It's easy to develop a taste for Wellington, with a wealth of food-focused experiences on offer in New Zealand’s capital
I found Wellington’s Zest Food Tours during my research for a fortnight’s fly/drive holiday to New Zealand last year. This gourmet company began in November 2003, when Catherine Cordwell and Susan McLeary decided they wanted to introduce visitors to the stories and ideas of the city’s food professionals. So they set up a number of foodie experiences in both Wellington and nearby Greytown and Martinborough.
Our guides for the day were Chris and her trainee assistant Judy Thorpe. They picked us up at our hotel, and we headed off to our first call of the morning, the Schoc Chocolate Therapy experience at Ciocco Chocolaterie and Espresso Bar (11 Tory Street). Owner Murray Langham has been running this outlet for four years, and the 85 flavours the shop champions (including chilli/lime and smoked tea) are created and blended at the company’s flagship shop in Greytown. Murray and his business partner, Roger, are both therapists and say that they decided the Schoc experience should be about enjoying excellent chocolate, but with a little bit of self-discovery thrown in.
We started with a blind taste-test of five different varieties, and had to choose which we thought they were from the vast selection of flavours on the blackboard above the service area. I was incorrect in nearly every guess. (Heston Blumenthal can sleep soundly tonight; his super-sensitive palate crown is safe for the time being.) My favourite was the lemon and cracked pepper with dark chocolate, which was sharp and hot on the tongue, while my partner loved the sea salt, also with dark choc. All chocolate blends, Murray said, range from 53 to 100 per cent, and they’re all hand-made. So if, as the Schoc docs believe, how you eat your chocolate defines your personality, I wonder what smelling it, nibbling it, then popping it into your mouth says about you? We bought some Earl Grey with milk chocolate to take home – if we could make it last that long.
Our next stop was Meat on Tory, also (unsurprisingly) on Tory Street, at number 5. The PR text the girls gave us for this one said: ‘A contemporary urban butcher/deli, dedicated to innovative cuts and updating traditional butchery qualities for modern customers’, which sounded a bit pretentious. But owner Ian was easy as anything to chat to about the choice of cuts he used for his local customers. He had been a chef in the UK for four years, but on his return to NZ, was disappointed with the quality of supermarket meats on offer, so decided to open his own place. His lamb supplier is in Wairarapa (over the Rimutaka Range east of Wellington), and his pork man (who stress-tests his pigs!) is in Christchurch, but Ian keeps his prices for his fresh produce on a par with those of his supermarket rivals. As it was 11am and he was starting to cook hot beef sandwiches and lamb snacks for the lunchtime rush, we were each treated to a succulent fresh lamb kofta with spices and herbs. Mouth-watering.
As immigrants from Europe came in during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, new food styles and influences arrived with them, Chris told us, so New Zealand’s capital city boasts restaurants and cafes that offer over 20 different cuisines. The love of coffee and coffee culture came in with the Italians, and it’s taken off big time – with an NZ flavour. If you’ve never experienced a long black or a flat white, you haven’t experienced coffee at its best – and I say that as a lover of Italian brews. So, our next port of call turned out to be my favourite. In fact, our noses led us to the family-run Mojo Coffee Cartel (23 Kent Terrace). The smell of coffee reached us first, and I was delighted that, as we arrived at the cafe and roastery, we were just in time to witness a coffee roasting.
Mojo roasts, blends and serves over 30,000 cups of coffee a week. While we were presented with a range of coffees – from espresso with a cantucco biscuit to a creamy flat white (which is like a latté in texture) – we watched Labro, probably one of the company’s oldest workers at 70-odd, bring the roaster up to its optimum heat, open a hessian sack of greeny-cream beans, and pour them carefully into the hopper above the small roaster’s rotating drum. Over 17 minutes, as he watched almost lovingly and with an expert eye, Labro turned them to a dark, shiny mocca. The aroma and heat hit us as he opened the door and poured out the bronzed treasure into the catcher. Perfection, as the Mojo website tag line so rightly says, is worth the wait.
I was reluctant to leave, but we had the Moore Wilson Fresh Market on the corner of Tory and Lorne Streets to see before lunch. Moore Wilson – think Wholefoods with a twist and you’re nearly there – supplies the bulk-buy clientele from local boutique hotels and restaurants as well as a general market. Very fresh produce, some expectedly unusual, is arranged in neat, clean-looking piles around a large warehouse. The manager, Vasha, introduced us to Earth Gems (a root vegetable like Maori potato, or yam), which had an almost sweet flavour, wallaby meat, ostrich meat, local cheeses, and Ruth Petty’s jams and chutneys.
Ruth Petty is the preserve and pickle queen of NZ, and a local celebrity chef. We had a sampling of some of her tamarind jam with crackers, and it was superb. To wash it down, we were given glasses of Maori-produced white wine, from the Tohu vineyard, which is part-owned and run by the Wakatu iwi (tribe) from the Nelson/Marlborough/ Gisborne area of the South Island. It tasted like a young Chardonnay.
While the tour concentrates mostly on pakeha (western) styles of foods and tastes, our final stop of the day, lunch at Logan-Brown on the corner of Cuba and Vivian Streets, offered an NZ flavour fused with an Italian staple: a starter of Paua ravioli with coriander, basil and lime beurre blanc. It was delicious, and light on the palate, which was just right for our Merino loin and shoulder (supplied by Ian from Meat on Tory) with slow-roasted vegetables, sweetbreads and chimichurri mains. The cumin, coriander and red pepper in the chimichurri gave the meat a slight tang that complemented the just-crisp vegetables (I hate roast veggies that aren’t properly roasted, so Brownie points there). We finished with a limoncello panna cotta with blueberry financier (tartlet) and basil syrup, which was stunningly fresh and boozy.
Throughout lunch Chris and Judy chatted about our trip, about Wellington’s sights (“You’ve really got to try the Karori Wildlife Sanctury if you’re into bird-watching”) and tips about how to get the best wines to taste at all the vineyards in Marlborough once we got down to the South Island. (Judy recommends you should ring ahead and say you’re a wine writer or journalist and only there for a flying visit. They’ll usually bring out tasting choices for a more discerning palate. Now you know.) They were excellent company, and made it a wonderful experience.
Logan-Brown: a la carte lunch costs NZ$100 (c£35.80) per person, without drinks. (192 Cuba Street)
Zest Food Tours: Zest Walking Gourmet Food Tour costs around NZ$230 (c£82.35) per person, for groups of two to eight people. Tailored tours are also available.
Where to stay
Museum Hotel de Wheels
This boutique hotel is a quirky haven. Its dark, Gothic foyer decor gives way to modern, cool, luxurious suites and rooms. The novelty? It's called 'de Wheels' because it was physically moved across the road to make way for the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum. Rooms from NZ$169 (£64) per night. (90 Cable Street, Wellington)
A beautiful little B&B with modern specs. This 'heritage home' has amazing views of the city and harbour and is near the excellent Botanical Gardens and cable car; the motorway below is hardly audible. Very good facilities and cosy extras for the price. Two rooms available. B&B from NZ$180 (£68) per night. (20 Talavera Terrace, Kelburn, Wellington)
Kapiti Nature Lodge
The amazing natural eco setting of historic Kapiti Island has to be seen to be believed. Backpackers get verdant valley views in a bushside cabin, and you might get to see the Little Spotted Kiwi if you're very lucky (we weren't). Basic but functional bunkrooms. (Waiorua Bay, Kapiti Island)