I had a chat with Wendyl Nissen about 10 years ago. About chooks. Although we worked in the same industry at the time (magazineland) our paths had never crossed, but I knew she kept chooks, and as I wanted to get some, I got her number and called her. She’s one of those people who happily shares her knowledge. I like that. I got some chooks, loved them, loved their eggs even more, but after about 4 years, one by one, they popped their clogs, or should I say, took to standing on one leg, refusing even the most exquisite morsels of rocket and snails, and finally, wobbling a bit, fell over and closed their eyes. “Rescue chooks,” she surmises. “They don’t last long.”
Wendyl, author of seven books, mostly on sustainable living, still keeps chooks at her Hokianga home but has phased out some of the other things she has given a go over the years.
“I enjoy making sourdough bread, and it is such a great thing to have. I did get fed up wih it a while back. It’s like having a pet, you need to look after it. I let the starter die. Damn. But I got another one from a friend, sent up to me in the mail. It survived the travelling and I am at it again. I bake about twice a week. The thing with sourdough is that even if it dries a bit it makes fantastic toast. You never waste any. I have made sauerkraut and kombucha, but I’m over kombucha now, though I have stuck with bottling fruit from our little orchard.
“I taught myself to garden, through trial and error. I’m better at it now. I read heaps and have lots of old gardening and cooking books and I love getting ideas from them. Nothing is new really, it’s all been done or thought of before, but we have seemingly forgotten all the tips and tricks. I say we grow everything organically, without pesticides and herbicides. Most people throw stuff on the compost heap that might not be organic, but I don’t have a fit about that. I think do the best you can, be aware as you can, and that’s already something.
“I’ve just dug up potatoes and we are coming to the end of asparagus and strawberries. You do need to be on to gardening pretty much every day though or it gets on top of you.
I use a lot of natural bug killers. Marigolds disinfect the soil so they are handy to have all through the vegetable patch. Nasturtiums attract pests first, so I let them grow around everything. We also love the young petals in sandwiches. They are bitter and peppery and give a sandwich a sharp bite. Quite delicious. And nasturtium pesto is really wonderful, and so much cheaper than basil.
“I always add potash and dried milk powder to the hole whenplanting tomatoes. Then I stick a copper nail through the stem about 5” up whenit gets fat and that stops blight. I told Lynda Hallinan about it (gardeningguru) and she said I’m mad, an old hippy and weird, but guess what? I’ve neverhad blight in my tomatoes. I think she has. Some of the old tricks simply work.You don’t have to understand how they work. Keep an open mind, I think, is thebest way.”
Wendyl’s new book TheNatural Home: Tips, Idea & Recipes For A Sustainable Life is full ofreally useful information on how to get the best from your garden, how to makenatural cleaning and beauty products, how to raise your baby chemical-free andall sorts of interesting and quirky recipes and kitchen tips – nasturtiumpesto is on my to-try list, and there’s strawberry rose jam, how to roastcoffee beans, how to make ricotta and churn butter, and a recipe forWorcestershire sauce if that’s your bent, and much more. The book is a compilationof work taken from four of Wendyl’s previously published books.
“The editor says, ‘the best bits’. I wasn’t so keen to do it and was basically disinterested in the project but I went along with it because I think 15 years ago when I was offering this advice it was too early for many people. There wasn’t the same awareness or interest there is now, so I took the point and agreed. But when the publisher said they wanted to take photos of my home I put my foot down and said I’m not having it look all tizzied-up for the camera, I want it to be real. And it is, the stylist didn’t bring any props, she just used what she found around, all our old stuff. All I managed to do was look grumpy. Ha Ha. But I am proud of the book now.
“I still love trying different things. Most of them are old ideas. If it works, great, if not, never mind. I’m going to try something with roasted wheat. You bake it really slowly for 12 hours and it goes all fluffy then you mix it with cream and spices for pudding. We’ll see.
“And I love the old ways but we are losing that knowledge. Years ago, people knew how to save on power, we are so wasteful now. Cooking in a haybox is fun, and it works. It’s something you can do with your kids in the holidays. You make a stew or casserole – you’ve got to bring it to the boil so it is piping hot at the start of the process – then you cook it in a haybox. Back in the day this was a wooden box filled with hay and insulated somehow, but a chilly bin or chilly bag woks just as well. Wrap the hot casserole in newspaper and put it immediately in the bin or bag and insulate the outside with blankets. If you are going on a car trip this is a fabulous idea. Get to where you are going, set up camp, and your dinner will be ready. You do need to bring the casserole back to the boil before serving, but you will have lovely tender slow-cooked meat that took very little energy to cook.
“I’ve moved my parents up to the Hokianga now to a little cottage on the property, and dad’s helping me in the garden, which is nice. He has volunteered to cook Christmas dinner. He’s not really ever been a cook, but has taken to it recently, so I’m not sure what we are going to get. But that’s part of the fun.”
The Natural Home
By Wendyl Nissen
Photography by Emily Hlavac Green
Published by Allen & Unwin RRP $39.99 Out now.
(The photographs used in this feature, including the cover, by Julie Biuso)