When you consider how much a perigord truffle costs in New Zealand - about $3.50 per gram - a stay at boutique accommodation Wallingford Homestead during truffle season is exceptional value for money. Almost every dish at every meal has some form of truffle incorporated into it, from the eight-course wine-matched degustation dinner on the Friday we arrive, to the cooking workshop and lunch on the Sunday afternoon before we depart.
Truffle ice-cream, truffles grated over steaming bowls of soup, truffle oils and butters, pasta sauces and fresh bread... over two days we consume more truffle than I've had in my entire life. And all of it is sourced just metres from the dining room of this grand estate.
We arrive late afternoon at the Central Hawke's Bay property in Pōrangahau, 30km south of Waipukurau. It's a dank winter's day, the rolling green landscapes we pass through boggy after days of heavy rain. Deep muddy puddles line the driveway, before we scrunch over gravel and pull our now-dirty hire car to a stop. We feel like we're in the middle of nowhere – there are no bars on our cellphones, and no other hotels for miles around – but the beauty of the Pacific Ocean is just 20 minutes' drive away and Napier just two hours north of here.
The homestead looks cosy and inviting as we unfurl ourselves from the car. The smell of woodsmoke and fresh rain are in the air, as one half of the management team, Jeanette Woerner greets us warmly.
Woerner, an Australian, runs Wallingford with her Lower Hutt-raised executive chef husband Chris Stockdale. The couple relocated here in late 2018, employed by Wallingford's new Auckland-based owners, after decades of running successful cafes and restaurants in Sydney, including Double Bay's award-winning Little Jean.
Chris is a highly accomplished chef and Jeanette a talented hospitality professional. Together the pair have created a polished gourmet spin on a country estate getaway.
Jeanette gives us a quick tour of the sprawling property and we immediately start to feel at ease. The walls are lined with historic paintings and vintage books; leather sofas and roaring fires create a warm ambience in the lounge and the lighting and music are low enough to inspire a gently calming atmosphere.
The daylight is fading fast, but we're in time to sneak a glimpse at our surroundings – lush green farmland, complete with a herd of cattle, rolling hillsides and banks of towering trees.
The first homestead was built here in the 1860s for JD Ormond, a local MP, who named the estate after his home town in England. After it was destroyed by fire, a second homestead was built in 1895 and gradually extended over the years to meet the needs of the four generations of Ormonds who have lived in it. At its peak, Wallingford Estate had 14 bedrooms, a school and a nursery wing. There's a tennis court and swimming pool, beautifully tended lawns and of course, the piece de resistance, 1700 oak trees grown to cultivate perigord truffles, the gourmet delicacy beloved by chefs and foodies alike.
Our first taste of Wallingford's bounty comes that evening, at an elaborate degustation dinner, where Chris' excellent food is matched to wines from local winery De La Terre. Meals at Wallingford are a communal affair – there are two large dining tables where guests come together to mix and mingle while enjoying the mouthwatering multi-course meals. To make things even more special, De La Terre's owner/winemaker couple Tony and Kaye Prichard are in attendance to talk us through each wine before we drink it.
The menu is a masterclass in modern, seasonal fine-dining, with the ingredients sourced either on-site, or from local Hawke's Bay producers - Bostock Chicken from Hastings, Takitimu Seafoods from Ahuriri, Takapau's Sentry Hill Organics, Gourmeats from Havelock North, to name just a few. Chris makes most things from scratch, from breads and pastas, to delicate patisserie items available in the lobby for guests to help themselves.
We dine on eight wonderful courses: salted blue cod soup with Perigord truffle; bluefin tuna with citrus and blue corn tostadas; sunchokes with blackened apple, sunflower and walnuts; cacio e pepe (cheese and walnut pasta) with milk curds; pork fillet with ash, black tea, charcoal and smoke; wild venison with beets, berries and coffee; wagyu bavette with Bluff sabayon and pommes de terre; and a dessert of truffle and apple. The Prichards' wines match perfectly and provide an element of surprise thanks to unusual varietals like Barbera and Tannat which are new to many of us at the communal table.
Of course, the truffles are the star of the show, and we find out just why they're such a sought-after delicacy on a sunny Sunday morning as we head out into the homestead's fields with a local star, Jim the truffle dog.
Despite the hundreds of viable trees on the homestead's land, it can be hit and miss as to whether they produce. Every year's conditions are different and you can never guarantee how successful the season will be. Last year was a bumper crop but this year only five trees are producing.
Jim, a small, timid English springer spaniel, has been trained by owner Kate de Lautour to hunt for this precious crop and we pull on gumboots and squelch across paddocks to watch him in action.
Kate says she taught Jim to hunt with the help of YouTube tutorials and a tennis ball. First she would get Jim to fetch the ball, which she had doused in truffle oil. When he had mastered that, she would then hide the ball for him to find, before moving on to searching out actual truffles hidden around her garden. Now, he's an expert and as we watch with bated breath, he sniffs and sashays between trees, then starts to claw at the ground. He obediently stops when Kate tells him to, and she finishes off the delicate extraction – we're all surprised to see just how shallow in the ground the truffle grows, and just how easy it would be to miss them. This truffle, which is about the size of my thumb, looks like a clump of muddy earth. Luckily Kate and Jim know exactly what they're searching for.
Back at the homestead, the guests gather round another shared table – this time in the pool house which has been converted into a workshop kitchen and dining room. Over lockdown, Chris turned craftsman and made the poured concrete demonstration bench he's working on; from behind it he shows us how to make bread, pasta, ice cream and pastry from scratch. All the dishes feature truffles, of course, and Chris' tutorial soon becomes service as he plates up a four-course lunch for us to enjoy before hitting the road to go home.
While Chris works methodically on our exquisite meals, Jeanette buzzes back and forth between the main house and pool house – she has an enviable energy and always seems to be moving.
The couple have many other special themed weekends and events in store this year – a Labour Weekend writers retreat with Wellington-based poet Sara Hirsch, a November painting workshop with award-winning New Zealand watercolour artist Jacky Pearson, and a series of masterclasses at this year's Summer F.A.W.C (Food and Wine Classic, November 6-15). Jeanette is hoping for more too, combining Chris's gastronomic expertise with elements to nourish the soul – yoga, astrology, astronomy and more.
Whatever they have planned, you can guarantee their guests will leave feeling full – not only of delicious food, but also of many other good things in life: fresh air, peace, quiet, and gratitude for the beauty of the country we live in.
We drive back to Napier in contented silence. And although we have no doubt put on a few kilos thanks to the abundance of incredible food and wine we've consumed over the weekend, somehow I head home feeling a little lighter.
FOUR THINGS TO DO IN CENTRAL HAWKE'S BAY
Although it's tempting to spend your entire weekend at Wallingford, make sure you find time to explore the region and its varied delights. Here are four must-visits to add to your itinerary:
Just half an hour down the road from Wallingford, in the sleepy settlement of Takapau, is this unassuming cellar door which is also home to former All Black John Ashworth. John and wife Jo will give you a warm welcome and invite you to pull up a seat wherever you like to taste their selection.
Don't miss the rugby-themed room, where John will take you through his extensive collection of memorabilia, including his 1980s' amateur ABs jersey, which sits side by side with one given to him by his nephew Brodie Retallick.
It's not just a talent for rugby that runs in the veins – there's also a shared passion for pinot noir. John first tasted the varietal while on an ABs tour in France and says it got him "right down to my toes". He grows the grapes and son Leith expertly crafts them into the family's award-winning wines.
Turn right out of Wallingford's driveway for a quick whizz down to the coast. Porangahau is a tiny beach town on the Pacific coast, ideal for a windswept walk to blow any cobwebs away after an indulgent night of degustation dining.
The road loops back to Wallingford, but take a detour to visit Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, the longest place name in the world. The name roughly translates to "The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his kōauau (flute) to his loved one".
TUKITUKI CYCLE TRAIL
If you really want to work off some of the 30-plus courses you'll consume over a weekend at Wallingford, head to Waipukurau and bike the Tukituki Cycle Trail (Wallingford has a couple of mountain bikes you can borrow if you're unable to bring your own).
The trail was established thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Rotary River Pathways Trust and now connects the towns of Waipukurau and Waipawa, travelling along the stopbanks of the Tukituki River. You can ride the shared limestone pathway or take your mountain bike on the single off-road trail, before visiting the Gum Tree Farm Mountain Bike Park nearby.
Another Takapau highlight is this historic homestead which feels a little like the Central Hawke's Bay equivalent of Downton Abbey.
It's one of the largest private homes ever built in New Zealand and these days stands as grand and proud as it did when first built in 1879 for Sydney Johnston and his new bride Sophia Lambert.
It could quite easily have been a different story. When current owners Peter and Dianne Harris first came across the property in 2000, it had laid abandoned for the past 30 years and was due for demolition. Although the neglect was extensive, the bones of this historic property were still standing strong and the Harrises saw its potential. They have spent 20 years painstakingly restoring the house and its grounds to their former glory and it's now a popular venue for weddings, conferences and events.
Book ahead for a tour and high tea – Peter will show you around the house (check out the intricately carved wood ceilings and staircases, and the collection of early New Zealand colonial furniture) before setting you up in the ballroom for homemade cakes and dainty sandwiches.
Peter can also give you an extensive lesson in the home's 150-year history - the property has played host to royalty, visiting dignitaries, and military regiments, but most impressive is the patience and care he and Dianne have given to its restoration.
Wallingford Homestead is in Central Hawke's Bay, a two-hour drive south of Napier. Prices start from $195pp, per night. wallingford.co.nz