A Visitor’s Tour de Feast
Hastings Distillers Photo: Florence Charvin

“Rhubarb, lemon balm, valerian, pineapple sage, licorice, ladys bedstraw, thyme, tarragon, more sages” … I’m reading off my phone an email outlining the contents of the biodynamic ‘gin garden’ we’re standing in … “In the quarter with the pink rosehip is wormwood, by the woodshed angelica and dandelion, by the rasps: meadowsweet and a bit of bergamot”. 

Yes, gin garden. 

I wanted to begin our roadtrip here to show my companion, Yummyfruit boss Paul Paynter, something he might not have seen before. A tricky thing to offer up to a man who is a fifth-generation orchardist and encyclopaedic in his knowledge of growing food to eat. 

We’re scouting the ultimate ‘visitor tour’ of favourite foodie must-dos: a quick whip around the flavours of the Bay that would leave out-of-towners with a picture of who we are as a growing region. I’m practising my patter on Paul, waxing lyrical about the bounty before us and how it gets distilled into the perfect glass of Yum. 

Paul is talking about dirt. “This is magnificent soil,” he’s all oohs and ahhs. “Things don’t stop growing though, they just explode, there’s too much growth. It’s not defined by the season, here it’ll grow all year round if you keep the frost off.” 

It’s one of those write-home-about-it days in the Bay. Cloudless blue, everything blooming, bees doing their biz. Paul has moved from earth to greenery and is examining each herb up close. 

I bring him back to what they go into. Essentially a cider man, he’s also dabbled in distilling. “Gin is a reflection of time and place, and it moves with the season,” he explains. If that’s the case, gin from this garden will be bright, abundant and memorable. We could plant ourselves here for the day, lay out a picnic, talk flowers, but we’ve still a long way to go and I’ve promised him a gin at the end of it. 

We head off, discussing who we’d be hosting if NZ was open to overseas visitors, and we weren’t stuck with just each other. 

In a ‘normal’ year, Paul gets visited by growers from all over the world. Then he looks them up when he’s in Europe. Giving them a good time here pays rich reward. Growers love meeting other growers, artisan makers, clever creators of all things edible. When he’s overseas Paul gets inspired by new crops, fired up by new harvests, “I come away so refreshed, and want to repay that when people visit here.” 

“I love this sort of thing,” Paul says, as we pull into The Figgery. “The ‘why’ is always very interesting. I get romantic about it, talking to makers.” 

Paul’s impressed by how far you can stretch a fig. “A little bit of the maker’s soul gets put into the products. The genius, the craft, the inspiration.” 

Murray, the maker himself, appears from the workshop. We’re drinking ‘coffig’ on the veranda. 

A master of making the most of his crop – Figgy Rocky Road, fig and hemp pesto, fig protein powder – he’s also erudite on the subject of future-proofing horticulture here. 

“Niche crops that fit small blocks,” is the answer, he says “but it needs coordination.” Paul agrees. We could be growing vanilla here, saffron, walnuts, chestnuts, jackfruit. Some of these have been tried, but without coordination it’s difficult to get supply chains humming. Murray and Paul also discuss rubbish, or by-product as it’s called in hort. 

“Waste stream is an important part of the puzzle,” says Murray as he explains The Figgery’s ‘superfood’ fig powder is made from what’s left over from the fig-molasses-making process. 

Much of this tiki tour is about seeing what people do with the stuff they grow, but we travel through some of our finest growing areas, and there’s much talk about climate and soil, the history of the place, and its future. It’s been a good season for many crops: the warmer the better, up to a point. “The hotter Hawke’s Bay gets the happier I am!” says Murray as we leave him. 

On the drive to Te Mata we travel through idyllic fields with rusted coro sheds, walls of neatly stacked apple wood ready for winter fires, stands of apple trees, a reminder of this land’s heritage. 

Paul and Jess in the biodynamic garden that supplies Hastings Distillers with botanicals 

Paul points out a copse of hefty Louise Bonne of Jersey pears standing alone in a field like a circle of druids. They’re on land his family has owned for over a hundred years. “They were planted in 1908 – or 1910 – depending on who you ask”. By this time next year most of the land around here will be peppered with subdivisions. The pear trees bearing witness to the constant change.

We pass road-side fruit stalls, offering lemons, stone fruit, cherries and berries. We dive into the mushroomery and on to the honey shop. Away across the fields we spy a citrus grove in neat rows and meander our way there – not exactly like bees – but with as much focused intention. Our destination: iceblocks. 

Paul is excited about iceblock making and it’s not long before he’s hinting at combining multiple passions. “Pop a splash of gin in the iceblocks,” he cojoles Judy the Glacier. She’s sticking to her favourites though: Lemon, Lemon and Raspberry, Chocolate and Coconut. There are six flavours on offer at Bradshaws, newly opened just in time for the summer season, with more coming. Paul is poking in the freezer and noseying in the machinery.

“I can’t tell you my secret recipes, Paul!” Judy joshes. Paul, being a Renaissance man, has an iceblock set-up at home. His secret recipe isn’t very secret: a splash of gin.

Out the back of Bradshaws is the citrus grove responsible for providing the juice that goes into the iceblocks, as well as a raft of other products from preserved lemons to hand sanitiser. We sit outside eating iceblocks and looking across the flight path of the honey bee to the back of Arataki. We discuss whether we’re lickers or biters. “Depends on my mood,” surmises Paul.

Like Murray the Fig Man and Paul himself, the Bradshaws have travelled extensively, perusing the full gamut of uses – traditional and contemporary – for their produce. They’re growing oranges, key lime, blood oranges, kawakawa limes, meyer lemons, and pomegranate. And making as many products as possible from the results. They’re also keeping a sharp eye on the climate and adjusting as they go, keeping things small, future-focused.

“We took the grapes out and planted citrus,” explains Wayne, “It’s the nature of climate change: the nature of crops change, the markets change. Nature is always the dictator.”

Wayne echoes Murray’s call to have niche crops on small blocks. “We need to think: what upper end fruit can we grow in Hawke’s Bay on three or four hectares, things you can grow on that which are economical.”

Paul and Wayne survey the grounds like a couple of bucolic country estate overseers, Paul observing, “I love these projects, it takes a masterplan, it takes a vision, and it takes time.”

Time is in short supply now that it’s early afternoon. The iceblock was nice but wine is better. 

By way of the bounty at both Black Barn and Bellatino’s – our most prized purchase Nieuwenhuis Marinated Cloud Goats Cheese, handmade just south of here in Te Hauke and available wherever you’re lucky enough to find it – we arrive at Smith and Sheth, a boutique wine tasting lounge in Havelock’s Porter Hotel. 

In some ways it’s the antithesis of the grass-roots of fig jam and homemade iceblocks; in others it’s their perfect match. Here we show off the other end of the same spectrum of innovation, inspiration and bravery.

Smith and Sheth don’t grow grapes. They’re an oft-misunderstood part of the wine-making process: negotiants. They select parcels of grapes to make fine wines of an exceptional quality under the label Cru. Paul probes Sonja the Sommelier for details of her favourite wine. “I’ve learned to love many grapes, but there’s a deep place in my heart for German Riesling,” she tells him as she pours the bubbles.

“We’ll start with a splash of this, for creative inspiration,” she says, then “Egészségedre!” saluting Paul’s link to Hungary, and her own to the Czech republic. I’m anyone’s after half a glass of sparkling. I drift off into the soft surrounds as Paul and Sonja discuss extended time on the lees and malolactic fermentation. “This isn’t as oxygenated as Bolly,” I hear someone say. “Biscuity, tangerine, ginger, marmalade …” 

I’m just trying to work out how to get a refill without my companions noticing.

Sonja reads the signs and moves us off into the inner sanctums of the oenothéque. As we enter, any misgivings our resident iconoclast may have brought with him dissipate. We sink into chichi leather luxury; take in the selection of hand-blown glasses.

The platter. Photo: Florence Charvin 

In Sonja, Paul has met his match. I lean back and enjoy the show. They are a collective fount of knowledge that includes wine history and heritage, people, varietals and – the all-important – terroir, revealed in a majestic wide-screen short film. Cru, says Sonja, is like an art gallery: “It’s then the job of the curator – in this case Steve Smith – to give an intimate feeling of the style of that artist.” Paul talks about those growers from Europe he’d like to show Hawke’s Bay off to. “This is the place,” he announces. “This is real quid pro quo, they’d love this. The theatre of coming into this den of iniquity, it makes an impression.”

Sonja and Paul discuss the benefits of being in the new world, while I drink the results. Wine is not static, they agree. “We have the ability to explore and be experimental, we’re not held by laws that mean we have to make a certain wine in a certain way.”

This is the perfect place for people to geek out over vino, spark conversations, ask questions, satiate oenological curiosity. Paul and Sonja swap the high-class version of drinking yarns: regions they’ve visited, harvests they’ve worked, vintages they’ve known. The stories come back to climate change. Sonja picks up the earlier thread and links it to wine making.

“Shifting climates are changing varieties, but that’s the beauty of being in the new world, trying new things. It’s good to be confused by it because it’s innovation and it’s moving the art form forward,” concludes Sonja.

Paul’s buzzing by the time we leave. “That totally got me!” he gushes. “It’s been amazing, walking in and not knowing what you’re going to get. This doesn’t exist anywhere else!” He’s left breathless … and upset we’re leaving.

But, despite looping through prime growing areas and chatting artisan food offerings, we haven’t eaten and I’ve promised him a gin to end on.

Past PYO for a punnet and the flower barrow for peonies we arrive at Hastings Distillery on the bo-ho East 200 block of Heretaunga St. Here, the herbal and floral delights of the gin garden where we began our tour star in one of three gins – Albertine, Blossom Parade and East Block 200. 

Putting down roots in Hastings is a deliberate move. “Ruris et Urbis Concordia,” says Kate the Distiller, quoting Hastings’ official motto. “This is a service town for all the primary produce” so it’s fitting to have artisan makers using that produce for products that showcase what the region can do.

With their gin, Kate and partner David, both winemakers, pull everything back to winemaking terms. They’re just as obsessed with terroir as Sonja the Sommelier. Paul and Kate taste and discuss flavour profiles in terms of olfactory libraries, cool climates, freshness, herbal notes, perfume, “rooty and floral”, “savoury and citrus”, “cassia and rose”. 

I arrange the bounty we’ve collected, hungry for our late lunch. Hugo the Mixologist concocts a cocktail from Paul’s own Paynter’s Cider, Kate’s gin, and the orange bitters they make onsite.

“We want to paint a picture of this district with one gin, this country with another,” explains Kate. “The things we grow here are so vibrant, people coming here from Europe are blown away.”

Kate’s interest is alchemy as much as alcohol. She’s as taken with the medicinal properties of the organic, biodynamic, foraged botanicals she uses as with the taste. True to type Paul knows something of this too and agrees that alcohol is the Trojan Horse of delivery systems. They discuss mucosal responses and tinctures. I contemplate whether strawberries and cherries on the platter is overkill.

Once we do settle down to eat, cocktail in one hand, stacked slice of pan de higo in the other, Paul sums up the tour as a wonderful rollick through the food and drink of the region. 

“Authentic, local, reflective of time, place and season,” he takes a sip. “That’s what people want to experience: local people, local produce, local products. It’s hard to pinpoint what we do really well, because there’s so much.”

Photo: Florence Charvin

Gin Cider Cocktail

• Three parts cider (in this case Paynter’s Qyte Plummy)

• One part gin (East Block 200 was used in ours)

• Orange bitters

• Dehydrated orange slice or a twist of orange skin

• Ice

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