In my primary-school days I looked forward to school holidays when Mum would drive me out to Parakai to stay with my friend; it meant riding ponies, building rafts to float across the pond, and long days spent at Parakai Pools – hundreds of sprints up the slippery wooden steps to hoon down the blue or green hydroslide only to start over again. Thirty-something years ago, the drive there and back from central Auckland felt like quite a journey.
Although the Parakai Pool complex has barely changed, the trip out that way has. Muriwai, our base for a recent long weekend break, can be reached in not much longer than 40 minutes on a good day. Although I suggest meandering somewhat.
We took a detour for brunch and weekend supplies from Catalina Bay Farmers Market at Hobsonville Point. Armed with coffee from Local Hero, and frittelli (fried bread with sweet or savoury toppings), we browsed the stalls. We loved the selection of all-Aotearoa-made cheeses at The Artisan Hub – and equally so the cheesy chat with cheesemonger Dan Jennings – he handpicks the country's top cheeses to offer upwards of a few dozen, with several available for tasting. Salty River Farm's produce beckoned lushly – no wonder Allison Pirrie, founder of Gourmet Gannet (which has both a market stall and permanent shop here) uses their seasonal fruit in her baking, as well as honey from fellow stallholder Earthbound. Pirrie's array of breads, pastries and cakes is equally thrilling to seekers of old-fashioned treats like the eccles cake or lamington, and folks more tempted by the modern likes of a Snickers doughnut.
Boric Market is another great stop for supplies – big bins bursting with super-fresh pipfruit and citrus from their own orchard are joined by an ever-burgeoning range of groceries including charcuterie, cheese, salads and baking, plus beer and wine with a spotlight on what's made locally. West Auckland has a long history of winemaking – there are several cellar doors to visit from Kumeu through to Waimauku.
There's increasingly more on the northwest drinks list than wine. Brewery restaurant Hallertau is a must when out this way and you're best to book – tables inside and out in the tropical garden are packed at the weekend, but once you're seated, swift service and a diligent kitchen make it a seamless experience – as does the playground where many kids spend the entire visit, making flash appearances at the table for mouthfuls of food in between adventures. DJs play relaxed sets on Sundays, making it an all-around cracker of a spot. There's plenty of local produce on the menu (local being both the western and eastern city limits, as Hallertau has a Clevedon outpost), and the suggested beer matches are especially helpful to the indecisive, me included. You might also raise a toast with a dram or nip from Thomson Whisky's range – single malt whiskies and two Victor Gins, made from a handful of top ingredients fostered through the hand-beaten copper pot still tucked down behind the restaurant here.
Television duo Michael van de Elzen and Ganesh Raj each have hands in the area's food scene. Raj and his wife, Jo, have poured their passion into their restaurant, The Tasting Shed for nigh on a decade and its seasonally inspired cuisine is matched with famously warm hospitality. Also a husband-and-wife venture, Michael and Belinda Van de Elzen's Good From Scratch cooking school welcomes guests into the couple's farmhouse kitchen for half or full-day farm-to-fork classes – plus they also host a monthly Muriwai Supper Club, a fixed three-course menu and relaxed, social vibe.
In berry season, the area is a treasure trove for PYO fans, but farmgate pickings are slimmer in the cooler months. Motutara Farm Produce is worth a trip off the road to Muriwai and a short drive through the pretty valley – sisters Emma and Mary Hamilton farm the land that their family has been on for a hundred years, with a strong emphasis on leaving it in a better state. Whatever surplus they have from their spray-free garden this sold at their roadside stall, including eggs from rescue chickens. I pick up bags of fiery red and peach habanero chillies, and lush silverbeet to go into a filo pie with feta – check their social pages to see what's on offer and when.
The strips of shops in both Huapai and Kumeu throw more tasty bites into the mix. Kumeu's The Pie Shop is a legendary post-surf or gannet-watching stop, and Morepork, a more recent western outpost of the Ponsonby original, feels like a natural fit here, turning out succulent meats from its custom-built smoker. Check out their barbecue brunch on weekends.
Hapunan has won legions of fans as with its Filipino-inspired food truck offering, and about the time this story is published, it'll be opening doors on its first bricks-and-mortar, in the Huapai shops.
And finally, one last treat to stop in for before you depart the area: Kumeu's Alpha Butchery. Proprietor Francesco Visco focuses on an appreciation for every animal that's ultimately consumed, an approach he credits to his upbringing in Modena, Italy. We're getting used to seeing beef that's been aged but Visco also ages lamb and pork, which enhances flavour – plus he also seeks out older animals to begin with, and never trims fat from cuts. A butcher who really cares, now there's an asset to a food community.