North Island Bounty
I'm in New Zealand—an isolated country, adrift between the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific, perhaps best known (a bit unfairly) for lamb, Hobbits, and the flying bungee cord—and I'm thinking, I'm not going home. Somehow I will persuade my family to join me, and we will settle down, plant a little fruit orchard, cut out early from work to go surfing, learn what a rugby scrum is…. I have become enchanted, in other words—and it's all because of a place called Matakana.
On my first trip to New Zealand, a year ago, I spent most of my time on the country's South Island. I found plenty of good food and wine there, in places like Blenheim, Picton, and Christchurch, but I also heard people talking with great enthusiasm about the subtropical region of the North Island, located north of Auckland, that has lately become increasingly appreciated for its long growing season, its abundance of seafood, and its laid-back yet active community of growers, winemakers, fishermen, and chefs. I resolved to see that region for myself on my next visit—and here I am.
The gateway to this lush wonderland is the Matakana coast and, specifically, the village of the same name, nestled in the crook of an elbow of land that juts into the Hauraki Gulf about a 45-mile drive from Auckland. This was once the domain of the Maoris, New Zealand's original settlers, who came here by canoe from Polynesia. They lived, roamed, and fought on this landscape, once blanketed by native kauri trees (New Zealand's giants, equivalent to California's redwoods). The first Europeans arrived in the area in 1848, traveling up the coast from Auckland and into the mouth of the Matakana River. Some were British, like most of the colonists in New Zealand, but there were also Belgians, Russians, and Dalmatians, all of whom brought their own crops and foodways with them. The newcomers chopped down most of the ancient kauri trees for timber, clearing the land to make way for dairy farms and orchards.
The matakana coast's alchemic mixture of creative personalities and earthly bounty has turned it into a food lovers' paradise, and the region's gustatory wealth is nowhere more evident than at Matakana's popular weekly farmers' market. The town consists of little more than an excellent bakery, a general store, a restaurant, and a primary school; but every Saturday morning it comes alive with vendors from all over the nearby countryside and their multitudes of customers—thousands in the summer months—from many miles around.
The market is the brainchild of two different but like-minded couples: Christine and Richard Didsbury, commercial developers who live in a modern-day castle on a promontory in Brick Bay and whose interest in supporting their community in a natural and sustainable way led them to help fund the market's development; and Joe Polaischer, an Austrian expatriate who is one of the world's leading experts on permaculture (an agricultural philosophy developed in Australia in the 1970s that supports the development of harmonious ecosystems designed to promote diverse, sustainable, and resilient environments), and his Kiwi wife, Trish Allen. At his farm stand, Polaischer, a sage-looking character in a groovy blue tunic, tells me that he decided to start the market as a means of educating people about the land, as well as providing a place for farmers and other food producers to sell their wares. He also designed the market layout (the concept was inspired by markets Polaischer had seen in Japan), which has the approximate form of a wheel, with concentric rings of stalls made from sustainable timber propped on barrels and backdrops of beautiful photo blow-ups of each vendor at work.
Some 47 local growers and producers share, and take turns selling from, the market's 31 stalls. Raw foodstuffs alternate with cooked specialties. Jeni Quayle and her partner, Greg Fletcher, from Waybyond Organics offer bags of salad—mixtures of whatever Quayle feels like putting together, including sliced radishes, arugula, edible flowers, coriander seeds, lemon basil, and beet greens—and chicken eggs with shells a light shade of turquoise. Across from the Waybyond stand is Phuong Graham, who sells Vietnamese pork buns and pork and prawn summer rolls. Around the bend is Andrew's Organics, where aromatic heads of smoked garlic are a popular item, while not far away Lynne Curry, an esteemed local cook who was asked to make her sweet and savory tarts for the market, is selling golden, fluffy Portuguese passion fruit custard tarts, perfect for breakfast. I devour one in two bites and only just resist buying another.
It doesn't take long for the market crowd to thicken. Men gossip and sip coffee at the picnic tables, while their wives gossip and pick through produce a few steps away. There are tanned teenage boys in sun-bleached T-shirts, retirees in broad straw hats pushing their grandchildren in strollers, and young couples toting wicker baskets filled with shiny red bell peppers; every second person seems to be intently licking a cone topped with a soft purple spiral of blueberry ice cream from the Omaha Blueberries stand. The Mahurangi Ramblers, a four-member band of older gentlemen, have just launched into a kicky rendition of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" when I happen upon Salumeria Fontana Limited, an artisanal sausage shop that gets its meat from pigs raised on the South Island. Sausage maker Greg Scopas, whose father immigrated here from Italy, uses the entire animal, adding no fillings. I order one of the Salumeria's signature sandwiches from Andy Glenn, Greg's assistant. It's a sweet and spicy sausage inside a white bap (roll) dressed with fresh arugula, tomatoes, and red pepper jam—a lighter, farmers' market version of the heavy fried sausage sandwiches you get at street fairs in New York City's Little Italy.