Christchurch: La dolce vita
IT started with a long drive through snow and ended with a stomach full of Italian delights at Tai Tapu's historic Otahuna Lodge.
In the hills only 20 minutes from Christchurch, the luxury accommodation has seven themed guest suites befitting its 1895 origins but enhanced by modern comforts.
My main reason for coming, apart from enjoying the lodge's offerings and the hospitality of owner Hall Cannon, is to take part in one of its winter cooking classes, headed by delightful executive chef Jimmy McIntyre.
Today's class is on pasta and risotto - we'll watch how to make, then taste, a range of dishes that will transport our senses to all corners of Italy.
Otahuna is set on 2ha and its home-grown fruit, vegetables, nuts, free-range eggs and meat form the basis of many of the delights McIntyre creates and serves.
Americans Cannon and his partner, Miles Refo, bought the property in 2006 after looking for a lifestyle change from Manhattan. Otahuna offered what they were looking for and they "immediately fell under its spell", said Cannon.
Rimu and kauri wood panelling, a hand-crafted staircase and intricate leadlights are key features. Cannon chose New Zealand art to show off the landscape, culture and people of his adopted country.For the past 10 months, between earthquakes and aftershocks, the pair have completed renovations, including new colours, fabrics, furnishings and bathroom upgrades in line with the building's 1890s décor.
I stay in the Botanical suite - a downstairs room furnished with soft greens and warm wood panelling, inspired by native flora.
The king-size bed, underfloor heating, monsoon shower and bath, and frequently replenished sweet treats beside my bed create a sense of luxurious escape.
Guests can also enjoy the lodge's formal dining room with blazing fires, a well-stocked library and a cosy kitchen.
It is the kitchen where we will spend the next two hours watching McIntyre at work and then sampling his Italian creations.
He describes his cooking style as an international combination of Italian, French, American, Asian, English and Kiwi using quality ingredients, and "flavours must be honest and uncluttered, with presentation elegantly restrained". Today's class is an ambitious menu of pasta, gnocchi and risotto dishes. Stocked with bowls of tomatoes, a huge jar of biscotti and hanging saucepans, and with snow piled around the windows, the setting is more like a friend's home than a commercial kitchen.
Our party of six gather in front of McIntyre as he cooks what he describes as "comfort food", giving a running dialogue of stories and tips for cooking success.
Most of all, you must cook with love, he says.
"Put your own energy into it - a bit of soul in there. If you're not happy when you're doing it it's not going to be a good result."
He starts with two recipes for a basic pasta, making a "silk-like" dough that will later become the basis of a roast pumpkin and goat cheese tortellini, salmon cannelloni and pappardelle.
Our mouths are already beginning to water when he moves on to the potato gnocchi, which is passed through a sieve to create a light fluffy mixture before he adds parmesan, nutmeg and seasoning, then forms it into the gnocchi.
It will later be topped with a heavenly, rich, blue cheese and cream sauce, walnuts and spinach.
Smells of garlic, nutmeg and parmesan waft enticingly through the kitchen and our stomachs anticipate the meal to come.
At 1pm we sit to taste the dishes, with each course accompanied by a matching New Zealand wine, selected by the efficient and sweet Emma Ferguson. We start with the light potato gnocchi with rich blue cheese sauce.
I have never been a fan of gnocchi, having found them heavy and stodgy, but McIntyre's gnocchi are the opposite - light, fluffy and addictive. I'm a convert. This is followed by the tortellini, sprinkled with sage, capers, butter and parmesan.
Another favourite is the prawn and pea risotto with basil and mint, minus the prawns for us non-seafood eaters. With a lemon tang and topped with rocket, it's a refreshing change from the pasta dishes and is teamed with a red wine, Black Barn Montepulciano.
After five delicious courses we finish with a refreshing trio of raspberry, passionfruit and green apple sorbet and Jimmy's fruit and nut biscotti, for which he promises to give us the recipe.
It has been a near-perfect way to explore the best of Italian pasta cuisine and learn the tricks of how to create it in your own kitchen - just don't stay too long at this haven of luxury or you may never want to leave.