Prunings and pickings from the 13th New Zealand Symposium of Gastronomy and Food History, Hamilton Gardens 1 – 2 February 2020

This was my first New Zealand Symposium, and an enjoyable, stimulating and illuminating gathering it was. The theme was gardens, and the venue, appropriately, was the Hamilton Gardens with its Te Parapara Maaori garden and its kitchen, herb, and sustainable ‘enclosed gardens’. Below are sketches of some of the highlights for me. The proceedings will be published in an upcoming issue of The Aristologist.

Te Parapara and Ihumatoa

Wiremu Puke, carver, gardener and ethnographic researcher from the Ngati Wairere clan, the first people of what is not the city of Hamilton leads us into the Te Parapara garden, one several ‘enclosed gardens’, in the Hamilton Gardens. We are here to begin the Symposium fittingly in a recreation of a Maaori kūmera garden (Ipomoea batatas) (also acceptably (spelled kūmera) which Wiremu and other elders from the Ngati Wairere co-designed with the Gardens. We have walked here, the Symposium program tells me, ‘through the realm of Haumia-tiketike, the God of uncultivated plants (grasses)’ from the hall in which we will hear and discuss papers presented over the next two days. We have entered ‘the realm of Rongomataane, the cultivated world – te maara’. [I use the spelling Maaori throughout this article as that is the way it is spelt in the Waikato area].

The main part of the garden is given over to the kūmera field, planted out with seven varieties of kumera, which Wiremu and other members of the clan plant and harvest. the filed is dominated by a hut in which the tools for preparing the mounds on which to grow the kūmera and then harvest it are stored. Wiremu carved the  god images and the whole structure is painted with red ochre. Also in the garden is a free -standing rua, the kūmera storehouse usually dug into the sides of hills, is usually covered over with earth, the walls usually just the bare earth, but sometimes lined with tree-fern trunks, the floors lined with fern leaves.

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Te Parapara statement, Hamilton Gardens, February 2020
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Raised tools storehouse, Te Parapara, Hamilton Gardens, February 2020
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Above-ground rua (kumera storehouse), Te Parapara, Hamilton gardens, February 2020
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Kumera garden, Te Parapara, Hamilton Gardens, February 2020

Around the.sides of the garden are other traditional food and medicinal plants – taro, (tubers eaten)  the New Zealand cabbage tree (Cordyline australis – young shoots eaten), and poroporo (Solanum lanciniatum – related to tomatoes  – Solanum lycopersicum, eggplants – Solanum melongena) and the Australian kutjera – bush tomato – Solanum centrale).

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Taro, Te Parapara, Hamilton Gardens, January 2020
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New Zealand cabbage tree (Cordyline australis), Te Parapara, Hamilton Gardens, February 2020


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Poroporo (Solanum lanciniatum), Te Parapara, Hamilton Gardens, February 2020

We return to the garden the next day for another look as part of a walk around some of the enclosed gardens in the Gardens, of which more later.

Follows a presentation by Dave Veart Ihumatoa, Gardens of Conflict  on the battle to protect the stone gardens at Ihumatoa, the Peninsula bounded on three sides by Manukau Harbour which is now the site of Auckland International Airport.  Land adjacent to the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, site of walled gardens, dwellings and cooking areas dating back to the 15th century,  is owned by Fletcher Building company who plan to build 500 houses on the land. The site has long been the scene of Maaori activism for land justice, having been stolen  during the British settler expansion in the 1860s. The current campaign began three years ago.

David, an archaeologist, was asked to assist with submissions to the national and local governments to put a halt to the proposed development. His presented showed pictures of the protests and confrontations with police that have drawn Maaoris across the country. In March 2020, Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) presented a petition with  over 18,000 signatures to Jacinda Ardern’s Labour coalition government. In response Ardern put a stop to development until a way forward was reached.

The juxtaposition of the Ihumatoa campaign and the co-operative, respectful development of Te Parapara couldn’t have been starker.

Of kūmera and potatoes

Gail Pittaway in her paper Kūmara or Potato? A gardening and culinary contest contrasted the place of potatoes in New Zealand with that of kūmera. Surveying cookbooks – both commercial and community – since the late 1800s to the present, kūmera barely rates a mention, even though it was frequently eaten in the homes of non-Maaori New Zealanders. She ascribed this in part to the relatively easier cultivation and cooking of potatoes  -kūmera being at times an unforgiving tuber unless cooked for a long time, She noted that it is having something of a revival, as are other indigenous foods,  and brought two dishes of quite contrasting styles; a kūmera pie using a recipe for pumpkin pie, and a dish she recalled only ever having once at a Chinese restaurant on a date with the man who became her husband, chunks of kūmera rolled in honey (she used a thyme honey which left a lovely minty flavour in the mouth)  and sesame seed.

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Kūmera chunks rolled in thyme honey and sesame seeds

Potatoes turned up again in the paper by Kate Jordan, Spuds, Motivations & Big Data. The 1956 New Zealand census asked households to estimate the portion of their household vegetables needs they grew at home. Intriguingly, households were asked to report the portion of potatoes as a single item, and of all other vegetables as the other item. I asked Kate later why she thought this odd distinction had been made. She was equally puzzled. Her paper was based on work she did some years ago as a Masters thesis and she hadn’t at that time asked the question. There had been a dearth of potatoes in earlier years that had led to please by the then Minister for Agriculture, and later Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake for New Zealanders to reduce their consumption of potatoes. She thinks that the records that could throw light on this may have been destroyed by now. The findings of the census on the question as it was put, were that around 8% said they grew all of their potatoes and other vegetables, 23% said they grew around half, nd 40% said they grew none at all. Urban dwellers were, perhaps unsurprisingly, most likely to sat none at all, and this, again perhaps unsurprisingly, correlated with the number of local grocers from which the household could purchase vegetables. Kate, however, thinks that there may be other factors also that were not reported on in the census. Was there, for example, a correlation between the number of bedrooms in a household, a question that was asked, and to home grow or not? I asked Kate also whether the census asked people to identify as Maaori or not; it didn’t so an opportunity was lost to look at potentially different practices here. It’s also likely, Kate thinks, that the Maaori’s were under-counted in general.

Home, kitchen and accidental gardens

Max Dingle’s paper “Tis an unweeded garden that goes to seed”  described his extensive planting of indigenous Australian food trees and plants. He’d begun his gardening endeavours growing broad beans and olive only to find that pleasing as they were he could buy better in bigger quantities at his local grocer. ‘Yes, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that your garden produce is fresh and all your own work’ he writes, ‘but in the end it still irked me that my garden always managed to produce a glut of produce at the same time as the markets being awash with the same – fresh and cheaper’. He decided to concentrate on Indigenous edible plants ‘and the, due to a lack of regular garden maintenance or possibly sheer laziness, I added weeds to the menu’. That gives you a flavour of Max’s humour which he put to good account in cataloguing his efforts to grow murnong (yam daisy – Microseris lanceolata) from seeds bought on line. Suffice to say that they refused to sprout under the careful application of recommended practices involving freezing, storing, light dusting with soil, but did grow when in disgust they were flung in the garden, but then only to appear as a miniature variety which were not at all what he had hoped for. The recent catastrophic bushfires on the New South Wales south coast came within 500 meters of his boundary line and may still return for a further assault. My thanks to Max for permission to publish his paper on Compost.

George Biron’s presentation The Restaurant in the Middle of a Paddock was the chronology of the kitchen garden he and his partner Dianne Garrrett built for George’s Sunnybrae Restaurant near Birregurra in Victoria. George was a groundbreaker in this – literally as the pix of tractors turning over rich, dark brown soil showed, and in the metaphoric application of the term also. It’s always inspiring to have someone describe their passion with passion and to  journey with them as they have the eureka moments that change the plan to suit new learnings and opportunities. Watching George rush to the whiteboard to add another drawing of a new dam or length of ag pipe or new plot was as entertaining as his anecdotes and asides. He sold the restaurant to Dan Hunter who rechristened it Brae. He ended his presentation with pix of the kitchen garden he has created at his new home that was, again, inspiring and so much in character. George later made taramasalata based on his reconstruction of one he tasted at a Greek deli in Richmond.

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Olive and canola oils, onion, a can of Australian tarama and lemon for George Brion’s taramasalata (bred from Volare bakery in Hamilton)
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The pour. George used both olive oil and canola oil, the latter to lighten the mix. When well mixed he also adds a little cold water to reduce the oiliness.
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George’s taramasalata

John Webster described the backyard gardens of three generations of his family over 70 years in his paper Come into the Garden, and also that of his neighbour who may well have been one of those who in the 1956 said they provided their entire potato and vegetable needs from their home garden and have given plenty away to neighbours who said they grew little to nothing.

Maria Teresa Corino’s paper Kiwi Chestnuts. Fruits of the Long Garden was sparked by finding a small grove of chestnut trees in a reserve on the banks of the Waikato Rive behind her house in Hamilton, in which only she and an elderly Chinese man foraged. It’s inexplicable to me that in a city that is the hub of chestnut growing in New Zealand more people don’t get out there in season, heavy boots on feet to crush the spiky outer shell of the nuts. M.T.s paper (I am friends enough with her and her partner Isabelle Delmotte to call her MT) was based on her own research and interviews with two chestnut growers and individuals from   backgrounds and was a survey of the uses these different cultures make of chestnuts. She showed pics of dishes she had made from each of the cultures but  – damn her – did not bring any to assuage the sensory overload invoked by the images, and having dined on M.T.s fare often, I am doubly, nay, triply aware of what we all missed out on. MT also read extracts from the novel she has written for her Masters in Creative Writing, Cacao,  which she hopes to publish, as do we who were captivated by her readings. Maria Teresa’s paper (as with others I note here) will be published in an upcoming Aristologist. Meanwhile, she was kind enough to give me her article Where are the chestnuts? A recipes search to whet your appetite.

From across The Ditch

Max Dingle was one of four Australian presenters at the gig. Alison Vincent brought back memories of that vine that threatened to take over outside toilets – dunnies – in Australia and New Zealand – the choko. Her paper, From Phenomenal Plant to Culinary Anachronism: The story of Sechium edule in Australia traced the first plants in Australia back to the 1860’s when the Queensland Acclimatisation Society brought some specimens into the country to see how they would take to a new home, which of course they did with alacrity and vigour. At the height of its popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s it was a standard in kitchens across the country boiled and dressed simply with butter and accompanying roasts and grills, used as an extender in apple pies and fruit jams, or pickled. Having fallen from grace it has in recent years re-appeared though its take up is slow. You can read a longer version of Alison’s paper here.

Donna Lee Brien in Margaret Fulton. Gardens and Culinar Activism paid homage to the late Margaret Fulton’s promotion of vegetables, particularly those outside of the holy trinity of the Australian table of the 1950’s and ’60s – potatoes, peas and carrots. Her paper Margaret Fulton. Gardens and culinary activism also foregrounded Fulton’s as a woman who managed her ‘career and her image in the media over [a] long period, providing a role model for generations of Australian food writers.

My paper, Not a Hollyhock in Sight. Home gardens of remote rural women in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used the home gardens of Mary Durack (Snr) and Myrtle Rose White to look at the lives of the two women as well as what they grew and what they did with it. It drew on research I did for a forthcoming history of food in Australia.

Katherine Mansfield and Food

Fittingly, the Friday evening Garden Party was held in the Katharine Mansfield Garden, one of the wondrous ‘enclosed gardens’ in the Hamilton Gardens, Sadly, i didn’t make it – curse those flight delays and infrequent buses. But two papers presented certainly made me want to go back and read her short stories again. Helen Leach had taken on the task of trying to find what food was served at the eponymous Garden Party of one of the most celebrated of Mansfield’s stories. Her paper Recreating/Recatering Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garrden Party’ was a public lecture at the Waikato Museum. Her culinary archaeology practice of almost forensically examining the barest of scraps of description from the story made for a riveting presentation, linking to Mansfield’s adolescence and family life, providores in Wellington of the time and the class issues with which the story engages.

Nicola Saker in Beyond the Garden Party the process of producing the Catherine Mansfield Cook Book linking food references from Mansfield’s letters and notes with recipes including some by Mansfield herself.

Welcoming the Year of the Rat

As the Symposium was in the middle of the celebrations of the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Rat, Siew Ling Ong demonstrated preparing the Malaysian Chinese dish Yee Sang. A symbol of prosperity. Here’s her description of it: ‘The Yee Sang ingredients are colourful and combined together they symbolise vigor, prosperity and abundance of all good things – wealth, health etc.’

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Siew Ling Ong prepares yee sang
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Yee seng ingredients. The red box at top left is a pre=packaged version given as a gift. Happily Siew Ling and we participants chose not to open it and sample.

The final preparation of this communal dish requires participation of all to toss and mix the salad before it can be eaten. It is believed that the higher and more vigorous the toss, the better the new year – “you will climb in your career, wealth and prosperity”. Auspicious wished such as “loh hei” are audibly expressed during the tossing of the salad; “loh hei” means all you undertakings keep prospering.

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Tossing yee sang







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