Greytown, Wairarapa

I’m a proud Wellingtonian through and through, but it is a hamlet only an hour’s drive north of the nation’s capital city that has captured me. I’m fond of the Kapiti Coast, where I grew up, and of Hawke’s Bay which for many years has been like a second home. I might have moved to either; but no, instead I have fallen for a place that involves driving twice daily along a torturous stretch of mountainous State Highway 2, over the Remutaka Hill. Despite the drive, I have moved to what is generally characterised as ‘The Rapa’, specifically the small village of Greytown, in southern Wairarapa.

The township itself is a bustling mix with a couple of pubs, several restaurants, boutiques, galleries and antique shops. Beyond this aesthetic there is the climate (I love you Wellington but, you know… ); the farmland landscapes; the rivers; the rail-trail walk; the vineyard restaurants of Martinborough. And the people. Great people, who have warmly welcomed me into the community the very best way possible: with food.

Neighbours brought welcome gifts of homegrown fruit and vegetables or of fresh baking. Now, 18 months on, it hasn’t stopped. One Monday night the phone rang and I was offered some pheasant breasts, from birds shot that weekend. “I’m just up at the top pub,” the voice said, “I’ll drop them off on my way home.” I cooked them with the winter truffles I had been given the day before, freshly dug up by the truffle dog, “just in for a look”. I wish I was exaggerating. The last of the season’s green beans or heritage tomatoes appear in brown paper bags on the doorstep. Honey, olive oils, venison, apples and cheeses frequently get left in the letterbox. During autumn, the people from the house down the road left baskets of ripe figs and aromatic quinces by their front gate, complete with paper bags, for anybody walking by to simply help themselves. After several visits, I made quince jelly to go with a local cheese and roasted some others for a warming crumble.

For hundreds of years, Wairarapa Māori grew crops to supplement their diet of whitebait, eels and flounder caught at Palliser Bay. Early settlers in search of pasture for livestock found the rich flatlands bordering the vast Lake Wairarapa – which translated means ‘land of the glistening waters’ – on which to graze cattle and sheep. The food story here is steeped in history and is today a vibrant scene of local food heroes. From market gardens and cottage industries producing craft gins, fudges and health drinks, the region’s kete bag is overflowing. Apples, strawberries, organic vegetables, artisan cheeses, eggs, honey and olive oils, beef, lamb and pork all capture the essence of the region.

As you come off the hill into Featherston, it’s hard to miss the bright yellow-and-blue sign of Paul Broughton’s small but perfect shop C’est Cheese. One of the world’s great cheese shops, it incorporates its very own creamery, making cheese under its own brand Remutaka Pass Creamery. I’m like a child in a candy store amid its old-fashioned wooden shelves with jars of condiments and the glass counter full of locally made cheeses. Paul collects the milk in his own mini-tanker from Te Pare Organic Farm in Kahutara and within an hour, it’s being turned into something utterly magical. The ‘Forest Born’, a washed-rind from the winemaker series, incorporates a syrah from Cambridge Road Vineyard, adding a fruitiness to the cheese. On a Sunday morning, melted over some thoughtfully cooked mushrooms on toast, it is utter bliss. Umami-rich shiitake and oyster mushrooms are grown by Urban Fresh Farms in Carterton and have an unmistakeably robust depth of flavour.

With over 85 olive growers and four olive presses, 30% of New Zealand’s olive oil comes from the area, delivering exceptional, sophisticated oils. I’m spoilt for choice and the kitchen bench holds a collection of some of them. Juno Olives offer a simple, rustic cellar-door opportunity to sample their products. I like the fragrant oils from Lot Eight, especially their new fennel-infused oil, a happy match when poured over artichokes, green beans, mushrooms or tomatoes.

Gavin at the Greytown Butcher personally selects his beef and lamb locally from Palliser Ridge Station in Pirinoa. I pick up jumbled lumps of oxtails, deep-maroon meat marbled with cream-coloured fat. I cook them slowly over a succulent belly of Longbush free-range pork along with sweet root vegetables, cloves of garlic and earthy Parkvale portobello mushrooms. There is local red wine, beef stock and herbs. Once cooked, the meat is shredded and I make a satisfying pie under a golden pastry crust.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I have found my little slice of heaven, and you’d be right. There is plenty more to discover and you may find your own gems if you visit. Let me know if you do; I’ll be the one swapping produce with the neighbours.

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