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.

Christchurch Quake, 10 years on

My 9 and 10-year-old students filed into the room today. 

“Where’s William?” one asked.

“He’s gone to the earthquake memorial,” I answered.

“What earthquake?”

I explained about the series of quakes Canterbury had endured, starting in September 2010 and including the one on 22 February 2011 that killed 185 people. These children had been babies at the time, or not even born yet.

“People died?” Fear shone in the girl’s eyes.

“Was it scary?” asked another child.

I paused, the memory of that day and the days after it playing through my mind.

“Yes. It was scary.”

“Even more scary than Covid? More scary than lockdown?”

Well … different.

These children were born into a quake-damaged city. A broken Christchurch is all they’ve ever known. They do not understand the ‘before’ and ‘after’ we adults do. They grew up in a landscape slowly settling into quiescence, and don’t know the sudden rupture of the solid foundation of life beneath them.

Or perhaps they do. Covid has shaken their world as much as the Canterbury quakes shook ours ten years ago. Perhaps they are not as physically rattled as we were, but their lives are disrupted, and life as they knew it is gone.

Ten years on from the quakes, the city’s scars are still visible. Empty lots remain where buildings once stood; the cathedral stands half-collapsed; in some places, shipping containers still protect passersby from the risk of building collapse.

But the quakes gave us opportunities to rethink the city. We now have more green space along the river. We have a spectacular central library that serves as a community hub. We have the Margaret Mahy playground, the High Street eateries, pocket parks, art and community spaces that didn’t exist pre-quake. We’ve got the Dance-O-Mat!

Covid hasn’t brought down our physical structures, but it has devastated social structures worldwide. It has shone a light on our ‘essential’ workers, highlighting that many are the most underpaid and overexploited people in society. It has emphasised the critical roles played by schools and preschools, whose staff are historically underpaid and poorly supported. It has highlighted the importance of local communities, science-based decision making, and disaster planning. It has reminded us painfully of the imbalance in gender roles and expectations in our society.

We need to allow Covid to change us as much as the earthquakes did. We need to let it drive us to rethink our values, our society, our expectations. Encourage us to find new ways to live our lives, to reflect upon those things we should be valuing more.

In the days and weeks after the February quake, help poured into Christchurch, much of it grassroots efforts by individuals or small groups. As a community, we remembered what we had perhaps forgotten in our daily rush and bustle. What is the most important thing in the world? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata! The people, the people, the people.

Disaster allows us to rise again, remade. Let us remember the lessons of the past as we move forward and envision a post-Covid world in which we remember what is most important. 

When Everything is a Gift

My stunted yellow corn.

I never expected much from this year’s vegetable garden. The soil test revealed a virtually sterile substrate, nutrient-free, stripped by decades of conventional agriculture and then scraped by the developer’s bulldozers. It will take years to improve the soil to the levels of my old garden. In the first year, I figured I’d be lucky to coax a few meals out of the garden.

There’s no question the vegetables I planted are suffering. The plants are half the size they should be, and many are yellow and senescing early for lack of nutrients.

But the compost, manure, and other organic fertiliser I’ve incorporated into the soil have done some good. We have plenty of onions, cucumbers, carrots, herbs and green beans. We are overwhelmed with zucchini. The soy beans and dry beans will all give harvests. Pumpkins swell on their vines. We’ve even eaten a few melons.

Every fruit feels like a gift.

I could be dismayed at the state of the garden—corn only waist high, tomatoes ripening at golf ball size, potatoes decimated by disease … but I know what the plants are up against. I know how hard they’re working to produce anything. I admire their effort and determination.

So, in spite of how pathetic the garden is, I am pleased. I feel blessed at every meal, and I look forward to an even better year next year.

Weekend Getaway

Carrington Peak

Over the long Waitangi Day weekend, we hiked up the Waimakariri River to Carrington Hut. Using Carrington Hut as a base, we took day walks to Kilmarnock Falls and Waimakariri Falls Hut.

The weather was glorious, and hiking on the riverbed, it was easy to cool off with a quick dip in icy water. The hike to Waimakariri Falls Hut was particularly rewarding: there are two ‘official’ falls on the river, and dozens of smaller streams dropping off the surrounding peaks in spectacular fashion, so you feel as though you’re walking through a watery wonderland.

Wading in to see Waimakariri Falls.

The upper falls, just below the hut, are hidden in a deep, narrow fissure in the rock. Waist deep in icy water is the only way to see the water roaring down—great fun, but not something you’d want to do on a cold day. 

Above the falls, the river is narrow enough to jump across with dry feet, and flows through a fabulous alpine landscape. We didn’t hike all the way to the snowfield where the river actually begins, but we were close. 

The fuzzy flower of a South Island edelweiss

My favourite two things on the hike were the South Island edelweiss (Leucogenes grandiceps), which looks like it was made out of felt by someone named Aunty Flo, and the river water itself. The water was crystal clear, yet colourful (the gorgeous turquoise of glacier-fed rivers) and full of substance. I could have watched it flow over the rocks for hours (come to think, I did watch it flow over the rocks for hours).

Waimakariri Falls Hut. The snowfield visible to the right of the hut is the source of the Waimakariri River.

Least favourite part of the hike was Carrington Hut. It’s a great hut in a stunning location, but last weekend, it felt as though everyone from Christchurch was there. Carrington Hut has 36 bunks, but only 1 toilet and 1 sink. With about 40 people in the hut and another 20 or so tenting nearby, it was way over its capacity. As usual, everyone was considerate and did their best to make it work, but it was still unpleasant.

All in all, a lovely weekend getaway, and an easy hike, as long as you’re comfortable with river crossings.

It’s Okay to Wilt

Last week, the temperature hit 38ºC (100ºF) two days in a row. Working at home those days, I sat on the polished concrete floor, because it remained a few degrees cooler than the air, which was blowing hot and dry from the northwest. My phone and computer kept overheating, and eventually I shut them down and switched to pen and paper.

At some point, I commented to my husband about the sad state of the vegetables in the garden. Every leaf was wilted, and the plants looked like they were only barely alive, in spite of the watering I’d done the previous day.

“Yes,” he remarked. “But remember, they’re supposed to do that.”

He’s right—wilting is part of a plant’s way of coping with heat. Wilted leaves expose less surface directly to the sun, conserving water and keeping temperatures within the leaf cooler. A wilted plant can’t grow or photosynthesise—permanent wilting is fatal—but it can allow the plant to survive while conditions are harsh so it can continue to thrive when conditions improve.

It strikes me that wilting is a lesson we could all learn from plants: ease up when times are tough.

How many of us have expected to keep going at our usual pace through all of life’s struggles—illness, children, death of loved ones, earthquakes, pandemic … I know I’ve been irritated with myself, pushed harder, forced myself through difficulties at full pace, only to find I didn’t actually move at the speed I wanted, or I messed things up and had to do them a second time, or I simply made my eventual collapse worse.

How much better would I have done if I’d allowed myself to wilt before the point of collapse? Maybe I could have asked for help, or lowered my standards, or simply given myself permission to relax for fifteen minutes, an hour, an afternoon.

I’ve gotten better at wilting—the wisdom of 50 years of life—but I could still improve. I just need to remember the garden during a summer heat wave.

2021 Crazy Cake Day #1

Many years ago, I tried to make vegetarian rolled fondant. It was a complete disaster.

So when my daughter asked for an octopus cake for her birthday, I first wondered if I could manage to do it in buttercream frosting. I quickly decided that, no, it was really only going to work in fondant. So …

I spent a couple of hours on Tuesday scouring the city for the ingredients. They were easier to find this time—vegetarianism has become more commonplace, so gelatine substitutes are now available in some mainstream grocery stores. I took it as a good sign. My fondant would work this time.

I baked the cake (chocolate), and made the filling (peanut butter), and on Wednesday sculpted the octopus’s body. After a night in the refrigerator, the cake was ready to cover in fondant. Thursday morning I got to work.

The first batch of fondant was marginal at best. It had little elasticity, and I had to roll it out in pieces, rather than one big sheet to cover the whole cake. No worries. I managed, and the result was only a little bit lumpier than I’d hoped.

But I’d used nearly all my fondant, and I still had eight legs to make.

So, I made another batch. This one would be better, of course, because it was the second try. And it seemed to be going better for a few minutes. But by the time it was finished, it was clear this batch had even less elasticity than the first. 

At least I didn’t have to roll it out thin. It worked fine for the legs, as long as I worked slowly and didn’t try to curl the legs too much.

It took quite a long time to smooth all that lousy fondant into what looked like one continuous animal, but eventually I managed. Then I had a fabulous time painting it, watching the octopus colouration take shape.

It took a bit of trial and error to work out how to make zillions of suckers—thinned fondant piped into balls, partly dried, and then shaped before allowing them to harden. Then it took ages to place them all. I finished up just as my husband was putting dinner on the table. 

It was a heck of a lot of work for one cake.

But the final octopus looks like it could swim away any moment. And more importantly, I think my daughter is truly impressed—a rare feat.

Aromatic Memories

Smells have amazing powers. They can conjure spirits.

I was chopping parsley and mint the other day to put in dinner and, as the combined smell wafted from the cutting board, I though of Rhian Jones.

I shared a house with Rhian and five other women during my last year at university. Yellow House, as we called the brightly painted Edwardian edifice, was a good place to live. Though all seven of us had different majors and different personalities, we shared a desire to make the place feel like home.

We all enjoyed cooking, and regularly shared food. Rhian made tabbouleh that sang with flavour. “Granny’s” tabbouleh, because the recipe came from her grandmother. I still have that recipe.

I haven’t thought about Rhian for years, but the mix of herbs under my knife the other day drew her into my kitchen. I heard her infectious snorting laughter, remembered her vast collection of colourful bras, and tasted her granny’s tabbouleh shared among us on hot summer days.

I don’t know what became of any of my housemates from that year, but it was lovely to have Rhian laughing in my kitchen thirty years later. I hope wherever she is, she’s still making tabbouleh.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.

Ugliest Cake Ever

Yesterday was a bad baking day, for sure. In the afternoon, I tried to make meringue with aquafaba, which we’ve done before with great success. Not so on this attempt. After nearly 40 minutes of beating, my meringue mixture was still nowhere close to being stiff enough. I tipped it into the compost pile.

Later, I made chocolate cupcakes using a tried-and-true recipe. What could go wrong? First, I was out of cupcake papers. No problem—I greased and floured two cake tins instead. The layers looked gorgeous coming out of the oven.

But fifteen minutes later when I tipped them out of their pans, they stuck. By the time I got them out, one layer had the entire bottom ripped off, and the other was in a dozen chunks. 

I should have broken up the rest of the cake and made a trifle out of it—it would have been an excellent trifle! But the whole inspiration for making cake was to make frosting for it from a half-block of cream cheese that had been sitting in the fridge for ages unused.

So I glued the layers together with generous slatherings of tart apricot jam from last year’s bumper apricot harvest, then topped it with my cream cheese frosting, which wasn’t enough to cover a whole cake, of course, since I only had half a block of cream cheese (would have been plenty for cupcakes…).

The result was …

“A remarkable recovery,” in my daughter’s words.

And I suppose it was, considering the crumbled mess I started with. Still, this is a cake to eat quickly and with closed eyes.

It is delicious, though. Especially with all that apricot jam glue holding it together.

Duck for Christmas

In the excitement of our pre-Christmas hike, I forgot to introduce the newest members of our menagerie—a pair of Indian runner ducks.

I looked into getting ducks years ago, based on the fact they like slugs, won’t tear up the vegetable garden, and lay eggs. I gravitated toward Indian runner ducks for their quirky looks and less water-dependent lifestyle. 

I ended up with chickens instead, because they were easy to get locally, and ducks were more difficult.

Three laying hens is about right for us, in terms of eggs. Unfortunately, a few months ago, before I had a proper fence constructed, one of my chickens escaped and never returned. So we’ve been a little light on eggs.

When someone posted in our community Facebook page (two days before our trip) that they had Indian runner ducks to give away, I couldn’t pass up the chance.

These two are ducklings, and won’t be giving eggs for a while (if they’re even females … we’re not certain), but they’ve been quite entertaining, and I look forward to letting them loose in the vegetable garden once I’ve finished the fence.

The chickens, with whom they’re housed, weren’t at all amused at first and are still thoroughly offended when the ducks go for a swim in the drinking water, but for the most part the birds ignore each other.

I look forward to finishing the entire garden fence so I can let the ducks loose among the vegetables. 

Christmas on the Heaphy Track

Our pre-Christmas tramp this year took us to Kahurangi National Park to walk the Heaphy Track. The trip was simultaneously spectacular and miserable.

The Heaphy Track follows the path of a proposed road, and as such is gently graded—it’s a technically easy walk. So easy it’s almost boring. But it passes through some spectacular landscapes teeming with remarkable flora and fauna.

Day 1 began for us at 5.30 am when we awoke in the Collingwood Campground to our tent being blown flat by the wind and rain. We quickly decamped and retreated to a shelter to wait for the rain to let up before starting our hike.

Unfortunately, the rain outlasted our patience, so we started out under a heavy fall that had us soaked within minutes. The steady climb was largely unremarkable. The rain eventually cleared and we reached Perry Saddle Hut under a sunny sky.

Day 2 was more eventful, with two endangered species sightings by 7 am. The first was a takahe browsing the grasses just outside the hut as we finished breakfast. This critically endangered bird, the world’s largest rail, was presumed extinct for 50 years. Its population now numbers just 445.

Minutes down the track, with rain setting in again, we nearly stepped on our second endangered species of the day—a Powelliphanta snail—a fist-sized carnivorous snail. Without the rain, we never would have seen these nocturnal, moisture-loving animals. We counted ourselves lucky.

Under increasing rainfall, we made our soggy way across Gouland Downs and then the weird and wonderful Mackay Downs. We explored caves and admired huge glacial erratics tossed like giant bowling balls over the landscape. Weka (another endemic rail) with chicks in tow scurried around our legs every time we stopped for a break, waiting for us to let down our guard so they could make off with a snack.

We reached Mackay Hut drenched, but the worst of the rain was yet to come. Half an hour later, the sky opened up and the wind rose. The torrent sheeted down, spilling off the hut roof like someone was tossing buckets of water over the edge. It didn’t let up until nearly 4 am the following day.

Again we set out in the rain, this time into a landscape scoured and still gushing water. But again the rain held delights—another giant snail, sundews lining the track, enormous 700-year-old southern rata trees, waterfalls in all directions, sprays of flowering bamboo orchids dripping from tree trunks, a mistletoe with scarlet flowers … That evening—Christmas eve—drying out in Heaphy Hut, we composed a New Zealand tramping ballad as a family:

T’was the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the hut
I sure wasn’t stirring; I was sitting on my butt.
A cup of tea nestled warm in my hand.
I ate lots of scroggin, expanding my waistband.
Out on the porch, the weka did play,
Hauling our shoes and our stockings away.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter
I limped from my bench to see what was the matter.
The sun on the roof of the dunny nearby
Made me shade my eyes as I peered up to the sky.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a trio of cheeky, mischievous kea.
With can opener beaks and curious minds
The birds tore apart everything they could find.
When done on the roof they moved on to our packs
Eating their fill of our Christmas Day snacks.

With our stockings all gone and no snacks to eat,
We still had a Christmas that couldn’t be beat.

Christmas morning dawned and the last ragged storm clouds blew away, leaving brilliant blue skies and blooming rata trees for our last leg along the coast under dense stands of nikau palms.

We ended with a quick dip in the Kohaihai River (very quick—it was ice water) and the long drive home. A most enjoyable Christmas!