Helen Leggatt In Canterbury, New Zealand: Food for Thought

New Zealand supermarkets are devoid of the range of TV dinners and pasta sauces that are the staples of their British counterparts. I didn't know this until my husband Warren and I sold everything and moved our lives halfway around the world from the familiar shores of Britain to the rural idyll that is New Zealand's South Island. Here you shop by the season, harking back to the days when you literally looked forward to the time of year when you could have leeks and yearned for winter to bring asparagus. Making meals from scratch is the norm here. I have heard of fellow ex-pats who have had to resort to asking friends back home to scan and e-mail the list of ingredients from precooked dinner packaging so their dinners taste "authentic" — albeit authentically Kraft or Tesco. I can only assume that said ex-pats have a small chemistry lab for a kitchen and wear safety goggles as they mix together phosphated starch phosphate, monosodium glutamate, and brilliant scarlet 4B to make their authentic Italian lasagna.

But apparently there is life after pasta sauce and microwaving. It's called preserving. A quaint old rural pastime that I felt I must incorporate into my new regime, although I refuse to wear the apron (thanks, mum), but since when have I worn anything remotely floral?

I decided upon a quintessential plum jam recipe from the New Zealand cookery bible, Edmonds's Sure to Rise , which should be given to immigrants as part of their immigration settlement pack. The 90-year-old book can be found in most Kiwi kitchens and is the biggest selling book (not just cookery book) in New Zealand.

I proceeded with caution, armed with a new wooden spoon, a NASA approved designer nonstick pan, and state-of-the-art chrome gas stove. How hard could it be? The ingredients were minimal and the method was simple, although I have had to add in a few notes.

First, handpick 2 kg of plums from a far-flung corner of your lifestyle block. Be at least 90 percent sure they are plums, or ask a neighbor. Note to self — shaking the tree violently results in a shower of bugs, not plums.

Wash plums and then halve and stone them. Note to self two — get stoned and halve them; it's way more fun. Next, put plums in one-and-a-half cups of water and bring to boil. Weigh out seven cups of sugar. Ring health insurance company to check you're covered for dental work. Chuck sugar in pan and boil rapidly. Smile contentedly and watch in amazement as the contents of the pan bubble and foam -- religiously skim off foam. Smile nervously and watch in amazement as the pan contents bubble and foam and double in size -- religiously skim off foam.

Scream, swear, and panic as the contents of the pan rapidly quadruple in size and overflow onto brand new brushed-chrome designer hob, and watch in amazement as it burns and smokes. Jump out of skin as smoke detector blares to life. Scrape and chip off burnt sugar and jam from hob for approximately two hours before decanting remaining liquid into a considerably larger pan.

Put on apron. Cautiously bring liquid back to boil.

After much longer than any recipe book suggests, the jam will reach "setting point" (a new term that you can use with abandon), and you can now pour the jam into a set of designer jars and seal.

After three to four months, throw away eight moldy jars of jam and revisit chapter on sterilizing. Go to local supermarket and buy Pam's plum jam. Plan to make scones.

In an effort to save the kitchen from burning down and to untie myself from the kitchen sink, I turned my attention to growing vegetables. Real vegetables, not sulphite enhanced, super-scrubbed sterile specimens suffocated in plastic. Spuds with mud, broccoli with bugs, carrots with cracks, and a plant that you're not sure what it is until it produces something recognizable. Veggies just aren't what you'd expect in their growing stage.

Having lovingly planted my little seedlings in my new veggie patch, I would go out each day and immerse the plants, and myself, in clouds of derris dust, an organic insecticide. They grew and grew. I watered and weeded. They grew and grew.

Like a proud mother-to-be, I visited my horticultural neighbor to discuss the growing brood. She took me round her nursery and we cooed at her carrots and marvelled at the marrows.

When I used to buy my veggies, they were invariably cut to size, washed, trimmed, and neatly dressed in cellophane. No mud or bugs or endless months feeding and weeding and stressing and fending off predators. I was totally unprepared for the obsessive hoeing and weeding and hatred of anything found hovering in the vicinity of the patch.

Thankfully, the crèche that is the fruit-and-vegetable aisle of the supermarkets here in New Zealand is crammed with wholesome, home-grown produce, which begs not to be smothered in shelf-life-prolonging wax and that grew with the aid of the elements and without a whiff of DDT. It absolutely refuses to be morphed into some stereotypical version of a foreign offering -- as do the inhabitants of this green and wholesome land.


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