My Aunt Vera lived in an old railway cottage at the start of the Karangahake gorge and only in her final years used an electric oven. When I met her and husband Bill Taylor (my relative) – she cooked on a Shacklock coal range.
I believe the pair were founding members of what they called Bird and Forest. Together they raised thousands of native trees for planting in the gorge. They ate wild pork and deer and trout out of the river, served with vegetables from Vera’s wonderful garden.
I chanced upon them by accident in the early 80s. Travelling past one day with friends, we called in. We shared the same surname, and after a chat, decided there was no connection between our families. Until over dinner Bill mentioned his young distant nephew, my father, and some of the antics he’d got up to.
Family. And the two quickly became firm friends.
Bill was bowled by a car outside their little cottage in his 80s, but lived on another 10 or so years. Vera spent most days tending her garden and potting up plants.
In December 1992 I interviewed her for a gardening column in the Waikato Times, when she was 74. She ran a tight ship, she said.
It shocked her to see what folk throw away. “Lawn clippings, prunings, vege peelings. It shouldn’t go out in the rubbish. Put it back in the garden, compost or trench it in. You don’t waste anything.”
She even burned dog bones and put the ash on the garden.
“There are more ways to skin a cat than to pull out its fur piece by piece,” she said, saying she seldom visited garden centres and got most of her plants as cuttings from friends, as well as giving away many.
When visitors called she would whip on an old apron and make a batch of delicious ginger gems, in the coal range. In no time the linen table cloth would be on the old Kauri table Bill had made himself.
Every year after Bill died Vera would send a beautiful Christmas card, in elegant, spidery writing, talking about her year and the garden. In 2015 I didn’t receive one and, at 96, age finally caught up with her.
Here is her recipe for ginger gems. Spicdsdey and hot from the oven, they represent what is good in this life and every time I make them I think of her and Bill – and am thankful that one day, many years ago, I happened past.
*These classic Kiwi treats are baked in a gem iron which turn up at op shops, but I have seen them for sale new in hardware stores. If anyone local would like to try their hand at baking these get in touch – I’m happy to loan my gem iron!
Vera’s ginger gems
60g warm butter
¾ cup sugar
1 heaped Tbsp golden syrup
¾ cup milk
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ cup flour
2 ½ tsp ground ginger
- Preheat oven to 220 degrees. Place the gem iron inside to warm up.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat well, then add the golden syrup.
Warm the milk gently in a small pan on the oven, and dissolve baking soda in this.
Stir in the flour and ginger and beat the mixture well.
- Take gem iron from oven and grease lightly with butter. (Put a small dab in each cavity and spread with a pastry brush.)
- Spoon mixture into each cavity (or you can put mix into a small jug and pour a little in.) Place in oven for 10 minutes until the gems have risen and are beautifully golden.
- Allow to cool and serve sliced in half with lashings of butter. And a piping hot cup of tea.
*This story first ran on N8N June 2015.