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Annabel Langbein’s healing touch

The much-loved cook is using her gardening skills to help kids deal with disaster.
Annabel Langbein

Annabel Langbein

Nearly 20 years ago, cook Annabel Langbein began to take her two young children to playcentre. Torn as she was about leaving them there in tears, Annabel was already in demand as one of New Zealand’s leading food writers, with a busy schedule taking her away from home.

“At first, the children hated me leaving them,” she recalls. “In the first hour of being at work, I would feel terribly traumatised because my daughter or son would have, just a few minutes earlier, been crying, ‘Mum, don’t leave me,’ and hanging on to my leg. So I would phone up the centre to be reassured, ‘The minute you had gone, they were fine!’”

It’s a story many Kiwi mothers will relate to. Sean (22) and Rose (19) are now separated from their mum again – this time on the other side of the Tasman, where they both study in Melbourne. But “empty nester” Annabel says she and husband Ted Hewetson are embracing this new phase. “It’s a fresh chapter, a second honeymoon. If we want to go to the movies, we don’t think, ‘I have to be home‘ or ‘I need to pick up someone from that party.’”

One thing Annabel never had cause to imagine as a parent, however, was how it might feel to be separated from her children during a natural disaster – until last month, when she visited Awatere Playcentre in Seddon, the community that was rattled by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in August last year.

Annabel met parents and children from the playcentre and learned that a new hobby is continuing to comfort both generations, even in the aftermath of aftershocks.

And their interest is one Annabel shares – gardening.

Learning how to grow their own food and enjoy eating the results has helped the children of Awatere Playcentre understand the outdoors and cope with recent natural catastrophes.

“Children are much more resourceful and resilient than we think,” begins Annabel. “They are certainly traumatised by what they’ve been through, but gardening has become a way of focusing them and helping them feel brave.”

Annabel, who assisted with the planting of a mandarin tree during her visit, before whipping up some nutritious snacks for the youngsters, was delighted the playcentre garden was a winner in the recent Tui School Garden Challenge. And she says she was impressed by the attitude of the community.

“None of the people I met talked about the terrible stress and drama they had gone through,” she marvels.

“Many are still living without water or electricity, and there are big infrastructure issues, even now. But the playcentre is a major support network.”

The impetus to garden came about when centre staff noticed that, post-quake, the preschoolers were more tearful than normal. Many were scared to be left by their parents, yet gardening outdoors, where the aftershocks were less noticeable, proved to be therapeutic.

Annabel can relate. Her self-described “hippy” past is still evident in her relaxed Auckland home, from which she runs her company Annabel Langbein Media. And her garden is the perfect sanctuary – the place where she finds inspiration for developing new recipes. Annabel says a garden is a hub children can enjoy, too – even if they’re creating something simple, such as a portable garden in a cut-off milk bottle.

“So many kids think the only fun thing to do is sit in front of a screen, and that being creative and innovative is difficult. But I think back to all the things I made out of nothing when I was a kid. I used to destroy my mother’s hydrangeas and make mud pies with hydrangea buds. I was in my zone.”

Annabel planted this magnificent fig tree when she moved into her home in 1987 – now it provides a bounteous supply of succulent fruit.

And the big kid in her still loves playing – during our photoshoot, Annabel happily scales the fig tree she planted in the garden of her central city villa shortly after she purchased the home in 1987.

She spent only 20 days in Auckland during 2013, due to her hectic schedule – a whirlwind year of international promotional tours, producing her summer annual, Annabel Langbein: A Free Range Life, a cooking presentation for the World Cookbook Awards at the Louvre in Paris, sailing near Turkey, and maintaining the family’s expansive gardens in Wanaka. Living nomadically, she knows how important it is to create a sense of community.

“Today’s generation is completely protected,” she says. “I think of the freedom we had when we were kids – we’d go play in some back creek. But these days kids would probably never do that. We are almost cocooning our kids from life.

In a way, this is a generation of fear. You could live in an apartment building but not know anyone, which means you no longer have the means to ask, ‘Can you look after my kid while I go out?’, or ‘Do you have a cup of flour?’ How do we return to that?”

Annabel suggests using homegrown produce in cooking could be one way to start.

“As the children [at Awatere Playcentre] grow their own food, it becomes a connection with the world around them.

It’s empowering – they get an idea of where food comes from and the magic of how things grow. Kids can get such pleasure and a real sense of connectedness from simple things.”

Annabel proves not only is leading a sustainable lifestyle enjoyable, it’s cost-effective.

Annabel’s garden is a sanctuary and a source of inspiration for her recipes.

“I don’t just have a garden, I grow my own food. Gardening is like catching a train. If you don’t get to the platform at the right time, you miss the train, so you have to work with the seasons,” tells Annabel, who says her hobby also helps her maintain her slim size-10 figure.

“Why would you go to the gym when you can just get into the garden and grow your own flowers and food?”

Her holistic approach to living extends to skincare. Annabel always checks the products she uses are without nanoparticles, she wears a chemical-free zinc SPF 30 sunscreen every day, and likes natural skincare and make-up products.

“I love the concept: ‘Be whoever you are, everyone else is taken.’ As women, we are mothers, we have jobs, partners, friends – so many different aspects to our lives. Being able to be yourself, no matter what that is, and not feel any pressure, is important. I think New Zealand women are more individualistic in the way they approach fashion and life.

“It’s funny – I come back from a summer holiday and feel almost feral! The minute I get back in the city, it’s like, ‘Right. Hair, nails – repairs and maintenance,’” she laughs.

Annabel also recycles her clothes and homeware – giving away her unwanted items to charity shops and purchasing pre-loved pieces.

“It’s about finding something that suits you. It doesn’t matter where you get it from. l go trawling through small-town second-hand shops. They have really great quality items.”

Annabel’s garden bounty

This resourceful method of living stems from her childhood, when she and her siblings each had their own garden patch to tend. At the age of 14, she realised she had a talent for germination. Annabel used “horse poo and compost” to beat her dad in a red onion-growing competition. “My dad didn’t have a compost bin at that time and I grew onions like basketballs, so Dad got a compost bin,” says Annabel.

Seeing her TV series sold to 93 countries also brings great satisfaction. “It’s exciting. I got a letter the other day from a guy in a refugee camp in the Middle East, saying, ‘You’ve inspired me to start a garden.’

“That’s why I get so much out of what I’m doing, because it’s not about me, it’s about empowering people, and I feel if I can create change, I have the best job in the world.”

Annabel is planning to release a new cookbook and go on a New Zealand tour later this year.

She also has projects and initiatives on the go in the Netherlands, Australia and the US. “It’s rewarding to be able to spread the word about New Zealand’s natural beauty and wonderful produce and producers, and foster an appreciation for our way of life.”

The fresh aroma of basil from her “wilderness” wafts in the wind as Annabel heads to her other favourite spot – her kitchen. It’s here many of her recipes are devised. Somewhat surprisingly, she says she never tires of preparing nightly meals, adding that Ted likes to join her and “can cook a great roast”.

“I almost get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t cook. It’s part of the way I feel centred. It’s not about eating fillet steak or smoked salmon, it’s about bringing people together.

When you serve a meal, it’s a celebration. I still light candles every night at dinner. When I used to travel a lot, while the kids were little, Ted would even light the candles for breakfast – the kids were eating porridge by candlelight! It’s a simple way to create a sense of occasion.”

It’s this attitude that Annabel shares with everyone she meets, including the kids at Awatere Playcentre, who have discovered newfound pleasures in life after getting their little green thumbs digging in the dirt.

“I think the true character of humans is the ability to live well in a stressful situation, where they are required to develop skills and move out of their comfort zone,” remarks Annabel.

“Even without these earthquakes, terrible things do happen in life and learning about them at a young age, knowing there are ways through and that we can feel part of a community, is really important.”

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