Once upon a time, summer was something
which had to be worked hard at.
Summertime to many means berry fruit, from the firm scarlet succulence of strawberries to the boysenberry’s purple voluptuousness – barely containing the ripe load of its own juice. And for certain provinces in times not too distant past summertime also meant gathering this bounty from the local orchards. Most kids over the age of 13 seemed content to spend their long hot summer holidays fruit picking. Filling punnets with an apparently endless supply of berries for minimum wage, and dreaming of cooling down in a river or swimming pool with your friends, afterwards. You’d never get rich berry-picking - but it was casual and often delicious work. Novices were let loose on the raspberry and boysenberry crops, while only the trusted few were allowed near the strawberries. With orchards long in decline, I feel ashamed to admit that we used to waste this wonderful fruit by throwing it at each other in brief, but colourful berry fights. The vivid red and purple explosions must have pre-dated paint-balling by almost a decade. Many years later, on a long trek through the Himalayan foothills and as far from fruit of any kind as possible, the thought of a single New Zealand boysenberry was sometimes all that kept me going..
Work in the orchard usually finished early afternoon, and a vast exodus of young, fruit-stained cyclists would briefly fill the street, eager to put the remaining long hours of summer light to good use. Berries genuinely did swim before your eyes when you closed them to try and sleep at night – but there are worse things.
In Marlborough, the less glamorous and far harder accompaniment to berry work was garlic picking. Crouched over a large bin, in the middle of a parched field offering no shelter from the blistering sun, this was many youngsters’ first taste of real labour. The garlic bulb offered few possibilities for sneaky mouthfuls or throwing fights, the way that berries did. The only free sample available was when you inevitably nicked your fingers with the dilapidated shears provided, and received the sharp bite of garlic juice straight into the cut. Eye-watering had replaced mouth-watering, and there were no lush, tall berry bushes to protect you from the sun or the eyes of the supervisors.
Apparently Marlborough’s hard winter followed by a long dry summer made it New Zealand’s premier garlic region. The crop was everywhere, to the extent that on hot still evenings the entire town of Blenheim seemed to have a not-unpleasant pall of garlic hanging over it.
Something else which escaped our young minds was that garlic is spectacularly good for you, containing health-promoting vitamins, minerals and compounds. Garlic growers were quick to tell you that they’d never had a sick day in their lives, but like their claim that all the garlic went to Fiji –“where they eat it like apples”, we took this with a pinch of salt. In fact, it seems that the Fijian Indian population were indeed the recipients of our garlic, and put it to good use in traditional dishes.
Alas, like the berry orchards, Marlborough garlic has also seen far better days, having lost much of its market to cheaper Chinese varieties and its land to a home-grown export of a different kind. The successor to the major summer holiday job provider in Marlborough is now the grape.
I was so young when I first worked in a vineyard that my employer kindly fudged the age on my paperwork so that I’d be paid something closer to my older workmates. He might have regretted his generosity because my callow, spindly frame wouldn’t allow me to keep up with them, and I lagged far behind. These were the early days of a now famous winery and our job was to hammer nails into row upon row of posts, one day to support award winning vines. My delicate hands would be bleeding from the burst blisters I collected, and the hard day combined with the long bike ride to and from the vineyard meant that I slept as never before at night. Being a pasty redhead, I actually believed wearing a long-sleeved, roll-neck skivvy was a sensible form of protection from the merciless sun. Unsurprisingly, this attracted some derision from my bronzed and brawny, stripped-to-the-waist companions. I’ll never forget the humiliation of hammering my own thumb in fright when one of the female workers urged me to get rid of the skivvy and as incentive offered to ‘show me her chest if I showed her mine’.
To everyone’s relief, including my own, this job came to an abrupt end when I managed to fall off a tractor I’d been riding on, on our way to ‘smoko’. (OSH was merely a sneezing sound in those days).
Hauled out of a ditch, concussed and covered in blood, my first experience of the wine industry was a short but memorable one. It had been kinder to me than I probably deserved, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time that I’d be left smashed after an encounter with Marlborough wine.
Years later, holiday jobs became a more serious matter, no longer a fun way of filling the weeks before and after a family holiday, somewhere... Home from varsity for the Christmas break, labouring suddenly becomes vital to ensure financial survival during the frugal year ahead. With money becoming more important, so does the level of exertion required. And so, one year the spindly, pasty redhead became a woodcutter for a summer. Long days spent swinging a weighted axe at huge, rubbery slabs of blue gum in the Marlborough sun meant that even I was no longer quite so pasty, or spindly by the end of this job. Weirdly, as my skin finally darkened, so did my hair and I was never a bona fide ‘ginga’ again. So a good result all round, then.
Not counting a bizarre interlude dressing up as a cartoon animal to give out helium balloons in a shopping mall – possibly the nadir of my career, (if not my life), my final summer holiday job was a season at the Lake Grassmere salt works. Affectionately known as the ‘Siberian salt mines’ by we student workers, almost 70,000 tonnes of salt is still harvested from this lake each year. The ever dependable Marlborough sun and drying nor’westers are utilised to evaporate and concentrate the saline until it’s ready for processing. Ironically, for an industry so dependent on sunlight, we never saw any of it. 12 hours inside a dirty, noisy factory, loading sacks of salt into railway wagons with a team of student-hating labourers – this was a man’s job if ever there was one. Catching the sacks as they fell from an elevated conveyer belt was punishing work, even more so when they occasionally hadn’t been sewn shut (either accidentally, or not) and would empty their pummelling load of still-hot salt on top of you.
But as is often the case in these situations, if you could show that you were willing to work hard the permanent workers could eventually soften towards you. When I was christened with a nickname which is unrepeatable here, I knew I’d finally been accepted, particularly when I met the traditional challenge of lifting a salt sack above my head. Fear is a tremendous motivating factor.
Towards the end of this otherwise happy job, I suffered a major emotional blow when a ‘dear John letter’ arrived in the mail from Wellington. Perhaps this is another consequence of summer holidays when you have to spend months away from your usual life elsewhere, but I was devastated. My uncharacteristic misery must have been showing because my team of fellow salt workers had finally had enough. They actually stopped the conveyer belt and made me sit on a pile of now stationary salt sacks to pour out my tale of woe. The surreal image of hardened, boiler-suited labourers bringing an important part of their factory to a standstill just so they could listen to my broken-hearted whimpering will stay with me forever. They considered for a moment, and then delivered their verdict - I hadn’t been dumped as such, just ‘put on ice’.
Having now just passed my 20th Wedding anniversary I wish I could tell them how right they were! Graduating the following year student jobs became a thing of the past and holidays, although drastically reduced, generally became holidays again. I’d harvested a wide range of Marlborough flavours from sweet berries and grapes, to garlic and salt – and although arduous work at times it had always been fun. Summer has never really been quite the same since leaving holiday jobs behind, but now that we are growing our own berries, picking enough for a dessert can still bring back happy memories. I’m very content to pay for garlic someone else has picked, though.