As you might expect in a region famous for its dairy farming, local cheese makers have established themselves as leaders in New Zealand, winning multiple awards. But the fertile soil and benign climate also means there other artisan producers are also popping up, helped by the proliferation of farmers’ and other gourmet food stores in the area. Top this off with the award-winning brewers and bread makers who have also made the region their home and the thriving café/restaurants scene and you’ve got a foodies’ heaven.
The Hamilton and Waikato region has come to dominate the national cheese awards with their cow, sheep and goats milk cheeses. The 2020 NZ Champions of Cheese Awards saw Meyer Cheese take out the Ignite Colleges Chefs’ Choice for their Mercer Fifty Fifty (a unique blend of cows and sheep’s milk) while well-established Meyer Cheese won the New World Champion of Champions Cheese from a Medium-sized Producer for their Meyer Goat’s Milk Gouda. Their head cheesemaker Geert Meyer has also been named NZ Champion Cheesemaker in 2018 and 2019.
Other popular Waikato cheese producers include Over The Moon Dairy Company from Putaruru, and Hamilton’s Cilantro Cheese, but cheese is not the only dairy-based product the Waikato is becoming known for. Several artisan ice cream makers can be found in throughout the region including Kowhai Creamery and iconic Duck Island Ice cream, known for its imaginative flavour combinations including Roasted White Chocolate & Miso, Fairybread and Blackberry Sage Honey.
Wine lovers can sample the offerings from wineries including Vilagrad in Ohaupo just south of Hamilton (established in 1922 and still family run). Boutique Takapoto Estate can also be found at local restaurants and wine stockists, and grape varieties grown in the region include chardonnay, merlot and gewurztraminer.
The Waikato is more synonymous with micro-breweries and locals breweries include the likes of the award-winning Good George brewery, which offers a variety of beers, ciders and ales all brewed onsite with guided tours available. Other craft brewers and taprooms can be found around the city and the rest of the region including Bootleg Brewery, Brewaucracy and Workshop Brewing Co.
Brews of another nature can also be found on the outskirts of Hamilton at Zealong Tea Estate. The only commercial tea plantation in New Zealand, Zealong grows premium oolong tea and exports its organic teas around the globe. Visitors can experience the Estate by taking a tour, tea tasting or enjoying a high tea overlooking the 1mil tea plants.
If baked goods are your thing then top bakeries such as Volare in Hamilton and Viands Bakery in Kihikihi are worth a visit while if the aroma of fresh coffee is more appealing the Waikato boasts several passionate roasteries including Raglan Roast, Origin and Manuka Bros.
With its excellent growing climate, the Waikato also has a number of orchards and market gardens so the best of fresh produce is never far away including, in season, prized asparagus, strawberries and blueberries. In fact, the Waikato is one of the most prolific berry growing regions in the country with numerous Pick Your Own options and real fruit ice creams to devour at many of the berry farms throughout the region during the summer months.
Farmers’ markets are held every weekend in Hamilton and Cambridge along with a host of other popular markets varying from weekly to monthly and selling foodstuffs as well as crafts, including at Tamahere, Raglan, Pirongia and Tirau. Between them, they showcase a range of locally produced foods including free range meats, small goods, artisan breads and pastries, freshly roasted coffee, honeys and sweet treats.
Everywhere you go, you are likely to find roadside stalls offering the freshest produce, but local eateries, restaurants and gourmet food stores also act as proud advocates for regional products and produce.
The Waikato is one of the nation’s up-and-coming spots for café culture and dining. New developments and laneways in Hamilton’s CBD like Riverbank Lane have created interesting spaces for popular restaurants to flourish, while suburbs like Hamilton East are also seeing a resurgence in gourmet neighbourhood establishments and foodie offerings.
Talented local chefs are making their presence known and Hamilton eateries such as Palate, Bahn Mi Caphe, Gothenburg, Hayes Common and Mr Pickles are earning national acclaim. Cambridge is also becoming a foodie hot spot with a number of funky and interesting cafes, wine bars and restaurants like Alpino, Podium, Pony and Alpha St Kitchen locating themselves in the picturesque township. The other destination to watch in this space is Raglan, out on the west coast of the Waikato region. Offering healthy delicious fare places like The Conscious Kitchen and Ulo’s Kitchen have become local favourites along with tasty main st eateries such as La La Land, The Shack, Orca and Isobar.