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Wild in Waikato

Jan Bilton — a relative newbie to the Waikato — reports on the recent Food Writers NZ journey into the wilds of the region, expertly organised by Vicki Ravlich-Horan and Waikato Inc.

We thought the term ‘wild’ was a misnomer when we arrived at our first port of call — Zealong. Just north of Hamilton, in a picture-perfect 48 acres, grow an impressive 1.2 million camellias, their leaves used in Zealong’s numerous varieties of tea. It’s a scene of quiet sophistication where visitors can enjoy high tea or innovative a la carte meals. Zealong’s story is an example of excellence and entrepreneurship, and we enjoyed some delightful tea tastings and exquisite finger foods before heading to Sweetree Honey.

It was here that things did become a bit wild. Unfortunately I’d left my gumboots snugly locked in my car boot in the city, so it was a squishy slog on the tracks to our canopy in the wetlands. We sampled Stephanie and Martin Lynch’s award-winning honeys just metres from the beehives, while wondering if the occasional flying insect making a ‘bee-line’ for us was upset or happy that we were indulging so enthusiastically.

Along the long road — in the middle of paddocks but not muddy — we stopped at Wild Country. In 1995, Angelique and Stephen escaped from the big smoke and their highly paid/stressful jobs to the Waikato countryside. They set about bottling vinegars and oils, and the company now produces a leading range of chutneys, jams, marmalatas, dressings, sauces and aioli, all prepared in small batches to maintain flavour and quality, and sold nationwide and overseas.

After our tastebuds had been sharpened with savoury samples, they were tickled further at our next stop at Waikato’s well-known and delicious Donovans Chocolates. But did we have room for lunch?

Dough Bros is situated in Hamilton’s ‘Eat’ (Victoria) Street. Owners Jake and Katherine Mitchell, together with head chef Josh Kerr, take pride in serving locally sourced ingredients. They encouraged several of the suppliers to showcase their wares at the lunch and it was awesome! For me the tiramisu was a highlight — the lightest and most luscious ever. (For more info please read Denise Irvine’s wonderful piece here https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/food-wine/recipes/95215717/locavore-long-lunch-puts-waikato-on-a-plate)

Beer was always a fave at university but nowadays I prefer wine. However, after touring the award-winning Good George Brewery, I was converted back to hops. Although these days it isn’t all about hops: Good George is currently trialling beer made with Zealong tea leaves. I’m sure their religious zeal about brews is influenced by the fact that their operation is run from a deconsecrated church. I also loved the award-winning cheeses from our local Meyer and Over the Moon that refreshed our palates while downing cold ones.

Dinner was enjoyed at Hayes Common, a delightful suburban eatery in Hamilton East. Yes, we found we still had room — after all, we are food writers. The menu specialises in inventive scrumptious small plates, to share if you wish. Hayes was recently named in the top 100 NZ restaurants by Cuisine magazine’s Good Food Awards.

Next morning it was back to the country and 500 acres of baby vegetables. Southern Fresh supplies retailers and restaurateurs nationwide with the freshest of little veg. Each member was delighted to be gifted a carton of four colours of baby carrots, baby beetroot, turnips and fennel plus large bags of mesclun, mint, coriander, Italian parsley, spinach and rocket. Dinners that week were very colourful.

Gumboots were the preferred footwear at that day’s Cambridge Farmers’ Market, which was smaller than usual due to the rain. On a good day, my much-loved local hosts over 50 stallholders and hundreds of visitors, but despite its small size that day, we still enjoyed chatting to the hardy vendors about their wares. And it was then only a hop, skip and a jump to Alpha Street Kitchen & Bar for a superb five-course lunch.

Another recent addition to the top 100 NZ restaurants in Cuisine’s Good Food Awards, Alpha is only in its second year of operation. Its modern, artistic and delicious dishes are a credit to chef Harry Williams, owner Fiona Massey and assistant manager Sebastien Lemercier. Our menu: poached pear, apple and coriander chevre terrine; smoked potato ravioli with winter truffle; Raukumara red venison tartare; paua, kina brulée, pickled bush mushrooms and crayfish oil; and to finish a lemongrass and mint crème pina colada.

A wonderful weekend was finished off by a trip to our local Vilagrad winery, where we enjoyed toasting the excellent food scene in Waikato, and the much appreciated organisation of Vicki Ravlich-Horan and Waikato Inc. Cheers!