The Towai Tavern, Towai, Northland

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Tea-time in Towai. The first thing in the Towai Tavern’s favour is that it’s actually open at afternoon tea time.

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.

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The Towai Tavern was a popular stop for train passengers, but the rail fell into disuse after the main road went through, and in 1933 the hotel was moved to its present location on State Highway 1.
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.

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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.

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The Ralls family in 1929.
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.

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Tea and cake in the History Corner.

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.

Prince’s Gate Hotel, Rotorua

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Perfect. Just perfect.

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.

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Prince’s Gate Hotel in the old days.

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

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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.

My marks out of 10?

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 fineunder saucer harbro 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!

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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.

 

Prince’s Gate Hotel, 1057 Arawa St, Rotorua.

 

 

 

Piccolo Cafe, Taupo

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It’s tea, but is it a teacup?

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.

My marks out of 10?

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 tell20170905_134434.jpg 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 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.

Piccolo Cafe, 41 Ruapehu St, Taupo.

 

Stella Cafe, Hokitika

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Tea as weak as the proverbial – and I swear I didn’t put in too much milk.

My mother would say the tea at Stella Cafe, in Hokitika, was as weak as maiden’s water. Which was a shame, because it was to be my last cup on the Coast, and I had high hopes for it.

We were under time pressure; Stella doesn’t open until 8am, and I had to be at the airport at 8.40am.

Nevertheless, when I heard they used loose-leaf tea, my heart soared, and I was glad we decided it was worth squeezing breakfast in before my flight.

My marks out of 10?

CUP 5:– A real teacup! Okay, it’s a pretty basic one, the kind you can buy in bulk at homeware stores, but it is, at least, a cup made for drinking tea from.

TEA 4: Twining’s English breakfast, made with loose-leaf tea. The trouble with the teapots that hold the tea in a little basket just under the lid is that they don’t draw very well. So if you don’t put in a decent amount of tea , the resulting brew is, well, not brewed.

SETTING 7: Comfortable, stylish cafe in downtown Hokitika, plenty of room and good food, and honey, a delicatessen and cheese room to boot. Pity about the tea.

Stella Cafe, 84 Revell St, Hokitika.

DP1 Cafe, Greymouth

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Good gumboot tea.

Lunch-time finds us in Greymouth, getting ready to meet another reporter. “To DP1 Cafe,” said my travelling companion Jen Miller, who has supped in this town before.

It is a good recommendation. DP1 is down near the port, and is doing a steady trade when we roll in.

My marks out of 10?

CUP 1: We’re going backwards here; not only is this a coffee cup and huge, but it has one of those handles you can’t get your finger into.

TEA 7: English breakfast, unknown brand (I did ask). Made in a pot. A good, dp1 signsolid gumboot tea which perfectly complemented the delicious ginger crunch. The collectors’ teaspoon featuring Hawera was a nice touch.

SETTING 6: Nice cafe, lots of room. We have got a table in the sun, but possibly a little chilly further back. Looks like it might be open at night too, and that it might serve alcoholic beverages.

DPI Cafe, 104 Mawhera Quay, Greymouth.