Season in the Sun

Season in the Sun

Giant ferns, snake beans and a feast under the stars. Marion Hume unwraps Christmas in New Zealand

The Observer | Sunday 15th December 2002

‘It gets so hot, you have to be up early to get things done,’ says Mikhail Gherman as he secures a 10ft-tall white Christmas tree to the corrugated-iron roof of the 30s Deco house he shares with his wife, New Zealand’s hippest designer, Karen Walker. ‘The sun wakes us at dawn anyway because we don’t have curtains,’ says Karen, who numbers the actress Claire Danes and Shirley Manson of Garbage among her fashion fans.

It’s a long way from the London catwalk up here on the roof, where Karen, who is dressed in a miniskirt, vest and gum boots, is stringing fairy lights on to the tree. From up here, you can see all the way to the Coromandel Peninsula, over 30 miles away. It is 6am on what is already a bright blue and boiling December day in the Waitakere Ranges outside Auckland. The Christmas tradition of hauling the tree on to the roof needs to be completed before the sun climbs any higher. Then there are the giant punga ferns to decorate with phosphorescent fishing buoys which will soak up the sun all day and glow into the night.

There’s a red wreath of delicate pohutukawa to be hung. You can’t buy protected native pohutukawa flowers, you can only gather them from your own land. Luckily, Karen and Mikhail have 12 acres of native bush. The wreath is to be hung on the chimney breast, which is not in the house but down a hill in the outdoor ‘room’ by the black slate-lined pool. Down there is a mantelpiece, reclining chairs, the essential antipodean barbeque (and even sockets for laptops). This is where Karen and Mikhail and the Who’s Who of Auckland hipsters hang out all summer.

It’s a guaranteed white Christmas in New Zealand, where the Manuka trees are frosted with delicate white blooms so that the hillside appears covered in a dusting of snow. ‘Kiwis get all teary at the sight,’ explains Karen. ‘We’ve got no native animals. Our icons are our plants and birds. We get emotional at the sight of punga. Pohutukawa in bloom tells us it’s Christmas, which as a kid meant two-and-a-half months off and long days at the beach.’

Now Karen and Mikhail and friends stay home to enjoy a festive feast starting with Stoli vodka kept cold in a slab of ice full of frozen strawberries. The strawberries are Karen’s festive touch. The vodka is Mikhail’s. His family fled Odessa to a new life here when he was 12.

He experienced Christmas for the first time after he had met his future wife, who was then 17. ‘His reaction to the Queen’s Speech was: “She’s boring, isn’t she?” My grandmother was very put out,’ laughs Karen, who still tunes in to Buckingham Palace on Christmas Day (and is also a fan of Coronation Street).

Lunch is grilled snapper with limes and lime leaves and served on a ginger leaf – all gathered from the property. The risotto is beetroot and basil. There’s also asparagus, snake beans and grilled haloumi cheese washed down with a Pinot Gris from Peregrine Vineyard, Central Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand.

The pool-side ghetto blaster is an original 80s Transonic. Today’s soundtrack is pre-selected (it’s a long walk back up to the house on the hill, which was originally a house on the beach: a former owner transported it on a truck up here). Neil Young, John Lennon, Blondie and country star Bonnie Prince Billy compete with the sound of the cicadas.

Pudding is pavlova. The Aussies claim they invented The Pav. The Kiwis are sure they did. Karen’s version is served with strawberries only. ‘Kiwi fruit don’t originate in New Zealand anyway,’ she explains.

After lunch, it is back in the pool which Mikhail, the creative director for advertising agency Publicis Mojo, has filled with floating stars. He’s also an accomplished artist. Back in the USSR, he was judged so talented he was educated at a special art school for gifted children. His sketches of yeti are included in the current exhibition at London’s Neon Gallery. ‘But I think my rabbits top my yeti,’ he muses.

After sunset, the temperature falls and Mikhail stokes up the fire to warm the plum puddings. Karen, her chow-chow dog Turkey and her cats Chicken and Dodo (there’s also a palomino pony called Orlando) snuggle on possum-fur rugs. New Zealand is desperate to eradicate an alien possum population, introduced from Australia, which is destroying forest and bird life. Even Karen, a vegetarian and animal lover, approves and uses possum fur in her collections.

As night falls, the lights from the tree on the roof shine bright. ‘There would be no point having the tree inside,’ says Karen. ‘We won’t come back indoors until March.’