Pauline, Russell and Jean celebrate a combined 240 years!
Bennie and his father have just returned from a quickie four-day visit to New Zealand - to New Plymouth in the North Island region of Taranaki, to be precise.
The ostensible reason for the visit was to help Bennie’s Grandma, Pauline Ethel Weir, celebrate her 80th birthday.
But it was more than that, as it was a triple-banger 80th birthday party taking in also the milestone’s of Pauline’s brother-in-law Russell (Kenny’s uncle), and his partner Jean.
And it was far more than that again, as relatives and friends flew or bussed in from all over New Zealand and Australia.
It was a family reunion of the likes never before experienced by myself, let alone Bennie!
Over three organised events on the Saturday and the Sunday and more informal get-togethers, tales and family lore were exchanged and rolled out.
Relatives and neighbours only dimly remembered were introduced and much laughter and tears flowed.
How magnificent it all was.
I revelled in digging back in to the family history.
And found, too, that I am more than old enough to have completely forgotten some events and quite starkly mis-remembered others.
In particular, my sister Judith (Bennie’s aunty) took umbrage at the suggestion that our Mum may have been a crash-hot baker but was a less than impressive all-round cook.
Her point being that while the food traditions and resources available to us in the Dunedin of the 1960s and ’70s may have been lacking by contemporary standards, within that context Pauline was pretty much at the pinnacle of cooking prowess.
You know what?
Judith is dead right – and my belief in that judgment was only enhanced as, over the course of our stay in New Zealand, I picked Pauline’s brains about what and how we ate as a growing family.
Mum’s baking was extraordinary – cakes, slices, cookies and more, all superb.
But while we may have gone without olive oil, garlic and ciabatta, there was plenty more that was terrific.
And in that regard we did way better than most families in similar situations – and that was thanks to she.
Roast dinners and lunches were a regular, of course, but what I recall with particular sharpness is Mum’s homemade mint sauce. It was a far cry from the gloopy concoctions mostly served up these days. It was runny, awash with minced mint and quite vinegary.
Mum’s vegetable soup, made with beef bones, and beef stew were likewise dynamite. They, too, were runny at the outset but gained body and texture in consequent days.
We had heaps of fish – both fresh water and sea varieties, almost all of it caught by ourselves.
According to Mum, there was never any suggestion that fish be cooked any other way than pan-fried.
Baking seafood or putting in a stew or soup was unthinkable, and while Pauline was very partial to white sauce, the same could not be said for her husband or children.
Uncle Russell, sister Judith, her partner Tim, cousin Susan and her Mum, Aunty Faye.
Another high point in Pauline’s bag of tricks – a very high point – was a dazzling array of preserves and pickles.
Bottled tomatoes were a reliable, lovely staple in a time and place in which canned toms were unknown.
Pauline’s pickled onions were to die for, as were various chutneys and relishes – all made from local Dunedin or Otago produce.
These were, likewise, made from Otago berries and stonefruit, some of which was picked by us.
I have particularly fond memories of the peach jam.
Another regular was a superb plum sauce – a prized alternative to store-bought tomato sauce.
Any and all of these preserves and pickles were of such high quality that any “gourmet” producer would today be ultra-proud to claim them as their own. And they’d be winning gold medals, for sure.
According to Mum, chicken was something we had only on special occasions. Rabbit was far more common in our household, invariably prepared following pretty much the same recipe as the beef stew, with the bunny pieces sometime browned at the start.
Our home was divided on the issues of mushrooms and oysters.
Dad loved both, as – eventually – did son and daughter.
But Pauline has never cracked her dislike of both.
Mushrooms – always gathered by us, never bought – were only ever pan-fried in butter and had on toast.
Oysters meant only Bluff oysters – bought already shucked in containers and eaten raw. Or obtained deep-fried from the same places and at the same times as our regular fish and chip feeds.
And yes, I can fully recall when those items really were wrapped in newspaper.
Other Weir home favourites are familiar to this day around New Zealand, Australia and the world, but I have no doubt the quality has dropped.
Mum’s shepherds’ pie, just for instance, was made with hand-minced leftover lamb roast.
As it should be …
Likewise, the meat loaves we buy locally are humdrum by comparison with those of our childhood.
Now there’s a challenge for the new kitchen of Bennie and Kenny – making homemade meat loaf and regular!
Thanks Mum – we love you!
Pauline and Milly.