Anna King Shahab shares her top tips for a Wairarapa Winter Weekend
Wellingtonians with an appetite for local food culture are lucky to have the Wairarapa region on their doorstep. The Remutaka Pass is apparently seen as a barrier – yes, it's a little windy, but this Aucklander would take it over a bumper-to-bumper motorway any day. An hour after leaving downtown Wellington, we pulled up in Featherston in perfect time for our morning coffee.
A bold streak of yellow amid a bounty of second-hand books, antiques, and curio shops, C'est Cheese made an excellent first stop on our culinary scavenger hunt. As well as the said coffee (Remutaka Pass Roastery resides here), the place is a haven of all sorts of delicious deli goods. The cheese counter is laden with specimens from Europe, even more from all around Aotearoa, and ones made by owner Paul Broughton onsite, using local organic milk.
His Remutaka Pass Creamery range includes flavoured blue, havarti, and washed rind cheeses. The latter are pretty special: Broughton uses his own Remutaka Pass Brewery beer as the wash, resulting in a product that is truly "of this place". Local wine makes an occasional appearance on the wash cycle, too.
Up the road, in Tauherenikau, we were greeted by beekeepers Alex and Karly Polaschek, daughter Kate, and Millie the champagne border collie. The couple's many innovations include adding foraged seaweed to winter feed for their hives – their host of clever ideas in both the beekeeping and the processing of honey has seen them grow their production exponentially yet sustainably – remarkably, an entire year's waste from the business would fit in two wheelie bins.
The farm shop is well stocked with tasters of their Greytown Honey. We all fall for the honey-filled chocolate (white and milk versions), and stock up on golden goodness to go, nabbing a big cardboard pottle of Mānuka (nice eco-cred on that packaging) and the very last jar of Kānuka, which our kids both declare their favourite after tasting the entire range.
We arrived hungry for dinner at Masterton's Saint Sebastian, a good thing, as the entire menu begged to be sampled. Having notched up experience in Wellington, Melbourne, and Sri Lanka, chef Caleb Kloeg returned to his hometown and opened his debut restaurant, shy of his 30th birthday and just a few months before Covid hit. It's now thriving, with the keen support of locals and visitors.
Kloeg loves cooking with local produce; the wintry menu we enjoyed featured radicchio, sprouting broccolini, beetroot, carrots, celeriac grown spray-free on small farms down the road. Seafood is celebrated; we spotted Tora Collective's Troy Bramley delivering fresh pāua – these go into dumplings, served in bone broth. The district grows great meat – we loved the scotch fillet, locally raised and butchered by Homegrown. Its intense beefy flavour was amplified – as with many things on the menu – by cooking over the wood and charcoal.
Next morning we're fed and caffeinated by another member of the Kloeg family, Caleb's older brother, Michael, who along with wife Rose runs Clareville Bakery from an old church just north of Carterton. The queue stretches out the door for butter-rich pastries and cakes, and breads boasting the deep flavour and texture brought about by slow fermentation. Caramel-crusted kouign-amann, and the durum loaf, made with locally grown durum wheat, are highlights.
Our wine tasting on the covered veranda at Te Kairanga's cellar door was accompanied by lunch from the wee food truck that's permanently onsite. Dan Drew and Lucy Mutch are the talent behind Nära, preparing a small, well thought-out menu. We fell hard for the calamari – perfectly crisp-coated, drizzled with a Thai-style sticky, green peppercorn-spiked sauce. Pumpkin tortellini were plump, generously blanketed with browned butter, crisp sage leaves and toasted pine nuts, and fried chicken sliders a harmony of crisp-coated tender chicken thigh and a rainbow of julienned vege in the pair's homemade seed-topped slider buns.
Greytown's Schoc Chocolates made a great rain-avoidance stop. A bijou Victorian cottage plays shop, lined with an array of chocolate creations all made just behind the counter – filled and moulded chocolates, and many rows of tablets: white, milk, and dark chocolate spiked with fascinating flavours – everything from apricot and rosemary (owner Murray Langham's long-standing favourite after) to curry and papadum.
Saturday night at the town's grand hotel pub, The White Swan, was bustling. We dined on the restaurant side; it's run like an elegant, polished ship. Highlights included gravlax of Mt Cook salmon served with homemade crumpets, pickled cucumber, and soured cream, and perfectly cooked venison with red cabbage.
Marvin Guerrero's Masterton cafe Don Luciano is named for his grandfather and occupies an Art Deco corner site with that signature Art Deco curve. Guerrero roasts excellent coffee under the Gracias brand – blending beans from Guerrero's home country, Honduras, as well as Guatemala and Brazil. Alongside more familiar brunch fare, Guerrero brings plenty of Honduran influences, like the baliadas we breakfasted on – a street food classic of flour tortillas encasing refried beans with cheese and scrambled egg, drizzled in Latin-style cream.
A second stomach would come in useful when we call into Carterton's Finom for an early lunch, our last meal in the region (but not our last meal of the region; we've stocked up on plenty of goodies to take home). The counter groans with offerings – a riot of colour and texture both sweet and savoury (and as it happens, all vegetarian). Ottolenghi would surely approve. The cafe has been open only eight months but has already outgrown its boots, and this month will see the team opening doors on a new site, twice the size and right across the road.
For more things to see and do in the region, go to wairarapanz.com
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com