There are moments from my life that remain with me with great clarity, no matter how infrequently I access them. One involves a strawberry tart. Back in the day when we could still travel to Europe, my friend and I bought one of these magnificent morsels from the village bakery in a tiny French village called Ouilly. We stowed it in the boot of the Peugeot for later consumption. Inexplicably, we also stowed the car keys and when the boot lid was slammed shut all car doors decided to lock. Responding to our cries of dismay, a cluster of imbibers from the adjacent bar gathered to vie for the honour of being the first to break into the car. A cheer went up when it was eventually achieved and we gave our tart to the winner.
I missed that tart and I never saw one that equalled its mouth-watering memory until recently, when I passed through the small Canterbury town of Amberley.
In the Paris Cafe and Bakery on the main street, rows of French delicacies were lined up in the cabinets – mille-feuilles, chocolate eclairs, croissants, baguettes, gateaux, ans and, at centre stage, shining berry tarts that surpassed the vision of the lost tart of Ouilly.
This sensational cafe, boulangerie and patisserie is owned by Frenchman Sebastien Bresson and his New Zealander wife, Shaan. Sebastien had worked a baker’s dozen years in Paris and Lyon before he and Shaan came to live in Amberley, where he set up a slice of his homeland.
Amberley has a salubrious air. Boutique shopping, cafes and fresh country produce make it a popular stop-over for travellers driving to and from Christchurch.
I could have had a tantalising doughnut from the Kells Kitchen Bakery, or a pear and caramel muffin from the Little Vintage Espresso with a coffee that one local informed me was ‘the best in the country’. And hiding behind an enormous palm tree is the Nor’ Wester Cafe that comes with a glowing reputation for its ample menu.
All of these are on my bucket list for future visits; and so is the family-run Brew Moon Brewing Company in Markham Street that is the oldest craft brewery in Canterbury. In the brewery’s beer garden, home-made pizza is served from a wood-fired oven on the back of a truck. The brightly coloured murals and furniture in the taproom are delightfully innovative and funky, and the whole atmosphere smacks of fun. So do the names of beers such as Mad Monk Russian Imperial Stout and Sour Face Feijoa Gose. Thinking those up must have also caused some merriment. The most popular style is Amberley Pale Ale, although cloudy beers, which are less bitter and more aromatic (such as Dark Side of the Moon), are becoming a trendy taste in craft beers. Close to the brewery is an eye-catching mural covering an expansive brick wall commemorating the First World War.
Amberley’s famous sons
Amberley’s appeal seems to have been there from the start. In 1864, Mrs Frederica Josephine Carter subdivided her vast pastoral run to create a town she named Amberley after a family property in Oxfordshire. Advertisements touted the area as ‘healthy with a view of the sea’.
Affluence did not come to the town until some time later, with the arrival of the railway. Then it flourished and has done ever since. But there must be something more than health and prosperity in the air of Amberley. Many famous people have affiliations with the town. Their biographies add an historical context and are illustrated on a series of plaques along the Hurunui Pathway on Carters Road (the main road through the town).
Closely associated with Amberley was an influential man dubbed ‘Honest George’, a pioneer settler in the area who moved on from farming to become New Zealand’s prime minister.
George William Forbes was reportedly the most widely read man in New Zealand, but better remembered (not always positively) for his leadership during the terrible turmoil of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Amberley claims Charles Hazlitt Upham VC and Bar as one of its most famous heroes. To that end, there is a prominent bronze statue of him dressed in combat gear outside the council building.
The New Zealand soldier’s story is well known. In the Second World War, he won the Victoria Cross twice, once in Crete and then in Egypt. He is one of three people to have ever done so. Charles was born in Christchurch but, when he returned to New Zealand after the war, took up farming near Amberley.
I couldn’t find a statue of Rewi Alley, Amberley’s equally famous son. I did, however, find a small tree and a dedication plaque in Chamberlain Park in the centre of the town. I was disappointed that a man whose achievement for peace and prosperity was so monumental had such an obscure acknowledgement.
His father was the headmaster of the local primary school, which is probably why he had such a strong belief in education. After serving as a stretcher-bearer in the First World War, Rewi came home and farmed in the district until he was 29 years old. Then he spent the next 60 years in China, where he established industrial co-operatives, technical training schools and work opportunities and became an influential advocate for world peace. In China, he was an honoured and much-loved foreigner.
Both he and his brother, Geoffrey Alley OBE, were men of the written word. As well as being widely known as an All Black, Geoffrey was New Zealand’s first national librarian and Rewi wrote many books during his lifetime.
To the beach
Rewi once wrote that Amberley was “a place of continual summer, a golden place”. Summer was not in evidence the day we were there. Clouds hung across the sky like dirty rags and an intermittent drizzle curtailed our exploration. This is probably why I didn’t find Amberley’s wide, gritty beach, about 15km east of the town, particularly alluring.
There is a line of holiday houses and a rudimentary campground close to the shore, which my husband Bill and I agreed would be a good place to spend a quiet night. No doubt the beach is more attractive in summer. I met a woman there who was permanently residing in a colourful old house truck. “Isn’t this place a slice of heaven?” she said. “I come here every year for the whole winter. I love it. Amberley Beach is one of the best places in Canterbury.” In a younger motorhome, the owner was equally enthusiastic about the town. I asked him if he’d come across the berry tarts.“Not sure I have,” he said. “If I buy food in town I go for the fish and chips.” Just shows; there’s no accounting for taste.
More to see in Amberley
- Chamberlain Park in the centre of town is shaded by tall trees. It has an aviary, a playground and a Chinese garden with an oriental footbridge. Cob Cottage, an historic heritage building, has been re-sited in the grounds.
- Amberley Beach Walkway, close to the golf course, is an easy 20-minute walk through lush surroundings and water features.
- Check out Pams Pantry on Carters Road, which isn’t a pantry at all but a new style of supermarket in which 90 percent of the stock is the Pams brand and all checkout is DIY.
- Also on Carter Road is a large and gloriously chaotic store called Mumma T Trading Lounge, which has an absorbing assortment of vintage, antique and collectable treasures.
- Amberley is sometimes referred to as Hurunui’s Pantry, partly because of its reputation for good produce, but also for the wealth of wineries, cellar doors and vineyard cafes of the Waipara Valley nearby. There are around 28 wineries in the area.
- A popular farmers’ market is held every Saturday morning outside the council building on Carters Road.