The last time I was in this little corner of the world was during Wellington on a Plate 2010, where fellow blogger Peter and I sipped and supped it up in the Wairarapa region, located in the south eastern corner of New Zealand’s North Island.
Boutique vineyards, great restaurants and undeniably beautiful rural landscape with off-the-beaten-track charm. I quietly vowed to myself that the next time I was in NZ with the other half we’d find a nice place to stay amongst the vineyards and kick back in an environment far from the one in Sydney.
The southern entry to the area is via the Rimutaka mountain range and as you drive and descend along the winding road, glimpses of the entire Wairarapa region open up before your eyes; one of the typically stunning vistas that New Zealand is known for.
Thanks to time constraints we had less than a week to cram in Mount Maunganui, Wairarapa and Wellington. A fortnight would have been ideal but I thought I’d be pushing it as this was now my forth trip overseas in 2012. Not that I really consider NZ overseas, plus one of them was a work trip.
The colonial township of Martinborough is one of the first points of civilisation once you hit the low-lying plains at the base of the Rimutaka’s. A simple grid of streets with the leafy Memorial Square at its heart. Being a weekday morning meant much of the town was closed, and along with an annoying and very cold drizzling rain, exploration was more of a chore than leisurely exercise.
Lunch venue options were at an absolute minimum so it was the good old Village Cafe for a relaxing feed before heading down the road to find our hotel. The set-up is barn-like and comfy and the food is country-style, delicious and wholesome.
Cold and wet weather outside called for rolled pork belly (19.5) with spiced red cabbage and mash. My extremities may have been a bit chilled but my innards were instantly warmed. A BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado & tomato 9.8) bagel for the-one-with-a-small-appetite and we were happy and ready to find the hotel.
The room for the night was located in one of the woodland villa’s at Peppers Parehua Country Estate; a cluster of cottages and small villa’s flanked by rows of vineyards with outlooks to the nearby Tararua Ranges. It’s a modern and comfortable set-up, open-plan with a kitchen. Not that the kitchen got any use other than when I opened all the drawers and cupboards in search of a bottle opener.
A light afternoon drizzle turned into periodic episodes of sleet, but all was remedied with a fireplace that warmed the room with the flick of a switch.
It was late afternoon as the sun struggled to break through the clouds so we took that as a cue to get out of the villa and head into town for a drink and an early dinner. This place took our pick. Cool Change takes a prime corner address in a former late-1800’s post office, where a slew of businesses resided before it was garnished in retro 1970’s memorabilia.
The front bar area is a casual place to kick back with a drink, some bar snacks and take in the retro music and photographic cluster of musicians on every wall. It seems to be popular with the locals as well; filling with chatter and laughter as they drop by after work for a wind-down tipple before heading home.
With our first drinks I ordered some pan-fried dumplings (12), filled with very lightly-spiced meat and sides of barely noticable wasabi mayo and soy. A little bland, unfortunately, but my frosty Stoke lager was rockin’.
As the daylight faded we moved into the dining room and started with some fantastic local wines plus some food made by South African born Jurgen Snyman. This guy was one of the top chefs in his home country, cooking for A-listers before heading up to Europe to work with superstar chefs (ahem, Heston) at their Michelin-starred eating houses. Looks like we were in for pretty decent food.
Pan-fried white warehou (28) with Indian-inspired potato, onion bhaji and tomato chilli jam. The combination is a bit East meets West. Great fish, very mild Indian flavourings and quite satisfactory. I gravitated to the pork belly, which comes as no surprise. Pork belly (26) for lunch and now for dinner; nothing wrong with that. Here we have it braised and sat upon a mound of mash, a few cooked veg and discs of black pudding. The shaggy mop on top is shredded celeriac. This one was a winner.
The following morning the clouds had lifted, revealing a moderate dusting of snow on the surrounding hills and a very closed and snowed-in State Highway 2 up on the Rimutaka’s, our planned point of exit from Wairarapa.
This was almost a repeat of what happened to us in California but word had it the pass would reopen by midday. Taking a counter-clockwise circuit along the quiet roads to Masterton the scenery was all about snow-dusted hills, bright green fields, lots of sheep and pockets of forest. Man I love this country.
Much of the town was closed when we arrived at Masterton, the largest in the region, and stopping there only had one requirement. Finding a cafe that made a decent coffee. This place looked good enough. Cafe Trocadero. As the cold drizzle seemed to settle in we took temporary refuge in the cushy retro armchairs, clutching coffees to warm the hands. Winter was rearing its chilly bite even though it was early September.
A little further down State Highway 2 is the gorgeous little colonial town of Greytown, somewhere that was very familiar to me thanks to having lunch there two years prior. All I did was come home and rave about its quaint beauty and a fabulous lunch I had. If we were in the neighbourhood it’d be a bit silly not to revisit Greytown and take the other half for tapas at my favourite restaurant in Wairarapa – Bar Saluté.
My first lunch at Bar Saluté went down an absolute treat so I knew we were in for a lunch that’d be just as good. I may have been driving but there was always room for one Sassy Red by local brewer Mac’s. Tapas without booze is tapas I’m not interested in. Smoked kahawai & bacalhau fritters (13) started us off; neat little golden fried nuggets of local marine salmon and salt cod with aioli.
The fried food continued to the most delectable chorizo stuffed green olives (9) with sweet pepper labne. I was kinda glad I ordered a beer as it seemed the most appropriate thing I should have been sipping that afternoon.
It seemed this particular visit to Wairarapa was more about the pork belly than sampling the gorgeous local wines but when things present themselves to you as the pork belly seemed to do, I’d say go with it. It was a no-brainer, really. Crispy pork belly (16), pomegranate, chilli & lime caramel. Who needs a shag when you’ve got five strips of tingle-inducing pork on a plate? Fatty, crispy, sweet and sour from the pomegranate molasses and lime. I mean, really?
The deliciousness of the haloumi and potato gnocchi (15), our second and more substantial tapas plate, wasn’t far behind the pork in the flavour department. Rustic hunks of gnocchi are laid over a sauce of peppers, smoked tomatoes and spinach before being grilled with Emmental and gruyère cheeses. Gosh, here come the tingles again.
Finally, it’s a bit of sugar that calms my tastebuds to normality. A good old crème brûlée (15) laced with cardamom and a beautiful vanilla bean ice cream with orange confit. Once again you make an impression, Bar Saluté.
We could have had coffee at the restaurant but there was one more place in town I wanted to suss out before we hit the road. The French Baker. These guys are not only known for their great pastries, something we didn’t try, but the coffee was why we were here. It’s a relaxed little set-up with equally-relaxed service and, more importantly, a macchiato that bitch-slapped me with its strength and perfection.
Thanks to the pass re-opening on the Rimutaka’s it was an easy drive over the mountains and down to the windy city. A quick stop to frolic in the fresh snow was a given, of course. Next stop, Wellington.