Five years ago today my diary records a ‘lovely warm day – indeed almost too hot. I picked the first sweet pea of the season. I was chuffed when earlier in the week The Listener’s Lois Daish’s column was based around my St Valentine’s Day cooking:'
"You could simply let St Valentine's Day slip by with a yawn. If the saint was still around, even he might think that his day had lost some of its fizz. Remember when this was the day that you sent a card or single red rose to your secret love? You never, ever put your name on the card - and you certainly couldn't ask. It was a tantalising and bittersweet occasion for sender and recipient alike. These days, Valentine's Day serves a less fraught purpose, as little by little it has been transformed into Sweethearts' Day. Many happy couples choose to put their love on display by dining out; in fact, so many of them that restaurateurs have been known to refer to February 14 as "Noah's Ark Night".
Others would rather stay at home. In his new book ‘This Piece of Earth: A Life in My New Zealand Garden’ (Awa Press, 2004), Harvey McQueen describes a Valentine's Day dinner he and Anne prepared for themselves. The meal began with a rock-melon cut into halves, the flavour sharpened with a squeeze of juice from a homegrown lemon. They ate the rock-melon from their laps while watching a re-run of Fawlty Towers. Before the programme began, Harvey had put agria potatoes and several cloves of garlic on to boil. Once the television was turned off, the tender potatoes were drained and mashed with chives. French beans freshly harvested from the garden were quickly boiled. These simple vegetables were served with a rich dish of venison steaks that were grilled on a ridged pan after having been marinated in red wine, juniper berries, cinnamon and cloves. A sauce was made by boiling down the marinade and adding a square of dark chocolate. (The recipe is in the book.) A bottle of Australian shiraz was a comely accompaniment. For dessert, Anne had cooked greengages with port and sugar. Harvey says the meal was "a real joint labour of love".
Several elements contribute to making s meal such a seemly expression of affection. The mood is one of serenity, rather than competition. Although keeping three pans in the air while cooking the main course would have had Harvey his toes, he has probably cooked this kind of meal many times before. Apart from that, nothing could be easier than splitting a melon for the first course, I imagine that Anne would have cooked the greengages earlier in the day, so that she could stay out of the kitchen at dinner time.
Yet for all its simplicity, this meal was still special. Although everyday meals usually have only one or two courses, this one had three, which gives the meal a satisfying shape and allows for lingering. Cool melon, its musky flavour sharpened with lemon, is one of the few fruits that works as a first course and made a thirst-quenching beginning for a summer meal. For the main course, the choice of a prime cut of red meat gave the meal a high status and, for dessert, the homely comfort of stewed fruit was made special with the addition of port.
This was also a meal that celebrated the fact that our Valentine's Day occurs in the warmth of late summer, rather the chill of a northern hemisphere spring. Here, Valentine's Day celebrates fruition rather than the bursting of buds. Juicy melon, mellow mashed potato, luscious fruit. Everything is sumptuous and sensual.
I imagine that I'll be cooking a meal something like this myself on February 14. Just a few little changes so that it fits us like a glove. To start with, we won't be sharing the cooking. That's my job, and this isn't the time for cooking lessons. Instead of venison, I might panfry beef sirloin steaks or thick slices of lamb cut from the leg, either of these cooked medium rare and left to rest in the pan until they release their juices to make a spoonful of sauce. Mashed garlic potatoes and green beans would be great - no scary aubergine or bok choy. I don't want to risk upsetting the calm mood of the meal in any way. I'll serve the meat onto hot plates in the kitchen, but carry the vegetables in serving bowls to the table, where we can both take just the right amount. For dessert, I'll make something smooth and creamy to accompany the poached plums or apricots. My valentine thinks that pane cotta would be just right."
P.S. I set the record straight. The greengages were poached. 'Stewed’ under-estimates the effort Anne put into getting a good flavour. My mistake, not Lois’s. Also, for this year’s St Valentine’s Day Anne is making for dessert passion fruit jelly, a very tasty dish from Lois’s own recipe book. Long gone seem the days when I could do my fair share in the kitchen. I see by today's paper that John Key plans to cook his wife's dinner tonight - that's an astute politician at work as well as at play.