New Zealand Book Month has given me cause to reflect on my fave New Zealand reads. While I’m at a loss to decide which fiction title is my number one, there are three non-fiction works that catapult to the top of my list. New Zealand fiction could be described as dark, raw and cynical but Kiwi cookbooks are some of the most accessible, easy-to-read and downright yummy cookbooks on the planet.
My first cookbook ever was given to me by my mother when I left home. It was The Best of Alison Holst now known fondly as “The Red Bible”. I’ve used this book as many times as I’ve had hot dinners. My first copy became so splattered and manky after the first ten years it sat oozing oil and shedding breadcrumbs on the bookshelf. Although I knew I had to throw it out, I just couldn’t bear be without it. Fortunately, this best selling legend was reprinted a couple of years back and I grabbed another copy from the bookshop. My new copy is fast becoming as loved and battered (literally) as the first.
When I was going through my yuppy stage, I bought a slim volume called Smart Food for Busy People by Annabel Langbein and this book made a huge impact on me. From the time I first opened the pages it started work its magic in my kitchen and I loved what it did for my culinary repertoire. The recipes had the new New Zealand vibe I was experiencing in restaurants at the time – crisp textures, emphasis on fresh produce, an influence from Asian cuisine, light and healthy food with flavour. I cooked recipe after recipe and wowed friends and family. Of course Annabel has gone on to host her own very successful television show and produce more quality, up-to-the-minute cookbooks but Smart Food is still my favourite.
Richard Till opened Espresso 124 on the Strip before it even became the Strip. It was the restaurant on Oxford Terrace around which all the others gathered as the food scene exploded into life in Christchurch in the late 80s. We loved Espresso 124. The food was brilliant, the atmosphere was charged and you could see Richard every Friday night hurling pans around the kitchen and dodging flames as he seared perfect steaks. The man’s a legend. His cookbooks capture his authentic Kiwi style and no-fuss approach to great food.
These are my favourites and there are plenty more – Al Brown, Ray McVinnie, Peter Gordon, Celia Hay, Julie Biuso, Fleur Sullivan … New Zealand has some of the best food writers on the planet. No doubt about it.
Like many New Zealanders, I grew up eating Dame Alison Holst’s recipes that my mother made, watching her on TV, and then using her cookbooks myself.
She is a rare breed of cook in today’s world of reality chefs where it’s more about drama than food. Not for her, the art of fusion or artfully arranged tiny mouthfuls that take days to prepare using ingredients I’ve never heard of. She has always believed in good healthy food, being aware of budgets and using ingredients easily found in your pantry or local supermarket. She also helped us over the years to make sense of new equipment such as microwaves, food processors and slow cookers.
I am reading her 100th book; A Homegrown Cook, and the way she has lived her life, throwing herself into challenges with so much skill, endless energy and humility about her achievements she makes me wonder what I’m doing with my time. It’s simply and warmly written with no artifice, just like her cookbooks.
She’s written books and newspaper columns and appeared on television and radio. She has taught, given demonstrations raising money for charity and travelled the world promoting New Zealand produce. Her first books, Here’s How in 1966 and Meals with the Family in 1967, became absolute classics. (Christchurch City Libraries have copies in our Aotearoa New Zealand collection, perhaps they’ll be republished one day). Her books often ended up stained and dog-eared from use, just the way Alison says she likes them, it shows they are used not just looked at. My most used recipes are often hers and I gave my son her Very Easy Vegetarian Cookbook when he went flatting. Favourites in my collection would be The Food Processor Cookbook, Marvelous Muffins and her Bread Book.
The Library has over 65 of her titles to lend, do you have a favourite Alison Holst recipe, book or memory?
Women on Air closed their 2009 events on a tasty note with a visit from Julie Biuso, resplendent in a Trelise Cooper coat. The “who are you wearing” question beloved of red carpet reporters was the last question of the night, much to my relief. I was dying to know but after lots of questions revealing this crowd already knew a thing or two about food I was loath to reveal myself as less concerned with broad beans than with the lovely cuff details and fabulous print of the coat.
The penultimate question was another favourite – “who do you rate as a cook/cookery writer?” Biuso was very discreet and named Annabel Langbein, Ray McVinnie, Jo Seagar and my particular favourite Alison Holst, while commenting that some people are good cooks, some are good writers; some are nice people, some not so nice. But she would not be drawn as to who is who.