The first time I ever tasted basil pesto. A salad of sun-dried tomatoes and feta in a lovely sweet and sour vinaigrette. Roasted vegetables liberally sprinkled with rosemary and olive seasoning. Easy peasy tikka chicken curry. Delicious chocolate cake that even a child could make.
All this is thanks to one person – Mrs Ina Paarman.
During the long and terrible years of apartheid, the ANC imposed some necessary sanctions on exported goods to South Africa, in order to strangle the National Party’s hold on the country. Of course the apartheid government were stubborn about it and were happy to keep the whole country cut off from the rest of the world. But when the gates were opened in 1992, everything changed. Least of all these changes was the way we ate. All of a sudden, olive oil was available in supermarkets. Just a few years before you could only get it in refined form and in miniscule quantities at the chemist, for cleaning out one’s ears! For the first time ever, we got to eat basil pesto, artichokes and Swiss chocolate. With perfect timing, this was also the first time that Ina Paarman products became readily available. From her signature seasoned sea salt to the perfect ready-to-mix creamy cheesecake, these standbys have been part of our lives for over 25 years.
I was super lucky to meet Mrs Paarman last month, to interview her for an article on heritage brands and the wonderful women who founded them. It’s really impressive to see how a cottage industry has grown into a burgeoning business. The Paarman’s home in Constantia is where it all happens –surrounded by trees, the testing kitchen and head office are housed in a beautiful modern building with giant windows that lets in all the light.
With her warm brown eyes and bubbly personality, it is clear as crystal that this lady lives and breathes food. We sat down to talk about how her business came into being. After leaving a senior lecturer post at Cape Technicon in 1981, Ina’s mother funded the start-up costs to start her very own cookery school. “I started small but eventually attracted the who’s who of Cape Town, including First Lady Marike de Klerk,” recalls Ina. This is where doctors’ wives and elegant Jewish ladies learned how to make the perfect Beef Wellington to impress the clients of their businessmen husbands. Ina had her hands full with raising two boys, as well as writing a column for Die Burger. Then the legendary editor, Jane Raphaely of Femina magazine approached her to be their food editor, but she wasn’t prepared to give up her hard earned school so she agreed to write one article per month and drive through to the office twice a month.
Less than a decade later, the classes were still fully booked. Ina’s youngest son, Graham, had just finished his business degree and was about to become a chartered accountant. But at the last minute he changed his mind. “He knew it was not the life he wanted,” said Ina. He pitched a winning idea to his parents: a product line of Ina’s favourite recipes. “My husband Ted was horrified at the idea,” says Ina. “But I had published a cook book Cook with Ina Paarman which had sold well so I had put all the earnings aside for a rainy day. This was the money we used to start the factory.”
This would turn out to be one of many Graham’s inspired business decisions, and there has been no looking back since. I think what distinguishes Ina Paarman products is that they taste homemade. This is an aspect that Ina feels very passionate about. The machinery in the factory is custom designed to fulfill the requirements of the way each product is made. In their new range of delicious antipasti- shallots, mushrooms, beetroot and peppers are char-grilled and then marinated in a variety of dressings. It is this attention to detail that makes the end result so special.
My favourites will always be sun-comdried tomatoes in a delectable vinaigrette and the delicious basil pesto with pecan and pine nuts. I love to make a simple pasta with halved cherry tomatoes, feta and this pesto. My partner and I relied on these two standbys in his coffee shop, transforming salads and tramezzinis. My mother and I loved her cook-in sauces including a creamy one with apricots (sadly discontinued) and a fragrant tikka curry (which is still going strong). I remember attending on her cooking demonstrations at an arts festival. Wearing a twin set and heels with her hair perfectly coiffed, she impressed us by stir-frying grated butternut and baking it with hake fillets covered in a blanket of tikka curry sauce mixed with crème fraiche. The cherry on the cake was that she gave the finished dishes to a lucky audience member to take home with them.
As Ina says: “To understand what Paarman Foods is all about, one has to believe in dreams, the amazing spirit when experiences are shared and the positive energy that’s unleashed when people embrace a cause they wholeheartedly endorse and believe in.”
Potatoes Dauphinoise with bacon and chargrilled shallots
1 kg potatoes
2 cups cream
1 cup milk
Half a pack of Ina Paarman char-grilled shallots in balsamic dressing
250 g back bacon
200g pecorino cheese, freshly grated
3 cloves garlic, left whole; nutmeg, freshly grated; celery salt and white pepper.
Begin by frying the bacon in a non-stick pan until crispy. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celcius.
Take a large pot and fill until hallway full with cold water. Peel the potatoes two by two. Using a mandolin, slice the potatoes into thin slices. Submerge in the water as you go along.
Gently swirl the potato slices in the water to get rid of some of the starchiness. Use the lid of the pot to drain well. Crush the garlic with the blunt end of a knife and add to the pot. Gently heat along with the cream and the milk. Simmer for 8-10 minutes, do not boil.
Take half the shallots out of the pack and retain the dressing. Coarsely chop, along with the cooled, crispy bacon. Season the potatoes with celery salt and white pepper. Gently mix in the bacon and shallots. Tumble the potatoes into a greased baking dish, nudging them so they stay flat.
Grate over the fresh nutmeg and the pecorino cheese. As a finishing touch, dot with some lumps of butter. Bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes. Serve with fish, chicken or your Sunday roast.
Look out for the article on Ina Paarman and other iconic SA brands in the August issue of Food and Home Entertaining magazine, on shelves at the end of July.