NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents -

Mary Biggs toils down on the farm so that she can share its bounty at her cov­eted cook­ing classes

DRIVE OVER THE BIG wind­ing hill from Welling­ton and at the end of Underhill Road in Feather­ston, where the land lunges to­wards the Tauherenikau River, it’s easy to feel as though the rest of the world has dis­ap­peared.

It’s cer­tainly what at­tracted Mary Biggs and her hus­band Peter (Big­gsy) Biggs to Te Puhi, their 14-hectare farm, back in 1997. Apart from eight and a bit years in Mel­bourne, the cou­ple has lived here ever since.

Last year Mary blew the dust off a Le Cor­don Bleu qual­i­fi­ca­tion (earned while she was still dat­ing Big­gsy) to start the Coun­try Cook­ing School, where guests not only for­age around the 150-year-old prop­erty for fresh, sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents, they then get to turn them into a de­li­cious four­course lunch.

For Mary, it’s love in a culi­nary form. “I’m de­lighted to be able to live and work here,” she says. “It’s where I’m hap­pi­est, shar­ing the bounty and the beauty of this farm with others.”

It started back when Big­gsy, an ad­ver­tis­ing agency ex­ec­u­tive, was spend­ing long pe­ri­ods away from home and Mary grew tired of be­ing a cor­po­rate “widow”. “At the time, Big­gsy was busy sort­ing out the Auck­land of­fice of Ogilvy & Mather, which meant I was at home in Welling­ton with young chil­dren. I de­cided I may as well be some­where I re­ally wanted to be if I was go­ing to be on my own so much.”

Want­ing the squelch of soil un­der her feet, glo­ri­ous iso­la­tion and space for her grow­ing brood, she snapped up the two-storey farm­house, as much en­am­oured by the land it came with as she was by its back­story. “Te Puhi was built in 1868 and dur­ing World War I it was used to house the wives and chil­dren of sol­diers based at the nearby Feather­ston Army Camp be­fore they shipped out to war. At one stage there were nine fam­i­lies liv­ing here.”

With her three el­dest chil­dren Ju­lia (now 29), Ella (27) and Char­lotte (25) away at board­ing school, Mary carved out a scheme to make the land pay for it­self – laven­der oil. She planted hun­dreds of hardy grosso plants but when the cap­i­tal out­lay put a strain on the fam­ily’s fi­nances, Mary had to find a way to un­der­write the ex­pense. That turned out to be old-school lemon­ade, hand­made from the farm’s 100 lemon trees. “I’d pre­vi­ously made lemon cor­dial which I’d give away to fam­ily and school fairs. It was al­ways pop­u­lar so I thought, ‘Why not give it a whirl?’”

That give-it-a-whirl ap­proach mor­phed into Laven­der’s Green, a busi­ness pro­duc­ing a range of lemon-based pre­serves, condi­ments and drinks that Mary ran suc­cess­fully for 15 years.

Some­where along the way, the cou­ple bought the farm next door and the busi­ness ex­panded, go­ing from a cot­tage in­dus­try to a com­mer­cial kitchen and bot­tling plant. “We had ev­ery­one from Kirk’s and David Jones to the Con­ran Shop in Lon­don stock­ing our prod­ucts,” she says proudly.

In 2006, Big­gsy was posted to Mel­bourne. It was the break in the traf­fic Mary had been look­ing for. “The busi­ness was at a stage where we needed to put in a huge amount of in­vest­ment to grow it fur­ther. But I was ready to try some­thing dif­fer­ent so I in­stalled a man­ager and moved to Mel­bourne.”

The cou­ple lived on the 30th floor of an apart­ment build­ing with Aus­tralia’s sec­ond city draped be­neath them like a quilt. It was quite a con­trast to the tran­quil­lity of the farm but Mary loved it, work­ing part-time in a deli and trav­el­ing to visit her chil­dren who, by now, had spread them­selves around the world. Ju­lia is an ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive in Hong Kong, Ella is do­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in law at Stan­ford Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia, Char­lotte is at Mel­bourne Teacher’s Train­ing Col­lege and son Nicholas (21) is com­plet­ing a BA in me­dia stud­ies and pol­i­tics at Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity.

She also loved to sit in her eyrie, dream­ing up recipes and long­ing to get back to the ba­sics of cook­ing with food she’d grown her­self. That op­por­tu­nity arose in 2015 when the cou­ple re­turned to New Zealand where Big­gsy’s work sees him liv­ing in a Welling­ton apart­ment dur­ing the week. “We’ve spent roughly a third of our mar­riage liv­ing apart but we’re both quite in­de­pen­dent peo­ple so it works. Plus, each of us is deeply com­mit­ted to the other’s ca­reer.”

Af­ter ren­o­vat­ing Te Puhi’s kitchen suf­fi­ciently to al­low groups of eight to crowd around the wooden ta­ble, Mary set to plan­ning menus and plant­ing ev­ery­thing from jerusalem ar­ti­chokes to bor­age. She’s a self-taught gar­dener who was first in­spired to plunge her hands into the soil by the 1970s tele­vi­sion pro­gramme The Good Life. “I was cap­ti­vated by their phi­los­o­phy of grow­ing ev­ery­thing you need, which has stuck with me ever since.”

Mary says she’s lucky to have help from Te Puhi’s farm man­ager, Kevin Gun­de­sen (Gundy), who’s turned out to have a great eye for gar­den

de­sign. “We re­ally just give things a go and they usu­ally work out.”

Mary’s fo­cus for the cook­ing school is on sea­sonal, fresh in­gre­di­ents. “I know it sounds a bit clichéd but part of my Cor­don Bleu train­ing was to use the best in­gre­di­ents pos­si­ble. That way you can keep things sim­ple and don’t have to muck about with the food too much.”

Food has been a steady com­pan­ion since she was a child. Grow­ing up in Mel­bourne, the sec­ond youngest of five and the only girl, Mary was sent to cook­ing classes on a Satur­day from the age of nine. “When I think about it now, it was pretty brave to catch the train by my­self at that age. But those classes are where my love of food came from.”

Her fa­ther’s ac­count­ing job moved the fam­ily to Welling­ton when Mary was 14. A few years later she was set to do a home sci­ence de­gree at Otago Univer­sity when her fa­ther an­nounced he had been trans­ferred to Lon­don.

There, she fell into a ca­reer as far re­moved from food as pos­si­ble. “One day I was paint­ing the fence at the lo­cal Catholic church, the next the nuns were ask­ing me if I’d like to work with kids aged be­tween two and 15 who were wards of the state.”

Hav­ing no so­cial work qual­i­fi­ca­tions wasn’t a bar­rier to en­joy­ment. “It was a real chal­lenge and I ended up stay­ing three years. The kids had been through a pretty rough time but they were more sad than bad.”

She re­turned to Welling­ton and a BA in English lit­er­a­ture and art his­tory at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity. It was where she met Big­gsy, who had re­cently left the Catholic sem­i­nary and was fin­ish­ing his de­gree.

It wasn’t love at first sight. “We were flat­mates and he thought I was shal­low, while I thought he was a bit of a geek,” she laughs.

They were dat­ing by the end of that year and when Mary de­camped to Auck­land to do the three-month Le Cor­don Bleu course, they wrote to each other ev­ery day. Later, she paid the rent with var­i­ous culi­nary jobs, in­clud­ing cater­ing for eight priests (“Iron­i­cally, they’d taken vows of poverty but had no is­sue with a trained Le Cor­don Bleu chef cook­ing for them”) but gave up when mar­riage and chil­dren beck­oned.

Th­ese days Mary is happy writ­ing her own tune – and danc­ing to it. “My aim is to grow the cook­ing school so that it fits around my life­style and fam­ily. I re­ally can’t ask for more than that.”

TH­ESE PAGES: Mary val­ues col­lab­o­rat­ing on the gar­den with Te Puhi’s farm man­ager Gundy (above); she has also loved breath­ing life back into her old farm house over the past two decades and has a great re­spect for things past, such as the tea- towel...


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