Book club picnic in the hills around Wanganui
I am– as anyone who knows me would surely agree–friendly and outgoing…or nosy and a tad too talkative, depending on your perspective. As my kids would say, “Mom, can’t you go anywhere without talking to someone you don’t know?” So I wasn’t that worried about making friends here in NZ even though I wouldn’t have the built-in possibilities of school or work like Mark and the boys. I had my friend antennae up from the beginning, interesting in itself because they are a bit creaky from non-use back home where I hardly have time to keep in touch with the friends I already have.
At the risk of making my new friends feel like targets of a well-aimed friend capture machine (mmm…that could be fun to design) or like acquisitions proudly trotted out to show, I feel very lucky to have already found a few kindred spirits with a handful more hovering on the horizon. I hope that these friendships flourish while I’m here and that I don’t lose them when back in Vermont. There is so much technology now to keep us in touch and I muse sometimes on how that might have salvaged a few friendships I have sadly lost over the years due to distance and life-diverging paths. (No, I can’t find them on Facebook…I’ve tried.)
The first people who reached out a friendly hand to us were our next door neighbors, Jeanette and her husband Laurie, who could not have been more welcoming from the first time they waved a greeting as we drove through their front yard, which we must do to get to our house. Jeanette is very crafty (her meticulously maintained gardens are dotted with mosaic tiles and birdhouses she has made) and loves to cook. We’ve already shared a lot of recipes and cookbooks and tastes of things back and forth. I’ve brought over maple gingersnaps and lemon ice (photo at left, recipe below) and she’s returned with a huge bunch of homegrown chard (called silver beet here) and passion fruit syrup made from fruit off a vine at her father’s house. Jeanette is going to teach me to knit and we’re taking a glass bead workshop here together starting this week. At our first drinks and cheese visit she served a red onion chutney that Mark loved, a recipe from Annabel Langbein, who has quickly become a new favorite cookbook author, a little bit Deborah Madison (for her local, seasonal recipe approach) with a strong dose of the simplicity and practicality of the British cookbook writer Delia Smith who I also like very much. They also had us over for an all vegetarian feast when a fascinating Turkish friend of theirs was visiting. He speaks five languages including Japanese, French, Russian, and English and leads tours around Turkey and southern parts of the former Soviet Union. He doesn’t eat after the sun has set and during the summer he is fruitarian, he told us, living almost exclusively fruits and nuts.
At the end of the first week Mark was working, the boys and I took a Department of Conservation trip to see the rare blue duck. We did see the infamous duck, although the action was minimal and the boys were a bit disappointed that we hadn’t known to bring bathing suits; jumping off the river cliffs looked way more fun than hanging out with a bunch of old people trying to spy ducks through binoculars. There were just a few folks on the trip under the age of 65 – and although I did have good conversations with a few of the older folks (one retired sheep farmer who had some interesting insights and another former farmer now working in an agriculture extension role at Massey University who took me up to see their food and agricultural sciences department this week), I struck up a conversation with the only other woman close to my age. She was also wearing a Chelsea football shirt, a promising first sign.
Margo recently moved back to Wanganui from 29 years spent in London after her mother died unexpectedly and she bought out the family home just a five-minute walk from our house along the river. She grew up on a sheep farm north of the city and always figured she’d come back to help her mother at the end of her life, but ended up returning a bit sooner than expected. She works in accounting and her husband, John, a Brit, is a civil engineer who worked on the Chunnel among other interesting projects. Right now they are concentrating on getting the house in order so, happily for me, Margo has time to go for long walks with me a couple mornings a week.
I’m also lucky that she is a bit out-of-shape right now because, while in England, she was a serious marathoner who did major races including a six-day run across the Moroccan Sahara and a similar extreme race across Siberia in January. We’ve seen DVD’s of some of her running exploits and they are not for the faint-of-heart. Our walks are very mellow but fun and she has a curious attitude like me about everything. Two weeks ago, having spied some fruit trees on a walk around our neighborhood, we went back and collected quite a lot of different fruits, including banana passionfruit (Margo picking them above and on the vine below), figs, a few apples (not quite ripe yet), blackberries, and also lemons – the latter were not technically wild, but literally falling to the ground rotten from a tree growing in an absentee neighbor’s yard. It would have been criminal, we agreed, to let them go to waste.
I used some of the lemons in a lemon ice (pictured above, recipe below) from the Simon Hopkinson book I’d been reading – his writing and attitude are so British, I love him. Made grilled pizza topped with figs (photo at top – I used the NYTimes no-knead pizza dough based on the no-knead bread recipe and it was great) and then a cake with the figs and a different one with the blackberries and some rhubarb (given to me by Mr. Sharp, the local knife sharpener, but that’s a story for another day). I conflated the two to create the cake recipe below.
Last week I had Margo and another emerging friend (I hope), Marion, to lunch. Marion is a doctor whose husband works with Mark, but she actually called me after I contacted the local hospice to offer to volunteer in their kitchen. She works part-time as a GP and also works at hospice. She was raised in Zambia; both her father and grandfather were bush doctors. She invited me over to a delicious lunch first and we’re going to work together on a booklet about feeding your loved one at the end of life, a topic that is near and dear to her heart. The lunch I served for her and Margo was the “superfood” meal I noted on Facebook. She’s into healthy eating and I had been telling her about the story I did on functional foods for the Free Press and thought it would be fun to theme a meal that way. So I did cold cumin- and lemon-poached salmon (not wild, but sustainably farmed in the Coromandel up north) served with a spiced yogurt sauce and a broccoli, sundried tomato, and almond quinoa salad. Dessert was yogurt parfaits with gingered roasted rhubarb and apricots, topped with the cookbook maple granola made with almonds, pumpkin seeds, and dried cranberries. I found pomegranate juice for sale at this local Indian bulk market so we sipped pomegranate spritzers. (Leftovers made a great picnic for an outdoor concert Mark and the boys and I went to that night. The line-up included a band called OpShop, the name for secondhand stores here, and Dave Dobbyn, an icon of the Kiwi music scene for more than 30 years: a little Eric Clapton, a little Willie Nelson, and even a little Neil Diamond all mixed up.)
My other new friend was discovered in the local independent bookstore where I landed within the first few days of being here. I was asking for recommendations for books and also if they knew of any book clubs that might welcome a transient Yank. (After finding out I’d written a cookbook , they have very kindly ordered it and tentatively plan for me to do a reading when it arrives!) As I was paying for my books, a woman came in to pick up her order and they said, “Oh Sally has a book club. Maybe she has an opening.” Luckily, Sally’s book group did welcome me – as did Sally, who works for the local county council directing their arts and culture projects and used to manage the library, so I have her to thank for their great cookbook collection. She is a kindred spirit for sure and knows absolutely everyone foodie and arty in town. She is fixing up a charming old house in an outlying town called Marton and a couple weeks ago I went to hang out with her for a few hours while the boys played golf on the local course (Mark was on call). While we chatted I pitted a huge bowl of tiny, tart Damson plums from her backyard tree and then helped her design a plum compote spiced with black peppercorns, star anise, sugar, and a good slug of brandy. I have some in the fridge and am sure it would be absolutely brilliant (that’s what they say here all the time) with pork.
The first book group was this past Thursday night and it was also absolutely brilliant. We actually picnicked on a plateau on a hill with sheep peering curiously at us over the thistles. Helen, a freelance education writer who moved from England four years ago with her husband, just closed on the land and they are going to build themselves a very small (like 500-square- foot) house there. It was beautiful and peaceful with hardly a car passing on the road far below. The weather was gorgeous and we toasted Helen’s purchase with champagne and then took turns digging out the cork of a bottle of wine I’d brought (the first I’ve had here that wasn’t screwtop – I didn’t even check!). They have a very different way of doing book club where they each put in $10 (about US$5) every meeting and one person is responsible for buying book(s) and bringing them to the next meeting and explaining why they chose them. They then go into a central box from which members “check out” whatever they fancy with everyone just sharing their thoughts as they read them.
Book club on Helen’s (in hat) property – Sally is the one hiding behind her hair in front
Simon Hopkinson’s Lemon Ice (really frozen mousse or semi-freddo)
Couldn’t be simpler. Very rich and delicious – it stays pretty soft. Says it serves 4 but I would say 6 at least.
Beat together 8 large egg yolks with 1 cup sugar until light, white, and fluffy. (Yolks here are so bright orange it was never white.) Add juice of 2 large lemons (I used 3 because I like things on the tart side) and beat until “the mass starts to rise up once more.” Beat 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (I did this, but seems picky to have the 2 T) heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold cream into lemon mixture gently but thoroughly. Freeze for at least a few hours. If you dollop it into small glass or ceramic dishes (like small glasses or custard cups) and freeze those, it’s a neater presentation and should solidify a bit faster. I served it with fresh strawberries on top. SH says with his usual dry tone: “there is no need – most definitely not – to scoop spoonfuls of it into a ‘tuile’ or a basket.”
- Method direct from “Second Helpings of Roast Chicken” but I’ve abbreviated his directions.
Fig, Ginger, and Orange Yogurt Cake
This is a hybrid recipe using the base of Annabel Langbein’s Rhubarb and Yoghurt Crumble Cake from “Eat Fresh” and inspiration from the gorgeous New Zealand food magazine, Dish, whose Feb-March issue featured a Plum, Coconut, and Lime Cake.
2 cups flour
1 T baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
140g (1/2 cup or 1 stick plus 2 T) softened butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
Juice and zest of 1 orange
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger
¼ cup plain yogurt
4 ripe figs, sliced
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 180 (375) degrees. Grease a 25-cm (10-inch) springform pan and line with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda. In another bowl, beat together butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs and orange juice and beat well. Beat in zest, ginger, and yogurt and then add flour mixture and stir gently just to combine. Spread into prepared pan and top with slices of fig. Sprinkle chopped walnuts, if using, between figs and press gently into batter. Bake until golden and skewer inserted in middle of cake (not through a fig) comes out clean. Let stand 15 minutes before releasing springform collar. Cool.