As our summer road trip season rounds to a close, Sarah Austen-Smith takes a whistle-stop tour of country cafes between Auckland and Wellington to see whether the grass really is greener in the regions.
Black Stump Berries, Te Puke
Pulling into Black Stump Berries in a seven-seater Toyota Highlander full of kids, my first thought was whether this ice cream trip would bankrupt us.
Taking kids to Movenpick in Mission Bay or Kaffee Eis in Wellington is a laugh-out-loud suggestion these days. But at this strawberry patch, nestled between Te Puke and Papamoa, $5 gets you a fresh fruit ice cream and an afternoon under an old oak tree, with a playground, picnic tables and bean bags to boot.
Nicky and Tony Kingsbeer bought this spot five years ago with a vision to open a strawberry patch and cafe. Black Stump Berries is now part of the wider family farm, has tyre swings, a Wendy house, and plenty of room to relax.
“Mums are busy people,” Nicky tells me. “What we wanted to do here was create a bit of calm away from the increasing suburban sprawl in Papamoa, where parents can come and have a cup of coffee and five minutes of peace and rural views. That was our way of giving back.”
Tackling stress and living simply has been a focus for Nicky and Tony, who left the trucking industry after 34 years to give themselves a lifestyle change. Their sons, Ryan (12) and Daniel (13), help them out, minding the pick-your-own strawberry patch.
Nicky says getting the balance right with that side of the business was tricky. “To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of respect. People would tread all over the plants and have a feast. It got so bad that a patch we had allocated for four days was picked in two hours!”
But four seasons in, they’ve got the balance right.
“We’ve created some simple rules – like eat one or two, don’t have a feast – and it’s created jobs for our boys who help us supervise the patch, making sure people know where to go, and what to do, so they don’t damage the plants.”
To minimise waste, Nicky has a range of her own jam ($8), coulis and vinaigrette ($12), made offsite. The cafe offers soy, almond and oat milk and next season they are looking into a dairy-free ice cream option.
We picked our own berries, in a large tray, for $17. Nicky says it’s the chance to have a built-in activity, as well as a pit stop that suits most customers.
“In the cities you are often rushed in and out. What we are trying to create here is a quality place, as well as a quality product.”
To take home to the city: The setting is as important as what’s served – especially for parents.
Spoon and Paddle, Taupō
Sitting three blocks back from the lake, this old bungalow looks to be a local favourite. The place is so packed we can’t get a seat and we’re not alone.
Crowding around the cabinet, we want to get our hands on one of the last mince and cheese pies. The regular lunch crowd can be overheard blaming the free wifi for attracting too many table-thieving tourists.
Staff in cross-back aprons circle trays of drinks past the coffee machine into two lounge-like rooms strung with fairy lights. There’s a bucket in the corner full of baguettes made to order and the brunches on the blackboard are all under $20. The garden is small, but tables under a canopy make it suitable in most weather and a wide ramp up to the cafe means it’s wheelchair accessible.
We snap up the last pie. The pastry is buttery and light, twisted around the edge as glossy as hell. But the filling is disappointing. It’s like Mum’s spaghetti bolognese – altogether too tomatoey for a pie, and lacking the cheese promised.
The filled rolls, however, are worth writing home about. They’re nothing but white buns with simple twists on traditional fillings: Ham, cheese and tomato is jazzed up with a little pesto, the BLT can be paired with a cabinet salad for an extra $4.50 and the chicken, lemon and thyme reminds you of a Sunday roast. The portions make you happy you spent $9.50. This is a lunch that will see you through until dinner.
To take home to the city: Give us a converted bungalow in the city, serving filled rolls that will see you through the afternoon.
Cafe Baku, Taupō (take two)
We didn’t intend to stop twice in Taupō, but our host at the motel said we couldn’t leave town without trying Cafe Baku.
The lakefront cafe, with its polished concrete floors, high ceilings and leafy interior design, was serving tradies, cyclists and businesspeople when we turned up at 8am. That’s no surprise when you see the cabinets, each crammed with a sumptuous selection of wraps, sandwiches, pies and slices.
We sat in for breakfast, ordering poached eggs on wholegrain toast with microgreens and corn fritters with bacon. With glossy ceramic plates and Allpress Espresso, we might have thought ourselves in Auckland were it not for Van Morrison’s folky rock.
The seedy wholegrain toast with a single poached egg was perfect in size and flavour, but the corn fritters had us concerned about our arteries. I counted three sauces: hollandaise, cream cheese (as a sort of glue for the fritter stack) and garlic aioli on the side. It was a greedy, gluttonous start to the day, easily justified by the tradies in the room, but not by the sedentary writers.
The cabinet’s real charm was its country classics. There was lolly cake, ginger crunch, lemon curd crumble and date scones. Everything came with us for the road. The lolly cake was decidedly sweet and needed a bit more malt but the oaty ginger slice had bite as well as being buttery and warm. With a 2:1 base-to-icing ratio, it was eaten before everything else. The lemon curd was bright and zesty and the date scone was fluffy with lots of fruit and spice.
To take home to the city: Oaty ginger slice you can serve at a rest home to rapturous applause.
Art Deco Valley Cafe, Eskdale, Hawke’s Bay
The Art Deco Valley Cafe at Eskdale gives you a rather sloppy welcome. The three resident pups, Bear, Daisy and Cash (lhasa shih tzu crosses) remind me of the patron-saint of welcome pooches, Bernie (RIP) of Wellington’s Bernie’s on the Bay.
Except that Bernie, an enormous Saint Bernard, all hair and big brown eyes, never really moved. He harrumphed between shady spots along Oriental Bay hoping for treats, but other than that never bothered anyone. This Art Deco trio, on the other hand, let you know that here, pets and pet-friendly people are the priority.
The team tell us they are keen to ensure their cafe, established in 2017, is pet friendly. There are plenty of dog bowls and the colourful grounds stretch around three sides of the cafe.
Compared with other stops on this trip, the food is on the pricey side. But there are plenty of gluten-free options, with the apricot, pumpkin seed and date slice melting in your mouth like old-school shortbread. There is also a gluten-free caramel slice, bacon and egg pie as well as a range of salads and off-menu options for customers who prefer gluten and dairy-free delights.
Served in a little silver bucket, the cross-cut chips with parmesan cheese are toothsome. You feel as though you could wander around the garden, sit on the swing or plonk yourself down on the grass for the entire afternoon.
Most of all the attention to presentation impresses. The glassware is cut crystal, giving this garden spot and old-time glam feel. The coffee is brilliant and the staff were sometimes flustered but always friendly.
To take home to the city: Cross-cut chips with parmesan cheese, please.
Birdwoods Gallery and Sweet Shop, Havelock North
The grass really is greener at Birdwoods Gallery, unless you have to have espresso. This spot offers everything except a coffee machine, proudly serving up plunger coffee instead.
The owners, husband and wife Bruce and Louise Stobart, said when they opened Birdwood Gallery in 2005 they had no intention of becoming a cafe: “We used to offer coffee for free in those days. We wanted to provide a relaxed gallery experience,” Louise tells me.
The couple are Zimbabwean and Louise describes her gallery as “distinctly African” in feel. It became so successful that the couple expanded into a cafe and restaurant almost organically to meet the needs of their clients.
The gallery and cafe is situated in a church hall that dates back to 1894. Louise says the fact is the old church kitchen is only nine metres square and they simply don’t have the room for a big machine.
“Initially we had real resistance, with customers saying they wouldn’t come if we didn’t start serving real coffee. But I stuck to my guns. I like the point of difference. People come to us for tray service.”
So if you can cope with plunger coffee, there’s a lot to like. The cabinet food is simple. We tried the savoury scone with pumpkin seeds, which was nice and light but with a heavy hand of paprika. We poured fresh cream over a raspberry friand which had a generous sprinkle of icing sugar and lovely silver spoon. The only disappointment was the slightly crusty spinach and cream cheese muffin, which reminded me of a recipe served up by the old bakeries in town.
As promised, all the food was served on large wooden trays, with milk jugs, sugar cubes and a vase of fresh roses from the expansive garden.
You are surrounded by sculpture and your table number is also a piece of art – one of Louise’s personally designed native New Zealand bird sculptures which she makes from recycled 40-gallon oil drums. (In 2004, Louise’s bird sculptures were used in the Spring Collection windows of every Louis Vuitton shop around the world in celebration of 150 years of LVM).
But you haven’t visited Birdwoods unless you’ve popped your head into the old-fashioned English confectionery store. Here Louise deliberately employs grandmothers who she says have the patience and poise to deal with the hordes of children who, hands reaching, need to be supervised around the shelves of giant glass jars. Her eldest employee will celebrate her 80th birthday this year, no doubt over a large bowl of sweets.
To take home to the city: A bag of boiled sweets and jugs of fresh cream.