Christmas Adventure–Gillespie Circuit

The family’s Christmas tramp this year took us to the Gillespie Circuit Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The trip was a good adventure, through a dramatic landscape we don’t often hike in.

Day one started with a jet boat from Makarora to the confluence of the Wilkin and Makarora Rivers. It was my first jet boat ride, and I’ll admit my inner teenager was grinning as we slalomed down the river in a noisy, environmentally unsustainable fashion my adult self disapproves of.

From the mouth of the Wilkin River, we hiked upstream. It was decidedly the least interesting four hours of the trip—the area is grazed, so it was primarily a slog through a cow paddock. The track then turned into the forest and climbed steadily up Siberia Stream to Siberia Hut, where we spent two nights.

On day two, we took a day trip to Crucible Lake. The track to the lake is quite steep, but worth every step. The lake sits in a basin behind a massive glacial moraine. The glacier above the lake drops chunks of ice into the water, making it look like an enormous punch bowl. Apparently it’s popular to take a dip in the lake, but we were deterred by the ice and the cool morning air. The scale of the landscape is deceptive, and photos don’t come close to capturing it.

Day 3, Christmas Day, dawned lightly overcast—perfect for the next stage of the hike, over Gillespie Pass. The track climbs steeply over 1000 metres to the pass, first through the forest, and then into alpine scrub and tussock. Mount Awful looms over the pass, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by jagged peaks and glaciers. The taller peaks, including Mount Awful, were shrouded in cloud, but the views were nonetheless spectacular. We even got a slightly white Christmas, hiking through a couple of snow patches near the top of the pass.

If we thought the way up was steep, the way down proved us wrong—it was even steeper, dropping down a precipitous ridge to the top of the Young River. From there, the nearly flat hike to Young Hut afforded plenty of opportunity to admire the rocky ridges above and the many waterfalls cascading down from them.

Day 4 was a long but relatively gentle hike along the Young River to the Makarora River through the forest. Crossing the thigh-deep Makarora River back to the car was a refreshing end to the trip.

Being a Christmas hike, the trip naturally inspired another bad tramping Christmas song. This year’s song is to the tune of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Have yourself a merry tramping Christmas.
Make the trailside gay.
From now on our cars will be so far away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy tramping days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Sleeping near to us—they snore!

Through the years we all will tramp together
If the joints allow,
Even when we’re eighty, though I don’t know how.
So have yourself a merry tramping Christmas now.

May you all have a lovely holiday filled with your favourite people doing your favourite things!

The Gift of Rain

purple cauliflower
Purple cauliflower enjoying the rain

It’s unusual to have three days of rain in December. Usually, I’m desperately trying to keep the garden watered while the vegetables are in their early summer growth phase. Usually, I’m doing a pre-Christmas weeding of vegetables and perennials that will carry me into January with minimal weeds.

Not this year. It has been raining steadily for three days, after a week or so of showery weather. Every inch of the garden is thick with weeds, and continued rain means I’m not out there pulling them as they grow in size by the hour. I’ve braved the rain to pick vegetables for dinner and berries, which are rotting in the wet weather, but otherwise I’ve stayed indoors for three days.

I’m restless to get outside.

But I’m also thrilled with the excuse not to. Usually in December, I don’t manage to do much beyond garden work. So three days to make Christmas gifts, write, and get some nagging indoor chores done has been a gift.

It’s also been a gift to the garden. Much as I try, I can’t duplicate in watering the effect of a good rainstorm. The vegetables are growing as quickly as the weeds. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage  are all ready to eat. The pumpkin and zucchini plants seem to double in size every few hours. The beans have completely filled in their beds, beating out the weeds entirely. And the peas and lettuce have gotten a new lease on life, and will likely last a few more weeks than they would have otherwise.

So while I’d still rather be out in the garden, both me and the garden are taking full advantage of the gift we’ve been given.

cat at a window
The cat is a master of rainy day activity.

Fruits of the Season

strawberries and rhubarb

I made strawberry rhubarb jam last weekend, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. Currants, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and blueberries are also beginning to colour up.

The peas are filling out so fast it’s hard to keep up with them, and every broccoli plant is sporting a ready-to-eat flower head. Carrots and onions are just hitting picking size, adding crunch and colour to meals.

The cabbages are bulking up, promising to be ready for sauerkraut making on Christmas eve (our ‘traditional’ sauerkraut making day). And the broad beans are all ready to eat, and coming to their glorious end.

In short, the summer cornucopia is filling up and spilling over.

We will host fourteen people for dinner tomorrow, and I hardly have to hit the grocery store to feed everyone. Some alcohol and cheese is all I need to supplement what’s in the garden (need being a loosely applied term here, of course). It’s what I love most about a summertime Christmas—the sense of abundance that accompanies the celebrations.

vegetables from the garden

Of course, the garden’s abundance also means there’s an extra pile of holiday work picking and preserving, weeding and watering all that produce. But there’s something festive about the work when you can hum Christmas carols while you’re at it. The piles of fresh vegetables and summer fruit in the kitchen are the reward for every tired muscle and late-evening preserving session. And thankfully, we’ve got long summer days in which to get all the work done.

Christmas Baking Makeover

I grew up in North America, with all the traditional Christmas things—snow, dark days and long nights, crackling fires, Christmas lights, cookies, pies, hot drinks—Norman Rockwell might have painted my childhood Christmases.

Nearly 17 years ago, we moved to New Zealand, to summertime Christmases. Here, strawberries, cherries, and long summer days herald the season. 

I always loved the baking aspect of Christmas in North America—Mum amassed dozens of types of cookies in the freezer in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The kids always got involved in the baking, and we’d gorge on cookies through the holidays.

I still love baking, but I struggle to dredge up much enthusiasm for Christmas cookies here. With fresh early summer fruits in season, it seems ridiculous to bake cookies that capitalise on stored foods like dried fruits, nuts and chocolate. What I crave is strawberry tarts, black currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. Or better yet, fresh fruit salad—forget the baking altogether.

Out of a sense of nostalgia, I’ve continued to bake a few Christmas cookies every year, alongside the fruit desserts, but 2021 might be the year that changes.

As everyone has experienced this year, supply chains are disrupted worldwide. It has led to shortages of various items from foods to electric cars. A few weeks ago, most of the brown sugar in New Zealand was recalled, because of lead contamination that occurred during shipping. We all dutifully threw away our brown sugar, and wanted to buy more. Of course, there was none. There’s still none, weeks after the recall.

It looks like a staple of Christmas baking will be unavailable this year.

I admit I’m not terribly upset by it. I’ve been wanting to move more toward using locally produced honey instead of imported sugar, and this looks like the perfect opportunity to break the brown sugar habit. Also, it gives me an excuse not to make Christmas cookies, but to focus instead on enjoying the fruit that is already ripening in the garden.

This might be the year that my baking finally makes the switch to the Southern Hemisphere.

To make it even more tempting to go full Kiwi, Matariki has finally been made an official holiday. The Māori new year happens near the winter solstice in June—the perfect time for eating cookies and enjoying hot chocolate. I may have to start making Matariki cookies instead of Christmas cookies. I will enjoy them so much more at Matariki.

So bring on the fruit, some icy lemonade, and the sunscreen! Hold the brown sugar—I won’t be needing it. Christmas baking is getting a makeover.

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!