It was at a very young age that I discovered the joy of cooking for others, and the more elaborate the cooking, the more I thought of them. This still holds true for me today. So, let’s go back to the memories of my first kitchen, the Bridge Hotel, Matawhero, seven clicks south of Gisborne. Land of the Gods!
My grandmother Rona was the chef there, and she ruled her domain with a stiff wooden spoon. This was a world where nothing was kneaded with anything smaller than an elbow. (It wasn’t until recently that I understood that comment, particularly with scone making.)
Rona’s was a kitchen of true passion and frugal, yet honest flavour. And, as I discovered hauling coal skuttles into that magnificent giant Aga range, hard work! It was on this range that as a six year old or perhaps even younger, I learned many things. Most importantly: the right use of heat is more important to flavour than just about everything.
A busy Saturday night in Rona’s kitchen was an evening of moving the embers to generate or dispense heat, and coming to understand that those wonderful aromas were actually developed through the maintenance of the fire. This is how you get flavour, along with knowing the right pan or dish and its reaction to the medium. That’s all you really need to know about cookery. Yet it is this knowledge that takes all of your life to learn.
Another life changing gift from wonderful Rona was the comment “You have to be in control of it and it not in control of you.” To this end, her aim was to kill or grow her foodstuffs in the most natural, organic way. To her, the season was a gift and the first strawberry was the rarest diamond. And a happy herd with the sun on its back was a sure bet to ultimate, perfect flavour. It was nothing to slaughter and use the offal at blood temperature, but I digress.
Rona’s day started by digging the veggies at 5 a.m. Later in the morning, the stock was purchased at the Matawhero Sales Yards. Harry would buy the stock and invariably get stuck with his cronies at the Jolly Stockman, the Pub across the road, much to Rona’s distraction. So much so, she would walk to the Stockman and drive the stock back to the farm herself. That stock was fattened and killed on the property for the restaurant.
Rona would preside over every service, and in between times, pickle, bottle and store all the season’s bounty from the farm or from favoured growers, and set aside for the year. Her pantry was an amazing place for a youngster to behold. Rows and shelves of the most beautiful foods, including fat golden queen peaches, sweet from being picked at the last possible moment, capturing the sun itself in the jar.
Thinking that sleeping under the stars and life on the road would be a blessing, Rona had a soft spot for drovers. She would house them for the night on their way to Opotiki or Napier, and over the years learnt their stories. Eventually, when they were unable to carry on, she would have them stay in the hotel and look after them until it was time for a burial. One by one, the hotel filled up with retired drovers…in every room!
Running a busy farm to feed the hotel’s kitchen, managing the staff, baking and cooking…really, Rona’s day never ended. From stoking the fires in the morning and cooking the breakfasts, then boiling all the hotel sheets, to be air dried of course, that the maids brought down in large coppers; to fixing the dinners and suppers. Using only Irish linen, Rona embroidered late into the night, sitting on the safe in the public bar while Harry had his dinner; and retired, finally, in the early hours of the following day.
Rona’s cooking career started at age 14 and she walked out of her kitchen at 86!
She never took a drink of alcohol, coffee or tea and never wore makeup in her life. She believed strongly that the seasons would provide all a body could want and that hard work would see her to a “ripe old age”.
It was a different time and a different pace back then, but it offers much we can learn. For me, I feel more at home in a kitchen than anywhere else in the world, comforted I guess because I spent the first years of my life in a bassinette in the bay window of Rona’s kitchen. But even more because of the pleasure of seeing a team of young chefs trying to create perfect food with the best seasonal produce we can lay our hands on, trying to do her proud.