Common touch (+recipe)

Two friends who lead very different lives but have a great deal in common talk to Nicky Pellegrino about their latest book.

Janice Marriott's recipes are often inspired by dishes she's tasted in cafes. Photo / Supplied
Janice Marriott's recipes are often inspired by dishes she's tasted in cafes. Photo / Supplied

Every Saturday morning South Island farmer's wife Virginia Pawsey switches on the radio and, with Kim Hill chatting in the background, she kneads a mountain of dough for the week's bread.

At shearing or crutching time there can be 10 extra mouths to feed at the Pawsey farm, which lies in the North Canterbury hills beyond Hawarden, and there's no shop nearby if she needs fresh loaves.

Meanwhile, in her little cottage in inner-city Wellington, children's book author Janice Marriott might be clearing up after sociable Friday night drinks or planning an outing to a cafe for lunch.

The two old school-friends lead starkly different lives these days, but they bridge the gulf between their rural and urban worlds by regularly writing each other letters.

Their first collection, about a year in their gardens, was published as a popular book, Common Ground, and now they've followed it with Common Table (HarperCollins, $36.99), written around friendship and food.

"If anyone had told us when we were in the seventh form that we were going to write books about gardening and cooking, Janice and I would have fallen about laughing," says Pawsey, a former occupational therapist.

"Even when I started writing the letters I had no idea they'd be published. Janice might have considered it but I was just enjoying the writing."

Several years ago, the two women rekindled their girlhood friendship after a school reunion.

The letters they've exchanged since reflect the ups and downs of their everyday lives.

For Marriott there is the frustration of office life and a yearning to escape it; for Pawsey, concerns about her husband Harry's health, long-held sadness at the loss of their son, Kit, at Cave Creek 15 years ago and the knowledge that life at their hill farm Double Tops can't go on forever.

Punctuating all this, just as in life, are the meals the pair cook for the people they care about.

Although their lives may contrast, their food philosophies match almost exactly.

Both women like to get their hands dirty in the garden and the kitchen, creating dishes with produce they've grown themselves whenever possible.

"I like cooking with simple ingredients," Marriott says.

"I've never understood why people think it's easier to go out and queue for takeaways when you can make a simple omelette. Although I did have to dash out to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread this morning and I thought Virginia would be horrified."

The recipes the friends have exchanged are threaded through their letters. Pawsey's food is often hearty fare, such as buns and biscuits that will satisfy a horde of hungry shearers.

At busy times she'll spend entire days in the kitchen producing pies and pikelets for morning tea, perhaps a stew for lunch and then sandwiches and cake for afternoon tea.

Marriott's recipes are often inspired by dishes she's tasted in Wellington cafes, such as the pumpkin and coconut cream soup recipe.

"The combination of coconut and pumpkin is so uniquely New Zealand it should be our national dish," Marriott reckons.

None of the recipes in Common Table have been carefully planned. They're simply the things Pawsey and Marriott were cooking for dinners and picnics at the time they wrote the letters. "I did wonder in hindsight if we should have thought more carefully about the recipes we wanted to include," Marriott says. "It's serendipity what happens to be there."

Both women hope their book will help redress the balance a little when it comes to food. "Cooking has become entertainment, a celebrity thing," Pawsey says.

"It puts people off. They think if they can't be a masterchef they may as well not bother.

"I like to keep my cooking grounded and regional. If people come to the farm I give them lamb, beef or venison with vegetables that happen to be in the garden - although in winter that does rather limit us to Brussels sprouts and leeks. And I really enjoy dessert cookery, especially doing things with meringues, like layering them with cream in the middle."

Marriott also loves to gather friends around her table and specialises in dishes that look impressive but are easy to achieve. "I like messing around with pastry," she says.

"For lunch today I'm making a pastry case with sour cream and filling it with a lovely cream custard with caramalised onions, roasted red peppers and chopped olives."

As their latest book arrives in the shops, Marriott and Pawsey are both dealing with changes in their lives.

Marriott has followed her heart, leaving the safety of her office job and striking out as a freelance author and producer.

Pawsey is facing the huge wrench of selling the farm that's been in the family since the late 1800s.

"It's a huge decision and there's a lot of sadness," she says. "We'll need to find homes for all our dogs and horses. And there's the conservation work we've done. We have to hope the new owners respect that."

Pawsey isn't certain what the future holds but her old school-friend does have an inkling. "There are going to be some big changes and we'll have to take things as they come," Marriott says. "But whatever happens, Virginia and I will continue writing to each other ... and I already have a file of our letters on my computer labelled Common Sense."

- Herald on Sunday

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