The region has a reputation for producing New Zealand’s leading cheeses and cheese makers, helped by national awards successes. The most recent was Pukeatua Peak’s Maungatautari Goat Cheese winning the 2010 Champion Artisan Cheese Award. Their passion for cheese is so prominent that they have helped to establish the New Zealand Cheese School, which bases a lot of its courses from the factory. A glass encased cheese-making room enables visitors to see the art unfold and free tastings and demonstrations are available. The cheese makers from Mercer and Meyer Gouda Cheese in north Waikato have drawn on their Dutch heritage to create traditional Gouda-style cheeses. Visit Mercer’s cheese maker Albert Alferink at his retail shop in Mercer or purchase Meyer Gouda cheese from the well-stocked Ghouda Cheese Shop in Hamilton.
Other award-winning cheeses from Cloudy Mountain Cheese in Pirongia and Aroha Organic Goat Cheese near Te Aroha are sold at markets in the region, including the weekly famers’ markets that are now well established in Hamilton & Cambridge and the monthly Tamahere Country Market. Fresh produce sold at the markets includes, during an extended season, the organic blueberries of Monavale, a family-owned business which is the biggest BioGro-certified organic blueberry orchard in New Zealand. Adding to the mix are locally baked breads, honeys and gourmet preserves. Free range bacon and artisan sausages from producers like the eccentrically named “Soggy Bottom” are also for sale (the name is a reference to the farm’s boggy lower paddocks.)
Another local enterprise selling its product at markets is the organic Lane’s End winery, based just outside Hamilton and developed by Rainer Eschenbruch, a scientist with a formidable background in wine research in New Zealand. Also based around Hamilton are Mystery Creek Wines, the boutique Hilltop Wines, and the long established, family-owned Vilagrad Wines, producing chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot gris and other varieties.
Other distinctive food producers have also chosen the region to base themselves in, including Toku Gourmet Foods, a family-owned business in the south of the region which specialises in chutneys, pickles and sauces made from the iconic New Zealand Paua and based on traditional recipes. When it comes to breads, there are several artisan bakers around the region, including Volare with its superb handcrafted sourdough loaves while Herb Haven near Te kauwhata offers bread-making classes, helping visitors bring the aroma of freshly baked breads into their own home. Also in Te Kauwhata, the exclusive New Zealand Eel Processing Company is producing and exporting around 200 tonnes of smoked eel. A European-style delicacy which is cured in traditional wood-burning smoke houses, you can buy the produce direct from their Rata St factory. Keeping it real, while adding a flavour punch, are Frank’s Sausages in Te Aroha who produce a delicious selection of homemade, fresh gourmet sausages made from New Zealand free range pork.
A new player on the scene, and one with a striking difference, is Zealong Tea, just outside Hamilton. Zealong is exporting its locally grown premium oolong tea, making it the first time oolong tea has been commercially grown outside of Asia. A retail centre and cafe - the Camellia Tea House, have been opened amidst the 50ha tea plantation, allowing visitors to learn about the tea as well as taste it for themselves.
Meanwhile, once a year, things take a seriously indigenous twist with the Kawhia Kai Festival. Based at the west coast village of the same name, it is held in February around Waitangi Day and draws thousands to a celebration of Maori food. Visitors can buy the likes of pipi and kamo kamo pickles, chilled kawakawa tea and kooki (shark liver pate).
The food scene is expanding in Hamilton City with its vibrant gathering of gourmet restaurants, cafes, delis and specialty food stores. A relative newcomer, Good George Brewery in Frankton offers an array of award-winning local brews. Other wine and produce specialists are also dotted through the city while the buzzing Hood St precinct offers diners and bar hoppers a wide range of choices for a night out.