Subaltern’s butter

Happy Easter to all readers – I’ve spent most of the day in the garden, the weather seeming more like late summer than autumn.

Here’s a line or two from My Simple Life in New Zealand by Adela Stewart, originally published in London in 1908. Adela and her husband Hugh built what is now known as Athenree Homestead, between Waihi Beach and Katikati, north of Tauranga. It sent me into the labyrinth that is Google but the results have been fun.

1887: Several young friends and relations came to stay, followed next day by many more – sixty-seven in all – for [her son] Mervyn’s annual Patrick’s Day birthday picnic to the Waihi beach, where we had our lunch with the usual interest of making tea. Then home for supper. Having received them from a friend in Bermuda, Hugh planted two Avocado pear or subaltern’s butter stones, but they had suffered in the voyage and did not even germinate, which we regretted as they are a delicious fruit and were unknown in New Zealand.

This last comment I found particularly interesting as the Katikati area is now one of this country’s prime avocado-growing areas. I hadn’t heard the name “subaltern’s butter” before – alligator pear, yes – and a quick online search reveals that it might be because a subaltern was a subordinate (in the British military) so this was “less than butter” or maybe because subalterns were too lowly to have proper butter.

Photo: Wikipedia

In his 1836 book Recollections of an Artillery Officer: Including Scenes and Adventures in Ireland, America, Flanders and France Benson Earle Hill writes:

I would almost make another voyage to Barbadoes, for the sole purpose of eating the alacada or, as it is usually called, the alligator pear. Fletcher had designated it by another of its titles, when he desired to have plenty of “subaltern’s butter”. … a greenish white pulp, combining an agreeable but very slightly acid, with a rich, mellow, almost marrow-like, flavour. Scooped out and spread on bread, with a little salt and Cayenne pepper, it is an excellent accompaniment to your breakfast; and eaten au naturel with your wine, it proves equally acceptable. The stone is used for the purpose of marking linen, which being placed over it, the letters are punctured with a small needle, whose point extracts, at every application, an indelible dye.

Read the book here, or download it for free.

According to the New Zealand Avocado industry website, the first tree was grown from seed probably planted in 1926. The first fruit from this tree was marketed in Auckland in 1939 and was “well received”.

“The modern avocado industry consists of 1600 growers who collectively manage 5000+ hectares of mainly the Hass variety of avocados. Hass is harvested for export from late August through to late March. About 80% of export grade fruit goes to the Australian market with the balance going to Japan, USA and Southeast Asian markets.” Read more at the website, including recipes. I have been told by more than one person that Nadia Lim’s chocolate avocado mousse recipe is sensational.

PS: You may have heard that Persea americana (avocados, native to central and South America) are high in fat – relax, it’s the “good fat” that doctors don’t mind.


I’ve been dipping in and out of My Simple Life in New Zealand by Adela Stewart, originally published in 1908 and about her pioneering life at Athenree Homestead, north of Katikati, in the hope of stumbling across a reference to the planting of a fig tree.

No luck so far, but did find this in an entry for 1896:

Having plenty of loquats I made a pie of them – not nice.

Here are some ideas of what to do with loquats that are, presumably, nice; and here’s some growing information from incredible edibles.

The garden I grew up in had a loquat tree and then loquat trees – they seem to grow readily from seed. We sometimes ate them fresh but mostly they were left for the birds and possums.

Adela’s Simple Life

I see that Athenree Homestead is doing Devonshire Teas for Mothers’ Day (Sunday, May 12, in case you’ve missed the advertising) and have posted details on the Events page.

So it’s a good chance to share some garden-related excerpts from My Simple Life in New Zealand by Adela Stewart,the homestead’s first resident. The book was published in England in 1908.

1880: I got from an old friend in Auckland a present of cuttings and plants, which Agnes and I had a busy time putting in – geraniums, pelargoniums, heliotropes, penstemons, ageratums, hydrangeas, escallonias, deutzias, mesembryanthemums, guelder roses, laurels, oxalis, roses, arums, ixias, agapanthus – a splendid contribution, most of which grew well and helped to convert our wilderness into a garden.

[I had to look up mesembryanthemum – ice plants; guelder rose is another name for Viburnum opulus.]

1881: Some of our garden experiences were very successful, others quite the reverse; but we learnt to bear our disappointments philosophically, though perhaps not quite calmly, when we found that our newly purchased calves had broken through the post and wire fence and had eaten all the garden cabbages, etc. Hugh, seeing my grief, immediately repaired the fence, so we had peace, but not plenty, for a time.

In those early years we had wonderful crops of tomatoes, far better than in later years with more care and cultivation. For instance, on September 23rd, 1880, I sowed in a drill in the garden one ounce of Carter’s large red tomato seed; began transplanting them from October 20th to November 17th, on the latter date putting in 700 plants in the copping-field which … grew at their own sweet will, without pruning or staking … and beginning in February continued till April to yield such a crop that they were brought home in wheelbarrows, sometimes in a dray, and I made many gallons of tomato sauce (selling some it at 1s. 6d. a quart bottle), chutneys and jams, the latter flavoured with lemon or ginger.

A few pages further on Adela records making 287lbs of strawberry jam, 407lbs of peach jam “in that hottest of months” (February) and 760lbs of tomato and pumpkin jam. “Thus I was prepared for a siege and stood it.”

A 2011 reprint of the book is available from the Mural Centre and Craft Shop, Main Rd, Katikati with proceeds going to the project to restore Athenree Homestead, built by Hugh and Adela and their son Mervyn after arriving in New Zealand with a group of Ulster Irish settlers in 1878. The group was led by George Vesey Stewart, Adela’s brother-in-law. Hugh and Adela named their new home after his home village in Ireland (Athenrey)

Hugh and Adela lived at Athenree from 1878 to 1906, then returning to England. Hugh died in 1909 and Adela returned to Katikati for a visit the following year. A ball was held to mark her return to the area – she left early, feeling unwell, and returned to her sister-in-law’s home (Twickenham Homestead, currently for sale), dying shortly after. She is buried in Katikati Cemetery.

See a photograph of Hugh and Adela here and the murals in Katikati that show Adela and Athenree Homestead.