Lucy Corry: Underrated culinary goodness in Wellington
The capital’s annual culinary festival might be over, but there are still plenty of reasons to love Wellington’s food scene.
That loud sigh you’re hearing today, on the last day of August, is the collective outpouring from Wellington’s amassed hospitality industry (and all those who work in, support and supply it). Today marks the end of Wellington On a Plate, the annual food-and-drink fiesta that’s brightened up the capital’s winters for more than a decade. In many ways this year’s festival has been the end of an era.
From 2023, WOAP will be split into two parts — the events, pop-ups, Dine Wellington and Cocktail Wellington move to May, while the much-loved Burger Wellington and Beervana beer-fest remain in August. It’s a smart idea, given that it’s grown so much since those early days. And, as festival director Sarah Meikle pointed out, there’s a bit more for chefs to work with in May than there is in the pumpkin-and-cabbage days of August.
If winter ills and chills have meant you’ve missed WOAP this year, don’t despair. There’s plenty going on here all year ‘round. While we’re all familiar with the usual clichés about Wellington’s food scene (the city has more cafes per capita than Manhattan, everyone drinks or brews craft beer and has a beard, or distills gin in their shed (I actually know someone who does this, but that’s another story) — you might not know the following.
EVERYONE KNOWS EVERYONE
An old friend of mine once said that living here meant perfecting ‘the Wellington twitch’. This isn’t a facial tic, more an act of self-preservation. He reckoned that before you launched into any story that might paint one or more of the players in a bad light, it was best to ‘twitch’ over both shoulders to make sure that they, their spouse, flatmate or best friend wasn’t sitting within earshot. This is still true, but in the food scene it means collaboration is more common than competition.
When ONZFPA Supreme Award winners Wooden Spoon Freezery started out, for example, they were quick to make friends with other fledgling businesses such as craft-beer kings Garage Project and nut-butter producer Fix & Fogg. Local chefs also collaborate together on lots of projects, including the pay-what-you-can pop-up Everybody Eats that fills bellies and warms hearts in equal helpings.
THERE’S AN APPETITE FOR DOING GOOD
Wellington is home to Kaibosh, Aotearoa’s first food rescue organisation. Kaibosh joins the dots between food producers and community groups to combat both hunger and food waste. This year, I was honoured to host one of its Wellington On a Plate workshops (it’s quite a responsibility, telling 15 fee-paying diners that they’ll be eating stale bread, weeds and chickpea brine for dinner). It’s a shame that Kaibosh, which redistributes up to 60,000kg of good-quality food to charities and community groups, has to exist — but it’s lucky that it does. Kaibosh has a small number of paid staff, but it also relies on volunteers to carefully sort and pack donated food. If you’re a local and you’ve got a couple of hours a week to spare, they’d love to hear from you.
GOOD THINGS HAPPEN IN THE ‘BURBS
Repeat after me: there is hospitality life outside the city centre. Lots of it! One benefit of pandemic life is that local cafes, restaurants and food shops have thrived as people stay closer to home. Even not-very-glamorous Kilbirnie boasts an excellent Malaysian restaurant that’s worth a pilgrimage, plus a great organic food store, Indian spice shop and iconic Greek food shop that sells everything from talismans against the evil eye to excellent souvlaki. Speaking of which, no trip to the eastern suburbs is complete without a stop at Oikos (imaginative, modern Greek food in chic surroundings) or The Acropolis (classic souvlaki and chips), both in Strathmore. Other must-visit spots: The Salty Pidgin (Brooklyn), Damascus (Vogeltown), Good Fortune (Petone), Jean’s Bakery (Upper Hutt).
IT’S A FORAGER’S PARADISE
In 2020, foraging expert Peter Langlands told me that Wellington was one of the best places to forage in Aotearoa. Our ‘edge environments’ (grassy verges, untamed parks, coastal areas) and the magnificent Town Belt are a happy hunting ground for anyone seeking free-range treasures. The bush-clad hills of Miramar are famed among fungi hunters, while a casual stroll up Matairangi (Mount Victoria) can reap lots of edible rewards. Is it any coincidence that Monique Fiso, the person who has done more for highlighting the bounty of traditional indigenous ingredients, is based here? I think not.
WE HAVE MOORE WILSON’S
If foraging is a bit too hands-on (and you don’t mind the potential aggro of navigating the car park on a Saturday morning), then there’s always Moore Wilson’s. Like many Wellingtonians, I’m often in danger of taking this wonderful place for granted (it just takes a weekend away in a different city to remember what I’m missing). Whether you need five litres of white vinegar to wash your windows or 50mls of chardonnay vinegar to anoint a salad, MW has it all. If I had a dollar for every time an artisan producer has told me gleefully that they ‘had got on the shelf at Moore Wilson’s’, I’d have plenty more money to spend there. To paraphrase and misquote Samuel Johnson, when a person is tired of Moore Wilson’s, they’re tired of life. I might say the same of Wellington.