Amanda Ratuki from The Village Farm Shop in Whatawhata, Waikato.
When Amanda Ratuki was little her grandparents would come to Hamilton, pick up her and her brother, and head for their Raglan farm.
On the way, her grandfather always stopped at an orchard shop on the far side of Dinsdale for fresh fruit and vegetables. Some of the fruit might have been very ripe, some might have had the odd bruise, but he could be sure it was straight from the tree and chemical-free.
It was here, Amanda says, the seeds of her career in pure local produce and products were born, and that's culminated in her Whatawhata business – The Village Farm Shop.
She sells on behalf of producers, "encouraging people to grow at home and bring in their excess".
Shelves and fridges in her shop are groaning with the likes of bacon from Pirongia, honey from Te Pahu, coffee from Norton Rd, Hamilton, nuts "from just across the road", jams from Te Pahu, cheese from Whatawhata, tonics from Waingaro, ice blocks from Raglan, and olive oil from Te Kowhai.
Local produce grown without sprays or hormones, and fresh meats farmed ethically are complemented with a few products from further afield, but always within New Zealand.
The Village Farm Shop caters for the district but also, thanks to Whatawhata being centrally sited, pulls in travellers on their way to Raglan, Wellington, Waitomo, New Plymouth, and Auckland.
"There are some people from Matakana who drop in regularly for lime marmalade on their way to Wellington," she says.
Amanda opened the shop 12 months ago, after a long stint as manager of the Hamilton Farmers' Market. And it's proved the perfect step up from the market.
"I was sick of having no weekends. I had a pre-schooler ready to start school asking 'when are we going to see each other?'.
"I also wanted to help those in the Farmers' Market in a more passive way."
Amanda was born in Eureka, but when she was a year old, her sharemilker parents moved to Hamilton, and bought a house in Frankton. "I remember swimming in the Waikato river after my father finished work. We'd go in at Hayes Paddock and come out where the Tainui Hotel is now."
The family moved again, when she was 9, to Tauranga. But as a teenager, Amanda and her friends would come to Hamilton for gigs "nearly every weekend". She made friends, and moved back to Hamilton when she was 22 after a stint as a youth worker in New Plymouth.
She joined then-boyfriend Scott and extended her youth work into the field of sexual health education.
She and Scott got hitched, and bought their first house in Glenview. Settled.
During our interview she glides around her shop, and slides into conversation with customers. In her characteristic easy, friendly way she establishes where they're from, and their name. She remembers them from school, perhaps, or knows the family, there's always a link. Like the woman originally from Raglan whose staffie must now be making a fashion statement at the dog park. She walks out the door with a weighty pink leather collar studded with colourful flowers.
"Growing up in the Waikato I used to spend a lot of time on my grandparents' farm in Raglan," Amanda says. "I'd spend the school holidays there. My grandmother was pretty fantastic. She would create adventures for me and my cousins. We'd pack a picnic, hop on a horse, and we'd be off on the farm or we'd go out in the dinghy and paddle around."
Her grandparents' farm was on the peninsula and the only way to get to it, apart from a foot bridge, was via a causeway at low tide. "It had a magical feel, like an island in its own right."
In Whatawhata, Amanda has found that same peace and comfort. "I've built a life here".
She, Scott, and their son Amos, live on a lifestyle block shared with Scott's parents.
"Living on the same site is very convenient. There are all those little connections here. You get out of a place what you put into it.
"It's taken me quite a while to really love living in the Waikato, but since we're been living out of the city it's felt like I fit and I'm meeting people connected to my wider family. And because I live on a lifestyle block, I'm using skills my grandfather did, like shearing sheep – I have his crook. He would have loved this place."
BEST OF THE WAIKATO
Favourite coffee shop? How do you take your coffee?
Manuka Brothers on Norton Road. A long black and, for a treat, a splash of cream.
Favourite brunch spot? What would you order?
The Village Farm Shop. Omelette with smoked salmon and capers.
Hamilton's Lake Rotoroa kids' playground. You can soak up hours playing!
Best watering hole? What's your poison?
Umm... to be honest I don't tend to get out much – a bit lame, I'm the first to admit! But I'm a fan of Gothenburg and their overall vibe. I do love a good gin and tonic.
Best date spot?
I'm gonna show my age here or my lack of imagination: Getting a DIC driver home after an event and just chatting in the car, with a sneaky drivethrough for a McFlurry, is pretty romantic. I think that's because it's just us, and Lois the driver, of course! We share stories about who we've met and how people are connected, which they always are in the Waikato. We love that stuff!
The one from our place, over the Karakariki Valley: ever-changing colours and movement of animals, and the sunsets are spectacular.
Where would you take a tourist?
It would depend on their age and stage, but probably Waitomo and, of course, Raglan beach and, on the way out there, to see Bridal Veil Falls. Otherwise I'm a bit of a useless tour guide. I'd rather hang with visitors and do regular stuff, cook a meal together and play with the kids in the yard.
A fond food memory from the region?
There used to be a Hungry Horse on Victoria St, we'd go there as a family in the late 1980s. I recall it had an unusual or themed decor and a salad bar, but the best part was the ice-cream machine. It was such a treat!
Favourite weekend/holiday getaway in the Waikato?
We tend to stay home when we stay in the Waikato, if I've got a weekend off. We swim, go bike riding, and probably trim a tree or three at home before a barbecue and vino on the deck.
What are you drinking?
Good George's Donovan's Rocky Road Stout. It's a bit unusual, and a tasty drop without the usual punch of a stout, in my humble opinion. Otherwise the Sparkling Ale.
What Waikato product/produce can you not do without this season?
Luisa plums are so good, and Dizzy Blocks has made them into beautiful frozen treats, so sweet and tangy and really refreshing.
Favourite day trip with the kids?
We'd hit the Hamilton lake, and Callumbrae Park when we had a young child. They're so well laid out and offer hours of fun for kids and adults. But nowadays we'd go mountain biking at the Pukete, Pirongia, or Te Miro tracks because there is something for all of us. We can do it together, we all feel challenged and we enjoy ourselves.
What do you think is Waikato's best-kept secret?
Its proximity to other places. If you want to travel for 30 minutes in the car you can be in Cambridge, or Raglan, or Morrinsville. And in under two hours you can be in Rotorua, Tauranga, or Auckland. It's just so central.
Image source: Dominico Zapata/Fairfax NZ