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.

Spring Bounty

What a difference two weeks make!

Last time I went to the grocery store, I scanned the isles looking for a few decent seasonal vegetables, because there was little in the garden.

But virtually by the time I’d brought the vegetables home, the garden exploded with good things to eat.

Artichokes and asparagus are both coming on strong. Every day a new cauliflower suddenly bursts, creamy-white among the leaves. The purple sprouting broccoli plants are covered in florets. The spinach and lettuces seem to double in size every day, providing crisp springtime salads. 

It seems we’ve gone from famine to feast overnight. I shouldn’t be surprised; it happens every year. But it’s always a delight.

Chilli and Chips

Sometimes, I work long and hard to create a fancy meal. I worry about taste and presentation, and fuss with every detail. Other times, a meal just comes together, and ends up as beautiful in the dish as in the mouth, with very little work.

I made a simple chilli the other day to go with a pair of ripe avocados. There was nothing to the chilli—kidney beans, grated carrot, chopped tomatoes, onion, and a whole lot of herbs and spices. My husband made guacamole and grated some cheddar cheese. While the chilli simmered, I made up my fabulous corn chips (so tasty and so easy to make). 

Suddenly, we had a glorious meal—beautiful colours, textures and flavours—and I felt like I’d hardly worked for it. Nice when it all works out that way.

If at First You Don’t Succeed …

A few weeks ago, my dentist rang. not to tell me I was overdue for a checkup, but to ask if I wanted any hazelnuts (we have a long history of trading produce—I try not to arrive at an appointment without some gift from the garden). 

Turns out his hazelnut gift was 10 kilos of nuts! So I’ve been using hazel nuts in everything lately. And, of course, my thoughts turned to homemade Nutella.

There are plenty of recipes online. I chose this one and had a go. The only change I made was to use dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.

The result was quite good, but not nutty enough for my taste—the chocolate to nut ratio was too high, swamping the flavour of the nuts. It also set too hard—probably because I used dark chocolate instead of the milk chocolate called for in the recipe. 

Of course, that means I’ll just have to make it again … you know, to get it right. I have plenty of hazelnuts.

If at first you don’t succeed …

A Day Off

Cathedral of red beech

Sunday dawned warm and sunny, and I prepared myself for another day of hard work in the garden, in spite of my aching back. It would be a crunch to finish what I needed to stay on track—my garden to-do lists get longer each week, and I don’t dare fall behind at this time of year.

Meanwhile, my husband was fretting about the lectures he still needed to prepare for this week. But he’s much better at relaxation than I am. Before I had a chance to gather my tools, he suggested a hike instead of a day of work.

So we ignored our pesky to-do lists and enjoyed a day at Hinewai. 

Hinewai Reserve is privately owned, and encompasses 1250 hectares of the outer Banks Peninsula. It includes a glorious mix of vegetation types.

The track forms an avenue within a dense kānuka stand.

Probably the most impressive are the 50 hectares of old growth forest. The red beech create a green cathedral, shading out much of the undergrowth. The effect is in stark contrast to the dense kānuka stands that blanket other parts of the reserve.

At this time of year, the gorse is in full bloom. Management at Hinewai allows this invasive weed to grow, because it provides an effective nursery for native trees. Eventually, the native plants will overtop the gorse and shade it out, but in areas recently disturbed by fire, the gorse is thick. On Sunday, the tops of the hills looked like they’d been capped with bright yellow snow, for all the gorse.

Gorse in full bloom in a recently burned area.

With 330 species of native vascular plants, and 60 species of fern (including six species of tree fern), Hinewai is probably the most diverse site on the Banks Peninsula. We never fail to see interesting things when we visit. This visit was no exception. A bright purple fungus creeping along a rotting branch was probably the most unusual find on Sunday, but we were treated to tree fuchsia in bloom, kererū swooping overhead, and pīwakawaka and tomtits flitting around among leafy lacebarks, kahikatea, tōtara, and kōwhai. I enjoyed seeing my favourite filmy ferns, with their translucent fronds. Large quantities of ongaonga (tree nettle) supported the red admiral butterflies that were enjoying the warm day along with us, flitting through the dappled light in the forest.

View down to Otanerito/Long Bay

And, of course, as with most spots on the Banks Peninsula, the views from the clearings at Hinewai were spectacular. 

My weekend to-do list forgotten, I had a lovely day enjoying the outdoors. Next weekend’s list is necessarily longer now, but it was good to take a day off. I must remember to do that more often.

 

Too Good Not to Share

A few of the two dozen or so loaves from Saturday.

Saturday was a bread day, so while I headed to the garden in the morning, my husband began making up the dough and getting the fire lit in the oven. As I worked, the familiar scent of wood smoke wafted across the yard. The bread oven smell is different from the smell of the wood burner or a brush fire—from the first wisp of smoke, it declares itself a cooking fire. The smell always gives me a sense of well-being. It tells me that soon there will be a bounty of baked goods, and we will eat well for days on the delicious things we’ll bake.

Bread days are always busy—baking is done on top of the gardening, mowing, and cleaning on the weekend’s to-do list. By mid-day Saturday, I had planted out my peas and hauled a dozen loads of compost to the garden, and the kitchen was full of rising loaves in a variety of shapes and sizes. It was time for me to join the baking. While my husband managed the bread, I chopped vegetables for what would become dinner. 

It was an especially hot oven Saturday. Pitas baked in seconds, kaiser rolls in a handful of minutes, the vegetables came out beautifully caramelised in no time, and focaccia bubbled up quickly and came out sizzling. While the larger loaves baked, I mixed up pound cake and hazelnut biscotti to slip into the oven after the bread was through. 

Dinner was a feast of roast vegetables and salad greens stuffed into fresh pita breads followed by pound cake and biscotti—a celebration of good food after a day of intense work. The only problem with it was there was no one besides us to share it with.

(For those of you who missed it a few years ago, you can check out our kitchen during a bread day in this time lapse video.)

Time Travel over a Cup of Coffee

I had every intention of blogging something cheerful about springtime this week, but when I sat down in my usual cafe to write the week’s blog, I was confronted with my future … still hopefully many years away, but it reminded me to appreciate today and make the most of every day.

I ordered my coffee and tucked myself into a seat, determined to get some writing done.

Seconds later, she sat down at the table next to me, appropriating my attention before I’d even pulled out my pen.

How her hip hurt her! Up at three AM with the pain. Cup of tea to help her get back to sleep. Lemon in her tea, not milk—she wouldn’t drink something that looked like dirty dishwater. But, then, you know what happens after a cuppa. Up an hour later to pee, and then, well, you may as well get up.

She rattled on for twenty minutes—a live blog post of the worst kind—rambling, comprehensive and incomprehensible, exposing her loneliness, her sense of purpose lost in deteriorating hips and retired life.

She grasped at relationships—her neighbours who looked after one another, as all neighbours need to do.The old woman at the grocery store who needed help with her bags. But she needed no help, not yet, while she watched her friends fail.

Her friend in a nursing home who had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

She visited her friend in a nursing home. Younger than her but needing help. She had a wee flat, complete with bathroom and kitchen. Had I seen those before? She had no idea homes had flats. She had only ever seen single rooms.

But when she’d visited her friend in a nursing home, she’d had a kitchen. It was like a wee flat. Had I seen those before?

A scratch in the vinyl record of her memory—she skipped like an old 45. By the third repeat, I saw the despair deep in her eyes. How much longer could she fool herself, her children? How much longer could she cling to autonomy, freedom, purpose? How long before she joined her friends in the incarceration of age?

Lessons from a Stone Plant

It was a silly little gift, perched at the top of my stocking on Christmas morning—a tiny stone plant. It wasn’t much to look at—a few fleshy leaves and that was it. I put it on my office windowsill, where I could watch it grow.

But it didn’t do much—just sat there looking like a pebble.

In March, it grew two new leaves, and I expected it to get bigger, but two old leaves shrank in time with the new ones’ expansion. A month later it looked exactly as it had before.

I’d nearly given up on it ever doing anything interesting, when a bud emerged from the centre of the plant. It was different from the new leaves that had sprouted earlier. The sprout grew into an unmistakable flower bud, and I wondered if the stone plant’s flower would be as unassuming as the plant itself.

Then it opened. It was only one, but it was spectacular, coming from such a nothing of a plant.

It reminded me of some people I know—unassuming at first, but capable of spectacular things if nurtured and given time. A good reminder to always be patient and nurture those around us—you never know what they may blossom into.