Visiting Prof’[email protected] cafe

A cool breeze fiddled with the ferns and overhanging foliage as I walked a crooked path to commune with Eucalyptus fastigata. The largest - and likely the oldest - eucalyptus tree in New Zealand, the venerable specimen is more commonly known as a brown barrel gum.

The café’s verandah and patio overlook the extensive grounds

Along with other exotic species, it was planted in 1872 to enhance the grounds of Woodlands Estate which, at that time, comprised 98,000 acres of Waikato swampland. For the next 148 years, this substantial Australian immigrant with its shaggy bark and warty swellings, stoically got on with the business of growing while all around changes were occurring on the sweep of land near Gordonton, about 18 minutes’ drive north of Hamilton.

During the tree’s first year of life, the soggy soil that nurtured it - and others - was drained for farmland. A few years later, a lavish kauri homestead was built for Henry Reynolds, the estate’s first manager, who moved in when he was 22. Henry ran a thriving dairy herd on the property and, in 1886, decided to open a butter factory nearby.

Woodlands’ original homestead and current garden

A nautical tattoo on the arm of one of his workers inspired the logo he chose for his company and Anchor Butter became, and still is, one of the most famous brand names in New Zealand. Woodlands Estate has had many owners since then and has seen several ups and downs.

It has been a sheep and beef farm, a public relief camp during the Great Depression, and a sanctuary for 300 recuperating horses returned from the second world war. Fire destroyed the large shearing shed in 1942 and, gradually, the area was carved into smaller blocks of land.

The lounge in the renovated Woodlands homestead

In 1988, the homestead and surrounding seven hectares were bought by the Presbyterian Church, and later by the Waikato District Council to be administered in a trust for the public. Another significant building on the property once belonged to the bowling club in Te Rapa.

In 1996, it was relocated as a café for admirers needing sustenance on visits to the house and garden. Just three years ago, change came again when Kate and Allan Wilson bought the business and began turning the café into an eating place that befits the ambience of the historic estate.

Café owner and self-confessed food snob Kate Wilson

They called it Prof’s @ Woodlands. Running a restaurant was unchartered territory for the couple. Kate is an intellectual property attorney and Allan, an electronics engineer. Luckily, their son Ben is a trained chef and their daughter Rebecca is a skilled manager. “That’s not the way we intended it, but that’s the way it happened,” said Kate.

“And I’m also a mad-keen cook and a confessed food snob. Half of our kitchen at home is more like a laboratory. We love experimenting with food combinations. Everything on the menu at Prof’s is made from scratch in the café kitchen. We are very conscious of dietary considerations, but everything we make also has to be delicious and well presented.”

There is no argument there. I agonised over the lunch menu. In the end, it came down to a struggle between a portobello mushroom stack with interesting vegetables and drizzled with cashew nut aioli; and a salad of raw vegetables, fruit and nuts with tofu or halloumi that was showered with black raspberry vinaigrette. The mushrooms won out.

The dish was delicious, flavoursome and well balanced. The elements at Woodlands - the elegant colonial homestead, the many garden walks, the history, the ancient trees and the particularly good food in the café - make this a place in which to linger. I’ve been past the turnoff to it many times and never called in before. But now that I have, I suspect I will become a regular. 

Win lunch for two at Prof's @Woodlands


Be in to win lunch for two at Prof's @Woodands, to the value of $80.

Click here to enter, before 07th February 2020.

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