Sophie Merkens

Meet Sophie Merkens and her Nissan Caravan

Food writer Sophie Merkens spent much of last year travelling the length and breadth of the country by campervan, interviewing Kiwi women with a connection to food – those who grow, gather, forage, and create from the land. The result is her new book, Grow. Claire Smith caught up with Sophie to find out more about her experience.

Food has always been a central force in Sophie Merkens’ life. Both her mother and grandmother have green fingers, and the two women have passed down their knowledge of gardening, gathering, and foraging to the next generation. “I spent a lot of time over the early lockdowns cooking and learning to forage from my mother Andi, who inherited green fingers from her mother Shirley, who knows which mushrooms to pick, how to make rosewater from blooms, and how to make ‘coffee’ from dandelion roots,” she says.

Like many people around the world, Sophie’s work came to an abrupt halt as Covid hit. But it was also the catalyst to spurn her into action with a project that had been brewing in the back of her mind.

“As I lined up at the supermarket with my mask and gloves on, armed with sanitiser and shared fear, I watched as many of us relied on corporate conglomerates to nourish us with foods, some of which were plastic-wrapped, that had little resemblance to their origin.”

Sophie Merkens
A favourite lakeside camping spot
Sophie Merkens
Foraged pikopiko from Rakiura, which Sophie later pickled
Van-made hummus with local carrots enjoyed by the river

It was then that Sophie found the inspiration to drive her project forward. She put the message out on social media that she was looking for hunter-gatherer-grower women to interview for her project – initially planned to be a mini-series called Hunters & Gatherers. “I wanted to celebrate our everyday heroes: the mothers, the cooks, the nurturers, the wildly inspired.”

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So many women stepped forward that Sophie’s plan for a mini-series became a book instead. With a list of interviewees spread across the country, she planned out a path of travel and set about buying a campervan, a 2008 Nissan Caravan she named Zephyr Florence.

“The van was being sold by a couple of German tourists who needed to get back home in a hurry when Covid struck,” says Sophie. “She was mechanically sound, and fitted out with everything I needed; all she needed was a lick of paint, really.”

Sophie’s five months of travel, interviews, and research have taken her from Cape Reinga to Bluff, adding around 12,000km to Zephyr Florence’s clock. She says she feels very privileged to have had the opportunity to spend the time she did with so many amazing women throughout the country. “I stand in awe of these women. It was just such an honour to meet them,” she says. “Wāhine like Dr Jessica Hutchings who shared her knowledge about Hua Parakore – a kaupapa Māori system and framework for growing kai – and Donna Kerridge who is a respected rongoā Māori practitioner, healer, teacher, writer, and passionate advocate for traditional healing practices in our modern world.”

Although Zephyr Florence is relatively small, it is fully self-contained with everything Sophie needed to enjoy travel in comfort. “I wanted an indoor kitchen, because I really didn’t like the idea of trying to cook outdoors if it was raining!”

Brewing coffee at a beachside campsite in Kekerengu
Feijoa skins fermenting for soda
Sophie makes a range of delights in the Zephyr kitchen

As a foodie who is used to having a big kitchen to create in, downsizing to a two-burner gas cooker to create meals was surprisingly easy. “You’d be amazed what you can create in a small space with just basic equipment. The meals I prepared in my van kitchen varied as much as they do when I’m at home, and were dictated by my energy levels, seasonal produce and the weather,” she says. She even managed to make chutneys and jams from fruits and vegetables sourced on her travels. “At one point I had a bounty of feijoas to use. I had a pot of fruit bubbling away on one burner with jars sterilising on the other. It does get messy, but that’s just part and parcel of cooking in a campervan.”

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Sophie says her on-the-road meals were often very simple, but always very tasty and often created using fresh produce given to her by those she met along the way, bought from roadside stalls, or foraged. “You can create some delicious meals from foraged foods,” she says. “Watercress with a walnut pesto, for example, or mushrooms soup. Having staples on hand such as chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil meant Sophie could regularly whip up a jar of hummus, one of her favourite ‘convenience’ foods. “Chop up a few carrots and open up some crackers, and you’re set.”

Sophie says the experience of travelling around the country and meeting so many inspiring women has been one she’ll never forget. And although her book is now complete and coming to bookstores around the country soon, her travels in Zephyr Florence are far from over. “We’re so lucky here in Aotearoa to have such an amazing country to explore. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.”

Foraged walnut and watercress pesto
Foraged watercress for pesto and soup
A kawakawa berry and kimchi omelette

Grow, by Sophie Merkens, is due out in bookstores soon. RRP $ 59.99. Published by Beatnik.

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