Pies have it at revamped Washington Valley Store
If you have been around Nelson as long as I have you will remember the days when the local dairy was more than just a place to buy soft drinks, ice creams, cigarettes and takeaway foods.
Before the days of large supermarkets these dairies were the cornerstone of local communities.
I have seen the Washington Valley store go from a thriving local convenience store, shelves packed with grocery essentials to a store most people drove past on the way to one of the big supermarkets.
However, things have changed since Laura Jacobs started breathing life back into the old store.
She isn't trying to compete with the supermarkets because it is very difficult to offer the huge range, but she is turning it back into a local store with heart and energy, a place people want to visit. At the heart of this transformation are some of the tastiest pies in the region and service delivered with a huge smile.
Last week I dropped in to sample one of her delicious pastry creations and talk to her about how a pie shop can add something to a community.
I found a delightful store that is far more than a pie shop. It is a very cool local café with a free book exchange and comfy sofas tucked in one corner, rustic tables and chairs with a table designed for customers to stand at and read the newspaper while they linger over a coffee and a tasty treat from one of the fresh food cabinets with shelves loaded with her own baking, sandwiches and of course pies.
Jacobs and her husband Damian moved to Nelson from Auckland in 2015. "My husband has family down here and we were sick of Auckland, it has become just too big and too busy," she said.
Having her own food business is the culmination of a career in food that started when she left school and went straight into chef training at Auckland Hotel Chef Training School for four years where she completed her formal chef qualifications.
Jacobs says being a qualified chef gave her the opportunity to travel and work around New Zealand and Australia. She followed the Louis Vuitton and Americas Cup regattas in 2000 and 2003.
In late 2005 she had a career change, turning to office work for a few years.
"Cheffing had become all a bit boring, it had become too commercial, there were no new inventions, everyone was doing the same stuff and I wanted something different.
"Food and restaurant cooking is a lot more exciting now, everyone has travelled and has a lot more experience, others have come here and bought their cultural foods with them as well as New Zealand chefs travelling the world and coming home with lots of enthusiasm."
Jacobs studied towards a business qualification at the Open Polytechnic during her office work in preparation for eventually starting and managing her own business
Before I went to meet Jacobs I had two main questions: why pies and what makes a good pie great?
She says a great pie is like a condensed meal, it can be packed with great flavours where the main ingredient really shines.
"A bacon and egg pie should be just that, wonderful smoky bacon and eggs, no frozen mixed vegetables or anything else, real meat without fillers and gravy rather than jelly in the meat pies.
"We want to make a premium product, not a service station pie in a plastic bag so we start with premium products to make our pies."
Pies are so popular I guarantee we all have our own idea of what makes a perfect pie, but I reckon Jacobs is producing fine results.
She makes everything at the shop except the pastry. She uses feather flake pastry for her savoury pies while her sweet pies are made using feather flake pastry with sugar crushed into it.
"I love flaky pastry because it looks lovely and has a nice light flake rather than a density I don't especially like in some pies. It tastes fresher in the palate and you have to have quality ingredients, slowly cooked, good seasoning and lashings of love."
She also uses an Italian cornflour to thicken the stock so it turns out like a gravy in the pie filling rather than a gel-like filling, but the pies are all about the meat so there is plenty in each crisp, golden delight.
"We have just started making sweet pies that we sell by the slice so you aren't overwhelmed by them."
Jacobs is currently making about 100 pies a day and has seen a huge increase in sales as word has spread about them.
"I have had to buy more pie trays, more racks, have employed two part-timers, one in the morning to help with baking and lunch time then another in the afternoon."
Her pork and kumara pies are almost rivalling more traditional flavours like steak and cheese and bacon and egg in popularity.
She has regular customers from Motueka, Ruby Bay and Blenheim.
"I was surprised to find there are pie connoisseurs travelling the country, really surprised just how many people travel the country trying pies."
Apart from the family link, Jacobs and her husband were attracted to the region by its hub of artisan producers and its reputation as a melting pot of creativeness. "There are some wonderful artisan producers here and I love being part of that."
In the shop, Jacobs has set up a community corner with a community notice board. "Kids add to our chalk board sign, each day when I have a look someone has added something and that is kind of cool.
"We want to be part of the valley community, Victory has its little shopping centre and community centre but Washington Valley seems to have been forgotten, Pioneer park at the bottom of the valley has a lovely kids area, a green area for people walking dogs, there is a wonderful new sculpture on the corner and it is the perfect little park to enjoy our food."
Something else I notice as we sit and talk is the steady stream of customers. Jacobs welcomes many by name and has a laugh or short conversation. It seems she has been welcomed to the community she wants to be part of.
They have a few grocery staples in one corner and while pies may be making the store famous there are plenty of other food choices, from sandwiches to cakes and all homemade.
"It is nice to be able to nip down to the shop for some milk or a soft drink and it seems that people locally find it really safe, they send their littlies down to the shop to buy some lollies or something else and their parents know we will keep an eye on them, it's just being good neighbours really, being part of a community rather than just the shop down the road."
For Jacobs, owning a shop is much more people focused than just cooking in a kitchen. She gets to put the whole experience together from making the product to being at the counter and talking to customer; "for me it is a more rounded food experience."
But being an an owner-operator is also a challenge. Jacobs is at work at 5.30am every day, closes the store at 6pm and then there is always paperwork to deal with.
But the warm smile she has for everyone who walks in the door tells me she is loving her wee store in Washington Valley that is also known as In Pies We Crust.