After lockdown, Leisha Jones and her family packed up the car and started driving south from Auckland, with no real agenda other than to escape. What ensued was an enriching, and delicious, reintroduction to this great nation’s cuisine.
A few years ago, I took a course in New Zealand wine to become a more educated drinker. In the final exam, we were asked to identify the country’s wine-growing regions on a map. When the teacher called me to the front I assumed she was going to congratulate me on my excellent score, but what she told me was she could not let me submit my test with such embarrassing results, and sent me back to my desk to consult my textbook for the answers.
I’m not proud of the fact that my local geographical knowledge is abysmal. Discovering our country was something I had reserved for when I was much older, but that was pre-Covid, back when the world was our oyster. This winter, we packed up our car and started driving south from Auckland, with no real agenda other than to escape the four walls of our bubble now that we finally could.
Normally our holiday itinerary is dictated by where and what we will eat based on weeks of intensive research. I was so preoccupied by drive times and keeping the iPad fully juiced to entertain our toddler that I completely forgot about planning every meal of every day – an accidental blessing that meant we were constantly surprised by the gems we discovered along the way.
On our journey from Auckland to Akaroa and back, my husband quickly tired of me wanting to stop at every ratty inn that we passed, but it was at these homely havens where I witnessed the true meaning of hospitality, something that gets a little lost in big-city living. The owners are genuinely pleased to serve you, the food is uncomplicated, fresh and tasty, and everybody is comfortable – removing their muddy boots at the door and walking around in thick woolly socks – welcome to linger in front of the fire for as long as they please.
Townies love to bandy around buzzwords like “housemade, “local” and “farm to table” to describe their food, but at the humble inn, those things are just a way of life. The bars are lined with sauce in glass bottles made from summer’s tomatoes, there are pickled eggs in the fridge and crispy pig head terrine on the menu, and if you’re lucky enough to take shelter from a storm at the Mussel Inn in Golden Bay, they brew their own beer, cider and kombucha, and serve it alongside crisp fresh fish and bountiful salad, beautiful quiche or towering bacon sandwiches. All for a price that this Aucklander would not shut up about.
We hardly passed a tearoom without stopping either. I gushed over the mismatched trinkets and doilies that dotted the tables, and the cabinets filled with finger sandwiches, custard squares and banana bread slathered in a questionably thick layer of butter. The strong tea and coffee is made with real milk from an unmarked glass bottle (us townies love that shit too) and the server rings a little bell to alert you that your cheese roll is ready. It’s the kind of old-timey charm that just makes you smile, no matter how many hours you’ve spent in the car listening to the Frozen soundtrack on repeat.
I was reacquainted with Kiwi classics such as fry bread, mussel chowder and whitebait fritters, and banked quintessential New Zealand food memories that will stay with me forever. Like overlooking the vines with a glass of cab sav at Black Estate, wrapped in a blanket next to a hot and smoky brazier, eating the flakiest pie stuffed with North Canterbury lamb. And having crayfish and hot chips for breakfast on the side of the road one rainy morning in Kaikōura, watching seals jump from the rocks into the choppy ocean. There was not another soul to be seen, not even the owner of Nin’s Bin, who asked me to watch his shop while he ran across the road to get more crays.
I lugged a chilly bag from place to place that became stuffed with culinary souvenirs: King’s truffle butter; luscious yoghurt and creamy cheeses from Little River in Nelson; beers from Hop Federation in Riwaka; and kina from the Fresh Choice in Picton that we ate outside with buttery pasta while watching boats slowly slip into the sounds. I cooked with blunt knives and tiny chopping boards in basic motel kitchens and was constantly reminded that the best food is the simple kind, shared with the ones you love.
When we rolled back into Auckland I was full of white starchy carbs and gratitude for this place I have never been prouder to call my home. I can now confidently drink my wine knowing the difference between Waipara and Wairarapa. I can picture the seas and fields where my favourite foods come from; enamoured with every curve, nook and cranny on the map, and more than happy to be stuck here exploring our shores until the world is ours again.