There have been three fundamental culinary influences in my life. All of them have been women but not all of them are matriarchs, despite my mother being among them!
My mother’s best friend Lynn is the exception. Lynn is the ultimate alpha female. Being married to the brilliant (and sometimes maddening) photographer Obie Oberholzer and raising two boisterous boys is just the start of it. Her passion for food runs deep and she is the Most Marvellous Cook. In fact, she is one of those infuriating people who makes it look SO easy, all of the time. After living in Germany in the 1970s where she learnt how to bake bread, the Oberholzers moved to my home town of Grahamstown in the 1980s. While Obie went off on his journeys across Africa and back again, Lynn started her own catering company after completing a cooking course at an Italian monastery. It was during this time she embarked on a series of restaurants that only opened during the National Arts Festival. This was when the concept of a pop-up restaurant hadn’t been invented yet, so it was a struggle to make a deal to procure a temporary space.
The first of these was in a mechanic’s workshop that had been converted into a nightclub called Cuyler Street. Our town had never seen anything like it – it looked like the set of a Fleetwood Mac video. Parachute silk curtains in cerise, royal purple and kingfisher blue divided the industrial space. But the oh-so-80s look was somewhat marred when it transmogrified into a performance venue during the Festival – all the surfaces were covered in black plastic so that nothing interfered with the lonely spotlight focused on the musicians. I hid in the wings during performances, during which we all had to shut up and abruptly stop serving.
It was always a bit of a relief when the lights came back on again, only to be faced by all that black plastic. But the wonder of those magical early Grahamstown Festivals won out, while Jennifer Ferguson transported us to the Bay of Bombay, Lynn transformed the dreariness with her food, serving Tassies in small green tumblers, fragrant moussaka and Greek salad made with olives she had cured herself. The gloom made the colors of her exotic dishes stand out all the more potently. But what I most remember was how Lynn wept every time Johannes Kerkorrel sang “Gee jou hart vir Hillbrow…” and gave him a plate piled high on the house as thanks for his desolate brilliance.
This rough-and-ready moussaka recipe uses Lynn’s as an inspiration but is also a nod to the artist Marjorie Wallace who first told me that the secret ingredient of moussaka is cinnamon. Also read Lynn’s marvellous cookery book Cooking in the Photographer’s House (Jacana, 2014).
6 medium sized firm aubergines, sliced into rounds 1cm thick
4 potatoes, parboiled and thickly sliced
100g minced lamb and 200g minced ostrich mince or free range grass fed beef
2 medium sized carrots, scraped and cut into cubes
1 large onion, sliced
2 tins whole peeled tomatoes
2 T tomato paste
2 T tomato sauce
A glug of red wine
1 cinnamon quill
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp each whole cumin, smoked paprika, dried thyme and ground cinnamon
Three rounds of feta cheese
200ml full cream milk
½ tsp dried garlic powder
White pepper, to taste
Slice the aubergines into slices and place onto a large baking tray. Douse with olive oil and salt and sprinkle with cumin seeds. Grill until browned, turning once.
Make a béchamel in the usual way, whisking in the garlic powder at the end. Season with white pepper and celery salt.
Brown the meat in a cast iron pan. Remove and place in a bowl. Add some olive oil to the pan and saute the onions and carrots until the onions are transparent. Add a clove of minced garlic and stir. Then add the red wine and reduce. Add the cinnamon quill, salt, black pepper, smoked paprika and dried thyme. Then add the tomatoes, ground cinnamon, tomato paste and browned meat. Cover and simmer for 20-40 minutes. Add 2tbs tomato sauce at the end and break up the tomatoes. Add a dash of water if it becomes too thick.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. In the bottom of a large baking dish, arrange slices of aubergine in a layer, then a thin layer of sauce, a layer of sliced potatoes, more sauce, more aubergine and repeat until the ingredients are used up. Top with the béchamel and crumble over the feta. Bake for half an hour till the top is golden and bubbly.
Serve with a chopped salad of ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and olives.