Personal Essays · The Curious Cook

A movable feast

 

In January this year we went on a road trip, crossing the Western Cape through the Karoo to the hinterland of the Eastern Cape. After fulfilling the usual family obligations, we headed for our favourite destination – Graaff-Reinet.

It is here that we feel most at home, relishing in the absolute peace of the Karoo. The weather always seems to be perfect at any time of the year, with the loveliest long, drawn-out magical evenings. The sun takes its time to set, dipping below the mountain, painting the clouds gold or pink before giving way to a long deep cobalt blue twilight that seems to last forever. And in Spring the swallows and swifts arrive, gliding and dipping above the spires of the glorious cypress trees in the gathering dusk.

We have been visiting Graaff-Reinet for many years and have grown to love it more and more each time. We even lived here for six months once as a sort of hiatus, after moving away from my home town, while deliberating about where we should settle next. It was quite magical how this came to be. We spent a winter weekend there and as usual, woke up early to get to our favourite coffee shop Polka Café. We always sit at a little table next to the window on the stoep and J always takes a photo of me with the light falling across my face. I have many of these photos, (see my selection below) looking just a little bit older as the years go by! 

Vinkel en Koljander

So we were sitting at our favourite table as usual, waiting for this wonderful pecan caramel pie to have with our coffee before breakfast. Out of the blue, J said let’s stay here for a few months after moving. Why not? We love it here don’t we? That very same day we were looking for places to rent and found the most gorgeous little cottage. It was the twin of a cottage next door called Vinkel, and our cottage was called Koljander! There is an Afrikaans nursery rhyme about spices (of all things) that goes “Vinkel en Koljander, die een lyk soos die ander…” This translates as: “Fennel and coriander, the one looks like the other.” Which of course isn’t true at all, the two look very different but I guess there has never really been much logic in nursery rhymes. Koljander was a small upright little Settler cottage with wooden floors, an open plan kitchen with terracotta tiles and rickety stairs that led to two little bedrooms on the first floor.

 

Spring came and we packed up and left. I couldn’t quite believe it was happening, I was one of those locals who never would have dreamt of leaving. The town I loved and had lived in for 30 years had changed so irrevocably. It was time for a new adventure. We put the majority of our stuff in storage and brought only the minimum with us. I was so happy and distracted, feathering our little nest. I hung a Chinese paper lantern printed with blossoms from the ceiling and with no wardrobe, improvised a place to hang my dresses with broomsticks and pink ribbon. But on the same day we moved in J heard the neighbours making a racket. They were a rough lot, with yapping dogs and screaming children. I remember saying “Let’s not be snobs, we’ll settle down soon.” But that night they proceeded to get drunk and shout at each other across their dusty and depressing back yard. I didn’t sleep at all, worried that a case of domestic violence was unfolding before our very eyes. I will always intervene when a woman is being victimised. But no, it never escalated into a full blown fight, it was just the way they usually talked to each other.

It continued unabated the following day. I went to the library for some peace and quiet but when I returned J was in a complete panic, totally unnerved by the noise. We started to do some research and discovered that he has misophonia, triggered by loud, high pitched sounds. I kept saying, we’ll get used to it, but to no avail. The idyll was shattered. Of course we couldn’t get hold of the rental agent, this family of commoners were known around town for being impossible troublemakers and the worst neighbours you could ever imagine. A cliché really; children running amok, oil spills on the pavement from old car wrecks, out of control dogs, drunken bouts of violence.

No. 3 Bourke street

So we made sure we were out of there within the month. The only place available was a three-bedroom unfurnished house that was for sale and standing empty. At first I wasn’t that impressed. It was a bit shabby, with a small courtyard filled with gravel and a stained old bath. It was also infested with fleas. But it was an authentic old Settler house with sash windows, shutters and wooden floors. The kitchen was sparse but spacious with an old butler’s sink. The best part was a special cool, dark little room that looked out onto the street. J used it as his study, it was a complete ideal, with nothing in it but a little fold-out table and a chair. He half closed the shutters so no one could peek in and sat there for hours in the early morning, writing.

Looking back on it now, with our many antiques cluttering up the place, it was a rare and special time, to be rid of our possessions for a while and just be. I also had a desk that looked out of the window, in our bedroom, which looked Oriental in its simplicity. Nothing much but a futon bedecked in red and white linen and my blue Chinese brocade dress from Amsterdam hanging on the wall.

It was very hard to leave. Six months later, a sale of a house had inexplicably fallen through and we decided to give Cape Town a try. Eight years have passed, with an embarrassing number of moves to different places and nowhere to call home. I suspect it must have something to do with growing up in the Eastern Cape, which we both did. Compared to the lush vineyards of the Winelands, the landscape may appear arid and harsh but is starkly beautiful. As it turns out, I now realise that it is the fulcrum of my creativity. If you grow up in a landscape like this, knowing it so intimately as only a child can really know a place, it becomes linked with memory, which is where all creativity ultimately springs from.

And so we find ourselves returning to Graaff-Reinet. Three years ago we stayed in another place, a tiny garden flat without air conditioning in the heat of the summer. I was happy as I had a big old table to write at and a little gas stove to cook with. And all I did was write. In fact, the first 10 columns on this website were all written during that time. I am always inspired when I am here.

No. 28 Donkin street

 

This year we stumbled upon our perfect place to stay. We had always wanted to stay in an authentic old Settler house and found it right in the well-heeled area of town, known as the Horseshoe. The town was planned in a classic grid shape but narrows to a point so every day we walk from one end town to the other, enjoying those beautiful evenings. The two types of Settler houses are either in the Georgian style with flat roofs and elegant details or in the classic Victorian style with sloping corrugated iron roofs and wide stoeps. There are many such historic houses dotted all around South Africa but what makes Graaffies special is that there are so many of them here and, thanks to the Rupert family’s influence, they are perfectly preserved.

There are so many things about an old house that makes me feel at home. The thick walls enclose you in a big hug, ensuring that the house stays cool in summer and warm in winter. The shutters are also an immense help in this regard. I love to close the shutters in the heat of the day and every evening. It is part of being here. That and the creaky Oregon pine floors. And space, what a luxury!

As we entered no 28. for the first time we were amazed to see that it is full of antique furniture and old kists made at the same time the house was built. It has also been beautifully restored with muur kaste lined in yellowwood where Royal Albert lies in wait for afternoon tea. Later on we heard that Eira Maasdorp, the owner of the well-established antique shop Reinet Antiques, had bought the house in the 1990s and renovated it herself. A renowned expert on Cape and Settler furniture and Cape copper, she is also the founder of the town’s Heritage Committee so she has extensive knowledge of period details and an incredible eye for detail. She personally oversaw the renovation, restoring the old sash windows, organising a freight of flag stones from the river for the back patio and installing copper light switches for every room.  

Our host was also exceptionally generous and had left lar jars full of buttermilk rusks and dried peaches for us in the funny little old kitchen. The garden was slowly being transformed to become more water wise with succulents and indigenous plants. The little cottage had an old burgeoning bougainvillea growing in front of it where I found a Cape Robin in her nest with her little ones!

That night we sat under the stars and marvelled at how we couldn’t see the moon hidden behind the house but that it cast an eerie glow on the mountain, causing it to be transformed into a ghostly silvery apparition. Being in Graaff-Reneit, the house and especially the cosy dining room with brocade covered wing-back chairs all inspired me. It became my ardent wish to host a dinner party here. If I can pretend, just for a moment, that we live here, why not play house?

Lockdown lull

Meanwhile Covid-19 happened. Luckily, just before lockdown we had arranged to stay at no.28 for the month of September. We were looking forward to it immensely. Whiling the long days away, I started compiling a menu with slow cooked lamb in red wine and a chocolate orange pudding- blithely unaware that a winter menu wouldn’t really be appropriate.

The idea grew and grew. As we went down a level, I read cookbooks from the library shelf at the chef school in Paarl and the ideas became more and more elaborate. Then I became enamoured with the theme of Spring; almond gazpacho with semi-dried grapes, rack of lamb with a pistachio crust, a savoury cheesecake, a frangipane tart with apricots. Eventually, I pared down some of the ideas and decided on the rack of lamb with the ricotta and oven-dried tomatoes as the entrée.

As we got here, I start stressing out. I am neither an accomplished cook nor a seasoned host. I am just a home cook who loves food. After inviting everyone, I called it off at the last minute, nothing felt right. I discovered that the idea had run away with itself. The menu didn’t really reflect me at all- too labour intensive, too finicky and too cheffy. And Polka Cafe had closed foreveremore so we couldn’t go back to our favourite table…

A week later I wistfully stared at the vintage champagne flutes I had bought at the antique shop and thought I still want to do this. So I made some notes, changing the menu so that I could prepare most of it ahead of time. How can I make pulled pork but with lamb… well how about slow roasting some lamb shanks? Earlier this year I discovered a marvellous shortcut – frying ready-made gnocchi in brown butter until crisp and golden. J absolutely loves it. So I sat down with him to include him in the process. To my surprise he said he didn’t like my original menu, it’s not what he likes to eat. And he wasn’t that comfortable with the large number of people I had invited. Why not make it more en famille and do it while my dad is visiting us? So there will be only eight of us.

A feast of local flavours

And so it was. Rearrange the moving parts until you get the right configuration. I was already acquainted with the best of the local ingredients. At the Milk Shop in the main road you can order unhomogenised, unpasteurised milk every week from a herd in nearby Middelburg. This makes the most wonderful fresh ricotta. From the same shop you can also get the thickest, most luscious cream you will ever lay eyes on. This was begging to made into an old fashioned, extremely rich ice cream. I made a salted caramel with Maldon smoked sea salt, unsalted butter and the special cream, which only needed only the slightest whisk and a hint of Madagascan vanilla pod and a touch of sugar. I made a gorgeous praline for the roasted pecan nuts turning them into a delicious golden rubble. What could accompany the ice cream? Maybe some pears poached in white wine, cardamom and lemon verbena from the garden. The all-butter shortbread we brought with us will complete the dessert.

This part of the Karoo is world-renowned for raising the best lamb. The hardy breeds of sheep live wild in the veld, feeding on sweet herbs and plants which results in an especially succulent, flavourful meat.  So lamb would have to be the main course. Lamb shanks slowly baked with spices, red wine and rosemary, then removed from the bone to make a rich, pulled-lamb sauce. The gnocchi takes a while to brown nicely but my sister and J said they would do it. For once I could play the host and pour the wine and enjoy myself!

To start off the evening (and to herald Spring) I made a champagne cocktail with Backsberg brut, a dash of elderflower cordial from Fairview in Paarl and fresh pomegranate rubies. In this way the Winelands were represented. It looked so lovely in the dusty pink champagne flutes on a mirror tray.

The entrée is a Spring salad served on a large oval scalloped platter. The star is the ricotta, which I had rolled into balls and preserved in brine. Their destiny was to be rolled half in homemade dukkah and the other half in salsa verde (see photo here) and scattered over Cos lettuce and crispy Israeli cucumbers. I made a homemade dressing with lemon-scented olive oil and garlic and a velvety pea puree with mint, which I would dot around in little quenelles. By sheer accident, I had just discovered that when I pickle sliced radishes in apple cider vinegar they turn a celestial shade of pink! This would make a beautiful colour contrast with all that green. To round it all off was a scattering of fresh sweet peas fresh from the farm. It was the very last packet left on the shelf at the local home industries so I quite literally had to fight someone for them!

But as I was assembling the salad I discovered to my horror that the ricotta balls had fallen apart! I hadn’t used enough lemon juice so they weren’t keeping it together. I had to improvise. I made a sort of mousse from the cheese, flavouring it with the salsa verde and sprinkling the dukkah over it. The pea puree also let me down with being far too runny so would have to be swirled on top. I served the salad, hoping for the best. It wasn’t exactly a hit, more than a little unusual (with not enough textural contrast) but the flavours were all there. The best part were those fresh peas, bursting with sweetness.

But the lamb was a triumph. The secret addition of dark chocolate and orange right at the end lifted in into the stratosphere. And it was absolutely perfect with the gnocchi. Then, while we were plating the dessert we discovered that there was so much cream in the ice cream it wouldn’t form into scoops! The only recourse was to cut it into squares so it became a sort of parfait. But oh it was wonderful! I loved the way the caramel, the pecans and the pear all spoke to one another. It was quite a classic, old fashioned dessert but that was why it worked – typically Karoo.

Afterwards I thought about how with me it’s any excuse to celebrate. But after the long isolation of lockdown and not having the space or the inclination to entertain where I live, I realised that there were actually many reasons to do this. We have survived Covid-19, it is Spring, we are here. After all this moving around (and a whole lot of staying put!) we finally enjoyed our movable feast.

 

 

SPRING SALAD

Serves 8

Ingredients:

2 heads Cos lettuce, cut in wedges

4 Israeli cucumbers, cut into short wedges

150g fresh peas, shelled

A handful fresh mint

A knob of butter

Celery salt, to taste

1 packet radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

Fennel seed and black pepper, to taste

  1. To make fresh ricotta, follow my recipe here
  2. Make a salsa verde and my homemade dressing with lemon scented olive oil (recipe here)
  3. Make a pea puree by blanching frozen peas in a little bit of water with a knob of butter. Add a handful of fresh mint (stalks removed) roughly chopped. Season with white pepper and celery salt. When the peas are tender, remove from heat and cool. Blitz into a smooth puree with a hand held blender. Refrigerate until needed.
  4. Make the radish pickle by thinly slicing the radishes. In a small saucepan, gently heat half a cup of apple cider vinegar. Add freshly ground black pepper and a couple of fennel seeds. Pour the warm vinegar over the radishes. Allow to cool before refrigerating. Remove from the pickle when you are ready to serve the salad.
  5. When you are ready to assemble the salad, roll the ricotta balls in either the dukkah, ground fennel seed and black pepper or the salsa verde.
  6. Blanch the fresh peas in a dash of water, a knob of butter and salt for only a few minutes until tender. The plan here is to serve all the rest of the ingredients cold but the peas warm, if possible.
  7. Cut the cos lettuce into short wedges and arrange on a salad platter. Cut the Israeli cucumbers into strips and then short wedges. Drizzle with homemade dressing.
  8. Place the ricotta balls here and there on the platter.
  9. Using a serving spoon, form the cold pea puree into quenelles and place this in intervals to the ricotta balls. In quenelles don’t work, little blobs are also fine!
  10. If you didn’t use the salsa verde for the ricotta, you can drizzle it over the salad.
  11. Scatter the warm peas over everything.
  12. Garnish with the radishes (without their pickle) and serve, no accompaniment necessary.

PULLED LAMB SHANK WITH FRIED GNOCCHI

(Serves 8-10)

Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients, this is a doddle to make, the oven does all the work. And the short cut of sautéing ready-made gnocchi in butter is so good you won’t believe it.

4 lamb shanks

Olive oil, as needed

4-6 branches fresh rosemary, removed from stalks

Half a tin of anchovies

Half a bottle red wine

500ml lamb or beef stock

6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed but not crushed

5 red onions, cut into quarters

240g (1 slab) dark chocolate

2 tsp cumin seeds

Ina Paarman rosemary and olive salt, to taste

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp smoked paprika

Sriracha sauce, to taste

Half a tin tomato puree

2 cups full cream milk

2 oranges

2 packs ready-made gnocchi

100g unsalted butter

Peel and cut the onions into wedges or quarters. Chop the rosemary needles with a mezzaluna. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celcius.

Brown the shanks in olive oil along with the whole peeled garlic cloves. Remove with tongs and place in your cast iron pot or baking dish. Tip the onions into the fat left in the pan and fry with all the spices and the rosemary. Add the wine and reduce slightly. Remove from heat and add the liquid stock, tomato puree, sriracha and anchovies, roughly chopping them up with a wooden spoon. Stir before pouring into the baking dish so that the shanks are submerged in the sauce but not covered with the onions.

Bake covered tightly with a lid or two layers of foil for about 4 hours.

Remove and allow to cool. Skim off some of the fat on top. Remove the bones and gristly bits and give to your neighbour’s dogs, who won’t believe their luck! Pull the meat apart so the stringy bits are mixed into the sauce.

Zest the oranges and sprinkle both the zest and juice over the meat. Melt the chocolate with the milk in a double boiler or microwave and pour over the meat. Stir the whole lot with a wooden spoon to combine. Refrigerate until needed.

When you are ready to serve, re-heat the meat sauce and check seasoning, it very well may need more salt.

When ready to serve gently heat the meat. Preheat a non-stick pan and melt a tablespoon of butter into it. Turn the heat down to medium/low and arrange the gnocchi flat side down in the butter. Allow them to brown slowly (this takes about 4-6 minutes) before turning them over with tongs to brown on the other side. Do not crowd them, fry a batch at a time, keeping them warm in the oven in a baking dish. If you let them cool down, they will become chewy.

I know this sounds fidgety but believe me it’s worth it. The butter browns them until beautifully crisp and golden, which doesn’t happen if you are impatient.

Serve in wide rimmed soup bowls with the gnocchi on top of the meat sauce so it says crisp. Sprinkle with grated Pecorino and serve with a green salad on the side.

SALTED CARAMEL AND PECAN NUT PRALINE ICE CREAM

500ml fresh Jersey cream

1 vanilla pod

2 cups full cream milk

1 cup castor sugar

250g pecan nuts

100g demerara sugar

1/2 cup cold water

100g unsalted butter

½ tsp smoked Maldon sea salt

To make the pralineéd pecan nuts, toast the nuts in a dry cast iron pan and allow to cool on a baking sheet. Heat the castor sugar in a pan until just starting to brown. Whisk in two tablespoons butter and then a dash of cream. While still hot, pour over the pecan nuts to coat as evenly as possible. 

To make the salted caramel, heat the demerara sugar in another pan until just starting to caramelise. Add the water and swirl the pan so the sugar dissolves. As soon as it does, whisk in the butter bit by bit until melted and combined. After a few moments, the caramel will bubble up, remove from the heat and whisk in 50ml of the cream. When it has cooled, gently whisk in the salt but do not let it dissolve. Refrigerate until needed.

To make the ice cream, heat the milk in a saucepan or microwave with the split vanilla pod and sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar and allow to cool. Whip the cream until soft peak stage. Stir in the cold vanilla milk and churn in an ice cream churn or pour into an enamel tin. Pour over the pecan nut praline and the caramel on top, gently swirling with a fork to submerge the nuts. Freeze for at least 24 hours.

POACHED PEARS WITH LEMON VERBENA

8 ripe pears

1 cup golden brown sugar

2 lemons

2 cups dry white wine

Two handfuls fresh lemon verbena

2 cups cold water

2 cardamom pods, crushed

Reduce the wine in a small saucepan so the alcohol evaporates a bit. Set aside to cool.

Peel the pears, leaving the stalks intact. Cut a thin slice off the base of each pear so that they all stand up straight. Take a large cooking pot and place over medium heat. Add the sugar and wait for a moment until it just starts to caramelise. Add the water and dissolve the sugar. Remove the stalks from the leaves of the lemon verbena and chop roughly. Cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice into the syrup, adding the halves in with it. Then add the lemon verbena and the cardamom seeds. Arrange the pears in the pot so there is space between them. Cover with the lid and poach gently so that the syrup bubbles up. After 8-10 minutes or so, use tongs to turn the pears onto their sides so that they cook evenly. Repeat a couple of times until all the sides are more or less equally tender.

Let the pears to cool in the syrup. Remove the pears with tongs or a slotted spoon. Place the pot with the syrup back on the stove and reduce. Serve the pears glazed with the syrup next to two scoops of ice cream with shortbread fingers alongside.

One thought on “A movable feast

  1. Thank you! Your descriptions of Graaf Reinet are beautiful, your recipes look delicious, and I identified so much with what you said about creativity and the place you grew up.

    Liked by 1 person

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