Simple words to the Wise

“I LIKE to feed people,” declares the woman on the other side of the table, dishing up a banquet of scones, cream and jams.

That’s jams, plural. The choices before us include raspberry, apricot, quince and apple, blackberry jelly, redcurrent jelly, and a cherry plum, much of it from her own garden. And then there’s a lemon butter, made with local lemons.

Food has been the centre of Sally Wise’s life for as long as she can remember, including the family bakery owned by her grandmother. “My Nan always said that when you’re invited out, always take a cake.”

A quick count suggests there are now at least 16 books with the food suggestions Sally Wise has collected in the intervening years. The latest is The Comfort Bake, released in March in Australia and last month in the UK, It became number one on Booktopia in its first week. In truth, she’s more interested in the food, the recipes, and getting them into the hands of people who will enjoy them.

“I leave the business of the books to the publishing people,” she adds. This is the first book with her new publisher, Allen and Unwin. “They encouraged me to introduce into my food writing a broader sense of this place, this garden, this life,” she says, gazing out of the window of the home she and husband Robert share in Molesworth.

The result is a slow infusion of a sense of lifestyle into her writing. Her introduction of The Custard Club in her book is a good example: in the new book, she explains how she became part of a neighbourhood get-together each Wednesday. What started with just tea and cake now includes custard; no prizes for guessing who brings it.

Future books may well include appearances from the Wises’ Motley Menagerie: a pig called Cilla, a flop eared rabbit, a bad-tempered (but superior ratter) tomcat called Tom, and dog named Poppy. The garden and orchard, when not being attacked by the local wallabies, produces large quantities of fruit and vegetables which become relishes and sauces.

So what are the rules of cooking? Always make it tasty is Number One. “She’s a flavour chaser,” notes Robert. Secondly, keep it simple. Be prepared to make substitutions. If the recipe calls for sweet potato, and you’re out, try pumpkin instead.

When you’re buying food to prepare, get the best you can afford. And always think about who you’re making food for. “This is not about your palate, but theirs,” she reminds you. Her grandchildren’s tastes, for instance, are all over the shop: one of them loves honey jumbles, another toasted cheese sandwiches. Her version of the toastie is a concoction involving three types of cheese and homemade bread and oodles of butter.

A conversation about winter foods moves to meat, now more expensive than ever. Sally, not a big meat eater, points out that a good quality mince is nutritious and goes far. “You can make meat balls for spaghetti, and with what’s left over, a meat loaf or sausage rolls… “ And what about kitchen appliances?

Her immediate advice is get a slow cooker. “With one of those and a little time, you can turn old rubber shoes into something tender and tasty,” she laughs. This is a woman with – count ‘em! – nine ovens. An electric oven in the kitchen, others with gas cook tops, a microwave or three, and a new black beauty that also warms the house as it prepares dinner. “I like an oven to be able to multitask,” she says.