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A Local Inspired Four Course Feast with No Fuss - Sorted!

It's unavoidable, getting caught up in the chaos of this time of year. In our house, December is also birthday month. Both my daughter and I are December babies and it seems, that year on year I know more people with birthdays falling in the festive month. I think this time is a bit love / hate for me though. The crazed commercialisation of Christmas drives me mad and on principal, I abandon all natural tendencies towards good planning and will often be found doing one foul swoop of gift gathering at the eleventh hour. The only time there's a departure from this is when I embark on some handmade gifts which always start out simple in my mind, but inevitably take more time and effort than planned - never a chore though and always immensely satisfying.

With my birthday falling just one week before Christmas, there's something I resigned myself to quite a number of years ago - there is very little point in trying to arrange a celebration expecting a good turn out. The timing is just rubbish, the chaos has well an truly set in with social calendars double and triple booked everywhere you turn. Because of this, I find it hard to remember the last time I even attempted to arrange a get-together for my birthday. Last year was no exception even though it was the significant 'big 4-0'. We were only a month or so into our new life up here, to-do lists were pages long and we had almost 6 weeks ahead of back to back visits from friends and family. To be honest, I felt like our move here was landmark enough, a long hot summer was all I could ask for - and I got it in spades!

I did however, have a good stern internal dialogue with myself at the time. "Just because the timing is rubbish doesn't mean you should shelve all ideas of planning a celebration, it can be done and it should be. I do love a good party just as much as the next person after all". So before the end of my 40th year played out I decided I would do it, plan something to mark the occasion, an event that was significant to me.

Those who know me, know I have always preferred quality over quantity, especially when it comes to friendships. I also do love having a summer birthday, enjoying a delicious meal on a beautifully warm summer evening in good company is close to my idea of nirvana. So I chatted to those dearest, gave them a ridiculous amount of notice and they hard wired the mid December date in their digital planners.

The next challenge was to plan something that hit all the right culinary notes in my book. Again, close friends know I adore good food, I'll easily spend days planning a meal and I love to cook. However, spending my birthday celebration in the kitchen was not an option. So the challenge brief wrote itself: Design a menu showcasing the delicious Northland food we've been discovering since arriving here, and a meal that could be prepared ahead of time requiring minimal effort to serve on the day.

I actually enjoyed the challenge, there were just 8 people to cater for so this made for an intimate and leisurely affair. I went with four courses in the end, each course consisting of a number of 'sharing plates'. The menu required two days of cooking in advance but I could take my time so the pleasure was all mine.
As it turns out, this do-ahead planning and prep meant the day and night could not have been more perfect. While elsewhere in the country there were unseasonal plummeting temperatures and freak hail storms, Northland turned on an absolute stunner! The Orchard Cottage garden amassed in flowers and first fruits of the season were dripping from the trees, so just a little party dressing and the space was a celebration haven.

The first, late afternoon course was starring award-winning organic cheese from Northland company Grinning Gecko. Their creamy Brie and zesty 'Parihaka' was paired with our own Down the Road fig paste and two punchy condiments from Northland's Wild West Worcester; a beetroot relish and a pickled onion chutney. On skewers, chunks of grilled Grinning Gecko Haloumi partnered with juicy watermelon and a fresh basil leaf. And a nod to Italy on the table with proscuitto wrapped rock melon cubes. Finally, bite-sized quinoa tarts of sweet caramalised onions topped with goat feta and rosemary.
Knowing that child-free time with best friends was bound to fly, I was determined to reduce dishes on the day as well. Table setting was a simple collection of disposable plates, cloth napkins and celebrating the mass of wild flowers surrounding the property at this time of year with pops of candy colours from dahlias and hydrangeas picked from the cottage garden. I can't overstate how glad I was of the pre-planning that led to such a low fuss event. Four courses, fourteen separate dishes and barely a thing to do on the day - I highly recommend it!
The second course was all about the ocean. Such a huge part of life here and knowing all my guests love seafood as much as I do, it was an obvious choice. I was hugely inspired a few weeks earlier when reading well-known chef Al Brown's book Fresh. Each chapter dedicated to a different region of New Zealand, discovering the quintessential ingredients of the area and creating a menu to celebrate it - exactly the kind of food journey that gets me excited! So I did a take on the entrée he created when in Northland; a golden kumera and avocado salad, which he topped with a locally caught and smoked white fish, but I purchased some delectable hot smoked salmon from the Kerikeri markets and used this instead. Bringing the dish together was a Kaitaia Fire syrup - sweet, hot and zesty, a magic combination! Rounding out this course was a marinated mixed seafood salad of calamari, prawns and baby squid, lovely little whitebait fritters and a small side of intensely flavoured prawn bisque.

For the third course, I chose pork. A favourite protein of mine with so many different options. A slow cook was in order here due to the do-ahead nature of things and I had a vision in my head of this dish from early on. So with an excellent shoulder cut from my local butcher, I flavoured the cooking stock with some Wild West Worcester sweet and spicy black sauce, apples and fennel seeds. Once falling off the bone, I pulled the meat and then pressed it into eight small loaf molds. Then, reducing the cooking liquid to a flavoursome jus I poured just enough over the pressed pork to moisten and set it. The individual pressed pork servings came out the next day and I made a seasoned spice coating of fennel, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. With each portion lightly coated, it just took my Sous Chef on the night (read: husband) to heat the meat, the jus and crisp up some pork crackling for serving.

Two salads accompanied this, one of fresh fennel and local apples bound in a citrus creamy mayo and the other of local oranges, delicately roasted Kerikeri macadamia nuts, pomegranate and a dressing using Due North's delicious tamarillo vinegar. The pulled and pressed pork was a total invention and I can't believe how close to my vision it materialized. The flavours intensified over time, it was hit with my guests and I can't help thinking there'll be a repeat in the future.
Between each course a friendly game of petanque and photo props provided plenty of entertainment. We sipped chilled drinks in the sun, chatted, laughed and indulged in our long years of friendship. With day stretching into night, a string of favourite dancing tunes got us grooving 'til the wee hours.

Dessert was a creamy Lemon Posset; plenty of lemons squeezed from our own trees, chilled and set in a sweet cream. Dark chocolate truffles and delicious Northland Sovrano Limoncello were indulgent partners here. Dancing feet did take priority later in the eve but it meant there was some dessert left for after breakfast the morning after - what better way to bid farewell to an unforgettable celebration of friendship, local food and loving life at forty!!