virtuoso global December 2019 5 Flavors of Auckland

5 Flavors of Auckland

Happy-hour vibes at Mudbrick Restaurant and Vineyard on Waiheke Island.
Happy-hour vibes at Mudbrick Restaurant and Vineyard on Waiheke Island.
From fresh oysters to ice cream-turned-art, this New Zealand hub sets the table with style.
Set between two bustling harbors with miles of Pacific Ocean on the horizon, Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, is one of the country’s hottest urban destinations. And the city’s rich culinary character gives visitors even more reason to linger.

Here, mainstay local ingredients include seafood, lamb, dairy, and produce, with cultural influences from around the world, due to the city’s thriving immigrant population. Against this backdrop, Aucklanders keep things fresh with an unpretentious attitude and a casual dining-out scene.

Here, five hands-on culinary activities provide an immersive – and tasty – perspective on what makes Auckland cuisine stand out.
Auckland’s waterfront location means top-tier seafood dining.
Auckland’s waterfront location means top-tier seafood dining.
Photo by Getty Images

Shuck Oysters in Mahurangi Harbour

Auckland’s plump Mahurangi oysters inspire near-religious devotion among locals, who talk up their quality (these oysters are harvested in some of the cleanest water in the world) and creamy, buttery flavor. A scenic boat ride north of the city to Mahurangi Harbour, travelers can visit oyster farms to learn about these prized bivalves and shuck their own.
 
On a recent trip, Virtuoso travel advisor John Stewart Bowerman enjoyed banter with oyster farmers as they showed guests how they cultivate and harvest the shellfish. Then came the highlight: shucking and tasting dozens, both au naturel and with mignonette sauce, a squeeze of lemon, or a dash of Tabasco. “It will never feel as good as this to work for what you’re eating,” Bowerman says­. “You can’t get more ocean-to-table than oysters straight from the bed.” Pairing them with a glass of crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc completes the experience.
Open-air oysters never tasted so good.
Open-air oysters never tasted so good.
Photo by Mahurangi Oysters and Tourism New Zealand

Make Your Own Gin at Waiheke Island

Kiwis’ focus isn’t only on food, as evidenced by Auckland’s burgeoning small-batch-gin culture. A 40-minute ferry ride from downtown, Waiheke Island is home to more than 20 wineries and vineyards, and The Botanical Distillery, where founders Helen Elscot and Jill Mulvaney offer a gin-and-tonic distilling and tasting experience.

In this group activity, guests crush, smell, mix, and taste their way through 12 herbal ingredients – plus surprise “wildcard” ingredients – to create a custom gin. While G&T connoisseurs may know that juniper berries are a key gin ingredient, guests might be surprised at the rest of the lineup, which includes botanicals such as angelica, orris root, coriander, cardamom, and even licorice. Throughout the process, questions are welcome (Elscot uses nature-based medicines and foods in her work as a medical herbalist, while Mulvaney, a distillation expert, regularly gives talks on aromatherapy). Afterward, the freshly minted gin-makers taste their new concoction and take home a liter of their artisan spirit.
G&Ts aren’t the only drink on Waiheke Island – the verdant city escape is covered in vineyards (and winetasting rooms).
G&Ts aren’t the only drink on Waiheke Island – the verdant city escape is covered in vineyards (and winetasting rooms).

Prepare a Garden-to-Table Meal in an Artisan Garden

Elsewhere on Waiheke Island, the two-acre Sacred Blessing Sanctuary Gardens sets the scene with multiple plant species (camelias, tropical rhododendrons, ferns, roses, and more) for a garden-to-plate food experience with food writer and Le Cordon Bleu ambassador Julie Biuso. First, guests sample local bites to whet the appetite: Expect lavender honeys, fruity olive oils, cured meats, and handmade chocolates.
 
Then the group heads to the gardens to pick vegetables, herbs, and fruits to prepare a collective meal. Biuso’s menu varies with the seasons, but might include, for example, a peppery mixed-leaf salad with slow-roasted yellow peppers to start, hot-smoked salmon with cucumber and dill as a main, and a strawberry tart with crème fraîche for dessert. “This will likely be the most memorable meal of your New Zealand vacation,” travel advisor Nancy Cushing says.

Take an Ice Cream Master Class Downtown

Ice cream becomes an art form at Giapo, a parlor in downtown Auckland founded by chef Gianpaolo Grazioli, who proves that this beloved dessert can be both delicious and innovative. Take the shop’s popular “Colossal Squid” cone, which resembles the namesake seafood (but doesn’t actually contain it): It commemorates the largest colossal squid ever recorded, permanently on display at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. His ice cream – including gluten-free, vegan, halal, and kosher iterations, and wearable ice cream cones and rings – and his quirky, engaging personality have fans lining up around the block.
Giapo’s seasonal Blackberry and Marine Rosso sorbet, Annarosa Grazioli with the Colossal Squid, and the Italian-inspired Giapo Buono with caramel ice cream, amaretti crumbs, and hazelnut pralines. 
Giapo’s seasonal Blackberry and Marine Rosso sorbet, Annarosa Grazioli with the Colossal Squid, and the Italian-inspired Giapo Buono with caramel ice cream, amaretti crumbs, and hazelnut pralines. 
Photo by Giapo
To get closer to Grazioli’s genius, try his 90-minute master class. As music plays (Grazioli believes the right rhythms make the ice cream creamier and more flavorful), participants collaborate to make one of his off-beat flavors, from the famous “hokey pokey” (fresh cream and house-made crunchy honeycomb toffee) to the vegan, gluten-free coconut-cookie.
 
“The group will mix, scrape, and taste their way toward becoming experienced ice cream makers,” Virtuoso advisor Melissa Gallant says. “New Zealand has exceptional dairy products as a result of its clean environment and cows grazing year-round on outdoor pastures.”

Taste Wine in Kumeu and Matakana

For wine lovers, Auckland means access to wine country. The Kumeu and Matakana regions contain several microclimates, making them an ideal place to produce world-class chardonnay and Bordeaux-style red blends.
Roughly 16 miles west of the city, Kumeu is New Zealand’s oldest wine-producing area known for its pinot gris, merlot, and syrah grapes. Boutique, family-run wineries flourish here, such as Kumeu River, owned by the Brajkovich family, who produce internationally acclaimed chardonnays. At these small establishments, winemakers and owners may host tastings and even take guests on vineyard tours. Don’t leave Kumeu without visiting its black-sand beaches, prime for surfing, and listening to live music during a meal at The Riverhead, the country’s oldest tavern, established in 1857.

Matakana, a 41-mile scenic drive north of Auckland along the east coast, is another easy half-day wine excursion. Visit on a Saturday, when the Matakana Village Farmers’ Market fills with vendors (open 8 am to 1 pm) and family-run wineries open their doors. The region, popular with locals for its beaches and arts scene, produces red and white grape varieties, such as albariño, cabernet sauvignon, and nebbiolo. Cushing recommends Brick Bay Wines for its outdoor trail of large-scale sculptures by New Zealand artists. She sums up an ideal Matakana day: “You sip wine, walk, take in art, and enjoy the outdoors.”  
Bring your own tote bags – the Matakana Farmers’ Market is 100 percent zero-waste.
Bring your own tote bags – the Matakana Farmers’ Market is 100 percent zero-waste.

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