Annabel Langbein: Midwinter Matariki (+ recipes)
In the little eyrie bedroom of the Wanaka studio where we live are four skylights looking up to the heavens. Two face east and two incline to the west. Each provides a different framed view of the stars, and throughout the year the parade of constellations and stars in the night sky travels through these frames, an ever-turning cycle east to west, as the Earth makes its annual revolutions around the sun.
Over the years I have come to know the months, on a clear night, when the full moon will fall on my pillow, first from the eastern skylight and later as the night rolls on, through the northwestern window. Away from the lights of the city the stars are so bright here, and the moonlight of a full moon can easily wake you.
Around now, as we come close to the shortest day, the constellation of the seven sisters, known also as the Pleiades and in Maori culture, Matariki, enters the sky. Rising low on the horizon in the northeast of the wintry dawn sky, its arrival heralds the Maori New Year.
As with other seafaring cultures, early Maori were exceptional celestial navigators, and their calendar the Maramataka, which literally means "the moon turning", was developed around the movement of the stars and the moon, as well as the migration patterns of birds and fish. Planting and harvesting food supplies was conducted almost always through consulting the Maramataka, as was fishing and the timing of rituals, such as baptisms.
According to the Maramataka, the reappearance of Matariki brings the old lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the new year. The tohunga would look to the Matariki star cluster to determine how abundant the upcoming year's harvest would be. Bright, clear stars promised sunny skies, warm weather and successful season, whereas if the view was hazy, the prospect was for cold weather and poor crops.
By the time Matariki arrived, with the season's crops safely in the storehouse and birds and fish preserved for the winter, it was time to feast sing and dance. In the first new moon after the arrival of the constellation in the sky the revelries would begin. This year Matariki begins on June 25.
In the homogenity of today's world, it's wonderful to embrace traditions that are unique to our culture and place. When the stars align in the sky around the time of the winter solstice, it's time for our very own thanksgiving feast, with a menu that celebrates Aotearoa's unique place in the world and the rich bounty of our produce.
I prefer the red-skinned New Zealand kumara in this gratin, but any kind of sweet potato can be used. Always peel kumara and sweet potatoes unless they are organic, as they are treated with an antifungal to increase shelf life. For a less formal look, cut the kumara into quite chunky slices and leave it randomly in the dish rather than layering. Get the recipe
You can use any shellfish for these tender fritters but be sure to check the shellfish are very fresh and sourced from clean water. The fritter batter can be made in advance and chilled for up to 8 hours before cooking. Get the recipe
Horopito is a native New Zealand shrub with peppery leaves. It is available dried online and from specialty food stores. If you have access to a horopito plant (also known as Pseudowintera colorata, New Zealand peppertree, winter's bark and red horopito), add a few finely chopped leaves into the marinade for a spicy, peppery taste. If not, a little oregano mixed with black pepper does the trick. Get the recipe
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel’s best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips — on sale at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores or visit annabel-langbein.com