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Life’s a bach

2 October 2023
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Kiwi chef Al Brown muses on his passion for baches (that’s cribs to you down south) and shares some favourite recipes from the new edition of his much-loved cookbook Eat Up New Zealand.
Words Al Brown | Photos Josh Griggs

The word ‘bach’ is such an evocative word. When I hear it or see it written in any form, a wave of joy always washes over me. It’s a funny old word, as it doesn’t really look the way that it is actually pronounced.

There are two schools of thought on where the word ‘bach’ originated from. The first is that it’s shortened from the words ‘bachelor pad’, which is okay, but it doesn’t fit the narrative in my head of what a bach represents.

‘Bachelor pad’ feels a little lonely, sad and disingenuous, and feels more like the opposite of the vision I get in my mind when I hear the word ‘bach’. The other theory, and the one that I prefer, is that it is derived from a Welsh word meaning small or little. The early Welsh immigrant miners used the term ‘ty bach’, which means a small house or outbuilding.

Both work, so I guess just go with whatever theory suits you. You may of course have another idea of where the word came from. And for all you folks from the deep south of Aotearoa, please don’t be too put out, just substitute the word ‘bach’ with your favoured term of ‘crib’ (which I also dig) wherever you see fit. ‘Kōpuha’ is the reo name for bach, and that has got a beautiful ring to it too.

As it turns out, I’m actually writing this at my bach up north. It’s not quite considered the ‘far north’, but it’s a little north of Whangārei with east coast pōhutukawa-tree vibes.

I spend as much time up here as I possibly can. All of January and any holiday periods see a steady procession of family, friends and whānau come and go. The dynamic changes with each new bunch of arrivals. A week of my two daughters and their friends sees me become camp dad, hanging out with a posse of 20-somethings: feeding, watering, continuously telling them to put their shit away or yelling ‘KEEP IT DOWN’ as my tolerance batteries begin to run low. Next it might be a few close friends in for a spell, which is super easy as these kind of folks know what is required to keep bach life floating on easy street with everyone pitching in.

It is a special time of the year when fun and good times reign supreme. I wouldn’t have it any other way, exhausting as it is sometimes. The rest of the year, while friends and family come and go, I actually spend a lot of time up here just by myself. I rent a small apartment in downtown Auckland, so I consider my bach my actual home. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more pronounced. While I love city living, I need to balance the sirens, late-night screams and rubbish trucks with solitude, nature and sunsets. It’s critical for my mental game to get away from the masses, with the silence and the tranquillity giving me peace of mind.

When I was young, our holidays were spent at the Castlepoint campground, in an old wooden caravan nick-named ‘The Pie-Cart’. We had a bunch of friends who also had baches out at Castlepoint, so I would have been three or four years old when I was first introduced to these special dwellings that have had an indelible and enduring effect on me for as long as I can remember.

Recollections and memories from that long ago are sketchy at the best, but I swear I can still close my eyes now and recall in quite a bit of detail the Falloons’, the Maxwells’ and the Whites’ baches dotted along the foreshore of this extraordinary location on the east coast of Wairarapa.

These three, along with the other 100-odd baches there, are still standing in that beautiful, salty, wind-blown, weathered environment. No two baches are the same. Most are devoid of maintained gardens, with just the odd shrub or native tree, their front and back yards all covered with thick spongy kikuyu grass that feels like you are walking on nature’s duvet.

The once-bright colours from the original paintwork are now all washed-out blues, greens, reds, yellows and oranges, with the old nail-heads bleeding that deep golden rust colour down the weatherboards, linking them all together like a coastal badge of honour.

I find baches such sensory dwellings … from every angle their individual unique character is evident. And not just from the outside, but also from the inside looking out. Small paint-chipped windowsills, often hard to open, frame the views that have been etched into your mind since you first looked out as a child.

The layouts inside are each original in their simple and humble form. Small modest bedrooms, narrow hallways, cramped bathrooms with paltry washbasins and inadequate shelves for storage are all signs of a bygone era that we still fondly think of with nostalgia.

Living rooms with mismatched old armchairs and couches that are not particularly generous in size and are always ranked from least comfortable to most comfortable. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the family favourite, you won’t be surprised to find it occupied after you pop out of the room for a second or two. Over the years I have witnessed many a squabble in that arena, along with fights over the favourite pillow, favourite mug, best beach towel…

Bookshelves with old encyclopaedias, reference books on native fauna and wildlife, stacks of old National Geographic mags and an abundance of well-worn paperbacks with swollen pages from inadvertently having had a cup of ‘instant’ spilled on them.

There are often old dressers, too good to discard and perfectly adequate for the bach, their hard-to-open drawers filled with a plethora of board games with missing components, jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, multiple packs of cards with missing jokers etc, and notepads with faded 500 scores and doodles from years ago. Time capsules of summers and winters past.

It won’t come as too much of a surprise, but the room that inspires the most affection for me is, of course, the kitchen.

The kitchen is the space in any abode (old or new) that embodies and welcomes all the senses.

The familiar sight of a faded formica kitchen table anchoring the room, the whistle of the old kettle, the sweet smell of fresh baking escaping from the worn-out seals of an old Shacklock electric oven, the feel of that favourite teacup clasped between your hands first thing in the morning; and, of course, the taste of some sort of fritter fresh from the skillet or being passed about with the first round of G&Ts in the late afternoon.

I often speak of the importance of people and place and how those two simple ingredients – who you are with and where you are physically located – play such a significant role in our most vivid and influential food memories. Bach kitchens evoke that narrative. The kitchen of course is the heart and the hub of the bach: from a pre-dawn early morning cuppa to those welcome impromptu visits throughout the day, as friends drop in unannounced.

I love the way we forgo our regular lives of formality and structure: lunch often gets eaten mid-afternoon, which then pushes out dinner well into the night. Once the dishes are washed, dried and put away, the kitchen table then hosts the obligatory late‑night card game or some version of Scrabble. The whisky bottle will usually make an appearance, along with half a packet of chocolate biscuits or the last few pieces of ginger crunch, which – while still tasty – by now have unfortunately lost their ‘crunch’!

And that’s the thing: baches seem to bring a liberating sense of freedom, where life’s regular timing is simply ignored or paid no mind. The somewhat rigidity of formal everyday life, with its protocols and established ways, is replaced with a spirit of generosity, nourishing hospitality, and tolerance for bouts of harmless lawlessness.

I think it’s the misfit-ness and informality of baches that seems to strike a chord in our collective character as a country. There is a sense of letting go, and a comfort that comes with familiarity and simplicity.
There is something almost sacred that most baches embody, which I believe stems from the original family or whānau who built or moved the dwelling to its location. As the decades pass, each new generation and the descendants of these original families continue to add layer upon layer of that spiritual DNA to each humble residence.

“If these walls could talk” is the line that always comes to my mind when I’m lucky enough to be staying in a classic bach.

It has been fun updating and re-releasing Eat Up as the ‘Bach Edition’. I get another bite of the cherry as it were. I have always been super proud of the ‘original’, and, even though it was released in 2017, the recipes still ring true to me. The vision was always to celebrate where we had come from with our food, and where we are currently.

I have penned five cookbooks over the past 15 years or so. I recently got them all out and spent an afternoon reading some of the text, looking at the photos and going over many of the recipes. I found it cathartic, as well as reassuring. My philosophy around how I like to cook and serve hasn’t changed much at all in the past 20 years. I have never really been swayed by trends that become popular for a time, then come and go over the years.

I am always inspired by clever food, no matter where it originates from. But I believe there is a fine line between clever food and overly worked pretentious food, which I think is more about the personal ego of the chef who created the dish. As in “Look at me, I am so clever” rather than looking at it from the diners’ perspective: Is it tasty? Is it generous? Is there textural contrast in the components? Are the layers of flavour balanced? Was it a satisfying plate of food that left you feeling I would, or I could, order that again?

To be totally honest, I don’t believe I’m an overly talented chef. What I do know is that I understand the fundamentals of a well-executed dish. I am relatively confident in my ability to cook a lot of decent-tasting food, and I also think I have a good handle on, or understanding of, what people enjoy – and why.
The two main drivers when I am cooking are generosity and fun. They are kind of like insurance policies around how the dish will be perceived. Both of these components are at the basis of my thinking with every dish that I think up and work on. I like to trust there is some creativity in there too, but being generous and having fun is what I think eating is all about.

Bach food is all about that … it is not complicated, it doesn’t require a trip to a specialty food store or taking out a second mortgage to purchase a bloody sous vide machine, etc. It is about feeding loved ones who are famished with food that is simple, fresh, delicious and, thank goodness, sometimes a little down and dirty.

Anyway, I hope you love it, share it, use and abuse it. Always keep in mind that nothing pleases a cookbook author more than a wine-splashed, sauce-splattered and oil-stained cover!

Click here to read this story in our digital issue of 03.

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