A worldwide search for traditional dishes inspires the New Year menu at Queenstown's No5 restaurant.
Perhaps, because I’m half-Scottish, as it came time to draw up a menu for the New Year’s Eve celebrations, I found myself thinking of the Hogmanay tradition of first-footing. This ritual starts at midnight and involves revellers trying to be the first to set foot in the houses of friends and neighbours, usually with gifts of shortbread, whisky and a chunk of coal (but you can forget the shortbread and coal and still be well on your way) to help ensure that they will lack for neither food, drink nor warmth in the year ahead; a noble cause.
I wondered if the Scots also had traditional New Year foods I could base the menu on. Sadly my research only came up with haggis, which as far as I can tell is equally traditional on the other 364 days of the year. I was looking for something special.
Broadening my scope to the rest of Europe, I came across Vasilopita, the almond-and-milk cake that the Greeks bake each year. Then I came across a cascade of traditional New Year dishes from all over the world, more than I could possibly use in a single meal. So here are the ones that tickled my fancy the most and made the cut:
The Spanish quickly gobble 12 grapes at midnight, the idea being to eat one with each stroke of the clock. First starting at the Puerta Del Sol clock tower in Madrid at the end of the 19th century, the idea was popularised by some enterprising vine growers in 1905 and now huge numbers of grapes are consumed across the country as people join in this tradition. The grapes are said to represent the months of the upcoming year so that if, for example, the fourth grape someone eats is unusually sweet then April will be a particularly good month for them.
In the version we’ll be serving you’ll be tasting the whole year at once. We’re making a sweet but tangy grape gazpacho and serving it in small measures as an appetiser — the idea being you’ll get around 12 grapes’ worth in each portion. It will come with a set puree of peppery local rocket and caramelised walnuts to add crunch and extra depth.
The Japanese eat many symbolic dishes at New Year, including herring roe to ensure fertility, broad beans to ensure fortune and sardines to ensure a good crop. This last one is because sardines were once used as fertiliser for rice paddies, presumably because at the time no one thought them worth eating — what a crime. I love sardines and was delighted at this excuse to use them. Fresh sardines are a revelation — oily and juicy — and that’s what we’ll be using. As the season for the legendary Otago cherries (grown just down the road in Cromwell) will have started, we’ll be pairing the grilled sardines with a luscious cherry salsa and some of the wild watercress we pick every few days from local high-country streams.
Particularly popular in America, but also common in parts of Europe, is the eating of leafy vegetables such as cabbage and kale at the New Year. The green leaves are supposed to represent paper currency (also green), so you are metaphorically stuffing down hard cash; a year of prosperity is bound to follow. Collard greens are the variety of choice in the States, but I haven’t found anyone who grows them in New Zealand. So we’ll be using whatever greens the weather decrees, hopefully kale and rainbow beet (like silverbeet, but fabulous) with brown butter, a little lemon juice, toasted almonds and some goat's cheese from Gibbston Valley.
Cotechino con lenticchie
This is quintessential Italian New Year’s fare; pork sausages with lentils. This is a double whammy for symbolism as it features both pork, which due to its fattiness represents plenty, and lentils, which are round like coins and plump, so they represent wealth. Pork is also said to signify progress, as pigs move forward when they root for food. Conversely, the meat of animals such as chickens (which scratch and jump backwards as they look for food) and lobsters (which swim backwards) are to be avoided at New Year so that you don’t suffer setbacks. There are metaphors everywhere you look. Since sausages and lentils is a winter warmer dish, and the end of December is (fingers crossed) a nice sunny time of year, we’re going to rub a little local flavour on to this one. We make our own spicy chorizo sausages from South Island wild boar and these are what we’ll be using to put a zingy spin on the traditional version. Spike the lentils with some lemon juice and a potentially stodgy plateful becomes vibrant and summery.
Pork and sauerkraut
Another classic, this time from Germany. In a similar tradition to the Italians, it features green cabbage for money and pork for progress, a concept shared by many nations. However, it occurs to me that pork is not the only rich and fatty meat in the world, and a quick look at any currency outside the United States shows a whole rainbow of colours, not just green. Hmmm. One thing that is fairly universal in the Northern Hemisphere, where the tradition of pork at New Year holds sway, is that November is a good time to slaughter a pig. They’ve had a plentiful summer of weight gain but after harvest they’ll be using up valuable winter feed, and, conveniently, the weather is cold for breaking down the carcass and preserving the joints. So there’ll be plenty of pork still going around at New Year.
Similarly, autumn is the main time for harvesting cabbage then shredding, salting and fermenting it to make sauerkraut, a process that takes about six to eight weeks, meaning it will be ready just in time for — you guessed it — the New Year. Surely these superstitions couldn’t just be an excuse for enjoying the commodities that are handily available? Well, who cares, they’re delicious.
Since the acidity of pickled cabbage is perfect for cutting through the fattiness of pork belly (and fat means flavour!), that’s the cut we’ll be using - free-range from Havoc Farm with a crispy crackling (everyone’s favourite part) on sour cabbage and crunchy apple infused with gin and boysenberry. In keeping with the spirit of the meal, the apple will be cut into discs to continue the coin/prosperity theme.
Greece, the land of milk and honey, brings you a cake appropriately made with sweetened milk and almonds. There are many countries with traditional New Year cakes and this one has two features common to most of them — it is ring-shaped and it has a coin baked into it. The shape represents the cyclical nature of the seasons coming round and beginning anew. The coin is hidden within the cake as a surprise for one lucky diner; whoever receives the slice containing it will be blessed for the coming year (after recovering from a possibly chipped tooth). As soon as I heard sweet almond cake I was on board — they’re always moist and delicious. We’ll be serving vasilopita accompanied by new-season apricots (Otago is rightly famed for its stonefruit and apricots are the very first to ripen) roasted in riesling and honey, and whipped cream spiked with rum.
Angel wings (chiacchiere)
This delicacy, essentially deep-fried pasta dough drenched in sugar, is one short but stylish step away from doughnuts, eaten not just at New Year but at Christmas, Lent or indeed any major celebration. The Italians will happily devour them whenever there’s any excuse and I’m right there with them. We’ll be serving these sweet treats with a chocolate and cinnamon sauce, not for any symbolic purpose but because it’s a great combination. And after a busy meal eating to ensure that your rice crop will be strong, you’ll be flush with cash, the year ahead will be sweet and you’ll lack for nothing, don’t you deserve to sit back, relax, and enjoy a little indulgence, just because? Of course you do! After all, your New Year resolutions don’t start until tomorrow...
British-born, Queenstown based, Will Eaglesfield is executive chef of No5 Church Lane and Eichardt’s. Out of the kitchen you will find him foraging for bounty for his impressive range of preserves or pottering in the garden with his chooks. thespirehotel.com