On 7 June my dear Nana passed away. She was 5 months short of her 90th birthday. I think she was holding out for this milestone; Nana loved any chance to get dolled up. She was a beautiful, graceful and elegant woman. Even when ill in hospital she wore lipstick and had brightly painted nails. The nurses would comment on her smooth, unlined skin, and I like to think they asked her the secrets of her beauty regime. It broke my heart to see her hands, to which she had so diligently applied moisturiser all her life, bruised and blackened with needles and IV entry points.
Until I was fifteen and we moved into Wellington, Nana had always been there, just a short bike ride away. She was simply my Nana who gave us biscuits, always had sweeties and let my sister and I play with her make-up. She was as fit as a fiddle, and as long as she drank gin and played bridge once a week, everything was as it should be. It wasn’t until I grew older that I began to wonder who Nana really was. Who was Nana to her friends? What did they talk about while they drank their tea and played cards? What was Nana like as a girl, a young woman, a new mother? What did she dream of and hope for?
Sadly, it wasn’t until she became ill and we spent hours at her bedside that I began to put pieces of her life together. She was a woman who fiercely loved her husband, Ken. He was tall and handsome with blond curls, and as the story goes, women used to stop and stare at him in the streets. A few months ago, while lying in her hospital bed, Nana told Mum and I of the day her and Ken got married. Her eyes were closed as she spoke, and her voice was slow. They were married at St Andrews on the Terrace at 11a.m on 6 September 1947. Nana said no one came to their wedding; it was a quiet, private ceremony.
Her and Ken returned to the church for their 25th wedding anniversary. They signed the guest book and the chaplain saw they were married in his church 25 years before; he gave them his congratulations. I have walked past St Andrews on the Terrace many times, but now it means something different to me.
Just after Nana died my auntie Barbie came to stay. She told us a story that will inspire the romantic in all of us. My nana was a nurse in Wellington Hospital for a few years while her and Ken were courting. Ken worked on a dairy farm in Otaki, a small town an hour (by modern car, on modern road) north of Wellington. Every Sunday, after rising early for milking, Ken would bike into Wellington and take Nana out for a picnic lunch. After a few precious hours Nana would go back to the hospital and Ken would cycle back to Otaki ready for the evening milk.
On the night Nana died, when mum and I had cried our tears and called the people who needed to be called, we opened dad’s bottle of whiskey. We cooked steak and drank whiskey on the rocks; Nana would have approved. Mum and I started chatting, sharing our thoughts about Nana just to fill the quiet, really only the things we already knew – how she died without having had a gin and tonic in months; and that she would most certainly not miss the hospital food. But then mum told me that Ken taught Nana to cook. When they began their married life Ken showed Nana the basics: soups, stews, how to re-use leftovers, and maybe a basic cake. I like to think of a young newly-wed couple in their farmhouse kitchen cooking, of both donning an apron and preparing a meal together.
When I think of Nana in the kitchen I think of her boiled sultana cake: plump sultanas held within a dark, loose-crumbed batter. It is a satisfying cake, warming and hearty and seems to hark back to farmhouse kitchen days. But, dare I say it, a slice for breakfast would be a good idea; this cake is light and sweet from sultanas. One day when I was 9 or 10 I biked over to Nana’s house to ask for the recipe. She handed me a piece of paper, brown with an illustration of kitchen instruments along the top. Nana dictated the recipe to me and in my newly learnt cursive, I wrote it down. I’m not sure why I remember this so clearly, perhaps it seems like a definitive grandmother-granddaughter experience: the sharing and passing on of recipes.
And so now I share it here. This cake is perfect for a large crowd, a cut and keep sort of cake. We made this cake a few weeks ago when we had friends over to honour Nana. She would have like it: we drank bubbles and gin and tonic. There were beautiful cheeses and red grapes, little sandwiches and savouries. Nana would have held court at one end of the room, gin in one hand and probably my hand in the other.
Boiled Sultana Cake
450 grams sultanas
225 grams butter
2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
a few drops vanilla essence
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and line a large round tin. Place sultanas in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour off most of the water, leaving a few tablespoons. Chop the butter into the sultanas and leave to melt.
In a separate bowl beat the eggs with the sugar for a couple of minutes, or until slightly thick and pale. Stir in the vanilla. Add the egg mixture to the sultanas and butter, then add the flour and baking powder. Stir until well combined.
Bake 1 hr 10 minutes, but no longer than 1 hr 15 minutes.