Nici Wickes explores the food scene in Blenheim

The cook and food editor makes a flying visit to Marlborough.

An invitation to a battle of sorts between grape and grain saw me winging my way to Blenheim. My destination was the newly opened cellar door and restaurant at Wither Hills, but more on that later.

The flight in was simply breathtaking. First, the intricate coves and bays of the deep blue Marlborough Sounds came into view, then we skimmed over the corduroy patchwork of vineyards that cloak the Marlborough region.

There’s no doubting this is serious wine country.

The impressive entrance to the winery’s cellar door and restaurant.

I needed to make the most of the full day I had to explore Blenheim, which meant finding the best eats on offer.

My first stop was 23 Grove Road Coffee House, a café on a busy main road that you’d drive past if you didn’t know better (I had a tip-off), where I asked what their top seller was.

“The Spanish croissant,” was the reply. It was something I’d never heard of it. I promptly demolished one and wanted more. Imagine a croissant filled with custard, brushed with a sugar glaze and sprinkled with rock sugar.

The 23 Grove Road Coffee House is great for a caffeine fix and pastries.

Back in the car and a five-minutes’ drive away, I came across the little red box emblazoned with “Fresh de Brood”, a mobile bakery food truck with the best baked goods you can imagine – pull-apart croissant loaves, bombolini, par-baked baguettes, custard squares with pink icing and more. I may have had a slice of their bacon and egg pie.

A short distance away was Taylor Pass Honey Co, where you can sample honey that you’ll only find in these parts, such as Alpine blue borage and the wonderful, slightly savoury beech honey dew, collected from the bark of the native black beech tree. I exited laden with jars of amber goodness.

Locals queue up for de Brood baked goods.

Then I stumbled upon the famed Burleigh pie shop.

I inhaled an award-worthy chicken and leek pie before remembering I was due out for a degustation dinner in only a few hours. What to do? Head for the hills, the Wither Hills to be exact, where I became intent on walking up an appetite.

The Wither Hills Farm park is a wonderful 40-hectare playground full of mountain-bike trails and walks. Did I tell you I’m one of those people who shouldn’t go outdoors without a locator beacon on me? Over every brow was another. And another. Two-and-half-hours of walking later, I figured I’d earned dinner!

A cheeky pie.

A quick change at my hotel, Chateau Marlborough, and I headed back to Wither Hills, the vineyard this time – not its namesake.

In daylight, Wither Hills winery is impressive enough, but at night, the building is simply gorgeous.

Inside a roaring fire awaited, as did a five-course dinner where our “job” was to pick the best match between the grape or grain, a Wither Hills wine selected by head winemaker Matt Large or a beer selected by Emerson’s Brewery founder Richard Emerson, for each dish.

After much hilarious debate and a sensational menu of food from the Marlborough Region (Cloudy Bay clams, anyone?), wine was declared the winning match overall.

The Wither Hills degustation dinner.

Waking to find fog had delayed my flight gave me time for a brisk walk through Blenheim township, through Seymour Square where there is one of those wonderful old fountains, a coffee stop at Ritual and one of my favourite stops in town – Guytons Seafood.

It’s where I stock up on the freshest seafood, specifically South Island blue cod, packed in ice for the journey north.

Superb wine takes time! Barrels of the winery’s finest stored in the cellar.

After a final stop on the way to the airport, to the Vines Village complex, where you’ll find wine tasting, bike hire, a gourmet food purveyor and a fabulous café, I wrestled my box of Spanish croissants, blue cod and bottles of wine into my luggage.

On the short flight home to Auckland, I vowed to come back for a much longer stay. Thank you, Blenheim – you were delicious!

An insider’s guide to… Blenheim

Best bakery: Fresh de Brood, 133 Maxwell Rd.

Not to be missed: The Burleigh for sensational pies.

Best photo op: Hit the biking or walking trails in Wither Hills Farm Park, the views are spectacular.

Don’t forget to visit: Guytons Seafood for blue cod.

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