The talk in the Hukerenui pub is of country things. Rain is needed, the woodchopping at the A&P Show was good, and so were the horses, but they could have done with a bit more shade.
The rhythms of country life are soothing, jogging memories of life in the rural North.
It’s a blowsy summer afternoon when I haul in thirsty from the road, and hungry to boot, and it turns out the Hukerenui Hotel is up to the job.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 5: White Arcoroc cup and saucer. Another blast from the past – this was big in the ’80s.
Tea 7: Twining’s English Breakfast, teabag. At first Laurel, who runs the place, can’t remember the brand. “The red one,” she says. The tea is good – as hearty as the club sandwich Laurel makes me (the display counter is empty; Laurel would rather make each sandwich fresh, so the bread doesn’t curl). I compliment her on the tea, and she says the secret is to heat the pot, and to not bring the extra hot water out until the customer wants it, so it doesn’t get time to cool.
Setting 8: Who can resist a 127-year-old historic pub? The Huka, as it’s known, was opened in 1890. The railway went through around 1901, and gradually the main road north, from Whangarei to Kawakawa, got broader and busier. The interior of the pub’s not in original condition – more late 1980s than early 1890s – but there are huge historic prints on the walls, horses in the paddock and lamb and mint pies in the chiller.
Dog friendly? Bound to be.
Hukerenui Hotel. 2444 State Highway 1, Hukerenui, Northland.
What constitutes good tea is, of course, subjective, and I am prepared to concede that what’s my cup of tea mightn’t necessarily be yours.
But as some of my family and friends have become nervous about making me tea, here’s a quick run-down on how to make what I consider to be a good cup of tea.
And for the record, I never judge tea made for me by people at home or at work; it’s the people charging good money for what can only be called dishwater who are in my sights.
1. BOIL WATER
Not as simple as it sounds. Use a kettle – either stove-top or electric. Recently, I heard that these aren’t standard kitchen appliances in the United States. Somewhat sceptical, I asked my American friends and found that while some do (take a bow Jerry Sehkle, although the fact we’re related way back probably mean it’s something to do with the family tea-drinking genes), others have never tried them and assume that heating water in a microwave is fine. It’s not. It doesn’t get as hot. Good tea is made with water that’s come to a full rolling boil. Every time I flip the switch on the kettle, I can still hear my grandmother saying “you WILL boil the water properly, won’t you dear?”
If you have to, use a pot on the stove, but it’s slower and there’s more chance of getting splattered by boiling water.
2. USE FRESH WATER
Once – and only once – I accused my beloved of using the wrong tea. We’d just moved from Auckland city to Waiheke Island, and I, with my taste buds dulled by years of drinking tea made with chemically dosed city water, failed to recognise that it wasn’t the tea that was different, but the water.
We don’t always have access to fresh rainwater, but at least empty the kettle and refill it from the tap every time. Water that’s already been boiled once tastes flat if it is boiled again and used to make tea. The wonderful Sri Lankan tea company Dilmah explains it like this:
‘Water is known to contain dissolved gases absorbed from the air. Carbon dioxide (CO2) gas that is present in water affects the acidity. Acidity of water plays a critical role in the ionization of tea polyphenols, and it contributes to the stability of the above complex.
CO2 in water is gradually released during the boiling process. Re-boiling will in fact further reduce CO2 levels, resulting in a decrease in the acidity. As mentioned above this will affect the caffeine and polyphenol complexion, and bring about changes in the colour as well as the character of the brew.
Twice-boiled water will therefore affect the taste of a good tea, and hence our request that only freshly boiled water is used for brewing Dilmah tea.’
3. USE GOOD LEAF TEA
There’s tea, and there’s tea. Taste is personal, so shop around and see what you like. We drink Dilmah Classic most of the time, but usually have a cannister of Kerikeri Tea’s Organic Bay of Island Breakfast in the cupboard for to offer to friends or to have as a treat (it’s more expensive than Dilmah), and love trying other brands and blends.
Occasionally I drink green or herbal teas too.
Keep your tea in a dark, air-tight caddy in a cool place. Many people advice keeping it in the fridge. I go through my main tea so quickly that leaving it on the bench for a few days doesn’t matter.
4. MAKE IT IN A POT
Teapots are worth using simply for the ritual. But there are practical reasons for using them too. The tea gets time to steep, and, depending on the size of the pot, there’s usually the option of a second – or third – cup.
Heat the pot by filling it with hot water from the tap and letting it sit while the kettle boils, or swirling a bit of boiling water from the jug around in it (if you do this, make sure to bring the kettle back to the boil again).
My current pot is a white ceramic one I got for $10 in a sale at Briscoes. It has a basket that holds the tea leaves, which makes emptying it easy. If you are using one of these, fill the warmed pot with boiling water, put the basket in, add tea (one teaspoon for each person, and one for the pot), and put the lid on.
If your teapot hasn’t got a basket, put the tea in first.
And if you use teabags instead of loose-leaf tea, it’s still worth using a pot; your tea will have a depth it’s not possible to achieve by making it in a cup.
5. LET IT BREW
Good things – and tea is the best of things – take time. Let it brew for at least three minutes, longer if you like it strong.
6. TIP ME OVER, POUR ME OUT
If you take milk, put it in the cup first, then pour tea on top. I don’t like it too milky – about half a centimetre in the bottom of the cup will do.
Best Ugly – a welcome sight for harried travellers
Can the tea live up to the bagels’ high standard?
“White rabbit, EBT with splash,” sings the chap behind the counter. “White rabbit, EBT with splash,” the crew chorases back.
A white rabbit is a toasted bagel with cream cheese, tomato, basil, olive oil and black pepper, and I’ve been obsessed with them for months.
My usual MO at Wellington airport is to skip between Best Ugly Bagels (a chain founded by chef Al Brown, of Logan Brown fame) and Freshbites, where I know that by airport standards, they make a half-decent cup of tea AND serve it in a cup.
But it’s time to put Best Ugly through its paces, so, taking a deep breath, I order a cup of English breakfast.
The serving chap asks if I want milk (yes, the “splash”) or sugar (no).
“And would you like the bag left in?”
Suppressing a shudder, I tell him I want it strong, and it’s up to him how he achieves it.
My marks out of 10?
Cup 1: Paper. Serving chap comes over to ask how I’m enjoying my lunch, and we talk tea for a bit. They have to use paper cups, he says, because they don’t have a dishwasher. “We’re really a to-go kind of place.”
Setting 5: It’s an airport, and some days there are just too many darned people clustered around Best Ugly. But today there are just two of us sitting up at the bar, and the chirpy staff singing every order in unison never fails to bring smiles to the faces of otherwise harried travellers.
Dog-friendly? Probably only for guide dogs and customs dogs.
I admit I wasn’t expecting much. The Lazy Graze is what you might call an honest country cafe: what you see is what you get. Country folk stopping in for lunch and a chat. Lasagne. Sandwiches. Cake.
My marks out of 10?
Cup 8: Springfield, an English pottery founded in 1962. The pattern isn’t my cup of tea, so to speak, but it’s a quality drinking experience.
Tea 9: t Leaf T loose-leaf English breakfast. An array of little bottles of different teas on the counter gives me the first hint that I might be in for a better cup of tea than I thought. “It’s loose-leaf,” I think, my expectations jumping a couple of notches. t Leaf T (that name really does annoy me) is a Wellington tea company, and I’ve had their tea before, at the Schnappa Rock cafe in Tutukaka. It was good. Anticipation builds, and is met. One thing puzzles me though; the tea in the pot is in a bag, when the counter display clearly promised loose-leaf. I call the waitress over. “We put it in bags ourselves,” she tells me. “It means you get a good cup of tea and we don’t have to deal with the leaves.” She demonstrates, and I’ve got a hand-filled tea-bag to take away with me. Whatever next!
Setting 6: Comfortable, with a rural theme. Lots of extra seating in a room out the back, but space is, nevertheless, at a premium.
Dog-friendly? Probably, though none in evidence today.
*For the record, Eketahuna is at the southern end of what was known as the Seventy Mile Bush, a stand of heavy native forest that ran from southern Hawke’s Bay to Wairarapa. It was destroyed in the 1870s by Scandinavian settlers, acting at the behest of the Government, which wanted the forest turned into farms. At that time, Eketahuna was called Mellemskov, which meant heart of the forest. Confusingly, the area was also called the Forty Mile Bush, which usually meant the southern part of the Seventy Mile Bush. The rugby union got around the problem by simply calling it Bush (as in Wairarapa-Bush). For some reason, many people think it’s a made-up place, like Erewhon, Brigadoon and Waikikamukau (try saying it out loud).
Hospital visiting is all very well, but there is a limit to my charity, and we reach it when the tea trolley comes around.
Fortunately, there’s a Jamaica Blue cafe two floors up, so we skedaddle off there for a late lunch (lasagne for me, fish burger, or “slider” as the menu has it, for him) and a pot of tea. Or two.
My marks out of 10?
CUP4: Tea-cup shape but heavy. Lost a mark for bragging about coffee on the side of it (this place is all about coffee).
TEA 6: Elmstock loose-leaf English breakfast – an Australian brew of Ceylon tea, which comes served in two substantial pots. Plenty of tea for all (I have three cups, he has two). Good hearty flavour and nice and strong.
SETTING 4: that’s a high mark, given this is a hospital. They’ve made an effort, with plants and comfy seats and even a double swing seat (though it’s bolted to the floor; health and safety is big in hospitals).
DOG FRIENDLY? What do you think?
Jamaica Blue, Auckland Hospital, 2 Park Rd, Grafton, Auckland.
“Meet us at The Lunchroom,” said the women from the Ministry, and so we did, riding the escalator to the atrium in the first floor of a downtown-Auckland highrise to find them.
There we drank tea and talked about important things, and when it was time for the women from the Ministry to return to their office on a floor somewhere above us, Siteri, who came all the way from Fiji to talk about the important things, and I decided we could fit in lunch before our next important meeting.
Owner JJ Holland and his pies and burgers. I can vouch for the burgers.
My marks out of 10?
CUP 5: Proper shape. Quite heavy though. I discuss this with owner JJ Holland, who says he would love to use fine china teacups – he went as far as pricing them – but what with the inevitable breakages that would occur in a busy cafe and restaurant, the economics didn’t stack up. I suggest using mix-and-match secondhand china cups, JJ says they wouldn’t go with The Lunchroom’s aesthetics.
TEA 8: Loose-leaf Forage and Bloom English breakfast. Good. Strong. I had four cups.
SETTING 8: Spacious, filled with light, and with an outlook over downtown Auckland. Described in Metro magazine’s 2016 Best Cafe awards as the best in the central city for “a smart lunch in an oasis of inner-city calm”.
Lunch at Delissimo is one of the perks of visiting the Auckland office.
It’s a short walk from the Forest & Bird base, up Charlotte St and along New North Rd, and by the time I get there I’m always more than ready for my cup of tea. And often cake as well.
On this day, my colleagues Rebecca and David are with me. Rebecca (the same Rebecca who discovered the wonderful high tea at the Prince’s Gate Hotel in Rotorua with me) is also an out-of-towner, and it’s her first visit. David is a regular.
My marks out of 10?
CUP 6: Crown Lynn willow pattern. Although it’s not fine china, it scores highly in the nostalgia stakes; not only is it Crown Lynn (shout-out here to my old pal Val Monk, who literally wrote the books on this lost and lamented New Zealand pottery), but it’s also identical to a set I had about 10 years ago (there’s one cup left. It has no handle, and lives in the flour bin).
TEA 5: English breakfast, unknown brand. It’s a bit weak. The owner tells me he would have made it stronger for me if I’d asked. In fact, he offers to make me another one now. Unfortunately, I haven’t got time, so I’ll take him up on his offer next visit.
SETTING 7: The courtyard out the back is a little haven in an otherwise drab slab of New North Rd.
DOG-FRIENDLY? As Jess wasn’t with me, I haven’t put this to the test, but the answer is probably no, as there are no seats out the front, and the courtyard is small and has to be reached through the cafe itself.
But a bit past there is the Schnappa (their spelling) Rock restaurant and bar, and after ascertaining that it is, indeed, dog-friendly, we take a seat for a long-postponed birthday lunch.
The food is delicious; fish (sustainable) for him, chicken (free-range) for me, after which I introduce my beloved to the wonder that is sticky-date pudding, and it is the best I have ever had.
But the real proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the tea-drinking.
My marks out of 10?
CUP 2: Coffee cup. Sigh. Again, I lecture the person waiting on our table. Again, I get a courteous hearing. The young man looking after us today goes as far as saying that while he doesn’t know much about drinking tea, he is very interested in its history. For the record, or in case you’ve forgotten, here is the scientific explanation for why tea must never, ever, be served in a coffee cup, especially not one of the modern, heavy, shallow cups used by rock-star barristas.
TEA 8: t leaf Tea loose-leaf English breakfast. It’s not a good start when I realise that tea isn’t even on the menu. This is early in the piece, when we’re ordering lunch, and I challenge the waiter immediately. He assures me that not only do they serve tea, but that they have a good range of it.
Bad name, good tea.
Me: “Why isn’t it on the menu then?”
Him: “The menu gets changed a lot and sometimes things fall off.”
I go into a decline; any place in which tea matters so little that it falls off the menu is unlikely to make a good brew.
Nevertheless, I’ve got a job to do, and so I order a pot. Obviously, given what’s gone before, I’m not surprised to be given a coffee cup. But I am surprised by the tea itself. It’s good! Summoning the waiter again, I ask what it is. He fetches the caddy from the kitchen, with a warning that I can’t take it home. t leaf T (annoying name, makes it very hard for writers who care about starting sentences with a capital letter) is a Wellington company. As someone who spends quite a lot of time in the Capital, I make a note to pay them a visit.
SETTING 10: It’s the second time in a row I’ve awarded full marks for setting, but Schnappa Rock is friendly, laid-back and rustic, with a front-row view of the harbour.
DOG-FRIENDLY? Definitely (the Hairy Maclary-looking dog on the left is our Jess).
My brother knows Wellington’s Dirty Little Secret, which is fortunate for me, because I love it immediately.
We’ve just finished a slap-up meal at Little Penang (one of our favourite places) in Dixon St, and are in need of a walk before bed. I also need tea.
I tell him this as we stroll along Dixon St.
“I know somewhere we haven’t been,” he says, and ushers me to the historic Hope Gibbons Building on the corner of Taranaki St. It’s early, but there’s a chalkboard on the footpath and a bouncer on the door.
We ride the lift to the roof , and there’s Dirty Little Secret, a rooftop bar made from old shipping containers.