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!

Navettes Sucrées—Sugar Shuttles

I tried a new cookie today–Navettes Sucrées–from The Gourmet Cookie Book. I’ve recommended this book before and it’s worth doing again—not only are the recipes great, but the interior book design is an absolute delight.

Sugar shuttles apparently appeared in Gourmet Magazine in 1951, but the recipe originated in France, and has clearly been around for a very long time. I’d wager the original makers of sugar shuttles would have been surprised to find them in a high-end cooking magazine.

The ingredients are simple, and most are the sort of things that would have been available to subsistence farmers in pre-industrial times—flour, butter, eggs. The scant sugar—once a luxury—is mostly on the outside of the cookie, making them seem sweeter than they really are. 

The method also speaks of antiquity. The ingredients are placed together in a bowl and kneaded by hand to create a dough. Only the refrigeration step in the modern recipe is out of place, and for this very stiff dough it’s hardly necessary.

And of course, the name refers to the shape of loom shuttles—no doubt a common object to homesteaders of the past.

The resulting cookie is as basic and satisfying as the recipe itself—simple flavours with a little sparkly bling from the sugar crust. One can imagine eating them in some remote cottage in the French Alps three hundred years ago.

Here’s the recipe:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar (+ extra for coating)
1/4 tsp salt
60 g (1/4 cup) soft butter
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla

Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a bowl. Add the butter, 2 egg yolks, and vanilla. Knead until the dough is well blended. Refrigerate 2 hours. Divide the dough into pieces the size of a small walnut and shape each piece into an oblong about 5 cm (2 in) long and 1 cm (1/2 inch) wide. Dip each in lightly beaten egg white and roll in granulated sugar. Bake on a buttered baking sheet at 175ºC (350ºF) for 8 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove immediately from the pans and cool on a rack. Makes 20.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas day dinner–no cooking required.

Much of the world has entered the holiday season under the threat of Covid. Holiday gatherings, a highlight for many, are necessarily smaller or cancelled altogether.

For some, a Christmas without parties and large family gatherings will seem … well, not like Christmas at all. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I talk to my family about their holiday plans, and there’s a lot of similarity in what they are going through to what my husband and I have gone through as expats. We’re used to holidays far from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We know how the ghosts of family-filled Christmases past haunt the table set for two on Christmas eve. We’ve learned how to fill the holidays with meaning even if we can’t fill them with loved ones. I imagine most other expats have done the same.

It occurred to me that the lessons we’ve learnt are applicable to those stuck at home due to Covid. So here are some musings on how we’ve navigated (and come to love) solo holidays.

  • Treat yourself the way you’d treat guests. Do you usually make a special dinner Christmas Day? Cook it for your household, even if that’s only two people. Do you stay up late partying to ring in the new year? Well, put on the stereo and dance, no matter how few you are.
  • If the previous idea raises too many ghosts for you, create new ‘traditions’ instead. Throw out the holiday rulebook. Instead of a party, go for a hike with your household. Instead of buying a live tree, get creative and make one with your immediate family out of whatever’s lying around the house. Instead of a formal meal in the dining room, have pizza and popcorn while watching a movie on the couch. The more different the new tradition, the less likely those Christmas ghosts will show up. Just make the new plan as much of a treat as the old (not simply your usual routine). 
  • Dress up. Staying home? Put your party clothes on anyway. It will make the day feel special, even if all you do is lie around reading books.
  • Share with family and friends far away. This is so much easier today than it was 27 years ago when my husband and I had our first Christmas overseas. Then, I wrote letters describing our Christmas punch and mailed photos of our tiny Christmas tree. These days, we share via telephone, Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not the same as being there, I know, but I am thankful for the opportunities we have to be ‘together’ for the holidays.
  • Focus on what you can gain, not what you’re losing. Quiet time with your partner and/or children. Time alone to do what you want, not what the whole gang wants. Freedom from the intense cooking, cleaning and planning that go into hosting holiday events. A chance to re-think your holiday traditions. A reprieve from that loud uncle who always drinks too much and starts talking politics … I’m sure there are plenty of things you’ll happily miss out on this year.

No question about it, this year’s holiday is going to be different from normal for most people. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Make the most of the opportunities to try something different this year. Who knows? Maybe something you do this year will become part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Combating Seasonal Exhaustion

The days are long now, and our summer has officially begun. Weeds crowd crops in the garden, and the harvest of spring fruits and vegetables is in full swing.

End of the school year events crowd people’s schedules, and children are restive and eager for the upcoming summer holidays.

Retailers remind us there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. The house still lacks decorations.

The 2020 goals list dares me to get just a few more tasks ticked off, and everyone wants things done and dusted in the next two weeks.

There’s hardly a moment to sleep, and the long summer days encourage us to stay up late and get up early to accomplish our ever-lengthening to-do list.

Add the stress of a year of chaos, disruption and fear, and everyone is suffering from seasonal exhaustion.

I sit down to compose a blog post, and am distracted by an incoming e-mail with an urgent request. I write the day’s to-do list, and promptly lose it in the shuffle of random items cluttering my desk. I have to set alarms on my phone so I don’t forget meetings. I try to do a little editing, and can hardly keep my eyes open.

I see fatigue in the eyes of coworkers and students, of friends and family. I hear it in e-mails from colleagues. We’re all suffering from seasonal exhaustion compounded by a dumpster-fire of a year.

We all need kindness and understanding right now.

Which is why I’ve decided to go on a pay-it-forward spree until Christmas. I’m sure that in the next few weeks at work, I’m going to visit the cafe next door more frequently than usual for a pick-me-up coffee. I’ve decided that every time I get a coffee for myself, I’ll buy one for the next person in line. Hopefully, it will make them smile. Maybe it will inspire them to do the same. Maybe a whole string of exhausted coffee-drinkers will get more than a caffeine hit, but a lift to their spirits as well, as they both receive a gift from the person before them and give one in return. 

And with smiles on their faces, maybe they’ll say a kind word to someone, and that person will pass on the kindness to someone else, who will in turn pass it on to another person.

And maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the impact of giving a cup of coffee to a stranger.

But maybe I’m not.

I’m willing to take that risk and do my best to spread kindness. We could all use it right now.

Oh Christmas Tree!

This time last year, I wrote a blog post about Christmas trees and our family’s unorthodox take on them. I argued that, while our trees may not look like the traditional pine tree, they embody the spirit of the season.

This year’s tree is no exception. After years of suggesting we build the tree out of LEGO, the kids finally agreed. For over a week, the living room floor was a construction zone, strewn with LEGO bricks, mini-figures and gears. The two-metre-tall central structure took two evenings of negotiation, planning and construction. Then there were the branches—marvels of LEGO engineering.

Then came the whimsy—that took the longest. A combination staircase/ ladder/ escalator/ elevator winds upward from level to level. A waterwheel turns lazily on the eighth floor. Gravity takes a holiday as a kayaker paddles straight up, trailing his pet shark on a lead beside him, and emergency personnel (including the undead) carry an injured person up the side of a column. Mini-figures evoke Escher on a section of staircase. A large ship juts from both sides of the trunk, as though the tree grew into place around it. A man fishes from the ninth floor. Motorised gears turn a fantasy clock, spin a merry-go-round, drive a hammer in a dwarven workshop, and spin a star. Under the lowest branches, a kiosk sells tickets to visit the tree.

And all that is before ornaments were added.

Now, mini-figures greet Santa Claus, and a giant butterfly takes flight from the top of the tree. Snowflakes, baubles, and our eclectic mix of homemade ornaments (including the Christmas tardigrade, quite a few insects, and possibly the only Trichonympha ornament on the planet) add to the seasonal cheer. To the Christmas purist, I’m certain our tree is an abomination.

But … evenings of family fun, laughter and creativity—the Christmas season doesn’t get any better. 

See the tree in action:

 

A Trifle More Christmas Baking

Okay, so I wrote the Christmas Baking blog post a couple of days ago, and then this happened. We picked another mountain of fruit this morning, and it happened to be a bread day. My original plan was to bake a pie, but my husband agitated for a trifle, but without the custard, which he’s not fond of.

So into the baking rotation went a lemon cake. Once it was cool, I sliced it and layered it with fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, black currants and blueberries), raspberry sauce, and a mixture of cream cheese, whipped cream, sugar and vanilla (inspired by this trifle recipe, but I measured nothing, and ignored most of the directions).

Just making it made everyone smile. Eating it … Oh my! I think I have a new favourite Christmas dessert!

Christmas Baking

When I was a kid, my mother would start her Christmas baking just after Thanksgiving. She’d bake dozens of kinds of cookies and freeze them. For weeks before the big day, there would be a big platter of cookies—a few of each of the types she’d made—out for eating. It was a child’s dream. I don’t remember her making anything but cookies for holiday desserts. We certainly didn’t need anything else, with all those cookies available.

Before moving to New Zealand, my holiday baking was similar (though with only one child eating cookies, I didn’t make quite so many as my mother did—she had three young cookie eaters). But it’s changed a lot since then.

Cookies are made with ingredients that store well—flour, butter, sugar, nuts—that’s great for winter baking, when fresh ingredients are hard to come by. But Christmas falls at the height of the summer fruit season here—it’s no wonder the traditional Christmas dessert here is pavlova—a meringue ring filled with fresh fruit (Unfortunately, I’m really not fond of meringue).

At the moment on our property, we are harvesting black currants, red currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries. With as much as 10 kilograms of fruit coming in every two days, much of that harvest goes into jam, sauces, chutney, or simply gets frozen for later use. But it would be a shame not to bake with that fruit, in favour of cookies, which I can make any time of the year.

So we’ve been enjoying strawberry shortcake, currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. For breakfast, we’ve been eating waffles smothered in fruit, and muffins studded with fruit. For snacks, and with every meal, we’ve been eating fresh fruit—whatever hasn’t gone into baking or the freezer.

Oh, there are cookies, too (why not?). But it’s the fruit I snitch while walking through the kitchen, and it’s the pie I crave for dessert.

Some day I’ll dispense with the cookies entirely … Maybe I’ll even learn to like pavlova.

The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

Growing up, my parents had an artificial Christmas tree. It was hauled out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving and assembled and decorated, ushering in the Christmas season.

I remember one year having a real tree—I loved the smell in the closed-up winter house.

When my husband and I married, we spent a few years finding our Christmas tree tradition. For the first two years, we had an eight-inch tall artificial tree in our mud house in Panama. After we returned to the US, we wanted something bigger. So we spent months making a six-foot papier-mache tree, binding on raffia needles and painting bark on the branches. It was a labour of love, and we used it until we had to move across the country, and knew it wouldn’t survive the experience. 

Then babies happened, and for a few years, our Christmas trees were real trees—there was no time or energy for creativity in those early years.

By the time we moved to New Zealand, we were settled into the parent routine enough to be creative again. And summer Christmases invited creativity. We fashioned trees out of driftwood, dead branches pruned off trees in the yard, an old fishing net, fencing wire and flax stalks, copper plumbing, live runner beans—most trees were inspired by what was lying around the property at the time.

Last year, we fashioned a DNA strand as a Christmas tree. Elegant and simple.

This year, we went for crazy, creating an architectural monstrosity from cardboard boxes.

You might wonder what the point is—wouldn’t it be easier and more, well, Christmasy to do a more traditional tree? Yes. But what is a Christmas tree for?

I view a Christmas tree as a focal point—somewhere for family to gather. Our trees have always been decorated with ornaments that have a history—maybe they were made by someone special, or given by a friend, or came from an exotic location. Decorating the tree has always been a time to celebrate the family stories behind the ornaments.

Why shouldn’t that family activity extend to making the tree itself? This year’s tree took a lot of time to make, and we spent several evenings as a whole family working on it—making a tremendous mess of the living room, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and creativity. That’s exactly what Christmas traditions should do.

So, perhaps our trees don’t meet the traditional definition of a Christmas tree, but I think they embody the spirit of the season.

A-Z of Thankfulness–#3

Here’s the final instalment, posted on Christmas day, I hope you all find much to be thankful for today and every day.

Sunshine—The counterpoint to rain, and just as necessary for the garden. It’s also critical for my mental health, and I try to make the most of our sunny days.

Teeth—Where would we be without them? I wish I had appreciated them earlier in life and taken better care of them when I was a teen.

Ukuleles—Who can resist smiling while listening to ukulele music?

Vision—Not just my eyesight, though I appreciate that a great deal, but also the ability to look ahead at what could be. I’ve relied on vision the past twelve years, building a business, and then closing it to become a writer. Many days, that vision has been the only thing getting me out of bed in the morning.

Water—I have not truly experienced a lack of water—not as many people in the world have—but after losing our well in the 2010 earthquake, and experiencing a few years of drought, I have an appreciation for the ease with which I obtain water. I am thankful to have access to clean, safe water.

Xenophilia—The love of the unknown. I love the fact we humans don’t understand everything. I love the fact that in my backyard, there may be insects that have yet to be described by science. I love the fact there are discoveries to be made every day. I love that our world is populated by weird and wonderful life.

Yellow admirals—These butterflies, and all the native insects and spiders in my yard are a source of great pleasure to me. They help me tolerate the weeds, because they rely upon many of them for food and shelter.

Zucchini—How many ways can you eat zucchini? I don’t know, but I love them all. I always plant too many zucchini, and I end up wondering what on earth I’m going to do with them, but they are a wonderful summer staple in our kitchen.