Why every foodie needs to book a trip to the Wairarapa
Sharon Stephenson loosens her belt on a mouth-watering tour of a foodie mecca just one hour from Wellington.
I’ve just invented a new medical condition known as, “It’s impossible to pick one flavour when there are so many choices.”
Okay, so I’m exaggerating about the medical condition but it really is tough making a decision at Schoc Chocolates.
This Willy Wonka-esque wonderland on Greytown’s Main Street is guaranteed to confound and delight with its 60 or so artisanal flavours, many of which sound so bad but are actually so good. (Curry and poppadom chocolate anyone?)
Having tangled with the Friday afternoon exodus from Wellington, my husband and I arrive in Greytown in need of calorific relief. This tiny speck on the map is all cute wooden cottages, white picket fences and the kind of homewares shops that make you wish you’d paid more attention to The Block.
But this isn’t our first rodeo. We’re frequent visitors to the Wairarapa, and the first thing we do when we come over the Remutaka Hill is to fill up on Schoc’s sugary treats. This usually takes ages because of the sheer variety on offer.
Owner Murray Langham was once a chef and then a therapist, but in 2002 he found a way to combine the two professions with “chocology”. “It’s a bit of fun to decipher people’s personalities from their preferred chocolate flavour,” says Murray, who operates his homage to sweet goodness from a charming 1920s cottage.
He asks us to pick our favourite flavours and as we let shards of chocolate melt on the roofs of our mouths – all the better to release the flavour – he tells us what our choices say about us. “Almond marks you out as quick of mind, while hazelnut indicates you’re a homebody,” he says of my picks. “And your love of peppermint means you believe you can do anything.”
He’s spot on – but then he has advised everyone from the BBC and Martha Stewart to British author Joanne Harris, when she was writing her famous 1999 novel, Chocolat.
Shards of chocolate melt on the roofs of our mouths.
We turn the car around and head for Martinborough, where our trousers are about to get even tighter. Last year, clinical psychologist Dr Jane Freeman decided to indulge her fondness for sweet things by opening The Martinborough Sweet Shop.
Your inner child (and your actual children) will run riot in this art-gallery-turned-sweetshop, where Jane specialises in treats from around the world, including American jelly beans, British bonbons and Dutch liquorice.
If you haven’t already had your fill of chocolate by now, there’s a whole room here dedicated to it, filled with around 150 flavours, including chocolate made from Greytown honey and Martinborough pinot noir.
Ah, wine, we had to get there sooner or later. Martinborough, a town of around 1400 permanent residents, hosts more than 40 wine producers, half of whom have cellar doors.
“Martinborough represents around 10 percent of wine producers but produces only about one percent of New Zealand’s total wine production,” says Nicola Belsham, who hosts our Martinborough Wine Walks tour. “We’re a small splash in a small puddle.”
There’s probably no one better to lead the walks. With a history as a winemaker and seller, there is little that this self-confessed “wine geek” doesn’t know about fermented grapes. We’ve signed up for a half-day tour, which we spend strolling around various wineries, meeting the makers and sampling their wares. (Martinborough is one of the few places in the world where you can walk between vineyards.)
One of those wineries is Devotus, a short distance from Martinborough’s central square. Don McConachy has been turning out highly covetable pinot noir since 2014, although his wasn’t a traditional path into winemaking. First, he worked as an engineer, and then in French and Italian wineries before finally finding his way to this 2.5ha vineyard in Regent Street.
Don talks us through his organic growing methods and demonstrates the kind of passion that turns grapes into award-winning wine, before we sample three of his “raw” wines at various stages of fermentation.
Although Martinborough will always be the poster child for wine, it’s not the only game in town. Reid + Reid is a craft gin distillery started in 2015 by brothers Stew and Chris Reid in the shadow of their parents’ grand old home.
Wine is not the only game in town.
Chris knows a thing or two about the beverage industry, having been a winemaker at a nearby vineyard for several years. But what started as a hobby turned into a full-time 15,000 bottle a year enterprise when he discovered how New Zealand’s natural flora – kawakawa, mānuka and horopito – can lend gin a unique Kiwi twist.
The weekend we visit, the affable brothers have just taken the bubble wrap off their custom-built distillery, where you can sit among the vines and congratulate yourself for finding such an epic spot.
By now we need a wee lie-down, so we head to The White Swan Hotel, the gracious old building on Greytown’s Main Street.
If you like a side of history with your drink, you’ve come to the right place. This iconic hotel, restaurant and bar started life as a Lower Hutt railways admin block before being chopped up and driven over the Remutaka Hill in 2002.
We check into the elegant accommodation and then head down to bar, where we soak up the sun on the generous verandah (in winter, punters head for the roaring fire). Forget simple pub grub – this menu errs on the side of gastro pubs, with offerings such as paprika and herb pork belly, and mushroom and leek dumplings that have spoiled me for all other dumplings.
When the bed is so comfy and the room is so lovely, you’re allowed a sleep-in. So the sun is already high in the sky when we saunter into The Offering for brunch. This 80-seater café run by Bevan and Jacqui Morland is famous for sourcing products within a 200km radius and turning them into what turns out to be one of the best brunches I’ve ever had.
We start with the pulled-jackfruit fries and move onto the Funky Dogs – pork, lamb and venison sausages that come from the butchery next door and are tucked into pretzel buns along with cabbage slaw, kūmara chips and even popcorn, should that push your culinary buttons (no judgement).
We spend a pleasant few hours tootling around vintage stores in the Wairarapa’s cute-as-a-button small towns – Featherston, Martinborough, Greytown and Carterton – before circling back to Greytown for a late lunch.
“Go to Brasserie 74,” said nearly everyone we met.
So we do.
Like many young Kiwis, chef Russell Cameron took off to the see the world. But his OE turned into almost three decades, during which he climbed the British restaurant ranks, including running his own French restaurant in London’s Mayfair. Four years ago, Russell and his British partner, Louise Ballinger, bought this café – which was once a garage and then a grocery store – and filled the menu with food you’ll still be talking about weeks later. For example, Russell’s twice-baked goat’s cheese soufflé will make everything better, while the duck confit with herbed potatoes is the kind of thing you really should be eating at a brasserie next to the Seine.
All too soon, it’s time to point the car in the direction of home. We leave the Wairarapa well fed and watered, and with at least a few extra kilos.
What to do
- Martinborough Wine Walks
- Reid + Reid cellar door
- Fossick in vintage stores
Where to Eat
- Brasserie 74
- Martinborough Sweet Shop
- Schoc Chocolates
- The Offering
Where to stay
- The White Swan Hotel