Rousing the spirits of Hawke's Bay

Eating around New Zealand's Hawke's Bay offers everything from signature local wines to traditional Maori feasting.

Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, dives into a fried mussels and abalone fritters.

Hawke’s Bay is the last leg of the New Zealand adventure and we leave Breckenridge Lodge early in the morning. We figure that the early hour means that breakfast is not an option but chef and owner Malcolm Redmond is so wonderfully accommodating and tells us that it is no problem at all. The rise isn’t easy, the bed is very comfortable and even with five other guests, it is deliciously silent throughout the night. I make my main effort to sound coherent (a cup of tea before speaking to another soul) and make my way downstairs.

Malcolm is already hard at work and he suggests that he just bring out a few things, which we were more than happy with. The first course is something to wake up the senses: a small bowl of sweet strawberries diced and served with a tangy lime sorbet.

The muesli is a delicious home made one with nuts and fruit and is soaked in apple juice and is served with a fantastic, thick honey natural yogurt.

Coconut curd you may ask? Well I most certainly did. This is another thing that I’m going to have to try and make at home as it is thick and gorgeously moreish especially with the banana and soft, fluffy pancakes. I wanted to take what I couldn’t finish in a box to eat during the day. Waving Malcolm goodbye, we must sadly depart.

hawkes bay, new zealand

Today we are exploring some more of the Maori culture with a traditional Maori welcome ceremony, a taste of food and a sampling of the Maori culture. We hear a chime in the distance as a young boy stands atop a hill. A Maori warrior holding a spear purposefully agilely makes his way down the hill greeting us as if he would a stranger. He sets down a leaf ceremoniously in front of our group "leader.” The giving of the leaf is important. If the warrior feels insulted by the champion or the leader of the other group, it can end with bad blood. However, once a leaf is accepted that means that you now belong to that family.

The women depart first up the hill and the men last. We are introduced to Maori culture by Ben and they sing us a welcome song before we are broken up into groups of three to see various areas of Maori culture. We start with Ara with whom we do the hongi where we press our noses and foreheads together while shaking hands. It is where the brains and minds are said to connect.

Ara tells us about various plants which are often used for their healing properties. This includes the karaka which she is holding, a medicinal and food plant. The roots of the plants are boiled down and they end up tasting like peanuts. Ara leans over and whispers to me "You come from a lovely place” while smiling broadly. I firstly take that literally – I thought she meant Australia as she had placed my accent. But apparently I was being too literal and she meant my spirit, which she said was so lovely to hear.

hawkes bay, new zealand

We next move onto Ben who is showing us an instrument called the nuru, which is played with the nostrils or mouth. Ben's nuru is about 80 years old and was given to him by his father. It is an instrument often played at funerals.

Our next stop is with John and Tyler, who demonstrate fighting. The main stick was never sharpened or thrown but only used for close combat fighting, and it originated in the 14th century.

Keita shows us the flax that they use to weave baskets, bags and clothing. It comes from the flax tree and they simply use a paua shell to strip the outer coating off. To make the skirt which she calls the "Gucci or Versace” skirt they dry the leaves and they curl around – although these skirts can take up to a year to make.

Ara shows us the importance of stones. It is believed that the gods placed their energy in stones. She invites us to wet our hands in the water and bless each stone with the firm touch of our palms. Qe can also take the smaller stones in the water but these always have to be returned back here. There is a ceremony for when the stones are returned to the site too and they have one this afternoon with people from overseas.

And of course no trip here would be complete without trying some of the food. they show us how easily the paua, like abalone is taken out of the shell . They will slice it and fry it for us.

Meanwhile, there is more food on the table for us to try like a soft seaweed salad which I really like, a pork pot with dumplings and potatoes, golden syrup and butter deep fried bread, paua fritters and deep fried mussels. They’re all delicious and met with an approving nod from the diners.

Yep, never bring up the subject of pavlova to a New Zealander. Because as the only Australian in the whole group, that day after pavlova was served from dessert, I heard pretty much every joke about Australians and Australian sport. And this was just from one of the bus drivers! Must remember to bring Australians with me next time.

We’re farewelled with beautiful farewell song, sung sincerely and with heart.

Black Barn

Now that we’re in Hawke’s Bay wine country, what better to do than a meal at a winery? Black Barn is a winery where two thirds of the wine produced is sold at the cellar door. There are also 15 properties where guests can stay and then dine at Black Barn, which is open for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday.

Their signature wine is the barrel fermented Chardonnay and the reserve Merlot. We take a seat under the covered canopy where vine leaves grow overhead. It’s a Saturday afternoon with a slight chill in the air but the grounds are looking impeccable and are prone to causing the sort of chest heaving sighs that you tend to get when you stare at beautiful vistas.

The crispy local whitebait is lightly coated and deep fried and sits on a potato and thyme "Humminghill” organic egg frittata ringed around with gremolata dressing with a chargrilled lime. The whitebait is lovely and crispy and the gremolata is a natural partner for this, but I did find that the potato frittata was a little floury especially in comparison to the light and crispy whitebait. All of the meals have a recommended wine matched to them.

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