What makes the Wairarapa one of New Zealand’s top food scenes


A short drive from Wellington is a rural farming region known as the Wairarapa. It’s a peaceful retreat from New Zealand’s capital city for locals, international travelers and even celebrities (both Peter Jackson and James Cameron own estates in the region). But along with its charming country vibe is an exciting food scene buzzing with winemakers, chocolatiers, innovative farmers, cheesemakers and even a Michelin-starred chef.

The Wairarapa is an energetic expanse tucked between the mountains of the Tararua Range and the southeast coast of New Zealand’s North Island that attracts food lovers and food entrepreneurs alike. Anyone hungry for innovation and looking to push the boundaries of traditional cuisine will find this region to be fertile – not just for farming, but for creativity.

In Greytown, one of the many quaint towns that are dotted throughout the Wairarapa, Murray Langham explores the seemingly limitless ways chocolate can be enjoyed at his boutique chocolate shop Schoc Chocolates. “Chocolate is a blank canvas,” explains Murray.

Murray Langham in front of Schoc Chocolate's "chocolate library"Murray Langham in front of Schoc Chocolate’s “chocolate library” — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani Palmisano

After leaving his career as a therapist, Murray opened Schoc Chocolate in 2002 and began experimenting with the many ways chocolate can be paired with unexpected flavors. Schoc now has a library of chocolate with unique flavors such as curry and pappadums, carrot and coriander chocolate, and even a lime chili chocolate. “Just like people’s personalities, chocolate can be expressed in a multitude of complex ways,” says Murray.

What Murray does with chocolate, Paul Broughton does with New Zealand-made cheeses. At C’est Cheese in Featherston, not only does Broughton sell classic cheese made throughout New Zealand, he also makes his own, experimenting with flavors like cumin-flecked gouda and French-style blue cheeses.

It’s a popular stop for locals and international travelers to pick up everything they’d need for a charcuterie board and cheese plate before enjoying the Wairarapa’s many wineries.

Like Murray and Broughton, many artisans find the Wairarapa to be a great place to not only master their craft, but also explore new ways to expand it. At Olivo, an olive grove in Martinborough, co-owner Helen Meehan is striving to make New Zealand a world-class olive producer. “Where good wine grows, so do good olives,” explains Meehan.

Helen Meehan in the Olivo olive grove — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani Palmisano

In addition to making award-winning extra virgin olive oil (in the past, Olivo has won a Gold Medal, as well as a best in class for their Koroneiki, and two Silver Medals at New Zealand Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards), Meehan experiments with infusions. Olivo offers specialty olive oils infused with fennel, cumin, lemon, orange, porcini and even vanilla bean. “I want people to think beyond salad dressing,” explains Meehan, “and start putting olive oils on their ice cream and into chocolate mousses.”

The Wairarapa is just as much about reimagining food as it is about going organic and harnessing fresh ingredients cultivated throughout the region. Greytown’s Food Forest Organics is a plant-based delicatessen selling produce and fresh food sourced directly from the nearby Cameron Family Farm, owned by movie director James Cameron.

The wild mushroom risotto at Union Square features locally sourced mushrooms and trufflesThe wild mushroom risotto at Union Square features locally sourced mushrooms and truffles — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani Palmisano

The focus on fresh, local ingredients extends to Union Square Bistro and Bar at the Martinborough Hotel, where Michelin-starred chef Adam Newell serves up a modern New Zealand menu applying French techniques. Their specialty is the wild mushroom risotto made with locally sourced mushrooms and truffles.

Internationally, New Zealand has earned the reputation as a premier wine producer, and the Wairarapa is one of the regions leading the charge. Palliser Estate, one of the founding vineyards in Martinborough, welcomes visitors to taste what this unique terroir can produce. The region specializes in pinot noir, but at Palliser, guests can sample sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling.

Marty Davis and Sarah Hamilton of The Wine Bank in MartinboroughMarty Davis and Sarah Hamilton of The Wine Bank in Martinborough — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani Palmisano

For a crash course in wines of the Wairarapa and the rest of New Zealand, Martinborough’s The Wine Bank has everything a wine lover would want to sample in its reserves. The self-service machines that line the walls of this 110-year-old former bank allow visitors to sample from 64 vintages, many of which are from small, boutique wineries that don’t have a cellar door or tasting room. The Wine Bank is an excellent way to not only taste wines from all over New Zealand, but to sample from some of the country’s rare single-vineyard reserves.

Despite it being a rural destination, the Wairarapa is a busy region bustling with innovation and creativity, especially when it comes to food.

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