With our increasingly cosmopolitan palates, we often forget to look right under our noses for homegrown culinary inspiration. Keri Welham discovers two books which bring the age of blancmange back to life
I was in my late-20s before I learned how to poach an egg. I always enjoyed and appreciated good food, I just didn't have any idea how to prepare it.
My husband would argue, despite years of tuition under a master (that is, him), I still don't.
Give me an exact recipe and I will deliver. But ask for some improvisation and I will kill that roast chicken or macaroni cheese as quick as you can say flaming paprika.
For a cook with my particular talent (that is, following instructions), recipe books are fruit of the gods.
Two recent New Zealand books, Grace & Flavour and A Good Harvest celebrate an era of bread sauce, eccles cakes and feijoa preserves.
Grace & Flavour, by Dunedin foodie Barbara Keen, is drawn from excerpts of 12 books published between 1883 and 1950. Many of the recipes come from a time when each farmstead had a house cow and lean household budgets forced home cooks to be particularly inventive and frugal. A surplus of apples might be used to make a pie or as a setting agent for a berry jam; a glut of walnuts could be used fresh in sweet and savoury dishes, and the leftovers pickled.
Keen's mission is to defend New Zealand food unashamedly - not the soggy vegetables and overcooked mutton that may spring to mind. But a form of home cooking which once placed fresh produce on a pedestal, much like the Asian and Mediterranean cuisines we now admire.
As the author points out, we sneer at wobbly blancmange, but mention panna cotta and we swoon.
Keen has reproduced original recipes, then adapted them for a modern pantry and palate. But you could bastardise these recipes further if you knew what you were doing (or had a husband who did) - for example, swapping the glace cherries and walnuts in the pavlova cake for raspberries and pecans.
I was a bit startled by all the mentions of lard and dripping, especially seeing as I don't have cows to milk by hand, five kids to run around after and a quarter-acre section to push-mow. This book is not some calorie-obsessed modern woman's guide to fusion rabbit food. It's honest tucker, suited to people who expend energy through hard work and active lives.
A Good Harvest is a collection of recipes from the gardens of Rural Women New Zealand. It's a well laid-out bible for followers of the modern religion of pickling and preserving. Got an abundance of cabbage and Brussels sprouts? Turn to page 75 and survey your options: from the butter and stuffing yum-ness of broccoli supreme, to the flavour hit of chow chow. Maybe you've got more zucchini than anyone could be expected to eat? Turn to page 211 and you'll see recipes from zucchini and apple pickle (courtesy of Shirley Read of Taranaki/Waikato) to zucchini cake (courtesy of Fiona Gower of Franklin).
The rural women share recipes that belonged to their mothers, grandmothers, sisters-in-law or family friends. The book has a feel of the well-worn kitchen journal, packed with hand-written recipes passed around after pot-luck dinners and parties at the community hall.
These books may hark from the golden age of New Zealand home cookery, but it's evident from some of the recipe titles in Grace & Flavour that cooks of yesteryear didn't understand the basic principles of marketing. Fish pudding, anyone? Chicken mould? Anchovy biscuits?
The recipes are often for whopping amounts, an obvious throwback to the days when ladies supplied plates for a local do. The ingredients have a consistency and flavour which is no longer fashionable: crystallised ginger, walnuts, liver, celery seeds, glace cherries, chopped peel, treacle and sago.
And yet, beyond the baked tripe, cucumber toast and sheep liver in Grace & Flavour, and the preserved beans in A Good Harvest, there are some absolute gems in both books.
My copies are now severely dog-eared. My planting boxes will soon be full and on harvest I will be cooking up beetroot chutney and silverbeet muffins.
I made kedgeree from the Grace & Flavour recipe and my husband stood at the kitchen bench and ate it straight from the pan, enthusing through his full gob about how extraordinary it was.
I have been stewing apples and I've made my first ever feijoa loaf. I've discovered some delicious ideas - like bread sauce, which has never been a staple in my family but may be now.
Where our weeknight meals usually feature a tamarind chicken stir fry, spicy noodle soup or or teriyaki beef, we are now breaking out the bacon and egg pie, and I have plans to make a blackcurrant bun for my Scottish mother-in-law.
I may throw a retro dinner party, using an aunty's dinner set and one of nana's tablecloths, and on the menu I'll serve prunes with almond paste, Shanklin eggs, broad beans in cream, soused fish, claret cup and gingerbread pudding with custard.
It may not be the 1950s, but I'm recapturing some of that homemaker vibe right here in 2012.