Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Loving Le Quartier Francais

(The Common Room - which while it may be communal, is really anything but 'common')

Susan Huxter, owner of Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek sent me an email a while ago inviting Jacques and I to stay at Le Quartier Francais. And upon receiving it I smiled for two reasons. The first was obviously, joyful anticipation, and the other was that I recalled a fabulous day spent with her and Victoria Mather - writer/travel journalist/globetrotter/fabulous raconteur) who introduced us quite a few years ago. (Read what Victoria has to say about her friend Susan here). I remember lots of laughter, a fair bit of wine, and inspirational conversation. I also recall Victoria telling us the story of how the late, great, Dominick Dunne greeted her at Steve Wynn's party, attended by the Filthy Rich and Fabulously Famous, when he opened The Wynn in Las Vegas ' Ah, Victoria, ' Dominick said approvingly,' you're the only one here wearing inherited jewels!'
At Le Quartier it doesn't matter whether your jewels are inherited or otherwise, or even if you don't have any jewels at all, because the minute you pass through the scented, wildly disobediently, gorgeous garden, you are made to feel welcome. Jacques has a theory that the reason the hotel is so successful and why there is such attention to detail in a non-fussy friendly way, is because of the three women who are so committed to it. Susan Huxter (owner) Margot Janse (celebrated and award-winning chef) and Linda Coltart (General Manager) I think he's right. All three are consumate professionals and perfectionists, they are talented and dedicated yet delightfully irreverent. And it is this irreverence that prevents Le Quartier from ever being regarded as stuck up or exclusive, or aspirationally French, despite its name, this is no Desperately-trying-to-be-like-Provence -bonjour-et-bonsoir-hotel. From the brightly coloured Common Room (the place for delicious breakfast, impromptu lunches, and casual, but exciting, dinners), to the sweetcorn bread in Pilchard tins served in the internationally-recognized The Tasting Room, to the bright and bold bedrooms ( I loved our orange bathroom), to the ostrich leather seats in the small yet glorious cinema right through to the genuinely friendly staff, this establishment proudly proclaims its individuality within a South African context. Those contemplating a stay here (and you would be well advised to do so), should be aware that while this is no member of a large, opulently splendid hotel chain, you will not be sacrificing any luxury whatsoever. It is divinely decadent in it's own exclusive way.
But the piece de resistance (if I may be excused for for feeling the whole Franschhoek French Vibe, anyway) is a dinner at The Tasting Room. We had the 9-course Surprise menu, focussing on South African flavours and ingredients, where each dish was pared with a glass of impeccably chosen wine. Now without giving too much away, because that would spoil it for those wanting to experience the blissful moments of the serendipitous delight of every single course for themselves, but this was one of the most memorable and pleasurable meals of my life. All to often wine paring is a haphazard affair, the term is used loosely, a case of choosing a wine that won't horribly jar with the dish. But not here. We were introduced to wines that are rare and beautiful, interesting and surprising, and yes, each glass (and we asked for small amounts of wine in order to do the meal justice) perfectly complimented the flavours that Margot conjured up in the kitchen. This was not simply a meal, or even a great meal. This was a culinary experience, an adventure, an education in the most pleasurable way. Perfectly executed, beautifully presented and incredibly delicious. Not only does Margot deliver 9 intricate courses, but each dish has a combination of flavours that linger on the tongue and the memory. South Africans will recognize the ingredients (baobab, fennel, chakalaka, buttermilk, crayfish, granadilla, buchu) but marvel at the way in which Margot introduced other flavours to complement them. And as with the best of chefs, the result is enchanting not alienating. Equally enchanting is the enthusiasm of those serving each course. With yet another stroke of creativity, the waiters change as the meal progresses, and so you hear different people's take on the dish presented to you. The stories are personal, in the manner of 'growing up in the Eastern Cape, we used buchu for our medicine', or when presenting a dish involving crayfish, a shared reminisce about weekend at the sea, or a telling of the story of fresh farm eggs. None of this is intrusive or laboriously rehearsed or even over-familiar and annoying, it is only charming and left me feeling warm and fuzzy about both the flavours and the peoples of my country. More so, when someone noticed my fatigue and insisted that instead of foregoing the handmade chocolates, I take them back to our room, packaged in a small white box, with line-green satin ribbon to enjoy later. Which I did. At 7am the next morning, with my coffee, before going back to bed for a couple if hours. In order garner enough strength to start the whole magical culinary journey again in The Common Room.
And for the record, this is no humdrum, hotel breakfast affair. Oh no. It is incredible, well worth a drive in from Cape Town...I'm tempted to do just that soon. But then I'd want to stay for lunch. And dinner at The Tasting Room. And then I'd have to be dragged, kicking and screaming away. Again. As I did when we got into the car, and I immediately started nagging Jacques about planning another romantic gourmet break for us. 'Soon. Please', I pleaded, annoyingly. And then stopped, because I realised that he too, had left a piece of his heart somewhere in between walking in the fragrant garden, being inspired by the bold colours, and enjoying the enticing presence of three strong women, (four if you included me) who made him laugh over breakfast. Of course we'll be back...

Le Quartier Francais
16 Huguenot Road
Telephone: 021 8762151

The Tasting Room & Common Room
Telephone 021 876 8442


Thursday, 9 December 2010

A French Toast to Bree Street

Two confessions:
What follows is a press release, but as I wrote it I feel I can post it as is. I also derive great satisfaction from doing so, because it is so not done. I wrote it for friends. My first press release ever. A lot harder than I thought, I think I prefer the lazy ramblings of my own memories, imagination and issues.
Secondly, I adore John Harrison, one of the partners in this venture. When I started out in this industry, he was kind to me. A girl doesn't forget a thing like that.

Bree Street is fast becoming a major culinary hub and the latest addition is one more reason to celebrate. French Toast wine and tapas bar is a typically French wine bar, specializing in both local and international wines and offering a wide variety of generously sized tapas to accompany their impressive wine list. The city now boasts its own sophisticated 'local - a place where you can meet after work for a quick drink, have informal meetings, enjoy an evening out with friends, or simply drop by after a movie or a quiet night in for a glass of French Chablis, South African port and a dessert.

This elegant wine bar is situated in what was once an old city warehouse and has been transformed into a sophisticated venue reminiscent of Paris in the 1950s. Sumptuously comfortable chairs, private leather banquettes, luxurious sofas, oversized light fittings, exposed brick walls, industrial beams and an incredibly beautiful bar counter which begs to be lounged at all create an atmosphere of easyelegance.French Toast is the culmination of partners John Harrison and Karin Visser’s appreciation for fine wine, great food and l’art de vivre as typified by Mediterranean lifestyle. Previously a stockbroker and the MD of Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, John is a practical dreamer, who had the vision and the drive to turn a barren space into a sophisticated venue for those who share his love for wine and food. Karin, a qualified biokineticist with a passion for wine, left her medical career to team up with John to create this wine bar that provides the city with a pleasant lunch spot or a good night out. French Toast caters for all manner of pockets from reasonable to the blow-the-budget crowd. Patrons can indulge in a glass or two of old favourites or taste and enjoy a few new ones from an impressive selection of more than 80 wines by the glass of both local and international origins.

The charmingly professional Gidi Caetano – ex-Showroom, and Salt – is the General Manager of French Toast and brings with her 14 years of hospitality industry experience, expert knowledge of cuisine and an excellent wine palate. John, Karin and Gidi are a strong presence in the restaurant, their menu and wine recommendations are always spot on, and you would do well to try out something new or special as recommended by them.

There are few places that offer so many fine imported and local wines by the glass, and French Toast can do this because of their Le Verre de Vin wine preservation system, which reseals wines by removing oxygen from the bottle. This enables you to indulge in that much longed-for glass of Prosecco, or to enjoy a glass of excellent Italian Pinot Grigio, a German Riesling or that glass of beautifully subtle French Chablis. Their South African selection of wines is equally impressive, allowing wine lovers to flirt between several estates and vintages.

Before heading up the kitchen at French Toast, Head chef Jannie Melis, co-owned Two Dogs restaurant in East London, and has gained valuable experience working for high profile brands Constantia Uitsig and Bushman’s Kloof in the Western Cape. He is enjoying the challenge of preparing an ever-changing selection of Mediterranean-style tapas. Reasonably priced and generously portioned these tapas can be enjoyed alone or shared among dining companions. Patatas bravas - perfectly fried Spanish-style potatoes with a homemade spiced tomato sauce - accompanied by a delicious bowl of spiced sautéed calamari, served with lemon is particularly noteworthy.

The albondigas - cumin and coriander spiced meatballs, slow cooked in tomato sauce are delicious as is the warm chevre salad. The cheese platters, as is the French Toast way, offer an interesting and impressive selection of cheeses served with locally made fruit preserve. In addition to the wonderful selection of charcuterie (Italian montanara salami, Italian parma ham, Spanish chorizo and jamón serrano) served with olives and caper berries, the French Toast menu also offers a wide variety of vegetarian options.

The deserts are magnificent, and while by no means tiny, are small enough that one could order several to share. Be sure to try the churros con chocolate (cinnamon dusted doughnut twirls-to-be-dipped-into-chocolate) that the Spaniards enjoy for breakfast or indulge in the signature desert – French toast drizzled in honey and served with almond ice-cream. For something a little lighter, the grappa pannacotta served with seasonal berries is pure genius.

French Toast is where you will feel compelled to celebrate. You can do so with some great tapas and either bottle of French Champagne, a glass or two of South African Méthode Cape Classique, a mean mojito or classic cosmopolitan, some wine, a very decent cup of coffee and then you can remind yourself that life is too short to drink poorly.

French Toast Wine and Tapas Bar is located on 199 Bree Street, Cape Town.

Telephone 021 422 3839

Website: www.frenchtoastwine.com

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Rainy Saturdays

I love rain. And, weirdly enough, I particularly love unexpectedly rainy weekends in the middle of Summer. Like today. No sun, cold misty air, and splashes of rain. And no need to pretend I'd like to go to the beach. Today was a watch dvd's/ read a book on the outside-couch-covered-by-a-blanket kind of day. My kind of day. But girl and guy cannot live on dvd's and books alone. And clearly a crunchy salad was not part of my Duvet Day plans. So, I made a quick stop at Cafe Zorina in Loop Street -one of the best places to get Cape Malay food as the food is authentic and you can either order out or eat in. It's Halaal, so no alcohol is served and they close on Fridays for 45 minutes over lunchtime to go to Mosque. So plan you Friday lunches carefully; the roties make it worth your while. I made it just before closing time on Saturday which meant that sadly the samoosas and koesisters were all sold out, but I managed to get some mince curry (the sort with beautifully curry-stained potatoes in it) and rice. For a very reasonable R43 a tub. Of course I could make it myself for cheaper, if I was feeling frugal. But it wouldn't taste nearly as good, and nor would it feel like rainy day indulgence. Which is exactly what I wanted. No needed, today. And so we ate our lunch, bundled up on the stoep sofa, loving the sharp sweet smell of the curry and the fresh clean moistness of the rain falling just outside our reach.

Cafe Zorina
172 Loop Street
Cape Town
Telephone: 021 4249301
Open: Monday to Friday 8.30am - 5.30pm
Saturday 9am -2pm

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Babylonstoren & Babel. Where words fail.

( An organic sign (of things to come))

(The magnificent interior of Babel )

(Fresh vegetables, ready for the table)

(Imagine these flowers in a week's time)

(The glorious red salad)

The name Babel has always conjured up images of chaos and confusion. Or at least that is what it has done for me. Blame it on graphic Sunday school sermons on the Tower of Babel or my own overactive imagination. But no more. For I have visited Babel. And have discovered it to be a place of serene splendour and (seemingly) simple sophistication. I am to be honest, quite at a loss for words when it comes to writing about this place. Without any false modestly, I really don't think I could do it justice. Babylonstoren in Franchhoek is the private farm of media mogul Koos Bekker and his accomplished and extremely stylish wife Karen Roos (who up until a year or so ago was the editor of Elle Deco). A 200 hectare farm which also happens to have one of the best preserved farm yards in the Cape Dutch tradition and a manor house dating back to 1777. Today, it is a showcase of the style and heritage of which South Africans can be so proud. Visitors, no matter how sophisticated and worldweary/jaded they may be, will be entranced and amazed by what they experience on this working farm. Karen Roos, credits her husband for it all, and he apparently, says that all credit should go to her. But together they have preserved the past and pushed this example of South African hospitality to a whole new level. Am I gushing? If I am, forgive me, but go and visit you will do so too. There are cottages in which guests can stay, furnished in shades of white and neutral tones, where each and every carefully selected piece of furniture is either a modern master or of natural fibre. Modern bookshelves are laden with books that have clearly been chosen by someone who actually reads. And the bathrooms are indulgently over the top. Think space space space, achingly beautiful white and a hint of, could it be, Philippe Starck? There is also a garden, consisting mostly of fruit and vegetables that is probably inspired by the mythical grandeur of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Imagine a prickly pear maze, clivia-lined stream and the presence of 100 snail-harvesting ducks. But here the produce is meant to be picked, eaten and enjoyed in an unpretentious, earthy manner. As it is in the farm's restaurant Babel, housed in the old disused kraal. Here Maranda Engelbrecht (ex-Manna) - celebrated food stylist-consultant-and-guru has created a menu that is both awe-inspiringly inspirational, yet at the same time comforting. Dishes, written on the 'bull board' will change both seasonally and daily, depending on what the garden offers. For our lunch, our starters were platters of seasonal ingredients from the garden, designed according to colour; Green, Red and Yellow. I loved the red which consisted of watermelon, strawberies, beetroot, radishes and mulberrries. For mains we ate from a selection of generously laden platters; salmon with granadilla and creme fraiche served with lightly stewed whole guavas and artichokes, sticky pork belly served with kumquat preserves and rib-eye on the bone served with mushrooms and two sorts of rustically cut salted potatoes. Deliciously robust food, artfully and elegantly served, packing a huge flavour punch. Deserts are divided into Sweet, Savoury of Sour.... Here Maranda's avant-garde style comes into play with a gorgonzola creme brulee that defies description.
The white space of Babel is in itself a work of art, an assortment of elegant tables and chairs, crystal, and in the centre of the restaurant is the old stone trough now white, as is the rest of the restaurant, and filled with full-blown garden roses enticing visitors to wash their hands before dining. The glassware, plates and cutlery are modern, but the teacups and coffee cups are a delightfully colourful assortment of old elegant fragile pieces. The staff - all of them, from gardeners, to waiters, to those in housekeeping ( yes, the gushing again) are exceptionally well-trained, but also seem to have friendliness that cannot be forced or taught. They seem genuinely please and proud to be part of Babylonstoren. They believe it to be special too.
And there is something magical about a place in which no expense has been spared, that is achingly elegant but also very real at the same time. A place where real change happens. The Babylonstoren Trust is already changing the lives within their community. It all begins and ends with respect. And somewhere in between is the welfare of the people, education, nutrition, a choir, hope and love.

Babel Restaurant at Babylonstoren
Open Wednesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm
Email: enquiries@babylonstoren.com
Telephone: 021 8633852

The Garden at Babylonstoren
Open Wednesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm
Open every day of the week for guests staying at Babylonstoren
Entry fee R20. All entrance fees are donated to Babylonstoren Trust
For guided tours of the garden please make a reservation
Email: enquiries@babylonstoren.com
Telephone: 021 8633852

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Slutty Attempts at Mayonnaise

Right. So here's the cover of my favourite recipe book, the now, sadly out of print, The Slut's Cook Book by Erin Pizzey. First published in 1981, it used to belong to my mom, but she gave it to me a few years ago. I don't think she meant anything bad by it, well not in the sense that we modern women would assume. 'A slut', according to Pizzey, 'has style. Not for her the promiscuous behaviour of her friend the slag. The slut is a warm hearted, loving woman who enjoys her friends, her family and her food. She knows that the way to her man's heart is through his stomach.'
My mom always told me that any woman who thought that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach was aiming a little too high...
But no matter, I love this book, I've read and reread it often, and as with some of the best cook books, I have not cooked a single dish from it. But the lines such as 'the slut's best friend is a tin opener', or 'if the dinner is one the ceiling, she gets the guests plastered', or 'loosening of belts, splaying of legs' always make me grin.
But tonight I wanted to make something from it. So I attempted the first recipe 'Slut's Mayonnaise'. My mother warned me that this would be a waste of time and advised that I pick up a jar of homemade mayo from Giovanni's or Woolies, or even stop off at the corner cafe and pick up a jar of Hellman's. But I was having none of it. I was eating dinner alone tonight (asparagus) and I wanted to make my own mayonnaise.
Well, I won't bother you with the recipe, because if you're the sort of person who would want to make your own mayonnaise, you probably already have your own recipe, and if you have never tried to make it yourself, take my advice and give it a miss.
A pint, yes a pint (that's 568,261 ml - I know I had to google it), of good extra virgin olive oil wasted, 2 eggs, splash of malt vinegar ( to be truthful I never even got to that part).
The green slime was beyond redemption, so I binned it all and ate my asparagus with a squeeze of lemon juice instead. Very virtuous. And disappointingly non-slutty.
But I am not completely disheartened, Erin Pizzey ends her recipe with the encouraging words 'Mayonnaise is like love: the more times you make it, the better it becomes.'
Well, in my humble opinion, there are far better things to do with one's time than making your own mayonnaise. And I seriously doubt that my man will be disappointed with any one of the alternatives.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Culinary & Creative Curator

(My slightly dodgy attempts to capture the magical touches in Hemelhuijs)

(The Cornelia vase filled with full blown flowers)

I am grateful to Jacques Erasmus for many things.
Here are a few highlights:
The first is that he forever changed the way I felt about oats. Back in the day when he was chef at a small spa cafe in Mouille Point, he served oats with grated apple, cinnamon and brown sugar. I liked it so much I ate it for lunch.
Once, when I had tasted his milk tart at a cafe in Kloof Street, I was smitten by the elegant simplicity of this traditional recipe. A recipe he generously gave me, and which, despite my best intentions, I have never managed to recreate succesfully.
I have, however, been most successful when following his easy instructions for fresh figs served with dollops of white chocolate infused Greek yogurt.
He has made me laugh till it hurt when recounting his tales of excess and shopping in Buenos Aires.
He is kind. And creative. His food reflects both qualities.
He is stylish and innovative. His surroundings are testimony to this.
And then there is the fact that he has provided me with a name - an excuse for my collection obsession. 'Sam, one does not collect, one curates.' he said.
So, once again, I disclose that this is not an unbiased review. He is a friend. And I am a fan.
Hemelhuijs is Jacques's new venture. A small, stylish cafe, which I believe to be one of the most sophisticated, yet unpretentious venues in town. Black walls, floral chandeliers, hunting trophy-adorned-with--porcelain, Erasmus-designed homeware, friendly, attentive service, and beautiful food (at surprisingly modest prices), make this a cafe to visit frequently. Opening night was on Thursday, I returned on Friday, with my mom, and on Saturday with my husband. On both occasions I recognised people who had been at the launch, and we smiled knowingly at one another. Delighted to be back.
The milk tart, his ouma's recipe, and I think, his simple signature, is on the menu. Thank God. It's a sacred thing.
So is a scrambled egg, smoked salmon and toasted apple cake combination for breakfast, which is both surprising and delightful. As is a decadent open omelette with fresh figs, maple syrup glazed bacon and goats's cheese. Lunch was a roast chicken with marzipan and apricot something, which was served with a berry coulis-type of things, which was sheer heaven. And a Hemelhuijs beef burger with mushrooms that demands one reassess all other burgers that have been before. And then there are the excellent coffees, the teas in beautiful pots, the fresh fruit juices; Apple, ginger and celery ( for mom) and the Apple juice Gin & Tonics (for me)...and the daily freshly baked goods, which almost demand to be eaten before the mains. Or at least that's the way I did it.
The menu will change regularly to allow for the introduction of new dishes. And already Jacques is planning new looks for the future.
Unstoppably innovative, Hemelhuijs is a showcase of Jacques's talents - both culinary and creative. And it is such a pleasure and a privilege to be able to witness and experience a small part of this extraordinary curator's world. Go with friends and share the magic, or go alone and feel it. Either way, you've got to go.

71 Waterkant Street
Cape Town
Tel: 021 4182042
Open Monday-Friday - 8am - 5pm; Saturday 9am - 3pm

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Power of Rusks

It's been a rough week. A really rough week. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer which has, horrifically, spread to her liver. We're all devastated. But ready to go into battle alongside her. She will survive. I know this. The other night when I cried myself awake, after I had become still, I became intensely aware of the words 'This is not a dance of death'. I'm holding fast to promise I felt in the silence of the night. She starts chemo on Wednesday. We've bought almost R400's worth of ginger sweets and I intend baking rusks this afternoon, from a recipe she's used for as long as I remember. There is something comforting about this robust biscuit. The one we dip into our tea or coffee, the biscuit our teething babies gnaw on, the biscuit that I hope will calm my mother's nausea.

Jacques tells me that there is a woman who, every Wednesday, brings rusks to all the patients and medical staff waiting and working in the Haematology Department of Tygerberg Hospital where he works. He once asked her why she and her family did this thoughtful, compassionate thing. She told him that she had a son who was treated for leukemia a few years ago, and that, while tragically he died, she and her family remain grateful for the care that he received there. So they come every Wednesday and honour the young man that they so loved.
Jacques tells me that her son, Piet, is a legend in the department; that stories are told of his courage and character, how he pimped up his hospital room, how he made people laugh, how he would write inspiring messages on paper aeroplanes and then float them out of his hospital room window.
One of his friends made this video about him. It is beautiful, but unbearably sad. Watch it when you're feeling strong.
So today, I will gather the courage and the strength to hold the fear and sadness of my mother who carries the disease and my father who loves her so much. And I will bake rusks. And remember the courage of those brave souls who went before; the Niccis and the Piets, and the Tannie Laurethas,and the Aunty Frankies and the Adriaans.
And then I will phone my friend Didi, because 15 years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and today she heals patients in her medical practice, she makes love to her husband, she holds her son in her arms and she laughs with her friends.
Today the rusks I bake will be life-affirming.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Market Daze


(Koeksisters - both the Afrikaans ones and the Cape Malay ones)


I hate to admit that I am a creature of habit, because that speaks of boredom and the refusal to try new things, I prefer to think of myself as someone who loves rituals. And one of my favourite Saturday rituals is to The Neighbourgoods Market at The Old Biscuit Mill; we get there early and leave before the crowds get too annoying. And I always eat the same things, the Thai breakfast with extra chilli, a Queen of Tarts cupcake, an icy mint crush, and we always leave with a Daley Bread, some ginger honey, some ginger and lemon cordial, some samoosas, some fresh burrata cheese. Those are the basics. We add to that list. Of course.
But this Saturday we ventured a bit further. And we'd secured a parking bay by 10am at the Stellenbosch Fresh Goods Market in the grounds of the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre in Stellenbosch. Which is where we had our wedding reception almost 10 years ago and where we picnic before their summer open air concerts. It is a favourite place, but our rituals here, because of our infrequent visits, are less rigid. Breakfast was one dozen Saldanha bay oysters and two glasses of bubbly, followed by a fantastic Durban Mutton Curry with tomato and onion salsa. Take home goodies included lemon curd, freshly baked bread, a ripe camambert cheese, snoek pate, creme caramel and Rooibos tea panna cotta and Cape Malay koeksisters. Delicious food in a lovely, slightly less crowded outdoor setting. But the best part? The enormous mulberry tree in the grounds, carrying big fat ripe black mulberries. Being short, I couldn't reach them, but Jacques could reach the the high branches. And so he did. And then he fed me the juicy berries. My Hunter-Gatherer. The man I promised to love forever and ever in this very place almost 10 years ago. We'll go back there. I like the new ritual we created. As much as I like the lemon curd we bought. And the oysters we ate.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Eat, Pray, Love, Snooze

(The inside of L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Filled with Italians. Clearly this was taken a few years ago, before the movie Eat, Pray, Love came out. I hope it doesn't get flooded with tourists and lose its wonderfully authentic atmosphere)

(Mr Condurro, wearing his ever-present silk tie, highly polished - despite the fluttering flour-shoes, making the best pizza known to man-and womankind)

(The menu. Basic and brilliant)

(The Margherita . Pure Pizza Perfection)

I kind of liked the book, Eat, Pray, Love. Not enough to recommend it to anyone, but I did like the title. A lot. In a damn-I-wish-I'd-thought-of-it-and-then-written-a-bestseller kind of way. And I was keen to watch the movie. Only because I wanted to see Javier Bardem. But I fell asleep during the Pray - India part. And I love India. I did, however, perk up during Bardem's scenes. But the best part of the movie is that it featured my favourite (and now probably everyone else's) pizza place in the whole wide world. L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele has spoilt pizza for me. Every pizza I've eaten since eating there, has left me feeling bereft and longing for the pizza I ate there in the dirty streets of Naples. We used to (Previous Life - Wench of the high Seas) sail in and out of Naples every 10 days. And every single visit used to involve a pilgrimage to Da Michele. We'd briskly walk the 40 minutes it took to get from the port to the pizza, few are mad enough to brave Naples traffic in a cab, dodging the maniacal scooter drivers and anticipating our Margherita pizzas with extra mozzarella.

Da Michele is famous for the large pizzas they make using cow’s milk mozzarella, Sarno Valley tomatoes and vegetable rather than olive oil. This is the way the owners, the Condurro family and descendants have been making pizza since 1870. In this functional white-tiled, marble- tabled pizzeria, the family of pony-tailed, gold-chain wearing pizzaioli man the wood-fired ovens, stretch out the dough, take smoke breaks on the pavement and take orders from a very limited menu. The choices are simple, Marinara or Margherita, Beer, Coca-Cola or water. That’s it. Nothing else. It is a beautiful thing to watch the patriarch, an old man who wears a white apron over his blue suit, lovingly spread fresh tomatoes with arthritic hands on the stretchy dough, before adding a fistful of mozzarella and placing a single basil leaf in the centre of the pizza. A pinch of salt and a swirl of oil signals that one of the younger boys can place the wooden spatula on which the pizza rests into the oven. 63 seconds later a sublime, thin, softly blistered, chewy base covered with melted mozzarella and tomato is placed before you, to be eaten by hand, divided into four, each piece folded in half and eaten quickly before the topping slides down your chin.

Elizabeth Gilbert did not need to travel to three countries in order to find herself or her answers. She could have stopped searching in Naples, once she's reached Da Michele. As I did. For here, in this small white-tiled pizzeria, I ate. I prayed. And I loved.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

When Hungry, Eat (Peppermint Crisps)

My friend Nicky and her family have embarked on their Next Big Adventure. This time it's Perth, Australia. Which seems more permanent than say a couple of years somewhere in the UAE, or a stint in the UK. But we don't use the word emigrate. That word has the ability to break hearts. So instead it's the Next Big Adventure.
The day before they left for their NBA, I took the boys some Peppermint Crisp chocolates, because they are my favourite. (Although I also love Cote d'or Bouchees or olifantjies -little elephants - as we called them when I was little and we dipped into my mother's private stash. And I wouldn't say no to anything with the name Lindt on it either.) Everyone had an opinion on how to eat Peppermint Crisps. I believe one must do so quickly. Others feel the need to nibble off the pure chocolate bits on either end and then dip the one end of the chocolate into a glass of milk and drink the milk through the tiny peppermint straws inside the chocolate. This way the milk is peppermint flavoured and then you eat the leftover chocolate afterwards. I am not sold on that idea. And I have yet to try this method, but honestly I think it's a waste of a good chocolate. I will however sacrifice a few Peppermint Crisps in order to make that South African speciality Peppermint Crisp tart - the one with the Orley Whip and the caramel made from condensed milk. Many years ago, I bought a Peppermint crisp that had no peppermint straws in it, it was just a lovely slab of minty chocolate. Surprisingly I was not disappointed, in fact, I recall being rather happy about it, and hoped that I would be so lucky as to get a faulty chocolate again. But I never did. And that's ok, because Peppermint Crisps, even the older chewy ones, never disappoint.
Which is why I wanted to give them to the boys, I wanted to give them something that I had liked as a child, something that was South African. But then I heard that Peppermint Crisps are found in one other place in the world, Yup, that's right, you can find Peppermint Crisps in Australia. Which made my gift-giving even better, I could tell the boys that whenever they longed for home, they should ask their mom to buy them a couple of Peppermint Crisps, because we still believe them to be as South African as boerewors and biltong. And yes, while the Ausies may have sausage and jerky as well, we KNOW it's a poor second to our variety. The same goes for chocolate, it's ok in a pinch; if you can't pop round to the corner cafe and ask for it in your mother tongue, and it will remind you of home. And chocolate does lessen the pain of homesickness a little bit.

Which brings me to the second part of this blog. Joanne Fedler's book When Hungry, Eat. I saw it last weekend, having realised that my clothes no longer fit and that I had been misinterpreting the concept of a No Diet lifestyle. I have been taking it to mean eat everything, as much and as often as I like. Which clearly is not a great idea.
So there this book stood screaming at me from the middle shelf in Exclusive Books, 'How one woman's mission to lose weight became a journey of discovery.' And I bought it, along with some hot cross buns from Woolies.
And I read it in one day, because it's a good read. And while what she wrote about only eating when hungry, and getting to make peace with hunger etc made perfect sense, it wasn't exactly a revelation. I've read this before. And if only I could put all that I've read into practice...
But what is significant is that I was meant to buy and read this book. So that I could tell my friend Nicky to go out and buy it immediately. Because this book is probably one of the most honest and meaningful accounts of immigration that I have read. Joanne Fedler and her family left Cape Town to make a new life for themselves in Australia, and this book is about her heartbreak of leaving South Africa, and the enormous sense of loss that she experiences. Also about how she adapts and makes peace with herself and her circumstances. In the emigration/immigration debate there are no right or wrong answers. But it is hard. For all concerned. By reading this book, I could understand what my friend is going through, and perhaps, by her reading it, she can feel less alone. It also made me think really hard about the sacrifices one makes when you have children. But this is more than just a book about hunger, or emigrating. It's about loss, about love, about making the best of a hard situation, about what it means to be born in a country, of how to make another country your home. It is about faith, and friendship and low schmaltz chicken soup.
And reading it made me realise, that being hungry, is never, not only, about food.

Friday, 1 October 2010

A Gushing Title: Reuben is the One & Only

In September 2005 I interviewed Reuben Riffel for the Eat Out Guide, a year after he had been given both the Eat Out Johnnie Walker 2004 Chef of The Year and Restaurant of the Year awards.
So here, From the Eat Out Restaurant guide 2006:

There's something very special about an award-winning chef who asks his mother to come into his restaurant kitchen and make us his favourite suur-mince - that untranslatable dish of minced beef, stock and malt vinegar. I'm touched by his unpretentiousness and moved by my own childhood memories of curry mince which eating the dish evoked. As we sit down in a quiet corner of the restaurant, we talk of food and memories,
Reuben was born and raised in Groendal, a village just outside Franschhoek. While the physical distance may not have been much between the two towns, they were worlds apart, kept that way by the political machinations of the time. But he carries this part of the country in his heart and his love of food and flavours stem from his childhood there.
'We lived in a two-roomed house, one of which was the kitchen -the heart of our home. We always ate at a table in this kitchen, even if it was only sausage, onions and mash. We would eat together and we would talk. we weren't impoverished and we always had enough. We ate from the land. My grandfather farmed with pigs and kept a small tract of land on which he grew vegetables. he called it die tuin (the garden) and I was regularly ordered to go and plant onions or pick peas with him. Sometimes we'd pick grapes, which tasted slightly of pineapple, we called thispynappeldruiwe ( pineapple grapes, probably the Catawba variety).' His grandfather was strict, but so was his grandmother who would call all the cousins together, sniff their hands to ascertain who had been smoking, before making them shell peas. but she could bake the most heavenly bread in her wood-fired stove. 'I would go to their home to collect the bread in the evenings and my ouma would dish up something for me from their table, which I ate before returning home to eat with my own family.'
Sundays were buttermilk pudding and banana bread days. And as the bus unloaded everyone after church, the smells drifting out of the house promised a feast, food made with love and care. Hartskos (food from the heart).
Birthdays were also special for the young Reuben. 'My auntie would always bake me a chocolate cake on my birthday. Her daughter ran one of the two bioscopes in Franschhoek, vir ons mense (for our people). There was a cafe nearby, owned by a Portuguese family whose son had the best toys. So on my birthday, I'd go there to eat my own chocolate cake, watch a Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movie and play with the cafe owner's son and his toys.'
Then there were the family outings. events that centred around laughter and the love of food. Reuben recalls a particularly memorable day trip when he was only eight. The entire family hired an old bus to take them to Paternoster. 'Halfway there, the bus broke down and after much struggling we eventually made it to this seaside town on the West Coast. Not even the smoke billowing out of the engine could dampen our spirits. The fishermen were selling crayfish from their boats and I was helping them and loving the noise, the smells, the wriggling red crayfish which soon found their way onto the braai. That was the best day I've ever had at the sea.'
Listening to Reuben, I am reminded of the saying, 'What is patriotism, if not the longing for the food we ate as a child?' Here memories are of goemahare (candyfloss) bought after school from the vendor in the old Datsun, and freshly baked bread with a slightly burnt crust. And it finally dawned on me that the magic ingredient, the one that this chef uses in his kitchen, is love. That while his cooking is innovative and contemporary, he remains true to his roots. Which is why, when really hungry, you can join him for a slice of bread with crunchy peanut butter and honey. And then dip it into a mug of black coffee. The way his oupa used to do.


A while back, a friend and I were making dinner plans and trying to get reservations at a notoriously hard-to-get-a-table restaurant. 'I'll call them', she offered. 'No, it's ok,'I said jokingly, 'I'll phone, and if they don't give us a table, I'll ask them 'Don't you know who I was?!' and then we both snorted with uncontrollable laughter because people and places are fickle.
In what seems like a previous lifetime, I once edited the prestigious annual publication Eat Out. I was wedged in between the late great Lannice Snyman, and the equally impressive foodie Abigail Donnelly. Two issues, and then I packed my bags to be the Wench of the High Seas when Jacques decided to be a ship's doctor. Those two years were a steep learning curve. Hard, at times, desperately so. But also wonderful. During that time, I met the most amazing people.... people who are passionate about food are generally nice people. Much more open and far more fun than those who disdain butter and cream. I also made some wonderful friends, some of whom have remained a part of my life. Reuben Riffel is one of them. Which is why I was so happy for him and Maryke when the deal with the One & Only was finalized. And yes, much has been written about it and yes, there was a big hoo ha about it, 'Reuben Riffel replaces Gordon Ramsay' and 'Will he?' or 'Won't he?' And this blog is not about any of that. From the outset, I'll be honest and say that Jacques and I regard Reuben and Maryke as friends, that we adore Reuben's in Franschhoek and that I have loved every single dish of his that I have ever eaten. So on this day, the day that Reuben's at One & Only officially opens, a few thoughts:
Firstly I'm thrilled that the new restaurant does not replace the one in Franschhoek and that Reuben will still be very much involved there. I see on the menu at the O&O, that Reuben is the Concept Chef. But knowing Reuben this will be as hands on as one can possibly be with one pair of hands and three restaurants (the third one being The Robertson Hotel). Secondly, walking into Sol Kerzner's prestigious hotel and seeing the name Reuben's on the wall made my heart swell with pride. He has done so incredibly well, and he has done so, all the while being true to himself. Dinner was, as expected, superb, the pricing is more reasonable than one would expect for a restaurant in that calibre of hotel, and the restaurant will, in time, begin to reflect his own style. That would be nice, as it is rather dark and sombre at the moment. But, having said that, the high ceilings are elegant and double volume spacing impressive. On the night we went, Friday a week ago, the restaurant was busy and the staff clearly happy. Almost as happy as I was to see pork belly on the menu. Jacques tried something new and had the lamb curry , with mint chutney and pineapple yoghurt it before I could even beg a bite. In fact the menu is quite similar to the one in Franschhoek and reflects local flavours and ingredients.But there is also a sophistication to this new Reuben's, which is in keeping with the rest of the hotel. As with Franschhoek, the bare tables are branded with the name Reuben's. You have to believe in yourself to do that. And Reuben does. In a good way. Jacques commented that on the night we saw him, Reuben was relaxed; that he had an air of quiet confidence about him. That this is where he belonged. In as much as he belongs in Franschhoek. Or any where else he chooses to be.

Reubens at One & Only call 021 431 5222 or email restaurantreservations@oneandonlycapetown.com

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

(Sonia Cabano's recipe book Easy Simple & Delicious. It delivers on all three counts)

(Now, hush you food stylists you. I am proud of this roast chicken. This is the most delicious roast chicken anyone has ever made. This roast chicken was made with love, and hope, and music and memories)

A couple of weeks ago I received a series of letters from celebrated chef and food writer, Sonia Cabano. I know of her, I know people who know her well, but I, myself, have never met her. And yet, she took the time and trouble to write to me; to tell me that she was thinking of me during a time of immense grief when my friend Nicci died. Her letters were caring and deeply personal. And I am enormously humbled by the fact that she reached out to me, took the time to write to someone she did not know. That she generously shared precious memories of those she loved, that despite not knowing me at all, she managed to take away some measure of my pain. That she told me grief was a long process.That I would find that 'rituals and deeply meaningful celebrations' would with time, ease my sadness. And then she asked me if I had read a book by Elisabeth Luard called Sacred Food, and in doing so led me back to my own bookshelf where I found two other, almost forgotten books by the same author; Family Life - Birth, Death, and The Whole Damn Thing and the follow up Still Life.Books which I had read (and loved) in 1998, but which I am now looking forward to rereading. Because the time is right. Because we are hoping to become parents, and because I worry that I won't be a good mom, and because I fear that my relationship with my husband will change in ways I would not like it to. And because I'm not good with change, and because that which I desire the most is also what frightens me the most.
And even for these unspoken fears, Sonia offered the words that could comfort me 'New souls incarnating bring with them immense courage, pure joy and hope. And absolutely complete and unconditional love. Not only for their parents, but for themselves, and for life.' she wrote.
Some gifts are overwhelming in their enormity. These letters fall into that category. I am by nature an emotional person. I cry easily. I laugh loudly. I share much. But yet, secretly, I am afraid of 'what people may say', of how I may be judged, of being rejected or having my intentions misconstrued, which is why I all too often fail to reach out, especially to those I don't know well.
I have always stated that I desire to live and love fearlessly. I have much to learn. Sonia's emotional generosity has taught me that.
And so while I was wondering how to respond and thank her properly, I remember Nicci telling me that she had learned that sometimes people do things without wanting something in return. That random acts of kindness are simply random acts of kindness and that occasionally it's ok to just say thank you. And perhaps pay it forward.
So thank you, Sonia Cabano, for your random acts of kindness towards me.
And while I'm thanking you, may I also tell you how much I like your book. That in the past week I have made the Sticky cashew chicken on page 26, the Asian noodles with ginger, sesame, honey and chilli on page 97 and your Baked sweet potatoes with honey, ginger and sesame-soy butter on page 156.
But last night I really did you proud. The roast chicken with tarragon and lemon on page 146 was the celebratory meal, the meal that Jacques and I ate with laughter and wine and promises. And I did so without sadness. Without guilt. I used a very good chenin blanc as well. And I did not count calories as I rubbed the butter into the chicken. And I used too many celery sticks and carrots. And as always I overdid the lemon. But not much, two, instead of the one you recommended. You told me about your mom's roast chicken. One day I'll tell my child about yours. And how I came to have it. How when I was very sad, a stranger offered me comfort.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Let Us Eat Cake

(Of course this cake shop deserves first prize)

(Bakers Extraordinaire and Siblings Divine: Callie Maritz and Mari-Louis Guy)

(Street Decor)

(My Cake)

This is a completely, unashamedly biased review. I love love LOVE Cakebread. The owners/bakers/gloriously talented brother sister duo are friends of mine and I like them almost as much as I like what they bake. For the past few years I have received, given and eaten their fabulous cupcakes for celebrations and conciliatory occasions. I have publicly declared their Red Velvets to be way, way better than the iconic New York as-seen-on -Sex in The City Magnolia Bakery version and their freshly baked white chocolate cupcakes dressed with crushed raspberries and mascarpone are the stuff of dreams. Their cupcakes are miniature works of art, their large cakes sophisticated and elegant yet also deliciously wicked when the occasion calls for it - a divorce cake and a rude food party cake springs to mind!
But up until now, my cake cravings needed careful planning, I needed to order in advance, or at least give a couple of hours notice. But no more, because Callie en Mari-Louis have opened up a boutique cake shop - Cakebread, a place described as 'Tuisnywerheid meets High Fashion' on 71 Roeland Street, right next to my favourite book shop The Book Lounge. Now I can pop in anytime I like if my carb-cake addictions begins to get out of hand. But beware the Blue Mondays. Cakebread are closed on that dreadful day. I know. It happened to me and I left empty-handed and dikbek. Go in and but some beautiful, freshly baked goodies, buy some old-fashioned boere poedings, or some fabulously savoury pies to take home. And you have to take it home, because this is no sit-down and enjoy a cup of tea with your cupcake type of place - it's not a cafe, it's a shop. But you'll want to linger, and that's ok. Cake People are Nice People. And they'll let you drool over the rose petal-topped cakes, and the romantically old-fashioned iced cookies. And the swirled meringues . And the gorgeous tarts. And maybe you'll spy Mari-Louis or Callie there, and they're pretty easy on the eye as well.

Visit them on 71 Roeland Street, Cape Town or contact them on cakebreadct@gmail.com or 072 7841226 to place orders in advance for large scale indulgences.

5 Good Reasons For Not Having Blogged

(Mating lions. Up close and very personal.)

( And yes, leopards never change their spots. But would you, if you looked this good?)

( Hmm, proof that a fat ass can be gorgeous! The rhinos that reminded me of the William Kentridge production of The Magic Flute)

(Wild Dogs. Taken pre-kill. We saw ten of them hunt and kill a buck...Horrific, but I still eat meat, so can't be too judgemental)

(Open Wide. The Hippo that reminded me of the old Chomp ad. Remember that one?)

A very special place in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve ( adjacent to the Kruger National Park) with some very special friends is where we went for a while. We ate amazingly well, (Jenny and Lovonne you inspire me!) Laughed way too much (as if there is such a thing as too much laughter), slept (as one only can when the temperatures are 37 degrees and still rising) and marveled at African sunsets (is there anything more humbling?) The only battles to be fought were against the mozzies, but we bravely fought off the threat of malaria with copious amounts of Tabbard. And a few large (purely medicinal) Bombay Sapphire G &T's. It was both healing and happy. The holiday, not the gin...

Remember these scenes from the movies?
White Mischief: 'Oh God, not another f*cking beautiful day.'
Out Of Africa: 'Perhaps he knew as I did not, that the earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.'