Recently I drove over from Wanaka to visit my dear Aunt Liz on the remote farm where she lives near one of the hydro dams on the Waitaki River in North Otago. I get so inspired whenever I see Liz. She’s in her late 80s but still out there gardening and gathering, planting new trees and making new gardens, cooking up her harvests in a plethora of preserves (jars and bottles of peaches, figs and pears for the long winter), drying her nut crop on the front living room floor and making her own damson wine.
Her whole garden is organic and even in the harsh environment of North Otago she has created a microclimate that grows figs, feijoas, citrus, grapes and more very successfully. She is practically self-sufficient and totally engaged with the rhythms of nature and her garden. I think I would like to grow old like this. Actually I know this is how I want to grow old – a simple pared-back existence that takes its cues from the seasons’ harvests in simple, good things that give much pleasure, where less is more.
For lunch Aunty Liz had prepared us a feast – a tender roast chicken with chestnut stuffing (she had harvested the chestnuts last season and frozen them), a big pot of freshly dug potatoes boiled with mint, just-picked salad greens tossed with a simple balsamic and olive oil dressing, a jar of her quince chutney from the larder, and the grand finale, a superb marshmallowy pavlova topped with cream and a late crop of strawberries from her garden. I took a loaf of bread – just my easy Crusty Flat Bread from my book Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook, and my cousin’s partner opened the very first bottle of his first vintage of pinot. What bliss.
We sat outside under the shade of a giant clipped macrocarpa (Liz broke her ankle a year or so back climbing this tree to shoot an opossum!), savouring this delicious meal, then wandering over to gather perfectly ripe, sweet figs from the carefully netted tree before heading up into the paddocks by the woolshed at the back of the farm to pick a big box of wild apricots from trees planted by workers who lived here while they were building the dam 40 or 50 years ago.
These sweet apricots have since made their way into jars in my kitchen – the most fragrant deep orange jam that’s like a conserve with big chunks of fruit. To make the jam I use equal weights of sugar and destoned fruit (leave a few stones in) – no water needed. Cover the fruit with sugar and leave overnight. Next morning, add half a teaspoon of citric acid for every 1.5kg of fruit. Bring to the boil, boil hard for 6-8 minutes, then fish out the stones, pour into sterilized jars and seal while hot.
While I enjoy the pizzazz of a stylish restaurant and the gastronomic craft of a fine chef, to me this simple meal I enjoyed from the kitchen and the garden of dear Aunt Liz is the embodiment of what good food is all about – a thoughtful threading of love, care and attention created from little more than what the land produces, bound with the resourcefulness that is the hallmark of country cooking.
In the nutty sweetness of chestnut stuffing against moist, juicy white chicken flesh, the sweet, waxy bite of a perfectly cooked potato, the cloud-like sweetness of meringue against ruby red, densely sweet berries, and the lush smells of summer lavender and sun-warmed figs, are deeply soothing, satisfying and nourishing memories.
Socrates once said the true meaning of happiness is not to have more things, but to need less. He was right.