The Curious Cook

Life and lemons

Lemon madeira with lemon curd on a bespoke handpainted cake plate from 1910. Photo: Justus Wagener

Everybody knows you can count yourself lucky if you have experienced life on a farm. There is nothing like it, waking up early to milk the cows, exploring the wonders of the veld, not to mention the dramatic, rolling rainstorms. I was happily plunged into this experience when my father married a lovely woman with red hair and they decided to raise their children on her parent’s farm in the Kowie River valley, halfway between the villages of Bedford and Adelaide in the Eastern Cape.

Rockwood was a dairy and sheep farm and when the old man Jack was still alive, life went on in the same way it had for close on 100 years. The water was drawn from a borehole and had a sweet, clear mineral taste. Bread was baked in a fire in a pot-bellied oven built from clay and handmade bricks. Cream was churned in a wooden churn in the cool 1960s kitchen and rolled between two butter pats to form perfectly textured butter balls.

I would love baking with this beautiful butter. Jill would start by fetching the dry ingredients from a yellowwood cupboard in the pantry. We would cream the lovely butter with sugar in a TG Green mixing bowl before adding a delicate tumble of grated lemon zest. We would bake our cake in a wood-fired Aga, which is quite tricky but is an absolute pleasure for baking. The reigning queen of our baking ritual was Madeira cake, which we drizzled with a glaze of icing sugar and lemon juice as it emerged from the oven.

Another ritual was lunch at the Big House with Jill’s mother Shirley. We would be ushered into the formal dining room, which was always kept dark to keep the heat out. Shirley would sit at the head of the imposing mahogany table and we would take our designated places, marked by a different silver napkin ring for each person. She hardly spoke but there was a rod of steel hiding behind that peaches and cream complexion and clear blue eyes. She didn’t reprimand us but we knew we had to obey the rules – eat daintily and only speak when spoken to. It was almost always awkward and uncomfortable. But the children, being too little, weren’t much bothered by it, they prattled away and called her Gran. When it was time to eat, she summoned the housekeeper by way of an electric cord and bell that dangled above her chair. (Well, all I can say is, I sure am glad those days are over!) Most often, were served a beautiful cut of venison that had been cooked to death and flavoured only with salt or maybe some bacon. This was made palatable by a blob of homemade quince jelly on the rim of one’s plate. Forgive me for generalising, but she certainly fit the bill of ‘the English can’t cook’ argument- all that is, except for dessert. We were rewarded for our fortitude with luscious homemade ice cream with real cream, stewed apricots and wonder of all wonders – junket – the most delicious, delicate blancmange-like dessert.

But what I was most fond of were the cordials, marmalade and curd made from the citrus that was grown on the farm. There were stately lemon and orange trees growing in the vegetable garden and a rather small but very special tree called Elizabeth orange that grew near the water tank at the back of the big house. The best cordial was made from pomelo, a large yellow grapefruit with a thick rind, but the one we drank the most of was lemon cordial. It really was like drinking sunshine in a glass. We would play tennis on the clay court and enjoy an ice gold glass in the shade of a magnificent mulberry tree. Years later I visited a farm in the Kowie River valley as part of the Bedford Garden Festival. There was a surprise: after looking at the magnificent English style rose garden, guests could rest on the expansive verandah and enjoy a glass of cordial. And there it was: the pomelo cordial. Oh, but it took me back.

Madeira loaf with lemon

Homemade lemon Madeira on a Meakin waterlily platter. Photo: Justus Wagener

With its beautifully exotic name, one can’t help imaging that Madeira cake originates from the Madeira Islands in Portugal. Being such a quintessentially English cake, it makes sense that it was actually named after Madeira wine, which was popular in England in the mid 1800s and was often served with the cake. I like to bake my Madeira in a loaf tin, adding some almond flour for a moist and delicate crumb. Be sure to serve the loaf cut into generous slices and spread with the luscious lemon curd (recipe to follow).


175g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing

175g golden caster sugar

3 large eggs

Grated zest and juice of 1 or 2 lemons

A few drops vanilla extract

2 T amaretto or orange liqueur

200g self-raising flour

50g ground almonds

4 or 5 tsp icing sugar

Heat oven to 170 degrees Celcius. Butter and line the base of a 900g loaf tin with greaseproof paper. Using an electric whisk, beat together the butter and sugar until light and creamy then beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the lemon zest, vanilla and liqueur. Now beat in the flour and almonds until you have a thick batter. The batter should be loose enough that it falls off a wooden spoon, if it’s too thick mix in a splash of milk.

Squeeze the juice from the zested lemons into a small bowl. Using a tea sieve and a teaspoon, sieve the icing sugar into the juice. Mix thoroughly to combine.

Tip the batter into the tin and smooth over the top. Bake for 55 min to 1 hour until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and drizzle over the lemon glaze. Then leave to cool for 15 min before removing from the tin. Peel away the paper and leave on a wire rack to cool completely before slicing. The loaf will keep in an airtight container for three days.

Lemon curd

Homemade lemon curd on a Grimwades plate. Photo: Justus Wagener

1/4 cup (60ml) fresh lemon juice (about 1-2 lemons)

2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

1/3 cup (69g) sugar

4 egg yolks

3 T (42g) salted butter

Combine all the ingredients in a double boiler or use a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Heat while whisking constantly until mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.
Pour the lemon curd into a heat proof bowl. To prevent a skin from forming, you can cover it with cling wrap pressed onto the top of the curd. Refrigerate until cold.

One thought on “Life and lemons

  1. Thank you! Lovely traditional recipes and a delightfully nostalgia-inducing tale of times gone by…although I must say I am also pleased that those times have gone for good. However, the marmalade and the cordial, the lemon curd and the Madeira cake are still wonderful and very tasty representatives of the Englishwoman’s determination to be English in the midst of the African bush.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s