Annabel Langbein on childhood memories and favourite food destinations
Sarah-Kate Lynch takes a deep dive into the soul food of Annabel Langbein over a platter and pastries at the much-loved cook’s Wanaka home.
Sarah-Kate: It seems there’s no childhood food memory that doesn’t involve hokey pokey ice cream. Why is it so special?
Annabel: I think it’s that textural thing with the sweetness and the crunch. I used to get one scoop of chocolate and one scoop of hokey pokey and sort of swirl it together with my finger. So you were adventurous from a young age.
Were you always foodie?
My parents wouldn’t call themselves “foodies” – it wasn’t a thing – but we grew up around the table and my mother was always entertaining, making fantastic buffets with little flags with the names of dishes on them. She’d studied home science, and she grew up post-war – she did everything, I don’t know how!
What other adventures did you go on?
When I was 15, a friend and I talked our parents into letting us go to Nelson by ourselves to go raspberry picking. We set up our tent on a cousin’s farm and went off to the raspberry patch, where we picked for about an hour and a half – I think I ate more raspberries than I’d ever eaten in my life – before deciding we did not want to do this again.
We abandoned the job and pushbiked into Nelson, where we found a new doughnut shop, so sat eating doughnuts until it started to rain. Then we biked back to our tent, which we had put up in a nice little hollow, so everything was floating.
So did you spend much time down that way when you were young?
Oh, yes. My grandfather was a fantastically charming man who used to sing Spanish ditties. He had a boat called the Shangri-La moored out in the Marlborough Sounds. All I can remember about getting to it is opening the car door while we were still driving, vomiting, shutting the door, driving for another 10 minutes, then more bleugh. Then we’d hop on the boat and go out for days fishing.
So you’re a forager from way back.
We used to put kontiki lines out fishing, could go toheroa-ing... I can still spot where the toheroa will be – there’s a certain way the sand forms.
Where else in New Zealand do you put food and place memories together?
Gisborne. I sailed up there on a boat and stayed. I met really lovely friends there [including husband Ted Hewetson]. We used to just put our wetsuits on and go up the coast and go snorkelling for pāua and crayfish, and I remember even at Wainui Beach, you could swim to the reef with a mask and snorkel, and go diving out there. One time we were coming back and there was a whole pod of orcas we had to swim through. I wouldn’t do it now! But I still love going hunting for pāua. If you go down to Fiordland, you have that black water and underneath it’s so clear and there’s incredible seafood there.
I’ve been here at your house before for a Fiordland seafood feast. You have a way of seeming to throw together the most amazing meals just instinctively.
Ten thousand recipes I have written now...
So you’ve had a lot of practice!
I have an annoying computer in my head constantly putting things together.
You’ve just been on book tour promoting your memoir, Bella: My life in food. People must come up and talk to you all the time.
Often they don’t recognise me because I’m not looking this glamorous! But if they do, what’s nice is that it’s not about me it’s about their food experience.
“I did your chicken and leek gratin and everyone loved it?”
That’s a very good recipe.
Annabel, we’re in an absolutely idyllic spot on the shores of Lake Wanaka but there’s someone drilling a hole on one side, a lot of frogs, and now a lawnmower.
Annabel: That’s better. Frogs are actually a good thing. They make me very happy because they’re a sign of a healthy ecosystem. [My son] Sean would spend the whole day out frog catching by the pond as a small child.
I believe this spot wasn’t always quite so idyllic?
Well, back in 1996, Ted – who’s always seen the big picture – believed that this area was really going to take off, so we came down to stay with friends in a gorgeous house in Queenstown with hundred-year-old trees, manicured lawns, tennis court...
Then Ted suggested we go on a picnic. I’m now quite wary of that word as he’s done it to me three times now with different things. But we stopped just down there on the lake, then had to bushwhack our way through bracken and blackberry and we get to the bottom of this hill and I feel the mud coming right up over my knees and Ted says, “It’s here! Our land!” And I say, “What land?” Which is when he tells me he’s bought it. And I say: “Well, un-buy it."
So you’d gone from manicured perfection…
… to this. I didn’t talk to him for three months. We had two small children and in those days life was so busy, everybody was trying to build things and make things happen and here we were in this wilderness bog. But then we went for dinner at one of our lovely neighbour’s and I saw a photo of the five most beautiful gardens in the world and I realised one of them was right here. So this was like a thunderbolt.
You suddenly saw…
… probably what Ted had known all along. That I could have a beautiful garden. There was not one tree here. Not a building. Not a road. And we had no money. I would be buying the $2 tree left over from the sale at the plant shop.
And now many trees do you have now?
Ten thousand, maybe? Over 25 acres.
You come alive when you talk about this place.
It makes me so happy. I can’t imagine not living here now. We really only made the permanent move in the last five years. Before that, we were based in Auckland and coming down. And last year I was commuting from here up to there but I don’t want to do that any more. This place is good for my soul.
I can tell it’s your happy place but people who know you from your books and cooking shows probably think of you as always being in the kitchen.
It’s funny, on my book tour someone asked me if there were two Annabel Langbeins: Annabel from the telly who’s inside with everything neat and proper and it always works; and then there’s Bella, who’s actually a free spirit. And I think that’s right. We all have multi-faceted personalities, and I’m lucky I have the opportunity to live both. But I’m my happiest out there in the garden in Wanaka.
If you could say something to that 15-year-old you picking raspberries, what would it be?
I mightn’t say it to her but I would say it to myself as a young mother: “Don’t think you have to be superwoman.” I thought if you got off the bus you wouldn’t have anything to come back to so I didn’t get off the bus. And my family was fine but I got so burnt out. You get this idea that if you don’t do it now it won’t happen. But if you’re going to be a mother, the nicest thing you can do is spend time with your children. My generation has the expectation that you can have it all, but something’s going to give.
Where in New Zealand would you like to go on holiday once you’ve got your kids [Sean, 28, and Rose, 26] back from overseas?
Probably here. We’d walk up to Aspiring. Or up to Rob Roy. Or we’d go on an adventure up into Siberia. Or over to Glenorchy. I’ve just started biking but I’m very clumsy. If anyone’s going to fall off it’s going to be me, and I dislocate. But there’s so many great things to do here – swimming, sailing... Look, there’s someone out there now on a paddleboard.
You really have got a little piece of heaven, haven’t you?
All about Annabel
Annabel Langbein has published more than 30 cookbooks, including the phenomenal success Annabel Langbein: The free range cook, which has sold more than 160,000 copies since it was published in 2010.
Her latest book is a memoir called Bella: My life in food, which is already a number-one bestseller. Annabel is appearing at Verb Wellington’s festival The Garden Party on February 20.