The recipes that make up our family diet are a large part of its culture.
Some recipes are family favourites that may go back several generations. Some arrive, stay a month or two and vanish. Others reflect special interests - my father's love of fishing; my own love of Indian food. Charlie became a vegetarian at 12 years old, and has generated a need to locate tasty and nourishing recipes without meat or fish.
As a child I lived on a dairy farm and later a market garden in Waiuku. (When Dad retired, one of the more interesting consequences was watching him make the change from planting 20 acres of potatoes to just a couple of rows in the back garden, and ditto with all the other vegetables we had taken for granted.)
We had a small orchard with peaches, plums, and apples, and these featured whenever we wanted dessert. Milk puddings were the go then - bread and butter puddings, rice puddings, tapioca, or sago, with an occasional apple pie with orchard apples and cream straight from the separator in the cowshed, and no, I've never found one as nice anywhere else. (Mum also made a mean steak and kidney pie. Alas, I'm the only one of our mob that will eat kidneys - a treat when I'm home by myself.)
Always there were jars of preserved Golden Queen peaches and stewed red plums and a bunch of rhubarb plants. Mum also made the best cream puffs I have ever seen, and since mum's arthritis dictated that we own the first electric mixer in the neighbourhood, our sponges were pretty awesome as well. I even won a prize with one at the calf club. (Calf clubs are like a junior Agricultural Crafts Day, held annually by all rural schools.)
Scones, yes, certainly. Mum could see a car coming in the road gate and have a batch of scones on the way and the oven heating before they reached the front door.
And I remember haymaking and a billy full of tea, already milked, with a large roasting dish of scones, already buttered and jammed.
Mum's pies, in the absence of a pie chimney — war years, and they were hard to come by — were held up by an inverted china egg cup in the middle of the pie dish. Came the first plastic egg cups onto the market, and we discovered first hand one of the strange properties of this new substance — it melted when you used it for a pie chimney and the pie tasted really foul. So did plastic plates when you put them in the oven to heat up a dinner gone cold.
Dad had no sweet tooth to speak of, and desserts usually meant guests or birthdays. These days, Miranda tends to be allotted the task if a dessert seems appropriate and she works for the most part with fresh fruit and the odd dollop of cream.
At Pukeoware School, a sole charge country primary school with about 20 pupils, our school milk allowance was parlayed into hot sweet milky cocoa in the winter, and that's still something I enjoy on a cold day. (We also had a fence at the school covered in banana passionfruit vine, kindling a lifelong love of these politically incorrect delicacies.) In the cowshed, I enjoyed the Bushell's Coffee and Chicory Essence drink that Dad made, squirting the milk straight from the cow into the blue and white enamel mug. Just postwar, and pre-Nescafe, that's about all the coffee we ever got to taste. Wouldn't that rip your ration card.....
In my teens, mum was very sick for about a year and very much an invalid for some time after that. Prime time then was visiting Grandma Woodward, and from her table I have inherited a love of barley soup, rolled oats — with brown sugar, golden syrup, sultanas and top milk — and all things wholemeal. Grandma's fruitcake sustained me through years at university. Grandad Charlie taught me about fish-head soup and thermos tea and honeycomb straight from his bees. He also grew some of the first "chinese gooseberries" in the district and his glasshouse produced a generous crop of huge Black Hamburg grapes.
The half acre section that went with my first house in Drury was full of fruit trees and inspired my present philosophy of the "grazing garden".
After Drury, I lived for 18 years at Centrepoint Community. Meal time was communal but family occasions, and birthdays were special occasions. Nothing like a couple of hundred people singing "Happy Birthday". There were other "special" days, too, such as Christmas, and CP Day, and weddings. We did the feast days very well.
Centrepoint, too, provided us with Murray's (now Dave's) Meatloaf, probably the single heaviest dose of calories any meal of ours provides in one go, and a favourite of Clifford's, and Centrepoint also generated, for me at least, a terminal distaste for institutional refried beans and stale flounder.
Farm breakfasts as a small lad left me with an (unhealthy) love of fried bacon, eggs, sausages, liver, chops and so on and these were also part of the Centrepoint Sunday Brunch tradition, but (sigh) a rare indulgence for me these days. The Zone diet is sparking a fresh look at these, and breakfasts with more protein are now favourably viewed.
Missing for years until recently has been fish, an important staple in my childhood and early adult years. Dad had a commercial fishing licence and smoked his own mullet for sale. We were never without flounder, mullet, snapper, whitebait and so on in the freezer. Mum's whitebait fritter mix was legendary. About half a dozen eggs to start with, perhaps a bare dessertspoon of flour and a touch of salt and baking powder, a couple of pounds of whitebait, and a cast iron frying pan with the temperature just right, and lard or dripping to fry with! And lemons.
At Warkworth, in the sixties, I had gone spearfishing regularly, and there was always something for the pot. When I lived in Drury in the early seventies, kahawai and mullet were to be had from the bottom of the garden, and my favourite baked gutted mullet or kahawai in foil with a sprig or two of dill in the stomach cavity dates from that time.
(I've always enjoyed baked fish. At home as a kid it was always baked snapper, the big ones that didn't get smoked, with plenty of sage and thyme in the stuffing, but fresh mullet and kahawai baked in foil did just fine, with a bowl of steaming rice, chopsticks, and half a lemon to accompany.)
Fish, like refried beans, did not take well to mass-production cooking at Centrepoint, and fishwise the CP years were significant only for deep fried battered mussels,of which we had a bountiful and relatively cheap supply. Even mussels, though, need to be straight from the rocks or straight from the mussel farm for best taste.
In London in the late sixties I had discovered quality Indian (restaurant) cooking, and I began experimenting with spice mixtures as soon as I had my own kitchen in Drury in the early seventies. Mum's curried mutton flap never really cut it, and I was pleased to find and even invent less greasy "Asian" dishes. Chinese restaurants of the chop suey kind were just beginning to become common and were cheap enough to dine at regularly for a bit of something more exotic. I also began to make my own bread, and the oatmeal loaf dates from this time. Drury also marked my first ventures into pasta (macaroni cheese excepted), chilli, and garlic.
One evening, at Drury, in the mid seventies, we hosted for dinner half a dozen lads from various schools around New Zealand, in Papakura for a hockey tournament, until their billets were able to pick them up. We fed them spaghetti bolognese, and what an icebreaker! None of them had seen it before and none knew how to eat it "politely". In the end we all fell about laughing.
The seventies also marked a shift to lightly cooked vegetables: the practice of putting the cabbage on to boil and then beginning to peel the spuds began slowly to reverse itself. A much wider range of vegetables also began to appear on the greengrocer's shelves.
(Just recently I came across an article on the Weston A Price Foundation site which suggests that there may have been a bit of folk wisdom in cooking cabbage for an extended period, that raw cabbage - and other members of the Brassica family - may contain potentially harmful elements that are diminished with prolonged cooking.)
Late sixties and early seventies began to see also a much greater variety of cheeses to supplement the tasty, mild, chesdale processed, and blue vein that had been pretty much the entire menu. We still bought them mostly in chunks cut off a larger piece at the deli, rather than thickly encased in plastic as we do now. I'm not sure it's been an improvement. Salami began to appear also.
And home ground coffee beans, Real Jamaican Blue Mountain Beans, now as scarce as hen's teeth and super-expensive, that filled the entire house with the smell when we ground them. Only a small number of plantations left in the Blue Mountains now as property developers turned them all into housing estates.
Red wine was beginning to be readily available, and small shops selling New Zealand wines, ports and sherries sprang up in most towns and shopping centres, quite separate from the sale of spirits and beer and foreign wine, which was still restricted to hotel bottle stores and wholesalers. Kumeu Dry Red captured the intellectual market for a number of years.
(Sherry drinking seems to be a thing of the past today, at least among people I know, with cheap supermarket brands, mostly imported, providing most of what's available. What Dylan Thomas used to refer to as washing sherry. In the seventies, most vineyards provided a wide selection, and most houses sported a set of sherry glasses, and a decanter to disguise which particular half gallon flagon it had come from.
Longview Vineyards just south of Whangarei have tragically stopped producing their dry sherry, but their golden sherry is still a caramelly treasure to be looked for if you are travelling north. You can also order it from their website.) [Not any longer, sadly. But the Gumdiggers Port is still a treasure. DCW]
Somewhere in the early-mid seventies I remember visiting a Dalmatian friend who introduced me to "grappa" (aka "marc"), which he distilled himself for the purpose of fortifying his sherry and port. Every drop was supposed to be accounted for to the IRD, for assessment of excise, but the occasional bottle warmed his winters unofficially, and a teaspoonful of his 150 proof nearly blew my head off as it burned its way into my interior. Another Dalmatian, years later, introduced me to slivovitz, and I went on later still to discover calvados and Poires Wilhelm and kirsch.
High end fruit spirits (eaux de vie) are a delight, but look for them in New Zealand and you wade through shelves of alcoholic syrup around 23%, fit only for pouring over lowfat icecream to disguise the taste of each, or loosening upper thigh muscles. We haven't really graduated from blackberry nip, yet, though that classic piece of kiwiana has been long gone, along with Screwdriver, Gimlet and Merry Widow, and been replaced by somewhat more subtle labels (Purple Death).
There was some good white wine about in the seventies if you hunted, but the greatest sales were of what was lightly termed "sauternes", with or without the final "s". There was nearly always a half gallon of the Glenvale variety to be found chilling in Dad's fridge. He bought it, as he had previously bought beer, by the crate of nine flagons, and drank it ice cold by the tumbler. Very refreshing.... You could also buy locally made chablis, moselle, claret, and red and white burgundy. About the only survivor from that period is Corban's Premier Cuvee, a bottom of the line carbonated sweet red or white sparkling, which we mixed with DB Vita Stout and called Black Velvet.
And McWilliams Bakano, the 1964 vintage once proudly supplied to the French Rugby team, but now a sad mix of Australian and South American cheap reds dispensed from a cardboard cask.
Then New Zealand white wine shifted from it's early grapy flavours and to my taste became sour and mouth puckering as winemakers celebrated the "herbivorous" (= green and sour) qualities of our world-famous sauvignon blanc. Any white wine that wasn't capable of dissolving spoons just didn't cut it. Years later when it was politically acceptable, I found a bottle of a South African quaffing white in a supermarket, and found once again the grapy flavours I had been missing for years.
These days, they're also beginning to creep back into New Zealand whites.
I would never claim a sophisticated wine palate. I still shudder when over and undertones of apple, gooseberry, plum, melon, citrus, nectarine, capsicum, tobacco, tar, and so on are celebrated as worthwhile features of a beverage that first and last comes from grapes.
(I think you'll enjoy the complexity of these potatoes, with their subtle overtones of parsnip at the back of the mouth following an introductory rush of curry and celery, with a hint of butter carrying throughout...
Though with the GE boys on the job we could still face such horrors.)
If you can, buy your sauvignon blanc a couple of years old at least. As far as I'm concerned, most first year sauvignon blanc is OK for cutting the excessively fatty taste of the local fish and chips, or possibly as paint stripper. I enjoy our Matua and Waimarie reds, Coopers Creek does a fine merlot, and Westbrook have a sticky to die for, and rather a nice chardonnay.
(I admit my bias is towards the middle-lower end of the wine range. I still have a hard job making sense of the idea that a single bottle of wine can legitimately cost more than twice as much as the entire remainder of the meal.)
I have had to branch out considerably in the last few years to accommodate Charlie's decision at twelve years old to become vegetarian, but it has not all been hard going. Finding (being given) Simon and Alison Holst's wonderful vegetarian recipe books, Meals Without Meat, and Very Easy Vegetarian Recipes not only supplied me with recipes but changed the whole way I thought about food, and provided me with a starting point to devising my own dishes. They are very, very good. Christine Dann's NZ-based Cottage Garden Cookbook is also a useful source of ideas. Oh, and sorry. The Edmonds Book. Of course.
As I said, these pages were put together partly to have a readily available collection of family recipes for the boys to tap into from a distance, and partly because I enjoy doing this sort of thing anyway in the same way as I enjoy putting together collections of family photos, as a celebration and appreciation of where we have been.