For a chef like me, the Waikato region of North Island, New Zealand, is an ideal destination. A benign climate and rich soil guarantee great produce, there's a vibrant café culture – and you can surf…
The Waikato is to New Zealand what Norfolk is to England: a geographical area. It’s in the North Island and my mum lives there – which is what makes it special. I also grew up there, so it evokes childhood memories. It was a great place for a small boy to grow up.
It’s interesting to me as a chef because the local produce is fantastic. Millions of years ago, it was a marshy swamp – which is why the land is so abundant; it’s the centre of New Zealand dairy production. Grass just grows very well there, because it’s had millions of years of sediment and peat which over time has dried out. That makes it excellent farming ground, though it’s not by any means flat and boring. Broadly, it’s a valley surrounded by mountains – and it has some mountains within it. Mount Pirongia is a volcano that sticks up out of nothing.
There is this misconception that New Zealand has the same climate as England, but it really doesn’t. Both are islands, so our weather – like yours – can change very quickly. You can get the four seasons in one day, as you do in England – but it is significantly warmer. You might get a frost on 30 or 40 days of the year and it rarely goes below zero. In the summer it’s 25-35C.
Up north(the equivalent of the European south), it retains that Riviera feel: hot days and balmy evenings. That’s one reason why Hamilton, the main town, is stuffed full of cafés and restaurants. Per head, there are more cafés in Hamilton than there are in New York. The English don’t really know what a café is; they think it’s a greasy spoon! In France, it’s a lot closer to what we mean – a casual place where you can get a good plateful of robust food and a decent bottle of wine for a tenner. There aren’t that many fine-dining restaurants in New Zealand; everything is a café – and they measure a city by how good its coffee is.
Where to eat
If dialling from the UK, prefix all numbers below with 00 64 and omit the first zero.
This is my best example of fine dining in New Zealand. It’s at the south end of Victoria Street, the main drag in Hamilton, on the riverside. The cuisine is Modern New Zealand – “unencumbered” cooking. Confit of duck is the dish to have. They take the peel of an orange, a cinnamon stick, some star anis, bird’s-eye chillis, fresh ginger, lemongrass, garlic and Chinese five-spice powder, and blitz them into a rough-chopped paste. They mix it with rock salt and pack the duck leg in that. You think, “God, they’ve injected it with fresh ginger.”
170 Victoria Street, Hamilton West (07 834 2921, no website). Set menus $55-$65; à la carte (three courses without wine) $65 per person.
The River Kitchen
With great staff, great service and great food, this is a café in the New Zealand sense. You can’t reserve; you just come down and eat – and they’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I go there for breakfast and have fresh orange juice, squeezed while I wait. They do a fantastic scrambled eggs and smoked salmon and a lovely coffee – what we call a “flat white”. It’s like a latte but without that blinking air-filled head. Lots of the ingredients are locally sourced and seasonal.
237 Victoria St, Hamilton (07 839 2906, www.riverkitchen.co.nz). Café prices, from $10.
The Woodbox Winery Restaurant & Bar
This is at Mystery Creek, six miles out of Hamilton, a place famous for its annual agricultural field days. Farmers come from all over the country – and from Australia and the world. The Woodbox is an exceptionally nice restaurant overlooking the Waikato River. It does fantastic wood-fired pizzas and tapas.
25 Angus Rd, Waipa (07 823 6411, www.thewoodbox.co.nz). Lunchtime mains/pizzas $25; tapas $12-$28; dinner $45 for two courses – all without drinks
Where to stay
Sarnia Park is a boutique lodge on the Maungatautari Road, just outside Cambridge. It’s a beautiful, large, ersatz Georgian manor with fine dining and eight acres of stunning garden. The English would call it a country-house hotel – somewhere you go for the weekend, stuff yourself with food, walk around the gardens, lie in bed and watch TV. It has a European feel, what we call mock-Georgian – and it attracts people with money. It’s where I would take my wife on a special occasion.
It’s not posh, but the Okoroire Hot Springs Hotel is fantastic. It’s like an old farm, built in the 1880s, near the village of Okoroire. If you’re a young couple travelling around New Zealand, you pay your money and get to see what life is really like on a farm. They’ve got hot pools which you sit in at night; the sun goes down and you can hear the ‘tuis, the birds, singing in the bush, and the sheep grazing in the paddocks. There’s the smell of the sheep shed, where they shear the sheep. It’s great for walking and there’s a nine-hole golf course.
Raglan Camping Ground is where my wife and I camped before we were married. We had no money and I was showing her my country. Raglan is known for its beach, the closest to Hamilton – which is in the centre of North Island, 45 minutes away. Raglan is on the west coast, so it has black sand full of iron ore. They do the world’s best fish ‘n chips at that campsite – a fish called hoki. You can swim in the harbour, and the night we stayed there were orcas [killer whales] jumping in the harbor. Surfers say Raglan has one of the best left-hand breaks in the world: that means the waves run left along the beach, which is unusual.
The drive from Hamilton to Raglan is lovely, too, because you come out of the rich dairy grounds and climb up into the hills. As you come over the top of the mountain, you look out over the Tasman Ocean and it’s a fantastic view.
What to do
One world-famous attraction is the Waitomo Caves (www.waitomo.com). They’re an amazing set of limestone caverns, what you would call potholes. If you’re 55, you can walk through them on a tour. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can still get through. At the other end of the scale, you can go black water rafting. You’re given an inflated tractor inner tube, and you raft through to another system where you have to dive underwater, swim 5m and surface in an air void that you can’t yet see. It’s exceptionally adrenaline-raising. You could sign up with a bigger tour and spend three days underground, walking 60 miles and camping at night. The Waitomo Caves are world-famous for that. There’s a place near there called Matamata, which was the set for the hobbit village is in Lord of the Rings. People flock to see it.
The Waikato River runs right through the centre of Hamilton. Either side of the river there are 15 miles of great river walks which are very well done. You don’t need your boots: you can walk a mile, come off and have lunch at a café; or you can walk 15 miles on one side, cross the river and walk 15 miles on the other side. The paths are very safe, and the route is well signposted.
Hamilton City Gardens is built on what was the old refuse site. There’s an Indian garden, an American garden and an English garden. If you’re in Hamilton, whatever your age, you should go there. Even the most ardent people who say they don’t like gardening love it. They say, “Man, that is something.” There’s a big walled garden and you think, “I could be in England”.