Annabel Lang­bein talks about the ac­ci­dent that nearly left her paral­ysed; plus eat­ing for her age and her next ad­ven­ture

Annabel Lang­bein tells Suzanne Mc­Fad­den about the cat­a­strophic ac­ci­dent that changed her life, how age has al­tered the way she eats, and why she is now pre­par­ing to take her pas­sion and skills to Antarc­tica.

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Clos­ing her eyes, Annabel Lang­bein can be rapidly trans­ported back to that fate­ful day. She can place her­self in the pre­cise mo­ment that she is thrown from a thun­der­ing horse, onto a dry riverbed. And then she can fast-for­ward to the scene where she is de­liv­ered the shat­ter­ing news – that she might never walk again.

“I can go through it all, like a slo-mo movie in my head. I don’t get anx­ious. I’m just there,” she says, re­lax­ing at her Auck­land home. She re­calls the four months spent in hos­pi­tal, ly­ing on a length of four-by-two tim­ber; and the chal­lenge that fol­lowed as she learned to walk again.

“That re­ally was a life-chang­ing event for me. It was a time when I had to lie there and think, ‘What am I go­ing to do with my life? What is im­por­tant to me?’” she says.

“I knew I wanted to make a dif­fer­ence. And I re­alised how much plea­sure cook­ing had given me, and how it was a re­ally sim­ple thing to make me feel use­ful and suc­cess­ful. And if I could make it an easy door for other peo­ple to open, then I could make change.”

It was dur­ing those most dire days that

Annabel reached a de­ci­sion – to share her pas­sion and knowl­edge of cook­ing and food with oth­ers. It was that res­o­lu­tion, cou­pled with the de­ter­mi­na­tion to defy the odds and make a full re­cov­ery, that led Annabel to be­come, among other things, an award-win­ning food writer, tele­vi­sion cook, pub­lisher, phi­lan­thropist and sus­tain­abil­ity cam­paigner.

In spite of all her glit­ter­ing global suc­cess, and the joy of rais­ing two now-adult chil­dren, the mem­ory of that near-fa­tal fall can be quickly con­jured up. And it re­minds her to al­ways “go for it – be­cause your luck can change on a dime”.

Annabel was 26, and had just started dat­ing farm boy Ted Hewet­son, her fu­ture hus­band, when she was in­tro­duced to horse rid­ing on his fam­ily’s farm in Gis­borne. “When I first met Ted, they had 167 horses. I would sad­dle one up, and take a pic­nic up the back,” she re­mem­bers.

“I’d be hoon­ing around, and Ted would warn me, ‘One day you’re go­ing to come off. You look good on a horse and you’re con­fi­dent, but you ac­tu­ally don’t know what to do when some­thing goes wrong.’

“And when it did go wrong, man, I was in big trou­ble.”

Annabel, who by then was run­ning a suc­cess­ful food mar­ket­ing con­sul­tancy, was in Te Anau for a con­fer­ence, and de­cided to take a group of peo­ple on a horse trek in the morn­ing.

“I chose this beau­ti­ful, huge horse,” she re­calls. “To­wards the end of the trek, we all wanted to go for a bit of a can­ter. But my horse just took off, through an old riverbed, and I had no way of con­trol­ling it.

“The horse stum­bled on a rock, its left shoul­der went down, and I went over. Be­cause I’d done judo, I au­to­mat­i­cally went into a judo roll, which quite pos­si­bly saved my life.”

But Annabel was still se­ri­ously in­jured. She had landed on a rock, crush­ing ver­te­brae in her spine and break­ing seven ribs. Un­con­scious and bleed­ing, she was nursed by an­other woman in the trekking party. “Thank­fully she held me down, be­cause if I’d tried to get up, I would be in a wheel­chair now,” she says.

Annabel was rushed to Kew Hos­pi­tal in In­ver­cargill, where she would spend the next four-and-a-half months. The ini­tial prog­no­sis was grim.

“The doc­tors told me, ‘You’ve got a five per cent chance of walk­ing again, maybe,’” Annabel says.

“I was so crushed, they couldn’t move me. It took eight peo­ple to lift me ev­ery day, so they could clean me and change my sheets. I was so un­sta­ble; just a bag of bones.

“They lit­er­ally put a piece of fourby-two un­der­neath my back, and

I had to lie on that for all of those months un­til it had set. The pain was ex­cru­ci­at­ing – a mil­lion times worse than child­birth. In­sur­mount­able.”

But Annabel ad­mits that through her pos­i­tiv­ity and for­ti­tude, she be­lieved she would walk again. “I could al­ways feel my toes, so I never thought it was over, clover,” she says. But as she left the hos­pi­tal, on crutches and in a brace, she was given fur­ther news she didn’t want to hear.

“The house sur­geon said to me: ‘I have re­searched your case, and no one has ever crushed their spine as badly as yours and come through it okay. And be aware, it will col­lapse one day.’ I met him years later and said: ‘That is ac­tu­ally one of the worst things you could have said to any­one.’ I was so an­gry about that.”

Through grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion, Annabel re­turned to Auck­land and the home she had bought – the house she and Ted still share to­day – and learned to walk again. “I also lay on the sofa a lot and Ted brought me scram­bled eggs,” she laughs.

“Up un­til the ac­ci­dent, I had been go­ing a mil­lion miles an hour. It made me slow down a lit­tle. It made me de­cide what I wanted to do with my life, and also to think, ‘You are lucky, go for it.’ Be­cause you never know when a brick could land on your head.”

Annabel put her­self through a “life­sav­ing” regime: mas­sage at least once a week, and yoga. “It was a bal­anc­ing, strength­en­ing and mind­ful­ness thing,” she says. “I have just got back into yoga, and my body is say­ing thank you! I love it. I go three times a week when I’m in Wanaka.”

The stun­ning Cen­tral Otago re­sort town is the cou­ple’s main home these days, and Annabel is al­ways ac­tive there – walk­ing up and down the hill to her sprawl­ing veg­etable gar­den, dig­ging the soil, tend­ing to plants. She’s sure that’s much bet­ter for her than pound­ing the pave­ments in the city.

“I will still get an achy sore back if I carry too heavy a load; I can’t carry a heavy pack tramp­ing any more. And I know about it if I’ve been writ­ing, hunched over the key­board, for too long,” she says.

“But it has def­i­nitely im­proved my pos­ture; I’ve learned that I have to sit up straight.”

It has also de­terred her from climb­ing back into the sad­dle. “I just don’t want to get on a horse again. I rode a don­key in San­torini, and it nearly fell down the cliff!” she says in mock hor­ror. “Ted is still a keen rider, and he wanted us to go trekking in South Amer­ica. I said: ‘Couldn’t I just meet you some­where with a pic­nic?’”

A new phi­los­o­phy

Liv­ing in Wanaka has changed

Annabel and Ted’s phi­los­o­phy on food. They tend to eat in more, be­cause go­ing out means hav­ing to drive into town. But that’s just part of the rea­son their diet has be­come in­creas­ingly con­nected to the land.

“It’s that idea that un­less it runs around in a pad­dock, swims in the sea, or grows out of the ground, we don’t re­ally eat it,” Annabel says. “Even in win­ter, I can for­age around and find miner’s lettuce, fat leeks, and sweet parsnips, beet­root and car­rots. We have a big store of onions, pota­toes, pump­kins, gar­lic and shal­lots.

“The way Ted and I eat has re­ally changed. We’ve come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that as you get older, you want to feel you’re mak­ing de­ci­sions that are go­ing to give you a strong, healthy body to go for­ward. If you get over­weight, it’s re­ally hard to move it again. If you give me a whole lot of rich food, I can’t man­age it any more.”

That’s when Ted chimes in. “It’s age and stage, re­ally,” he says. “My view is that as your life changes, you have to eat your way into your fu­ture.” “A healthy fu­ture,” Annabel adds. Ted has al­tered his eat­ing to his lifestyle, and has lost 18kg of weight in the process.

“I’ve cho­sen to, be­cause I am very tall. If I got heavy at my size, I’d lose too much mo­bil­ity,” he says. “Some

The doc­tors told me, ‘You’ve got a five per cent chance of walk­ing again, maybe.’

peo­ple might say, ‘Ted, you look way too skinny,’ when I take my shirt off. But I don’t think it’s skinny. If you look at pic­tures of men from the 1930s and 40s, they look like me. And if you look at pic­tures of men my age to­day, they don’t look like men from the 30s and 40s.

“Back then you had some canned foods, but pretty much ev­ery­thing came out of peo­ple’s gar­dens. Be­fore peo­ple started liv­ing on bar­codes, they used to look like me.

“It’s not about di­et­ing… I’ve never done a diet in my life. It’s a ridicu­lous idea. You just have to eat dif­fer­ently.”

A former ski coach, Ted has also changed the way he ex­er­cises. “At my age, I’d just in­jure my­self if I tried to ex­er­cise all the time… it’s about eat­ing and ex­er­cis­ing mod­er­ately.”

Im­pressed by Ted’s trans­for­ma­tion, Annabel de­cided she should also give it a go. “I thought, ‘You look quite hot, ac­tu­ally. I might fol­low suit!’” she laughs. “I just feel so en­er­gised. It’s kind of a ‘clean’ en­ergy. It’s not that I don’t drink or eat cheese, but I’m find­ing that food is my fuel.

“I’ve been re­search­ing bras­si­cas, which peo­ple think are bor­ing. But they are such an im­por­tant food group. The phy­to­chem­i­cals they con­tain are so pro­tec­tive. Brus­sels sprouts con­tain some­thing that pro­tects you from dam­ag­ing your DNA.

“More and more, my diet is be­com­ing veg­etable-based. But we will still have treats. Some­thing like cake is joy­ful, but it’s not a habit. It’s as Hip­pocrates said: ‘Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.’”

Annabel’s lat­est cook­book, Es­sen­tial, takes note of the changes to New Zealan­ders’ di­etary habits. Her beau­ti­fully-bound opus of 650 of her favourite savoury recipes in­cludes an in­dex of dairy-free, gluten-free, veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan meals.

“It’s 20 years since I wrote The Best of Annabel Lang­bein, and I sud­denly thought we all eat dif­fer­ently now.

Even in our own fam­ily – our son Sean is a coeliac, our daugh­ter Rose is a veg­e­tar­ian. And of course Ted is ‘my body is a tem­ple’,” she laughs.

She also wanted to give her fol­low­ers what she calls “spring­boards” – cook­ing tech­niques that will be­come vir­tu­ally sec­ond na­ture.

“There are a few things you can make with your eyes shut. I want to give sim­ple lit­tle road maps, so you know where it’s go­ing. It’s not just a recipe – it’s giv­ing you the method­ol­ogy, the knowl­edge be­hind how that recipe works,” she says.

“That’s what I’m so in­ter­ested in – open­ing the door for peo­ple, be­cause cook­ing has given me so much plea­sure. If I can make it re­ally easy for other peo­ple, then it’s a re­ally sim­ple way to change your life.

“That’s what came out of break­ing my back – the sense of want­ing to do some­thing use­ful. It wasn’t about want­ing to be fa­mous. I want to make you feel like a star. Then I’ll feel happy that I’ve achieved.”

Ex­pe­di­tion to the ice

Annabel is de­ter­mined to make a dif­fer­ence away from the kitchen too, div­ing more deeply into the global sus­tain­abil­ity move­ment.

Her next “as­sign­ment” will take her into the deep­est south – with a on­cein-a-life­time ex­pe­di­tion to Antarc­tica in De­cem­ber. She’ll spend a week at Scott Base, thanks to an in­vi­ta­tion from Antarc­tica New Zealand, the govern­ment agency that man­ages

New Zealand’s ac­tiv­i­ties in Antarc­tica and sup­ports world lead­ing sci­ence and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

“They in­vited me be­cause I’m re­ally pas­sion­ate about sus­tain­abil­ity, and

I’m try­ing to help peo­ple to un­der­stand it in a way that’s not scary. There are lit­tle things we can all do to make a dif­fer­ence,” she says. “There’s amaz­ing ev­i­dence out there that it would make a dif­fer­ence if ev­ery sin­gle per­son used two per cent less car­bon or plas­tic – like walk­ing some­where in­stead of driv­ing, or not us­ing plas­tic straws.”

When we spoke, she was still con­tem­plat­ing what she might do on the icy con­ti­nent to make her own dif­fer­ence, but she was plan­ning to talk with her long-time men­tor and friend, French chef Daniele Delpeuch, who spent a year in Antarc­tica cook­ing for sci­en­tists on the French re­search base.>>

I just feel so en­er­gised. It’s kind of a ‘clean’ en­ergy.

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