Central Otago reminds me of the south of France, near Provence and around the Marseille coast with stark cliffs and jagged arid hills. Wild rosemary and thyme grow in abundance; the thyme covering some of the barren hills in a musky purple tinge. Pity then for the colourful array of mullets and dropped Toyota Corollas taking me out of my Provençal dream….

The land is dry and crisp in various shades of pale golds and dull browns. Yet, in this parched landscape is an orchardist’s and winemaker’s paradise. Apricots, cherries, peaches and plums – beautifully ripened near roadside stalls. And like the great wine making regions of France, rows of straight green vines stretch across the land.

View from Felton Road Vineyard

We spent 10 gloriously hot days (28-30 degrees most days) sampling the very best of the region. We visited the cellar doors of some of New Zealand’s best vineyards: Felton Road, Carrick, Peregrine, Rippon, Three Miners. Rippon was beautiful on the shores over looking Lake Wanaka – a wonderful cellar door experience. Three Miners was an exciting find. At the end of a bumpy gravel drive is a modest cellar door, more of a tin shed, but their Pinot Noir and Riesling is smooth and delicious. I am going to drink more Riesling this year.

We bought kilos of cherries and apricots, but more about these in a later post. We discovered the Gibston Valley Cheesery – a wonderfully cool room on a hot day. You can buy a cheese platter matched with Gibston Valley wines to eat outside on the deck overlooking the vines, or sample the sheep, goat and cow milk cheeses at the counter. My favourite was the Balfour, a pecorino style hard cheese.

We spent Christmas Eve day in Queenstown shopping for our feast the next day. We bought a ham, fresh salads, new Jersey Benne potatoes, baby beets, oat crackers for our cheese, plum fruit paste, croissants, marscepone, and bubbles. Georgie and I made a three layered tiramisu that night, allowing plenty of time for the sherry spiked coffee to seep through the lady fingers before dessert the next day.

We roasted the baby beets, peeling their slippery skins off once cool, staining our fingers a purpley-red. The beets were for a beetroot, feta and mint salad – a rather popular addition to our Christmas table. I read not too long ago the rantings of a woman so bored of the beetroot/feta combination that she refused to buy any cookbook that featured a recipe with the two ingredients. Beetroot and feta together is a classic pairing. We added shredded fresh mint leaves to our salad, which not only produced bright Christmas colours but gave the salad a summery feel. Orange segments in place of the mint would add a touch of sweetness.

Christmas beetroot-feta-mint salad

In fact, there are several variations of the beetroot and feta salad if you too fear they are a somewhat tired duo. Add dry roasted walnuts to the salad for a bit of crunch. Slice the feta as you would haloumi and grill it with a generous grind of salt and pepper, serve with the roasted beetroot (as per recipe below) atop grilled ciabatta or other quality bread. For another interesting salad idea add roasted beetroot, cut into wedges, and crumbled feta to cooked orzo.

Beetroot, Feta and Mint Salad

We roasted the beetroot the day before and left them overnight in the fridge covered in a generous dash of salad dressing. This enhanced the earthy, rich flavour of the beetroot.

5-6 small to medium sized beetroot
125-150 grams feta, a sharp, crumbly feta is best
torn fresh mint leaves, a small handful
salad dressing, or a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon mustard

Pre heat the oven to 180°C. Place the whole and unpeeled beetroot in a roasting dish with a dash of olive oil and salt and pepper – make sure the beets are well covered in oil. Roast for 45-60 minutes, or until the beetroot is tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool until just warm. Gently remove the skins from the beetroot, taking care not to pull off too much of the flesh. Cut the beetroot into quarters and place in a bowl. Pour over a couple of tablespoons of salad dressing and leave to sit for several hours or overnight.

Just before serving crumble the feta over the salad but do not mix or the juices from the beetroot will stain the feta. Sprinkle over the torn mint leaves.

Serve as a side with hot or colds meats, or with several other salads for a light summer meal.