Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

This website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

The Christmas Season

Twelve years ago, I was facing my first Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything felt wrong. I tried to carry on the traditions my husband and I had established in the States; I made truffles and cookies, I decorated with fresh greenery, we strung Christmas lights, we planned a big Christmas dinner, we played Christmas music.

The truffles melted, the greenery turned brown, the Christmas lights were invisible in the long summer evenings, the heavy dinner sat like lead on a hot summer day.

I longed for snow, and all the indoor family time of the northern holiday. I wanted long nights, candles and a roaring fire. I wanted hygge. But it was summer—time to be outdoors, on the beach, enjoying the sun.

Slowly our traditions have adapted to this southern holiday. I realised how far I’d come on Sunday morning. Slicing strawberries for breakfast, the smell of berries made it feel so Christmassy, I started humming carols. Then I laughed at the idea that strawberries equal Christmas.

I thought about all the things my kids have grown up associating with Christmas—long days at the beach, gardening, strawberries, cherries, making jam, making sauerkraut (which usually happens about Christmas eve every year), the ‘traditional’ Christmas salad, the first new potatoes, broad beans, backpacking.

We rarely play Christmas carols anymore (who wants to be indoors?). We bake fruit pies, and not many cookies. We use red carnations from the garden for Christmas decorations. Rather than being a time for focusing inward, Christmas is a time for adventuring—traveling, hiking, exploring.

And so, as we start into this Christmas season, I am looking forward to our travel plans. I’m looking forward to many days at the beach. I’m looking forward to the summer bounty from the garden. I’m looking forward to ice cream, roadside stands selling Otago cherries, outdoor dinners, and warm sun.

And that, I think, is the key of the season—to celebrate what is good about the here and now. To celebrate the bounty we’ve been given, whatever form it comes in—love, friendship, snow or strawberries. To be mindful. To be present in the moment.

Gooseberry pie

It’s a good year for gooseberries. Our supply of them seems to be limited only by our tolerance for the spines. Gooseberry jam, gooseberry ice cream, and the tartest, most gorgeous pie…

4 cups fresh gooseberries, stemmed and tailed
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp nutmeg

pastry for 1 pie crust

Speedy Streusel:
2/3 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbsp melted butter

Roll out the dough and line a pie plate. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Mix all ingredients for the streusel, stirring until crumbly. Set aside.

Put gooseberries in a medium saucepan and add a few tablespoons of water. Heat over medium heat until the berries ‘pop’. Combine sugar, flour and nutmeg. Add these to the gooseberries and cook until thickened.

Pour gooseberries into the pie dough. Sprinkle streusel on top. Bake at 190ºC (375ºF) for 30 minutes. Cool completely before cutting.

This pie is very tart. Serve small slices, accompanied by whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

How (not) to Curb Your Sweet Tooth

Many years ago, I decided I was not going to buy sweets anymore. If I wanted cookies or cake or pie, I would have to make them myself. It was a way for me to curb my sweet tooth, at least a little.

Oh, how that has backfired.

It’s turned me into an obsessive baker.

I’m sure it’s done good things for my health—my baked goods are full of whole grains, and much lower in fat and sugar than commercial products—but it hasn’t curbed my sweet tooth.

Instead, my sweet tooth has simply developed a more sophisticated and discerning palate. As I’ve mastered a wide range of baked goods and refined my recipes and techniques, I’ve grown uninterested in the vapid sugar-bombs on the supermarket shelves. They leave me unsatisfied (where’s the flavour?) and slightly ill (excess fat and sugar to mask low-quality ingredients). Instead, I now crave my own cakes, cookies and confections. And because I’ve had a lot of practice, it’s easy for me to whip up a delicious desert whenever I have a hankering for it.

The result is, I probably eat just as many sweets as I ever have.

I just eat better ones, now.

I suppose it’s an improvement…

‘Tis the Season

And So It Begins…

We’ve been watching the berries for weeks, and the signs have been promising. The gooseberry bushes are dripping with fruit. The currants, too, promise a good harvest. In spite of a viral infection, even the strawberries are managing a crop. The raspberries are humming with bees, attracted to a plethora of flowers.

The first harvest was tiny—a handful of berries—but it marks the beginning of my favourite season on the property. The season of fresh fruit. It begins with strawberries and gooseberries, moves on to currants, cherries and raspberries, and ends with apricots and plums. Watermelons, apples, and peaches come late in the year, and they’re lovely, but nothing compares to the early summer fruits. Their season is short, but bountiful. It’s the season of jams, fruit pies, and fruit ice cream. The season of gooseberry fool, strawberry-smothered waffles, and apricot upside down cake. It is the season of plenty.

In festive red and green, ’tis the season, indeed.

Pheasants: Honorary Natives

We’ve had a lot of pheasants around the house this spring. The common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), also known as the ring-necked pheasant. Is a curious bird…or rather, our relationship to it is curious.

The common pheasant is native to Asia, but has a long history in Europe. It was probably introduced by the Romans, and the first printed mention of the bird in Britain was in 1059.

Who knows what ecological impacts the pheasant had in Britain? I doubt anyone paid attention at the time. By the time people began to worry about conservation, in the early 1800s, it was the pheasant they worried about, as its numbers declined with land-use changes and the introduction of firearms for hunting.

The pheasant was first introduced to North America in the 1770s, and has naturalised in many areas. As in Europe, it has become a popular game animal and is the focus of conservation efforts, in spite of its non-native status.

Many years ago, I applied for a job with a ‘conservation’ organisation in Minnesota. Though I was ultimately offered the job, I turned it down, because its sole focus was on the maintenance of pheasant populations for sport hunting. I struggled to view that as conservation in a place where pheasant habitat was incompatible with habitat for threatened native animals, and where maintaining a pheasant population required captive breeding, because winters are simply too harsh for it to survive, even with appropriate habitat.

Even in Hawaii and New Zealand, where introduced species are almost universally considered pests, the pheasant is fussed over and cared for as a native—bred in captivity and released to keep its numbers up for the benefit of sport hunting.

A search for information on the ecological impact of pheasants is curious. Many sources presuming to address the ecology of pheasants deal only with the threats to pheasants themselves, not pheasants’ impact on the native ecology around them. It is as if even researchers have turned a blind eye to the fact pheasants are non-native over most of their current range. In truth, their impact is undoubtably small compared with non-native predators like stoats, cats, and rats. They tend to prefer disturbed, agricultural habitats (though they have been recorded as competing with native prairie birds in North America) and feed primarily on cultivated foods, weeds, and insects.

Yes, they feed primarily on crops. They’re crop pests. They particularly like grains and small fruit crops, and can cause significant losses in grape vineyards and in small holdings.

So, why do we embrace the pheasant so unreservedly? Let’s face it, most of us don’t eat pheasant, so we get no benefit from the bird. But it seems its long historical association with people and the agricultural landscape have made it almost a domesticated species. And, as we put up with the chickens occasionally wreaking havoc in the garden, so we put up with the pheasants, too.

Summer Rock Concert

It’s a cicada; it must be summer.

The main cicada season doesn’t really start until the chorus cicadas (Amphisalta zealandica) come out after Christmas, but two weeks ago, we found a few chirping cicadas (Amphisalta strepitans) on the rocks around Okains Bay.

Cicadas are largish, as insects go, but they’re well camouflaged. Usually, you find them by sound. As with most insects, it’s the males that do the singing. The main part of a cicada’s song is made by flexing plates (tymbals) on top of the body. Built-in amplifiers (opercula) pump up the volume to an astonishing level. Cicadas are noisy. I don’t know if any of the New Zealand species have been tested, but the calls of some North American cicadas are over 105 decibels at a distance of 50 cm. That’s nearly as loud as a rock concert (115 decibels). When the chorus cicadas here in New Zealand come out in large numbers, they can be so loud in some places that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.

Some New Zealand cicadas add an extra feature to their song—a bit of drumming called clapping. The cicada snaps the leading edge of its wings against a branch to make a sharp click. Females also clap, and I’ve read (though I’ve never tried it) that you can call the males to you by snapping your fingers.

There are about 2500 species of cicada worldwide. Because of their size and volume, they seem to be culturally important wherever they live. They are eaten as food in many areas, and sometimes used as fish bait. Growing up, my siblings and I used to collect the shed exoskeletons of cicadas and attach them to our clothing like jewellery. When I lived in Panama, the children would catch cicadas and tie strings to their feet, then carry them like helium balloons, flying on the end of the string.

Wherever they live, they mark the seasons. Here in New Zealand, and in America where I grew up, summer hasn’t really started until the cicadas sing.

Loud singing? Drumming? Must be a summer rock concert!

Orange Cake

Having friends over is such a good excuse to bake. I normally wouldn’t experiment for guests, but I was pretty sure of the orange cake I tried out on Saturday, because I based it on my lemon cake recipe.

It’s a close race, but I think I may like the orange version even better than the lemon. I filled the cake with gooseberry jam and drizzled it with a simple orange icing, both of which nicely set off the cake itself.

Here’s the recipe. I suggest trying the lemon version also, to see which you prefer. You might need to make them both several times to decide.

1 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 eggs, separated
grated rind of 1 orange
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup barley flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup threaded coconut

In a medium bowl, mix flours, salt, and baking powder. In a large bowl, cream butter. Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy. Add egg yolks and orange rind and continue to beat. Add dry ingredients alternately with orange juice and water. Beat thoroughly after each addition. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites and coconut. Pour into greased pans. Bake at 180ºC (350ºF) for 30 minutes.

Orange frosting: Sift 1 cup confectioners sugar into a small bowl. Stir in orange juice by the teaspoon until the icing reaches a thick, just pourable consistency (I used about 2 Tbsp total).