Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s le Midi: the south of France.
There’s bohemian bonhomie here. Entrepreneurship but long, languid lunches over which to discuss it. Opportunity to enjoy the finer things in life, and plenty of time to do so with friends and family. Maybe it’s the weather. Or the landscape. Or a flight of fancy conjured up by my imagination.
Fuelling my Francophile fascination, I keep bumping into interesting, eloquent and talented French people living in the Bay and making that living in wine, chocolate, jewellery, furniture making, brocante (that’s French for ‘junk’ – sounds much better, right?!).
The French have landed and they’re a bunch of bon vivants with their joie de vivre and their je ne sais quoi.
We are exotic
Anissa Talbi Dobson is la petite chocolatiere behind Le Petite Chocolat. She is our savant de chocolat, not just in quality or flavour combinations, but in the way she conducts her business – from ensuring ethics in every part of the supply chain to the inspired collaborations she ignites.
Much of what Anissa does is play. She takes her base product, which is boutique couverture shipped in from France and made from single origin cacao beans, then works her magic: adding flavours and textures.
“I’m not obsessed with eating chocolate,” she says. “It’s more the alchemy, the physics and, in a big way, people’s reaction to eating good chocolate. It brings so much happiness.”
Careful to ensure every person involved in making her finished product – 70 gram bars of pure heaven, in twenty flavours – gets a fair deal, Anissa is hypercritical of the mainstream chocolate industry, which she says is built on exploitation.
“Chocolate is a political food,” says Anissa. “I knew from the start if I was going to make chocolate it would be organic and fair trade. You can’t care for the beans if you don’t care for the people who grow them.”
Anissa arrived in 2009. It was coup de foudre and after a few trips home to France and a wedding (she married kiwi Joe Dobson in 2011) she set up shop making her chocolate from the kitchen at Te Awanga Estate winery.
“There’s lots of opportunities here because it’s still very new. France is an old country, everything’s been done before; but here things are exotic, and we are exotic within this environment.”
Collaboration and innovation are constant threads running through Anissa’s work.
So far collaborations have included a chocolate made with Clearview Estate dessert wine, another with Salvare dukkah, one with Hawthorne coffee, and a collaboration on packaging with artist Freeman White.
“There’s so many amazing people around who I want to work with and so many products I want to play with. If we can do something together then why not?”
David Ramonteau orders a short black and a pan au chocolat when I meet him at Ya Bon, the cute French bakery owned by the cute French baker Moise Cerson (see, I told you they were everywhere).
David was born into winemaking: there’s vin in his veins. His family vineyard is in a traditional, orthodox winegrowing area and, as the eldest, David was expected to take over from his father. Instead he left, travelling the world as a wine consultant.
In 2000 he met fellow winemaker Kate Galloway and now lives in Havelock North. As well as making wine under the Alluviale label, together their enfant de l’amour is Dada Wines, a winemaker’s equivalent of the concept album; you can drink it but you won’t get it.
“With Dada I’ve tried to forget everything I’ve learnt about wine, and go back to basics. That’s what life is about: finding your uniqueness and sharing it.”
David says he benefits creatively from being based in Hawke’s Bay. “I get a lot from being here. There’s an amazing artists community, which is something I’d never have access to at home.”
“In France I didn’t have enough freedom to be myself; for people like me, growing up in a very strict culture, it’s hard to extricate yourself. I’m more free here, so New Zealand is very special,” explains David, who does admit there’s parental pressure to return home.
David describes his family home as being geographically similar to Hawke’s Bay with mountains and the sea. But attitude-wise the two places are far apart and David feels a kind of freedom of spirit living here.
“Globally this country is very advanced. The light is very bright and it shines on the people.”
“People who come here, from elsewhere, have to forget about ‘Home’. That gets rid of a lot of luggage. But personally I don’t think I know where home is for me anymore.”
A nice drive along a sunny beach
Marion Courtille emails me from France where she’s on holiday over the summer. She trained as a cabinet maker in a very old, traditional art school in Paris, where she lived for ten years before moving to New Zealand to work for David Trubridge.
“I always wanted to do something that would reflect both my practical and creative sides. David is one of few designers who operates his own production workshop and encourages his staff to engage in research, development and manufacturing as intrinsic parts of the design process.”
Marion also makes her own line of jewellery with leather as the main material.
“I translate traditional methods of woodworking to leather. My objects are turned, carved, laminated and joined like wood to create tactile and innovative forms,” she explains.
I ask her about a particularly ‘French’ aesthetic that is permeating Hawke’s Bay.
“I think we are all inspired by where we are from, what we grew up with, what we have been surrounded by; the richness of Europe’s cultures and traditions … consciously or not.”
Making a home for herself here, Marion enjoys a strong sense of community she feels she didn’t have in France.
“Coming from an often stressful Parisian way of life, I really appreciate the softness of living in Hawke’s Bay. I swapped the métro for a nice drive along the sunny beach to go to work every morning.”
Like a bike
I meet Mehdi Sanssar and Francois Guittenit in Mehdi’s tres chic design store, So Vintage.
Mehdi travels to France multiple times a year to bring back antique, often industrial, furniture and objects. Francois is a cabinet maker who operates Le Workshop and works with Mehdi to make rustic European furniture.
Both Mehdi and Francois agree being in Hawke’s Bay gives them opportunities to enjoy much of what New Zealand as a whole has to offer.
“It’s a bit rural but there’s lots of activity. The climate is good, and there’s great food and wine,” says Francois.
Both Mehdi and Francois, have started their own businesses out of need rather than a particular entrepreneurial bent.
“There’s not a lot of work here, so what do you do? What are your options? Do you work in a job you don’t like or do you do your own thing?” says Mehdi.
For Francois working for himself means having time to enjoy Hawke’s Bay and be with his children.
“In France they work hard for their money and they work long hours. Here, the surfing’s good, and the fishing, and it needs to be a balance between that and working,” he says.
Operating their own businesses is more possible here than in France, where entrepreneurship must contend with bureaucracy.
Francois explains: “France is very competitive and bureaucracy holds up everything; paperwork, documentation. It feels like a big machine and you don’t have enough energy to push it. But here it’s like a bike: You just jump on and go.”