The first customers are beginning to filter into the Matakana Farmers’ Market, and there is an air of bustle, of expectancy among the stallholders – it is the first weekend of the school holidays and the gravel courtyard will soon be packed, despite patches of rain and a biting southerly.
With swift efficiency, beekeeper Roger Alexander stacks jars of deep chestnut-coloured manuka honey and boxes of honeycomb. Nearby tables sprout jar pyramids, every sort of bread, bottles on parade, lines of tasting plates, free-range chicken eggs, tiny freckled quail eggs, duck eggs the colour of porcelain, brown paper bags of persimmons, heads of fennel, buckets of watercress and bottles of apple juice the colour of dusk. Baby parsnips and carrots glow in the rain.
Garlic growers, pickle preservers, bakers, spring roll and whitebait fritter makers, mustard makers, a coffee roaster, nut-butter grinder, pie-maker, chocolatier, potato grower, cheese churner and fruit wine fermenter greet early-bird shoppers like old friends, despite cold hands, wet backs.
Silvana’s stall is at the far end of the market, by the river. Her rain-splattered A4 laser-printed paper signs speak of Sicily – or at least, to my mind, The Sopranos.
Silvana, say these signs, takes no culinary short cuts. The ricotta and pesto in her involtini di melanzane con ricotta (grilled eggplant slices rolled and filled with ricotta, rocket and pesto) is homemade, and so is the egg pasta in her fettucini. Look at those arancini – stout, conical rice balls filled with pork sausage and mozzarella. And the famous sweet pastry labelled “Sicilian Cannoli” – so tricky to get right. By 8.30am, a stream of unabashed cannoli fans are beginning to crowd around Silvana’s stall. “Two cannoli please.” “A cannoli, please.”
I think I’d better try one, and behold: crunchy, flaky, crisp, creamy perfection. The recipe, I learn, comes from a Silvestro cousin, a pastry cook in Rome.
The market is soon filled with adults in black puffer jackets scoffing things off paper plates. Children in Trelise Cooper and sequin sneakers would rather chase each other, squeal or hide under chairs, before the sizzling sounds and market aromas make them stop and wonder: what is for breakfast?
Well, there are fennel sausage buns, prawn tacos, snapper burgers, rhubarb and tamarillo crêpes, Vietnamese spring rolls, bacon buns, or croque-monsieurs to go? The aroma from a bacon-tasting stall wafts over grumbling tummies in a lengthening ATM queue – 14 people long by the time I leave – outside the market.
Next to the entrance, I hear a soft whirring sound. It’s Father Christmas sharpening a wicked-looking knife on an electric wheel. The Santa lookalike turns out to be affable ex-chef Michael Bernard, a Snells Beach mobile knife-sharpener selling recycled knives. “Do you do machetes?” asks a customer, uncertainly. “I do anything!” says the jovial Bernard.
“I just love sharpening knives,” he tells me. “You take a blunt knife and make it sharp. People are happy.”
Then he says, unexpectedly, “I’m still learning.”
Next to the Farmers’ Market is the Matakana Indie Craft Market, a barn-like building filled with vintage ceramics, luggage and handbags. But I’m drawn to the exotic shell stall, decorated with a couple of alarmed-looking porcupine fish. Norman and Beryl Potter are a pair of energetic seniors who know a lot about sea shells.
In five minutes, I learn the difference between a turban shell and a cone shell, and how to sex a horned helmet. I totter from the building with four lettered cones, a pink subtidal cockle and a spiky rose murex, resisting the lure of a bunch of purple barnacles for $15. Later, I curse my own stinginess. Never mind! Norman and Beryl can service your barnacle addiction anytime, anywhere – their sustainably sourced shells are available online (www.shells.co.nz).
Back on the main street of Matakana, we walk to our car past the growing line of late-model Mitsis, Beamers and Audis and one Porsche; my Matakana Farmers’ Market bag is bulging with jalapeño schiacciata bread, nut butters, crushed pea guacamole, honey and Lorraine North’s fine Windfall Foods jams and pickles.
Exquisitely dressed visitors, who would once have been derided as “townies” in a place like this, clutch tiny, baffled-looking dogs as they jump across the rain-filled ditches. The narrow sidewalk is a quaint remnant of Matakana’s past life as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it farming hamlet. The stroller-wide streak of elderly concrete, when added to the muddy grass, makes polite pedestrian traffic jams inevitable.
Handbag-sized dogs are a common sight here. Old-time cockies must be rolling in their graves at this invasion of canines smaller than cowpats. Dressed in handmade vests, they look as whiskery and doleful as a plague of pint-sized Edwardian bankers.
Our car is parked next to an elderly wooden building with few straight lines. The Village Butchery is another remnant of Matakana’s past life. (“Lamb leg roasts, $13.99kg. Sausage of the day, $11.99kg.”) It is busy, apparently unperturbed by that fancy new Nosh Food Market down the road.
The clouds are clearing, and we take the road over the hills to the Brick Bay Sculpture trail, where we burn off the cannoli by wandering through landscaped grounds, taking pictures of the supremely Instagrammable sculptures.
Afterwards we mooch over to the idyllic bay at Sandspit. There is a marina there, once opposed by locals, although when a young chef called Justin Kingston heard about it he decided it might be a good idea to buy the unpretentious cafe next to the Kawau Island ferry ticket office. “It went for a song.”
Kingston has a deep laugh and energy to burn, whirling around his tables adroitly serving the seafood – prawns, fish and chips, and chowder – he seems to have magicked in minutes, alone in his kitchen.
As we sit at his table in a struggling winter sun, the tide surges into the bay around us. A shag shuffles past the window, appropriately enough: Kawau Island, visible in the distance, is a general term for “shag” in Maori.
On the road past Sandspit is Brick Bay Drive, a once-controversial subdivision with incredible views of the coast. It leads down to the tiny, pretty beach at Brick Bay. Decades ago, a kauri grove made way for these houses, despite the opposition of environmental groups.
The Matakana region is getting busier, and new subdivisions keep marching across once-secluded hills and beaches. But the ingenuity and hard work of locals like Silvana Silvestro, Lorraine North, Roger Alexander, Justin Kingston, the Potters and Michael Bernard, among many others, bring the hills to life.
WHAT TO DO
Heron’s flight winery
This family-owned winery is the only New Zealand vineyard to grow Italian grape varieties sangiovese and dolcetto. Having planted their first vine here in 1987, owners David Hoskins and Mary Evans make a great introduction, not just to their own delicious wines, but also to the Matakana region.
49 Sharp Rd, ph (09) 950-6643, heronsflight.co.nz
Looking for a place to walk off all that food you ate at the Farmers’ Market? There are three reserves within 20 minutes’ drive of Matakana Village. Check out the comprehensive Auckland Council website, under Regional Parks, for directions and track information.
Mahurangi Regional Park
The reserve consists of three peninsulas at the mouth of the Mahurangi Harbour, one accessible only by boat. But you can drive to Mahurangi West’s Otarawao (aka Sullivans) Bay, a safe, white-sand swimming beach with enough shade for a summer picnic. The track up to Tungutu Point is worth the climb, with its panoramic views of the Hauraki Gulf islands. If you’re feeling frisky, keep walking... the 2km loop track will take you past a lovely beach and camping ground at Mita Bay (which you cannot get to by car).
Scandrett Regional Park
The north-east tip of the Mahurangi Peninsula, Scandrett Park is a working farm with swimming beaches, glorious views, rocky headlands and forest extending down to the shore – plus two headland Maori pa sites, a restored 19th-century homestead and farm buildings. Walk to the pa site at Mullet Point for views best described by its Maori name, Purahurawai: “the expansive, sparkling waters”.
Tawharanui Regional Park
Down the long and winding gravel road at the end of the Tawharanui Peninsula lies this 588ha “open sanctuary”, home to some of the best beaches in the country. Tawharanui’s predator-proof fence makes it ideal for bird watching; look out for saddlebacks, bellbirds and North Island robins. Dogs not allowed.
What better way to see the reefs and sea life that live in this incredible marine reserve than from a glass-bottom boat (especially in winter)? Multiple 45-minute trips depart daily from the beach at Goat Island Marine Reserve. Bookings can be made online, or on the beach. www.glassbottomboat.co.nz
PLACES TO STAY
Sandspit Holiday Park
An old-fashioned family campground with kayaks and a lending library thrown in. Cute, self-contained cabins, and some of them are right on the beach. Prices range from $70-$120 per night.
Auckland council Regional Park Baches
Mahurangi, Tawharanui and Scandrett Regional Parks all have baches and cottages in gorgeous locations, often beachfront. Check Auckland Council’s website under Regional parks/Bookable facilities/Bach. Popular in summer, so book ahead.
Matakana Castle B&B
A luxury Art Deco-style B&B five minutes from Matakana Village on a gorgeous chunk of Tawharanui Peninsula. Winter rates range from $360 per night for the suite with sea views, to $255 per night (double/twin) for the other well-appointed rooms. The price includes a gourmet breakfast, a glass of local wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Ph (09) 422-9656 or 027 200-2801,
The Cottages Matakana
Two self-contained cottages nestled in Scotts Landing bush, 20 minutes from Matakana with views of Mahurangi Harbour. Each cottage has its own cute spa-bath house in the bush. $250 per night.
Ph (09) 425-6684, thecottagesmatakana.co.nz
PLACES TO EAT
Morris & James Pottery and café
A huge working pottery and gallery, with a very good cafe serving sumptuous breakfasts and lunches in a courtyard with a tiled fountain. Children are well catered for here, and so are the thirsty: it’s fully licensed. Open daily, 9am-4pm.
48 Tongue Farm Rd, ph (09) 422-7484, thepotterycafe.co.nz
Leigh fish and chip restaurant
There can’t be too many chip shops doing a nice line in coffee and treats like chocolate brownies and gluten-free orange-almond cake. And the tables have views out to sea. Snapper, gurnard or tarakihi is supplied by local Leigh Fisheries, and the kitchen also runs to salt and pepper squid. Open daily.
18 Cumberland St, Leigh, ph (09) 422-6035
Take it slow on the last leg to Matakana: the so-called “Collectables Trail” from Warkworth to Matakana passes by several eclectic stores, including Old School Inc, which stocks up-cycled furniture, vintage homewares and art. We loved the Wonki Ware ceramics (hurrah! a seconds shelf); also the furniture, wallpaper and ravishing handmade chandeliers we wish we could afford at Mooi Mooi. Another interesting design store on this road is the vintage-inspired Green with Envy, next door to The Kiosk, a very good, very diminutive coffee bar.