Welcome to Wellington, known affectionately as ‘Welly’ or ‘the coolest little capital in the world’. This is a place where the wind always blows ruthlessly and yet you will see locals running and cycling unfazed. Where you can walk down the street in the craziest outfit and yet only receive smiles, and where you can almost hear the manic buzz of creative minds coming together.
I have to admit I didn’t take to Wellington immediately. On the surface it resembles any other New Zealand town: anonymous-looking buildings and squares that have none of the soul or charm of their European counterparts. Of course, compared to Europe, New Zealand’s cities are without history, so what exactly did I expect?
However, as I started to grasp the crazy energy and the passion of local entrepreneurs, I had to change my outlook on the city. Wellington is indeed cool. That’s the one adjective that best describes this little capital.
Having spent a good 10 days here I can confidently say that Wellington is not only the official capital but very much the foodie capital of New Zealand: it has more cafés and restaurants per capita than Paris. For Wellingtonians, good food made with wholesome ingredients is an important part of ‘the good life’. Businesses specialising in high-quality artisan products thrive here. Whether it’s coffee or chocolate or peanut butter, local entrepeneurs approach their selected niche with the zest of a nerd and are duly rewarded for it.
My introduction to Wellington was on a Sunday morning in the inner-city suburb of Aro Valley. At Aro Coffee I expected the usual conservative café breakfast menu and was pleased to find on their menu a novel item: Rice pudding with rhubarb and strawberry. In my memory, rice puddings are sickly-sweet things that I only tolerate once a year around Christmas time, and I almost regretted my choice, but then this zesty fruity thing arrived at my table and I was so glad to have been proven wrong. The pairing of rhubarb and rice pudding is pure genius.
Every Sunday there is a big market at the waterfront which caters to all your needs, whether it be a bag of fresh fruit or a quick lunch from one of the dozen food trucks serving up delicious street food from all over the world. These guys were busy at the BBQ and yet they happily posed for my camera.
If you’re a coffee nerd then you’ll have a great time at Flight Coffee. This is the kind of place where you select your brew from a ‘tasting notebook’ and give your order to a moustached hipster. When your filter coffee arrives at your table it comes with a little card which describes the key flavour notes, as on a bottle of wine.
Staff are very passionate about coffee, if not religious. My friend ordered a batch of filter coffee and when she asked for milk, the waiter shot her a disgusted look and a remark along the lines of ‘we don’t like to do that here’ . Eventually he did bring some out, but I find this kind of snobbery very off-putting. Which is a shame, because I have to hand it to them, their coffee is pretty good and so is their food. For breakfast I had a poached egg on sourdough bread with harissa, ‘avocado smash’ and feta. Simple and tasty, it just works.
Though equally infiltrated by hipsters, Café Floriditas has an entirely different vibe. Spacious, bright and friendly, the decor is tastefully old-school – an antique clock there, a boudoir lamp there. The simple menu is sourced from seasonal and fresh ingredients and changes almost daily. For lunch I had spaghetti with tarragon, radishes, mint, feta and fresh pea shoots. It was effortlessly elegant.
Floriditas is renowned for its in-house bakery. Cakes are temptingly lined up on the counter and my friend Sara and I decided to sample a few. The orange ‘jaffa cake’ had sufficient chocolatey intensity to please any die hard-choc fan, but it was the caramel-ginger loaf that nearly killed me (in a good way). A light sponge with a ginger kick and topped caramel so velvety it felt unreal – this has got to be one of the best cakes I’ve tried, ever.
Floriditas became an instant favourite and I’d love to come back – the only thing I can fault is the slightly steep prices.
Another product that Wellington does incredibly well is ice cream. Gelissimo, a little gelateria on the waterfront, lays claim to the best gelato in New Zealand. Having tried a dozen of their gelatos I find myself in no position to refute it.
This award-winning ice cream is hand-made in a tiny backroom of the shop. Owner Graham Joe is a kid in an adult’s body – he’ll experiment tirelessly and come up with any number of whacky flavour combinations – when I stopped by he was developing a cucumber-mint gelato. He’s even made savoury dishes work in gelato form. Being a conservative gelato consumer, my personal favourite was the damson plum sorbet – it had just the right amount of tangy and fruity.
I could go on raving about Wellington’s restaurants and markets but I have no intention of turning this blog post into a book, so I’ll leave it for now. It’s been a while since I made my way over the fierce Cook Strait and down to sunny Nelson, which – surprise surprise – I am also falling in love with. So long for now – I can’t wait to share more fantastic food experiences with you.