Head to Hamilton and discover its gourmet side, writes Vicki Ravlich-Horan.
As we drive into Hamilton you can't miss the huge development known as The Base. This was not what I had in mind when I offered to show off the culinary delights of my home town - but it is home to the city's biggest deli/food store. This trip is all about getting to know the real Hamilton, the town most people drive through on their way somewhere else.
Our first stop is Pumice on Church Rd for a stretch of the legs and a coffee. And because we skipped brekkie to get on the road early, the cheese scones were calling our names. We take our time, making the most of the morning sun while we finish our coffee and, are then distracted on our way out by the goodies on display in their deli.
Next we cross the river and head for Zinc. As a teenager I remember meeting friends here, thinking I was ultra cool and sophisticated sipping my frothy cappuccino. Back then it was the Platter Place and Debbie Wilson took a huge gamble opening a cafe in the "burbs". But here we are 20 years on and it is still thriving. Now owned by Debbie's daughter, Hayley and her husband Chris, Zinc is a far cry from the Californian inspired counter food of the Platter Place days. Chris and Hayley's philosophy on food is pretty basic, fresh local ingredients are the key.
I can't resist the Pan Breakfast with real pork sausages, homemade hash and a thick buttery hollandaise. My companion opts for the omelette with free range ham and cheddar cheese.
With our tummies full we head to the Hamilton Farmers' Market to discover more locals producing wonderful food. My mother always told me not to go supermarket shopping on an empty stomach, I wonder if it works for a farmers' market too?
The market finishes at 12, so, when we arrive just before 11 we are surprised to see there is still a good crowd. We stop to chat to Martin from Sweetree honey who explains his unblended raw honeys reflect the individual flora and fauna of the region. Okay, so we taste a few too, just to truly understand what he is saying. With our jar of honey in hand I'm thinking about my toast the next day so we stop by Volare. Volare are Hamilton's own artisan bakers who specialise in wonderful sourdough loaves. Ryan, the head baker, suggests I try their brioche and all of a sudden I have forgotten about toast and am thinking bread and butter pudding.
Waikato is the heart of dairy country so our trip to the market wouldn't be complete without meeting an artisan cheesemaker or two. Cloudy Mountain has a great range, including fresh quark and cream cheese. We discover all their cheeses are made from small batches using non-animal rennet, perfect for that vegetarian friend.
Just up from Cloudy Mountain we meet Meg from Celtic Cuisine. Meg's traditional oat cakes are quickly added to the basket; they'll be perfect with the cheese.
Also great with the cheese is a bottle of local wine. Rainer Eschenbruch from Lane End Wines has a long pedigree of winemaking in New Zealand. From his four-hectare property on the outskirts of Hamilton, Rainer produces around 3000 bottles of wine a year. Chatting and sampling the range, we soon lose track of time until he mentions his work with the Vilagrads boys. Ah, that reminds us we have a lunch date at Vilagrads, so we need to keep moving. Though on the way out we are enticed by the gorgeous array of sweet treats on the Mavis & Co stand.
It's a beautiful day so we decide to walk off breakfast and hopefully put ourselves in credit for lunch. A quick stroll over the Victoria St bridge, next to the market, and we are in the heart of the city.
A walkway runs all the way along the river in Hamilton and is a great way to see and experience what the locals take for granted.
Back in the car we head to Vilagrads, which is 15 minutes out of town. Ivan Milicich Snr started growing grapes here in 1906. Four generations on, Vilagrads is synonymous with great food and wine - but most of all the warm inviting atmosphere. Every Sunday the family host a truly wonderful Croatian-style Mediterranean spit roast lunch. Our food was divine and reminds me of the times I came with my grandparents to what were then the Yugoslav society get-togethers. Even without the memories you will feel like you have joined one big happy family, so we are a little sad when we realise it's time to head home.
Where to fill up
Pumice: 62 Church Rd, Te Rapa Cafe Mon to Fri 9am-4pm, weekends 10am-3pm. Bistro weekdays 11.30am-late, weekends 10am-late.
Zinc: Cnr Herbert & Queenwood Rd, Queenwood. Mon-Sun from 8am; Dinner & Wine Bar: Wed-Sat from 5pm. As part of the Real NZ Festival, Zinc chef Chris Scott will be appearing at Outstanding in their Fields at the Hamilton Farmers' Market on Sun 9 Oct.
Hamilton Farmers' Market: 12 noon 204 River Rd. Every Sunday 8am.
Volare: 236 Kahikatea Rd, Frankton Mon-Fri 7.30am-3pm, Sat 7.30am-12pm.
Vilagrad Winery: 702 Rukuhia Rd, RD2, Ohaupo, Ph (07) 825 2893. Sunday lunch from 1pm, bookings advised. Cellar opens from Mon to Fri 9am-4.30pm, Sun 12pm-4pm.