A rock legend, summer frocks and good tea – what else could a girl want?
Tom Petty has been dead just two short months when I hear him playing at Cafe Vessel in Wellington.
I’m still in mourning, and listening to Refugee while waiting for tea and a breakfast smoothie is bitter-sweet.
Vessel is yet another one of those cafes I’ve been to before but haven’t had the you-know-whats to try the tea. But now that I’m a tea reviewer, it’s time to dig deep and do it.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 3: Acme. Not a bad shape, but heavy heavy heavy.
Tea 7: T Leaf T loose-leaf English breakfast. It’s a good strong cup of morning cha, but there’s no hot water for a second cup. The making man tells me they’ve always stocked T Leaf T. “The factory’s in Petone , so they can resupply quickly.”
Setting 6: It’s always pretty cheerful in Vessel, and on this summer’s day Wellington women have got their summer dresses on. Vessel is handy to the railway station and right next door to the Hotel Waterloo, in all it’s faded art deco glory. Having a gaming lounge in the back is an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your leanings.
Open after 3pm? (A new category because of my frustration with all the cafes that close BEFORE afternoon tea-time). Yes.
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.
“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.
A merry tea-drinking Christmas from New Zealand to the people of the north.
It’s more sandcastles than snowmen for us in the Southern Hemisphere, but that doesn’t mean we’re not supping plenty of good hot tea.
In Northland, at the very top of New Zealand, it’s warm and humid, and the air is full of the sounds of birds, insects and kids.
We started the day as we meant to go on – with tea (Dilmah Classic) in bed. Since then we’ve opened presents (mine included a Zealong Tea gift pack and cup and Whittakers Oolong Tea chocolate), eaten platters of tasty things like cake, local cheeses, and cherries from the South Island, walked the dog, and generally lazed about.
When it gets cooler, we’ll have our traditional Christmas dinner of baked ham, new potatoes and salad, and this year I have been persuaded (somehow!) to make a trifle instead of the usual pavlova.
Later, we’ll watch a movie, or maybe go to bed with our new books, but first we’ll have another walk along the beach.
So right about now, if you’re waking up in the Northern Hemisphere to a day that’s cold and dark, have a cup of tea and think of us here in the sun, glad to have survived another year and ready to relax and enjoy ourselves.
And as we say in New Zealand, have a meri Kirihimete,
PS the fabulous cup and saucer in the picture at the top are from the Australian company T2.
English breakfast is the drink of a new generation. Or at least of the young man behind the counter at Plum.
He seems pleased with it.
I am too.
Plum is handy to Forest & Bird’s Wellington office, and has been the scene of several pleasant repasts. But always with coffee, back before I started holding the country’s cafes, bars and restaurants accountable for the swill they served as tea. It just didn’t seem worth ordering tea, because nine times out of 10 it would disappoint.
It turns out that Plum, though, is the one in 10 to delight.
So delightful is it that I try to come back the next morning for breakfast, having given it a big build-up to my colleague Karen. But while the doors are open at 8.10am, we’re told they won’t be ready to serve anyone until 8.30, and that would make us late for work.
That was on November 21. Circumstances continue to conspire to keep me away, but a month on I’m still thinking about that tea.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 1: Coffee cup. No more Mrs Nice-Girl on this; it’s straight to the bottom of the class.
Tea 9: t leaf T loose-leaf English breakfast. Have I ever awarded such a high mark? Yes I have, and it was for the same tea at The Lazy Graze in Eketahuna. On this day, my expectations are low, what with the cup and everything, but wow! Flavours socking me in the mouth and making me want more, just like a good wine does. I need to know what it is, and with the waitress nowhere to be seen, I ask the chap behind the counter. He disappears and returns with the tin, and he is shining like the newly converted. “I have started drinking this too,” he tells me. “English breakfast is what I drink now. And short blacks.”
Setting 7:Cuba St mightn’t be as Bohemian as it once was, but it’s still an interesting place to poke around. Plum is near the bucket fountain, and on this day a three-piece band is playing just outside.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
My marks out of 10?
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).