They are nicked and scratched and dirty under the nails. Worker's hands. Accustomed to cold handles and hard labour. They hold sheep for crutching and wire for straining and shovels for digging.

At 10am, they hold sponge drops.

Al Brown remembers smoko on the farm. "Everyone put down their tools, washed their hands and walked up to the cottage."

Doreen Hayward, the farm manager's wife, brewed the tea and baked the cakes.

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"From the dusty yards in summer to the cold, wet and muddy winters, morning or afternoon tea at Doreen's made for a terrific respite from the crutching, drenching or whatever seasonal job was in," Brown recalls.

Does New Zealand have a national cuisine?

Top chefs rub horopito on lamb and reinvent condensed milk mayonnaise, with one eyebrow ironically raised. They smoke kahawai for omelettes and stir whitebait into souffles. Kiwi food is kai moana, barbecues and hangi. But there's a reason why the Edmonds is our most famous cookbook - and it's got nothing to do with its recipes for Colonial Goose or Sheep's Tongue Shape.

Morning tea is the country's invisible meal - and its home-baked, jammed and creamed comestibles are the foods that truly unite us.

"Baking and preserving," says Brown. "They're the two pillars. For so long, as Kiwis, we've looked to others. We've been like, 'Oh, it's not bouillabaisse or frangipane tart with fresh pears.' Shit, we're some of the best bakers in the world. You can stick your macaron; I'll have a piece of louise cake over your macaron any day of the week.

"All that French pastry and that sort of stuff? I've had a good baguette and I've had a good croissant occasionally, but a lot of it is sickly sweet and it just doesn't seem to be ..."

He's searching for the words. "Just the humble goodness."

Brown's newest book, Eat Up New Zealand (Allen & Unwin, $65), might start with trevally sashimi and kahawai ceviche but, by its end, he's tormented by which baked goods to leave out. One entire chapter is headed "whipped cream" (think cinnamon oysters, passionfruit lamingtons and chocolate swiss roll with quince jam). Brown's muffin is Aunty Edna's bran, because: "I can't stand the bastardisation of a muffin. Raspberry and white chocolate? It's a cake."

When European settlers arrived en masse, they came to a land of literal milk and honey - and also butter, eggs, and cream. They also came to a land where visitors were fed. Some historians have concluded that the largesse of early Pakeha morning tea tables was heavily influenced by Maori manaakitanga, or hospitality.

Today's smoko is just as likely to be a flat white in a paper cup in the car on the way to a meeting. A pie and Coke. Juiced kale and quinoa bliss balls. It's a slap in the face of our morning tea traditions.

In 2008, Michael Symons, a gastronomic researcher, writing in the food history journal Petits Propos Culinaires, claimed 1890-1940 was the "golden age" of Antipodean baking; a period where more than 30 cakes or biscuits unique to Australasia were created. Eleven of those - including "peep bo's" (small cakes filled with raspberry jam) and "Maori kisses" (date, walnut and cocoa biscuits) were mainly, or only, made in New Zealand.

"The enormous variety of recipes indicates culinary ferment," writes Symonds. "Cooks did not stick slavishly to a short canon, but innovated, tested, borrowed, improved and even, occasionally, made mistakes. They then handed around their best results and sometimes published recipes. I am suggesting that we must imagine not a handful of smart inventors, but literally thousands upon thousands of them, baking almost daily."

In 2011, academic researcher Megan Watson wrote a thesis on the tea traditions of 1930-50 Pakeha Manawatu.

"The first thing I learned when I began this project was that there was afternoon tea and Afternoon Tea."

One might be an informal family gathering on the veranda; the other came with the good china and best linen - a ritual that survived wartime rationing and the Depression. What killed the ceremonial stirring of silver spoons?

"It seems probable that its interconnection to women's work as housewives, which ensured its survival through the Depression and the war, was the very attribute which led to its decline in the second half of the 20th century," writes Watson. "As women moved into the paid workforce, they had less time and less need for Afternoon Tea. Perhaps, too, the new modes of shopping and the popularity of department stores with their alluring tearooms made it a social excursion, rather than a domestic event."

That "housewife" who did the baking, who filled the tins, who became the standard-bearer of the country's "ladies a plate" culture?

"It was a creative outlet," says Brown. "To put something up, and it wasn't just one sweet, it was open the tins and there was colour, texture, and she was quietly pouring the tea, going, 'F***, look at me.' In the back of our minds, we all want the first empty plate."

Back at Brown's kitchen headquarters, they're prepping for a function. Kina cream is being piped into tiny, savoury doughnuts. Hayden Scott, bearded and tattooed, is dealing to a bench-load of raw, meaty racks. "Hey, Haydo," yells Brown. "Can you cue the sponge drops?"

They are light and creamy, sweet and airy, an icing sugared piece of history.

"What do the Italians do at 10 in the morning?" scoffs Brown.

2pm, the kitchen and meeting room at Al Brown and Co headquarters, City Works Depot.

Al Brown (second from right) and staff at morning tea. Photo / Michael Craig
Al Brown (second from right) and staff at morning tea. Photo / Michael Craig

Occasionally, there is a cheese roll. Once, Al Brown made choux pastry swans. He draws the line at puddings. Every week, staff take turns baking. "It's quite controversial," says Brown. "It's highly, highly competitive and at times we've let it slip for a little bit, just to let people cool off, because people were turning up - Hayden - with desserts, rather than actual baking." Hayden with the tattoos and beard does a delicate sponge drop. The teapot has a tea cosy. It's a meeting but also a tea break. "It adds an informality to your business day or your business week, which is a lovely letting-go," says Brown. "Breathing out, being people, not employees. It's not just a sweet treat; it's a sweet moment in time."

2pm, Woody Bay Reserve, Titirangi.
Anna Jullienne, actor.

Anna Jullienne on the set of 800 Words. Photo / Michael Craig
Anna Jullienne on the set of 800 Words. Photo / Michael Craig

There is a fly drowning in a half-eaten bowl of Coco Pops and an espresso machine in the makeup truck. The trestle table is wired for toast. Spreads include Marmite and (this is a transtasman television production) Vegemite. Anna Jullienne has just pulled up at Unit Base. She changes costume. She pops a Vogels. She dunks a teabag in a paper cup and adds milk. Breakfast was hours ago, but shoot days are a moving feast. Her day always starts with tea, then a coffee and, on long shoots, a second coffee. Also: "The more children I have, the more coffee I seem to drink." Julienne plays Katie, the hippie-trippy artistic one in TVNZ1's 800 Words. Benson Jack Anthony, who plays teenage Arlo, streaks past, shirtless. The tide is out and blue herons stalk the silver margins. It is a very lovely day at the office. "I learned to make a cup of tea really early," says Jullienne. "I come from a big family of women, so I guess tea-drinking was always part of my childhood. A cup of tea with your nana or your grandma. A good chat. Whenever we get together in my family, you put the kettle on." Do they call it morning tea? Smoko? "We just call it 'put the kettle on'."

10.15am, Victoria St West, Auckland.
Brad Mitchell, Gabriel Bowlin, Reece Parker, Caio Astorino, Dezharn Taripo; carpenters and construction workers on the Victoria Residences project.

Carpenters and construction workers on the Victoria Residences project. Photo / Michael Craig
Carpenters and construction workers on the Victoria Residences project. Photo / Michael Craig

A high-vis army marches on its stomach. Specifically: pizza, chicken, burger rings, mince and cheese pies, hot chips, a chicken kebab on rice, a Cookie Time cookie, an aloe vera drink and a can of Coke. These workers started at 7am and will finish at 8pm. Auckland is booming, grinding, ground-breaking. In April, there were 72 cranes on the city's skyline; a capitalisation of cranes. These workers take three half-hour breaks, at 10am, noon and 5pm. Caio Astorino, the man who had a chicken kebab on rice for morning tea, says that for lunch, he will have a beef kebab on rice. What do they talk about at smoko? "Pay-day," he says.

10.30am, upstairs at Time Out Bookstore, Mt Eden.
Jenna Todd, manager.

Jenna Todd at Time Out Bookstore, Mt Eden. Photo / Michael Craig
Jenna Todd at Time Out Bookstore, Mt Eden. Photo / Michael Craig

Two elections ago, they sold Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics and John Roughan's John Key, Portrait of a Prime Minister. All piles, at all times, had to be at exactly the same height. Downstairs is partisan. Upstairs, it's okay to talk politics. Other things that have happened upstairs: the launch of The Luminaries, book club meetings, and the manager's 30th birthday. It was a karaoke party. Upstairs, Jenna Todd drinks coffee in a proper cup (downstairs, it's usually a take-out behind the counter) and lies on the couch reading New Zealand literature, because she's a New Zealand Book Awards judge. "I read for 15 minutes, and then I fall asleep for five. I try to read, but then I look at Twitter." Morning tea isn't really a thing in retail says Todd, but she remembers when she was at primary school in Dunedin, her mum always made condensed milk chocolate chip biscuits for her morning tea. "And I always ate them on the bus to school."