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So yesterday I was talking about David Hoskins of Heron’s Flight Winery and his Italian wines as well as their restaurant with its Italian-Korean-Indian influences. I also suggested—not at all in a derogative way—that Mr. Hoskins, whose original background was as a chemist philosopher (or, perhaps, philosopher chemist) was a bit eccentric. But I forgot to mention one other Heron’s Flight oddity and that is Mr. Hoskins ratafia, which he both serves in the restaurant and sells at the winery.

The first time I sampled ratafia, which is a homemade infused liqueur, usually made with brandy but also vodka and wine, was five or six years ago on the island of Ile de Re off the west coast of France. It was made by a very charming man named Eric Nicolai who owned a hotel and bar called Le Vieux Gréement. As I recall, Eric made his ratafia with an island cognac, oranges, cloves, cardamon, and sugar. It tasted vaguely of Grand Marnier—but fresher and livelier.

I have also had Spanish versions of ratafia, made with a combination of red wine and vodka as well as citrus, cinnamon, and other spices that, to me, seemed more like fortified sangria.

Anyway, David Hoskins makes a house ratafia at Heron’s Flight using what he says is “a traditional 18th century recipe” with quinces. Supposedly ratafia got started around the 18th century in France when this homemade elixir was imbibed when ratifying treaties and the like and, indeed, the most common was a quince ratafia. My guess is that David borrowed his recipe from Jane Grigson’s Good Things, a fascinating cookbook that explains what to do with kippers or pigeons and how to bake meat pies or salt venison. Towards the back of the book, she explains how to make fruit liqueurs and ratafias, including an old-fashioned recipe for quince ratafia in which you basically take two large quinces, grate them, stuff into a quart jar, add some sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and mace, and then fill the bottle with brandy or vodka. Leave in a cool, dark place for about a month and you’ve got quince ratafia, just like what David Hoskins sells for $39 for about 8 ounces.

But I have to say I’m not all that keen on quince ratafia. I much prefer some sort of orange-based ratafia made with brandy or, if you want to be more French about it, armagnac. In winter, I grow blood oranges, kumquats, and tangerines, and any of these will do (my favorite is made with kumquats but tangerines are nice as well). Here’s my recipe:

Tangerine Ratafia

–18 tangerines (for 3 cups juice and 2 cups zest)

–3 1/4 cups brandy or armagnac

–1 cup simple syrup

–1 clove

–1 cardamom pod

1.   Rinse the fruit and separate the peels from the fruit, reserving the peels. Squeeze the juice.

2.   Remove the white pith from the zest of about 12 tangerines. Cut the zest into strips until you have about 2 cups.

3.   Combine the brandy, juice, zest and simple syrup in a large resealable jar. Toast the clove slightly in a pan over medium heat, just until fragrant, and add it to the brandy mixture. Crush the cardamom pod with a mortar and pestle and add it to the mixture. Seal the jar, shake it, and store in a dark place for at least 1 month, shaking every day or so.

After a month, strain the zest and spices from the liquid and discard. Let the remaining solids collect on the bottom of the jar. Pour off the liquid and discard the solids. Refrigerate to preserve the acidity.

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David Hoskins pours his Sangiovese at Heron's Flight. Photos by David Lansing.

“Should have been here Sunday,” said David Hoskins as he poured me a touch of Sangiovese, an unusual varietal to find in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island.

“Why, what was Sunday?” I said, swirling the jammy wine in my glass. Back in the States, Sunday was Father’s Day but here in New Zealand that’s celebrated on the first Sunday of September, so I knew it wasn’t that.

“Sunday was Fill Your Own Bottle Day,” said David who is the proprietor of Heron’s Flight, the only vineyard in New Zealand specializing solely in Italian grapes. David explained to me that just for fun he’d started this event three years ago where you can bring your own bottle and he’ll fill it with a blend of his Dolcetto and Sangiovese wines for $9.99 (plus an extra buck if you want a cork), which is quite a bargain when you realize that his 2005 Sangiovese, which is what he was pouring me, goes for $50 a bottle and the Dolcetto is $39.

David and his wife, Mary Evans, planted the first vines at Heron’s Flight in 1987 (David says that before he started the winery he was “a chemist philosopher, which is perfect training for being a winemaker since you need to know a little chemistry to make wine and then you have to be philosophical about how it’s all going to turn out”).

Like a lot of the winemakers and entrepreneurs I’ve met in New Zealand, David and Mary are, I think they’d agree, eccentrics. David was actually raised in Pennsylvania and went to school in Virginia (where he did, indeed, major in Philosophy and Chemistry). After graduating, he decided to go see a bit of the world, as young people often do, but only made it as far as New Zealand where he met Mary, an English teacher, who was from London.

So the philosopher/chemist from Pennsylvania travels to New Zealand to meet an English teacher from London and together the two of them decide to start a winery in Matakana where they will make nothing but Italian wines. But there’s one other interesting thing about David Hoskins and Mary Evans and that is this: A few months ago they entered into a partnership with Clyde and Farida Cooper. The Coopers are from India where they ran and owned a courier business before deciding to settle in Matakana. Now the Coopers own a small vineyard in Matakana that is planted in nothing but French varietals—cabernet franc, petit verdot, merlot. So now Heron’s Flight is not only going to be sampling and selling their Italian wines but the Cooper’s French wines as well.

Just to make it more interesting: There is also a lovely restaurant at Heron’s Flight and, not too surprisingly, the menu was based on what you’d find at an Italian trattoria—good breads with marinated olives and a tapenade; homemade gnocchi; antipasto platters and various pasta dishes. But last year about this time, they brought on a new chef, a young woman of Korean decent who brought some Asian influences to the kitchen. And now that the Coopers are business partners, the restaurant has also started to introduce Indian and Persian dishes to the menu. So you’ve got your Italian/French wines to go with your pasta/curry/pulgogi.

Like I said, winemakers can be an eccentric bunch.

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Brick Bay Sculpture Trail

Corrugated metal shavings curl up above a pond at the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail. Photos by David Lansing.

The Matakana Farmers Market was founded by a guy named Richard Didsbury and I’d be lying if I told you everybody in town loves him. The thing is, Richard is a very wealthy developer (because of the negative connotations, he hates being called that, preferring something like “investor,” but he is what he is). So here’s the quick story: Didsbury and his wife, Christine, first came to Matakana in the mid ‘80s when they bought some land where an old brickworks used to be and, in 1995, planted vineyards. They are also big patrons of the arts and in 2004, started construction on a Sculpture Trail next door to showcase contemporary sculpture in an outdoor setting.

You do stuff like this and some people are going to love it and some people are going to say you’re getting a bit too big for your britches (and, let’s be honest, most of that sort of criticism comes wrapped in envy). Now, if Didsbury had just stuck with the winery and Sculpture Trail, people probably would have gotten over it. But he didn’t. Didsbury had a vision of the way he thought Matakana should be. He wanted it to be both native and exotic, historical and contemporary, small-town but vibrant. Those are hard things to balance. In 1992, he bought a big chunk of real estate right at the entrance into the village of Matakana and sat on it for a few years trying to figure out what he wanted to do with it.

Eventually he brought in a well-known architect, Noel Lane, who has a reputation for building cutting edge, contemporary buildings. Which scared the hell out of a lot of the locals. Because at this point the town was kind of divided in half. There were the farmer/fishermen/crafts people whose families had been here for decades (think dairy farm co-op) and then there were the newbies who were basically Auckland refugees with money who came here for the beauty of the place and its small-town vibe but, frankly, also wished there were better restaurants in town and a place where you could watch foreign films.

As one observer put it, “The Matakana Coast is to Auckland what the Hamptons are to New York—a sort of rich people’s Woodstock. Every Friday afternoon, Auckland to Matakana is an unbroken procession of BMWs, Mercedes, and Jaguars ferrying people with expensive haircuts to weekenders with stainless-steel commercial kitchens and 15-metre-high sky domes. For them, Matakana offers the simple, natural informality of teaming Bulgari eyewear with bare feet. Its beaches, bays, and islands make it a natural habitat for sleek yachts and floating gin palaces.”

Okay, that may be a bit harsh, but you get the idea.

So Didsbury comes in, buys a big chunk of the old village and eventually builds a pretty eye-popping complex that includes art galleries, wine bar, and a stunning boutique cinema where one of the theaters has 32,000 paper flowers stuck on the ceiling. You can see how not every sheep farmer and blueberry grower in town is going to go crazy over the transformation. And why Heather, back at Takatu, says with a sly grin that meetings at the school house “can get a little animated” at times. I’ll bet.

Anyway, I love what Richard Didsbury has done. The Village Complex he developed with Noel Lane is brilliant. It is both of the past and of the future at the same time. And the second smartest thing he did was to donate the land, next to the Village Complex, for the Farmers Market. And that was brilliant as well. Some old timers may grumble about folks coming in selling handmade mustard and special cheeses to all the day-trippers from Auckland, but they’re missing the point: The town has taken on a new life, culturally and economically, since Richard and Christine Didsbury arrived. And this is a good thing.

This is all prelude to say that yesterday afternoon, I went out to the Didsbury’s Brick Bay Sculpture Trail and roamed, on my own, along the 2km trail that takes you past lily ponds where corrugated metal shavings curl up over the water like strange iron birds and six-foot high Easter egss, made of branches, sit whimsically in the middle of a field. I loved it. Every time I came around a bend, there was something just out there—in the woods, the meadows, the ponds—that both made me smile and made me think. It was, just like Didsbury’s other projects, absolutely brilliant.

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A cheesy market

Photo by David Lansing.

I said one of the things I liked about the Matakana Farmers Market was that, with only 40 vendors, there was just one of everything. I was exaggerating of course. There are several produce stalls and flower stands and lots of people selling jams, jellies, relishes, and chutneys.

There are also several vendors hawking local cheese, which is quite all right with me since there can never be too many small cheesemakers as far as I’m concerned.

The Puhoi Cheese people were there with their bohemian blue, basil pesto feta, gorgonzola, various cheddars, and a wheel of brie (for only $24).

And then there were Annie and Phil Armstrong of Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese Company who were bringing some of the first of their pecorino-style cheese, which they cal St. Malo, to the market.

Phil and Annie have a small herd of water buffalo, which they brought in from Australia, in the Whangaripo Valley, over the hills from Matakana, and have been making cheeses from buffalo milk for a little over a year now—mostly brie and a slightly creamy bleu, as well as fresh mozzarella balls—but the pecorino-style cheese was new and they were pretty excited about it.

I was excited about it too so I bought a chunk of it and took it back to give to Heather at Takatu, figuring she could whip it up something wonderful in the way of an appetizer tonight.

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Matakana Farmers Market

Saturday morning at the Matakana Farmers Market. Photos by David Lansing.

Busy weekend. Beginning early Saturday with a stroll around the now-famous Matakana Farmers Market, the very same gig that, supposedly, made my friend at The Vintry, Mr. Smith, abandon his career as a London wine merchant (or MI6 spy—you pick) and hot-foot it to New Zealand to pour flights of Rose in a wine bar.

The Matakana Farmers Market is small—about 40 vendors, I reckon. And designed in kind of a wheel with little stalls both on the inside of the circle and around the outside. For some reason I kept thinking of Shakespearian times, half expecting a play to break out at any second with men dressed as women and a jester being chased by someone with a sword. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Since it was barely 10 a.m., first stop was the little coffee bar at the front of the market where I could order a flat white from Matakana Coffee Roasters (“Hand Made Coffees, Slow Roasted in Small Batches”). Sipping that, I looked for a stand to get a morsel of something to settle the ol’ stomach. And guess what I found? A stall selling whitebait fritters! No kidding!

The only problem was that there was a huge line, everyone deciding, like me, that a whitebait sandwich was just the thing to have for breakfast. It must have taken me 15 or 20 minutes to get my order, but it was worth it. A lovely little Kaipara whitebait fritter served on a slice of white bread with just a little salt and a squeeze of lemon. Perfect.

The Queen of Tarts.

So why is the Matakana Farmers Market such a gem? Good question. Let me sit down on a bench in the sun with my whitebait fritter and cup of flat white and think about this. What I would say is that they’ve done a good job keeping out the junky vendors you’ll find at most farmers markets. No one here is selling trinkets or T-shirts. Plus it’s small. Sometimes when you go to a farmers market there are like 20 people selling strawberries and it can be overwhelming. Here it’s pretty much just one of everything. You’ve got the Mustard Guy (that would be Jon) selling jars of Bush Honey & Orange Mustard (the label reads “delicious with ham & pork”) and Manuka Smoked Mustard (“wonderful with beef & barbecue”), and the Beer Folks (Peter and Decima Freckleton) who make hand-crafted ales and lagers (“canned by hand!”), and the Lemon Tart Lady (“Just call me the Queen of Tarts”) with her luscious pastries (only $1) sold out of recycled egg cartons. And, of course, the Whitebait Fritter folks.

It’s all good and it’s all so manageable.

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