Any trip to Wellington now involves changing planes in Auckland, and with connections being what they are, that often means a mad dash from one departure lounge to another (a former colleague was amused to see me running through the terminal recently in a “fur” coat and hat, but that’s another story).
Or we face a long period cooling our heels.
Tea at the domestic terminal can be a desultory affair, so if it’s a nice day, I often walk over to the international terminal, where things are marginally better.
This is one of those days, and with three whole hours to kill before my next flight, I order a pot of tea and settle down in a seat in the sun to do some reading.
Concentration eludes me though, because a chap at the next table (his name is Henry) is talking tea. “I’m a tea drinker, preferably white tea,” he tells the coffee-drinkers at his table.
I go over and we talk tea. Henry has asked for a bigger cup, and says the cafe should be using pyramid-shaped tea bags , as they give the tea leaves room to brew.
“And you really should try white tea,” he tells me. “I think you’ll like it.
My marks out of 10?
Cup 2: Coffee cup. Say no more.
Tea 3: Dilmah classic teabag in pot. Well, it’s in the pot once I put it in there. And the pot is only half full of water. Sometimes there’s a woman behind the counter who drinks tea herself and makes a reasonable fist of making a good brew with what she’s got. Sometimes there’s a young woman who has never drunk tea. There’s a special tea menu on the counter and a wide range of teas – although no white tea.
Setting: The trend for ’70s fashion has got as far as the airport. It’s not an unpleasant place to be as far as airports go, and the 10-minute walk over makes a change from sitting.
Dog friendly? No.
Open after 3pm? YesDown Under Bar & Cafe, International Terminal, 1st Floor, Ray Emery Dr, Auckland Airport.
It’s a stifling afternoon in late summer when my mother and I take a walk through historic Greytown for tea at the Main Street Deli.
A hundred years or so ago my great great uncle Percy Plummer (another son of Ellen Eliza Plummer, of Kelburn Tea Kiosk fame) had a carting business here, first with horses and then with trucks. His brother Douglas was here too, working with Percy in the carting trade and on nearby White Rock Station, until the Battle of the Somme put paid to this and everything else for him.
Few of them could afford to buy land here today, however, and the town is now full of cafes and boutiques catering to nouveau settlers and the coffee-swilling Wellingtonians who sweep over the Rimutakas every weekend.
Luckily, I have a local guide to help me choose an eatery, and once again I discover that Mother really does know best.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 4: Bevande durable porcelain. The colours make me give this tea set a higher mark than it deserves. Yes it’s for tea, but as with the Acme cups I’ve been finding almost everywhere lately, the weight is really off-putting.
The Misses Plummer were my great-great grandmother, Ellen Eliza Plummer (a widow), and her three maiden daughters, Olive, Lillian and Nellie.
Sometime between 1912 and 1914 they were joined by Ellen’s son Horace and his wife and daughters, my grandmother among them, fresh from Broken Hill, where Horace and his brothers had worked in the silver mines.
In 1914 he and Ethel took over the Kiosk lease, and while the Dominion Post says that in 1915 it became a hospital for soldiers coming back from the front, documents show my family was still there in 1916 when my great uncle Jack was born. By 1917 though, they had moved to Wadestown, where Horace became a grocer.
The Kiosk itself went on for years, and was still standing – as a pub called The Skyline – when I was a child. In 1982 it burned down in suspicious circumstances (two fires, less than a month apart, at a time when some people were pushing to have it pulled down and others were fighting to save it) and was replaced with the current Athfield-designed building.
But back to tea. My grandmother always insisted that The Kiosk was a classy place that knew how to do tea, and a walk around the cable car museum suggests she might have been right. Silver teapots, fine white china with a gold rim, and a photo of an elegantly set table from 1915 – when my great grandmother Ethel was at the helm and my grandmother was three years old – evoke a time when tea was king.
So it’s fair to say that it’s not without some trepidation that I pick the Kiosk (it will always be the Kiosk to me, even though it is now officially called Kowhai Cafe) when a newspaper reporter says he wants to see me do my tea stuff. Will the family tea legacy live on? I hitch a ride on the cable car to Kelburn, and find out.
My Marks Out Of 10:
Cup 2:Acme. I seem to be running into them a lot these days – at the Matterhorn and at the Rusty Tractor. They’re not getting any lighter. It is a tea-cup shape, but I would much rather be using my great-granny’s china.
Tea 7: T Leaf T English breakfast bag in pot. Disappointed it’s not loose-leaf (my grandmother refused to her dying day to use teabags) but the flavour is good and the pot is a great little pourer. No hot water though for a top-up, and I’m struggling to get a second cup.
Setting 10: It’s not the Kelburn Kiosk as it was, but this is a place that has seen six generations of my family (my mother and I brought my son here when he was small, and last year he and I had lunch here, sans tea). And while I will always wish they’d build a replica of the “real” Kiosk, there are nods inside to the old building (wooden panelling and a photo on the wall), and just look at the view.
Dog friendly? Unknown.
*If anyone know what “Broadways, Christchurch” was please drop me a line. We think it was probably a department store (family lore says Ellen worked in a store in Christchurch after coming to New Zealand from South Australia), but we are not sure.
Cup 4:Maxwell Williams Cafe Culture. The colour is fabulous, and the shape isn’t bad, but it’s heavy and the handle is too small to get your finger through.
Tea 6: Kerikeri Tea English breakfast. The serving person tells me it’s loose-leaf in a bag. I think she means it’s good tea, not floor-sweepings.
Setting 6: Our airport is friendly, cosy and subtropical. Not a bad place, as far as airports go, to spend a bit of quiet time.
Dog-friendly? Jess (and Cody before her) comes to the airport to see me off and welcome me home. She’s not allowed inside, but that’s okay, because the car park is so close to the runway that I can see her anyway.
The Apron Cafe, Whangarei airport, 59 Handforth St, Onerahi, Whangarei.
We get to the Matterhorn just in time time say goodbye.
The cafe closes on February 15, 2018 after serving Wellingtonians for 55 years, falling victim to an earthquake and developers.
The Matterhorn opened as a coffee-house in 1963. It was narrow and dark, reached by a corridor off Cuba St, near the Bucket Fountain and right across from Plum. It was the place where I had my first asparagus roll (circa 1973; my great-aunt thought I would like it, I didn’t).
In 1997 the Matterhorn morphed into a restaurant and bar, expanding sideways into extra spaces, but holding on firmly to its sixties vibe.
My brother is of this generation of Wellingtonians, and can’t quite believe that the scene of so many of his best nights out is about to disappear.
But disappear it will. In November 2016, a 7.8 earthquake hit Wellington, shaking the foundations of the Farmers store next door to the Matterhorn. It’s coming down, and, apparently, the landlord has decided to redevelop the whole site, including the bit the Matterhorn stands on.
The Matterhorn’s owner and staff are off to a new Italian restaurant in Tory St, in the remains of the old Lone Star, but that doesn’t help those who love the Matterhorn for its pastiche, it’s verve and for it’s sheer longevity.
So on Valentine’s Day 2018, the day before its scheduled closure, my brother and I hit the Matterhorn one last time. For tea, of course, and to raise a glass.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 3: Acme. Not a bad shape, but small and heavy. Better suited to short blacks.
Tea 7:T Leaf T loose-leaf. I break a reviewing rule and have Earl Grey Blue Flower, because it’s late and I have already had eight cups of tea. Or is it nine? Matt has Jasmine Dragon Pearl’s Green. I have to ask for milk. The tea is made in fat cast-iron pots which keep it hot. I find it a little weak, then remind myself it’s Earl Grey.
The fact that tea has it’s own section on the menu is heart-warming. So is the complimentary shortbread.
Setting 10: It’s the Matterhorn’s second-to-last night. Need I say more?
It’s no breakfast and lousy tea for hungry and thirsty travellers
A rusty tractor AND a yarn-bombed bicycle – this is too good to be true, I think, as we walk up the wooden steps and into The Rusty Tractor cafe.
Sadly, it is. The Rusty Tractor has been recommended to us as a good place for a slap-up breakfast on our way out of Kerikeri, and we’re hungry, thirsty and full of anticipation by the time we get there.
There’s a problem though; the kitchen is snowed under coping with a table of eight, and there will be a 45-minute wait for food. We order tea and contemplate our next move.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 2:Acme. This cup is so heavy that just picking it up constitutes a work-out.
Tea 3:Dilmah English Breakfast teabag. Flat. Disappointing. Like the whole experience really.
Setting 6: On the road into (or out of) Kerikeri, in a spacious board-and-batten building with lots of quirky bits like the tractor and the bike. But a good setting doesn’t make up for lousy tea and no breakfast.
Dog-friendly? Not there long enough to find out.
So what do we do? Push on south, confident we’ll soon find another breakfast stop without a long wait for food. We don’t. “Kawakawa, then,” we say, but there’s nothing doing there either (someone’s cutting down a tree in the main street and all the car parks are blocked). And so we end up at the good-old Towai Tavern, where the service is fast, the breakfast is huge (my beloved eats half mine) and they’ve heard my complaint about a half-full teapot and give me a full pot.
Hot water from a coffee pot on a warming plate is NOT the way to make tea. Especially the first cup of the day.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 3: Standard hotel cup, the sort you’ve had at every conference you’ve ever been to.
Tea 3:Dilmah English breakfast teabag: What would have been a dismal mark, based on the complete lack of understanding of why water for making bog-standard black tea should be HOT, is boosted slightly by the fact at least the teabag is Dilmah.
Setting 5: I’ve stayed here before, and the memories aren’t good – based largely on the fact that back then there was a building site across the road with jackhammers that started long before anyone should be awake. This trip there were no jackhammers, and the stained glass in the reception lifts this budget hotel above the crowd.
Dog friendly: No
Econo Lodge Central City Auckland, 37 Wellesley St West, Auckland.
“Your boy has always loved my turnovers,” says the woman behind the counter at the Miner’s Rest as she bundles an apricot one into a paper bag.
I’m taken-aback. While this place has long been a favourite, thanks to serving what must have been the world’s biggest – and tastiest – sausage rolls (my chaps are as diligent in the Search For The World’s Best Sausage Roll as I am in the Hunt For the Best Cup Of Tea), I’ve never bought a turnover here before.
What’s more, I know The Miner’s Rest has changed hands, and I have never seen this woman before.
Or have I? Eventually I twig that she owns another cafe we used to frequent, and that she used to put apricot turnovers aside for my son, who loved them with a passion boarding on worship.
So it’s sausage rolls off the menu and apricot turnovers on, but what about the tea?
My marks out of 10:
Cup 3: Heavy. Bad shape. Possibly a higher mark than it deserves, but I am blinded by apricot turnovers (did I mention I like them too?).
Tea 5: Twining’s English Breakfast, teabag in a pot. The first cup is weak, but improves with a top-up from the pot.
Setting 6:Hikurangi is an old coal-mining town north of Whangarei, a couple of minutes off State Highway 1. The coal was discovered in 1883 by gumdiggers, and the last mine closed in 1971. The cafe is decorated in homage to the miners, and today Coal Town Traders, a secondhand and antiques shop next door, is open. Bonus – I found a Crown Lynn green bamboo jug like one from my childhood at a bargain price.
Dog-friendly: Jess’ predecessor, Cody, was known to enjoy a bowl of water or two at the Miner’s Rest.
Two years ago, Sky Cafe turned its back on Sri Lankan tea heavyweight Dilmah in favour of a local blend.
And while we’re Dilmah fans from way back (it’s been the principle brew in our house since the early 1990s), there’s no denying that the tea being served in the Sky Cafe is darned good.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 6:Accolade, Southern Hospitality catering ware. Described as chip-resistant, long-lasting and designed for continuous use, it makes sense to use it in a high-traffic place like this. And while it’s not fine-bone fancy, it is a good teacup shape, large, reasonably light (for what it is), and has a lip – all qualities to endear it to the discerning tea-drinker.
Tea 8: Tea Total extra-strength loose-leaf English breakfast. You know you’re in a place that takes tea seriously when the menu bothers to describe the tea as an Assam-broken orange pekoe blend. Tea Total is a New Zealand company based on Auckland’s North Shore. I’ve had their tea once before, an Irish Breakfast at Loretta, in Wellington’s Cuba St, when I described it as having “interesting notes”.
Today, it’s brought to our table by Sky Cafe assistant manager Theresa Reiferschied. An Irish woman who has also lived in Germany for many years, she is the type of woman who takes tea seriously.
“We changed (from Dilmah) a couple of years ago,” she tells me. “I felt we needed something a more, and Tea Total actually took me to their factory and showed me how they blend the tea.”
There are four black teas on the Sky Cafe menu (including, appropriately, because of the volcano that dominates the view out the window, Smooth Rangitoto Blend) as well as green and fruit teas.
My only criticism is that if I had been given a jug of hot water, I could have more than one-and-a-quarter cups.
Setting 7: When you’re 182 metres in the air, the view is, of course, fantastic. It’s a bonus to have a table with a view of Princes Wharf and the sailing ship Tenacious my friend would be joining to sail around Cape Horn.
Dog friendly? No.
*The Sky Tower is the 23rd tallest building in the world. Completed in 1997, it is 328 metres from the ground to the top of the communications mast, and was built as part of the Skycity casino.
Sky Cafe, Level 50, Sky Tower, corner Federal and Victoria Streets, Auckland.
Working life brings me to the Pipitea Campus in downtown Wellington quite often, and the Vic Books cafe, in the refurbished Rutherford House (the old Electricity Corporation HQ) has been the scene of many a meeting. On this day, however, I am alone, eating a breakfast muffin and ready to make another assault on a tea blend that got the better of me last time I was here.
Yes, I was defeated by a pot of tea. I couldn’t drink it all, not because it was insipidly weak (a problem that occurs with frightening regularity) but because it was too strong.
Determined not to be beaten for long though, I’m back with new resolve to master this mystery tea.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 4: Tea-cup shape, but heavy.
Tea7:Ritual loose-leaf organic English breakfast (although the company’s website doesn’t mention such a beast). It was exciting to be trying a new locally (Wellington) blended tea, and difficult to admit, drinking that first cup, that I wasn’t enjoying it. It was strong to the point of bitterness, and by the second cup, undrinkable. This time, I break the habit of a lifetime and ask the woman behind the counter to make it slightly weaker than usual. The tactic works, and the result is a very acceptable morning brew. However, I suspect it can be better, and am putting it on the list of teas to experiment with.
Setting 7: Handy to Parliament, the railway station and lots of government departments. A good spot for mingling with students and power-brokers alike. Slight hipster vibe and a great selection of books.
Dog-friendly? None in evidence.
Vic Books cafe, Victoria University Pipitea campus, 27 Lambton Quay, Wellington.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My marks out of 10?
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.
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.