The bike path alongside the coastal road heading south from Napier’s city centre is sprinkled with cyclists, likely on their way to the next wine tasting. Cycling from winery to winery along the 125-mile Hawke’s Bay Trails, cooled by the sea breeze, is the best way to experience the region, says my taxi driver, as we zoom past the riders. A Napier local, he tells me one of his other part-time jobs is picking apples at a nearby orchard — a seasonal necessity, given that Hawke’s Bay is the largest apple-growing region in New Zealand. “Here to write about food?” he asks me. “You’re gonna need more than three days.”
The easiest way to understand Napier and Hawke’s Bay is to eat what they grow. Te Matau-a-MÄui (the name of Hawke’s Bay in reo MÄori, the language spoken by New Zealand’s indigenous MÄori population) has a temperate, Mediterranean-like climate that yields fantastic produce. This includes extra virgin olive oil cold-pressed from fruit grown near Ngaruroro River; Bay blueberries grown on a small property owned by the Hirst family, under the shadow of Te Mata Peak; and seasonal stone fruits that tumble out of crates in deep purples, rich reds and bright yellows.
It’s a busy Sunday morning at Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market, on the outskirts of Hastings, around 20 miles from central Napier. Locals and tourists browse the stalls, live music drifts through the crowds and families sprawl out on picnic blankets. There are scores of stalls scattered around the field; there’s organic honey at Beagles Bees, oyster mushroom-growing kits at Good Vibes Fungi and locally roasted coffee at Hawthorne Coffee Roasters. I meet with Alex Martin, the market’s marketing manager, who tells me 70% of everyone’s offering has to be local produce.
Our first stop of the morning is Nieuwenhuis Farmstead Cheese, which makes a goat’s cheese using milk from its 50-strong herd. Ann Nieuwenhuis is busy carving tiny samples for a long queue of customers; most of her sales happen here at the market. “It’s a living, really, not a job,” she says.
“We started about 10 years ago now, on our farm with our own animals. We love the balance of creating, of getting to focus on what’s real.” Nieuwenhuis’ products are an expression of the land the goats graze on. I try a piece of Poukawa Fog, inhaling the heady aroma of the ashed, soft-white cheese, letting it melt into my tongue, all earthy and salty. It’s a singular mouthful that couldn’t be replicated exactly as it is anywhere else in the world.
Murray Douglas, of Te Mata Figs, meanwhile, mans his stall like a professor in a lecture hall. In between animated retellings of the Te Mata story, Douglas is interrupted by market-goers who sigh disappointedly when they’re told the fresh figs were all sold by 9am; right now he’s just got other fig based products. A couple of women stop by to ask after a fig tree — the one they bought from him five years ago is growing so well, you know, and will he have any more to sell? Douglas tends to his customers with well-worn familiarity, telling those who’ve come for fresh fruit to stop by at his ‘figgery’, a short way away in Havelock North, later. “Plenty of fresh figs there,” he assures them.
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