Napier, on New Zealand’s north island, is a city that rose from the rumblings of disaster. Today, that same resilience and taste for reinvention is still alive and kicking, and nowhere more so than among the region’s bevy of food producers, as Karen Fittall discovers.
Karen Fittall

10 May 2013 - 1:50 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

New Zealand. Land of the long white cloud, the world’s best rugby team and the original recipe for pavlova (indulge me – I’m a Kiwi). It’s also laden with breathtaking scenery, film crews making movies about hobbits and some of the finest lamb chops you’ll ever taste.

But perhaps not as well known is that New Zealand is also home to a world-renowned architectural treasure, one that gives lovers of art deco the chance to salivate. Drool, even. And for good reason: it’s not just one glorious building, there’s a city full of them.

“And that’s why Napier is the art deco capital of the world,” explains Tony Mairs, an expert in all things local and a tour guide with the city’s Art Deco Trust, as he expertly navigates the stick shift transmission of the shiny American Packard we’re travelling in. Nestled on the lip of a large, semi-circular bay on the east coast of the country’s North Island, Napier seems unlikely as the obvious setting for what experts have described as the world’s most complete collection of art deco buildings, a style nurtured far, far away on the other side of the globe back in the 1920s through to the ’40s. But there’s a good explanation for the anomaly, and it’s all down to something else that, sadly, New Zealand has become known for: an earthquake.

“It struck at 10.47am on February 3rd, 1931,” says Tony. “And it was massive – 7.8 on the Richter scale. More than 250 people were killed in the region, and bar a handful of buildings, Napier was flattened because what the quake didn’t destroy, the resulting fires did.”

But the earthquake gave things back, too. It thrust the land more than two metres skyward and out of the sea, joining the mainland to an island off the coast to create about 3400 hectares of new land. With more space to play with, the city decided to rebuild, and doing it in art deco was the obvious choice. “It was the style of the day and, being modern and exciting, offered the locals a new beginning. They deserved that. But it was also an incredibly strong method of construction which they didn’t just deserve, they needed.”

Today, there are 140 proudly preserved art deco-era buildings still standing in Napier, with dozens more lining the city’s suburban outskirts. It looks like a film set, with house after house in street after street displaying the same retro style.

But raising what would one day become heritage-listed buildings wasn’t the only thing the land fashioned by a disaster was good for. It was fertile. So more than 80 years later, Napier and the wider Hawke’s Bay, is regarded as New Zealand’s food bowl. It’s a unique region where boutique producers flourish, many of them having followed Napier’s lead by forging their own new beginnings to do it.

I meet one of them in a white, tunnel-shaped greenhouse. The ground is covered with a multi-coloured patchwork of what look like seedlings, but are nearly ready to harvest. “Tell me what that tastes like,” says Clyde Potter, pushing a pinch of small leaves into my fingers. I can’t quite put my tongue on the flavour, but when Clyde names it as radish, it’s obvious, and is a fitting introduction to the micro salad crops he’s known for around these parts. Starting his business, Epicurean Supplies, “by accident” 18 years ago, Clyde was farm manager at Weleda NZ, the local branch of the international herbal medicine manufacturer, before that. “And then chefs started coming in and asking me for herbs. I knew there was something in it.” Ever since, Clyde has been growing micro and macro salads, fresh herbs and unusual produce on his 16 hectares of farmland just outside Hastings, south-west of Napier.

When he started, it was the rare cavolo nero, or black cabbage, that caught his eye. “And now everyone’s growing it, so it’s become a mainstream crop. I like to find nooks and crannies that haven’t been explored, because I love diversity. It’s just a matter of being able to grow things in large enough quantities to make them profitable.” As well as Clyde’s bread and butter crops like artichokes and celeriac, micro salads and Florence fennel, he always has a number of projects on the boil under his fertile soil. “I’m doing a bit of an experiment with garlic at the moment. And after years of trying, I recently discovered the secret to germinating salsify. They might be commercially viable one day, but the main reason I do it is because I love it.”

At another cluster of greenhouses just a few kilometres away, it’s a similar story. A sea of tall green plants is heavy with 18 varieties of capsicums and chillies, fiery little numbers that Anne Prescott tends to and turns into relishes, sauces, pickles and pastes. Buying the Orcona Chillis ‘n Peppers business in 2005, back then, Anne knew nothing about growing chillies. “But I could make a mean relish,” she says.

Today, Anne sells 50 per cent of her yield as fresh produce, turning the other half into at least 18 types of bottled and jarred hotness, all of which she makes herself. “In the summer, I’m flat out making relishes, and during winter, I switch to sauces.” And then there’s the sweet smoked paprika flakes, which are delicious and addictive. “The taste is thanks to the Manuka wood chips we smoke the peppers with, which is a renewable, native timber,” says Anne. “Of course you can buy paprika in powder form, but we’re proud to be the only producers of an actual flake product in New Zealand.”

Pride is what’s behind another local product, perhaps in spite of its name. “Try an Ugly,” says Geoff Crawford, the owner of Telegraph Hill, which was the country’s first producer of commercial table olives when it began in 2001, operating out of a garden shed on the grove. The ‘Ugly’ that Geoff’s holding is a dried, slightly shrivelled olive with an intense salty flavour that’s definitely moreish if you’re a saline fiend.

As the largest producer of New Zealand-grown table olives, Geoff says it all began with a thought that someone needed to do better when it came to edible olives. “So we decided to move into olive products, rather than just oil, partly because I liked eating them, but also because it meant we’d be more than just a grower, sending olives off to be pressed and never seeing them again.” Instead, barrels of marinating olives sit naturally fermenting in Telegraph Hill’s warehouse, sometimes for as long as eight months and always with the stone intact, which produces a superior flavour. Geoff hands out masala semi-dried olives next, which, with a taste hit of India, is the latest product to emerge from the 25 tonnes of olive goods that Telegraph Hill produces each year.

They’re impressive statistics, which is something Hawke’s Bay’s only local cheesery can also dish up. Out at Hohepa Farm, it takes more than 128,000 litres of organic milk to produce the 16,000kg of cheese they churn out annually. All of that milk comes from the biodynamic farm’s own cows and much of the cheese – everything from mozzarella to feta – is handmade, the traditional way.

But, while Hohepa Farm’s cheese has been quietly stockpiling awards since it entered its first competition five years ago, it was never meant to be a commercial enterprise. As part of Hohepa Homes, a foundation established to support people living with intellectual disabilities, the cheesery was originally only intended to supply Hohepa’s community of residents.

“Food is such an important part of therapy from a nutrition point of view,” says farm manager, Grant Hughes. “But the farm came first, originally built as a place where residents could get involved in farming activities. And out of the farm, we naturally had cows for milking. So we began making cheese.”

Now employing two fulltime cheesemakers and producing enough to stock the farm’s onsite shop, as well as two outlets in Auckland and Wellington, and a weekly farmers’ market stall after locals fell in love with Hohepa cheese, the cheesery and neighbouring farm continues to offer valuable and rare learning opportunities to the foundation’s residents. And, even in a part of New Zealand built on dreams and fresh starts, surely that’s the best kind of new beginning there is.

The hit list

A weekend in Hawke’s Bay takes in two farmers’ markets: Napier Urban Street Market, and New Zealand’s oldest, the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market. Treat your tastebuds at the Hawke’s Bay market with Orcona Chillis ‘n Peppers sauces or some of Epicurean Supplies’ fresh veg. Napier Urban Street Market, Lower Emerson St; Sat, 9am-1pm. Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market, Kenilworth Rd, Hastings; Sun,8.30am-12.30pm.

To sample some Hohepa Cheese, head to the cheesery’s onsite shop. 363 Main Rd, Clive, +646 870 0426,

Telegraph Hill’s full range of products is available at their olivery. 1279 Howard St, Hastings, +646 878 4460,

Black Barn Luxury Retreats have 14 beautiful properties, dotted around Hawke’s Bay. Each property could be your dream house. +646 877 7985,

Terrôir Restaurant, where the food is part French bistro, part wood-fired fare, is open for lunch and dinner several days a week, depending on the season. 253 Waimarama Rd, Havelock North,
+646 873 0143,

Explore Napier’s art deco heritage on one of the many walks and tours available. Or, take yourself on a self-guided walk or driving tour – maps are available from Napier’s Art Deco Trust. Napier revisits its art deco roots in February each year, with the GEON Art Deco Weekend, which features more than 200 events. This year, the event runs from 14-17 Feb. Contact the Art Deco Trust for more information. 163 Tennyson St, Napier, +646 835 0022,