The free-range cook


With a new life and an uncertain budget, we’re inevitably evolving new ways of shopping and eating.

Things we’ve given up buying:
– wine
– designer yoghurt
– fancy salad leaves (we’re eating iceberg for the first time in 15 years)
– Kato mayonnaise

Things we’re still buying but strictly rationing:
– beer
– Whittaker’s chocolate
– olives (not on pizza, permissible in salads)
– dry cure bacon (a good-value local brand)
– Kato hollandaise

Things I now know and probably should have known earlier:
– laundry liquid is more expensive than laundry powder
– yellow-top milk is more expensive than light blue
– Pam’s ‘plain’ ready to roast chickens, whose ingredients include water, sugar, salt, flavourings and a dozen unpronounceable things, are cheaper than unadulterated ones

Things we’re experimenting with:
– ways with cheap cuts of pork
– making our own yoghurt
– baking our own bread
– growing herbs in an unforgiving climate
– working out the doubtful economics of home baking vs bought biscuits

Despite the macrame-weaving bent to that last list, the title to this post is a somewhat ironic one (and apologies Annabel Langbein), given that this year we’re likely to be eating less free range, fresh and local than we ever did in Auckland.

Our early weeks here have been an extension of motel/holiday cooking: simple Kiwi food that seems to suit the place and the lifestyle. We’ve eaten more potatoes than we’d normally eat in months, and the boys, who have habitually turned up their noses at chops and plain roast meat, embrace these things enthusiastically as just what we eat down here. They’ve had the lecture about not being able to be fussy about food this year, and accepting that many of their favourite foods will now be infrequent treats, and these parmesan- and smoked-salmon-loving kids are taking their responsibilities seriously.

We eat together more as a family because in the absence of readily accessible fresh herbs and good fruit and veg, and with a more spartan storecupboard at our disposal, we’re no longer cooking the kinds of adult-palate meals that saw us eating separately many nights a week. I resurrect my old staple dhal recipe, though, shelved during the lentil amnesty of 2011, to a surprisingly enthusiastic response from the whole family.

Just as we try and reduce our supermarket bill, however, the boys’ appetites seem to have gone crazy. At dinner Firstborn eats more than his Dad and then hoovers up six Weet-bix, whose simple charms have recently been rediscovered, or six slices of bread with peanut butter. They’d eat their body weight in Sultana Bran daily if they were allowed, but this is being carefully rationed to one large box per supermarket shop.

In the interests of limiting fuel consumption, we’re eking it out as long as possible between visits to Wanaka, but nine days is about as long as we can go, subsisting as we do for the last few days on tinned fruit and frozen vegetables. I work out that if we keep the milk in the freeze-happy top part of our whimsical fridge it’s fine for a week past its expiry date (though keeping it in the lower part of the fridge results in bottled cheese well before the BBE date). I thank the tenancy gods for the big freezer and buy nine loaves of bread at a time, and take advantage of good specials when they appear.

The fruit and veg at the Wanaka New World is deeply disappointing: impotently limp broccoli, bananas that mysteriously go straight from green to brown, anaemic tomatoes even in season, the local stonefruit both wrinkled and expensive. I reconcile myself to buying dispiriting polystyrene trays of brownish meat and unhappy chicken, looking for the yellow SUPER SAVER stickers. (Meat trays can’t be recycled here, and along with tetrapacks and, counter-intuitively, organic waste, have to be mashed into the kitchen bin, destined for landfill.)

I’m eventually tipped off about Wanaka’s Mediterranean Market, a pleasant gourmet grocer’s with a decent butcher: the only one in a 50km radius. The produce is far better than the supermarket and the prices aren’t too bad, ­­and they do actually have things like rocket and big bunches of herbs, but these are wincingly expensive.

Our longer daytrips take us past wonderful orchards and gardens, and on these occasions we do stock up on fresh produce. There is a farmers’ market in Wanaka at the inconvenient time of late Thursday afternoon, and I’m trying to figure out how to work that into the school/weekly shop schedule.

No doubt we could do better with a substantial budget – there must be farm door sales all over the region – but, trying not to guzzle petrol, we find ourselves hamstrung by the lack of infrastructure. We hear rumours of cow collectives, where neighbours club together and buy a beast for butchering, but no one we can find actually seems to be doing it.

Apart from my perennial longing for something light and spicy, singing with fresh lime, chilli, mint and coriander, the marked reduction in beer consumption has probably been the hardest thing for me; I suspect Hapless is struggling with his own wine cravings.

I’ve had just three beers since we arrived here four weeks ago; Hapless has had five, but he figures that stacking 10 cubic metres of firewood, plus a three-hour round cycle trip into Wanaka, earned him the extras. On our wedding anniversary, we shared a single modestly-priced bottle of wine, which apart from a glass at Hapless’s sister’s in Wellington, is the only wine we’ve drunk since Auckland.

(The memory will stay with me for some time of standing in the chiller aisle of the Picton FreshChoice feeling thirstier and thirstier while Hapless mocks me about my tragic beer dependency. Eventually I walk out beerless; in revenge I impose a new limit of only half a slice of ham per filled roll.)

It’s a useful exercise, though, to learn to counter each reflexive ‘we need’ with the more considered, ‘do we really?’; each ‘I want’ with ‘but I can live without’.

Half the challenge, of course, is habit-breaking: learning that when you really want to bust open a Hop Rocker, sometimes a nice tall glass of chilled, freshly spritzed Soda Stream water will do just fine.

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