Blueberries have never quite reached the same romantic status as strawberries have. Curly Locks’ heart would not have been won by blueberries and cream unless, of course, the little towhead was aware how much good health is packed into each one of those little purple marbles.
Last month, I ate a hot dog and some fatty fritters at the NZMCA Motorhome, Caravan & Leisure Show in Hamilton and the next morning, I needed to offset the internal carnage with a healthy breakfast.
At Monavale Blueberries, an organic blueberry orchard not far from Cambridge, I found a small rural cafe, inventively called Café Irresistiblue. I sat down to enjoy a wellbeing breakfast of organic tofu scrambled with spinach and blueberry chutney and a glass of reviving organic blueberry juice.
The view from the cafe’s verandah reveals a flat expanse carpeted with blueberry bushes. Last month, they were veiled in pale pink and white blossoms—the promise of a good harvest in two months’ time.
To the left was a modern packing shed and a row of large tunnel houses and further away, the original home of the de Groot and Banks families who collectively still run the orchard. Thirty-three years ago there was nothing.
In 1980, Paul and Mieke de Groot and their children, Marco and Marije, immigrated to New Zealand from Holland hoping to fulfil their dream of owning land. It didn’t happen right away. Paul first worked as a commercial possum hunter and eeler near Warkworth and then as a greenkeeper and landscape gardener.
Then in 1985, he spotted a tiny ad in the NZ Herald for 10 acres of scrubland on the Moanatuatua Plains in the Waikato. Although it was flat, featureless, without access, and covered in manuka, gorse, and blackberry, he bought it.
His decision had the Midas touch. Although clearing the land must have been incredibly hard work, the fertile soil comprised peat.
Initially, the de Groots grew many things and sold them locally but when Paul noticed how blueberries favoured the conditions, he planted the whole 10 acres in bushes. In 1987, the couple began air-freighting fresh, organically certified blueberries to the American market.
Marije Banks sat with me in Café Irresistiblue recounting the story of her family’s company. “In the ‘90s, Kiwis generally hadn’t taken to blueberries,” she explained. “They didn’t know much about them. We spent a lot of time taking them to markets around the place trying to change their perception.”
This obviously worked. The farm has expanded from those initial 10 acres to 40 hectares, and 200 tonnes of organic blueberries are hand-picked four to six times over the fruiting season. The seven tunnel houses extend the season and protect some of the crop from berry unfriendly weather.
“Our biggest export market is now Australia,” Marije said. “But we also sell plenty in New Zealand.” Monavale Blueberries are certified organic and are mostly sold fresh. The company also makes a range of products developed from the berries such as juice, wine, spreads, chutney, and powder.
Then in 2009, Café Irresistiblue opened on the Monavale property. “We saw how people enjoyed coming to the orchard to buy products and thought a cafe would enhance their experience,” Marije said. “It’s very busy in the summer.”
The cafe is a rustic timber building with a wide verandah. The interior walls are hung with large copper sculptures of insects: a praying mantis, geckos, dragonflies, frogs, and a rather too life-like tarantula climbing up the wall behind my back.
Marije and Richard and their son, Oliver, who has just completed a horticultural degree, now run the business with Marco and Kath.
After all the hard work, Marco and Kath can now take time for some leisure. They own an Explorer motorhome and when I visited the cafe, they were away travelling.
The cafe carpark is a POP and when we next go to Cambridge, Bill and I have decided we will stay there in the peace of the countryside so that we can walk in the morning’s fresh air, and, when the cafe opens, tuck into a healthy, blueberry-heavy breakfast.