A food festival deliciously packages the best the peninsula has all year, writes Alexia Santamaria.
The view as you come over the hill before the descent into Banks Peninsula is stunning but it's even more arresting when your journey thus far has been swathed in a thick blanket of fog.
As we drove from Christchurch to Akaroa in March, the morning view down the valley into Barry's Bay, Duvauchelle and Akaroa Harbour was even more of a delight as the curtain of swirling mist suddenly lifted to reveal picturesque hills and serene blue bays, all dead still in the glorious morning light. Banks Peninsula is a truly wonderful place aesthetically, let alone coupled with the gastronomic delights we were about to experience.
The Akaroa Harvest Festival has been running for a few years but has just been taken over by Gretchen Kane, Stephen Bradley and Ant and Lou Bentley from the Akaroa Cooking School.
"It's always been a smaller community-focused event," Lou says. "But from this year we really wanted to make it a celebration of the incredible produce you can find on the peninsula. We decided to invite a few well-known Canterbury-based chefs and get them to cook taster-sized dishes using local ingredients, run a couple of masterclasses plus have stalls from all the great producers in the area so people could get a taste of the region all in one place."
The festival will return in 2018, but in the meantime all the produce we sampled is available at shops, cafes, restaurants and markets year round.
Christchurch restaurateurs Darren Wright from Chillingworth Road and Paul Howells from Twenty Seven Steps, Craig Martin from luxury lodge Annandale and Matt Dickie from Coopers and Co were all in fine form and being able to taste all their food in the one place was such a treat.
The festival was set in the lovely Potters Croft Garden, where we were also lucky enough to stay. With its stream, bird song and infinite varieties of stunning flowers and plants it was the perfect location, especially when drenched in afternoon sun. Sixteen-year-old Sophie Haley (a Port Hills fire refugee) sang dreamy tunes with a voice well beyond her years and the notes of Leonard Cohen classics and the like set the scene perfectly for a gloriously relaxed day of eating and drinking. People flocked from the within the peninsula plus many more from Christchurch.
The first stall I came upon was Chris and Annette Moore's from Robinson's Bay Olive Oil. They bought the grove 11 years ago, with no clue of how to make olive oil, but certainly seemed to learn fast as they won the Gold Medal for Best in Class and Best in Show in The New Zealand Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 with their extra virgin product.
A couple of stalls up was the Akaroa Butchery. I had already tasted its wares earlier, cooked in a fabulous lamb dish by Darren Wright, but was excited to see they also produced delicious rillettes, pates, boudin noir and salmon mousse. Brendan Foster (or Fred, as the locals call him) took over the butchery five years ago and has employed the very clever Eric, a Frenchman who makes all these gorgeous deli elements for the perfect antipasto platter.
Fred's also a huge supporter of other local producers. When I poked my head into his shop later, it seemed he stocked everything made in the area — cheese, olive oil, preserves and other delights. As well as the incredible chorizo made by Stew, who also runs Potters Croft &mdash hey, it's a small town!
One of the most famous small producers in the area is Barry's Bay Cheese, who also had a stall at the Harvest Festival. The Barry's Bay factory is 15 minutes from Akaroa and there's a big window where you can watch production. I'm particularly partial to their Havarti which won the European style category in this year's Champion of Cheese Awards but their aged Gouda is great too — and won the overall grand prize for the same awards in 2014.
And who can mention Akaroa without talking salmon. Although we got the insider tip that you can buy the fresh article directly off the boat at Wainui wharf from Wednesday through to Sunday, the locally smoked version is a treat you shouldn't miss. Neil Barnett of Kingfisher Smokehouse has been smoking food for 28 years, both here, and in England where he learned from a family who have been doing it for four generations. He uses a dry salt, not wet brine and smokes it for 24 hours with oak logs, rather than woodchips or sawdust. The results are sublime. Perhaps the best smoked salmon I've had in New Zealand.
There was plenty for sweet fans too. I loved the Karma cola burnt butter and raspberry doughnuts from the Sweet and Savage stall and heard they also sometimes do a Champagne and elderflower poached apricot one, which sounds equally divine. Their fabulous 1959 Airstream caravan, newly arrived this year, can be found at festivals and on the Akaroa recreation ground on days announced on their website and social media page. In keeping with the French Akaroa theme the charming Elise was cooking her wonderful crepes. Insider tip: she runs the Akaroa Waterfront Motel and sells her crepes outside there — a sweet crepe is a steal for $5 and you can eat it at the picnic table right at the water's edge.
Of course, wine featured too. Local vineyards Meniscus and French Peak both had stalls. I spent a lovely 30 minutes talking to Renan Cataliotti, the winemaker who has took over French Peak 10 months ago, and sampled his rose, which was very good. I made a note to pass by the cellar door at French Farm on the way home to stock up.
Barely able to waddle up to our room at Potter's Croft, we really felt like we'd had the Banks Peninsula-in-a-day experience, all in the most magnificent setting. Our appetites were definitely whetted by what we tasted of some of Canterbury's finest eating establishments - and produce - and we're already trying to work out when we can get back to explore the full menus with all their Banks Peninsula goodness.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Jetstar flies from Auckland to Christchurch. Akaroa is a 90-minute drive from Christchurch Airport.
Staying there: Potters Croft Garden B&B, 57 Grehan Valley Rd, Akaroa.