We farewelled 2007 on a wooden deck overlooking a landscape reminiscent of something idyllic, Italian. On closer inspection the banana trees and black-trunked ferns give it away, but the hills, softly, pinkly, lit recalled instantly the intake of breath that pushing open the shutters in Siena inspired a couple of years ago. Clichéd though Tuscany may be, in reality it is as breath-taking as the profusion of memoirs and calendars implore us, endlessly, to believe. New Zealand is as amazing, a whole lot quieter and blissfully, a whole lot closer, too. The beach at Hahei is pristine, the water an arresting pale blue. I would float on my back, eyes shut against the fierce sun, buoyed by gentle, calming waves.
The orchard we stayed on is working toward its official Organic Certification. An arduous and bureaucratic process. My step-son Edward, the eldest at seventeen, cracked a small net of their exquisite macadamias one afternoon (and yes, he did make many, many unnecessary ‘nut-cracking’ jokes in the process) for his cousin Samantha, the youngest of the lot, to coat in chocolate. They were swooped upon by all the following evening.
A rafter of turkeys, ranging freely around the orchard, would erupt into an hilarious wave of outrage, gobbling at the slightest movement and I couldn’t help thinking how lucky they were, given the recent bout of festivities. The silvery quail that would make himself at home in the (beautiful) garden each dusk was my favourite. Then there were the Tui’s, clicking and whistling as they swooped in to feast and the leggy Pukekos that generously allowed me to get just a glimpse of their nest.
Cooking? Not a lot. For the most part, I was cooked for. Strangely, I didn’t miss the kitchen commandant that I have channeled in the past on these holidays. A Christmas platter of mum’s home-cured gravlax with deep pink edges (the best use of grated beetroot I’ve come across in some time) glistening in soft folds at the centre of the table was a culinary highlight. A salad of mangoes and prawns with crisp, sugar-and-sea-salt-coated walnuts and another of triangular wedges of feta and watermelon, studded with glossy black olives sat on either side. Simple, celebratory. In New Zealand, the family took turns cooking for one another over ten days – a bubbling cauldron of moong dahl my singular, well-received contribution - and I discovered, among many things, hot-smoked tuna (just three words…oh, so much more) flaked into chunks and served with Michelle’s still-warm bread and dollops of wasabi-laced mayonnaise. Best of all was the smoked roe. If I cannot find it locally, I will have to start importing the stuff. In frighteningly large quantities to suffice my own, burgeoning, needs.
For those of you who come here for the food, all I can offer is an apology for the serious lack of a recipe. I don’t know about you, but it's been hard finding the kick-start this year needed. Maybe it was the sun that did it (I am now the proud owner of a deep, dark tan); maybe the swimming (worth staying in and getting wrinkly as a prune for), or perhaps it was the great company (both at ‘home’ in Sydney – a confusing notion of home, mine – and with my bloke’s family in New Zealand). Whatever it was, last week was nigh impossible to get motivated. By Saturday I was pottering away in the kitchen, singing to myself and layering different vegetables for a lasagne. Too rich for these summer days, but at least I was cooking again. The wild rocket planted last year was one of the few things that thrived in (and, indeed, survived in) the heat during our three week absence. I grabbed a few snappy handfuls and dressed them with good, grassy olive oil and grain mustard. It was perfectly delicious. Watch this space. Recipes, soon.
It will be a good year, this one. I can feel it already, deep within my bones.