It's 8pm, Saturday, and Al Brown's no-reservations restaurant, Depot, looks, sounds and feels like one of the best nights out in the southern hemisphere. The room is packed and the banter loud. Outside, Auckland's iconic, futuristic Sky City tower looms over a growing queue. Inside, diners crowd around artfully scuffed wooden counters and sip Dog Point sauvignon blanc from Duralex tumblers, while waiters ferry trays of Orongo Bay oysters from the industrial-looking, white-tiled, open kitchen. Celebrity chef Brown signs cookbooks and holds court, a fabulous, generous, expansive bear of a man, and a cheerleader for all things culinary and Kiwi. "This is what we do well," he tells me, offering a plate of turbot sliders. "It's not fancy; it's all about simple, fresh ingredients from our own country."
Depot – with its modish stencilled logo and typewriter-font menu – is a new look for Kiwi cuisine. It also serves as a signpost to some of the freshest reasons to visit New Zealand. The release of The Hobbit this weekend may have returned the country's dramatic landscapes to our cinema screens, but the food available on these shores provides just as good an excuse to come here. It's unpretentious, delivered with disarming warmth and hospitality, and all served with the best coffee in the world. (The flat whites here are peerless; New Zealand is to caffeine what Savile Row is to tailoring.)
I was visiting North Island first, to explore the food scene in Auckland, the country's biggest city, and then planned to travel to the northern edge of South Island, where agriculture has been honed into a major attraction. Given that much of the best food you'll eat in Auckland uses ingredients from the region, I was observing the fashionable adage of "from farm to table", but in reverse.
Auckland is a city that's fast developing a restaurant scene to rival that of Melbourne, its bohemian, trail-blazing foodie neighbour across the Tasman Sea. The menu at Kitchen at the De Brett Hotel, a lovely Deco-styled set-up with Paul Smith-type striped textiles and vintage Scandic furniture, is big on New Zealand produce and has an adventurous approach: kingfish with wasabi panna cotta and cannelloni of Waikanae crab. Next door, the O'Connell Street Bistro has become a favourite long-haul pit stop for the likes of Fergus Henderson from St John. Its merguez sausage risotto with mint and manchego, and Escarpment "Kupe" pinot noir, are the stuff of golden holiday dining memories.
While the bright, citrus-coloured throng of a farmers' market can feel like the pounding heart of a city, it can also be a frustrating place to visit as a tourist: all that glorious produce, nowhere to cook it. In Auckland, there are ways around this. I spent the morning after dinner at Depot with John Panoho from Navigator Tours, a guide who also dabbles in wild clam farming on the Marlborough Sound.
He took me around the French Market in the gentrified Parnell district, where we bought bread and I pondered the possum muffins. We headed to the fish market to find, among other things, whitebait for patties. Made with eggs, flour and lemon juice, it's one of the country's ubiquitous dishes.
"I'd really like to find some Maori potatoes," said John, as we walked around the Oratia Farmers' Market in Waitakere, alerting me to something I never knew existed. "They're organic and heritage and really delicious. Particularly when you make bread with them."
A Maori himself, John is keen to explode stereotypes via the "Maori experiences" that his tour company offers. "There's so much more to the culture than dancing for tourists and sticking your tongue out." As we walked around Oratia, a folk band played, cheese and chorizo were sampled, and flat whites were drunk – or "smashed back" as the Kiwis say. Then we drove to John's house in Titirangi – via the visual drama of Karekare Beach (aka "the one from The Piano") – where he cooked plate after plate of fresh seafood. His wife kept my glass replenished while we all discovered a communal obsession with Downton Abbey. It was the perfect end to a morning's grocery safari.
From Auckland I flew to Nelson, and moved clockwise around the coast of South Island. Nelson's biggest draw is the golden stretch of beaches around Abel Tasman National Park. These are the tourist board icons: deserted sandy coves, bright blue water and dazzling sunshine.
I joined a wine, art and wilderness cruise to Te Pukatea, a sheltered, ravishing, crescent-shaped bay that offers some great swimming and hiking, and sat on the rocks while my captain and guide, Noel Kennedy, cooked mussels and talked me through a wine tasting. Noel is a candid as well as knowledgeable host. Was it true, I asked, that sauvignon blancs have gone down in quality because they're now over produced to keep up with demand?
"Let's put it this way," he said. "It's bloody hard to make a bad sauvignon, but some of the winemakers have really given it a go." With that, we opened a few bottles of what he assured me were excellent local Nelson and Marlborough varieties. Each was crisp, fresh and wonderful.
Our surfside picnic continued on deck as we sailed back towards the city, where I headed for a "trust the chef" evening at the Boat Shed restaurant. While the sun set in streaks of amber and deep cherry across the water, I dined on small plate after small plate of tuna, pork belly, crayfish and duck breast.
After dinner, I spent the night at the Bishop's Suites, a new, all-inclusive, all-suite boutique hotel that's been fashioned out of a historic old church house. It's a little bit Martha Stewart, a little bit high-end antique showroom and a lot World of Interiors. This is rural elegance with an OTT twist and a generous open bar.
The next day, after a lavish breakfast spread and a swim, I wandered around Nelson's open-air market, bought some sheep's milk cheese from the Neudorf Dairy stall and some fresh naan bread and headed to Branford Park to picnic at the precise point that's been designated the geographic "centre of New Zealand".
From there, I drove a couple of hours around the coast to take an afternoon green-shell mussel cruise on the Marlborough Sound. The mussel industry is, apparently, a bigger deal than the vineyards here, and if the quality is anything to go by, it's obvious why. Those blue-shell mussels you see in the supermarket in Europe? They cast them away at the mussel farms in Marlborough to get to the good stuff. The cruise took me out to mussel beds where the harvesting was explained while the biggest, lushest green-lip mussels I'd ever seen circulated the deck, with giant wedges of lemon and glasses of white wine.
At the end of the cruise, I docked at Raetihi Lodge for the night, the kind of waterside hotel that makes you nostalgic for those outdoorsy childhood holidays that might not, in fact, exist outside of rose-tinted fiction – all canoes and larks and cheeky bare feet in the dining room. And for the grown-ups: fresh seafood, remarkable cheese from the dairy directly across the sound and an excellent massage.
Marlborough is a mini wonderland of food and wine. It's New Zealand's verdant fruit basket as well as its only source of indigenous salt, at Lake Grassmere. Offshore you can spear vast kingfish, or spend a more leisurely afternoon with a fishing rod. You could spend a week riesling tasting, staying in the middle of wine country: the Bell Tower is a swanky guest house in the middle of Dog Point winery with great views across the vines.
I toured the area in style, in a BMW with a guide from Marlborough Travel who had grown up in the area. "My first job was as a bird scarer at Cloudy Bay," he told me. "It was low-tech back then. I had a motorbike, an airhorn and a shotgun."
We lunched on mussel chowder and rare beef Thai-style salad in the picturesque garden of Wairau River Wines, and tasted zesty lemon-pressed extra virgin olive oil at the Seresin biodynamic farm and winery. At the Makana chocolate factory I tried a small piece of macadamia butter crunch, and immediately reached for my credit card, buying several boxes of the stuff. We drove past apricot orchards and visited celebrity chef Chris Fortune, cooking – as he does every weekend – at the farmers' market that he runs in Blenheim.
In the evening, I dined at Hans Herzog, the area's fanciest, most romantic restaurant. Herzog and his wife run a high-end boutique winery and moved here from Zurich, along with all the antiques that furnish their restaurant, having run a Michelin-starred restaurant back home. They unfurled their white linen tablecloths in Blenheim and never looked back.
Small and flat enough to cycle around, the hills that mark Marlborough's land boundaries are immediately identifiable as the hazy, dreamy landscape from the Cloudy Bay label – the LVMH-owned winery that has done as much for Marlborough as Peter Jackson has for Queenstown. Of all the wineries in the area, this is the one that people really get their cameras out for. It's the label that kick started the cult of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and if quality has diminished in some quarters, it certainly hasn't here.
The best way to experience it is by booking for the fortnightly Sommelier Experience lunch, hosted in the stark, dramatic, pale-wood and glass Treehouse with a spectacular view across the vineyards. It's an intimate affair for a maximum of 10 guests, where you get to compare – with the tutorage of a Cloudy Bay sommelier – different vintages of a variety while dining on fresh figs and prosciutto, pan-seared mahi mahi, and pork with pomegranate jus.
On my visit, I shared a table with two vintners from a neighbouring winery and four retired Dubliners on holiday. We ate, we drank and we talked about which wines we liked. Then we ate and drank some more.
By the end of the afternoon, every bottle on the table had been drained and everyone felt as if they were the oldest of friends. We might have learnt something from the tastings of Cloudy Bay's champion varieties, but more than that, we'd had a blinding afternoon in great company. And when it comes to food and wine – no matter where you travel to enjoy it – that is the whole point.
Mark C O'Flaherty travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand (020-7930 1662; newzealand.com) and Singapore Airlines (020-8750 2708; singaporeairlines.com) which flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Singapore with onward connections to Auckland. The only direct flights from the UK to Auckland are on Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk) from Heathrow, but many other connections are available on airlines such as Emirates, Malaysia and Thai.
The following tour companies offer bespoke food and wine tours: Marlborough Travel (00 64 3 577 9997; marlboroughtravel.co.nz); Navigator Tours (00 64 9 817 1191; navigatortours.co.nz); Wine, Art & Wilderness (00 64 3 548 5515; wineartandwilderness.co.nz)
The Bell Tower on Dog Point, Blenheim (00 64 3 572 8831; thebelltower.co.nz). Doubles from NZ$500 (£260), B&B.
The Bishop's Suites, Nelson (00 64 3 539 0061; bishopssuites.co.nz). Doubles from NZ$1,725 (£897), full board.
Hotel De Brett, Auckland (00 64 9 925 9000; hoteldebrett.com). Doubles from NZ$300 (£156), B&B.
Raetihi Lodge, Marlborough (00 64 3 573 4300; raetihilodge.co.nz). Doubles from NZ$199 (£104), room only.
Eating and drinking there
Boat Shed, Nelson (00 64 3 546 9783; boatshedcafe.co.nz).
Depot, Auckland (00 64 9 363 7048; eatatdepot.co.nz).
O'Connell Street Bistro, Auckland (00 64 9 377 1884; oconnellstbistro.com).
Cloudy Bay, Blenheim (00 64 3 520 9197; cloudybay.co.nz).
Hans Herzog, Blenheim (00 64 3 572 8770; herzog.co.nz).
Wairau River Wines, near Blenheim (00 64 3 572 9800; wairauriverwines.com).Reuse content