizz of a girl who smells like lollies), decided to ice a Shaun the Sheep one day at home, she needed to hire the Weston Hall to service the flood of subsequent orders. So successful was Kelly, she eventually had to open a proper shop. Amazingly, the building was once an Ernest Adams, the difference being, back in the day you'd get charged for the weight of the cake.

"It's quite cool bringing it back to a cake shop," says Kelly.

I wonder if you could actually eat your weight in cake and if so, how much it would cost. Decadent dripcakes, Sesame Street-coloured (Oscar the Grouch green, Cookie Monster blue) cupcakes topped with Oreos, Jaffas, red liquorice and spearmint leaves, Tutu Hill is paradise for the sweet-toothed; like walking into a child's colouring-in book and being able to nibble the pictures.

At Craftwork Brewery, the first thing you notice is the labels. Puns, plays on words, and gorgeous artwork by local artists. The brewery's logo is a Corinthian capital, but the style of beer Craftwork make is much older. In a medievally low cellar ("mind your head" says the sign, and with the average beer clocking in a 7%, that's good advice), Lee-Ann Scotti and Michael O'Brien make strong Belgian beers, because that's what they like to drink. Idiosyncratic and uncompromising, the process is hellishly slow and massively fascinating. One month in fermentation, one in the bottle and 18 months to two years before it's ready to drink.

"Being small [100 litres at a time] we can afford to experiment," says brewer Lee-Ann.

Good-looking rebels who do whatever they like, break the rules and never say sorry, their O'ambic is bucketed under the walnut tree in the backyard to get a diverse spread of yeast. A Norwegian alliance produced Svak ol (there's **** all alcohol) and making friends at Pasquale winery resulted in a beer/wine gewurz tripel called Faux German and a pinot quadrupel, Dieu Noir, combining the taste of stout and pinot noir (whoever said not to mix the grain with the grape was an idiot. However, my handwriting did start to wobble at this point).

Michael O'Brien and Lee-Ann Scotti make beer at Craftwork Brewery
Michael O'Brien and Lee-Ann Scotti make beer at Craftwork Brewery
Craftwork is a fan of spontaneous fermentation and does it in winter. "It's very random". They also like to take adventures in beer, travelling to Belgium every year, where it's normal for septuagenarians to be seen supping a 10% golden blond Duvel at 10am, a big smile on their faces.

The Oamaru New World is the best North Otago "cellar door" for their range, $1 cheaper than everywhere else.

Food matches? "Anything, our beer is so good."

Things have reached a tipping point, though: too big for the britches of its barrel room, the dream is a 100-barrel storage space in the historic precinct.

Hopefully, somewhere near Cucina, on the corner of old and new, winners of the beef and lamb award three years running. Outside, the last of the daylight licks the buttery stone buildings, while inside, Argentinian barbecue melts in my mouth. Pablo Tacchini uses a special clay ash containing charred onion peels to deliver that special smoky taste to the eye fillet. Across the table, the world's biggest hairiest vegetarian is as happy as a pig in proverbial with his gnocchi and side of polenta chips. Pablo and Yanina (who also run the Tees St Cafe) insist everything is made in house from scratch, serve nothing they wouldn't eat themselves: "We do what we love".

A mouth-watering meal at Cucina.
A mouth-watering meal at Cucina.
Yanina was responsible for the understated decor, sympathetic to this lovely old building with large arched windows like Betty Boop's eyes, once a haberdashery now a meeting place with an ambiance encouraging conversation, romance and lingering over dinner. Yanina first came here as an exchange student when the Victorian precinct was all but abandoned.

"That corner will be mine one day," she told herself every time she passed, returning, chef husband in hand, to make that come true.

As the post office clock chimes, a freight train crosses main street and a triple moon rises over this well-fed town, Pablo serves behind the bar, Yanina circulates, people take their time over the glorious food, bathed in the light of her charm.

Dusk falls and the penguins come ashore, punctuating the night with their hideous squawks. I smile at strangers.



Lagonda. Ah, the capacious Lagonda Tea Rooms and Bus Stop, facing an opposite window display saying "Thank you, Mr Hooker".

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