Summer and winter tend to get all the attention, but if you’re serious about good food, autumn is one of the best times to visit New Zealand.
It’s still warm, there’s a wealth of top produce at its best, and throughout the country there are festivals where you can eat and drink merrily.
Tomatoes are usually associated with summer, but in New Zealand they’re often at their plump and juicy best in early autumn. Just half an hour’s drive south of Auckland, you can sample some of the country’s finest tomatoes at the Sunday Clevedon Village Farmers’ Market. Despite officially being part of Auckland, Clevedon’s has a pastoral feel and makes you feel like you are much further away. At the market in autumn, you’ll find macadamia nuts, figs, grapes, apples and pears, plus everything from free-range meat to buffalo mozzarella, fresh flowers and pony rides. At The Curious Croppers their tagline is “cranky but gorgeous vegetables”, and the heirloom Spanish red and green tomatoes are bursting with flavour.
Autumn is also grape-harvest time, and wine regions throughout the country kindly throw festivals to celebrate this fact. Just a half-hour ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is lavishly sprinkled with white-sand beaches, scenic wineries and plenty of good places to eat. The Waiheke Wine & Food Festival showcases the island’s best, set to a backdrop of live music.
If you prefer to set the satnav for north of Auckland, make sure to take in Matakana, just 40 minutes’ drive away. On Saturday mornings, this sleepy township transforms into a bustling hub, as Aucklanders and locals alike descend on the farmers’ market. Matakana is home to olive groves, vineyards and small producers, many of which can be found selling their wares at the market. There’s always plenty of great produce on offer and autumn is the time to nab a bag of native feijoas at the Quinta stall. Feijoas have a flavour that’s likened to a mash-up of pineapple, strawberry and guava, and they are a local delicacy. If you’re a convert, also make sure to sample the unique apple and feijoa wine produced by market regulars Lothlorien Wines.
The Bay of Plenty region lies to the south east of Auckland and stretches from the Coromandel Peninsula (home to numerous idyllic beaches) down along the coast to Ohope, with the harbour city of Tauranga the largest settlement. It’s a great area to drive through in autumn, with heavily laden roadside stalls revealing just how plentiful the land here is. You might even spot an honesty box at the gate so fill your pockets with plenty of loose change ready to exchange it for bags of creamy avocados and sweet-tart kiwi fruit.
Figs are one of the fleeting joys of autumn and Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of the North Island, is an excellent place to indulge in them. The region is a wine and food mecca, home to many award-winning wineries and restaurants, along with beautiful scenery. The Sunday Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market in Hastings is a great showcase of what’s in season – stock up on pears, apples, pumpkins and mandarins, plus plenty of luscious ripe figs from the Te Mata Figs stall.
Further down the North Island, the Wairarapa region is a cluster of appealing small towns set amid vineyards, just an hour’s drive north-east from Wellington. A highlight of the calendar here is the Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival (11 March 2017; wairarapaharvestfestival.co.nz), held on the banks of the Ruamahanga River, with offerings from 16 local wineries plus plenty of great food from the area’s best cafés and restaurants.
Skip across the Cook Strait to continue your autumnal tour in Nelson at the top of the South Island; the charming city boasts some of the highest sunshine hours in the country. That climate means ideal growing conditions for great produce, including grapes and hops – a number of high-quality craft breweries are based in Nelson. All these elements come together at Marchfest – a day of craft beer, wine, cider, food and plenty of family-friendly entertainment.
Central Otago has autumn colours that offset the heritage stone schist buildings of the region. Wine and dine your way around cosmopolitan Queenstown towards the south of the island and, if you can, time your visit to coincide with the Queenstown Gibbston Wine & Food Festival. Held in the Queenstown Gardens, it’s an easy way to get a taste of this sprawling wine region, with offerings from a number of local wineries and eateries.
Make time to explore the small quaint towns of Central, including Arrowtown, Wanaka, Clyde and Cromwell. Produce store Goodies from the Gorge is just out of Cromwell at the start of the Kawarau Gorge and is a Central Otago produce hero, supplying top local restaurants as well as lucky locals. If you’re early in autumn you’ll catch the tail end of the jewel-toned plums and apricots; later on in the season you can pick up apples and figs.
For many New Zealanders, the main highlight of autumn is Bluff oysters – the creamy, briny bivalves’ season kicks off in March, and restaurants throughout the country fly crateloads of them in to shuck for happy punters. To enjoy them at their freshest though, you’ll need to head to Bluff, right at the bottom of the South Island, about three hours’ drive from Queenstown. The Bluff Oyster & Food Festival declares that it’s “unsophisticated and proud of it” – pack your beanie (the wind comes right off the southern ocean) and head along for oyster shucking and eating competitions, live music and plenty of other seafood.
Sure, the reds and golds of turning leaves are appealing, but if you’re a food lover, it’s the autumnal palette of dark velvet figs, burnished red apples, faded gold pears and emerald green feijoas that will stay with you after a harvest tour of New Zealand.