In the midst of the pandemic, Larnach Castle’s 150th celebration faced an unusual quandary – not enough brains.
A formal banquet is being hosted there to mark the milestone based on the menu its namesake – politician and businessman William Larnach – once ate back in the 1880s.
Perched on the Otago Peninsula with sweeping views up the harbour to Dunedin, Larnach Castle had had a curious history since work started in 1871.
In the last century-and-a-half, it has been a family home, holiday retreat for nuns, mental asylum, cabaret and signal station, before becoming a visitor attraction.
In the castle’s kitchen, head chef Hamish Blair was hard at work ahead of Friday night’s banquet, preparing a menu that was first served in 1888.
“We’re very lucky in that sense, having modern technology and we don’t have to cook on a coal range ’cause that’s what they would have probably done at the time because there was no electricity at the castle.”
The menu was classical french cuisine – starting with consommé, fillets of salmon, and macaroni – before Blair hit a hurdle with the lamb’s brain and tomato sauce.
Brains – fresh or frozen – were nowhere to be found, so instead he was using lamb sweetbreads – pancreas.
“According to the cookbook, Mrs Beeton’s book, they were poached first and they were cooled down and then crumbed and then deep fried so get a texture like chicken liver inside. Sort of soft, kind of pasty but a bit of a bite to it too.”
The mains of roast beef and turkey, ham, boiled fowls and lamb would be served on platters with garnishes of rosemary, sage and flowers.
While the cuisine was simple – with paprika being the only spice mentioned in the recipes, Blair said it was all about the elaborate presentation.
As for dessert, he has been practising for weeks to shape red wine jellies using Victorian moulds.
“That was quite tricky having to do trial batches, getting the right settings for gelatines, just things like that.
“Simple techniques, but you’ve got to go through the process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and being able to turn out a jelly mould is quite a technique in itself.”
Larnach Castle was essentially a ruin when Norcombe Barker’s parents bought it in 1967 and started to restore it.
As the castle’s managing director, he said there was still more work to do.
“It was pretty bad. I remember as a child when it rained, it just went straight through the castle. We had to grab pots and pans, and run around.
“The ballroom has been used as a sheep holding pen by the local farmers … They had bad weather because we’re a 1000 feet up and had all of the stock put into the ballroom, so the floor was just wrecked.
“Time had taken its toll on the building so structurally it’s reasonably good. We’ve got about 15 years of structural work to do on it so it’s a work-in-progress.”
The castle and its grounds have been a thriving business after more than five decades of restoration work.
Hit by pandemic
But it had been hit hard by the pandemic with the loss of many functions and visitors.
About 65 percent of the visitors were usually from overseas and 40 percent of the remaining guests were from Auckland.
“It’s a pretty tough time and we’re just trying to basically get through the grim time and hopefully in half a year or so it might start improving. It’s just the world at the moment.”
It made Friday’s celebration even more special as the dinner had already been postponed due to Covid-19 once.
It was the history, stories and people that really made the castle iconic, he said.
“There’s a lot of descendants of the Larnachs, descendants of the Purdies, people who have been involved with the castle for a long time so it’s going to be quite a cool night and a lot of people getting together and swapping stories.”
Otago Peninsula Community Board member Lox Kellas has been connected to the castle for generations.
“Well it goes back quite a way. My great-grandfather was the head gardener here. He worked here and had a family of 10 and some of the family worked here as well.
“My grandfather was the head medical orderly when the castle was then used as a lunatic asylum during the first world war for the mentally disabled and also conscientious objectors.”
He remembered when he first visited the castle
“I came here with my father rabbit shooting in the early ’50s. That was before the Barker family took over and the place was run down then. That was my first visit when I was about six or seven.”
His daughter was married here a few years ago, continuing their connection with the castle.
“It’s evolved over the years from when it was set out to what Larnach’s intentions were. Then of course, there was the change over the years, bits and pieces, and the family bringing it back to its glory now.
“It’s been a spectacular challenge and good for the city as well.”
The banquet promised to give guests a taste of past but with many hopes for a better future.