When I grew up in Hawke’s Bay, strawberry fields flourished among the bountiful vegetable crops and fruit orchards that grew in the alluvial soils of the Heretaunga Plains.
Along with freshly shelled peas and new potatoes, the hallmark of our Christmas day feast was the summer’s first strawberries that we’d picked ourselves the day before. In Auckland, it hasn’t been so easy to keep this ritual as pick-your-own starts after Christmas Day.
This year, however, I came across a delightful strawberry patch with an attached cafe just north of Auckland where the PYO invitation is open from 1 November until harvesting finishes.
If you are heading up Silverdale way or SH16, it’s worth calling in. In 2006, Fiona and Jason McIntyre decided on a change of pace from city life and bought 60 acres of bare land on the fringe of Auckland. On such a small plot, growing strawberries seemed a good way to earn an income.
Trial and error led them to plant Camarosa strawberries and the large, sweet, ruby-coloured fruit quickly gained a following of devotees. That first year (2007) American singer–songwriter Justin Timberlake sang the berries’ praises while he was touring New Zealand. Ten years later, I tasted one and understood what he meant.
As every berry lover knows, you can do a lot with good strawberries, and in 2012, the couple came up with a lip-smacking strawberry cocktail that sells here and is exported to China. Then in November last year, they developed a site near Waitoki village and opened a delightfully rustic cafe called Passionberry. I heard about this place and one week later, there I was, crouching in strawberry heaven, on a trial run for this Christmas Eve.
It was Sunday afternoon and the cafe was humming. People queued for coffee and enticing counter food—strawberry tarts, cakes, and fresh-fruit ice cream—and strawberries for those who didn’t want to pick their own.
Outside, patrons chatted under red umbrellas and watched their kids crawl over the red tractor that dominates the colourful playground. In one corner of the yard, smoke rose gently from a pizza oven where Jason was rolling out lumps of dough. Along with a savoury selection of pizzas, he also makes a dessert variety with a Nutella and strawberry topping.
“Fiona and I love engaging with travellers and the local community,” he told me. “Selling straight from the field to the customer is very satisfying. We are accountable for every berry and the way it is produced. I think, for instance, that we must be one of the most safety-conscious producers in the country. We spray but we are very careful with the products we use and the timing.”
The Passionberry Cafe was imbued with a spirit of rural generosity and good cheer, and of course, I loved the bright-red berries that brought to mind the image of family and festivity.
Footnote: Open every day. Pizza sold Thursday to Sunday. Picking limited to 25 people a day. Book by phone on 0800 7277466. Address: 15 Forestry Rd, Waitoki, 10km west of Silverdale motorway exit.