Two words synonymous with the Christmas season and summer in Aotearoa New Zealand.
If you’re not a Kiwi or an Aussie, you probably think if a pavlova (if you think of it at all) as a meringue dessert topped with whipped cream and berry fruit. And you could be forgiven for thinking that.
In fact I have been served such a thing in overseas restaurants and even on a cruise ship renown for the culinary skills of its chefs, all incorrectly described as pavlova. They were not. They were, as I described above, just meringues topped with whipped cream and strawberries.
So what’s the difference between a meringue and a pavlova? I think of a meringue as being either crispy throughout, or being a softer, slightly moist texture when used as a topping such as on a lemon meringue pie.
What I have been served as a pavlova outside of Aotearoa New Zealand or Australia, is more or less a larger version of a meringue as shown on the left above, smothered with whipped cream and strawberries and sometimes kiwifruit. That, a pavlova does not make!
On the other hand, a pavlova has a very thin crispy exterior only a few millimetres thick, and a soft, moist, fluffy interior, so soft that it collapses when gently squeezed between tongue and the roof of the mouth. It’s so fragile that it can’t be picked up with your fingers. Without the crispy exterior, any fruit placed on top of the pavlova would sink right through it. In fact the whipped cream spread over the top is more dense than the interior of a good pavlova. A good pavlova often looks like it’s about to collapse with the crust cracking once it is decorated.
Here ends my lesson on distinguishing the difference between a real pavlova and a fake one,
The pōhutukawa is sometimes referred to as the New Zealand Christmas tree, as in some parts of the country it flowers at Christmas. Like much of the NZ flora and fauna, its population in the wild is decreasing due to predation by introduced species – in the case, the common brushtail possum from Australia. The possum, with its voracious appetite for green leaves, buds and young shoots, eats many of these trees to death.
Fortunately, the pōhutukawa’s spectacular displays of crimson flowers make them a desirable plant in larger gardens, and they are now distributed well beyond the region they naturally flourish in. With careful pruning, they can be kept to under four metres high.
One particular pōhutukawa tree has a special place in Māori mythology. On Cape Rienga at the northern tip of Aotearoa New Zealand, an ancient Pōhutukawa clings to the side of a cliff and overhangs the ocean below. It’s estimated to be around 800 – 850 years old and would have been a relative youngster, perhaps no more than a hundred years old, when humans first set foot on this land. The tree is special in that it is the departing place of the deceased on their way to the legendary home of their ancestors – Hawaiiki-A-Nui.
According to myth, the spirits of the deceased travel along the coast until they reach this particular pōhutukawa. They enter the underworld by sliding down its roots and into the sea. Then they travel out to Three Kings Island, where they climb a peak to bid a final farewell to Aotearoa before commencing their long journey to Hawaiiki-A-Nui.
I’m aware of one other myth regarding the pōhutukawa. According to legend, the crimson flowers represent the blood of the warrior Tāwhaki. He fell to earth while attempting to find heaven to seek help in avenging the death of his father.
A growing trend among Pākehā (non-Māori New Zealanders) is the adoption of the Māori tradition of planting a pōhutukawa as a living memorial to the dead.