I was going to proclaim that there aren't many better ways to spend a spring weekend than eating, drinking - and cycling - your away round some top food spots in Hawkes Bay. But actually, it turns out there are. The Bay's food and wine people have saved you the bother of figuring out where to go and what to do by gathering together their best in one clever food festival called, enticingly, F.A.W.C! (Food And Wine Classic). From November 2-11, restaurants, wineries and foodies will host bike rides, oyster fests, hands-on cooking, vertical wine tastings, chef at home events, comedy and more (see sidebar for a selection). The foodie husband and I were very pleased to get an early sample of what is to come.
We would like to think of ourselves as lodge people - after all, there is only one Big Wednesday ticket between us and permanent luxury - but we were humbled by the size of the Black Barn Lodges, sprawled on a farm overlooking the Tukituki River and the eastern slopes of Te Mata Peak. Designed by the stylish Andy Coltart, and part of a mini-empire of smart cottages and baches around the Black Barn vineyard and nearby beaches, the lodges are seriously large houses discreetly clustered on the sloping vineyard. I felt I had to leave a small trail of crumbs when I crossed the house in case I couldn't find my way back to the bedroom. The butler's pantry was the size of our kitchen at home. It got a serious workout on the Saturday night, when Black Barn chef Sarah Coram-O'Kane and maitre d' Jason Pearce presented a taste of the progressive dinner they'll be hosting for F.A.W.C! With five courses and four chefs moving between three lodges and the River Room, paired with Black Barn's pinot gris, chardonnay and syrah, it is a creative approach to dining. They'll also be hosting a Chefs in Homes dinner, the MasterChef series (all three winners) and the one I'd love to go back for, a Comedy Gala Dinner, with Jesse Mulligan and co.
Much as it was deeply tempting to stay put for two days, we were on a mission to taste. We'd started the weekend with dinner at Elephant Hill with a tasting of their syrahs (minus John Hawkesby, who'll be the convivial host in November). Chef Ashley Jones' food is smart - my pepper-crusted venison on cauliflower couscous was clean and surprisingly spring-like - and the wine drinkers around me sounded more than satisfied with winemaker Steven Skinner's award-winning 2009.
Our Saturday to-do list included checking out Mister D's, Prue and David Barton's (of Craggy Range and Vinnies fame) casual eatery in Napier. We made sure to leave room for their famous doughnuts, which you "inject" with custard, jam or chocolate. Wicked. We were virtuous enough to pick up bikes from Takaro Trails in the rapidly gentrifying Ahuriri neighbourhood (useful vintage shops clustered around the old Rothmans art deco factory, the deeply cool Aroha and Friends, which showcases great New Zealand design) and pedal around the Westshore and quays area. I've never thought of Napier as a shopping destination, but between that and the stylish shops around Tennyson St we were able to work up an appetite and, as always, started to figure out how to make a lifestyle switch to living in the Bay.
Sunday in Hawkes Bay is always the Hastings Farmers' Market. One of its biggest fans, Ray McVinnie, is hosting a locavores' lunch for F.A.W.C!, but in the meantime we collected our favourite Hohepa cheeses, great yoghurt from Origin Earth and the best Holly Bacon. Our find of the weekend was Kent Baddeley's (of Wellington's Petit Lyon fame) new restaurant, Ten Twenty Four. He's taken over a former vineyard on the edge of Hastings and is producing clean, fresh, crazily priced (too cheap) food. His friend had brought in a bag of kina and paua an hour earlier, which he sent out plated with a wedge of lemon, tasting of the sea.
Two weeks later I am still dreaming of my fritto misto, fresh fresh fish, lightly pickled vegetables - spring on a plate. The puddings are clever, the service happy, the tiny kitchen a joy to watch. Kent pairs with Ian "the Egg Guy" to host a Farmer Dan's do at F.A.W.C! - another must-do for my list.
F.A.W.C! FOOD AND WINE CLASSIC
For full programme of over 50 events, ticket prices and booking, suggested itineraries go to fawc.co.nz.
* Friday, November 2
7pm F.A.W.C! Summer Series 2012 launch party, Craggy Range
Oyster Saloon food truck (and Saturday, 3) 4pm. Seafood Odyssey (Friday to Tuesday) at the Thirsty Whale.
* Saturday, November 3
F.A.W.C! Electrolux Kitchen at Craggy Range. Farmer Dan's breakfast with Kent Baddeley and Ian The Egg Guy, Saturday, 9am. Check out Tea and Jam with the Damson Collection and TWG Teas, or Men, Meat, Women & Wine Terroir head chef Leyton Ashley and winemaker Amy Hopkinson. Kent also hosts a six-course Firstlight Wagyu dinner at Ten Twenty Four on Tuesday, 7pm.
Syrah with John Hawkesby, Elephant Hill, 11am.
One Big Tasty Night, 15-course degustation by chef James Beck, hosted by Ray McVinnie, 6.30pm.
* Sunday, November 4
Locavore Lunch with Ray McVinnie at Hastings Farmers' Market, 10.30am.
Hawkes Bay Trails Wineries Ride through the Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa winegrowing areas. Starts at Hastings Golf Course, 1pm. Free.
Events through the week too, see fawc.co.nz
* Saturday, November 10
Kai in the Bay traditional Maori and wild food festival, including fresh whitebait fritters and mouthwatering crayfish. Ahuriri, 10am.
Le Cordon Bleu at Ashridge Wines. Michelin star chef Adam Newell from Le Cordon Bleu New Zealand brings culinary students to Ashridge Wines to create a "pop-up" restaurant, noon.
Homage to the Great BBQ with Trinity Hill Barbecue experts, noon.
Elephant Hill: 86 Clifton Rd, Te Awanga, Open 7 days, wine tasting and restaurant. Ph (06) 873 0400.
Black Barn Riverside Lodges: 1308 Tuki Tuki Rd; and Black Barn Vineyards and restaurant, Black Barn Rd, Havelock North, ph (06) 877 7985. $750/night for 4, $850/night for 6 (2-night min).
Mister D: 47 Tennyson St, Napier, ph (06) 835 5022.
Takaro Trails: 9 Nelson Quay, Ahuriri, ph (06) 835 9030.
Hastings Farmers' Market: A&P showgrounds, Kenilworth Rd, Hastings.
Ten Twenty Four: 1024 Pakowhai Rd, Hastings, ph (06) 870 6440.
Aroha & Friends: Ossian St, Ahuriri ph (06) 835 5995.
The Kitchen Table Cafe: In the Photographer's Gallery, 138 Tennyson St, Napier, ph (06) 835 8142.
Madisons: 79 Tennyson St, Napier, ph (06) 835 0056.
Catherine Smith was a guest of Hawkes Bay Tourism.