Wellington: Gift beside the sea

By Sharon Stephenson

Tag along with Sharon Stephenson as she samples the tastiest treats New Zealand's answer to Hollywood has to offer

You might see a Hobbit or Peter Jackson at Miramar's revamped Roxy Cinema. Photo / Martin Haughey
You might see a Hobbit or Peter Jackson at Miramar's revamped Roxy Cinema. Photo / Martin Haughey

I've been to Hollywood. I've seen its McMansions and movie studios, I've laughed at its fake breasts and too-white teeth. I've even had coffee with Jennifer Aniston (well, I was once in the same Starbucks as her).

It's nothing like Wellywood, aka Miramar, the Wellington suburb where filmmaker Peter Jackson's movie empire has spread its tentacles like an over-enthusiastic octopus. Yet I agree with renowned film director Guillermo del Toro, who once called Miramar "Hollywood the way God intended it".

Hang a right on the road out of the airport, duck under the slightly ridiculous "Wellington Blown Away" sign, and you'll reach the Miramar peninsula.

Roughly translated as "gift of the sea", the name Miramar was bestowed in 1840 by Scotsman James Coutts Crawford, the first European to settle in the area. Crawford drained a large lagoon, Burnham Water, to establish a sprawling farm that is long gone, but in its place is the Miramar of today: houses, streets, parks and shops.

When I was growing up, this finger of land was long on industry and short on charm.

There were gasworks and paint factories and a window factory where I spent a university holiday behind a reception desk. And so the suburb remained until Sir Peter established multimillion-dollar studios, sound stages and pre- and post-production facilities, HQ for such blockbusters as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and, latterly, The Hobbit.

Thousands of local and overseas actors and crew followed and Wellywood was born. The dilemma, however, was how to feed and water such an influx of people, most of whom have well-developed palates and heavy wallets?

Enter a swag of cafes, restaurants and food suppliers that have transformed a sleepy suburb into a foodies' paradise. Lynn Huhtala, of Auckland-based Finding Flavour food discovery company, started cuisine walking tours of Miramar last year. She and Donna McCormack, of Feast and Vine, introduce visitors to the stories and faces of the neighbourhood's food establishments.

"Miramar doesn't just have film stars, it also has food stars," says Lynn, the day we take our empty stomachs to the recently reopened Roxy Cinema. Built in 1928, it has cycled through incarnations.

A couple of years ago, dedicated cinephiles - including Weta Workshop's Sir Richard Taylor, bar owner Jonny McKenzie (brother of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie) and restaurateur Valentina Dias - restored the Roxy to art deco glory. Weta touches include a life-size statue of Gollum clutching a fish in homage to Miramar's maritime origins.

Dias, who owns Cafe Polo nearby, established Coco at the Roxy. Seeing as it's 10.30am, we settle for high tea with cupcakes, scones and truffles. The unusual pandan mousse, served in Chinese soup spoons, earns the gold star.

As the sun licks the back of our necks, we walk to Merkato Fresh, a honeypot of French and Italian food. Anywhere else, asking French and Italian chefs to collaborate would result in an international incident, but since opening their deli a year ago, Roberto Giorgioni and the Museum Hotel's head chef Laurent Loudeac have worked together to ensure the food of both nations has equal billing. Which is why packets of fresh artisan pasta nestle beside pain au chocolat and duck confit with cauliflower gratin. All are made at the converted bakery where Roberto treats the imported pasta machine as if it were his firstborn.

Our next stop is Elysian Foods, where Greg Yiannoutsos has been flying the Greek flag for 17 years. If the Elysian brand sounds familiar, it's because Greg and his mother Martha's taramasalata and tzatziki are stocked by everyone from Farro Fresh to Moore Wilsons. We sample olives the size of my fist, delicious grilled baby octopus and traditional Dodoni feta and Martha won't let us leave until we hoover down chunks of Turkish Delight and Greek halva.

Just around the corner is Harringtons, a gourmet meats and smallgoods butchery specialising in ethically farmed animals. Senior butcher Ron Graham knows his way around a lamb chop. He talks us through the bewildering array of sausages, from Polish kielbasa to smoked cabanossi, and guides us around the smoke-room and slicing tables.

In nearby Park Rd, just down from the post-production studios where they're whipping the second Hobbit film into shape, we drop into Miramar Fruit Supply.

Owner Kim Chin is the third in a line of local fruiterers and proudly tells us that for more than 30 years they supplied Air New Zealand's in-flight kitchen.

Since The Frighteners movie, they've also ensured the Weta crew get their five-plus a day. We sample spicy Sango sprouts and fat, juicy cherries and leave with bags of fresh figs.

With stomachs well lined, our last stop is La Boca Loca, and the best Mexican food I've eaten in New Zealand. It was opened by New Yorker Lucas Putnam, whose work as an editor brought him to Weta in 2001. "Wellington is home now, but I missed Mexican food terribly," he tells us, as we sip watermelon and lime juice and snack on Mexican street corn, spicy pumpkin seeds and chilli spiced peanuts.

As our bellies expand, we work through thin tortillas filled with haloumi, salsa and beans, ceviche de pescado (salad of marinated fish) and enchiladas stuffed with roasted squash and organic goat cheese. And although we protest we couldn't fit another morsel, when the dessert menu appears we say, "Si, por favor" to a plate of churros and chocolate dipping sauce that would give the health police conniptions.

Made drowsy by too much sun and carbohydrates, we say goodbye to Miramar, the little suburb that could... and did.

Sharon Stephenson was a guest of Finding Flavour and Feast and Vine.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 19 Apr 2014 12:24:34 Processing Time: 1354ms