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Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die..

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Crash Course

Last week we returned to Steve and Lyndal’s, the farm where we butchered the pig, to help prepare for their housewarming party. Their whole property is centered around growing and preparing food, so it made sense that their party was an elaborate feast. Lyndal said that this party was a way to say thank you to all of the people who helped them develop their farm. I like that idea.

The food showed off what they were up to and allowed everyone to enjoy in the final product.  And I got to spend the week in the kitchen working with gorgeous ingredients largely from the farm and learning all sorts of new techniques.

Wood burning cooker

On Monday morning, we made a chart for the week that broke down all of the dishes into parts that could be made ahead of time so that the morning of the party was simply assembling the parts. Over the course of the week, we made enough food to put 50 people into food comas.

Their cooker is not your typical oven and stove setup. It is a wood stove and the temperature is controlled by airflow and the type of wood on the fire. It takes a long time to heat up, requires constant tending and baking often takes longer than in a conventional oven. But, it is way more fun to use!

 

Because the oven operates differently, following recipes is harder and often impossible. So you have to think, “Okay, why does the recipe say to do this? Is there another way to achieve the same result?” When we started cooking together, my first instinct was to google the answer. But Lyndal would say, “Oh don’t look it up, use your brain! It’s why you have one!” And that is when I started learning. The week felt like an apprenticeship. I was given a lot of freedom to do things like make fava bean hummus or follow the recipe for ham croquettes, but there were also lessons. I told her and showed her that I wanted to learn, so she told me and showed me things I didn’t know.

“You need to know how to make pastry. Want to watch me or do it yourself?” Lyndal asked. “You also need to be able to read recipes in French. Go see if you can figure out the pate a choux recipe and then we’ll go over it together,” she nodded toward the three inch thick cookbook, 2000 Recettes de la Cuisine Francaise while up to her wrists in butter and flour.

And so I did. Except that my translation went something like this: Heat butter, cold water, something something, eggs, something, mix flour until it sounds like “plouf pouf.” She filled in the gaps in my translation and showed me how to make eclairs, reminded me of the need to prep ahead of time, the difference in her knives, and made me appreciate good vinegar.

18 month old air dried ham for croquettes

At the end of the day, when we talked about our highs and lows for the day, mine was always about new things I learned in the kitchen.

Peeking in at the ham in the smoker. This was Zach’s baby.

 

Haloumi cheese while still in curds and not yet cheese.

The party was a smashing success. People dropped in and out all afternoon and evening and there was enough food that everyone left happy and full. But for me, since it wasn’t my house and they weren’t my friends, the best part was all the work leading up to the party.

The dessert spread at the party.

P.S…. Can you tell that I wish it were my party? One day, friends. One day…

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The Amberley A&P Show

 

Is there anything more cute than a lamb on a leash?

Zach and I wandered into the food tent at the Amberly A&P show, where we knew the butchering demo would be taking place. Neither of knew what time it was, so we grabbed an IPA and made ourselves comfortable on a hay bale. We were chatting with Lyndal when a woman got on the microphone and asked for volunteers to guest judge for the Lamb portion of the upcoming Hoof to Hotplate competition. Lyndal, knowing how fond I am of eating, grabbed my elbow and shoved my hand into the air. Sure enough, I had a spot!

Zach also got a spot and we took our places at the guest judges table, located between the real judges table and the beef butchering demo that was taking place right next to us. We chit chatted a little with the other guest judges and were then presented with a spreadsheet and a glass of Pinot Noir.  As I was trying to make sense of the spreadsheet, the master of ceremonies told the gathering crowd that we would be tasting twenty four different lambs.

Did she just say twenty four?!? But, how? Oh boy, not really sure what we got ourselves into.

The portions were about the size of a domino, prepared medium rare, and were scored on aroma, flavor, tenderness and texture. When the first bite arrived, I peered across to the real judges to check out how they were going about judging their meat, first sniffing, then cutting, chewing, pondering, and often doing it again. After about four different lambs and a refill on my pinot noir, I started to get the hang of it. The thing is though, they were all really good. Even the one that I ranked the lowest would have been a treat to have on the dinner table.

After about every six plates, there was a lull, during which we watched the butchering demo. The whole afternoon was really quite phenomenal. I had a parade of lamb bites going on in front of me, a crowd of 50 people to the side of me, and when I turned around, a cow carcass hanging behind me. The butchers wore chain mail gloves and worked their knives through this cow like a conductor in front of an orchestra. Zip, zip, zip! Three cuts and the skirt steak was out. Zip, Zip and there is your rib eye. My jaw fell open. Nick, the butcher from Harris Meats who was doing the demonstration, could butcher a  half a cow in 1 minute and thirteen seconds. I did a half a pig in six hours.  Hats off to you, man. During the butchering demo, Brian Harris was educating the crowd about abattoirs, knives, and why cuts are priced they way they are.

Harris Meats beef buchering demo

We had to leave before the finals round, so we did not get to find out how our taste buds compared to those of the judges, but that was just as well. After we left, two more volunteers took our places and got to share in the experience. I wrote down the numbers that I liked best and looked them up online afterward. For the record, my favorites were Sally and Malcom MacKenzie’s Dorset Down X and Denis Rhodes’ Poll Dorset X, Zach enjoyed Robert Sloss’ Romney Dorset Down X. We learned what type of lamb we enjoy and had the best seats in the house for enjoying the butchering demo. I couldn’t imagine a better way to experience the Amberly Show.

 

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Day-old Baby Goats Playing on a See-saw

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Underneath Huka Falls

huka-5056

For some reason, New Zealand businesses haven’t caught on to the “bring customers in with clean bathrooms and free wifi” ploy. So, despite our hesitance to patronize fast food joints, we recently found ourselves at a McDonald’s restaurant outside of Taupo. Somehow we avoided the siren song of freedom fries and lamb burgers – though the latter is particularly tempting. Lambs are even cuter when sandwiched between two greasy buns and a quarter-inch of mayo.  Trust me.

Anyway, it had been about a week since we’d checked our email – practically an eternity for two former members of the smart-phone set, and we were starting to twitch and scratch ourselves raw with withdrawal. Finally, the golden arches answered our call. I slid past a massive man knuckle-deep in an aforementioned lamb burger and glued to his appropriately massive laptop as I sat down in front of Christina, anxious to see what junk mail I’d accumulated in such a long period of disregard. There was a blonde German woman fussing with her connection behind us, swearing under her breath in a way only Germans can.

“Must be the computer club,” I said.

The large man at our table smiled and laughed. “You guys in town long?”

“No, unfortunately, we’re leaving early tomorrow.” I asked him about a free place to camp nearby.

“Go back up the hill out of town and follow the signs for Huka Falls.”

“Hooker Falls?”

“Yeah. The campground is on the way. And you should go to the falls tomorrow morning before you go. The gates will open around 7:30 or 8. It’s just an immense amount of water. Oh, and–,” he looked at the ceiling and thought to himself in careful consideration. “You got a pen?”

Nope, I had no pen. But I was curious as to what this kind local would tell me.  Was this an offer for free accommodation? Maybe a secret watering hole with cheap booze and hot showers? I could use lots of both after a week sleeping in the back of our van. Kiwi hospitality was legendary, so with dreams of silk sheets I eagerly found a pen. He tore his receipt in half and started scrawling on the back. He was a lefty, just like me. This is what he produced:

“Ok, so when you get to the falls, there’s this big parking lot. I put a P here, for parking lot. You can go over on this side where everyone else stands – but – if you want to see something cool, follow this.” And he described a secret trail that led down to the river after the falls and ultimately, underneath them.

“At the end of this metal fence,” he pointed to the map, “there’s a trail, you can’t miss it. After about ten meters you’ll see a rope tied to a tree. Last time I was there it was an electrical cord,” he said with a toothy grin. “But yeah – use that to get down. It can be pretty slippery so be careful. Then you’ve got to follow the trail along the river until you get to the falls. There’s a part where the ledge is really narrow. I’m only telling you this because it looks like you’re solid on your feet, just be careful.”

A huge smile crept across my face.  This was going to be an adventure.

“When you get near the falls the rocks get really wet so it’s slippery. Creep up to the falls and reach in, there’s a really good handhold just inside.” He latched his hand onto an imaginary hole above the McDonald’s table.  “Water will just be pounding down on your back. You’ll get fucking drenched, but you can go inside. It’s a really cool spot. Climb in on your hands and knees if you have to. There’s room for about seven or eight people in there.” I went from excited to a bit scared. I get nervous around open water, forget about immense waterfalls pounding on my back. But it was too tempting to pass up a genuine local adventure.

The next morning, we set out for Huka Falls. After checking out the scenic lookouts with all the tourists and being bowled over by the volume of water that was headed over the falls, our nervous energy turned to real worry. Was this guy messing with us? Was he a crazed local sending travelers out to their death? The whole thing seemed a bit insane.

We walked down the path he described, to the left of the falls, and noticed several potential trails. Doubting my ability to recollect what he instructed, I examined each one before deciding they weren’t trails at all and moving on.  My apprehension grew stronger.  But soon we reached the end of the metal fence and an obvious trail emerged, exactly as he’d said.  No more than a few feet into the woods we came to the rope tied to the tree that he described, and gingerly lowered ourselves down. This was definitely the way.

“How are we going to get back up?” Christina said after we’d both descended. I scratched my head, examining the sheer wet rocks and soaking wet rope. It didn’t look easy.

“Hmm.  Well, we’ll deal with that later.”

Pushing on, we followed the trail back upstream, closer and closer to water level and the pounding of the falls.  There were long-fallen trees in places over the trail, but also signs of life – beer bottles and snack wrappers half-buried in mud. Yep, we were on the right track. My confidence grew. Descending on the rope proved to be no problem, maybe he was exaggerating the difficulty of this detour.

And then we came upon the narrow ledge he described.  Tiny and covered with wet moss, stepping on it was akin to ballet on a hockey rink. We’re both experienced rock climbers that would have no trouble with such an obstacle if we were wearing our climbing shoes instead of hiking boots, and if it weren’t just after dawn and barely above freezing.

But we’d come too far to turn back. After carefully traversing the ledge with icy fingers and clumsy feet, the path leveled out and tucked into some very interesting caves. The acoustics of these structures gave the river a intense bass that rattled the ground better than any sub-woofer in an Escalade.  It was the kind of noise that wasn’t even heard by your ears, but deep within your stomach. As if our stomachs weren’t already unsettled enough.

We continued on through a few more shallow caves and over some more fallen trees, and found the secret room just as he’d described, underneath Huka Falls.  Sorry, pictures don’t begin to do it justice. The morning sun shone through the thundering water, sending delicate rainbows into the sky. The sound of millions of gallons tumbling overhead was surreal.  Mother Nature, you are one powerful lady.

Thanks, stranger in the McDonald’s in Taupo.  It turns out you didn’t want us to die a soggy death, you were just being accommodating and picked us for hearty adventurers.  I’m flattered.

We hiked out a little damp but unscathed and saddled up for a four-hour drive south. And it was a great drive. Adrenaline is the real breakfast of champions.

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Gallery: Sand Mandala Dissolution Ceremony

In a previous post, I mentioned that we had recently witnessed the dissolution of a sand mandala at the local marae.  That day also happened to be Christina’s birthday. It was a pretty rockin’ party:

 

 

Ok, so the party wasn’t for her. And it wasn’t a party. But it was amazing nonetheless.

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Visiting Piritahi Marae

mandala-closing-4621

The town marae is the center of New Zealand Maori society.  It’s a community center, place of worship, event space, and cultural nexus. It’s also a place to welcome visitors and teach them about the history of the Maori people. The most remarkable thing on display, though, is the universal reverence and respect for Maori culture.

The welcoming ceremony is called a powhiri, and visitors are usually required to be formally welcomed via this ritual before entering the marae. Recently, Christina and I were powhiri-ed at Piritahi, the Waiheke Island marae. The ceremony largely consists of oratory in the Maori language; ancestors and relevant current events are recognized.  At our powhiri, three New Zealand soldiers that were recently killed in Afghanistan, including the first female kiwi killed-in-action since the Vietnam war, were paid respect.

I know what you’re thinking. “A welcoming ceremony? Gimme a break. It’s probably another trite song-and-dance, paying lip service to a culture in order to get something for yourself.” I can’t deny that I didn’t get a few good meals out of the deal, but the experience was authentic. We spent two full days there, helping feed more than 200 visitors like ourselves. This wasn’t required, but they needed help and we were available.

Throughout my time at the marae, I felt welcome. More than welcome, in fact; I felt as though I was a integral part of the space. We were often asked about our lives, where we were from, what we did back in the United States, and conversation flowed easily. The Maori are not only extremely friendly, they’re gifted in the art of small talk. This made us comfortable.

“Now that you have been welcomed, this is your home,” a Maori woman said to me over tea and cakes. If we had any doubt of that, it was extinguished when it became clear that we were expected to help clean up afterward. Forget trust falls, sometimes a stack of dishes eye-high can be a very effective team-building strategy.

Sand Mandala at Piritahi Marae

We weren’t alone in helping out though.  The kitchen was full of white kiwis that were volunteering for a two-week-long celebration of buddhist culture and the creation of a sand mandala at the marae. It was a fascinating cultural stew. Maori, buddhists, and whites coming together for a mutually beneficial mash-up of traditions.  The buddhists had a place to work, the whites had this work of art and dedication to be amazed by, and the Maori had an audience for their traditions.

The creation of the sand mandala is almost absurdly intricate. Over two weeks, grains of colored sand are dropped individually into a ten foot wide design that would, after its completion, be cast off into the sea as nourishment for the earth.  Nearly two hundred hours of work would be swept up in a matter of seconds. Over the next few days I’ll be posting a few videos and some photos from the dissolution ceremony.

My experience at the marae brings to vivid life the stark contrast between the relationships of white New Zealanders and Maori versus Americans and the indigenous population of their homeland. Native Americans are an afterthought in U.S. culture.  Maori are at the forefront, elbow-to-elbow with their imperialist oppressors. The All Blacks, the uber-popular national rugby team, performs a Maori war dance, a haka, before every game.  Granted, it’s effective in communicating terror, but the thought of the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys performing a native dance, even if it were to make their opponents spontaneously wet themselves, is absurd.

Furthermore, there’s a palpable mutual respect between the two cultures.  I’ve heard of middle-aged kiwis enrolling in Maori language classes because they feel like its “about time they learned it.” Dozens of place names are authentically Maori, instead of bastardized, anglo-friendly versions of indigenous names. The culture is literally everywhere you turn here. The national aesthetic is three parts Maori to one part European.

I’m not sure where the source of this reverence lies, but it’s fascinating to watch. Stay tuned as I learn more.

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School Kills Creativity

While enjoying a post-workout glass of wine and some sweets this afternoon, the conversation among my fellow couchsurfers (there are six of us here) turned to education.  Javier, a kind young Argentinian, suggested we watch Sir Ken Robinson’s related TED talk.

It has absolutely nothing to do with NZ, but a lot to do with why we’re here. It’s also bit long (20 minutes), and a bit old (2006), but it’s filled with hilarious jokes, amusing anecdotes and, of course, inspiring and eloquent speech. Highly recommended:

Personally, I’m just now starting to realize what I want to “be.” I certainly wasn’t ready to make that decision as a freshman in college, as most American students are encouraged to do. So I bounced from one course of study to another, and another again, and finally just settled on something that would get me that piece of paper in a reasonable amount of time. And I’ve never used the material I studied since.

During our recent move into storage/massive purge of old things, I was finally able to throw out my old econometrics and public policy tomes.  This was cathartic — I could finally admit to myself that no, I am not and will never be a professional economist or politician. Thank god(s). It’s not that college was useless, I learned some critical thinking and social skills.  Oh, and I met my beautiful and wonderful-in-every-way girlfriend. So I think of her every month when I’m sending in that student loan check.

But I didn’t make the most of college because I didn’t have any direction.  I wish I’d taken creative writing, foreign language, and public speaking courses. Of course it’s easy to say that now, but if I wasn’t forced into a track, any track, and rather encouraged to take a general course of study I would have inevitably hit a few of those by chance. Sure, I had some elective options, but I was so burnt out by heavy academic courses that I took bullshit like Human Sexuality and Sacred Music because they didn’t sound difficult and fit into my drinking schedule.

Back to Robinson’s point, I was never a particularly creative kid.  In fact, I rebelled against art and music classes because I thought they were a waste of time.  Why did I think they were a waste of time?  Because they weren’t given the same importance as math or science. So I don’t think that early education killed my creativity, but I do wish that I wasn’t allowed to ignore it.  I excelled in what they told me to excel in, but let the rest fall by the wayside because I could. It was a rational decision, there are limited hours in the day and I concentrated my efforts in places where I’d see results.  Wait, maybe I am an economist at heart?

Finally, this is why we travel.  It’s these conversations with strangers from far away lands that end up inspiring a rambling blog post. Serendipity is a wonderful and fickle mistress.  Grab her by the neck when you can.

Now, it’s happy hour.  Things are good. If you can believe it, winter in Auckland is 60 degrees and sunny.  Gin and tonics all around!

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Introducing: Awesome Things

Thanks, Hank

The first in a new category of things I find awesome.

Thanks, Hank…I mean, Mr. Rollins (don’t kill me).

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