river cottage courtyard
Pretty courtyard – but at 8am on an autumn morning, inside by the fire is a better bet.

The first leg of a nostalgic trip through Horowhenua

My sister and I spent a lot of the ‘seventies leaning over the back seat of our grandparents’ Zephyr 6 as we drove around Horowhenua, Puppa telling stories about his farming childhood and Gran looking for good spots for tea.

Sometimes the tea was in a Thermos on one of the wild west coast beaches, or made in a billy on a fire by a river. Other times we went to one of the cosy tearooms that seemed to be everywhere in those days.

river cottage gran and puppa
My grandparents loved the beach. I think this is Himatangi, a little north of Horowhenua, circa 1970.

Baby brother Matt missed out on these excursions, and I’ve always felt a bit sad about that. So early on an autumn morning, while it’s still dark, I collect him from his home in Wellington’s Mt Cook and we head north on our own road trip, Matt getting in the mood by playing ‘seventies music on the car stereo and me trying to retell the stories I heard so long ago.

The first stop on our road trip is Otaki’s River Cottage, a cafe in a converted stable on State Highway One.

I know this place of old; it was one of Gran’s favourite stopping places. In those days it was called The Stables and you sat in the bit that is now a shop.

river cottage old
River Cottage as it used to be.

There’s a hand-written history on the wall, starting from 1939, when the newly opened tearooms were filled with a metre of silt from the flooding Otaki River.

“In 1939, World War Two began,” the author says. “By this time I had two young brothers, Jim and John. Dad cleaned out the tearooms and erected a large neon sign overlooking the highway, in the shape of a large horseshoe, and called it the Green Horseshoe Tearooms. Mother took over then with a waitress and they served light meals such as spaghetti and baked beans and eggs on toast, hot scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry jam, which became very popular, and of course, gallons of tea.”

river cottage fizz
Foxton Fizz – a drink from childhood, still on sale at River Cottage.

That’s the way I remember it, scones and gallons of tea. Served on cake stands three tiers high and with butter shaved into little curls. But will the tearooms atmosphere have survived the Age of Coffee? Anxiously we hang about until 8am, when the doors open and we can find out.

My marks out of 10:

river cottage temuka
Temuka teacups, ready for duty.

Cup 9: Temuka Riverstone cup and saucer. How do they know I’m collecting it?! This set was huge in the 70s and my aunt was an aficionado.

river cottage saucer

Temuka is made by New Zealand Insulators, a 94-year-old company whose main business is making electrical insulators. But clay is clay, and in the 1930s, it started producing tobacco jars, mixing bowls and teapots as Christmas gifts for customers. They were popular, and a side industry was born.

During World War Two, the company made chamber pots, hot-water bottles, electric jugs and teapots for the Indian Army. Since then it’s supplied New Zealand Railways (their cups weren’t all made by Crown Lynn), the Union Steamship Company, the Hobbit movies and my very own Forest & Bird (I work there when I’m not drinking tea, and sometimes while I’m drinking tea).

river cottage cup

tea on the road tea 2
A good selection of good tea.

Tea 6: Tea Total English breakfast loose-leaf. One of my new favourites, so expectations are high. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite met. The pot is small and there’s no hot water for a top-up (though they might have given me some if I’d asked), but the biggest disappointment is that the tea is weak. Eventually, by drinking bits and adding more tea to the cup, I produce a reasonable cup, but I’ve had this tea before, at Loretta in Wellington and Sky Cafe in Auckland, and know it can be better.

river cottage blankets 3.jpg
Blankets thoughtfully provided in the courtyard, but I’ll take inside by the fire.

Setting 10: My brother and another customer try to convince me to sit outside in the courtyard but my warm northern blood is having none of it. It might be sunny, but it’s 8am on an April morning and cold. The mere fact there is a pile of blankets handy confirms that outside is not a good idea. Much better inside by the fire.

The decor is cheerful if slightly whacky, and the food (vegetarian cooked breakfast for Matt, pancakes for me) is delicious, but it’s nostalgia that tips this cafe over from a 9 to a 10.

Open after 3pm? Yes.

Dog-friendly? None in evidence, but it’s not hard to imagine a pup or two in the courtyard.

river cottage outside

River Cottage Cafe, 170 Main Highway, Otaki

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