Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Hip Hip Hooray! Our Son Turns One!

(A family. At last.)

(The original Kalmoesfontein homestead)

(The ceremony outside the cellar)

(The Anne Pienaar choir. Cue: copius amounts of tears…)

(Morning refreshments)

(Gorgeous dipped animal cutouts)

(Music is a must)

(Callie Maree and his steampunk smoker)

(Callie. Dishing up…)

(Pork worth waiting for…)

(Coleslaw, pickled and pulled pork slider)

(A long table. The only way to celebrate and commune)

(Cara's traditional koektafel)


(The Funfetti cake and mini meringues. Outside...)

(The Funfetto cake. Inside…)

(The Glory)

(Our very special and incredibly generous friends. Adi and Cornelia Badenhorst.  A million kisses.)

(Our son. Sebastiaan Sonwabo. Happiness.)

So, amid all the heartache of the last few years, our son burst into our lives. And suddenly every thing makes sense. I now know that nothing happens by chance. He has made me believe in miracles.
On the occasion of his first birthday, I wanted of a farm feast of gratitude and celebration. Our friends made the magic happen.

The Feast of Sebastiaan

Who would have thought that the most beautiful words I would ever read would be written by the Department of Social Development? But they are. In a letter accompanying the adoption order of our son, were the seven words telling us that he was ‘your child as if born to you’.
And indeed he is, this miraculous child who has brought us so much joy.

I did not know such happiness existed. Could not have dreamed that one day I would be woken up in the middle of the night by a giggling baby boy who would blow raspberries on my belly. I did not believe that a child could heal my hurt. I could not have imagined this love.

Sebastiaan’s arrival signified the end of a rather brutal period of our lives. Loss and grief had been almost constant companions. We had been sad for so long. And yet his spirit chose ours. We were where he wanted to be and so he came to us, this smiling, engaging baby, who, along with interrupted sleep, brought us the gift of laughter.

As his first birthday approached we knew we wanted to celebrate his being. We wanted to feast with our loved ones, those who had been such compassionate witnesses on our journey towards parenthood. They had been there for us in our sorrow and now we wanted to share with them in our joy.  We needed them to witness our gratitude and love for our son.

Our friends Adi and Cornelia Badenhorst generously offered to host such a party on their farm, Kalmoesfontein, in the Paardeberg where Adi makes his award-wining wines and Cornelia conjures up creative and beautiful events. For years my friends had consoled me with the promise that when the time came, they would throw an obscenely large and lavish baby shower for me. That day never came. But something else did: the chance to celebrate our son’s first birthday, the receipt of his adoption order and his name-giving ceremony. In addition to being the most special of venues, it was also symbolically right that we should celebrate our son on the farm where four years previously at Ana’s Christening, I had wept so many tears and begged God to make me a mother as well. Cornelia has, on occasion, referred to their farm as the place where love and hope merge. And indeed it was so on the day of Sebastiaan’s feast. A day when cardboard cutout animals whipped breezily in the wind and where the large white flags fluttered gently signifying the peace and healing that Sebastiaan has brought into our lives. There was rainbow bunting hung above long tables where clusters of friends and family sat down to eat and brightly coloured lanterns and satin ribbons outside the cellar where the ceremony took place.  We had asked that in lieu of gifts, our friends donate to a neighbouring farm school instead, and so some of the children, all regular visitors to the farm, came to sing a hymn and a song they had specially written for Sebastiaan. It was poignant and meaningful and made us all cry. Afterwards all the children ran wild, ate cakes, and played together, oblivious to the differences in backgrounds and economic status. Completely unaware that they were giving the adults a glimpse of a different, better future. Everywhere there was laughter and love: the perfect accompaniment to the foods we had specifically chosen to give thanks.

Upon arrival guests were offered small blue glasses of warm, milky spicy chai and buttermilk rusks. Adi made the chai and Yoliswa Mpazi made the rusks. (Years ago I witnessed Adi teaching Yoliswa how to cook from Mrs Beeton’s cook book. This year Yoliswa prepared the farm’s harvest lunches from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem. They are a formidable duo in the kitchen. )
In keeping with the informal festive atmosphere we wanted to create, lunch was a street food vibe, which I love. Callie Louw of The Southern Smoke pulled in his hand built Texas-style slow smoker (an authentically Swartland Steampunk invention) and made the most spectacular slow-smoked pork and brisket sliders, served with a choice of BBQ, mustard or ranch dressing sauces a side of coleslaw and a large pickle. The wine was Secateurs, of course, and like the love that day, it flowed.  
Dessert was a lavish old-fashioned cake table, typical of traditional Christenings. I specifically wanted my friend Cara to bake the cakes as I wanted them to be baked with love and I know she loves our son. There was a indulgent multi-tiered chocolate cake topped with home-made truffles and drizzled with caramel, a couple of sophisticated orange and poppy seed cakes and my personal favourite, a delightfully frivolous Funfetti cake, dotted with sprinkles and flavoured with a rose essence that once belonged to Cara’s great-grandmother. I had also asked Cara to bake my mom’s carrot cake which she graciously did, understanding completely that I needed to have something symbolic of Sebastiaan’s Ouma Marie on that table.

In deciding on a second name for our son, Jacques and I wanted a name that would embody all that we wished for him. We also wanted a name that would honour the heritage of his birth mother. And so we named him Sonwabo, meaning ‘happiness’ in Xhosa, because more than success or riches, or a multitude of talents, we wish for our son to be happy.  
There is a photo taken of Sebastiaan Sonwabo at the end of the day. It shows the telltale signs of a one-year old who has not slept at all, who probably ate too much icing and who played too hard and too much. His shirt is undone and the cuffs flap around his wrists as he crawls on the grass. He looks directly at the camera and laughs. A boy secure in the love he feels. In this image, now imprinted on my mind, he is the embodiment of happiness.
Sonwabo. Our son.

Contacts of Some Very Important Persons
Adi Badenhorst – www.aabadenhorst.com
Cornelia Badenhorst – www.deliefde.co.za

Cara Brink-Mana - www.carabrinkmans.com
Callie Louw - The Southern Smoke – Email Callie on info@thesouthernsmoke.com 
Maree Louw too these beautiful photographs. www.naturallightphotography.co.za

(This story first appeared in Taste July 2014)

Monday, 13 October 2014

Spier Secrets and Gorgeous Norwegian Fishmongers.

 (And this photo? Who is this? Nothing to do with Spier Secret or Ole-Martin Hansen, I'm afraid. Purely a gratuitous photo of a beautiful fishmonger taken when we were in Norway a few years back. Never have I seen such beautiful men dealing in fish. But by the same token my husband still salivates at the thought of the Norwegian Blonde coucil worker who had tied her orange overall around her slim hips so that her tight white vest could show off her perfectly toned and tanned arms and perky breasts. There she was , iPod buds in her ears, rhythmically weeding the floral beddings in the local park.  A Norwegian Goddess at work. Obviously I did not photograph her. I am not generous like that.)

So my morning started with prospect of being messed around by the Cape Town City Council and the burst water pipe outside our garage door. So I did what any procrastinator worth her (or his) salt would do and I read through my Twitter and Facebook timelines instead of filling bottles of water and shoving a load of washing into the machine before the water gets cut off. And oh joy! Was my laziness rewarded? I saw this gift from Spier Secret featuring Ole-Martin Hansen - The Salmon Smoker of Hansen & Lydersen.  Having watched the video several times, not just because of The Smoker's effortless elegance, but also because of my interest in smoked salmon (honestly!) I trawled the internet for more articles about about him. Because I want to be very prepared when I see him at the Spier Secret Festival on the 24th October. 
You see those very-very clever people have done it again. Every year they bring out some of the best food connoisseurs the world has to offer to the Spier estate to share their knowledge with the festival attendees. It is one of the highlights of my year, with every festival I spend two days filling my senses and mind and body with food and flavours and visual spectacles that sustain my culinary spirit for another 365 days. I learn about new things, party with friends and relish the fact that such an event happens right here on our doorstep. And every year I am so bloody proud of my friend Hannerie Visser who masterminds this event. 
If you haven't been, you're missing out, and if you have, I'm sure you have your tickets already. If not? All the relevant information is here. And if you can't make the conference, be sure to get to the market on Saturday 25 October. It was wonderful last year and is sure to be so again.
Now, as for me, it appears that the council's water department guys are coping just fine without my input so I may just watch that little video again. (How cool is that rooftop hideaway?)

The Video

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Art Also Nourishes – John Kramer

John Kramer’s paintings bring to mind long, hot, lonely Sunday afternoons in the platteland. The images of slightly dilapidated buildings are both achingly familiar and strangely foreign. Inevitably they evoke feelings that hover somewhere between warm comforts and quiet despair.

This piece was first published in Cape Review July 2001. I’m posting it again because I love John’s paintings and also because he is having his first solo exhibition in 25 years at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town and there are only 5 more days to see it as the exhibition ends on the 27 September and I need to go and see it within the next day or so because art is feeds the soul and sometimes you take it for granted and then one day it’s no longer there, like beautiful exhibitions and old corner cafés…

(I love this painting so much. The Princess Cafe in Hermanus was where we used to buy soft-serve ice creams. We drove passed it last week and it's been replaced by a R5 store.)

A conversation with John Kramer
John Kramer’s paintings portray the everyday ordinariness of our country. Old buildings and corner cafés embody the spirit of a community and times that has almost been erased from our memory. He paints with compassion and affection, affection, I suppose, born out of a familiarity with the scenes he paints.
He explains, ‘It helps to paint what you understand. I’m not saying I completely understand these communities, know exactly how a shop is run or who the owner is, but I certainly understand or can relate to the scenes I paint. I can recall those quiet, boring Sunday afternoons. I’ve sat under verandas in small towns as a child, wishing something exciting would happen. I remember those moods and remember hating it.
‘You must paint from this place inside yourself. And I’m interested in the places I know; the idiosyncratic little towns which are rapidly disintegrating and I suppose a lot of my work today is to hang on to those memories because I actually did experience the end of that era.’
The passion for what John sees as typically South African architecture, stems from his having grown up in Worcester. ‘In a town like Worcester in the 50s, nothing much ever happened but there was the old Van Vuuren’s Milk Bar, a real American Milk Bar with a juke box and soda fountain and there were two bioscopes, the La Scala and Twentieth Century Fox. In the 60s when I left Worcester to go and study art at Michaelis there was an economic boom and things started changing in Worcester. This was the time when TV came to South Africa and inevitably things started changing. La Scala closed and places that I’d associated with my childhood started disappearing. I felt an awful sense of loss and I wanted to hang on to some of those memories, so I went around and photographed some of these buildings, just to have a visual record.’
These photographs would eventually form the basis of John’s early work. In 1971 he went to visit his brother David who was studying in Leeds and it was here that John realized the significance of these seemingly ordinary and almost forgotten buildings. ‘David and I were talking about our search for what we called The Real South Africa, whatever it was in those days. We were looking for something that was essentially South African. Obviously we were looking at it from our white middle class perspective, but we still felt that there was something uniquely South African that wasn’t being commented in in the arts. I returned to South Africa and noticed for the first time the quality of the light and the vast space. In contrast to the red brick and industrial architecture I had seen in Leeds, I was now confronted with buildings in an assortment of colours and houses with gardens and fences. What I had always thought was normal now seemed quite bizarre. And then I realized that it was this ordinariness that was the essence of The Real South Africa. The South Africa of the Cape Dutch kultuur where little architectural gems that were being preserved by the various cultural societies in the small towns were all historical buildings but I felt, and still do, that the Brody’s Hardware Shops and the Van Vuuren’s Milk Bars are the more realistic representation of the architecture of our country.’
John paints buildings that still exist in modern South Africa but which also echo layers of the past. For him, the buildings must have a feeling and this feeling has nothing to do with architectural beauty. It’s how the viewer relates to the building that gives it its significance. Those who respond to his work, do so because there is something in their collective memory that sparks recognition. It may be the building, a windmill or a metal Joko Tea plaque which reminds them of their past,
There is something melancholic about these paintings but still they manage to celebrate the very ordinariness of that society has begun to reject. It is no wonder that his works are highly sought after by South Africans living abroad. Looking at them, you can almost hear the call of the cicadas and smell the small town dust. For some it is the Afrikaans lettering on the buildings that remind homesick South Africans of their heartland. But it isn’t only the images of the platteland which conjures up memories. John’s body of work depicting the corner cafés awaken a long forgotten suburban memory of old chocolates, glass jars filled with loose sweets, brown paper packets and magazine racks where Scope magazines were furtively read by schoolboys behind the trays of warm government loaves of bread.
The demise of the suburban corner café almost caught John unawares. ‘I never worried too much about the corner cafés until one day I realised they were almost all being replaced by franchised cafés. I don’t think any of us could have imagined how fast they would have disappeared in the past 10 years. These are real losses and I’m glad that I managed to capture some of them.’ The Imperial Café with its corrugated iron roof and wooden structure was a Cape landmark; nestling underneath the incomplete flyover at the entrance to the Waterfront. It was a source of irritation to some but a source of joy to others. It burnt down a year or two ago, but John’s painting managed to capture the mood of this late night convenience café. Then there was the exotically named Zanzibar Café in Voortrekker Road. It was one of John’s favourites reminding him of the legendary Baghdad Café (of the film of the same name) where anything may happen.
I remember the Onrus Cash Store. It now longer exists, but then much has changed in this small seaside village near Hermanus. Looking at a painting of it, I’m transported back to cold wet Cape winter weekends in a village with few inhabitants, even fewer playmates and where a visit to Mrs Hen’s café would mean sticking your grubby hand into a jar filled with Apricot sweets, Wilson toffees and cheap peppermints. Hot summer days would necessitate a similar barefoot journey to but ice-lollies which then dripped orange syrup all over warm sunburnt arms.
This is what John Kramer does best. He captures a moment in time.

Driving through a town you may or may not notice the tin barrels converted into garbage cans, or the car tyres now used as a planter for the Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, or the windmills, or the short picket fences painted in oranges and browns, or the wire garden gates. It is only in a painting that our attention is focused on these details that convey the soul of a place.
According to John, ‘ I’ve always maintained that the small town is much more interesting than New York. For me a Karoo town is special. You don’t know what’s going to be there. You look and at first you don’t see anything and then you notice the dryness and even though everything is rundown, there’s an honesty about the place. People often ask me why there aren’t any people in my work but this omission is deliberate. My paintings are actually portraits and the buildings with their faded advertisements, mix of architectural styles and peeling paint do convey the history and the personality of the locals.’
John Kramer tells the story of how having spent the day exploring Sutherland, the town famous for its observatory and icy winters, he was ready to check into the local hotel. The receptionist welcomed him warmly, asking him what he was doing in the area. ‘I’m looking around, taking some pictures; it’s a wonderful town this, ‘ he assured her. He recalls her wistful expression, and her skeptical ‘gmff.’
Things aren’t always what they seem.
But for how long will these small towns continue to be an example of Real South Africa? John believes that their time has almost passed.
‘The slow demise of the railways has killed these places. With the railways pulling out of the towns, the economy collapsed and the Karoo fell apart far quicker than one would have imagined. The arrival of television also signaled the end of an era for small town South Africa. Suddenly the whole world was being beamed into everybody’s living room, including the people who lived in these small towns. For the first time they became aware of how the rest of the world lived and those fantastic naïve combinations of colour and whatever they did décor-wise that was perhaps regarded by those more sophisticated people as being in bad taste, disappeared. ‘And then of course city folk bought up houses for weekend homes. New designer colours appeared on the scene, new broekie-lace was put up and while the houses may now look lovely and small town appear on tourist maps, they’ve lost their authenticity and soul.

‘But I suppose that’s what my paintings are about. Memory and loss.’

Monday, 18 August 2014

Ma, It's Been One Year.

(Marie loved a voorskoot…)

My mom died a year ago today. They told me the longing would get easier. And it does. Thankfully no one told me it would get better. Because it bloody well doesn't. I miss her every day. Every single day. 
Those last days in the hospital were harrowing but happy. If I think back on the last 24 hours of her life I am grateful for many things. That, as a family, we could share her last meal with her. It was melkkos, brought to the hospital by a dear friend who arrived carrying a huge pot of my mom's favorite milky sweetness and enough spoons and small bowls for the entire extended family. I am grateful that her grandson was christened at her hospital bed. That her favourite nurse was on duty to administer the last morphine. That a kind hospital volunteer came to paint her toes a pretty pale shade of pink, as requested 'for the journey'. And that my father kissed away her last breath. I am most grateful for the latter. We should all be loved to death. 

Comfort Me With Butter.

My mother died a few months ago. But we had time to say goodbye.  Time for her to tell me where she had put the silver cutlery that she wanted me to have. Time for me to ask her for her brandy butter recipe. We dealt in practicalities because it was too horrific to acknowledge the desperate sadness of knowing that time had finally run out, too heartbroken about the fact that we would never share a meal again, too desolate to speak of a Christmas without her. Too sad for conversation. When the end came I simply told her that I loved her, told her that I would one day name my daughter Lily and my son Sebastiaan. I promised her that I would be strong. I told her that words were unnecessary. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t want them. Because I do. I still have so much I want to tell her; so much I want her to share with me. While I still could, shortly after her death, I would dial her telephone number so that I could listen to her voice message - so that I could hear her voice.  I would give anything to hear her voice again.

The other night I boiled some mielies for supper and as I was slathering them in butter, Jacques asked me where he could find my mother’s salt. I broke down in tears for I had used the last of the spicy salt my mom made for us a while ago. Thinking that she would, as always, replenish my stock as soon as she felt better. She never did. And I never did find out what it was that she put into the salt to give it that distinctive taste. A taste that will now elude me forever. The taste given to me by the mother I mourn. That night my tears salted the mielies, the mielies that I drenched in butter in honour of my mother. Because my mom believed that butter made everything better. She comforted me with butter, both as a child and as an adult. And now I need butter in the face of my relentless, all-consuming grief. I eat butter the way Marie taught me to. Cold butter thickly spread on hot toast. Buttery eggs. Marie biscuits held together by softened butter. Sweet potato with melted butter. Hot buttered popcorn.  Anchovy butter. Bread and butter pudding. And as I eat the butter I remember. I recall the laughter, the travels, the late night reminiscing in foreign hotel rooms. I remember how we would always hold hands in the cinema, how every phone call ended with a love-you. How she drank cognac from a crystal goblet and tea from a mug. How soft her skin was and how loud her laughter. And as the butter sizzles in the pan, I know, In elke bietjie botter sal ek Mamma onthou. In every bit of butter, I will remember my mom.

(This column first appeared in Taste December 2013.)