Of roses and turkish delight

FullSizeRender (3)The first thing anyone does on receiving a bouquet of roses is to bury their face in them to breathe in the scent.  Beautiful roses with minimal scent are pure anticlimax. Pierre de Ronsard, I’m taking to you!

Nahema might well be accused of showing off at this time of year. But what might be quite an ordinary pale pink prettiness is lifted into the stratosphere of rose-y adoration by its strong scent, swooningly redolent of turkish delight.

Of all the roses available, Parfumier Guerlain created a perfume in 1979 named after this one which is still available today.  Guerlain records that the floral oriental fragrance was “inspired by the legend of a sultan who had twin daughters, the gentle and obedient Mahane and the fiery and passionate Nahéma. Built predominantly around rose notes, Nahéma was an early fragrance to feature damascones, a set of newly discovered aromachemicals with a profound fruity-rose character.”

This is Nahema’s first year in my garden.  Often roses flower well in the first year and then decline left unsprayed in Auckland’s humid climate.  Time will tell whether Nahema is up up to an organic mulch, water, squash aphids routine to earn a permanent place.  So far I am in thrall to its pretty and scented delights.

We all like different things

Everybody likes different things 001
When the student is ready the teacher appears right? With startling frequency, the kind and clever women at Slow Family Living (SFL) throw a quietly ticking inspiration bomb my way.

This week they snuck a new and deceptively simple phrase into my mind : “We all like different things”.

I’ve been turning it over in my head like a pebble, this one phrase crash course in acceptance. Of course we do all like different things. This often leads to conflict, but it’s the differences which make things interesting. And because we all like different things, we also all need different degrees of space, time, engagement and support.

It’s well worth reading Bernadette Noll’s article here to see how this might plays out amongst the competing forces in your own household. I was inspired to make a quick mock-up for my fridge. If you like it, let me know and I’ll send you one you can print out for yours.

November is the most beautiful month

November may be a capricious month, but be still my beating heart when the lengthening days conspire with the abundant rain and the garden begins to pulse and glow. Step on to the wet grass in the early morning to a verdant backdrop which soothes the eye in quivering emeralds and viridians. The roses come forth slowly at first, then tumble over each other in their enthusiasm. Sweetpeas twine around the foxglove spires and their fragrance thickens. The garden beds starred with bright borage blue. Each day throws forth a fresh excuse for a bouquet. Soon, as all the vases overflow, humbler containers are pressed into service in a riot of colour and life, grace and glory.


Best Hot Cross Buns ever

140509 Baked Hotcross bunsJ’accuse! A small storm rocked the fragrant world of hot cross bun making a few years ago when nationally beloved cook Jo Seagar called out the Edmonds Cookbook over the poor quality of its recipe.  Shockingly, this staple Kiwi household recipe bible had proven unreliable!  Many people, myself included, had tried using this recipe and come to the conclusion that hot cross buns were too difficult and we lacked the secret to make them work.  Of course that was bollocks.

Lots of people lack confidence in using yeast, which is a shame as it’s really not that hard as long as your yeast is active (i.e. working and not too old) and you give it sufficient time to prove (or ‘rise’).

Happily Jo Seagar came out front and centre with her own glorious recipe which you can find via the link at the bottom of this post.  Thanks to Jo and a wet Easter weekend, I restored my hot cross bun mojo.  A couple of hours and some hands on dough time and I had thirty substantial and delicious hot cross buns.  They were brown and glossy, with a lovely yeasty, spicy flavour.  Thumbs up – would trade again!

140509 Hit cross buns before cooking

Buns pre baking after final rise

Next time I think I would just ice the crosses rather than using the recommended flour and water mix which was lumpy and not easy to apply.

And lets just say that again: thirty buns. One of the things I like most about Jo Seagar’s recipes is that the quantities are always very generous.  This is a major consideration when you have a tribe of hungry boys to feed and still want a little to freeze for lunches.

Weirdly, hot cross buns have been appearing in the local supermarket from February this year in the same venal sort of seasonal creep we’ve seen with Easter eggs.  Generally those hot cross buns are pretty disappointing too, soft pale flabby things with an unpleasant aftertaste.  I guess someone’s buying them, but I find it devalues the tradition when seasonal trappings are available all year around.  Surely the way to maintain the special nature of our traditions is to respect them and not to exploit them.  One way to do this is to make them yourself.  It’s just once a year after all, and thanks to Jo Seagar they’re not only achieveable but rewarding.

You can find Jo Seagar’s hot cross bun recipe along with many other truly delicious and reliable edibles here: http://joseagar.com/recipes/category:baking-and-treats/seagars-hot-cross-buns/

A wet and windy walk on Waiheke


This gallery contains 24 photos.

Waiheke locals often refer smugly to their microclimate which means that even when Auckland is cloaked in damp clouds, just a short ferry ride away, the Waihetians are often basking in warm sunlight. But sometimes even Waiheke succumbs to a fit of the dismals, and once you’ve been to the Cinema, Solar Cafe and the video shop you’ve exhausted most of the possibilities, especially those which won’t cost a bomb with three kids in tow. When tempers start to fray, the only answer is to man up, rug up and get out into the wet and windy weather. Fortunately although the weather may be rough, it generally isn’t very cold.  And … Continue reading

The family bach

15 April 14 HekeruaOften in New Zealand we hear people referring fondly to their family bach, a little house near the sea to which they would return each summer, building up a pleasant store of memories and shared deprivations, year after year as they grew up.  And while we had a fairly privileged childhood which featured plenty of love and fun, a bach wasn’t part of my family culture until recently.

Then a few years ago, my parents found a steep, bushclad and inaccessible section at Hekerua Bay on Waiheke Island, a cleansing forty five minute ferry ride from Auckland. Never ones to back down on a challenge, the only answer was to build a house on it, a saga which deserves its own book.  The result was a very comfortable tree house, nestled in the bush above a small rocky cove.

tartan pipiFor lucky us it makes a very welcoming retreat not too far from where we live.  Still inaccessible by road, it requires a walk in down a long steep zig zag and a breath defying slog up wooden steps dragging your volumes of planned reading and bottles of wine.  As you can imagine, it was with great joy that we moved beyond the stage of bulky nappies and baby paraphernalia.

The advantage of a walk in, is that once there, we don’t want to leave.  We settle in.  We read, we walk, we swim, we kayak around the headland for a samosa from the Four Square at Little Oneroa.

Dried flax flower

It has to be admitted that the inter-generational holiday will require some flexibility and tolerance on all sides, especially when your family features three lively, and loud boys, with not a lot of space around the house to run around.    Full credit to my parents for 1. continuing to invite us, and, 2. putting up with the sheer force of energy, volume and confrontation that is our offspring.  But sometimes things will spiral upwards and that’s when we know that, rain or shine, it’s time to get outside.

For my children, Hekerua Bay has become their happy place.  It’s where they have spent endless hours on the pebbly beach, collected treasures, and walked miles (ok, sometimes against their will). They’ve developed strength, observation and independence while kayaking around the coastline and sea channels around us. Surrounded by native bush and water wildlife they have learned to confidently spot and identify native birds and trees and occasionally large marine mammals such as seals and orca.

In Maori ‘Hekerua’ means Double Bay.  For us it means double happy.

It’s just not that hard to be nice to your customers: Better living everyone!

This post was first published as an opinion piece on marketing blog Stoppress under the title “Why lawyers make bad marketers”.  But as the subject matter concerns this blog itself I have reposted it here.  Do you agree with me? What do you think Clorox New Zealand should have done?

snap lock bagsAs far as I’m aware, my blog has around four readers, most of them closely related to me. But I recently gained another! An intellectual property legal firm called AJ Park. They’re very good, and I’ve used them in a professional capacity myself.

It turns out that I referred once to a certain type of recloseable plastic bag you may well have in your own kitchen. AJ Park representing Clorox New Zealand Limited sent me a letter, asking me to change the way I have referred to their client’s product, suggesting ways I could ‘help’ their client to ‘safeguard their rights’. Thoughtfully they attached a highlighted photocopy of my blogpost and a list of suggested alternatives.

Honestly? Kudos! I’m impressed that anyone made it that far through my lemon cordial recipe, let alone an IP lawyer’s clerk clutching a highlighter. I suspect a little help from Google Alerts or a special lawyerly search tool.

Confession #1: I was once admitted to the bar in an excruciatingly silly horsehair wig. So, as a reformed lawyer, I do understand why companies want to be able to protect their property. If their brand name becomes the generic name for the product (which, actually, some might argue it has), it may be able to be removed as a trademark, and they lose the investment they’ve made in the product.

Confession #2: I also acted as a professional marketer for many more years than I care to admit or recall. So I know that while Clorox via AJ Park are probably doing what they feel they have to do to defend their brand, it is also just plain stupid in terms of brand perception and word of mouth marketing. Also, at $300+ per hour for a law firm partner’s time, it is also represents a very poor allocation of resource.

First, there’s the negative frisson in receiving an unexpected letter from a lawyer. Apologies to my many lovely lawyer friends, but joyful anticipation is not uppermost. A lawyer’s letterhead ups the ante in a heavy-handed way, no matter how anodyne the content. Not a feeling I’d want associated with my brand, especially smack bang in the middle of the target market. Let alone in the hands of a gobby blogger.

Secondly, however much Clorox may be in the right, actually nobody likes to be told what to do. As a marketer defending your legal rights, you need to keep this in mind in order to ensure the situation is managed to the product’s best overall advantage.

Now, I’m a fan of the product in question. I have snack sized, sandwich sized and storage sized bags in my kitchen drawer at all times, despite the fact that they are the most expensive and patently unsustainable. I have more money than sense, clearly. They just happen to be terribly useful. Until now, I haven’t seriously questioned this. And as a keen cook/baker with three kids, my future purchase potential is shamefully large.

But now, guess what I’m going to think about next time I’m in the kitchen consumables aisle? How seriously, do you think I’m going to be considering the alternatives. Quite, I’d say.

When a company sees someone using its product name, correctly or incorrectly, it is a great opportunity to recruit that person as an advocate, along with their potentially extensive social network. The last thing you’d want to do is shut down that conversation.

So, how could Clorox approach this differently? How might they ensure that fans who inadvertently use the wrong nomenclature continue to feel good about buying, using and recommending their product?

  • The message comes from the company—a product manager, or a marketer, a community manager or leader, not the lawyer.
  • It uses an appropriate medium. Unless there is a specific legal reason why the communication should be in a formal letter, it should take the form of a blog comment or email.
  • It is friendly.
  • It refers directly to the use of the product.
  • It finds some common ground.
  • It presents the client’s argument in the context of a benefit to the user, not to the brand owner.

With less effort, and considerably less expense, Clorox could have commented/emailed the following:

“Hi Jennifer, We love your blog (a little flattery never hurts, right?), and we are delighted you are finding our products so useful. We have an online community you might enjoy here, where keen cooks share ideas and recipes. We’re really flattered that you have mentioned our product by name and hope you will continue to recommend us. When you do, we would ask if you would please use our trademark*. The reason for this is that it helps us to fight bad copies of our product and ensure you are able to keep buying the quality product you’ve come to expect.”

A smart marketer who respects their target purchaser could choose to use any of the following tools in order to encourage a customer to become an advocate for their products, while correcting any misuse of trademarks:

  • Give a compliment.
  • Generate a conversation.
  • Provide sample products.
  • Offer discounts.
  • Incentivise friend get friend bonuses.
  • Ask them to like your Facebook page or join your online forum.
  • Invite to join your customer panel.

It’s just not that hard to be nice to your customers.

*For those who are interested in helping to safeguard Clorox New Zealand Limited’s valuable trademark rights, you may refer to a recloseable plastic bag as a ‘Snap Lock (R) bag”, a “SNAP LOCK (R) bag” or a “Snap Lock (R) bag”. If you’re feeling all relaxed and informal, you may apparently use the catchy phrase “SNAP LOCK resealable bag”.

He was my dog

HectorHe was nothing but a skittery pompom with a sharp little nose when we first brought him home.  He was small enough to fit into the pocket of my fleece.  His life spanned the length of our marriage.

Smart and fully engaged, he was excellent and constant company.  Dethroned successively by three babies, he generally took his demotion in good part.

Nosier than the Microsoft Paperclip, he always had to be involved, or at least present.  A naughty, loud fellow, scourge of the neighbours.   He was badly disciplined, an unrepentant pizza thief, a problem barker.

As he aged, he became blind and sick, and the sickness spread, despite our energetic denial.  What made it hardest to bear is that we could see in his eyes that he was still in there.  Barely able to walk he would still leap joyfully in the air when we came home.

When we broke the news of his condition, the children said ‘I wish I had been nicer to him’ and ‘it’s worse because he doesn’t know’

Towards the end, we ran a shift where one of us had to get up twice or three times per night and let him out.  We could never sleep past 5.30am.  It felt like having a newborn but without the upside.  It was unsustainable.  We walked like the undead, dealing with our kids and our jobs, but unable to bring ourselves to the point of what we had to do.

We heard many stories from others, some who had been to amazing extremes to keep their old dogs alive.  They all told the same story: ‘We kept him alive too long because we couldn’t bear to let him go’.  They were stories of bargaining, rationalising and denial.

In the end it was quite simple.  We carried him into the vet.  The vet spoke to us quietly and reassuringly, like a kindly priest.  The tears ran unguarded down our faces from the moment we arrived until we left.   When he was gone, he was gone.  I wish I had not looked into his eyes as they changed.  The right thing to do did not feel like the right thing to do.

Now, we can leave our food on the table without losing it.  We can walk around the back lawn without the danger of stepping on landmines.  We can sleep.

But weeks later I still hear his claws making fickety fickety noises behind me when I walk down the hall.  I throw food on the floor and it stays there. When I rise from reading, there is no attentive dismount beside me.  Coming home lacks a leaping celebration.

He was my dog, and I miss him every day.

The Signature of All Things – A Book Review

Book Review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

signature of all things cover tiltedElizabeth’s Gilbert’s historical novel The Signature of All Things swings into action at a critical juncture between the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.  Exploitation of the New World is a fraught but lucrative enterprise bringing lands, fresh resources, and most importantly, valuable plants for a rapacious coterie of collectors.  Far from an elegant pursuit, botany is brutal but profitable, and many will die in the quest for the new.

Red haired, choleric and amoral, Henry Whittaker, is surely one of the liveliest and compelling historical figures never to have lived.  Discovered stealing plants to sell, the ‘useful little fingerstink’ is brought before self-noting botanist Joseph Banks, and sent as a botanic spy on Captain Cook’s third voyage.  Used and humiliated by his mentor, Henry forges a future and a pharmaceutical empire from medicinal plants.

Born into privilege, Henry’s daughter Alma resembles her father: ‘Ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose’.  A stoic, clever girl, with a love of argument and understanding, she becomes a dedicated naturalist while young.  Disappointed in love, and confined by duty, she rejects sorrow and buries herself in the tiny universe of mosses, edging towards a major discovery.  The walled garden of Alma’s life is both illuminated and utterly transformed by the late arrival of a ‘fellow soul’, the enchanting and delicate artist, Ambrose Pike.

Alma’s journey towards personal and professional enlightenment is touching and transfixing. Engaging, salty, and vivid, her story is immersed in a relentless, and fascinating flow of historical detail.   Often lyrical and quite beautiful on Alma’s pure love for her work and catastrophic love for Ambrose, the novel is clear eyed on the grimmer issues of  the day such as slavery, venereal disease, asylums and shipboard sodomy.

Perhaps Gilbert’s greatest achievement, is to bring to life the commitment and passion of the naturalist for her field of study, at a time when science poses a greater challenges biblical truth through the closer examination of nature.  Alma is unimpressed by the mystical idea of a divine code (the ‘signature’ of the title), based on God’s arrangement of plants and objects.  Falling firmly on the side of science and argument, she nevertheless struggles to square her discoveries with her experience of human nature and altruism.

Gilbert feasts deeply upon the language of the period and studs the text with beguilingly archaic words such as ‘ensorcelled’, ‘gallimaufry’, ‘marplot’ and, importantly for Alma’s self discovery, ‘quim’.   The rich and inventive description uplifts and occasionally disconcerting.  Can a servant really be described as a ‘competent young washbasin of a girl’?  But the reader is nevertheless enslaved and borne along by the impulsive, rhythmic energy of the writing and ongoing discovery.

Fans of Gilbert’s phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love may see her as having diverted from form with this historical epic.  But it is entirely typical of Elizabeth Gilbert to take a brave creative risk and carry it through wholeheartedly and I, for one, am glad of it.

Both Eat, Pray, Love. and The Signature of All Things feature as protagonist, a strong, intelligent and self-critical woman, for whom work is its own reward.  Both open themselves to transformational new experiences, seeking only to know and to be known.  It seems that in The Signature of All Things, the apple has not fallen all that far from the tree.


Note: This book review was published in Metro Magazine, Jan 2014 edition.


Longbourn by Jo Baker: A review

longbourn coverA giant fibreglass Mr Darcy arises from the Serpentine, in a TV channel promotion.   Slapstick movie Austenland staggers on to screens and Bridget Jones is resurrected.  The Pride and Prejudice juggernaut rolls on, exploiting and warping our fascination with its characters in ways which Jane Austen could never have conceived or, one supects, countenanced.

And so it is in hope, but slight trepidation, that an ardent admirer of Austen might approach Longbourn.  Its cover copy line‘Pride and Prejudice - the servants’ story’ raises not just our hopes but also the zombiesque spectre of fan fiction in which beloved characters are reanimated, but somehow not quite as they were.

Fear not, dear reader.  The unsparing Austenian observation and inventive wit of author Jo Baker have conspired to create a world of convincing character and detail in which the most die hard Austen devotee can die happy.

In Longbourn, the freshly imagined servants of the Bennet family, command centre stage in a compelling drama.   Readers may be lured by the repressed aura ofMr Darcy, but they will stay for the struggles and hopes of gutsy strong-minded housemaid Sarah, redoubtable Mrs Hill, exotic Ptolemy and mysterious, war damaged James Smith.

The story marches alongside Pride And Prejudice like an adjoining property.  Familiar landmarks are glimpsed but from a fresh perspective, and it is in these differences that the greatest fascination lies.

Until now, we, and the young ladies Bennet, have been insulated from the gritty daily realities of running a small country house. Exhaustion, laundry, chilblains, excrement and job insecurity feature daily. One’s best and finest creations are destined always for others.

Longbourn obliges us to confront some fond notions of elegance and refinement through the lens of the loaded mistress/servant relationship.  Although the young ladies might present themselves as ‘smooth and sealed as alabaster statues’, their linen reveals them to be ‘frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures to their laundress.

Lizzie’s long admired disregard for bad weather is naturally viewed rather more critically by her maid:‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields’.

Despite the physical hardships of the servant’s life it becomes clear that material comfort is not a panacea “Perhaps it was actually quite a fearful state to live in – the knowledge that one had achieved a complete success”.  Elizabeth, for all her brilliant match is obliged to be ‘what she is required to be’.  And even Derbyshire’s largest fortune cannot protect her against that great equalizer, childbirth.

The passionate love affair between James and Sarah is all the more touching for its awkward organic beginnings and its contrast to that other relationship.  Sarah’s freedom to choose, both in work and in marriage is hard won and deeply satisfying.

The greatest fun is to be had in the subtle but masterly rehabilitation of familiar characters.  Mr Bennet’s scandalous new back-story generates new compassion for scatty, fractious Mrs Bennet.  Even perennially pompous Mr Collins emerges surprisingly sympathetically. Meanwhile, it ought to come as no real surprise to anyone that a young housemaid ought not to be left alone with Mr Wickham.

Longbourn will delight both new fans and Austen purists alike.  A vivid and engaging story, its characters live on in the imagination.

Readers, we have a new classic.

This review was published in Metro Magazine in December 2013