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Career

New beginnings: Annabel Langbein on her decision to change direction

The time has come to try something new.

By Donna Fleming
Annabel Langbein is letting us in on a little secret.
"The trick to a perfect scone is not to work the dough too much. Keep it wet," she advises, practising what she preaches and deftly mixing flour, cheese, buttermilk, chopped spinach and salt into a somewhat gloopy-looking dough.
And here's another tip: "Sprinkle grated cheese on the baking tray and then put the dough on top. That way you get a nice cheesy bottom – yum!"
She drops more cheese on top of each dollop of dough, slides the tray in the oven and 15 minutes later is serving up what are the most divine scones ever.
They're crispy on the outside, and soft and fluffy on the inside − a testament to why Annabel (61) is one of New Zealand's most beloved cooks.
Her Wanaka Cheese Scone recipe is just one of the 10,000 she has produced in 30-plus years of sharing her love of cooking.
Coming up with new and interesting dishes is never a chore and there's always plenty to inspire her, including what she's growing in her garden and food she samples on her overseas travels.
But as much as she loves cooking and creating recipes, the time has come, she says, to try something new.
These delicious Wanaka cheese scones are one of 10,000 recipes Annabel has developed during her career.
Don't panic, though – the popular cook isn't planning on hanging up her apron for good.
"But I do feel that I am ready for a new challenge," she says as we sit at the kitchen island in her Auckland home, sampling her delicious scones.
"I haven't necessarily completely identified what that challenge is yet. There are a few things I would like to try and I almost feel like it is a second wind, a second incarnation. I'm a naturally curious person and I'd like to see what other opportunities there are."
One possibility is expanding her writing skills.
Annabel's been branching out from writing cookbooks to penning travel articles, something she'd like to do more often. She's also signed up for a course on biography writing run by the University of Auckland later this year.
Another direction she might head in – and she's already gone quite a long way down this path – is focusing on how to help people lead more sustainable lives.
It's a subject she's long been interested in. She's a director on the Sustainability Council of New Zealand and has been working with Sanford Fisheries to encourage people to eat different types of fish, to reduce the risk of overfishing.
"We fish about 102 species of seafood, but most people only eat around six and that's putting pressure on those species. We should be looking at fish we might not normally eat, like kahawai, which is lovely fresh. And trevally, and mullet, which is perfect for ceviche. I'm really excited about being able to give people ideas about how to cook these different fish."
Annabel's cookbooks often include tips on ethical shopping, minimising rubbish and cutting down on food waste, but she's keen to reinforce the message even more after a trip to Antarctica the Christmas before last.
Invited to visit by the New Zealand government, Annabel thought she was going to Scott Base to try out her cooking skills in a challenging environment.
"But they really wanted me to go down there and look at the science, and I have to say it was a life-changing experience," she tells.
"Every night you are sitting across from scientists doing this amazing work and you realise how fragile the planet is.
"One day they found fossils of beech tree leaves in the [McMurdo] Dry Valleys. You realise that what was once a lush environment is now one of the most endangered places in the world in terms of survival – you can't grow anything there.
"Hearing this was when things really crystallised for me. We really have to find a way of making sure we tread more lightly on this planet."
Annabel will be at The Food Show in Auckland in July.
Her desire to find ways of doing that led to her latest cookbook, Together, which is a collaboration with daughter Rose.
Now 25, Rose has been hot under the collar about environmental issues since childhood, and she and Annabel had often talked about writing a book of recipes that were kinder on the planet, as well as the wallet and waistline.
The opportunity to finally do the book came about last year. It was the silver lining to a terrible accident that left Rose with a broken back.
Annabel's youngest child – she also has a son, Sean (27) – was on holiday at the family home in Wanaka and flipped over while waterskiing, breaking her vertebrae in three places.
"It was very scary, but she was lucky – it could have been worse," says a sombre Annabel.
Rose was bedridden for weeks while she recovered, and Annabel decided working on the cookbook would be a good way to keep her occupied.
"She'd been helping me with the beginning of the project – she's a great cook with some fabulous ideas. So I hopped into bed with her and showed her how I write recipes – it's quite a structured process so you don't make assumptions and take people down a road that ends up with them in a pothole crying about a botched risotto.
"I told her I would be her slave and do what she wanted. I was her tester and the recipes were wonderful. She also art-directed the project and did a fantastic job.
"It's funny; she went off and studied philosophy and literature and French, and now she's cooking. She loves it."
Annabel and Rose collaborated on Together after her shocking accident.
Rose is currently in New York working for a company that has ethical food restaurants and is, thankfully, fully recovered.
Sean is also overseas – he has just completed his medical degree at Oxford University and, after taking a few weeks out to work with refugees in Tibet, will spend a year working for the National Health Service in the UK.
Meanwhile, Annabel was shocked to find that Rose's accident had a physical impact on her, causing pain and triggering flashbacks to when she also broke her back − at age 26, she was thrown off a horse onto a dry riverbed and so severely injured, she was told she might never walk again.
"I only had a five per cent chance of being able to walk and what happened to Rose brought back everything that had happened to me," says Annabel.
"I got post-traumatic stress after Rose's accident – I just couldn't believe she could have hurt herself so badly. Just like that, your life can change on a dime and that really hit home.
"What happened was a reminder that you should never take things for granted and it was a really nice thing that, at the end of it, something good like Together came out of it."
Annabel and Rose's book Together features recipes that are kinder on the planet, as well as the wallet and waistline.
Rose's accident also made Annabel think about things she wanted to change in her life.
One of those was simplifying things as much as possible and that has included downsizing her home in Auckland.
Annabel and husband Ted Hewetson made what had been their holiday home in Wanaka their main base several years ago, but kept their family home in the city as Annabel often spends time there for work.
But they decided to convert a photographic studio and offices attached to the house into an apartment and stay there while renting out the main home.
"There's a lovely family living in it and that's what it is supposed to be − a big old family home with kids running around. I am much happier in my little city pad, although downsizing was daunting as we had so much stuff. I've got about 5000 books alone!
"It makes you think – how much stuff do we need to be happy? I went off the idea of buying things."
Ted, Annabel, Rose and Sean all try to lead sustainable lives.
Living on their rural property helps to stem consumerism and life is more relaxed, with no need to get "fancied up" if they're going into town.
Annabel laughs as she recalls a recent encounter in a Wanaka shop.
"I hadn't met the woman who served me before. I had my gum-boots on and no make-up, and I was having a bad hair day. She said to me, 'Has anyone ever told you, you look a little bit like Annabel Langbein?'
"I couldn't just go, 'That's nice' and leave because I was about to hand over my credit card, so she was going to see my name. So I said it was me, and she looked slightly aghast as if to say, 'Oh dear, what happened to you?'
"I had to say that the me you see on TV and books is all down to smoke and mirrors, and clever make-up artists and stylists. I love it when I get pampered and if I could be bothered to do my make-up every morning I would, but I can't be."
Annabel is loving living the rustic life in Wanaka.
Regardless of whether she's Polished Magazine Cover Annabel or Gumboots and Bad Hair Annabel, she's still the same person with the same passion for whatever she tackles, who loves to meet like-minded people.
That's one of the reasons why she enjoys doing food shows. She's just appeared at one in Wellington and is one of the attractions at the Auckland Food Show in July.
"They're always fun – a great forum where you have a lot of interesting people making really yummy things. It makes me proud about what is happening with New Zealand food.
"I love talking to people who love food. It reminds me of how food brings us together. It doesn't matter if you are eating beans and rice, you are nourishing someone. And regardless of anything else I do, I will always love that."

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