The Unique Taste of Ōamaru: Food and Drink Heroes of the Waitaki Region

Bevan Smith from Riverstone Kitchen wearing a blue t-shirt and apron smiling to camera in amongst green trees.

With a focus on sustainable and ethical production, Ōamaru's food and drink heroes are passionate about producing exceptional artisan products by harnessing the unique richness of their geographical location.

Words by: Nicola Amy Hinman

Photos by: Nancy Zhou and Naomi Haussmann

A great respect for the land and a great love for their community are common themes amongst the local food and drink heroes of the Waitaki Region. These legends are making headlines with their unique offerings by marrying traditional methods and innovative sustainable practices. 

Local makers champion each other in their endeavours, and the people of Ōamaru are proud to support the culinary heroes who make their town such a great place to call home. 

Lee-Ann and Michael from Craftwork Brewery

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10 Harbour Street, South Hill, Oamaru

In the heart of Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct lies a marvellous not-so-secret Belgium-style Taproom reminiscent of a Brussels café from the 1900s. The award-winning nano brewery crafts its own barrel-aged sour beers in a small converted basement and attracts self-confessed beer nerds from all over New Zealand and Australia. 

A collaborative effort between two old friends turned partners, Lee-Ann and Michael, have almost accidentally created a cult following for their traditionally brewed European-style beers. Among their most popular pours is a spontaneously fermented wheat beer known as O’ambic that’s made waves at local beer festivals. 

With a great appreciation for good things that are made slowly, the focus at Craftwork Brewery is more on the process rather than producing the same end result every time. In keeping with this ethos, Lee-Ann and Michael love serving their sought-after craft beers with a well-matched artisan cheeseboard that's as unique and seasonal as their brews.

Yanina & Pablo Tacchini from Cucina, Tees Street and Del Mar

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1 Tees Street, South Hill, Oamaru

Simultaneously raising three kids and running three restaurants may seem an almighty task, but Yanina and Pablo make it look fun. Originally from Argentina, this enterprising couple found their heart's true home in Ōamaru and love sharing their internationally influenced cuisine with an amazingly supportive local community. 

Initially opting for a formal dining approach with their first restaurant Cucina, they soon discovered the more laidback Kiwi style of hospitality suited them much better. Fast forward a few years, and the couple now run three diverse and highly popular establishments, including Tees St, a notable café and brunch spot. A common theme across the venues is ever-changing menus made with the freshest seasonal produce and locally sourced ingredients. You’ll also notice the lush indoor greenery that has become a signature of theirs thanks to Yanina’s love of indoor gardening.

Wanting to instil the value of hard work, Yanina and Pablo love including their children in what they’ve created. The latest addition to their culinary trio, Del Mar, a super relaxed, family-friendly spot on the beach, was created with their kids in mind. The kids have had a hand in crafting some unique flavours for the gelato freezer, and their oldest son, who loves cooking, is learning to work in the kitchen.   

Bevan Smith from Riverstone Kitchen

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1431 Glenavy-Hilderthorpe Road, Waitaki Bridge

After more than a decade of experience at top restaurants in London and Australia, local food hero Bevan Smith returned home to the family farm in 2006, and Riverstone was born. Founded on the philosophy that the best kind of food is seasonal, fresh, and grown as close as possible to where it’s consumed, Riverstone Kitchen has established itself as an award-winning foodie destination. 

Surrounded by lush verdant gardens, Bevan and his team serve up honest, seasonal dishes that showcase New Zealand's exceptional bounty. Freshly baked goods appear from the kitchen, local meat is butchered in-house, and exceptional produce is picked from the surrounding gardens the same day you eat it. Sustainable dining doesn't get much fresher (or tastier) than this.

Bob and Sue Berry from Whitestone Cheese Co.

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469 Thames Highway, Oamaru North, Oamaru

Voted New Zealand’s Favourite Cheese Company in 2022, Whitestone Cheese Co. has been blessing Aotearoa with its seriously world-class cheese since 1987. Fourth generation Otago farmers Bob and Sue Berry initially produced their artisan cheese out of a converted garage as a small side project. The award-winning enterprise has now grown to encompass a dedicated custom factory with an accompanying cheese deli and factory tours to boot. 

Combining traditional European cultures alongside distinctive regional recipes, Whitestone creates cheese to rival the finest Fromageries in France. Rich limestone soils in the North Otago region mean local grass fed cows produce a superior quality of milk perfect for cheesemaking. Fresh milk is delivered to Whitestone daily and turned into cheese using artisan open vat techniques. Whey from this process is then returned to local cattle farmers for animal feed, creating a closed loop supply chain that drastically minimises waste. 

Paul and Alissa Nicholls from River T Estate Wines

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5292a Kurow-Duntroon Road, RD6k, Kurow

When lockdowns changed their plans to move overseas, wine enthusiasts Paul and Alissa Nicholls decided to take on a new challenge and became the proud new owners of River T Estate Wines. Continuing the traditions of hand-tending the vines and working with award-winning local winemakers has seen the vineyard continue to flourish under its new ownership. Waitaki Valley, Aotearoa’s youngest wine region, is producing some outstanding vintages, and the Nicholls are thrilled to play a role in its emergence. 

Famous for their epic grazing platters, Paul and Alissa love showcasing the best of the region by pairing their pours with delicious morsels from the likes of Whitestone Cheese Co., High Country Salmon, and Waimate Bakery. The relaxed and laidback pace of the vineyard’s Cellar Door made it a favourite haunt when the Nicholls came from out of town to visit family. Now that the place is their own, they're determined to maintain the same welcoming, family friendly vibe for their local community.

A hand digging into soil on a sunny day.

Jim O’Gorman from The Dirt Doctor

Kakanui, Otago

Just south of Ōamaru lies a piece of land once completely depleted from years of poor agricultural practices. A few decades later, this market garden produces chemical-free produce of such exceptional quality it is highly sought after by top chefs around Aotearoa. Potatoes from this little patch of the earth have even been requested for royal visits to Government House. The man responsible for this top notch produce? Jim O’Gorman, a soil health expert and researcher known as ‘The Dirt Doctor.’

By focusing first on improving the biology of the soil, you can influence its chemistry in a positive and sustainable way, a methodology Jim likes to call ‘agro-ecology.’ Internationally recognised for his unique approach to bioremediation, Jim employs a collection of microbe inoculation, regenerative composting, and no-till soil techniques. With a desire for his research to benefit small scale farmers in less developed countries, he has intentionally developed methods using only low-tech hand tools to achieve these results.

Strawberries growing in the sun.

Rachel and Andrew Watt from Mean Greens

Kenilworth Road, Ōamaru

Locals claim that Mean Greens grow Aotearoa’s most delicious strawberries, and they may just be right. Known for their exceptionally high quality produce, Mean Greens’ fresh herbs, salad greens and juicy strawberries have been gracing the menus of local cafes and restaurants since 1999. Savvy locals also clamour to get their hands on the goods (especially the strawberries) whenever there is a surplus sold at the farmgate. 

When Rachel and Andrew Watt took over the business in 2016, the avid home gardeners had been searching for a lifestyle that suited their young family. They didn’t just discover the chance to spend more time with their kids and less time commuting, they also discovered an incredibly supportive community they love being a part of. In a region known for its exceptional growers and food producers, Rachel and Andrew’s dedication to growing top quality produce has earned them a spot at the top. Picked daily in the crisp cool early mornings, you’d be hard pressed to find fresher, tastier greens than this! 

Neat Ōamaru & Waitaki Places

Valley Views Glamping

A bedroom set inside a Glamping pod with a wooden panelled floor.
Place Ōamaru & Waitaki Editor's Pick
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Glamping with sweeping views of the Waitaki Valley, and hosts who know its every nook and cranny including the best summer swimming holes. Honeymoon, stay-cation, reunion, whatever the occasion, it’ll be best had here.

Bangkok Recipe

A close up of a plate of Thai food on a table at Bangkok Recipe Oamaru.
Place Ōamaru & Waitaki
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On the hunt for authentic and traditional Thai food in the heart of Ōamaru, then look no further than Bangkok Recipe.

Elephant Rocks

View of Elephant Rocks in the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark.
Place Ōamaru & Waitaki
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For a nice walk, a bit of bouldering or both, head to Elephant Rocks. Sculpted by wind and rain, these funky outcrops give visitors a glimpse of the limestone that make the Waitaki Valley’s terroir so unique.

Crafted

The top of shelves covered in ceramics at CRAFTED in Waitaki.
Place Ōamaru & Waitaki
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It’s hard not to be inspired by Ōamaru’s rugged coastline and fabled history. The town is home to many talented makers and artists, and at the collective gallery you can explore their work at your own pace.