The maker of one of New Zealand’s great nutty pastes on how his empire began
I bought two bags of raw peanuts, took them home, and shook them out onto an oven tray.
The warm, satisfying aroma of roasting peanuts took me right back to winter afternoons in Pakuranga. Mum would be preparing for a party. Alongside the bowls of stuffed olives and grapefruit halves bristling with cheese and pineapple toothpicks were bowls of freshly roasted, well-salted peanuts.
When I decided my trays of peanuts were properly roasted, I let them cool and tipped them into a blender. A dry floury ring formed around the bowl, while a thick brown lump gathered on the blades, slowing the motor until the smell of hot plastic made me jerk the plug out of the wall.
I took a knife and cleared what I could from the blades. I popped a pea sized piece into my mouth. It needed salt, but it tasted good – really good. I cleared the floury stuff from the side of the bowl and mixed it with the lump and a teaspoon of salt. When I turned the blender on again, the lump was bigger, but it certainly wasn’t peanut butter. I cleared the blades once more and this time added a little olive oil.
Thick, creamy peanut butter swirled outward from the blades. I made a piece of toast, scooped up a generous serve, and took a bite. It was definitely worth eating.
I filled a couple of jars with my peanut butter and fed it to Louis when he came home from school. The next day, when he brought a friend home, he casually offered his mate a piece of toast and peanut butter. His friend was well impressed and asked if he might be able to buy a jar of his own.
I thought I could be on to something, so I bought myself a pair of stainless oven trays and a 10 kg bag of blanched nuts from a local wholesaler and experimented with varying roasts. After burning a few batches of nuts, I ended up with nearly a dozen good jars. I loved the stuff, and I loved the idea that I was no longer reliant on those nasty manufacturers and their mindless meddling. My blender quickly gave up the ghost, but a new one, sold on special with a six-month full replacement warranty, provided a succession of highly abusable new machines. The sales guy seemed only too happy to replace them as required.
The peanut butter made an excellent gift, and before long I had all but run out and was thinking about another batch. It was painful roasting nuts in my old oven. They needed constant turning and the difference between roasted and burned could be as little as a minute. The blender situation, too, needed consideration, as did my nuts supply.
The owner of Nelson’s Bin Inn was extremely helpful. He had a benchtop peanut grinder in which his customers were able to grind nuts and fill their own jars. He found a second-hand grinder at his franchisor’s warehouse and virtually gave it to me. I tracked down the New Zealand agent for an Australian peanut company who was happy to quote on any volume of nuts, from a 25 kg sack to an 18-tonne container. I found a firm in Wellington that sold new jars and lids, anything from a carton of 12 to a pallet of 1200.
Roasting was the main problem. To my mind, the key to cooking a mass of small items evenly had to be continuous movement – some kind of rotary roaster. I was surprised to discover, in a world filled with every imaginable kitchen appliance, that there was no such product available for domestic use. I started looking at commercial equipment.
I found the sort of thing I was looking for in Westport. Abel Mixers Ltd was a small engineering company that had been making concrete mixers since 1964. They had developed a stainless-steel model for the food industry, one version of which came with a gas burner under the bowl. It had the capacity to roast 2 kg of dry goods an hour and had a price tag of around $7000.
I set the roaster up in my garage, a basement room at the top of a steep drive. One day, when I’d done my roasting for the week, I filled its bowl with water and a squirt of detergent, and left the gas burning and the motor running to give it a good clean before I carried my last bin of nuts upstairs to make peanut butter.
I was happily tapping a jar on the table to drive out any air pockets when the soothing rumble from down below stopped. A sickening grinding noise was followed by a crash. I shot outside to see my brand-new roaster, the flagship of my dreams, lying on its side in the middle of the road. A yellow extension lead, its plug jerked from its socket, stretched uselessly up the drive. The roaster’s gas bottle, scratched and dented, lay tethered to the wreckage by its hose.
The road was blocked and a stranded motorist helped me disconnect the gas and set the roaster back on its wheels. The bowl was dented and scratched, but its driveshaft and bearings appeared unscathed when I checked it over at the side of the road. I needed help to push it back up to the garage, where it served the rest of its unlicensed days tethered by a chain to a heavy workbench.
An extract taken from Pic: Adventures in sailing, business, and love by Pic Picot ($29.95), available in bookstores (and Countdown supermarkets) nationwide.