The Gisborne Food and Wine Festival is a great occasion to unwind and indulge.
The Gisborne Food and Wine Festival is a great occasion to unwind and indulge. Brennan Thomas

A weekend in gorgeous Gisborne

THE only thing worse than a broken heart, is one that's slowly breaking. I needed cheering up and knew just what would help - a mini break spent comfort eating. Actually, not just comfort eating but comfort drinking, comfort dancing, comfort surfing.

So, I drove to Auckland airport, went up in the air for 55 minutes and came back down again, in Gisborne. Gorgeous Gisborne. Where better to escape to than the East Cape?

I didn't have much of a plan, other than to spend my first day seeking out some of the fabulous food producers I'd been hearing about and the second, redeeming the ticket a kind friend had offered me in my hour of despair, to the annual Gisborne Wine and Food Festival.

There's so much talk these days about sourcing produce locally, which is all very well, but when you're seeking variety, it can become problematic if your local growing conditions won't oblige. Fortunately, with its long stretches of alluvial river plains and boasting one of the highest number of sunshine hours in NZ, the hills and valleys in the Gisborne region are alive with artisan producers of great food and wine.

I decided that my first stop, even before checking into my accommodation, was to be the local Saturday morning farmers' market to give me a sense of what was on offer.

"Find Bad Boy Pickles first, for the mussel fritters."The man from the rental car company, a man of few words and a clipboard, had given me only one piece of advice about the market.

Was this some kind of code? I'd soon find out.

Negotiating my way from airport to town centre was easy, as Gisborne is more like a large town than a small city and everything seems to be within 10 minutes drive.

The farmers' market was already in full swing by the time I arrived. I was desperate for a coffee but I couldn't get rental car man's words out of my head. When I spied the sign over the other side of the busy marketplace that read "Bad Boy Pickles" I all but ran towards the stall.

A handlebar moustache greeted me.

"I'm here for a mussel fritter," I said.

"Too late, they're all gone," the man belonging to the moustache bellowed.

I guessed the fact that this town sees the sun first means everyone is used to getting up early, especially if fresh mussel and karengo fritters are the reward.

Not to be deterred, I took in the other items "Bad Boy Pickle" was offering - golden fried vegetable fritters and rows and rows of pickles and sauces, relishes and chutneys. I settled on a vege fritter and a huge bottle of strawberry and chilli sauce to take away. A plush red, it had the sweetness of strawberries mingled with the hard hit of fiery chillies.

I swear Bad Boy Pickle's eyes gleamed as mine watered with the heat of his sauce.

Somewhat sustained, I was then free to walk around the rest of the market at a more leisurely pace. Wow, what plentiful bounty and all of it on the doorstep of, ironically named it now seemed to me, Poverty Bay.

Before I knew it, I had bought lamb racks from Pam and Darcy's Kaikino Hill Country station farm and had a great discussion with Pam about the best way to cook them (a few minutes in an oven-pan, then straight into a hot oven for 20 minutes maximum, then a rest).

Pam then sent me across the market to the good people at Wrights Winery and Vineyard, where I found a chardonnay verjuice that rivalled any I've tasted. Somewhat controversially (as it's more often paired with salads and whiter meats) I like to add a splash of this juice from unripe grapes, to the gravy when I'm cooking lamb. I find its bite nips at the fattiness nicely.

From there it was on to munch my way through freshly toasted macadamias from Torere Macadamias, purchase large tubs of Knapdale liquid honey and discover a soft drink like no other I'd tasted.

Lottie makes her own special carbonated mix of aloe vera and kawakawa, mixed with ginger and honey, to form what can only be described as an elixir. She calls it "Divine" and I couldn't agree more.

I refuelled with an almond, strawberry and pistachio tart from Morells Artisan Bakery and grabbed a loaf of their organic bread for later while I was at it.

Next was Waimata cheeses and who knew that this popular supermarket brand came from Gisborne? I selected a couple in the range that are less likely to be found on the super shelves, an ash-coated Taepo and a farmhouse blue. Dazzling.

My final two purchases included three bottles of capsicum sauce from Sunrise Orchard - red, orange and yellow - that I swear tasted like you'd imagine bottled sunshine to taste, and, from Millton Vineyards & Winery, a bottle of one of their latest organic products, a grape juice they're calling Amrita - Nectar of the Gods. I can never understand how grapes that are capable of producing such magic in the form of wine, as grape juice, almost uniformly fail to impress. Not so with Amrita.

The owners of New Zealand's original and most well-known biodynamic vineyard, Anne and James Millton, make their Amrita by hand-picking and gently pressing them, to extract the juice from the grapes, on just one day of the year. The result is simply heavenly.

By now my bags were getting too heavy to carry gracefully, and some of my loot was in need of refrigeration, so I took to the long, straight country roads and made my way to Knapdale Eco Lodge, not knowing quite what to expect. As my tyres crunched on the sweeping gravel driveway and the lodge appeared over the brow of the hill I was speechless.

The magnificent lodge sits slightly elevated and overlooking the 32-hectare property that features a small lake, towering trees, paddocks where Highland cattle graze, oblivious to their fate (i.e. they end up on the dinner plate) and beehives that supply honey for the breakfast tray. Lush gardens shoot fresh spears of asparagus in one season and orchards drip with citrus and avocados in another.

The owners and hosts, Kaye and Kees Weytmans, are there to greet me when I arrive and like a cruel twist of fate, they'd reserved the "romance room" for me.

I settled in, freshened up and let the serenity wash over me before making my way downstairs to where Kaye had begun preparing our meal.

She has the sort of kitchen I dream of - metre upon metre of stainless steel, a walk-in pantry, a courtyard off the kitchen with a huge wood-fired barbecue and pizza oven.

Over the next two hours I sat and talked to Kaye as she cooked the most incredible food, with nearly all of the ingredients sourced from the property. We had crumbed artichoke hearts to start, followed by asparagus tarts then Highland beef and a fresh berry cloud cake for dessert, after which I floated upstairs to get a decent sleep before what I knew would be a busy day of wine tasting and meeting some of the region's winemakers at the festival.

Where once the Gisborne region was dominated by the wine-making giants of New Zealand and referred to as the chardonnay capital, these days it couldn't be further from the truth.

Joining the more established vineyards, there's now a wealth of smaller vineyards producing award-winning wines of all varietals and the aim of the annual Gisborne Wine & Food festival is to celebrate their success.

When the new day dawned I took off early, slipped in a quick surfing lesson and then a visit to Ridge House where owners Glen Mills and Kim Holland have created a stunning environment, with luxury accommodation and infinity pool, high above the coast, for those wanting an escape from the city.

However, the reason for my visit was that I'd heard that they produced their own olive oil and that it was exceptional.

Last year their olive grove yielded 130 litres of oil and when I tasted it I could see why it is in such demand. Zesty and grassy-fresh, tasting of the sun-soaked slopes of the property, I was delighted to depart with a bottle of this boisterous, green viscous liquid.

It was time to make my way to the festival. To the sweet beats of the live acts, the Black Seeds and Hollie Smith, I tasted my way around the region and marvelled at the variety of wine on offer.

Most memorable for me were Ashwood Estate's 2008 pinot gris, Kirkpatrick's 2009 Wild Rose, Millton's Clos de Ste. Anne 2009 viognier and syrah and Spade Oak's Heart of Gold chardonnay. There were more, but these were the ones I found most surprising in their astonishing complexity and quality.

Or perhaps they came first before my palate, and my feet, got tired.

Snacks of fresh local seafood, asparagus and strawberries sustained me throughout the day and before I knew it, it was time to fly home.

I hadn't even had time to visit the truffle farmer, the venison hunter, the icecream maker or even the salami man but I had fallen in love all over again - with Gisborne and all its bountiful, locally grown and gathered produce. Food for the soul.