Still Cooking

By Judy Schultz.

It wasn’t just the complete lack of snow and icicles that made me homesick at Christmas. It was our Santa Claus Parade.

Father Christmas showed up in sunglasses and sandals, and his yappy team of antler-wearing mutts from the local doggie daycare didn’t quite cut it as reindeer. Plus, no cook should have to roast a turkey, a ham and a leg of lamb when it’s plus 30 Celcius.

But. Came the New Year, things are looking up. We’re basking in summer with the Tasman surf pounding the shore and a sea wind yelping through the dunes. The magnolias are the size of café au lait mugs, and they smell of vanilla and honey. (I may have mentioned this before, but I love to gloat.)

This place, in a word? Fresh! The lemon tree is loaded with glossy fruit, and the figs and olives are enjoying a bumper season. We can almost hear the asparagus grow. Even now, a pot of the infamous drunken woman lettuce sits blushing on our balcony. The floppy leaves are a terrific companion to the avocados from down the road, our own avos having fallen off the tree en masse. (Nobody knows why.)

Our big bonus is the wealth of fresh fish, on the hook or in the market, and my favourite takeaway supper is still the firm white gurnard fried in crispy beer batter from Fitzy’s in the village. Waiting in line for fish, we catch up on local news: which lucky bloke caught the biggest snapper in the Sunday derby; what really happened on Saturday night outside the pub before the cops arrived; and recent shark sightings in the harbour, including a couple of Great Whites.

Being here is one long cooking lesson, so I watch and learn. We wrap a whole snapper in banana leaves and throw it on the barbie. It’s absolutely succulent. The Maori cook from down the hill. The one who makes terrific mussel fritters for the Sunday market makes a delicious no-recipe ceviche: thinly-sliced scallops in lime juice with hot peppers, a wild herb called kawakawa, and just a touch of coconut milk. Yum. And, down at Simunovitch’s, I’ve eaten the most delicious monkfish poached in olive oil. They have 40,000 olive trees, so they know their oil.

I’m finally finishing A Year in Two Kitchens, filling in the dishes I didn’t get around to last year: wild guava ice cream; lots of dishes with rosemary, currently two metres tall in the garden; and passionfruit jam, because the vines are groaning, and what else can you do with a vat of ripe passionfruit?

I’m foraging, too. Wild fennel is a weed here, and before some diligent farmer sprays it, I’ve picked a bunch for flavouring vodka and oven-roasting salmon.

Speaking of vodka, a woman who grows macadamia nuts gave me a recipe for candied fig, vodka and macadamia tart.

All in all, it’ll be a toothsome summer. Home in April.

Judy, a constant cook, divides her time between Edmonton and the Awhitu Peninsula, New Zealand.