Food is a Kiwi obsession. Turn on the TV and you’ll always find a cooking show in between those programmes plucked straight from British telly. It’s odd watching Graham Norton, Kirsty and Phil and Corrie on the other side of the world. Then inevitably Masterchef pops up.
If you love eating out, you’ll love Auckland. Fresh local produce is abundant as you might expect from a nation blessed with fertile volcanic soil. Kiwi food is also an adventure. New Zealand’s big cities are a melting pot of cultures from Europe, the Far East, the Pacific and the Indian subcontinent. There are so many new tastes to explore, it’s as if you’ve arrived on another planet. The plentiful feijoa fruit is part apple, part-pear and appears in drinks, ice cream and cakes. There’s kumara, a tasty, purple sweet potato-like vegetable often found in interesting and colourful salads served in the city’s cafes.
You’ll find plenty of bars and restaurants in the Britomart area of the city, the main transport hub. And across the road skirting the waterway, there’s the redeveloped Wynyard Quarter. Its back-to-back bars are fronted by alfresco eating areas, built on land recently reclaimed from industrial use. The inner city suburb of Ponsonby offers trendy eating options where you’re likely to be served your post-meal, cold-pressed coffee with a mini-bottle of almond milk by a hipster-bearded waiter.
Unless you’re going to do stacks of research, finding somewhere to eat when there’s so much choice can be daunting. That’s why you need Elle Armon-Jones from The Big Foody Food Tours. Elle relocated from Saffron Walden because of her passion for Kiwi cuisine.
Elle believes that Auckland’s food is special because so many cultures and cuisines have mixed. British dishes feature and are usually done very well. You get great fish and chips with proper chunky chips, not skinny fries. Sunday roasts are very popular and New Zealand actually has roast dinner takeaways. The city also offers excellent Asian fusion and Pacific Rim cuisine as well as South African influenced food. It seems that all nationalities and their respective dishes are on offer.
Over coffee in the British ex pat-operated The Chocolate Drop, Elle talks passionately about the German butcher and French charcuterie she uses. Then the conversation moves to the coffee. After you’ve eaten, you’ll find Kiwi coffee is as good as any from Italy – in fact it was Italian settlers who started the Kiwi quest for the perfect cup. You won’t find Nescafe instant anywhere. The flat whites (milky but not frothy) or long blacks (strong Americanos) are freshly made even in the equivalent of a greasy spoon.
I drove to Elle’s base in the Northshore suburb of Takapuna, just 12 minutes from the city centre across the Harbour Bridge. Takapuna is easy to find because Auckland’s only real skyscraper, the 30-storey Sentinel Building, provides a point to aim your steering wheel at! You’ll find a pleasant, well-to-do beachside community that’s off the tourist trail, which is why I think you should visit. There are bustling streets of canopied shops running alongside a beautiful expanse of sandy beach overlooking the volcanic islands of the Hauraki Gulf. Elle told me that you can swim on one of Auckland’s best beaches and then go for lunch or dinner 150 metres away.
We grabbed a coffee in what I thought was an old lane or alleyway. It was lined with tables and chairs on either side of the path. Leading off the passage were entrances to busy bars and restaurant. “Two years ago we’d have been sitting in a surfboard shop,” Elle explained. “I couldn’t have done a food tour here then,” she told me.
There’s been a concerted effort by the business community to put the suburb on the map. The passageway, complete with a bright blue VW campervan converted into a coffee bar, was created specifically to encourage eating and drinking. “Arcade dining is big in Auckland,” she added. Elle’s tours mix the area’s scenery with samples of the best local cuisine. “Foodies like to travel to see different things,” she advises me.
Her Takapuna tours start with chocolate at The Chocolate Drop before leading the parties of between two and twelve around the nearby Lake Pupuke, formed out of a former volcano and just 170 metres from the Pacific. Next, more samples in a store that stocks only Auckland artisan produce, whether it’s cheese, chutney or jam. There’s award-winning ice cream at a beach café, highly praised pizza from another Essexer, and then bites of burgers at the Burger Bach. Two South Islanders relocated to Auckland to start that business. Bach highlights the seaside location. It’s the Kiwi word for a small holiday home and many people aspire to own one.
The last stop is a Chinese Malaysian restaurant, Madame Wu, owned by one of the Masterchef New Zealand judges. I told you that they loved food and cookery shows. “I have become a coffee snob,” she confides. “I would never have thought I’d have a favourite roaster until I moved here.” Coffee is such a big part of Kiwi life that youngsters generally go out for an evening cup rather than a pint. “I do miss my local back home,” she says, adding that Auckland has more bars than British-style pubs. But you can get decent beer – craft breweries are popping up all over the city and Elle is embracing that. Her beer-tasting trip includes the excellent Northshore-based Birkenhead Brewing Company or BBC. They’ve named their pub ‘the BBC Studios.’ As well as Takapuna tasting tours, The Big Foody offer full and half-day walks around the city centre and driven trips to outlying farmers’ markets.
I took myself to Matakana, a trendy village one hour’s drive north of central Auckland. There’s a very popular farmers’ market on Saturdays and as you browse or buy the olive oils, breads, organic chocolate, manuka honey smoked salmon and hundreds of dips and chutneys, a live acoustic band provides the soundtrack to your shopping and sampling. It’ll take you at least half an hour to stroll around Matakana Farmers’ Market and then you can check out the village’s craft and antique shops. If you can convince someone else to drive, you can finish off your Matakana foodie feast with wine tasting at one of the area’s vineyards. There are over thirty of them.
Elle told me that she wanted to “create the bragability factor.” She said she wanted people to return home and tell friends, “You won’t believe what I ate in Auckland.” Auckland’s foodie focus and café culture perfectly complement the volcanoes, lakes or mountain landscapes that probably encouraged you down to New Zealand in the first place. If you’ve been told off for posting food photos on Facebook or Instagram, leave your phone in the hotel. There’ll be lots you’ll want to share.
You can find details of Elle’s food tours at thebigfoody.com.