October 1, 2012 in Uncategorized
A few years ago I heard Philip Tobias define serendipity as looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter. Well, I found her. But let me tell the tale from the start. I’m not much of a fan of foodie festivals and events. Usually there’s too many wannabe’s, has-beens, poorly made and overpriced food, not even to mention the amount of backbiting and eyeball-gouging between under-qualified armchair critics and their over-informed protractors. The unceremonious eviction of Cape Town’s most abhorrent pseudo-foodista by the host at last year’s Toffee food festival left me with a wry, told-you-so smile. “You were right, as usual, to stay away” my inner hedonist told me gleefully, and I left it at that. On Saturday I was invited with to a meal that would change all of my preconceptions. A most welcome phone call mid-morning brightened an otherwise bleak day with an invitation to a pop-up dinner organised by @ToffeeEvents as part of the run-up to this year’s meticulously planned Spier Secret festival. Knowing that the company would be good, I accepted. I had no expectations about the food or the venue, but with the family off to a glorious holiday in Buffels Bay while I had obligations at work, I knew that at the very least it would beat Saturday night television and dinner for one.
The venue in Spin Street (such an apt name considering that parliament is just around the corner) is a narrow room with wooden floors in a building that has likely been under the protection of the National Monuments council for some time. A Weber filled with glowing charcoal at the front door deceived us for a moment before we entered, finding the venue gloriously decorated in what I can best describe as a cross between Brillat Savarin’s Grande Chambre de Saveur and what I would expect the laboratory from Roald Dahl’s short story, Perfume, would look like. A long table, elegantly and intimately laid out for 7 diners, awaited, basking in the golden glow from what seemed a hundred tea candles reflecting from the space blankets used to cover the walls. Drinks (a superb Chenin and Pinotage from Spier) were decanted into glass laboratory flasks and beakers, with a large jar of rock shandy for those intent on abstaining. The cutlery was left on an antique sideboard in jam jars, descriptions of their required usage printed on the paper sheets that acted as place mats also containing a brief note on each dish. We sat, poured, and thus began the age old ritual of dining in tranquillity among like-minded friends.
I can bore you ad infinitum with descriptions of the ethereal beauty of the evening, but in the end, when stripped away of everything else, it is all about the food. There was to be no whistles & bells or foams & gels, thank goodness. Cara Brink compiled the dishes to reminisce about old fashioned Afrikaans classics, and in the process honour and celebrate family, and elders. Between courses she came out to explain and briefly talk about each dish in a shy, clear voice. An absolute absence of any pretence was very clearly on the menu, which at first glance looked deceptively simple. Yet, as most cooks will tell you, simple is easy to cook but the hardest possible dish to do to perfection. What followed was a meal that surpassed any of my last year’s meals at Eatout’s top 20 restaurants, and put many of them to shame. The planned oysters were substituted with fresh mussels steamed to barely-cooked, plump, juicy perfection in their own juices and but a smattering of finely chopped onion, the delicate stems of suringkies adding a momentary rapier-cut bite to the dish. Served next was a spring salad of tender baby butter lettuce with the thinnest slivers of fresh apple, gooseberry and marinated red onion, dressed in an unassuming honey and oil vinaigrette that brought out the Lady Marmelade in the Chenin, a perfect wine and food pairing if there ever was one. The outydse sosaties that followed revealed an expert chef’s hand: marinated in a properly cooked light curry and onion sauce for four days prior to being skewered with the appropriate dice of delicate pork fat in between the cubes of meat for added luscious succulence, and a dab of dried apricot to tame the excess. This was no bumbling attempt by a butcher’s apprentice, no half-hashed roadside diner’s approach to what should be THE Afrikaans national dish. An accompanying twist on bone-bredie showed insight into the season’s changes and the need for new-found freshness, incorporating peas and spring onions with a light hand into what could easily have been a stodgy disaster. Bits of carrot and hint of mint added to it in the very same way a frisky morning breeze in Spring makes the sunshine all the more welcoming, and it acted as the perfect accompaniment to the rich, sweet sosaties. On to dessert: the abundant dark chocolate terrine would have been welcomed by any Parisian chocolatier. Sides to this included the freshest, feather-light ricotta carefully blended with a bit of fynbos honey, delicately thin slices of almond biscotti and a preserver’s masterpiece in the form of guava fruitcheese. The guava’s had been boiled down gently for a couple of hours with some sugar, and set beautifully through nothing but the use of their own inherent pectin. A small dash of rosewater added further voluptuousness to this artisanal crafter’s dessert reminiscent of the skills I’d thought died out with my ouma. “Marry me, Cara?” my friend Jaques asked jokingly with a mouthful of decadence, earning him an understanding glance from his wife.
Over coffee poured atop a generous layer of condensed milk, the conversation steered towards family and food. Cara told of how she painstakingly recreated the sosaties her oupa was famous for- a man who died before her birth; how she experimented with various ratio’s and gentle spices to come as close to the Ware Jakob as her mother’s palate could recall. The ladies at the table tittered about the photo of her grandfather and his six-pack on the menu. I told of my grandfather, and his infamous birthday celebrations in early January where he also made the sosaties ritually with a crystal glimmer in his eye up to a week before. My ouma ‘s illness left him a bereft widower, but also a man without any food culture or -skills. In the remaining years of his life he went from being unable to boil water without burning it, to the first and foremost male cook I knew, and those annual January gatherings became more important to us as kids than Christmas. With the adults around the fire, all the grandchildren would laugh, giggle and chase giddily around the house, raiding his vegetable garden or the orchard of summer fruit if our hunger could no longer wait for the meat to come off the grill. We would attempt to outdo one another by eating as many sosaties as was allowed, and proudly hang on to the sticks as badges of honour to be displayed and bragged about. Afterwards, the adults now in contented conversation, we’d wait impatiently for the ritual vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, relieving our frustrations with the on-going search for the cement patches around the house where my grandfather proudly wrote each of our names in at birth. Since my grandfather’s death I have not eaten a sosatie this sweetly close to perfection for twenty seven years.
In the end it’s never about just the food. Food in itself is not a spiritual experience; it is but a clanging cast-iron pot, a hollow vessel. What gives humanity value is community and friendship, but food is frequently an integral part of the binding, the essential glue that holds together the fragile parts of who we are as individuals. In conversation the dedication of Sophie Dahl’s cookbook was mentioned, where she wrote to her now-husband, Jamie Callum, that it is at his table she wishes to grow old. I could not but help to think that I would not mind at all growing old at a table such as this, and in this company. I am rarely without words, but on Saturday night I lacked the ability to describe the perfection and balance of the evening’s food, my food of preference: heimweë-en hunkerkos. Cara Brink exhibited the most finely honed of skills in that delicate dance between chef and ingredients, the sublime pas-de-deux between host and table guests. She underestimates and undervalues herself. To her I can but send an invitation: Kom dans, Klaradyn