The pretty township of Matakana is heaven for foodies, discovers Catherine Smith.
I owe Matakana an apology. I'd previously dismissed it as Remuera-in-the-country and I'd driven on through to the Tawharanui Peninsula.
How wrong I was. A winter weekend in the pretty riverside town convinced me that this place could well be the future of gastro-tourism for New Zealand. At every stop along the way we were indulged with good food and wine and lengthy tales of the good life.
The first stop on a Saturday morning, naturally, was the Matakana Markets, and setting the foodie tone was the town's unofficial food ambassador, Lauraine Jacobs, signing her new book The New Zealand Vegetable Cookbook.
Market manager Michael Kessell had piqued our interest in the newest stall holder - Jamaican Me Hungry. Laughing Larry Clarke, from Jamaica to Matakana by way of New York, plied us with steaming cups of his spicy Jamaican porridge. Smooth and creamy cornmeal in coconut cream and cinnamon makes this dish beat dour Scottish rolled oats any day. He also makes a spicy jerk chicken and delicious curry pasties
We grabbed a top-up from Matakana Coffee and beetled down to Silvana Silvestro's Gourmet Italian Food to pick up cannoli to go with it.
Artisan cheeses are my weakness, so it is thrilling to see the growing range of buffalo cheeses from Whangaripo Buffalo, Annie and Phil Wills' new venture. The couple added 17 cows and two buffalo bulls to their horse stud three years ago and with the help of award winning cheesemaker Sue Arthur of Putaruru's Over the Moon Dairy, now produce a pungent blue, a creamy pecorino-style cheese and soft bries, as well as a tangy yoghurt.
An armful of fresh breads, some chocolates and really, we should have stopped eating then and there. But we'd never been to the famous Leigh Sawmill Cafe, so headed over the hill for a late lunch. We were longing to buy fresh seafood - that will definitely be a summer expedition - but settled for the clean refreshing Blade pilsner, brewed right next door in Bavarian style using malt and hops. Perfect with the thin crust pizza and salad made from ingredients from local farms.
It was fitting that all we had left to do was while away the rainy afternoon in front of a cosy gas fire in the Riverside Matakana villas. We expected the river setting, we didn't expect that the clusters of cottages would be so smart and flexible (walls slide about to create one or two bedrooms plus a study) nor the landscaping so impressive.
Drinks at The Vintry in the cinema complex introduced us to Lighthouse Gin - the local connection to this flavoursome Greytown spirit is apparently maker James. Botanical flavours such as navel orange and Yen Ben lemon were interesting variations on the expected juniper.
A break in the weather on Sunday morning led us to morning tea with Lynn and the apron-clad women at Brookview Tea House. Steeped in nostalgia, it has unmatched red china, a log fire, pretty napkins and an enviable vege garden and potting shop next door.
The final stop on the way out of town was lunch at Heron's Flight Vineyard. Here too there is change afoot, as long-time owners David Hoskins and Mary Evans have formed a new affiliation with Clyde and Farida Cooper of nearby Runner Duck Estate. The Coopers sold their business in India to settle here, Farida is overhauling the kitchen and menu, adding nights of Parsi food (her home culture, with influences of Persia and beyond), while the new Italian chef will produce food to complement Heron's Flight Italian-style wines.
Matakana has reinforced that we can find our local food heroes in our own backyard.
Riverside Matakana: 170 Green Rd, Matakana, ph (09) 423 0353.
Brookview Tea House: 1553 Leigh Rd, ph (09) 423 0390.
Heron's Flight Vineyard: 49 Sharp Rd, ph (09) 422 7915.
Jamaican Me Hungry: ph 021 443 364.
Leigh Sawmill Cafe: ph (09) 422 6019.
Matakana Farmers' Markets: every Saturday, 8am to 1pm.
Silvana's Gourmet Italian Food: ph 021 668 263.
The Vintry: Matakana Cinemas, 2 Matakana Road ph (09) 423 0251.
Catherine Smith visited Matakana courtesy of Tourism Auckland and Riverside Matakana.