Stretching from the mighty Tararua Range to the wild southeast coast of the North Island, the Wairarapa is known for quaint towns and bucolic countryside – as well as a feast of great food and wine.
That this rural region has emerged as one of New Zealand’s most satisfying foodie destinations is unsurprising given its long history of meat, milk and butter production, and its diversification into wine, olives, cheese and other delectables in the last few decades.
Just an hour’s drive away over the Rimutaka Hill, Wellington provides hearty encouragement in such endeavours. Not only the prime larder for the capital’s culinary scene, the Wairarapa is a popular destination for weekenders, lured by its blend of scenery, sunshine and indulgence. These local food heroes are lucky enough to call it home.
Paul Broughton, C’est Cheese
“Fondue Fridays” are just one tasty treat available in Featherston since born and bred Wellingtonian Paul Broughton came to town. The owner of C’est Cheese – often touted as the country’s best cheese shop – is on a mission to spread the love of New Zealand food of many delicious kinds.
Paul started out as a weekend cheesemaker, egged on by friendly competition with food-loving colleagues. In 2011, however, he enrolled at the New Zealand Cheese School, and by 2013 had thrown in his corporate job and crossed the Rimutakas to open C’est Cheese. Making the most of every inch of space, this sweet little deli is jam-packed with delicious goods including the Wairarapa’s own Kingsmeade, Cwmglyn and Drunken Nanny cheeses.
The shop’s popularity has delayed the launch of Paul’s own range, made from local milk and including an unpasteurised cheese washed with the region’s world-class pinot noir. “I can’t wait to get started. I love making cheese – it’s incredibly therapeutic.” Paul hopes others will join in. “It’s very collaborative over here, and I’d love to see more cheesemaking in the area.”
Paul's insider tip
Featherston is an International Booktown, celebrating its history, scenery and passion for books in a number of secondhand stores and an annual literary festival.
Mike & Rose Kloeg, Clareville Bakery
By the age of 16, Mike Kloeg was serving his apprenticeship at his family’s bakery in Masterton. In 2013, he and his wife Rose ventured out on their own, scouring New Zealand for somewhere to set up shop and raise their children. In the end, however, the Wairarapa won out, with the couple opening Clareville Bakery in an historic church in Carterton.
With a philosophy of ‘no shortcuts’, Mike uses natural ingredients and creates everything from scratch, including his gold medal-winning miche wholemeal sourdough where he indulges his love of a good crust. “When it comes to bread, the darker the bake the better – you get more caramel flavour,” he says.
Clareville’s sweet treats are also legendary. Hot sellers include a salted caramel banana doughnut, and a sublime custard square perfecting the art of crispy meets creamy, finessed with an authentic vanilla kick. Golden all-butter pastry is the bottom line in Mike’s famous savoury pies, such as the 2014 supreme champion, lamb cutlet and kumara mash.
In just three years, the Kloegs have earned the status of food heroes in a region they love. “The Wairarapa is an awesome place to bring up kids,’ says Rose. “And for fun stuff,” Michael chimes in. “Carterton is central to everything, it’s pretty cool place to be.”
Mike and Rose's insider tip
In summer we get fish and chips and take the kids for a swim near the Waiohine River bridge, just south of Carterton. Around 20 minutes drive away, the river’s bushy gorge is also fantastic.
Murray Langham, Schoc Chocolate
It was 1997 when Wellingtonian Murray Langham moved to the Wairarapa to write a book on chocolate therapy, based on the belief that chocolate you reach for reveals secrets about your personality. Murray’s theories have hit a sweet spot with thousands of readers, but it’s at his Schoc Chocolates shop in Greytown where they are best put to the test.
Out the back of an historic cottage, Schoc’s home since it opened in 2002, Murray and his team fashion a creatively blended and beautiful array of truffles, bars and other goodies. In the tiny shop out front, visitors can choose from around 80 flavours – an even trickier task when you consider that you might be giving your inner secrets away.
One of Schoc’s most popular combinations is lime chilli. For a taste of the Wairarapa, however, plump for the lavender salted caramel, made with locally grown lavender. New Zealand fruit stars in many Schoc flavours, including Murray’s own favourite – apricot and rosemary. What does this tell us about the chocolatier himself? “I like it because it goes well with a cup of tea!”
Murray's insider tip
Family-friendly Paua World in Carterton is a great place to learn all about this sea creature and see how the shells are made into beautiful jewellery and other striking souvenirs.
Helen Masters, Ata Rangi
It was a gap year job in 1993 that set Kapiti Coast teenager Helen Masters on her course to become head winemaker at Ata Rangi, the Martinborough vineyard founded by the Paton family in 1980. “My mum brought me over to meet them and I started work on the spot,” she recalls. “She had to send some clothes over to me on the bus.”
After honing her winemaking skills in New Zealand and the USA, Helen was enticed back to Ata Rangi in 2003 to assist in producing gold-standard pinot noir and other varietals including chardonnay and riesling. The region’s naturally low yield combined with exacting viticulture and considered winemaking results in vintages Helen is immensely proud to be part of. “Great wine starts in the vineyard,” she says. “And our size means we are in touch with what we’re growing.”
Ata Rangi’s ethos, says Helen, is as important as its fruit. “We want to make great wine, but we want to be good people, too.” This attitude is evident at the welcoming cellar door, surrounded by vines in the heart of Martinborough wine country. “Visitors are blown away by our small scale, how connected we are to our vineyards,” says Helen. “We want to share the story of how we make our wines, and the values they represent.”
Helen's insider tip
It’s not all about wine here. Look out for Reid + Reid gin, crafted in Martinborough from native botanicals such as manuka, kawakawa and horopito.
Rachel Priestly, The Prodigal Daughter
In 2011, after working abroad for more than 10 years as a chef and restaurateur, Rachel Priestly returned from Italy to her hometown of Wellington. Longing for the flavours of her favourite cuisine, she started making Italian sausages. Friends and family couldn't get enough, and by 2013 she had relocated to Martinborough and launched The Prodigal Daughter combining small-scale production of authentic salumi (cured meats) with the importation of Italian food and wine.
Rachel's move out of the city was driven by a desire to be closer to her suppliers, particularly Longbush Pork, a free-range pig farm producing the particularly delicious crossbreed of Large Black and Duroc. "I've used Longbush from day one," Rachel explains. "It's the tastiest pork I've tried in New Zealand, and easily up there with the best in Italy."
Rachel's pancetta, prosciutto and other mouthwatering delicacies can be sampled at La Pancetta, the restaurant she opened in an historic Greytown cottage in 2015. Its pretty courtyard is the perfect place to savour a locally made taste of Italy, especially on a sun-drenched Wairarapa day.
Rachel's insider tip
At Cwmglyn Farm near Eketahuna, Biddy Fraser-Davis makes cheese from her tiny Jersey herd. It’s also home to the amazing Middleton Model Railway.
Helen Meehan, Olivo
After 23 years in Wellington, Helen and John Meehan’s move to Martinborough in 2003 was nothing if not bold. English-born with corporate backgrounds, the couple took ownership of an olive grove just three weeks before harvest. “We knew nothing about olives,” Helen explains with a laugh. “But fortunately it was fun. You don’t do this for nearly 14 years unless it’s fun!”
Established amidst the grapevines in 1991, Olivo produces award-winning extra virgin olive oil along with eight infused varieties including lemon, porcini, and smoked paprika. The Meehans welcome visitors to their tasting room and shop, and to wander through the olive grove made all the more picturesque by a series of sculptures.
Helen believes Olivo’s range encapsulates the very essence of the Wairarapa, displaying the distinct grassiness that defines New Zealand’s olive oils. “You can almost taste the lush green pasture,” she says. “And the best place to try it is where it grows, so you can hear the story behind it.”
Helen's insider tip
Take a drive down to the south coast taking in Lake Ferry, Ngawi and Cape Palliser Lighthouse. It’s wild, solitary, beautiful – so different from the olive groves and wineries and villages across the plains.