Judging by my last adventures in mahi kai, a casual reader might have doubted my ability to turn out a rēwena bread. And to be honest, so did I. But dear readers, the fantastical has happened: we have achieved rēwena.
I loved rēwena when I was a pīpī manu. But I’ve never tried to make it myself until my attempt, a fortnight ago, to develop my own fermented potato starter and use it bake my own rēwena bread. Well, my potato bug, which I showed you in my last blog entry –
– is no more. It fizzled into non-being. I followed the recipe faithfully (I think) and fed my bug regularly, but mea rawa ake, both mixes were flat as pancakes, and out they had to go. This was discouraging. But I’d promised rēwena in my next blog, nō reira, me whakawhiti te awa rā – this was a river that must be crossed. Luckily, Suezanne, who works with me at the whare pukapuka, has a rēwena bug that’s been passed down her whānau – for as many as 70 years. Kā mau te wehi! I gratefully accept her kind offer of a portion of this kaumatua bug, and on Monday afternoon, I am walking quickly home through a snap thunderstorm, cradling my newly-acquired bug. It’s active and is bubbling up to the top of the peanut butter jar I’m carrying it in. I clutch the bug closely to me and rub the jar to try to keep it warm. I look very strange.
Thursday night is baking night. I’m pretty nervous, and wondering if the bread will show it (yes, I do think baking happens by magic). When I open the jar, the pressure built up from the healthy bug bubbling makes a loud pop! and I almost scream. But to business.
Rēwena recipes tend to the simple, but there’s a multiplicity of them. As in China, where proverbially there are as many ways to make dumplings as there are dumpling cooks, I suspect each rēwena baker in Aotearoa has their own method. For tonight, I’m making “Nanny Hine’s Rēwena Bread” from Charles Royal’s cookbook, the same one I got my failed bug recipe from. I mix my dry ingredients and my bug together and, as instructed, knead them into a stiff dough. I interpret “stiff” to mean a long kneading time, and knead on a heavy wooden board set across my knees while I watch Being Human with the flatmates (excellent series – see here in our catalogue). Halfway through the episode, the dough is smooth and springy and I decide it’s had enough handling. First, I take a small handful of dough and set it aside to germinate the next bug. Then I roll the remaining dough into four equal rounds, press them together, and position them inside a buttered ceramic dish with a lid.
Usually, you’d make rēwena inside a camp oven – a heavy metal dish with a tight-fitting lid – but I don’t have one, and Suezanne assures me rēwena will cook fine in a casserole dish. But first, it has to rise in a warm place, and double its size. This is Aro Valley on a cold night, and I don’t have a hot water cupboard, but the bug and I are undaunted. I tuck it up for the night in its dish, covered with a tea towel, sitting on top of a hot water bottle inside the microwave.
“Sit there, grow well,” I tell it. “tipua, tīpuna”. Before I go to bed, I catch a flatmate opening up the microwave. She peers inside and says “goodnight, bug!”.
On Friday morning I wake up early to check the bug, before the sun’s reached over the lip of the valley. When I open the microwave there’s a pleasant surprise waiting for me. The bug knew its business, even if I didn’t , and the bread has easily doubled in size, risen beautifully to the top of the dish. The new bug, which I put next to it, has also bubbled healthily half-way up its jar.
I’ve pre-heated the oven to 180 degrees, and I slide the bug in its dish inside. It should cook for 2 ½ – 3 hours. I check it after one hour, and it looks on-track – the top turning golden nicely. The sun rises. I hang out the washing.
After 1 ¾ hours, I check again. The top of the bread is totally golden and developing a firm crust. There’s no way it should be ready yet, but I check the bread anyway by sliding a knife through the crisp crust. It comes out clean. I squeak a bit with excitement, and pull the dish out of the oven. There’s a crust right round the bread, and when I slide it out onto a board, it looks cooked already. I am almost as shocked as I am delighted.
The bread breaks apart easily into quarters, along the lines of the dough rounds. It has a nice, light texture inside and is evenly cooked. Yes!!
I take a few photos, then get right down to business. That is, a breadknife, lots of pata, and kiwifruit jam. I skipped adding sugar, so this rēwena isn’t a sweet bread, but I can confirm it is delicious, especially eaten outside in the sun.
I pack it up and take it round to my flatmate at work, and the others at the whare pukapuka. I give half away to my whāea kēkē, meeting her for lunch in Newtown. Before long…
It’s gone. With my food basket and your food basket, the family’s been fed, and rēwena’s on the menu to stay.
Nāku te rourouis a fortnightly food blog focussing on Māori food and recipes. Don’t think Julie and Julia. Think kihini chaos, kānga pirau, and kai for the soul. Nau mai ki tāku kihini… Welcome to my kitchen.
Māori words used in this blog post:
mahi kai – cooking
rēwena – fermented potato yeast bread
pīpī manu – baby bird, child
mea rawa ake – next minute
“nō reira, me whakawhiti te awa rā” – “so it’s a river that must be crossed”.
whare pukapuka – library
ka mau te wehi – amazing!
kaumatua – grandfather
“tipua, tīpuna” – grow, grandfather!
pata – butter
whaea kēkē – auntie
“kua pau” – “it’s gone/ used up”