A culinary guide to Hawke's Bay, the heart of New Zealand's wine country

On the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the city of Napier and surrounding Hawke’s Bay region are synonymous with homegrown produce, from wine to figs and seafood.

By Jean Teng
Published 20 May 2021, 10:37 BST, Updated 15 Jun 2021, 14:21 BST
Smith & Sheth vineyard.

The Smith & Sheth vineyard. At the Smith & Sheth Heretaunga Wine Studio, located in the heart of Havelock North, visitors can book a tasting experience set in a studio theatre, with an audio-visual presentation to accompany tastings.

Photograph by Smith & Sheth

The bike path alongside the coastal road heading south from Napier’s city centre is sprinkled with cyclists, likely on their way to the next wine tasting. Cycling from winery to winery along the 125-mile Hawke’s Bay Trails, cooled by the sea breeze, is the best way to experience the region, says my taxi driver, as we zoom past the riders. A Napier local, he tells me one of his other part-time jobs is picking apples at a nearby orchard — a seasonal necessity, given that Hawke’s Bay is the largest apple-growing region in New Zealand. “Here to write about food?” he asks me. “You’re gonna need more than three days.”

The easiest way to understand Napier and Hawke’s Bay is to eat what they grow. Te Matau-a-Māui (the name of Hawke’s Bay in reo Māori, the language spoken by New Zealand’s indigenous Māori population) has a temperate, Mediterranean-like climate that yields fantastic produce. This includes extra virgin olive oil cold-pressed from fruit grown near Ngaruroro River; Bay blueberries grown on a small property owned by the Hirst family, under the shadow of Te Mata Peak; and seasonal stone fruits that tumble out of crates in deep purples, rich reds and bright yellows.

It’s a busy Sunday morning at Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market, on the outskirts of Hastings, around 20 miles from central Napier. Locals and tourists browse the stalls, live music drifts through the crowds and families sprawl out on picnic blankets. There are scores of stalls scattered around the field; there’s organic honey at Beagles Bees, oyster mushroom-growing kits at Good Vibes Fungi and locally roasted coffee at Hawthorne Coffee Roasters. I meet with Alex Martin, the market’s marketing manager, who tells me 70% of everyone’s offering has to be local produce.

Our first stop of the morning is Nieuwenhuis Farmstead Cheese, which makes a goat’s cheese using milk from its 50-strong herd. Ann Nieuwenhuis is busy carving tiny samples for a long queue of customers; most of her sales happen here at the market. “It’s a living, really, not a job,” she says.

“We started about 10 years ago now, on our farm with our own animals. We love the balance of creating, of getting to focus on what’s real.” Nieuwenhuis’ products are an expression of the land the goats graze on. I try a piece of Poukawa Fog, inhaling the heady aroma of the ashed, soft white cheese, letting it melt into my tongue, all earthy and salty. It’s a singular mouthful that couldn’t be replicated exactly as it is anywhere else in the world.

Cyclists on the Puketapu Loop, a trail along the Tutaekuri River.

Photograph by Hawke's Bay Tourism

Murray Douglas, of Te Mata Figs, meanwhile, mans his stall like a professor in a lecture hall. In between animated retellings of the Te Mata story, Douglas is interrupted by market-goers who sigh disappointedly when they’re told the fresh figs were all sold by 9am; right now he’s just got other fig-based products. A couple of women stop by to ask after a fig tree — the one they bought from him five years ago is growing so well, you know, and will he have any more to sell? Douglas tends to his customers with well-worn familiarity, telling those who’ve come for fresh fruit to stop by at his ‘figgery’, a short way away in Havelock North, later. “Plenty of fresh figs there,” he assures them.

Douglas says Te Mata was the first ‘figgery’ in the world (“everyone else stole it from us”), encompassing the cafe, shop and grounds, which showcase all things fig. Having started out 12 years ago, the family business now has roughly 900 trees all over New Zealand, with over half of its yield turned into products: vincotto (a ‘cooked wine’ resembling a thick paste that’s made from grape must and often used in place of balsamic vinegar), prebiotic powder, chutney, compote and more. The salame di fichi, a sweet, log-shaped roll of fig, walnuts, orange and ginger, with the slightest addition of cocoa, is ridiculously rich, the kind of treat you’d balance on the coaster of a hot drink and savour right at the end. When I tell Douglas this, he says: “It was made exactly for that — specifically, to drink with Turkish coffee.”

Back in Napier, chef Sam Clarke’s own fig suppliers, from Ruby Glen Orchard, just down the road from him, are dining at his restaurant, Central Fire Station Bistro. Before opening the bistro in an art deco, former fire station, Sam worked at various restaurants in Auckland and was always struggling with access to produce. “There’s always a middleman, no matter what those restaurant chefs tell you,” he laughs.

I notice a line Sam has printed on the bottom of his menu: ‘If you know something good, reach out’, which, he tells me, has proved a wildly successful tactic; it has, for example, secured him a finger lime producer. I try them in a starter of raw tuna with cubes of watermelon, the finger limes like a citrus caviar, topped with fried shallots that have been soaked in buttermilk.

Sam Clark, owner an head chef of Central Fire Station Bistro. Before opening the bistro in an art deco, former fire station, Sam worked at various restaurants in Auckland.

Photograph by Hawke's Bat Tourism

“What is Hawke’s Bay food?” I ask. Sam pauses, mulling over the question.

Like most chefs in the area, he’s not sure how to respond to this question, but I get my answer on every plate: Hawke’s Bay food is a personal interpretation of whatever’s in season; a reactive approach to cooking. Uncomplicated, honest flavours where the produce does most of the work.

That’s exactly what I find at Craggy Range Winery, where you can walk through extensive grounds, striped with regimented rows of grapes, to the on-site market garden, framed by the jagged silhouette of Te Mata Peak. Handwritten labels denote fennel, chicory, conehead cabbage and more, all to be utilised back at the restaurant. Here, the romanticised farm-to-table ethos seems less manufactured in a place where it would make little sense to look beyond the backyard.

“The salt on your butter is from the buckets of seawater I scooped out of Ocean Beach,” a chef tells us as sourdough lands on the table. For my main, I’m served slow-cooked lamb shoulder, an unfussy hunk of tender meat simply covered in parmesan crumb and peas, with a side of roast potatoes and green beans. It echoes the Sunday roasts of childhood — so delicious and comforting it’s like slumping back into a familiar old armchair and finding it even softer than you remembered.

Hawke’s Bay is the oldest winemaking region in New Zealand, with five subregions each providing excellent, yet varied, conditions for growing grapes. The Gimblett Gravels district, for example, has dense, gravelly soil that drains well and retains heat, assisting the grape-ripening process. Its terroir is responsible for some of the country’s best reds — 90% of its vines grow red grapes, primarily Merlot.

Craggy Range, one of the biggest players in the Hawke’s Bay wine scene, owns a plot in Gimblett Gravels (and many others besides), but processes most of its wine elsewhere. The only variety made entirely on site is Sophia, a red blend of mostly Merlot. The gigantic barrels containing it are housed in a building with a curvy design that pays tribute to actress Sophia Loren. The 2018 Sophia is dark and sweet with a spiced blackcurrant undertone that lingers on the palate.

“Good?” a Craggy Range staff member asks knowingly as she takes my empty glass. It is, like many other things in Hawke’s Bay, the exact kind of ‘good’ you travel for: an embodiment of the place itself.

Vinotech wine shop and tasting room, part of Bistronomy restaurant. Vinotech offers hundreds of wines to taste and take home, and over 50% of these are from Hawke’s Bay, many from small, boutique wineries that don’t have a cellar door.

Photograph by Vinotech

Three food experiences in Hawke's Bay

1. Smith & Sheth
Heretaunga Wine Studio by winemakers Smith & Sheth is a tasting experience set in a plush studio theatre, with an audio-visual presentation to accompany tastings. Led by a sommelier, the two-and-a-half-hour experience costs NZ$75 (£39) and should be booked at least 48 hours in advance. 

2. Pacifica
Māori co-owner and head chef Jeremy Rameka focuses on flavours he remembers from growing up in small-town Kakahi, in central North Island, where hunting and foraging were central to the cuisine. Dishes in this blue shack, a short walk from the water, might include venison with sweet potato butter, or a slab of tarakihi fish with spiced, coconut-creamed abalone. There are two five-course degustation options, which change nightly. Five courses NZ$70 (£36), or NZ$125 (£63) with wine pairings. 

3. Vinotech
Located within acclaimed local restaurant Bistronomy, Vinotech offers hundreds of wines to taste and take home. Over 50% of these are from Hawke’s Bay, many from small, boutique wineries that don’t have a cellar door. Tasting flights (NZ$18/£9) can be tailored to visitors’ preferences, with servings in test tubes — an informal wine education without having to trek to the vines. While you’re here, order from the menu of small plates, which include venison tartare and fried chicken. 

Cheese Board at Craggy Range Winery, where travellers can walk through extensive grounds, striped with regimented rows of grapes, to the on-site market garden.

Photograph by Hawke's Bay Tourism

Five food finds

1. Cheese
There are a lot of dairy farms in Hawke’s Bay, meaning cheesemaking is a common undertaking. Check out Origin Earth’s semi-soft, creamy, single-farm-origin Takenga range.

2. Olives
With its long, hot summers, Hawke’s Bay has the ideal climate for growing olives. The olives in the south are strong and punchy, while the northern trees produce much softer flavours. Varieties range from Kalamata and Manzanilla — for eating — to Koroneiki and Picual, which are popular for their oil.

3. Merlot & Chardonnay
Just under half of all grapes grown in Hawke’s Bay are either Merlot or Chardonnay, with the latter’s best yield grown in the temperate coastal areas. For a purist’s experience, visit Napier’s Tony Bish Wines for its Chardonnay.

4. Seafood
Napier’s restaurants serve up under-used fish species, such as butterfish and blue moki. Seafood restaurant Hunger Monger has the freshest catch in the city.

5. Syrah
There’s no escaping wine on a visit to Napier, and it would be remiss not to mention this deep purple tipple (also known as Shiraz) which is bright, plummy, and made in abundance here.

How to do it:

Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways fly from Heathrow to Auckland with one stop. From there, it’s a one-hour flight with Air New Zealand to Napier.   
Art Deco Masonic Hotel, in Napier, has doubles from NZ$219 (£113), room only. 
More info: hawkesbaynz.com  tourismnewzealand.com

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event that takes place every summer. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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