Travel News

Rich pickings

Quick weekend escape? Head over the Tasman to Matakana, Auckland’s version of the Hamptons and a cornucopia of produce from both orchard and ocean.

By Rob Ingram
Personally, I liked the slogan on the T-shirt. "Think Global. Rest Often," it read. But it clearly stamped the wearer as an alien at the Matakana Farmers' Market. The locals here think local and are so laid-back they barely need to rest at all.
Just an hour north of Auckland on New Zealand's North Island, Matakana is going places - slowly. The town of around 900 residents is the first in New Zealand to embrace the philosophies of the Cittaslow (Slow Town) movement, an offshoot of the flourishing Slow Food movement.
Cittaslow is about improving quality of life. It promotes the preservation of local culture and tradition; diversity over standardisation; the creation of a sustainable environment; improving the quality of urban fabric; supporting local producers by eating fresh food from a local radius; and generally resisting the trend towards a more manic pace of life. Cittaslow is now established in 13 countries in Europe, the UK and Scandinavia, plus South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Matakana was the first town in Australasia offered Cittaslow membership, but embraced the take-it-easy lesson a little too keenly and was leap-frogged by both Goolwa, SA, and the Blue Mountains, NSW.
The wisdom of adopting these admirable principles depends, of course, on your particular patch of real estate, and it is here that Matakana has a deliciously unfair advantage. Taking the pledge to eat only locally produced food requires a lot of commitment when it means a diet of pumpkin seeds and bean sprouts, but Matakana just happens to be surrounded by orchards, olive groves, vineyards, shellfish beds, oyster leases, a fishery with a worldwide reputation for quality and sustainable practices, cheese producers, a brilliant bakery and pâtisserie, organic fruit and vegetable producers, indigenous herbs and preserves, free-range egg and poultry farms, even venison for the carnivorous gourmand. Half a day in Matakana and you start recalling the lyrics of Big Rock Candy Mountain. Life here is so serendipitous that you expect to see the buzzin' bees in the peppermint trees and soda water fountains and lemonade springs.
The Matakana Coast is to Auckland what the Hamptons are to New York - a sort of rich people's Woodstock. Every Friday afternoon, Auckland to Matakana is an unbroken procession of BMWs, Audis and Jaguars ferrying people with expensive haircuts to weekenders with stainless-steel commercial kitchens and 15-metre-high sky domes. For them, Matakana offers the simple, natural informality of teaming Bulgari eyewear with bare feet. Its beaches, bays and islands make it a natural habitat for sleek yachts and floating gin palaces.
But the area is even more privileged in the locals it has attracted and inspired. Back in 1988, Joe Polaischer and Trish Allen bought 21 hectares of degraded land there and established Rainbow Valley Farm. The land was eroded, infested with weeds and blighted with heavy clay sub-soils. Joe and Trish adopted the principles of permaculture in their quest not only to become self-sufficient but also to regenerate the native bushland.
Along the way, they learned and then taught about sustainable living, edible landscapes, organic food production, zero waste, and non-toxic and passive solar houses. All that in between planting 13,000 trees. Rainbow Valley Farm became such a totem for permaculture that its followers arrived from all over the world for visits, workshops and courses. Joe Polaischer took his message to the world and the world came to him for insight and inspiration. When he died last year, he left behind countless disciples and a grateful planet. Among those he influenced were Dorothy Andersen and Sally Meiklejohn who became tuned in to the Cittaslow message. And while collective wellbeing and property investment are unlikely bedfellows, the two women were able to enthuse Richard Didsbury, a director of the largest listed property trust in New Zealand.
Cittaslow likes people to live life at a human scale, likes shared open community spaces, historic buildings, parks and gardens, local culture and traditions, and encourages residents to take responsibility for the development of the town - values seldom embraced by the developer. But Richard Didsbury - who shies away from the label "developer" only because of its negative connotations - accepted the challenge. Didsbury and his wife, Christine, had already succumbed to the charms of the Matakana Coast, where they had established the showpiece Brick Bay winery and sculpture trail. They commissioned architect Noel Lane to design a village centre acknowledging many of the Cittaslow values. Historic buildings were out of the question, but Lane replicated a sympathetic colonial style of architecture with attractive period detail.
The centre includes a delicatessen and gourmet food shop, a wine store dedicated to showcasing local wines, a craft gallery, a bookstore, a cinema complex, and a smattering of design boutiques. It is built around an open square with outdoor seating and bounded by a natural creek with native shrubs and grasses growing on its banks. The Didsburys donated an adjacent block of land that each Saturday becomes the venue for the Farmers' Market, which more than doubles the population of the town.
Come Saturday, the marketplace swarms with laid-back locals, exponents of global thinking and the Bulgari-and-barefeet set. The market is a sort of adventure playground for both nutritional over-achievers and those who have reached the top of the food chain only to embrace lacto-ovo-vegetarianism.
Stallholders include the Village Market Baker with its German rye sourdough, ciabatta and shiraz bread, while Windfall Foods has tamarind, date and lime chutney and a tamarillo sauce that rivals the Hot as Hell habanero sauce from the Puriri Flat stand. Rainbow Valley Farm has faultless feijoas, nashi and gooseberries, and the famous "Matakana tart lady" is going great guns with lemon curd tarts displayed in egg cartons.
After that, the decisions start getting tough. Brian ("just Brian") battles to meet the demand for his hot mussel fritters enriched with stout and sprinkled with lemon pepper, sea salt and lemon juice. The tang? "Maybe the coriander, the red onion or one of the 11 secret herbs and spices," guesses Just Brian. Or you can go natural and get your laughing gear around Lynette Dunn's plump Pacific oysters with lemon juice and sea salt at just $10 for two dozen, do you mind. There's chorizo, dry-cured bacon with pure maple syrup, chocolate Florentine triangles with almonds, goat's feta, blue brie, sangiovese grape jelly, chestnuts, macadamia nuts, bush honey and orange mustard, sparkling feijoa wine and wheat beer. And this is all they've got to live on because they've taken vows of localism.
They can eat out locally with confidence, too, because the Matakana lifestyle and values also attracted American food identity Dean Betts and his Australian wife, Toni. Dean Betts became dedicated to the Slow Food movement while establishing a chain of seafood restaurants in the US, and on the Matakana Coast found a source of high-quality line-caught and ike-jime-spiked fish that satisfied his demands. Most days he's dockside at the nearby Leigh Fisheries, then back to Cosi Restaurant at the landmark Morris & James Pottery & Tileworks at Matakana to draft the day's menu. One of life's biggest mistakes is to pass this way and not experience Dean Betts' New Zealand bouillabaisse.
It's no coincidence that the excellent eating opportunities in the area (try also the Brookview Teahouse, Black Dog Café, RD6 Restaurant, and the hot new Tapiano Bar & Bistro with cool hand Corney Carstens at the thermostat) have sprung up with the recognition of Matakana Coast as producing regionally distinctive premium  wines. There are parallels with Bordeaux in the Matakana terroir, although there is perhaps less fluctuation between day and night temperatures. It was a Bordeaux-style blend - The Antipodean - that focused the wine world's attention on the region after the French hailed it as "New Zealand's Lafite". It is also one of the few regions in the country to produce fully ripe shiraz styles, but the current excitement lies with the development of aromatic, richly textured pinot gris wines for which Matakana Coast is likely to provide the national benchmark.
Ransom Wines, Ascension Wine Estate, Heron's Flight and Hyperion all offer excellent cellar door experiences, but, best of all, visit The Vintry in the Matakana Village centre. This is New Zealand's only wine bar dedicated to a specific region, and host Nicki Haller has an intimate knowledge of the wines of 22 local producers. Takatu, Mahurangi River, Matakana Estate and Omaha Bay are other good labels to look out for.
At the southern boundary of the Matakana Coast, the town of Puhoi filters the flow into Matakana through its own appeal. Puhoi was settled in the 1860s by Bohemian migrants who left a region near Prague for the epic voyage by sailing ship to Auckland and then to the Puhoi River. The new life was one of isolation and hardship, but they endured, and descendents of the founding families are still prominent in the community today. The town is almost impossibly quaint and picturesque, and the Puhoi Pub & Hotel (1879) and Catholic Church (1881) are compulsory stops for visitors. The hotel, which has been owned and run by the Seymour family for the past 50 years, is common ground for bikies and barristers, but the serenity of its setting quickly reduces the bikers to philosophy and the barristers to modesty. The Art of Cheese, the gourmet Mustardmakers operation, and the Puhoi Cottage Tea Rooms all contribute to the artisan scale of the place.
Now that the word is out, they also stop a tsunami of sybarites from sweeping straight into Matakana and swamping its serenity, its soul and its pristine beauty.
  • undefined: Rob Ingram