Vibrant chef and author Peta Mathias talks kitchen tips, keeping skin youthful and a beloved recipe that won’t last long. 

Eat to live or live to eat – either way, if you follow the Peta Mathias school of thought, every step should be thoroughly enjoyed.

That includes smelling the fresh herbs, dipping your finger in the chocolate, and sipping that cognac – before it hits the bowl.

The flame-haired chef, singer, broadcaster and tour guide has learned a lot about food, passion and travel in her lifetime – it’s no wonder her unique cooking style has come to combine all three.

Along the way she’s picked up unconventional tips, tricks and tall tales that make her cooking classes even more memorable.

Peta flits from one kitchen bench to the next, in a blur of turquoise and glint of her statement earrings. “They’re from India,” she announces.

“If I was still able to do my food adventure tours, I could show you all to where you can buy the most divine jewellery”.

On this day however, we’re in Hawke’s Bay and she’s cooking Southern French fare, explaining as she works that the French are impartial to using olive oil as a substitute for butter.

“A lot of their cakes and pastries are made with oil, they will often switch it out. If you do this, make sure to use less of the oil,” she cautions. “It’s a different taste, and has a bit of a different mouth feel.”

First on the agenda – a decadent chocolate mousse. Peta advises using a bain-marie to slowly melt the chocolate, and avoid burning it: “Even if you do wander off to have another sherry.”

“You also have to use quality chocolate – there’s no point in using anything less than 70% cacao.”

Before whipping the egg whites, she reaches for a lemon to clean the bowl, a tip to alleviate fat, grease or washing liquid residue and get an ultra-fluffy result.

“If you are beating egg whites and the whites won’t come up, it’s because there’s fat, or there could be a tiny bit of yolk. Cut a lemon in half and rub it around the inside of the bowl to get rid of any fat and other nasties hanging in there before you start.”

Lemon, as it happens also kills odours in the fridge and whitens skin – Peta suggests rubbing its juice on hands (or, anywhere really) for a youthful appearance.

Next, she opts to split the yolks from the whites in her hands because: “much of the happiness of cooking is the sensuality of touch”.

Adding a pinch of salt to the egg whites and whisking in a figure of eight pattern, is also key to a perfect finish. 

When combining ingredients in baking there’s yet another rule – heavy to light, hot to cold and fold don’t stir.

Her Southern French fare is simple, it’s wholesome – it should evoke emotion, and it is so delicious Peta promises, “there won’t be any leftovers”.

Her menu reflects this, it is both beautiful and flavourful – from chocolate mousse, to stuffed nasturtium flowers, saussoun (a paste to serve on toast, fish and vegetables), and salted cod.

In Peta’s dual life between New Zealand and France she chases summers, spending six months in the medieval French town of Uzès and six months in Auckland.

Teaching cooking classes from her home in the sun-soaked Southern French village hasn’t been possible for the past year due to COVID; but does mean she gets to share her passion for the food and culture with fellow Kiwis.

“It’s a different way of life in Southern France, today we’re eating Southern French style; they don’t often sit down for big, heavy meals – they eat a lot of vegetables, it’s a very vegetable dominant culture.

“They use nutmeg a lot with fish and beef and they love Pastis – an aniseed flavoured drink – it pours yellow and turns white when you add ice. If you haven’t tasted it, you must, it’s the most divine thing.”

As she moves through the menu she advises keeping the stalks of the herbs she has used along the way – to add flavour to other dishes.

“Keep the offcuts from thyme and parsley – tie them up in a muslin bag and use them in broths and as a base for soups.”

When it comes to making saussoun, a chunky paste with plenty of fresh mint, olive oil, almonds and anchovies – she has yet another suggestion.

“Never throw away the oil from tuna or anchovies, add it into the paste or put it in the fridge for things like pastas or vinaigrettes, even drizzling over dinner – it gives a beautiful flavour.”

Peta claims the saussoun recipe is so good she’s never even tested how long it keeps in the fridge.

“If you don’t have a blender, chop it up with a heavy knife or a mortar and pestle – I like mine to be quite chunky – pile it on toast, it won’t last long”.

Photos: Florence

Saussoun Recipe
Paste for toast, fish and vegetables

100g blanched almonds
12 anchovies (Ortiz are the best)
1 tsp fennel seeds
generous handful fresh mint
1 tbsp water
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the first five ingredients, either in a mortar and pestle or food processor then gradually add the oil until the mixture is chunky.

* This is the third in a four-part online series – next we discuss Peta’s new book Shed Couture – due for release in October.

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