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.
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).
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.
My marks out of 10?
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 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.
My marks out of 10?
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.
Railway station cafes are legendary for strong tea and slabs of fruitcake. Kawakawa’s keeping the legend alive at the restored historic station, complete with steam engines and a fully functional tearoom.
My marks out of 10?
CUP 6: Gibson Housewares, small and heavy but a good shape.
TEA 7: Dilmah English breakfast.
SETTING 9.5: Will give it a 10 when steam engine Gabriel is back in service – diesel loco Timmy is doing a good job, but is just not the same.
Gate-crashed a catch-up between my husband and an old colleague for this one, but once again I’d been driving for hours and really needed a cup of tea.
Serenity cafe in the Whangarei Town Basin is a favourite, mainly because of it’s sublime beef-and-mushroom pies. The tea’s not bad either.
My marks out of 10?
CUP 3:– Look at it – heavy, flat, everything you don’t want in a teacup.
TEA 7: English breakfast – (true story, during the British Lions rugby tour this year I saw a team supporter order an English breakfast thinking he was getting a cooked breakfast. He was horrified to learn he’d order a cup of tea – he didn’t even drink the stuff!).
SETTING 7: The Town Basin is lovely. This cafe is back from the water, next to the clock museum gardens.