Is This New Zealand's Best-Kept Secret?

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Apr 25, 2018

by CATHERINE MARSHALL, Writer

New Zealand has a secret. It’s called Northland – a region with outstanding food and wine, sweeping views and an exclusive luxury lodge. Photography by Jamie Bowering.

There’s something fishy going on with the chooks at Helena Bay Lodge in New Zealand’s Northland but they’re not letting on. They’re the picture of innocence, a gaggle of flouncy, feathered squawkers greeting us as we pull up to the henhouse perched on a hill.

At night, the chooks bed down in their lofty digs and lay eggs for the lodge’s breakfasts; by day, they disappear into the undulating landscape. They’ve been spotted all the way out in the forest, scratching at pine needles and picking at worms and bugs. But not all of them are delivering the goods; some of them must be laying outside, since the brood of 40 ISA Brown hens consistently lays just 38 eggs. It’s a small loss because no-one at the lodge – or elsewhere in Northland – is going hungry.

Celebrated locally as New Zealand’s “winterless north”, the district stretches from Te Hana, an hour’s drive north of Auckland, to Aupouri Peninsula at the island’s most northerly tip. It’s been little known to foreign visitors but the launch of Helena Bay Lodge at the end of 2016 has shone a light on a region rich in natural attractions – and edibles of every variety.

Roads bob and weave through this fertile countryside, interlinking cellar doors and restaurants serving food and wine grown on their very doorstep. They meander down to deserted stretches of beach, to craggy inlets and quaint harbours where fishermen unload their catch. Even the orcas that visit around Christmas and again in autumn find a superfluity to feed on. Every year, one particular family of orcas comes right into nearby Bradneys Bay to feast on stingrays.

My own sampling of Northland’s fruits begins three hours’ drive north of Auckland in Kerikeri, cushioned in a landscape newly quilted with vineyards.

“New Zealanders weren’t drinkers 40 years ago,” says Marsden Estate winemaker Rod MacIvor as we sip coffee and eat homemade cake in the winery restaurant. If you were picnicking around the Bay of Islands back then, he says, “You’d take a cucumber sandwich and a Thermos of coffee.”

But the world’s tastes have changed and the revolution has finally come to Northland – curiously, the place where the missionary Reverend Samuel Marsden (for whom Marsden Estate is named) planted New Zealand’s first vines in 1819. By the time MacIvor and his wife, Cindy, planted their own vines in 1993, there were only two other vineyards in the region.

“There are probably 40 growers here now,” says MacIvor. “People have seen others succeeding and that’s the catalyst for new growth.”

On a ramble down a wild-hedged road, I discover one such success: Ake Ake Vineyard, established 14 years ago by Jersey Islander John Clarke and his Kiwi wife, Aynsley Quenault. Clarke’s lack of farming experience was no disincentive; he simply bought a block of land already planted with nearly half a hectare of vines. “I just wanted to do something different,” he says with a shrug.

That small area has since morphed into almost four hectares and the grapes grown here are now fully certified organic. In the onsite Vineyard Restaurant run by Canadian Judy Owen and her British husband, Chris, the wines are paired with seasonal ingredients found in the immense “back garden” that is Northland: fruit grown in a nearby orchard, local mushrooms, and Just Ewe sheep’s-milk cheese produced down the road at Winsam Farm.

It’s these homegrown flavours that make Northland so appealing for food-lovers – and its wine, in particular, has visitors abuzz. Its limited-release vintages can be tasted on the Northland wine trail: chardonnay, pinot gris and viognier made fruity by the subtropical climate; syrah and pinotage rich with spicy notes; chambourcin subtly flavoured by the comparatively warm soil in which it grows.

But the region’s temptations come in sugary forms as well and they distract me as I make my way by road towards the car ferry terminal of Opua. “Get Fudged” reads a sign outside Keriblue Ceramics in Kerikeri so I stop, poke my head in and discover great slabs of fudge – salted caramel and cashew, maple walnut, chocolate raspberry – among the arts and crafts. Handmade chocolates are also used as bait at the chocolate factory and café Makana Confections

I resist the Marlborough pinot noir truffles and sea salt caramels but am helpless when it comes to the gelato bar; I leave with a large scoop of macadamia butter toffee crunch.

This sweet offering sustains me as I wend my way from Kerikeri to Waitangi (where the treaty of the same name – New Zealand’s founding document – was signed), skirting beachfronts, crossing inlets and burrowing through thickets until I reach Opua. It’s a quick jaunt across the Waikare Inlet – glass-still, boat-flecked – to the village of Okiato. Dozing in the midday sun, this diminutive settlement belies its origins as New Zealand’s first national capital.

The lunch service is in full swing when I pull into the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in nearby Russell but my waiter leads me to a small table overlooking Kororāreka Bay. Though this establishment is historic – it holds the oldest pub licence in New Zealand – its food is presented with a contemporary flourish. 

The menu’s seafood dishes are conjured in the seascape that lies before me: smoked Bay of Islands mullet salad, tempura Waikare Inlet oysters, beer-battered fish caught this morning. They are so fresh, I can taste them on the sea breeze. But I order a dish I’ve never encountered before – a soup made of Matakana blue cheese and mushrooms from the forest – and I’m able to recall its ambrosial fusion flavours long after I’ve left this place. 

The road from Russell to Helena Bay bends and dips through thickets of deep green and rises to reveal broad blue sweeps of sea. This coastline is a topographical complication of smooth beaches, oblique peninsulas and bays scooped in the likeness of a half-moon.

It’s dark when I arrive at Helena Bay Lodge so I can’t appreciate its spectacular location until dawn, when the sun streams across the water into the windows of my suite. The villas are detached from the main house and strung out against the gentle curve of the bay. So exclusive is this luxury lodge – it accommodates only 10 people and can be configured for group bookings of 14 – I might as well be alone on this 320-hectare, practically self-sustaining farm.

“Can you tell I really love this place?” maître d’ Lisa Cunningham had asked the night before as I enjoyed my seared John Dory fillet served with sea urchin purée and tuatua (clams). After a long time abroad, she’d been drawn back to Northland. According to Cunningham, the best place to find abalone, sea urchins and mussels is out in the Bay of Islands, where black rocks emerge from the sea. The tuatua are closer to shore. “You walk out to about hip height, dig your toes around in the mud and find them,” she says. 

Now I’m rumbling up hills indented with Māori pā (fortified village) sites and the hoofprints of roaming cattle, directing a pointed look at those chickens – not so innocent after all – pecking up and down the slope. I pass obliviously corralled Wagyu and, in a well-tended fruit and vegetable garden tucked into a fertile space between hills, find head chef Michele Martino.

The garden is overflowing with bounty: endive and broccoli, beetroot and radicchio, laden trees bowed with various ripening fruits. Eighty per cent of the lodge’s produce comes from this farm; the rest is mostly sourced from local growers.

Martino plucks a large bouquet of leafy green spinach. “It’s a dream for a chef,” he says. “Wake up in the morning, arrive in the garden and choose what is fresh. Tonight we can make for our starter a nice vegetarian dish – what do you think?”

I think it sounds deliciously perfect: fresh spinach doused in a hollandaise sauce, perhaps? If only we could find those missing eggs. 

SEE ALSO: The Food Lover’s Guide to Waiheke Island