In the Kitchen
You don't expect to find a slice of Europe in rural Otaki, but snuggling up to the La Casa Romana restaurant on State Highway 1 is a small producers' market with a traditional Romanian flavour.
Once you've navigated past the long rows of outlet shops lining Otaki's main highway, head north from the town's busy roundabout and prepare yourself for luscious Romanian sausages, thick, creamy yoghurt, spicy salami, olive oil with a taste of Italy, and more.
It was initially the dream of a sustainable lifestyle that drew market organisers Dragos and Carmen Mihaila and their two young daughters to the Kapiti Coast property in 2001. Away from their native Romania for more than 20 years, the last 10 in Canada, the couple wanted to combine their sustainable ideal with preserving the heritage of Romanian food.
"We wanted to leave Romania," says Carmen, "but after a while, we began to miss things from our homeland, like eating feta cheese from sheep you've milked yourself."
When the family first arrived in Otaki, Dragos commuted to Wellington (both he and Carmen are qualified accountants), but the three hours a day to and from the capital felt like a waste of time, and the commuter lifestyle was soon exchanged for life on the four-hectare property.
"I enjoy the land. The last years have felt like a race against time to achieve what we set out to do – making wine, cheeses, bread and meats."
It wasn't long before the family began to produce enough "to feed half of Otaki", although Dragos explains there was no business strategy – they began to plough one paddock at a time and kept going – "just a desire to keep growing".
But most of all, they wanted to share what they grew and produced with others, and in 2009, after several years testing their produce and recipes with friends, they opened La Casa Romana (The Romanian House) – a place to feed, nurture and enjoy.
Late in 2011, they combined their culinary venture with the Small Producers' Market, open every Saturday morning, rain or shine. There are no piles of bok choi and cabbage at this market, no displays of earrings or recycled clothes, just products grown and produced locally – Otaki's mild climate and fertile alluvial soil make the area suitable for a wide range of crops.
"People are now starting to get the idea of what we're all about," says Dragos."What we can grow and offer to the community and others."
He presents us with a plate of barbecued Romanian sausages - so juicy, and without the normal casing, just mixture shaped into sausage-style rolls.
"They are eaten everywhere in Romania."
We wash this down with a sampling of Das Bier, a refreshing, German beer handcrafted and brewed on the Mihaila property - perfect with our sausages and mustard. You can choose from a delicately hopped, light ale or opt for a stronger dark one. There's also a low-alcohol variety.
To accompany the sausage treat, there's a range of bread, made from "an old and simple recipe brought from Romania".
The bread is baked in a brick wood-fire oven using certified stone-ground flour (the flour is ground at Foxton's De Molen windmill) from crops grown to Bio-Gro standards.
Carmen says all products are spray-free, and the feijoa brandy, chardonnay and merlot are produced without preservatives.
"We have a swamp at the bottom of our land and let our wine ferment in the cool water. That way we don't need to add preservatives."
She introduces us to zacusca spread - a traditional Romanian vegetable relish containing eggplant, mild peppers, onion, carrots and tomatoes, which is "great on bread".
Salami comes in both garlic and black-pepper flavours, and there's also spaghetti sauce, full of home-grown tomatoes, a smoky-flavoured eggplant dip (salata de vinete), and pots of creamed honey.
A range of dairy products, which are churned on the premises, includes cottage cheese, buttermilk, European specialty cheeses, creamy-style yoghurt and a sheep cheese - a semi-hard feta.
Although the rich and rustic food of Romania dominates the market, there are also bottles of clear, golden cider produced from organic granny smith, braeburn and pacific rose apples, from Apple Quarters Orchard in nearby Te Horo.
You'll find hazelnuts, chestnuts, free-range eggs, figs, sweet peppers, chillies and Tuscan-style extra-virgin olive oil as well.
Soil and weather conditions on the Kapiti Coast are ideal for olive production, particularly in Te Horo and Otaki. Cooler temperatures in the region, compared with traditional warm olive-growing areas, help trees produce bigger, more robust fruit - a form of survival mechanism.
Waitohu Estate, just northeast of Otaki, has recently produced its first commercial harvest of extra-virgin olive oil, and owner George Howell says they grow two classic Tuscan varieties - leccino, a mild, buttery-sweet oil with good balance, and pendolino, a light green oil with a slight purple tinge. We try this with some crusty Romanian bread, and find it has a fresh "herby" flavour.
Carmen tells me that although a sustainable lifestyle isn't easy - the hours are long and the work is hard - living off the land and sharing that with others brings plenty of satisfaction. However, she sees a big difference in food-shopping patterns here, compared with Romania.
"In New Zealand, most people tend to come to markets as a special outing, a treat. They do their regular shopping at the supermarket, whereas in Romania it is the opposite - everyone shops at the markets."
Plans are under way to extend market hours during summer so people "can stay and sit outside in the sun with their food and drink". The couple are also planning a trip back to Romania in the next few months, "to seek fresh ideas, as well as to refine the ones we have".
Dragos says the market will continue, "with someone here producing and selling", until they return late in September.
- © Fairfax NZ News