If it’s not Christmas without strawberries then don’t deny yourself – but if you can hold out until January they’ll probably be cheaper. Photo/Duncan Brown
Looking for a champagne summer on a champenoise budget? Kim Knight reflects on a prudent Christmas past and asks experts for advice on surviving the season financially intact.
The pogo stick was metallic gold and
stickered with red flames. When I boing-boing-boinged up the driveway, the sprays of ribbon sprouting from the handlebars flared like a cheerleader’s skirt.
It was 1976 and my sheet-metal engineering dad was going to be the Pogo King of New Zealand.
I don’t know what happened to that dream (or, indeed, Blenheim’s coolest pogo stick), but I imagine my father simply moved on to his next grand design. In between building us a house and working a full-time job, he developed a line of copper wire jewellery, made hand-tooled leather belts and carved stunning bowls from driftwood dragged off the beach. My father would never buy something he could make himself – including coffee.
A few Christmases ago, I asked my dad to make me a terrine press. I am the eldest daughter who, inexplicably, moved to the city where the coffee is not instant and restaurants deliberately burn the brussels sprouts. I wanted my dad to craft a lump of wood the width and length of a loaf tin, that would squish the living daylights out of duck breast and pistachios and whatever else Aucklanders eat.
Bruce of Blenheim is absolutely a meatloaf man. Part mince, part sausage, with hard-boiled eggs and bacon for interest. I don’t know if he has ever eaten a terrine – but the terrine press he made me is so incredibly beautiful that I can’t bring myself to use it. The layered slabs of rimu are mysteriously heavy (I truly suspect hidden, repurposed fishing sinkers) and the surface has been indented to perfectly balance two heavy cans of (what else) baked beans. It is displayed in my living room as an objet d’art; an ode to making – and making do.
Necessity is the mother of invention. My parents’ working-class income covered more needs than wants. In my family, Christmas did not always come from a shop – and, as an adult, that’s a lesson I’ve come to embrace. One year, grown up and gone flatting, I asked dad to strip the white-painted dresser I’d had since I was 5 and give it a 1990s do-over. It turned out to be solid kauri, as softly gold and gleaming as a pot of honey.
This year, for many people, Christmas will be about making do. Covid has divided our fortunes. Some people have more money than ever; some have lost everything. In the middle, perhaps, are the people who kept their jobs, homes and health – but lost a little optimism.
Is this the year we finally go back to basics? The year we celebrate the spirit of the season, and keep a little cash in reserve in case it all goes a bit partridge in a pear-shaped tree? Can you even have a champagne Christmas on a champenoise budget? My dad would say yes. So did a few other experts I quizzed . . .
Lucy Corry, aka The Kitchenmaid, is a food writer and author of Homecooked: Seasonal Recipes for Every Day (Penguin, $55).
Why do we spend so much money on food at Christmas? Even if you manage to avoid this kind of social pressure the rest of the time, it’s really easy to get possessed by a weird need to have a luxury magazine-style Christmas. Unless you have pots of money and loads of time, mid-December is busy enough. My sister, Marion, often recites a quote from Elizabeth David that goes along the lines of “you’re cooking Sunday lunch, not catering the church fete”. In other words, don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
How can you spread the load – financial or otherwise? We’ve all had those Christmases where the hostess – and it’s usually always the hostess – works themselves into a lather on Christmas Eve and turns what should be a time of celebration into something stressful and exhausting. Don’t be that person. Ask your bubble what they want to eat. If it’s outside your budget or skill set, ask them to make or pay for it. If they love you, they won’t want you to be in a state of emotional, physical or financial collapse on December 25.
Is it finally time to throw out old (and expensive) food traditions? 2021 might be the year of The Picnic Christmas, so it’s probably smart to plan for that event rather than a sit-down traditional turkey lunch with all the trimmings for 12 people. Think about the food your whānau likes to eat and go from there. There’s no rule that you have to have a gigantic turkey, two hot hams and three turtle doves wrapped in pancetta. If your family always have turkey, and Christmas isn’t Christmas without a turkey, then by all means have one – but don’t feel any compulsion. Being with people is more important than fretting about food.
Chicken is nicer than turkey anyway, right? Unless you’ve got the kind of family who loves turkey and ham, and you know that every last scrap will be eaten, think small rather than big. One really good roast chicken, anointed with lots of butter and stuffed with herbs, lemon and garlic, served with a beautiful, simple salad and some tiny, buttery new potatoes sounds like a pretty good Christmas dinner to me. You could cook the chicken the day before and just take super-luxurious chicken sandwiches to your festive picnic – make them with really good mayo, mustard, flaked almonds and some halved grapes, or rocket. Or a leg of lamb cooked on the barbecue is delicious and festive while also offering excellent leftover potential.
Are leftovers cost-effective or just poor planning? The best Christmas leftovers, in my experience, are cold roast potatoes, so make lots of those. They’re cheap, they always get eaten and can be repurposed in lots of different ways aside from eating them cold from the fridge, lavishly sprinkled with salt. Cold chicken can be turned into a salad, cold lamb can be refried into pretend souvlakis.
The dessert dilemma – how far in advance can you buy berries? Strawberries and all other soft fruit – red currants, raspberries, boysenberries – magically become crazily expensive in the days before Christmas. It’s madness to buy them unless money’s no object. I’m a huge fan of frozen raspberries, which can be used in lots of ways, including in trifle, or the English classic Summer Pudding, or even just crushed with some icing sugar and a miserly splash of rosewater and folded through whipped cream. Or the classic Kiwi black doris plums – I have a chapter in the book about the ways to use these.
What if you really, really like strawberries? You can do some things in advance, when they might be cheaper. I do strawberries in sumac syrup, or there’s this thing called Rum Pot, or Rumtopf. You stick the strawberries in a jar with some sugar and brandy, and you just keep layering it up. After it’s macerated for a couple of months you end up with some powerfully boozy fruit in a readymade syrup, which is gorgeous with vanilla icecream. This might be a project to start when strawberries are cheap, and enjoy at the end of summer. It’s obviously not safe for kids, and only for people who already have a stash of brandy – buying brandy is not a way to save money. Otherwise, wait for the January barbecues – berries will be cheaper, and you can make a really beautiful strawberry, radish and cucumber salad with mint dressing.
Yvonne Lorkin is a wine writer and co-founder of the drinks subscription service WineFriend (winefriend.co.nz)
It’s Christmas – does it have to be champagne? Champagne is lovely and there’s much allure and prestige attached to it, however it’s often very pricey. There are loads of other gorgeous, tasty, beautifully packaged options from other parts of France, and indeed other parts of the world, that will absolutely make a winning impression on your guests and your wallet. Consider Cremant, Cava, Prosecco, Asti or Methode Traditionelle from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the US.
Local bubbly is okay? MORE than okay. Our cool climate, our ability to grow exceptional chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – the building blocks of fine champagne – and the incredible breadth of winemaking talent we have across Aotearoa means we’re an absolute force to be reckoned with for quality fizz. Check out some of the best at methodemarlborough.org
What about Prosecco? It’s affordable, the packaging is usually pretty groovy so it always looks good on the table, but most importantly, it’s a style that is super-approachable.
Any tips for making one bottle of something great go further? Vacuum seal wine preserving gadgets are good, but if you don’t have those things and just want the wine to stay fresh for another day or three, just push the cork in hard or screw the cap on tight and lie the bottle down either in the fridge or somewhere cool and dark. That’ll slow down any pesky oxygen getting into the neck of the bottle and spoiling it, at least for a short while.
Is there a particular grape variety that tends to be cheaper, but is reliably good? Sauvignon blanc is cheaper to produce and is always pretty darn good if you’re a fan of that style. It’s easy to grow if you’ve got good vineyard management and it only requires clean stainless steel and a clever winemaker to become something pretty delicious. It can be turned from berry to bottle in a matter of weeks. There’s always one summer visitor who only drinks sauvignon, so it’s good to have a stash in the fridge.
What’s the etiquette? Should the host have to provide drinks? It depends on the level of formality. It’s great form to provide the celebratory sip for when guests first arrive. That’s the most welcoming thing isn’t it? Arriving and being given a lovely flute of fizz or a groovy little cocktail or a crispy-fresh beer or whatever is so nice. Anything after that is save yourselves, I reckon! WineFriend puts together a brilliant Christmas box, but the rest of the year I might ask different guests to bring a particular style of wine that pairs with a particular course if I’m doing all the cooking – like a good viognier to go with the pork belly for example.
Supermarkets or cellar doors – which is cheaper? Keep your eye on the newspapers and definitely check your email, particularly in those junk or spam files, because you’ll often get notifications of one-off online sales. Buying direct from the cellar is often cheaper and it’s a great way to support our local wineries. And they really need your support. They’ll also be wanting to clear stock in order to make room for the new wines that they’ll be making come the next harvest. If you’re looking for “cheap”, depending on what your interpretation of that is, then yep, that’s what supermarkets specialise in. The downside is that cheap is often really boring, and more often than not, it won’t be from New Zealand.
Stephanie Holmes is a seasoned traveller and the New Zealand Herald’s Travel magazine editor.
How can you make tent life more bearable? We’ve done many call-outs to Travel magazine readers on exactly this subject . . . A good quality air mattress is key. Don’t scrimp on this one as there’s nothing worse than feeling it slowly deflate through the night. Take a sleep eye mask and earplugs to keep out the early morning light/dawn chorus/neighbours’ snoring. A headlamp is essential for night-time trips to the bathroom and solar garden lights around the guy ropes will stop you tripping over them in the dark – another reason for that eye mask.
Absolute favourite reader tip? Never forget the G&T!
Are some towns cheaper for holidaying than others? Every town has cheap and expensive options. Queenstown is regarded as expensive by many Kiwis but there are lots of great things to do there that don’t cost a thing, including amazing hikes, fish and chips by the lake as the sun goes down – which, in summer, is close to 10pm. A personal recommendation for Queenstown: Taco Medic, a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant with the best tacos you’ve ever tasted. The best way to find free and cheap things to do is to ask a local – the barista when you’re getting your morning flat white, the supermarket checkout operator . . . any local is bound to have at least one great tip for a secret spot or local must-do that will be off the radar and easier on your wallet.
What if it rains? How can you cut costs indoors? We recently did a story about New Zealand’s extensive range of museums – every town seems to have at least one, dedicated to all things weird and wonderful, from rugby to military history, clocks to country music, and much more. Some have entry fees but many are free. A great way to while away a rainy afternoon.
And outdoors? We are spoilt for choice when it comes to stunning walking tracks. Check out the “Short Walks” section on the Department’s of Conservation’s website (doc.govt.nz) DoC’s website) and, for kids, DoC has its Kiwi Guardians programme. Various sites around the country have special adventure trails and activities easy for kids to follow and if they complete them, they can receive Kiwi Guardians medals. If you have the ability to bring your bikes on holiday, there’s a growing number of off-road cycle trails. Some of my favourites over the past two years have included Hawke’s Bay, Hokianga and Arrowtown, but you’ll find them all over the place – this nation is becoming far more cycle-friendly.
Any intel on the cheapest campgrounds? DoC campgrounds are absolutely the cheapest option and some are in the most stunning locales you can imagine. Fletcher Bay in the Coromandel is a personal favourite. With a DoC campground however, you need to be prepared for very basic facilities – there may be no hot water or kitchen facilities, and many can be pack-in-pack-out, so you’ll need to think about how you’re going to store your rubbish for the duration of your stay. Hot tip from Travel readers – bring multi-litre plastic storage bins, the kind you use to tidy up the garage or kids bedrooms, and keep your rubbish stored inside in sealed biodegradable rubbish bags until you can get to a refuse station.
What about freedom camping? Although there are freedom camping options in some regions, I’d urge people to think about just what a horrendously tough time our tourism industry has suffered since our borders closed. By choosing to freedom camp, you’re choosing not to support a town or region’s local economy. Plus, a holiday park or DoC campground is much more comfortable.
Holiday lunches, especially for families, can be super expensive. How do you avoid spending $15 on a stale panini? Self-catering as much as possible. If you’re staying in a bach or Airbnb with kitchen facilities, meal plan as you would at home. Try to plan your activities in blocks (morning and afternoon), enabling you to head back to the house for lunch at home – also a good way to give kids a rest and prevent them becoming overtired. Alternatively, you could get picnic lunches from local supermarkets/Four Squares/delis to eat on the beach or in the park, which should work out cheaper than going to a cafe every day. Again though, remember cafes and restaurants in tourist hotspots are really struggling right now – factor in a few visits to help support them until international tourists can return. Use them or lose them!
Elva Buckley is a volunteer and specialist budgeting adviser with the Citizens Advice Bureau, Onehunga
Has Covid made Christmas harder? Yes. But I think we might be more sensible about it this year, because we have been in lockdown and we haven’t been able to go out and shop.
What’s the one thing you can do to ensure a cheaper Christmas? Planning. You need to know how much money you have, how many people are coming. Make lists and watch out for sales. Do you have enough crockery, for example? Start getting ready early.
Any surprising cost-cutting tricks people forget? In Auckland, check out public transport. They have a lot of free days over the holidays. If you’re a family with a bus pass and not a lot of money, pack up a picnic, head out at 8am and you have until 10pm to get home.
How can we spend less on gifts? Do a Secret Santa, where you only have to organise one present. Look at op shops, where you can get games and puzzles for everybody. Decide on the number of presents, the value of them and try very, very hard to stick to that. People just go to the shops and buy and end up with too much. We’ve had plenty of time this year to look on the internet and find the right gift for the right person.
How can you spread the work (and cost) load? Everybody has a specialty. Maybe someone gets a ham through work? Somebody else is a really good dessert maker, somebody else does the present buying . . .
How would you reduce a Christmas food bill? It doesn’t have to be expensive, but make it special. Meatloaf, instead of just ordinary mince. Set the table and make it look nice – don’t just throw everything in the middle, and say “go for it”. Have your canned peaches on Christmas Day and your strawberries two weeks later when they’re cheap. For $5, you can buy a great big bag of apples and then you can make them special – baked apples, or apple pie, cut them in slices so they look nice, or have apple with your pork. Pork is a lot cheaper than ham. Get the right amount of food. You’ll never not use potatoes, but don’t buy two broccoli for $5 if you’ll only eat one.