Archive for May, 2009

At last! Dotterels!

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

I saw three dotterels on the beach at the nature reserve yesterday. I’m fairly sure they were the New Zealand ones (“not common” as well as endangered) so I feel a sense of achievement. Now I can leave (tomorrow, alas) in good order!

Dotterels look very sweet, too. Here’s one of them.


My daily bread

Thursday, May 21st, 2009


Mathias Kroeger, I salute you!

I haven’t met Mathias but I have eaten his bread, and I have to tell you, it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. And although I don’t know Mathias, and haven’t talked to him about his bread, I know enough about it to be going on with.

I know it’s made here at the Helios bakery on Waiheke Island, and I know it’s made from organic ingredients. I also suspect that he bakes his breads in an old-fashioned solid fuel oven, because that’s the best way to achieve such a crisp all-over crust.


And look at that crumb texture! It’s perfect! I think this slightly open weave, for want of a better way to describe it, is the sign of a truly great loaf, and probably also of an un-kneaded one.

The taste is great. It’s lovely eaten fresh, and it makes excellent toast. It lasts for ages.

This is the wheat loaf, but Mathias also makes rye and spelt bread. Maybe other ones, too. I want to try them all before I leave.

If you want to try to make perfect bread yourself, the best way I know is to use the Doris Grant recipe. Mrs Grant was a champion of fresh, natural ingredients and minimal processing of food, and she maintained a running battle with major food companies in the UK for more than 60 years. In attacking agene, which was added to flour to make the bread easier to bake, she declared: “If you love your husbands, keep them away from white bread . . .If you don’t love them, cyanide is quicker but bleached bread is just as certain, and no questions asked.”

One of her most celebrated achievements was the Doris Grant loaf, which is very simple to make, and requires no kneading (in fact it can’t be kneaded: the mixture’s too sloppy). Here’s the recipe to make three 1kg loaves.


1.6 kg flour
1.25 litres warm water
30g salt
30g sugar
30g fresh yeast
60g butter

Three 1 kg tins

Mix the salt and flour in a large bowl and put this to warm in a gentle oven. (It doesn’t much matter if you don’t warm it, but doing that speeds up the whole process.)

Crumble the yeast into a basin, and add the sugar and a quarter of the water. Cover the basin and leave the mixture to froth, and then stir it to dissolve the sugar.

Pour the mixture into the flour, and add the rest of the water. Stir until it’s mixed, grease the tins, and spoon the dough into them.

Leave until the loaves have risen by one third. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour at 205C (400F). It’s a good idea to take the loaves out of the tins and return them to the oven for five minutes or so, to make sure the crust is crisp.

Not common good: very common not so good

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009


I seem to have become enthralled by distinctive birds with red beaks. First it was pukeko that took my heart (see my earlier blog). Now my latest passion is the oddly named variable oystercatcher, which – I was excited to discover – isn’t a common sighting. “Not common” is what my book says. The ratings go from “very common” through “common” and “quite common” to “not common” and “rare”, and after that it’s only “sanctuary birds”. The book doesn’t rate “extinct”; we have to use our imaginations for that one rather than my excellent (borrowed, thanks Pam) binoculars.

In my limited bird watching experience, an amateur’s enthusiastic identification of an uncommon bird almost always turns out to be a disappointing mis-identification. So, from my own recent experience: no, it probably isn’t a (rare) yellowhead, it’s probably a (very common) yellowhammer. And although it took me about a week to be sure, it wasn’t a (not common) New Zealand falcon circling over the bush, but the (very common) Australasian harrier. (A lovely sight, though, however common.)

But when I saw these distinctive birds on the local beach, I was in luck. (They didn’t agree: they hurried away complaining loudly in shrill voices about my intrusion into their space. They even complained again today when I returned, and they were about 40 metres away out on the tidal estuary: I couldn’t see them without binoculars but clearly, they could see me.) The thing is, there isn’t anything else that looks like this, so you can’t really mistake them for another bird.

But just why these black ones are called ‘variable’ is a mystery to me. Bird names are often puzzling – like the American red-bellied woodpecker that doesn’t actually have a red belly. What’s that about?

A variable oystercatcher, when it is actually variable, as opposed to when it’s black all over like the ones I saw, looks almost exactly like a pied oystercatcher, and they all say ‘kleep kleep’. The border between the colours is a bit smudgy on the variable ones, and not on the pied ones, but otherwise I don’t know how you’d know. (And how do they know? That’s another mystery.)

Why not call my ones ‘black oystercatchers’? Or is that just too damn obvious?

Anyway, tomorrow I’m raising my bird-watching game a notch or two. I’m going back to the beach to look at some dotterels. Banded ones are quite common; New Zealand ones are not common. Frankly, I look forward to meeting any of them.

The bird of my dreams

Monday, May 4th, 2009


I have fallen in love with pukeko – these absurd and insouciant birds. My local friends scorn my new attachment. They tell me that pukeko are an unsuitable subject of affection, but of course I won’t listen, and anyway I don’t care what they say. I’m besotted with them.

What I love about them most is their sense of comic timing. These birds are the natural comedians of the bird world, and their daily rituals make me laugh with delight. Top of my list of pukeko pleasures is their careful – their extravagantly, exaggeratedly careful – walk. Like a drunk mimicking the characteristics of a sober friend.

One pukeko foot comes up – and then it stops in mid air while the pukeko looks around. At this stage it appears to be deep in thought, contemplating its next move or the mysteries of the universe: I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess.

Time passes. The foot stays up. I hold my breath in admiration – because, after all, it’s Some Foot we’re talking about here. A very large bright orangey-red one, in fact, and surprisingly slender and fragile, at the end of an equally slender bright orangey-red leg. Just poised in mid air.

Maybe the pukeko is waiting for laughter or applause? No, the foot’s come down again, and it’s the other foot’s turn for aerial indecision.

This extended performance is only the start of the show. There’s still the running to come – and the running’s the highlight, it’s what you’ve really been waiting to see. There it goes – head down and white feathered bum right up in the air, streaking away across the fields, legs speeding, little wings flapping in the air like elbows on a clown.

Oh, they can fly if they want to, if they really have to, but they mostly don’t. For sheer joy from a watcher’s point of view, though, a flying pukeko probably wins the most points. Those absurd legs and feet dangle down helplessly, even maybe dangerously, while the wings flap ever more frantically to clear a fence, or a tree, or just to keep that big blue body in the air. It looks dashing and perilous, and borderline impossible, a pukeko flying.

But like all great comedians, pukeko carry a secret sorrow in their hearts. I’m fairly sure I know what that sorrow is: it’s their tragically appalling road sense. They do that hovering trick at the edge of roads, seemingly indecisive, legs a-quiver with unspoken questions.

Shall I? Shan’t I? Which way? Any way? Oh all right then – off I go!

And then they try to throw themselves under the wheels of your car.

If you were walking down the road they’d see you as a danger; it’s cars they don’t seem to rate on the danger scale. And like cats, they don’t seem to learn from the sad fate of their friends and relations, they just keep right on throwing themselves at cars.

The only good thing is, their secret sorrow doesn’t seem to be terminal for the species. There are lots more pukeko around now, than when I grew up in New Zealand. So my love affair can bloom and thrive.