Kiwi connection strong as ever

‘‘No matter what happens next, I just hope to be cooking while inspiring others about where their...
‘‘No matter what happens next, I just hope to be cooking while inspiring others about where their food comes from and how to make it damn sexy without needing to be a rocket scientist.’’ PHOTOS: PAUL MASSON
Having been hammered by Covid-19, former Timaru chef Kirsten Gilmour has used her "Kiwi" roots to survive 
and prosper in the new environment everyone finds themselves in. She tells Rebecca Fox about being named a "Woman of Inspiration".

 

Having sold 2500 slices of millionaire’s shortbread, ginger crunch and Anzac cookies around the United Kingdom in one month, Kirsten Gilmour is in no doubt about the popularity of "Kiwi" cuisine abroad.

Gilmour, who grew up in Temuka and trained as a chef in Timaru, started making the slices and bread in her home kitchen in a village in Cairngorm National Park, Scotland, after the Covid-19 shutdown compounded financial problems causing her to make the "heartbreaking decision" not to reopen her popular Aviemore eatery, Mountain Cafe.

THE BOOK: The Mountain Cafe Cookbook: A Kiwi in the Cairngorms, by Kirsten 
Gilmour, RRP $49.99.
THE BOOK: The Mountain Cafe Cookbook: A Kiwi in the Cairngorms, by Kirsten Gilmour, RRP $49.99.
"It hammered us. We had had a couple of tough years with my hubby going through cancer treatment and this had affected our takings due to opening hour changes and things. So we were in a bit of a hard place financially.

"We had just got through a quiet winter and were all geared up for a busy Easter, then summer when Covid reared its ugly head."

She chose to start baking from home in an effort to pay off debts but before long people were queueing for her goods. They set up a mail-order shop and sold thousands of biscuits and slices.

Her baker from the cafe came back on board and they are now setting up a micro bakery.

"We like to think of it like the cafe going mobile. It means that if we have another lockdown we will survive. We deliver all our goods by bike locally and already have a large client base."

They have also used the down time to connect with their local suppliers and collaborate more.

"We have some pretty exciting food adventures planned. From delivering picnics to fishermen, fuelling mountain bikers, ultimate picnics to cooking lessons on a local farm - it’s all happening, so some creative goodness has actually come out of Covid even though it’s been a tough road to get here."

So hearing the news of the Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Business Women Awards "Woman of Inspiration" has been an "incredible and humbling boost after such a tough time", she says.

"No matter what happens next, I just hope to be cooking while inspiring others about where their food comes from and how to make it damn sexy without needing to be a rocket scientist."

Before Covid, Gilmour’s cafe was on the must-visit list of many foodies travelling Scotland. It was named "Best Independent Cafe in the UK" and "Best Cafe in Scotland" in 2017.

"I love to give people great food that is simple, honest, special and approachable. I thrive on taking great Scottish produce and giving it a Kiwi twist."

Kirsten Gilmour at work in the kitchen at Mountain Cafe in Aviemore Scotland.
Kirsten Gilmour at work in the kitchen at Mountain Cafe in Aviemore Scotland.
She had travelled to Aviemore for a weekend skiing 18 years ago and fell in love with the place - and later her husband.

"I love it here. When I lived in England I was really homesick and as soon as I got to Scotland I felt like I had come home. The people are great, I love being so close to Europe, I love the people here. I do miss New Zealand [but] feel lucky that I can immerse myself with European cooking styles and every day feels like a school day."

Making the most of the outdoor opportunities - it was the best ski season Cairngorm had seen in years - she ended up with a job in an outdoor shop where the perks were a free ski pass and gear hire.

She enjoyed taking a break from cooking and the long hours but was always saying the cafe upstairs from her job needed some "Kiwiana" injected into it.

So when it came up for rent in 2004 and it was offered to her, with the help of a loan from her in-laws, she grabbed the opportunity.

It was not an easy road, however. She was determined to make everything from scratch using local foods.

The early days were very hard as people did not understand cafe culture and there was an attitude that food should come fast, she says.

"I had a real challenge getting customers to try dishes that were not just a cooked breakfasts, bacon rolls etc. They would prefer quick... over waiting 20 minutes and get a meal cooked from scratch."

She persevered, working on building trust and confidence in her customers that a wait for food would be worth it.

"It was mostly fried foods when we opened and within a year we had people queueing for pancakes with fresh fruits, homemade compotes. We made fantastic scrambled eggs with our local black pudding, smashed avocado with lime and chilli with our homemade toasted French-style bread. Very quickly I learnt if you put a twist on local ingredients the locals would lap it up."

"Top notch" food along with good service meant people became happy to wait.

"Once we built up a reputation, this became less of an issue. We went from starting from nothing to feeding up to 70,000 customers each year, with people travelling from all over the place for our food."

She became known for that twist on local ingredients and made an effort to build relationships with her local suppliers.

"I feed off their passion and it helps me learn while becoming a better chef. Building these relationships is as important as the food. Buying local is a no-brainer, less food miles, better quality, better flavours, seasonal foods is everything that is essential to making a very sexy meal.

"You can taste the difference and knowing where your food comes from, in my mind, is a form of self-care, self-respect. I think it is also great for our mental health. Conversations about food, produce and sharing recipes brings everyone together."

Her "Kiwi" background was evident in her menu and her nana’s pikelet recipe became a surprise favourite and cafe breakfast staple, served with crispy bacon, berry compote and caramelised bananas.

"We had customers driving from Edinburgh, a three-hour drive, just to get them."

Another attraction was her "proper" flat white.

"In 2004, people did not understand really good coffee. Kiwi coffee is the best in the world. I have to travel to Edinburgh or London to get a decent coffee."

When they first opened their new bakery they could not afford a coffee machine.

"We have just done a crowd-funder and we had so many pledges with messages from people saying they can’t wait to get their Mountain Cafe coffee. It’s very humbling."

After getting more and more requests for her recipes, Gilmour started thinking about writing a recipe book. Her vision was a small notebook with 20 recipes for customers - not the 320-page book filled with memories from home, a tribute to her grandparents and plenty of recipes and tips that became a reality.

"Never did I imagine it to be so big or successful. Pretty overwhelming I had dreamt of writing a book for so long and to finally have it in my hand was strange."

"Cooking top-notch food and writing recipes that gives people confidence to make food and cooking memories makes my job feel like it is not just a job."

The release of The Mountain Cafe Cookbook: A Kiwi in the Cairngorms saw her travelling (pre-Covid) around the United Kingdom doing events, cooking demonstrations and public speaking which she loved. It is now in its fifth reprint.

" I have loved seeing kids cooking my recipes and folks growing confidence in the kitchen.

"I am immensely proud of hearing folks from all around Scotland, the UK and further afield telling me about making Anzac cookies, Kiwi-style pancakes and grilling lamb on the barbecue. I hope that I have brought a bit of the laid-back New Zealand food scene to the other side of the world."

She also enjoys using the book herself.

"I use it all the time at home, which makes our friends chuckle when I make them something from it. It is full of my nana’s, grandad’s, friends’ and teams’ recipes as well as my own. It’s like having your own diary of recipes that mean something to you."

Her grandparents hold a very special part of her heart as she spent much of her early life living with them on a six-acre (2.4ha) farm with orchard and vegetable patch.

Gilmour’s strongest memories of her grandparents is the produce from their garden.

"Asparagus, baby potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers were always my favourites. I used to love sitting under the cherry tree on the barbecue table with Grandad, scraping the thin layer of skin and dirt off these tiny sweet little spuds with the back of a knife, then cooking them with handfuls of Nana’s mint and smothering them with lashings of butter. Always served with some type of homegrown meat."

There was never a big deal made about food in their home.

"It was always simple, tasty and honest. Nana was a Southlander and Grandad was Hungarian and this was reflected in the food. Not posh, just simple and tasty."

It was with them she experienced a restaurant for the first time in Timaru where the highlight was the owner taking her into the kitchen.

"At the age of 5, I had already found my calling."

Cider and sage barbecue chicken

On a trip back home, I was invited to a friends for dinner but was told to bring something for the barbecue.

Gulp ... I felt hugely under pressure, having left the area and become a chef who was written about by the local press for my cooking achievements I could hardly rock up with a packet of sausages.

So I nipped to the shops, raided nana’s herb patch and came up with this recipe. It went down a treat and when I got back to the cafe it went on the menu.

To get the best flavour, marinate for 24 hours if possible. The chicken will keep for up to three days in the marinade in the fridge.

This is also a great marinade for pork. Don't leave it in for longer than six hours, as the meat starts to go mushy.

If you're cooking over an open flame on the barbecue, make sure you drain the chicken well or you’ll get some big flames.

The cooked chicken works really well in a salad with blue cheese, crisp apple slices, walnuts and a really tart dressing.

To serve this way, I’d slice each chicken breast into four long slices before it goes in the marinade.

Serves 4

4 chicken breasts

100ml pear cider

100ml apple juice

70ml olive oil, plus a little for frying

1-2 sage leaves, chopped

1 red chilli, finely diced (keep the seeds in if you like a kick)

1 tsp salt

½ tsp cracked black pepper

Method

Trim your chicken, removing all traces of bone, skin and fat. Slice each breast into two lengthwise to help get the flavour into the middle of the breast.

Place the chicken pieces in a large plastic tub and cover with cider, apple juice, olive oil, sage, chilli, salt and cracked black pepper. Stir everything through, cover and put in the fridge.

Marinate for a minimum of 12 hours, preferably 24.

Lightly oil a large frying pan and put over a medium heat or fire up your barbecue.

Cook the chicken for about five to eight minutes on each side until golden brown and cooked through.

Goats' cheese, apple, candied pecan and passionfruit salad 

Baked goats' cheese is one of my biggest weaknesses. I love this salad: I love the passion fruit dressing, the crisp apple slices and the burst you get from the fresh blueberries. It all matches the baked cheese perfectly.

The spiced blueberry jam will keep for up to one month in the fridge and the dressing will keep for 10 days.

The candied pecans will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three weeks. They also make awesome pre-dinner nibbles.

The passionfruit syrup, if you don’t have any you can use a good quality cloudy apple juice instead.

Serves 4

For the spiced blueberry jam

250g frozen blueberries

1 onion, finely diced

50ml red wine vinegar

50g caster sugar

1 tsp ground fenugreek

1 tsp mustard powder

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cardamom

For the candied pecans

90g pecan nuts

2 Tbsp icing sugar

½ tsp mixed spice

1 Tbsp water

For the dressing

juice of 1 lemon

50ml passionfruit syrup

60ml white wine vinegar

pulp of 1 passionfruit

1 Tbsp caster sugar

50ml olive oil

salt

freshly cracked black pepper

For the salad

400g goats' cheese log, cut into four thick slices

100g rocket or salad leaves

150g green beans, blanched and

refreshed

150g fresh blueberries

2 Granny Smith apples, cored

2 braeburn or red apples, cored

salt

freshly ground black pepper

Method

Make the spiced blueberry jam first. In a saucepan place your frozen blueberries, onion, red wine vinegar, caster sugar, fenugreek, mustard powder, ginger and cardamom.

Put it over a medium to high heat, bring up to the boil and then turn down to a rolling simmer and cook until the liquid has mostly reduced and you are left with a thickish jam, about 25 minutes.

Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Preheat your oven to 170degC (150degC fan). Line a baking tray with some baking paper.

Put your pecans, icing sugar, mixed spice and water into a small bowl and mix well before pouring on to the baking tray. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the nuts are candied and crisp. Leave the oven on.

Next make your dressing. In another small mixing bowl, pour in your lemon juice, passionfruit syrup, white wine vinegar, passionfruit pulp and sugar and whisk to mix. Still whisking, slowly drizzle in your olive oil and season.

Place your slices of goats' cheese on to a baking tray and put into the hot oven until softened and warm about 10 to 15 minutes.

Place your salad leaves in a large bowl with the candied pecans, green beans and fresh blueberries.

Just before you take your goats' cheese out of the oven, slice your unpeeled apples into thin slices and add to the bowl of salad ingredients.

Drizzle with the dressing, season, mix gently with your hands and pile on to four plates. Place a piece of warmed goats' cheese on top of each salad and finish with a generous spoonful of blueberry jam on top. Eat straight away.

Nana’s coffee and walnut slice

This is my favourite nana recipe. It’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My husband nicknamed it Nana’s heroin slice because of its addictiveness.

On arriving home every year there would be tins of the stuff to go with endless cups of tea we had with her. She made us a double batch once for a climbing trip in the Southern Alps. It fuelled our whole trip and I’m amazed we weren't diabetic by the time we returned.

Make this gluten or wheat free by using appropriate biscuits. This keeps for seven days in the fridge.

Makes 16 generous slices

For the base

175g butter

250g condensed milk

1½ Tbsp instant coffee granules

250g rich tea biscuits

100g walnut halves, roughly chopped,

plus a handful for the top

90g desiccated coconut, plus a handful

for the top

For the topping

1 Tbsp instant coffee granules

1 Tbsp boiling water

170g cream cheese

60g butter, melted

370g icing sugar

30cm x 23cm brownie tin

Method

Grease and line the tin with greaseproof paper.

Melt the butter, condensed milk and coffee granules together in a saucepan over a low heat, using a whisk to make sure all the coffee granules dissolve.

Put the biscuits in a large mixing bowl and smash with the end of a rolling pin until you have small pieces they want to be small chunks, not fine crumbs.

Add your walnuts and desiccated coconut, then pour over the hot condensed milk and stir thoroughly. Scrape out into your lined tin and press down to make a well-packed base. Leave aside while you make your topping.

Put the instant coffee in a small bowl, then add the boiling water and stir till the granules have dissolved.

Put your cream cheese, melted butter and icing sugar in a mixing bowl and add the coffee. Beat until everything is combined to make a smooth, glossy and fluffy icing.

Spoon this over the biscuit base and smooth out with a spatula, then sprinkle with walnut pieces and some desiccated coconut as a garnish.

Leave to set in the fridge for a couple of hours before cutting into 16 slices.

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