WORD Christchurch 2020: Annabel Langbein ‘Bella’

On Saturday night at Christchurch's the piano, New Zealand's most popular cookbook writer, Annabel Langbein, not only shared some true foodie wisdom, but also some colourful stories from her remarkable life.

Annabel Langbein and her new book 'Bella'. Image supplied.

In an intimate conversation with Jo Malcolm, Annabel discussed her latest book 'Bella' a food memoir which:

"originally began with 12 recipes but came to have 60...there were some things I couldn't not put in like the pork belly cooked in milk... the chocolate cake recipe you could make with your eyes shut...the real bang for your buck ones".

She has been heavily involved in the process of putting the book together- even helping with all the photography and painstakingly pulling each section together. She compares cook books to a fashion collection and says: "we ate so differently 5, 10 years ago, and will into the future".

Bella: My Life in Food

Annabel's recipes have been described as cooking with an engineering eye- a man at one of her workshops even went so far as to ask if her father was an engineer (which incidentally he was). Ironic, she admits as "I have never read a handbook - they usually end up out the window". Her recipes are inspired by nature and "global pantry flavours". She gave the example of how many ways you can cook pork once you understand how flavors work, cooking it with milk, coconut cream, Middle Eastern style, Asian, the list goes on.

"Its understanding chemistry... the more informed you are, the less likely you are to fail".

Reassuringly, Annabel shared she has had some spectacular fails in her time, the worst being "when your family won't even eat what you made".

Speaking of family, Annabel shared that her mother was: "a great entertainer and home cook" and made her aware "you can have so much fun around a table". Always a curious person, Annabel was allowed to experiment in both the garden and the kitchen from an early age. By the time she had reached her late teens, she had become fascinated and enthralled by the outdoors and began 'a wild period' spending a summer in Whanganui river going bush with a group of friends, hunting and foraging their own food. Annabel even shot deer and butchered the meat herself though she marvels: "I just couldn't do that now!". After a trying period on a boat with the group (Annabel shared "I like doing, not just intellectualising... after the trip I just really wanted to never see any of those people again") -Annabel ran away with another man she met on the other shore. He turned out to be an alchoholic who once threw up his teeth on the other side of the road: "that should have been the deal breaker, but it wasn't". Later he revealed he had 4 children, leading to Annabel doing her time "on the other side of the tracks- struggling to feed them... scrimping the little money I earned". Without 'the bad boyfriend' though, Annabel reflected she would never have met her husband. Her 'Mr Darcy moment' came when she was possum trapping one day - on her future husbands farm. She hid up a tree to escape the approaching man on horse back, a situation made all the more difficult by his good looking appearance. Years later when Annabel was "back in society", she met the man again as her flat mates brother; "He didn't remember me but I certainly remembered him".

If this wasn't a good enough story, Annabel went on to recount her days in South America dodging bullets from cops and opening a croissant business (never having made croissants before), a disastrous stint in waitressing (spilling cray fish down someones suit the first night-  dousing someone in milk the second and final night), and a period in which she dressed food for shoots (who knew that the delicious looking ham on telly is infact hydrochloric acid!). There was also stage where Annabel followed the advice given to her by Julia Child and her husband and went to a food conference in the States, selling up her belongings and leaving Wellington. She went on to flat in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn with Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, an equally colourful character -(recently she opened up her home which has been in the family for 700 plus years, to migrants)- who taught her "how to make something out of whatever you get".

Throughout her life and her adventures, cooking has clearly been something therapeutic to Annabel: "When I was wandering in Brazil, homesick, It grounded me...  I just cooked and cooked". Her mission is also very apparent, to make cooking and the sense of fulfillment that goes with it attainable for everyone:

"I get annoyed with the reality TV shows that make the bar for cooking so high... it shouldn't be about that... its about nourishing... showing people you love them, building a good life".

She reflected that some of the best meals she has ever had have been in the most humble situations. Once in India, a family on a cauliflower farm which sought to feed over 600 people, insisted on inviting her and her daughter to lunch. They made her a meal of dal and millet flatbread: "It was the most incredible meal and I felt so humble, so moved by their generosity... I love being cooked for... if someone made me a boiled egg I'd be happy".

What is next for Annabel? This weekend, she shared she will be talking food with her daughter (with whom, incidentally, she has collaborated on a book before). Having sold over 2 million cook books and been a hugely successful TV celebrity (n.2 after Jamie!) it seems Annabel's passion for writing and food has only grown. You can be sure that whatever comes next will be inspiring, enlightening, and have you hankering to cook more.


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