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 for 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.
A day of drinking conference tea is enough to drive anyone out into the night in search of drink, and so 9pm finds me ordering tea in the Mezze Bar, one of the few decent eateries within walking distance of my uptown Auckland hotel.
The Mezze Bar and I both arrived in Auckland in the early ’90s. In those days, she was on the corner of Queen St and Mayoral Dr, and I was not too far away, in a newspaper office on Wyndham St.
We’ve moved on, me to a dozen different tea-drinking lives, and the Mezze Bar to a bolt-hole upstairs on Durham St East.
At first I didn’t realise where we were going when one of my climate-change-conference companions suggested this place to a group of us. But it was good to see her again, even if my tea wasn’t served on the wonderful tea-tray in this video.
Cup – 7 – white with blue flowers, not fine-bone, but a good shape, promises much.
Tea – 6 – English breakfast of indeterminate origin. Sadly, the tea doesn’t live up to the promises of the cup and the cool blue-enamel teapot. Still, it’s way ahead of the conference tea.
Setting – 8 – comfy cushions, relaxed atmosphere. It might not be the original Mezze Bar, but it still scores on the nostalgia stakes.
The start of a campaign to lift the tea to the high standard of food and coffee at this otherwise-excellent local cafe.
Afternoon tea at New Day Cafe is irresistible. Not for the tea, but for the cake, which is, quite frankly, to die for.
And after two weeks of being confined to barracks with the ‘flu, I was more than ready for a sumptuous tea out.
It was election day in New Zealand when we decided to make this particular tea-and-cake run, so after performing our democratic duty at the local hall, we zipped the few minutes to the Parua Bay shopping centre.
Fondly, I think of New Day Cafe as die Konditerei (German for pâtisserie), mainly because I have loved the word since I first heard it in a high-school German class, but also because of the wonderful cakes make by Michelin chef Sabine, who owns New Day Cafe with husband Frank.
Cup – 8 – white fine-bone china with a gold rim. Good shape and feel. Pretty.
Tea – 6 – English breakfast. Sadly, the tea doesn’t live up to the standard of the food or the coffee. It’s flat. I talk about this with Frank, and he says that at home in Germany they always had good loose-leaf tea. “But people here don’t seem to care about tea as much as they do about coffee,” he says. But there is hope; New Day stocks a range of Kerikeri Tea’s loose-leaf herbal teas, and Frank is thoughtful when I suggest adding one of the company’s black teas to the menu. The campaign continues.
Setting – 9 – New Day Cafe is charming, despite being located in a block of suburban shops. It’s the little things that do it; checked tablecloths and flowers in an old teapot. Pots of fresh herbs. Wicker chairs with throws. And did I mention the food?
It’s possible that wine biscuits are responsible for me starting to drink tea; when adults drew the line at we kids dunking yet another biscuit in their tea, we asked for our own.
The rest is history.
These days I don’t eat them often; not having biscuits in the house is the best way to avoid eating them.
But who could resist a three-for-$5 wine-biscuit bargain?
Obviously, I’ve eaten far too many.
There is an upside, however. For a long time, the issue of which of Griffins’ three wine-biscuit varieties is the best has been a source of contention.
Now, at least, after extensive sampling of them all, we have agreed that the best is not Round Wines (too dry), not Super Wines (too sweet) but Vanilla Wines, like the one disappearing into my grandmother’s Belle Fiore cup in the picture above.
It’s serendipity pure and simple that brings me to the Towai Tavern, a pub often passed but never entered until now.
The plan was to stop at old favourite 39 Gillies Street Cafe, but it’s closed when I hit Kawakawa at 10 past 3 (what is it with cafes being closed at afternoon tea time?).
So I roll on south, my tongue hanging out (the last cup of tea was at 7am) and wondering if the Hukerenui cafe and pub will be open.
But 7 kilometres north of Hukerenui, there’s the Towai Tavern waving a free-range menu at me, and on impulse I stop.
It’s not without trepidation. Northland is full of historic old pubs with decor circa 1970 and a clientele more interested in whether Lion Red is on tap than in discussing the merits of afternoon tea.
So it’s fair to say my expectations are low, a position that would have probably been justified if I’d arrived just a few short weeks earlier.
But the 145-year-old Towai Tavern is under new management, taken over by a family with no pub experience but with a penchant for good food and hanging white lace curtains at the windows in the public bar.
The bloke behind the bar greets me as I enter and doesn’t look at all put out when I tell him I’m hoping for tea.
There’s a sign on the bar advertising pork sandwiches and I ask if it’s free-range.
“Absolutely,” he says. “My aunty won’t have factory-farmed meat in the place. And it’s all New Zealand produce too,.”
He points to a sign saying the Towai Tavern features all-New Zealand produce (later, I find a Facebook post by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who visited on August 13 and was photographed with the winners and the losers of the inaugural Mangawhai/Towai pool contest, and made the point that the pub’s grub would be 100 per cent New Zealand produce if only coffee beans didn’t have to be imported).
The barman and I chat about the advantages of good-quality New Zealand produce while he makes my tea and I choose a piece of carrot cake from the display cabinet (the home-made pies look fantastic, but would spoil my dinner). Then he suggests taking a seat in the “history corner” of the dining room (old photographs on the walls) and says he’ll bring my afternoon tea over.
Towai in the old days. The dirt road in the foreground is State Highway 1.
The photographs are right up my alley. There’s a cracker of the Towai Railway Station (1897), another of a group of guys and gals (some of the former in uniform) in 1939, looking like they might have hit the town, and one taken a few kilometres up the road at the Ruapekapeka turnoff, when Towai was a proper bustling township.
There are plenty of the 145-year-old tavern too, but my favourite is a picture of the Ralls family – Emma, Eileen (nee Collier), Lyonel, Ernest V and Ernie – taken in 1929. They look like they’re good sorts and they’re having fun, especially Eileen, who’s swigging from a beer bottle.
A woman walks through the dining room and my hunch that she’s the aunty turns out to be correct. A dairy farmer from Mangawhai (they sell raw organic milk from a shop on the farm) who had no plans to take on a pub, but it was for sale and her husband thought it was worth a shot (“if it doesn’t work out, it’s an eight-bedroomed house on State Highway 1), so they are giving it a shot, and it turns out Sandra loves running a pub.
I get the feeling she’s responsible for most of the changes, and she confirms that she did hang the lace curtains in the bar, and that she has a lot of other ideas too, all revolving around good Kiwi food and hospitality.
Cup – 5 – Respectable mass-produced Home and Co cup and saucer. Proper tea-cup shape.
Tea – 6 – Dilmah organic English breakfast. This is tricky. I like the fact it’s organic, and that it’s made in a pot by the bloke behind the bar while I dither over the cake selection, and that he uses a pot. I don’t like the fact it’s a teabag, and that the pot (admittedly big enough for two people) is only half full (yes, I can drink four cups of tea on my own, and expect to if you give me a pot that size, even if I only ordered tea for one), and it wasn’t quite as piping hot as I would have liked it. But it’s early days for the Towai Tavern yet and I feel that things are only going to improve. And I like what they’re doing so much I want to be kind.
Setting – 8 – This is where the Towai Tavern comes into its own. Not as elegant as the Prince’s Gate Hotel where we had a glorious high tea last month, the Towai Tavern has, nevertheless, a charm of its own. Some might call it rustic (the dining room is open to the public bar, and it’s not hard to imagine a bit of down-to-earth language might float through from time to time), others might say it’s quirky. But I would call it authentic, not because the owners have recreated a slice of times gone by (they haven’t) but because it’s the food, decor and people you’re likely to find in a genuine Northland farmhouse.
The Towai Tavern, 3827 State Highway 1, Towai, Northland.
‘Naturally, I protested, a bit, but then I took it home…’
The 700th time I admired this cup and saucer, my cousin gave it to me.
I didn’t mean to make him do it, but I couldn’t contain myself every time I saw it in his kitchen cupboard. I mean, look at it! It’s the kind of cup that makes you happy.
Paul is my antiques-fair buddy, and while he doesn’t share my thing with cups, he does understand what it’s like to become obsessed with an object. And so one day he opened the china cabinet door, took it out, and gave it to me.
Naturally, I protested, a bit, but then I took it home and now it’s my favourite modern cup and saucer. It gets everything right – balance, feel, weight, aesthetics – it’s the cup I sit down with in the sunshine in the middle of the afternoon, when no-one else is around, and let the day’s busyness go. It’s my time-out cup, my lovely afternoon cup, my reliable cup.
It’s made by T2, which is an Australian tea-brewing company (it came with an infuser and a box of tea – more on that another time), and, sadly, doesn’t seem to be available any more.
And yes, Paul is allowed to use it when he visits.
Sometimes you order tea knowing it will be bad, but you do it anyway. This is one of those times.
Finding a decent teahouse at this time of night (7.30pm) might be theoretically possible if
I’m willing to come off the main road, hunt about among restaurants and the sort of cafes that open at night, and spend lots of time waiting for my order. But I’m not, so I ask for tea alongside my order of hot chips when I stop for petrol, and I find it’s not as bad as I think. Sometimes, low expectations are a blessing.
Cup – 2 – yes it’s a paper cup, but it’s really big (big enough for two cups of tea) and the thoughtful woman who makes it doubles the cups so I won’t burn my hands while I’m drinking.
Tea – 6 – Dilmah English breakfast teabags, made – get this! – in a teapot. The woman behind the counter brings it to me on a tray, with a pot of hot water, and the aforementioned paper cups, with instructions to allow it to brew and to then pour it into the paper cup. Full marks to her for doing her best under the circumstances.
Setting – 4 – it is a motorway roadstop, but Roadrunners Cafe is tucked around the back and there are potted plants
Roadrunners Cafe, State Highway 1, Rodney (at the BP Service Station complex at Dairy Flat).
High tea in Rotorua … in which I breach Norwegian table etiquette.
Bars and barricades around Rotorua’s Old Bath House shatter our plan for tea on the terrace.
It is a blow; we’ve been focused on tea and scones (properly served) since we left Taupo more than an hour ago.
Ever-intrepid though, we set off on foot across the Government Gardens in search of a new teahouse. The Art Deco Blue Baths building is a likely contender, and early indicators (a bar, with coffee machine, in the foyer) lift our hopes.
The ticket-seller woman confirms that they do, indeed, serve tea in the first-floor tearoom overlooking the baths. But not in winter.
We deflate. The chances of a town having three proper teahouses seem remote. We look along the lakefront, but our hunt is desultory. My travelling companion is as wedded as I am to the proper tea experience, and we are not in the mood for the clatter and clunky cups of the modern cafe.
“Let’s try that old hotel on the corner,” Rebecca suggests.
I agree; it’s a long-shot, but worth a punt.
The 75-room Prince’s Gate Hotel was built in Waihi in 1897, and carried to Rotorua by bullock train and steam engine in 1917, where it was reassembled near the entrance to the Government Gardens.
Miraculously, it has retained its character, we note approvingly as we walk across the
High tea at The Prince’s Gate is all about tradition.
wooden verandah and into the charming reception (stained-glass windows, leather chairs, huge bevelled mirrors). There’s no-one behind the counter, so we venture further. Rebecca spots a large sign offering High Teas.
In the bar, a couple of businessmen (their conversation suggests they’re in advertising) are ordering port. I ask the barman if high tea is still available. Recent experience has damaged our confidence.
“Of course,” he says, and ushers us through to one of the dining rooms, where a waitress lays a table by the fire for us.
We opt for the traditional high tea – no cocktails, no champagne, but plenty of salmon and cucumber sandwiches (crusts off), fresh scones (there will be a short wait while they are baked) and a mountain of little pastries.
Cup – 8 – proper fine china cup and saucer, rose-patterned. As soon as the waitress disappears, I turn the saucer over, as I always do, to see the maker’s mark. (Harbro fine porcelain, Wakbrzych, Poland). Rebecca is amused. She’s half Norwegian, and starts explaining the complicated tea-party rules of her mother’s country (different cups for mornings and afternoons, a strict ratio of cakes-to-guests etc). “And you must never, ever, look at the mark on the plates or the cutlery,” she says. “It is a huge insult to the hostess.”
Tea – 9 – Dilmah English breakfast for me, a herbal infusion for Rebecca. Made in pots and poured by the waitress!
High tea by the fire is an elegant affair. Although we should be in floral dresses.
Setting – 10 – so good that we book rooms for the night (they’re surprisingly cheap) and wish we’d brought suitable dresses.
*Rotorua”s Old Bath House, which housed the town’s museum, is closed because it was damaged in the Kaikoura Earthquake in November 2016. It is not known when it will reopen.
The cup at Piccolo Cafe in Taupo yesterday was so discombobulating that we had to go back today.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really a cup. And not a glass either. More of a perspex tumbler. Instinct said I should hate it, but I tried to keep an open mind.
Cup – 7 – scoring this new tea-drinking experience was tricky. This was not a coffee cup, but neither was it a teacup. It wasn’t fine bone china, but neither was it heavy crockery. What to do? Fall back on my basic criteria and see where it gets me. The “cup” (strictly speaking, I don’t think you can really call a drinking vessel without a handle a cup) is a good shape; it keeps tea hot. It’s also nice and light (incredibly so), both points in its favour. On the down side, the aesthetics aren’t great, and the rim feels a little clunky in your mouth.
Tea – 9 – NZ Live. This is good leaf tea, made in a pot, and with its own tea-timer to tell you when it’s ready. I’d never heard of NZ Live, so I asked the waiter about it and he brought me a tea menu. A four-page menu just for tea, with brews like Kowhai Ceylon, Ruapehu Rooibus and Kakariki Green. I was drinking Morning Kick Assam, “strong, full-bodied, rich, malty and brisk. A real pressed leaf, great for breakfast tea and takes milk well”. It was good, but a little on the weak side (despite me leaving it in the pot longer than the three minutes stipulated on the tea-timer). The waiter told me that the tea comes with its own measuring spoon, and strict instructions from the makers about how much to use. “But now I know you, if you come tomorrow I will make it stronger for you,” he said. I did, and he did, and it was very good, full of complex teay flavours and with a great pick-me-up zest.
But who was this NZ Live tea producer? The answer was on the back of the tea menu: The Bell Tea and Coffee Company, 305 East Tamaki Rd, Auckland. Mum, I’m sorry, you were right, Bell can make good tea.
Setting – 8 – classy cafe a street or two back from the lake in Taupo, with staff who go the extra distance to lift your visit to a little above the ordinary.