Words by Fiona Fraser of Contentment Agency.
Whether it’s The Ritz, St Regis or Raffles, the hallmark of a luxury hotel is more often than not the quality of its high tea. In New Zealand, there are few that would rival the immaculate offering at Mangapapa Hotel, hidden down a long driveway in the Hawke’s Bay countryside.
Chef Norka Mella Munoz is justifiably proud of what she’s created and believes high tea is the perfect marriage of New Zealand’s café culture and our desire to mark a special occasion. “It’s about sharing time with friends and family and eating lots of cake,” smiles the native Chilean. “I think it is a fantastic way to socialise with the people you love and create great memories.”
Her food, certainly, is unforgettable. Using fresh ingredients grown in the Mangapapa garden or sourced from one of the many orchards or market gardens Hawke’s Bay is known for, Norka’s work is equal parts artful and appetising.
Her Ora King salmon, house-cured and smoked, is unbelievably delicate yet flavourful, served atop treacle bread with lemon and red onion. The strawberry éclair is a cloud of pink perfection, with just the right balance of tart, sweet, and – naturally – cream. Her cucumber sandwich surprises with a hint of mint and even the way her avocado – just-ripe – is carved and layered is simply stunning. Edible flowers pepper the plate with colour – again, grown on-site for Norka and her team.
Norka came to New Zealand 14 years ago and calls herself a “Chiwi” – half Chilean and half Kiwi. Five star hotels were where she cut her teeth – The Hotel Regal Pacific, Intercontinental, Explora Las Torres and Explora Patagonia – and found herself picking up a host of culinary awards along the way. After a stint tutoring in Auckland she moved to Hawke’s Bay and quickly rose through the ranks at Mangapapa.
Norka and her pastry chef work hard to switch up the menu regularly, offering traditional fare as well as a few specialities. “For example my grandma’s chocolate layer cake is a special family recipe for me and I shared it recently on our menu so our guests could share the same joy I get from the recipe. The housemade macarons are very popular – the flavours change regularly but my favourite is strawberry. We get the fresh strawberries from local grower, Scott’s – they’re the sweetest in the Bay! Then we dry the strawberries, powder them and then make the macaron. You get an explosion of strawberries in your mouth.”
And this high tea is a steal - $45 per person, including a glass of local methode. All up, it’s a recipe for success and Norka is a warm, witty and wonderful host (if you can convince her to step out of the kitchen) who will do just about anything to make it a special occasion, even whipping up gluten, dairy and sugar-free treats for those with intolerances (please phone ahead first, she implores!)
With so many intricate and delicate items served each day, she must spend a lot of time with the tweezers out. Does high tea need to be fiddly? “Yes” she replies, nodding. “Because it needs to be impressive to the eye and palate, in term of presentation and flavour.”
Job done, we say.
HIGH TEA AT HOME
When replicating a hotel high tea at home, Norka says all ingredients must be fresh, of the highest quality, and you need to think about presenting a variety of small bites. Here are her top tips.
- When making a cucumber sandwich, slice your cucumber very very thinly. Combine with cream cheese and mint to give your sandwich a little twist.
- Use seasonal fruit for your sweets to get the best flavours and freshness from the produce
- Offer a sparkling wine and perhaps a sparkling grape juice as a non-alcoholic option.
- A Pimm’s cocktail is also wonderful and refreshing on a very hot day
- Light and crumbly scones with fresh cream and strawberry jam are a must!