Horowhenua is usually the lush countryside I see flashing by on the highway commute north from Wellington, flanked by the Tasman Sea on one side and the rolling Tararua Ranges on the other. I typically whiz through its townships of Ōhau, Levin and Foxton on a beach mission, or for a destination further north.
In late November, Levin was my destination. On a bright Saturday morning, I jumped aboard the Deluxe Tour of the Horowhenua Taste Trail to go behind-the-scenes to sample some of New Zealand’s freshest produce and meet the locals responsible for it.
Armed with an empty hessian Taste Trail bag, my first stop was the Ultimate Egg for a whirlwind introduction to the family-owned farm. With 80,000 free-range chickens spread between a grassy paddock and a large indoor barn, there were plenty of opportunities to hop inside the chicken wire to pet a feathered friend or stay well back, as in the case of my travel mate, Michelle. “I’m terrified of real-life birds,” the keen cook told me.
I didn’t buy the SPCA-approved eggs for sale in the car park but enjoyed the fascinating consumer facts imparted by our host: “Remember, cage-free and free-range eggs are not the same things. Cage-free hens don’t have access to the outdoors, whereas free-range hens roam inside and outside.” Returning to the coach, we were reminded of a handy egg-freshness test: “Put an egg in water: if it sinks, it’s good; if it floats, throw it out.”
Tour host Brendan Duffy, a former chicken farmer and a Horowhenua mayor for 12 years, had plenty of interesting facts. “The Horowhenua is responsible for 15 per cent of New Zealand’s fresh produce, distributed through many of Wellington’s top restaurants and cafés and throughout supermarkets and farmers’ markets within the district.” His favourite refrain of the day followed: “Just remember - Levin is the heart of the Horowhenua, the feel of real New Zealand.”
At Bagrie Dairy Farm, a family-owned, high-tech farm in Waitārere, we were offered the first of four tasting plates on the tour - Artisan Kitchen’s deconstructed vanilla cheesecake with strawberries, pecan crumble and rosemary honey.
I ate mine outdoors, seated at a rustic trestle table that was dressed in white linen and dried flowers, watching a string of squealing kids zoom past me in makeshift train carriages.
Others on the tour swigged freshly brewed Stay Grounded coffee, bought tasty treats such as Kāpiti Kahurangi Creamy Blue and caramelised leek tarts and filled their bags with fresh lettuces and herbs sold onsite from Waikawa Fresh’s market stall.
I chugged down a small cup of Waikawa Fresh’s lettuce soup, nibbled on baker Lisa Brink’s morish Baked Dane crackers then lined up to watch a live milking demonstration in Bagrie’s 54-bale rotary milking shed. A three-minute lesson on churning cream into butter from retired Fonterra executive Barry Mabey wrapped up our second stop of the tour.
Then Taste Trail chair, blueberry farmer and former advertising executive Antony Young, jumped aboard the coach to bid us his goodbyes. “Today, you’ll see and sample foods grown by 13 different producers in some of the country’s best climate and soil,” he said. “I hope you’ll talk to the producers and feel a bit like Charlie Bucket, the kid who won a golden ticket to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.”
With the thrill of sweet treats firmly planted in our minds, we headed north on SH1 to Lewis Farms, New Zealand’s second-largest asparagus grower, also famous for its delicious strawberries.
The opportunities to sample Lewis Farms’ strawberries was mind-boggling. There was strawberry-gin tasting, strawberry jam, strawberry and cream doughnuts, punnets of fresh strawberries - and, my favourite - a taster plate of Lewis Farms’ chargrilled asparagus dressed in a zesty strawberry and coriander salsa.
Samoan seasonal worker and church pastor Toa Tuilapea gave me a tour of the strawberry tunnel house as the heat of the day kicked in. It’s a big operation, he explained. “Fifteen tunnel houses with 7000 hydroponically grown strawberries in each one.”
The party was in full swing at Woodhaven Gardens on Joblins Road. Pacific Island farmworkers decked out in traditional garb were dancing in the forecourt as we boarded a John Deere tractor to explore the farm.
A Tongan women’s group had taken to the stage as we returned, with Pacific songs blasting from a crackling speaker. I lined up for soft-shelled tacos stuffed with fennel, kale, silverbeet and spinach, but ran out of time and headed back to the bus at pace, swigging a sweet shot of Soul Sisters’ Peach + Green Tea Kombucha.
By 6pm, we’d walked the vines of Ōhau Wines, checked out a stand of soft oyster mushrooms grown by Ōhau Gourmet Mushrooms, sampled teriyaki at Turk’s and joined the crowd at Genoese Pesto for a beer and pizza-themed happy hour.
Had a single day touring the Horowhenua’s food producers changed my perception of this small, yet verdant pocket of New Zealand? Undoubtedly, yes. I’ll be back next year for more.
The author travelled courtesy of the Horowhenua Taste Trail Trust Board.
Where to find Horowhenua’s fresh produce this summer
The Horowhenua Taste Trail isn’t the only place to sample the district’s tasty fare. Stock up your pantry by checking out the following stops.
- Lewis Farms is located at 747 SH1, Poroutawhao. Campervaners are welcome to drop in to buy fresh asparagus and strawberries over the summer season.
- Ocean Beach Eatery at Foxton Beach serves dishes made from locally grown produce including Lewis Farms produce.
- Ōhau Market is held every third Saturday of the month in Ōhau Hall, Muhunoa West Road.
- Ōhau Wines, at 6 Bishops Road, offers wine tours and wine tasting, with plenty of room for motorhomes to park.
- Noho Farm on SH1, north of Levin, sells fresh blueberries, blueberry muffins and real fruit ice cream over the summer.
- Sanson Market is held every Sunday morning on the corner of SH1 and
- SH3, Sanson.
Motorhomers can also get along to next year’s Taste Trail, taking the self-drive option. There’s plenty of parking at each stop. You can go at your own pace and start and finish wherever you want.
For more information, check out tastetrail.co.nz
Park up in the Horowhenua
Horowhenua is an excellent motorhome destination, with both Foxton and Levin officially classed as motorhome-friendly towns.
For self-contained motorhomes:
- Horowhenua Events Centre and Showgrounds, Levin
- Parikawau Domain, Ōhau
- Waikawa Campsite, Manakau
- Adventure Park, Levin
For non-self-contained motorhomes:
- Hank Edwards Reserve and Waikawa Beach Foreshore, Waikawa Beach (camping, toilets and outdoor shower).
- Kimberley Reserve, Levin (camping and toilets).