French crêpes from La Petite Cabane at Taranaki Multi Ethnic Extravaganza

I am meeting Valerie Donsimoni from La Petite Cabane at the Kaitaki Golf Club on the morning of what promises to be a sunny week. We meet there because that’s where Valerie’s husband Pascal together with French partner François operate their catering business L’EPICURE, which they started about two years ago. 

Valerie began with her business La Petite Cabane around the same time. Originally a nurse from France, she explains: “All the women in my family used to cook a lot. I always enjoyed cooking too so I think for me it was a way to still look after people, but in a different way.” 

“So we can expect food made with love,” I say. 

“Exactly.” (Laughter) “I put all my heart into what I’m doing because I think it’s a good way to share things with people. Food is an amazing tool.”

The first time Valerie came to New Zealand was ten years ago, with her husband. “We were travelling around Australia and New Zealand. We stayed here for three months and had a ‘crush’ on this part of the North Island.” When they went back to France they wanted to come back here longterm. Valerie’s husband became a pastry chef in France. “It took us maybe five years to get everything organised and we had a son in between. It’s been almost five years since we have been living here permanently.” 

She explains: “Everything started with my husband, just before I was thirty. I needed some change I think and he did too. We never travelled before and we were passionate about surfing so I think we wanted to have experiences of other seas, try to speak another language, discover another culture and be out of our comfort zone. I think that was the challenge.” 

“And you might as well go to the other side of the world”, I say, tongue in cheek. We laugh. 

“Yes, that’s what the parents said! ‘Why did you choose to go so far away from your country?’ When I was a child I remember I found a book. I wrote down some destinations I wanted to go to and New Zealand was my top destination. You can’t explain. You are just attracted to somewhere and there is a connection,” she says.

“When I arrived here I wanted to start something different and creative. I had lots of ideas in my mind already. I needed some experience and improve my English as well. I worked a lot in food trucks.” Motivated and with confidence, once she felt ready Valerie was able to start a business of her own. 

Valerie’s origin in France is Mediterranean so her cooking is influenced and inspired by lots of fish, tomato, garlic and basil. “People can expect savoury and sweet crêpes,” she tells me. “The savoury is made with buckwheat flour only from the South Island and is organic. That means that my butter is dairy and gluten free which is a good option for people who have a special diet. Usually I prepare four kinds of fillings with a vegetarian option.” One really popular filling has smoked salmon. “I make the sauce myself which is Norwegian made of cream cheese, lime juice and chives, red onion and rocket. Another one has bacon, avocado, tomato, red onion and rocket too. I make the pesto myself,” Valerie says. Other ingredients include cheese and spinach. Most popular in France is egg, ham and cheese which is kept on the menu. “I try to keep the French identity but also adapt the main menu with a Kiwi taste as well”, she adds. 

Crêpes are from Brittany originally. “But you can eat them everywhere in France”, Valerie tells me. “I have had lots of people from Brittany try my crêpes and they were happy with the taste and the texture. I think the secret is in the batter recipe and the way of cooking it. The sweets are totally different. It’s another batter with milk, egg and I put a little bit of orange blossom and vanilla flavour in. It always reminds me of my childhood. With the sweet crêpes I love the butter, sugar and lemon. My husband makes the homemade butter salted caramel. And Nutella – you can avoid it of course.” She laughs. “I can have specials too for the sweet ones. I think overseas you want to share your food culture. I know that French people are known for that too.” 

La Petite Cabane’s main selling points are the local markets so make sure you pay a visit if you would like to try Valerie’s crêpes.