If you believe what you read, we’re all trying to go back to a way of life more in keeping with that of our grandmothers. We’re growing our own organic vegetables and fruit, cooking everything from scratch, steering clear of processed food and churning out home-made cakes and biscuits like 40s housewives.
My grandmother Eva was a 40s housewife. She was 27 when she came to New Zealand from Basle. Over the next 40 or so years she spent many, many hours in her kitchen, cooking whole fillet steaks, veal and chicken casseroles, pork roasts and pot roasts; baking, bottling fruit from her garden, making sauerkraut in a large earthenware crock, and copying down recipes in a black lined exercise book.
Her kitchen was full of wonderful smells: fresh coffee (she ground her own and drank it by the potful), garlicky salami, spicy biscuits and strange-tasting sourdough bread. There were alpine scenes from Swiss calendars on the wall, a little wooden carving of the Lion of Luzerne on the window sill, Swiss biscuit tins and sugared almonds.
I came across her recipe book recently and was surprised at how similar our cooking styles were. What really surprised me, though, were the ingredients that went into her dishes – wine, garlic, lemons and a whole array of exotic spices plus various herbs that she grew herself. She also experimented with things like kohl rabi, risotto and gnocchi, which weren’t regional dishes where she came from or on many New Zealand dining tables at the time. There was lots of offal – liver, kidneys, tripe, brains, giblets – even a calf’s head, cooked in herbs and white sauce. There were also – and this is where my own style of cooking and hers part ways – terrifyingly huge amounts of cream and butter, baked fruit desserts, tarts and pies of all descriptions.
Forty years after she died, my three older sisters and I got together to recreate some of her recipes over a weekend in July. Sister #2 came over from Melbourne, sister #3 from Wanganui. We booked a bach in Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula, planned a menu and went shopping for ingredients.
The four of us drove down together on a Friday afternoon, set ourselves up in a wonderfully well-appointed kitchen at ‘Easterley’, near the beach in Tairua, and went to work.
In reality it wasn’t quite as straightforward. When I rang sister #1 and broached the idea she was enthusiastic about the food theme but had a few reservations about the logistics. “So, these baches,” she said. “Do they have horrible lumpy beds?”
I also mentioned I’d be bringing my dog.
“YOUR DOG?“ she cried. “WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO TAKE YOUR DOG? WE’RE NOT HAVING DOGS THERE!”
My dog stayed in Auckland. The beds at Easterley were spectacularly comfortable. And over three days we cooked dishes that would have made our grandmother proud.
Sister #1 picked up meat from the excellent Village Butchery in Mangere Bridge – an enormous slab of lean pork, manuka-smoked bacon, topside, continental sausages – and bunches of herbs from her garden. Sister #2 went shopping for shoes, boots, cosmetics and an entire winter wardrobe of new clothes.
Sister # 3 drove up from Wanganui with produce from her own garden: vegetables, lemons and walnuts, home-made pickles and bottled fruit.
I stocked up on wine, coffee, spices, baking ingredients and CDs. If we were going to be really true to our grandmother’s memory, our cooking might have been accompanied by yodelling, alpine horns and cowbells, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
We arrived in Tairua on Friday afternoon, and walked down to the beach, over pink-tinged sand, and up over the hill that looks out to sea. It’s a satisfying scenic walk, through bush, up little flights of wooden steps, and onto lookouts on small platforms at each level – the views of the bay becoming more spectacular as you climb higher. As the sun set over the hills, we made our way back to the bach and started cooking.
On Friday night, we made:
- Swiss cabbage - lightly fried cabbage with caraway and sausage
- Potatoes a la normande – sliced potatoes and onions layered with cream and topped with tomatoes
- Fleischkäse, a meat loaf of minced pork, topside and bacon
- To finish: chocolate and walnuts.
On Saturday we drove to Whitianga, further up the coast. It was a lovely drive, a steep, winding road through misty hills, with glimpses of the sea.
By the time we got to Whitianga it was pouring, so we drove down to the harbour to admire the view, had a hearty lunch at Velocity café, picked up some more supplies from New World and headed back to Tairua.
Saturday’s night’s dinner surpassed Friday’s:
- Onion soup – cooked slowly for hours so it was thick and flavoursome
- Pork and apple pie – pork, onion, apple and sage in a short pastry
- Rösti - a Swiss version of hash browns
- A layered salad of lettuce and fresh herbs, with dressing drizzled through each layer
- Dessert was ‘chocolate fluff’, a kind of chocolate mousse topped with cream and walnuts.
At any other time of year we might have eaten dinner on the expansive deck, but the rain persisted through Saturday night, so we settled in and concentrated on the food and wine.
Last up was breakfast on Sunday:
- Poor Knights - our grandmother’s version of French toast: bread soaked in egg and milk, fried in butter, sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon.
Four cooks need a reasonably sized space in which to cook (Easterley’s was ideal) but we managed to pick dishes that didn’t require all of us to be in the kitchen at the same time.
Being away from our own kitchens also meant no one needed to feel territorial or take charge, and because the four of us grew up with our mother’s mantra “CLEAN UP AS YOU GO” ringing in our ears, there weren’t masses of dirty dishes to wash at the end of the night.
The meals were fantastic – fresh ingredients, exciting flavours and some well-chosen wines all made sure of that. But the best thing about the weekend was spending time with sisters who live a long way from each other. And, of course, our grandmother’s cookbook.