Jennifer and Garth Boggiss of Heilala Vanilla.
Jennifer and Garth Boggiss of Heilala Vanilla. Supplied

Tauranga: Bountiful Bay of Plenty

IT'S funny how you think you know a place: you've visited dozens of times, hung out at a beach, even have friends who live there.

I was like that about Tauranga and Mt Maunganui. But when I told a friend I wanted to explore her home town as a foodie - and not a surfie - destination, she swung into action and made me see it with different eyes.

It helped that she is a big foodie herself and she could call up one of the Bay of Plenty's most popular chefs and food writers, Peter Blakeway, to show us around some of their most interesting artisan producers.

Peter's book, Fresh, focuses on good local food prepared simply. As we rocked into the Tauranga Farmers' Market early on a damp Saturday morning, we were barely inside the gates before we were talking and tasting with Peter's favourite suppliers. I had my list: cheese is my passion so I made a beeline to Mt Eliza cheeses.

Cheesemaker Chris Walley has been handmaking cheeses since 2007: he's from Cheshire, so naturally that savoury beauty is a goody, but the deep red Leicester is smooth, sweet and nutty and the Eliza blue has a stilton-like pong.

Peter also had us re-thinking smoked cheese from the Wholesmoked Cheese stand. John Forkert is one of the few affineurs in the country, maturing a range of cheeses before smoking them in manuka or pohutukawa. The mature gouda is rich and meaty, the colby more subtle.

We had to stop at Kathrin Chappel's Lavish Foods, which presents "luscious up-front cooking" - rustic pizzas and a changing selection of baking with an eye on the gluten and dairy-free.

In winter she sells hot soup in vintage mugs - charming and eco-friendly. And Nikki Ross is a local chef-turned-pie lady with aptly named Heavenly Pies - the venison and mushroom was perfect for a Sunday night dinner. A stash of fresh walnuts - some macadamia rubs from Harbourside Macadamias and meat for the week from Wholly Cow and we were running.

My food-loving husband and I were lucky enough to be taken behind the scenes of three Kiwi success stories. The charming Heilala Vanilla people let us see how the pods are processed into pure vanilla products - and even gave us a sample of their first vanilla extract from pods grown right here in the Bay.

At Grove Avocado we taste tested a range of oils, loving the range of flavoursome additives (the horopito is peppery, the lime tangy). Our third stop was Distillerie Deinlein. Bavarians Irmendard and Michael Deinlein and their son Tobi bring a family distilling tradition to create a range of liqueurs.

Their Lemon:cello is pure lemon - no additives here - and an orange version is in trials. They recently launched the 8th Tribe brand of pure, real fruit liqueurs - feijoa, kiwifruit and kiwifruit gold - and a sensational Dark Spice (walnuts, spices, horopito pepper) had us longing for sticky, gingery puddings.

A late lunch stop at Tauranga's newest hot food store, The Good Food Company, launched by Jo and Jamie Blennerhassett. The place was buzzing with shoppers tasting and buying in the huge, friendly space. Chef Peter demonstrated a creamy chocolately truffle pie with mashed avos and the oil, drizzled with the liqueur we'd picked up on our travels.

A pause for digestion, a walk around Tauranga's Strand and waterfront and a nap in our luxury digs, Hotel on Devonport overlooking the harbour got us ready for our final round.

We were off to the bay's institution of food - Rick Lowe and Anne Butcher's Somerset Cottage. Steve and Caroline Bird, of Bird Wines treated us to a tasting of their single vineyard wines from Marlborough, accompanied by Steve's take on today's wine industry. He has the medals, and a growing global reach.

You can see why the restaurant has thrived since it opened in 1986: the food is grounded and thoughtful and very well cooked, the service warm and polished. And I even had room for their signature liquorice icecream.

The Mount on Sunday was humming, the cafes and boardwalks heaving with people. We'd stopped at Grange in Otumoetai before gorging on a terrific brunch at Sidetrack. One last armful of avocados from a roadside seller and back to Auckland, in love with a side of the Bay we'd missed in all these years.

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