Sans travel plans, chef Peta Mathias finds joy exploring her own back yard. Amy Shanks joins her second ever New Zealand Culinary tour, in the first of a four-part online series.

With New Zealand’s borders closed, what is a glamorous gourmet traveller to do? 

When you’re Peta Mathias – the answer is simple; slick on some red lipstick, slip on a colourful outfit, and get back to doing what you do best.

In this case, turning a passion for food and exotic culture into a culinary experience, rarely reserved for Kiwis at home.

Picture a gastronomic adventure – four days, 14 guests, food, wine, cooking and laughter – all in the stunning backdrop of The Farm at Cape Kidnappers.

Consider this is only the second tour Peta has ever hosted in New Zealand, and you’ve got a recipe for something pretty special.

The respected author, chef, broadcaster and self-professed travel addict’s struggle to stay sedentary was a catalyst for the luxury Cape escape.

“When I realised I was going to be stuck [in Auckland], I started contacting friends and organising cooking classes,” Peta said.

“I have an acquaintance who works at Cape Kidnappers and we began floating the idea of a Culinary Tour. I have only done one other in New Zealand and that was with a group of Americans in 2016.”

COVID travel restrictions meant pressing pause on her usual routine – six months in the picturesque French village of Uzès, followed by six months spent writing in Auckland.

Peta’s year was normally devoured by cooking classes, hosted in her Southern French abode, or leading weeks-long culinary tours in delicious locations across the globe.

So, an opportunity to see her up close and personal in New Zealand, saw foodies flock from around the North Island. 

Guest Andrew Barnes, who made the trip from Hamilton to Hawke’s Bay, said a halt on overseas travel forced Kiwis to turn the spotlight on our own country.  

“Traditionally, we have pitched this type of thing at foreign visitors, we have forgotten that we also have the ability to make the most of it,” he said.

“Hawke’s Bay is clearly the fruit bowl of New Zealand and it shows. Pair fantastic food in season, with wines that reflect the terroir and climate of the region and it’s a winning combination.”

An “amateur” cook and avid campaigner for a four-day work week – Andrew added that joining the Culinary Tour was as much about backing local, as it was trying something new.

“One of my arguments for a shorter work week is that people will have more time to get out and put money back into the economy through tourism; making the most of events like this is something we can do to show our support while the borders are closed.”

The four-day, pure luxury getaway covered plenty of ground, taking in Hawke’s Bay’s markets, cooking classes, a cheese workshop, gannet watching at dawn and cycling in the vineyards.

Despite vast experience globe-trotting and guiding gastronomic tours, the task of hosting guests on home turf was somewhat nerve-wracking for Peta.

“Having a group of New Zealanders in New Zealand is something very different for me and I did feel a bit nervous, but it all went really smoothly. Half of the success was having such a fabulous luxury lodge,” she said.

“I actually found it much easier, because people were more relaxed – they weren’t exhausted, they didn’t have Bombay bottom – it was easy to be in the one place.”

When working overseas, Peta immerses herself in the flavours and fashion of the region, whether it be Vietnam, Morocco, Spain, Italy or India.

Naturally, there had to be an element of our own culinary culture on this home tour.

“James [Head Chef at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers] took a class on modern New Zealand cuisine, incorporating ingredients like Kawakawa, my class was all Southern French.”

During her cooking demonstration, Peta swept through the kitchen in a flurry of colour, whipping up Southern French fare, peppered with plenty of personality.

With an expressive wave of the hand, and a cheeky smile, she told signature stories, including the tale of chocolate mousse being accidentally invented, after a drunken mistake.

But perhaps the most important lesson from Peta – not to take cooking too seriously (sipping wine is fine), add colour, don’t be afraid of flavour – and always remember to season.

“The most important spices in your kitchen are salt and pepper, if your meal tastes bland, it’s because you’ve not used your salt and pepper correctly.”

Photos: Florence Charvin

* This is the first in a four-part online series – next we discuss Peta’s food philosophy and how she splits her time between Auckland and the South of France.

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