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Vegan high tea at the Twelve Apostles

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

More and more hotels and restaurants in Cape Town are beginning to not only accommodate vegans but to actively court them. The latest is the Twelve Apostles Hotel with a vegan high tea.

High tea, a British colonial idea stretching back to the 19th century, when Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford (d. 1857), who is credited with its “invention”,  would serve cakes, scones, crumpets, cream, jams and tarts in the afternoon. Although there were cucumber sandwiches even back in her day, they were invariably spoilt with butter. One wonders what she would make of Executive Pastry Chef Gina Marziani’s vegan high tea in the leopard print bar of the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa.

Vegan cakes and vegan cheeses are not always successful. There are a lot of very poor efforts out there. I am pleased to say Marziani and her team have done quite well with their vegan spread, and it certainly eclipses the Mount Nelson’s vegan high tea reviewed here last week.

There is a great list of teas. I recommend a pot of leaf infused Sencha Fukujyu green tea which is strong enough for several pots. You might for fun also try the tea-bagged Indian masala chai. There is soya and almond milk available for those who want to do that to their tea.

The food arrives on a fancy, two-tier cake plate, with the savouries underneath. These include a guacamole wrap with micro-leaves, which has been lightly toasted so it holds together better; and various sandwiches of olive tapenade and pesto with green pepper and tomato; a pickled sandwich on sweet potato bread, and a spicy hummus sandwich. There are also crudités of cucumber, carrot and tenderstem broccoli.

The sweets include a rather rigid but convincing coconut panna cotta with granadilla; a slice of banana and nut bread; and an oat and date cookie. The blueberry cheesecake is a bit mealy and the texture needs improvement. The scone is somewhat solid but comes with delicious berry compote and strawberries. The chef is apparently still experimenting with alternatives to cream. Soya cream would work, but it is rarely available in South Africa for some reason.

The highlight is the perfectly, airy textured Valrhona Manjari chocolate and hazelnut cake and delicious forest jelly with quince and apple. There are also bitter chocolates.

The Atlantic views are splendid from the balcony. Twelve Apostles is the perfect stop on the way to or from Sandy Bay, the beloved beach of free-thinking vegans of course.

The Vegan High Tea is available daily in the Leopard Bar and Conservatory from 10am to 4pm at R375 per person. 24-hour notice is required.

To book: www.12apostleshotel.com or call 021 437 9029.

Brent Meersman was a guest of the hotel.

Vegan High Tea at the Mount Nelson

Thursday, February 8th, 2018


In a previous life, fresh out of university in 1990, aged 22, as a stop gap I landed the job of being put in charge of the lounge and high tea at the Mount Nelson. I won’t go into the gory details of what managing the lounge meant back then, but it entailed incontinent billionaires wetting the upholstery, a procession of exceedingly rich people gorging themselves to the brink of cardiac arrest, and a seemingly inexhaustible chocolate mousse cake that would be returned to the kitchen fridge each day until it began to separate on the buffet table.

It also involved various wealthy members of society stealing the tips left for the very poorly paid waiters in my charge. One individual, who given any opportunity had a habit of filching the tips as soon as his friends or colleagues left, had the cheek to complain to management of poor service. That individual is still known to me. So secure was he in his class in the 1990s, it probably never entered his head that the working class lad from the wrong side of the railway tracks who was waiting on him, would one day be sitting across the table from him at pompous dinners and ambassadorial functions, and remembering him stealing tips from indigent waiters.

The waiters were mature, middle-aged men with families earning R450 to R650 per month, less than the price of a bottle of Don Perignon which they served every other night to guests of the hotel. I should add workers were unionised, but the union was no better. Every night in the main dining room the shop stewards would accumulate and pocket nearly all the tips, hundreds of rands for themselves, while handing each waiter R20. I wonder where those union officials are today in our democracy.

On the face of it working conditions are better these days and the relationship between staff and patrons far more egalitarian, respectful and less stuffy. The colonial pretences are muted. The clientele more varied. But it is apparent from the service that although the staff are eager to please, management has continued to under invest in their training.

The opulent lounge table still groans with vast quantities of cake, but there is now also a vast selection of teas and a far more sophisticated and refined approach to tea brewing and drinking.

Funnily enough, I was an oddity back in 1990 because I was vegan. Veganism was considered utterly bizarre. I remember there was only a bit of iceberg lettuce and leftover tomatoes for me to eat in the staff canteen. But a few decades later, here is the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel offering vegan high tea.


The savouries are now brought to the table on a double-decker cake stand, starting with cucumber sandwiches on white bread and a tomato sandwich reminiscent of school lunch. Both benefit from a little salt. As does the rather bland sprout taco and the artichoke and tomato skewer. There is an authentic guacamole with lime not lemon juice and falafel served on a gem lettuce leaf.


The second tier has a sweet potato and carrot savoury (a bit dry), a thimble-sized quiche, a spicy pakora and a flavourful mushroom pasty.

If you’re having the vegan high tea then the sweets are also brought to the table. At first glance, the plate looks rather like a kids’party with its bright food colouring.

There was only one disaster in this course; what should have been a meringue (and could have been made beautifully with aquafaba) was a rather disgusting, chewy, bubblegum-like, sickeningly sweet mess. This must definitely be removed from the tea spread.


The rest was passable: a macaroon; a lemon lime tart with cashew cream and lime zest; a date based cashew mousse cake which rapidly became a puddle on the plate; a fruit cake spiced with allspice and cinnamon; and apple pie. The carrot cake was the tastiest item. To finish there was a fruit skewer with very dry pineapple core. More attention needs to be paid to selecting quality fruit.

Overall, I was underwhelmed by the vegan offering and I know the Mount Nelson can do far better. However, the beautiful, newly decorated solarium and the serenity of the space was unspoilt and high tea at the Nellie makes for a very pleasant (and filling) afternoon.

Tintswalo launches vegan tasting menu

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Read the review here.


No one listens to vegans

Monday, July 25th, 2016


Photo: Shayne Robinson

Photo: Shayne Robinson

“Nobody listens to vegans,” a good vegan friend warned me. “People think Vegans come from Planet Vega. We are out there with people who are transgender.” Indeed, a couple of years ago, after telling somebody in Garies in the Northern Cape I was vegetarian they smiled and offered me chicken.

Now, I’m quite comfortable with being considered abnormal, unpatriotic, and a danger to animal husbandry. I’m less happy being considered an extremist, a borderline eco-terrorist, and a danger to myself. I’m definitely unhappy to be thought of as militant, wrong and illogical.

Going vegan has been almost like a second coming out. You sit at a typical suburban gathering, ribs and sausages sputtering on the braai nearby. People are offering beer to their badly behaved dogs. Everyone is salivating at the sizzling smells.

Do I tell them now? Start gently, you think. “I forgot to say,” you apologise to your hosts, “I’m vegetarian.”

Cutlery falls into paper plates; you are the party pooper. You get looks that say: you think you’re superior to us, don’t you? How are we supposed to enjoy ourselves, knowing you are looking at our fatty fingers and the grease around our mouths? Why must we feel we have to defend ourselves in our own backyard?

Someone laughs. Somebody always says how much they love their meat and how they could never give it up. One of the men gets up in disgust and goes and pokes the fire. He gives a chop to the dog; something he’d never normally have done.

“Well, there’s salad,” says a maternal person taking pity on you, nudging the mixing bowl filled with iceberg lettuce in your direction.

You thought you’d get away with salad, but absolutely nothing has been left untouched by feta, mayonnaise, shavings of parmesan, and tiny bacon bits. Even the baked potatoes were dolloped with butter the second you turned your back to fetch a drink.

“Actually, I’m vegan,” you reply timidly, “and that has blue cheese and yoghurt dressing.” It takes them a while to clock the problem.

Someone cracks a joke – why does vegan cheese taste bad? Because it hasn’t been tested on mice.

Most vegans sit quietly and don’t evangelise, yet they are thought of as humourless and extremist. In my experience, it is the meat eaters in this situation who usually become aggressive and defensive, who pick your beliefs to pieces and try and persuade you that you’re actually barking mad. Isn’t it enough just to be punished by airlines?

After school, I went vegan for five years and vegetarian for a further nine years. And then, there was a burger in New York. Since that fateful day, I ate meat but was never really at peace with it. For the last 15 years then, I’ve lived in a kind of false consciousness, the not too closely examined life. After all, everyone is advertising and eating meat around you all the time and on a vast scale, so how can there be anything wrong with it? Right?

I compromised. I tried to always eat “ethical meat”, “free range” and whenever given the option, I picked venison. I’d seen first-hand what lions do to buck in the wild and a bullet seemed like a mercy killing.

And mostly I blamed the health risk. True, towards the end of my 14 years of not eating any meat or fish, I seemed to get every bug, cold and flu that came along.  But instead of interrogating my diet, I jumped to conclusions. I thought of myself, perhaps disingenuously, as a vegetarian trapped in a meat-eating body. Only recently, I realised why my health became an excuse for eating meat.

It goes back to when I was six years old and living in Belgium in the 1970s, a country that back then had never heard of an avocado pear never mind a vegetarian. Our family had just moved back to Antwerp and we were vegetarians. After two years, my mother, who had a long history of schizophrenia, lapsed back into psychosis. It was a terrifying experience as a child in an alien country. We had to fly back to South Africa for her to be hospitalised. We kids were told it was her diet. She was anaemic. The connection must have stuck.

Eating eventually became a profession. Writing, researching and thinking about food forced me to re-examine the issues. I could no longer live in denial.

“How are you going to review restaurants?” asked a friend when I finally came out to him as vegan.

I explained that in the last couple of years I had steadily progressed to pescaterian (I’m still not convinced of the sentience of oysters) to vegetarian to vegan. Readers hadn’t it seemed noticed that meat was hardly ever mentioned in my reviews – from the 5-course   vegetarian tasting menus at Azure, Mount Nelson Hotel, and Makaron, to places such as Hemelhuijs and the obliging chef at Haute Cabrière. It was easy to get away with dim sum. Then there were columns on raw food, Krishna temple food, veganism, foraging, eating seaweed, mushroom hunting, health food cafés, sprouting and so forth.

At promotional events, I’d have to notify the PR people. Other food writers started to give me suspicious glances at table. One astute blogger, eyeing my plate, asked what was going on. I said all would be revealed in time, and here it is – my swan song.

I haven’t nearly run out of things to write about   for Once Bitten – there is still a cornucopia of worthy subjects – the many vegan options presented by the cuisines of India, South East Asia, Mexico and the Levant; the meaning of the vegan revolution in Israel; the new, intriguing vegan artisanal food movement, including fermented and age-matured vegan cheeses.

But readers expect reviews of the latest places, chefs and trending foods, and I’ve largely exiled myself from that world. My inbox is full of invitations for steak, but I’d rather tell you about seitan. I wonder if you’re interested.

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian on 15 May 2016

Saving the planet: kelp is on the way

Thursday, July 9th, 2015


We were in luck. It was new moon and the tide was at its lowest. The swell was also gentle that day, giving us plenty of time to explore the intertidal rock pools near Scarborough beach on the Cape Peninsula.

It all started when Hiromu Jimbo, a young Japanese man who’d spent three and a half years travelling from Istanbul through Europe and then down through Africa on a bicycle, turned up at the Good Hope Gardens Nursery, Cape Point.

He came for 10 days and landed up staying a hundred. Jimbo introduced Roushanna Gray to “the joys of eating and preparing seaweed”. Coming from a country where seaweed is a daily food and a highly prized delicacy, Jimbo was amazed that South Africans were oblivious to what was on their doorstep.

The South African coast has more than 700 species of marine algae. Out of all of these, there is only one inedible species – acid weed (Desmarestia firma), a fan-shaped brown algae with serrated edges that contains sulphuric acid.

Gray now runs teaching expeditions on coastal foraging. Before embarking, she gives us a brief introduction and talk on sustainability. Always collect as close to the tide line as possible. Never detach seaweed from its holdfast on the rock; rather trim no more than a third with a pair of scissors. It will then regrow; some of our kelps grow a centimetre a day. There are kelps that grow more than half a metre a day. It is a highly sustainable food source.

But you must have a permit, which is easily obtainable from the post office for R95 and is valid for a year. Take your ID. And another word of warning – never turn your back on the sea. Waves have a way of sneaking up on you.

My experience of consuming seaweed hadn’t gone much beyond nori. I had also eaten salt marsh samphire (Salicornia meyeriana) or sea asparagus at chef Kobus van der Merwe’s marvellous spot in Paternoster.

Wild nori or purple laver (Porphyra capensis) grows abundantly along our coast in stacked sheets that look like black plastic when dried out at low tide. Its cousin, Porphyra yezoensis, is the Far East nori familiar to us in sushi.

Many of us also know and use agar (popular as a gelatin for vegetarians). Agar-weed (Gracilaria gracilis) grows along the west and south coast, some of it is exported from Saldanha Bay. Agar is found in many gelatinous red algae, and local saw-edged jelly-weed, which is harvested commercially. The seaweed industry is currently worth a few million rand to South Africa, but it’s a pathetic drop in the ocean, compared with its economic potential.


The least weird to eat for novices is ribbon sea lettuce (Ulva fasciata) and rigid sea lettuce (Ulva rigida). Gray uses it in sea biscuits, chilli bites and couscous salad. I’ve since added it to miso soup for novelty and colour.

Slightly more courage is needed at first to get to grips with red slippery orbits (Pachymenia orbitosa). Gray says these are good for wrapping roasts or in soups.

Split fan kelp (Laminaria pallida) and sea bamboo (Ecklonia maxima) can be put through a pasta machine and turned into a seaweed tagliatelle. If you boil the whole leaves for two hours you can use the sheets as lasagne. Gray also makes glass noodles by shredding a jelly created by freezing the leftover liquid after boiling red seaweed.

But my favourite seaweed is hanging wrack (Brassicophycus brassicaeformis) which can be used raw in coleslaw, together with “mermaid’s hair” or Cape cord weed (Chordariopsis capensis). If the latter is hair from a mermaid I think I know from which of her regions. You can also drizzle it with soy sauce or sauté in butter with garlic.

Being of Belgian extraction, I was looking forward to collecting mussels. First thing, though, you must be absolutely certain that there is no red tide about. Foragers should also take care that they do not pick our indigenous black mussels, which are being rapidly displaced and outcompeted by the alien Mediterranean mussel.

One good, unintended consequence of their success, though, is that oystercatcher bird populations have recovered thanks to the Mediterranean mussels. The species are not too hard to tell apart, once someone has shown you the difference. To my mind, the local mussels have more elegant lines. As for flavour, I challenge anyone to tell them apart in a blind tasting.

If you’ve ever wondered about the different colours of mussel flesh, dark brown or orange are female; off-white and pale yellow are male, depending on the species.

We also picked a few limpets to add to the shellfish mix. Gray makes sustainable limpet and periwinkle samoosas. Goat’s eye limpet is popular (too popular, in fact) along the Eastern Cape coast.

After our morning on the rocks, we hike up to Gael’s Beach Cottage with our foraged sea edibles to prepare an alfresco lunch in the backyard. Every­one pitches in.

While we wait for the rinsing and boiling, Gray prepares a face mask from dead-man’s fingers (Splachnidium rugosum). The swollen, tubular stems are filled with mucilage (which protects the algae in the sun at low tide). Squeezed out and applied to the face it seems to be absorbed after a while and your skin feels unusually plump.

Then comes the scary, hairy red algae called tongue-weed (Gigartina polycarpa). It works well as a loofah to exfoliate after the facial. Its carrageenan is also used as a gel.

And if you don’t quite look the same afterwards, you can be sure that you will never look at the sea rocks and kelp the same way again.


This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 26 March 2015.

The Noakes cult

Sunday, November 30th, 2014
Prof Tim Noakes speaking at the event

Prof Tim Noakes speaking at the event


In September I attended a private trade event hosted by PR-Net and Original Eating at which Professor Tim Noakes was apparently going to brief journalists on the latest research underpinning his LCHF (low carb, high fat) diet.

There is no doubt that the “Banting” diet works and it has taken the country by storm, but there is a big step between seeing it work and believing why it works. I arrived sceptical of the science behind it and, after listening to Noakes, I left even less convinced. He played too fast and loose with facts and peppered his talk with personal anecdotes.

For starters, there are all my skinny vegan friends whose diets are over 80% carbohydrates. Then there are all the people I know who shed 10kg simply by cutting out booze.

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I could see why Noakes has been so successful, as he spoke off the cuff in the middle of a circle of food company reps marketing LCHF product lines. The fact that Noakes used to promote a high-carbohydrate diet and was as convinced of the science behind that as he is of its opposite today, ironically only strengthens his message in the fruitcake world of diets.

The Noakes narrative has all the elements needed for a quasi-religious story. First, he lived in misguided ignorance. Then he had a Damascus road experience while out jogging. He actually used the words “it was like I was reborn”. There are none so convincing as the repentant. As a true believer, he must share the good news: you can eat fat. Positioning his diet as a social revolution rather than an eating plan, he believes we can all help to redeem mankind.

Noakes even invokes an idyllic, innocent, long-lost paradise when our ancestors ate hippo fat. At 65, a veteran of 70 marathons, saviour Noakes is living proof of his convictions — successful, apparently healthy and brimming with good feeling. And, as with any religious story, we need evil forces to fight, in this case a conspiracy between the devilish medical profession and giant global food corporations. Finally, we are facing an apocalypse thanks to diabetes; only revelations can save us.

To complete his message, Noakes singles out an individual in our midst for us to applaud, someone who has miraculously lost a lot of weight after years of struggling to little effect on the treadmill.

All Noakes needs now is an element of martyrdom and persecution, something I’m happy to provide.  Setting the pseudoscience aside, the consequences for the planet if populations in their billions went off rice and pursued Noakes’s protein-rich, high animal fat diet would be catastrophic.

It flies in the face of everything we know about greenhouse gases, water scarcity and environmental pollution, not to mention growing concerns about biological hazards and an emerging consensus on ethical issues attached to ever greater industrial meat production.

Under the guise of a specific health issue — the diabetes pandemic — all Noakes has really done is reinvent the Atkins diet (officially called the Atkins nutritional approach, first written about by Robert Atkins in 1972 and since refined several times) with a recipe book for the chattering classes who are struggling with their weight because of their overconsumption.

It is also foolish hubris on his part to want to extend his dietary experiments to farmworkers and their children. Then again, doing “good works” among the poor is essential to sustain and grow believers.

The phenomenal success of Noakes and his The Real Meal Revolution has already made itself felt on the restaurant scene in Cape Town, which is probably where his diet belongs.

Diners used to be indignant if there wasn’t the obligatory basket of free bread on the table when the drinks came. Nowadays, in Cape Town at least, waiters are told to “take it away” and patrons ask whether they may have their steak without the potatoes. In more than one establishment in recent months, I’ve been pre-empted by a waiter asking: “You want that without rice, I suppose?”

One of my regular sushi spots, Fugu, now offers a “slimmer’s platter” — mostly sashimi with maki rolled with carrot and cucumber slices instead of rice. My local Knead bakery is doing a rather convincing low-carb bread for R55 a loaf; it’s sold out by noon.

The Wellness Warehouse is struggling to keep up with the demand for flax crackers. The corner Italian restaurant is serving pizza with a chickpea flour base, which is mistakenly thought of as providing a low-carb alternative. Almost scandalously, coming from the land of the potato, Belgian restaurant Den Anker has introduced a low-carb weekend menu. The Kauai chain is planning low-carb wraps and even Butler’s Pizza is toying with home delivery of a low-carb pizza base. I had a sneak preview taste and it’s the most successful of the alternatives to flour dough I’ve tried.

Now two restaurants with Banting menus have opened. Once Bitten will review these next time to see whether chefs can make low-carb meals delicious, even if the science is hard to swallow.


Also see: DEN ANKER’S PALEO MENU (published March 2014)

Carbohydrates are suddenly back in fashion in Cape Town as the city overflows with “carbo-loading” cyclists gearing up for the 109km Cycle Tour of the Peninsula.

The health clubs are advising that you need 30g to 60g of carbohydrates for every hour of cycling. Gyms are recommending for “post-race munchies” burgers and wraps, energy drinks and fruit juice — a full horror list of carbohydrates for the ever-growing number of converts to low- and no-carb diets.

It may have all started with a morbidly obese London undertaker, one William Banting, according to The Real Meal Revolution by Prof Tim Noakes, nutritionist Sally-Ann Creed, and “chef-athletes” David Grier and Jonno Proudfoot.

The low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diet is also known as Banting, with strong similarities to John Durant’s “paleo diet” and the Atkins regimen. Banting made it into the Oxford dictionary, though by its definition “Bantingism” also excludes fat from the diet. William Banting thrived on Dr William Harvey’s eating plan and lived to a ripe old age.

There is a lot of evolutionary mythology and mumbo jumbo around carb-obsessed diets. I believe in a balanced diet of all the food groups. But whatever the scepticism, limiting carbs to between 25g and 100g a day, while still satisfying the body’s need to feel sated, does seem to work for weight loss, though probably not for the pseudoscience reasons given by its pedlars.

Just as artisanal bread-making is exploding on the local scene, along comes the demonising of carbs. It must be equally threatening if you’re in the beer business. After all, beer has long been considered liquid bread.

With this in mind, chef-patrons Doekle Vleitman and Rejeanne Vleitman of Den Anker restaurant, recognised for its Belgian beer and potatoes, and followers of the palaeo/LCHF diet at home, are introducing a palaeo menu on weekends.

The Vleitmans and Lies Bouckaert, founder of Den Anker with her late husband Denis, invited me to try their carb-free lunch menu, with the option to “drink your carbs” instead of eating them. In pursuit of a balanced diet, naturally I had to drink the beer pairings with the food courses.

I expected mussels sans pommes frites, marrow bones without baguette, and ice cream without waffles. What I got was more inventive.

For starters, seared tuna with sesame seeds, thinly sliced radish, a sprinkling of tiny shrimps (a distinctly Belgian touch) on a spread of “Banting mayonnaise”, which is made without using seed oils, and spiked with wasabi.

The carbohydrates came in the form of what my Antwerpenaar father called a bolleke, a glass of De Koninck beer, amber-coloured and top fermented from barley and organic Saaz-Saaz hops from the Czech Republic. No added maize or brewing sugars keeps this beer at 3.2g of carbohydrate per 100ml.

Then there was a choice of Wagyu steak tartare (an excellent option for protein junkies) or perfectly seared salmon with cauliflower mash, green asparagus (a Flemish passion) and caramelised shallots.

The carbs for these were a Maredous Blonde soft, malted beer (4.6g of carbohydrate per 100ml) and my favourite Belgian tipple, Duvel (3.8g of carbohydrate per 100ml). If you know how to pour this one the way I was taught in Belgium, a standard Duvel bottle just fills the glass with a large creamy head of froth coming up two-thirds of the glass to the rim.

It is beer refermented in the bottle for a fortnight in warm brewery cellars and then chilled for six weeks. The total brewing time for a Duvel is 90 days.

Dessert was a Liefmans sorbet from Liefmans Fruitesse beer (5g of carbohydrate per 100ml), a beer I personally can’t abide, along with chocolate cheese (not cheesecake), a block of which I once saw quivering in the glass counter of a Brussels fromagerie.

Liefmans is made with cherries, strawberries, raspberries, elderbe-rries and bilberries.

Den Anker has taken a lead, and we can expect to see more chefs, restaurants and menus responding to the changing eating habits of the well fed.

Looking back on a 150 restaurants reviewed

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

I had published my first novel already. I’d reviewed over 200 shows as the theatre critic for the M&G. I’d written on travel, done interviews and book reviews, covered exhibitions and even some politics.

But it was only in 2008, when I started writing about food that I began to get stopped in shopping malls by strangers. For the first time, people began to SMS and email me about what I’d written that week. Someone asked, “Have you been writing for the Mail & Guardian for long?”

More than once in a restaurant someone came up to my table, pointed triumphantly at whomever I happened to be having dinner with, and declared, “So you must be Munchkin!”

Muchkin was a grumpy foil I’d invented for the reviews. The truth: Munchkin is whomever I happen to be dining with, so they weren’t wrong.

I was to review restaurants because it seemed to be the only thing we Capetonians cared enough about to grow the M&G’s subscriber base. As it happens, I started just as gastroculture surged globally.

Cape Town is without question the most sophisticated, diverse, food conscious city in Africa, a perfect playground for a restaurant reviewer.

I’ve run the gamut; from cuisine prepared by Michelin-star chefs to restaurants serving soup indistinguishable from salad dressing; from my most expensive meal, R1150 before the tip (at The Tasting Room), to my cheapest, R25 for a full plate of injera with toppings (at the Cuisine Africaine beneath a curio market in Long Street).

There was also that R750 seven-course omakase meal at Nobu prompting a reader to comment that I made them choke on their own vomit, and did I “know how many bags of mealie meal, bottles of cooking oil, bags of sugar, cans of pilchards that would buy?”

My Cape to Cuba review provoked a letter from the embassy that I was maligning their island nation.

I’ve been able to revisit cuisines from my foreign travels in Cape Town – Moroccan, Spanish, Turkish, German, Kurdish, French, Italian, Sicilian, north and south Indian, Peruvian, Thai, Korean, Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, Hungarian, Sephardic, Chinese, Lebanese, Belgian, Cuban, Greek, and I still haven’t exhausted the ethnic eateries of the city.

Foreign cooks have always led the restaurant scene in South Africa. Until the 1980s, the assumption being that if you were not from South Africa you could probably cook, which wasn’t entirely untrue.

We had a deadly ménage à trois of British blandness, apartheid isolation and suspicious Calvinism (think of the biddies in Babette’s Feast). That and bad industrial production, America without the Americans, instant food and TV dinners, and a growing dependency on Aromat from Switzerland.

Before the late 1980s, restaurants were mostly confined to hotels like the Holiday Inn where they made beef stock for French onion soup by dissolving Bovril.

Who would have thought we’d export any of it? I remember standing stupefied before a special South African food section in a New Zealand supermarket with Koo canned spaghetti, fast expiring liver paste, and instant coffee proudly declaring it was 100% chicory.

We haven’t exactly exported any culinary wonders. I’ve dimly reviewed koeksusters in London, and bunny chow in New York, but also written about our success with rooibos tea, marula fruit, and Kalahari truffles.

Still, we haven’t anything that adds up to a national cuisine apart from burnt meat and stewing everything in a three-legged pot. But I have described what people living in South Africa happen to eat, and traced many of the origins and influences, from hunter-gatherers and beachcombers to the present day revival of San food and veldkos.

As South Africa started to embrace its new democracy, we began to look for ways to redefine ourselves. We stopped simply copying Europe and stopped thinking of the indigenous and African as inferior. It’s an ongoing process.

At first, local chefs began emulating the Californians and the Australians, trying to invent a new cuisine for South Africa as those countries had done for themselves, incorporating local ingredients and world trends. But those experiments soon petered out.

Now our chefs freely embrace the abundance available to them, and spurred on by the foraging movement and a hunger for discovery, num-nums and morogo are back on the menu. A highlight for me must be chef Margot Jane’s sensational chakalaka lollipops.

The East has always caused the biggest change in our national tastes. First, through what we think of as the Cape Malay kitchen. And today, globalising Asia holds sway. You only have to look at the supermarket shelves where whole aisles are now dedicated to noodles, sushi ingredients and Asian sauces, not to mention entire Asian supermarkets. There is a fusion dish somewhere on the menu at every top restaurant.

Yet before the millennium, most South Africans couldn’t hold chopsticks. In these past five years reviewing, I’ve seen an explosion of Asian restaurants, a quadrupling in the inner city. There were three sushi places in Cape Town in 1995. Today, I count 85.

When I began, critics were preoccupied with how close ethnic food came to the authentic thing. That consideration has fallen away today; it’s asking the wrong question.

Still others complain of cultural imperialism, of chefs plundering and debasing their food cultures – but that seems to me too hardline. So-called authentic cuisine is as bastardised as any other.

The culinary scene drills down into our cultural life from roadside tshisa nyama grills in the townships to braai in the suburban backyard. I’ve explored township eats, Kosher delis, Ramadan feasts and food at the Hare Kirshna temple. There have been the crazies too – raw foodism, a kind of religion in itself – and perhaps the not so crazy proponents of insect meat, which sent me in search of the disgusting mopane worm.

It hasn’t all been upper crust fare from Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa and Hemant Oberoi or even mid-level restaurants. I’ve also pursued popcorn, bread, yoghurt, sardines, pub grub, fish and chips, hamburgers, boerewors rolls and franchised pizza, and the worlds of tea and of coffee.

Then there have been the more unusual places – a picnic in a forest, lunch in parliament and Pollsmoor Prison, and a restaurant run by the mentally different.

Once Bitten has visited our oldest surviving restaurants like the Harlequin (1957) and La Perla (1959); documented how the restaurant scene is now spreading like a fifth column of gentrification to Vredehoek and Woodstock; and poked fun at food apps and the trendiest newcomers.

Sadly, even in five years, places reviewed when they opened have already disappeared.

My first review was of the old Taiwanese seaman’s club in the docks, the Jewel Tavern. It moved to St Georges Mall, then again to Upper Kloof Street, and earlier this year finally closed its doors and converted to an excellent, free home-delivery operation called Monk’s Chinese, which can only be visited in cyberspace.

I even made up one restaurant – Taboo, for April Fool’s Day 2011 – serving surplus SPCA cats, endangered species and “human calamari” from circumcisions. The outraged reaction followed by embarrassed red faces was actually quite unnerving. I hope I have now been forgiven. Five more years please.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian 20 September 2013.

I love my laundry

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Ever felt like sitting in a laundry eating dim sum listening to French music? How could such a concept not be irresistible? Last time I had a dim sum breakfast at I Love My Laundry it was accompanied by the pleasant tones of Constance Amiot, Pascal Lejeune and Sandrine Kiberlain. Management has a strict policy to play only French music.

This quirky little establishment also offers dry cleaning, dyeing, alterations, and ironing services. Did I mention that it is a wine shop too? And a coffee bar. And a gallery. Confused?

Somehow it all hangs together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The brainchild of owners Clayton Howard (currently sporting a conservative version of a Mohican haircut) and business partner, Mico Botha, this April it has already been open for one year.

It is something you’d expect to find in lower Manhattan, and perhaps the I Love My Laundry logo primes one for that. The inspiration actually came from a place (now defunct) called The Public Library in Soho, New York.

The interior is exposed red brick walls crammed with artworks. A laundry line runs diagonally across the middle with an ever-changing exhibit of things pegged on it. The entire centre of the shop is taken up by a massive 14-seater, concrete slab table; it had to be cast in the shop, the cement piped into a mould from a concrete mixer that idled outside.

The table is crammed with tsatskes de luxe, from such design labels as Boe-peep “handsome things”, Sweet & Soutie “gift ideas”, Toucheefeelee “home décor and pamper products”, and even Wagalot organic dog biscuits made by the NGO work4you.

Every Wednesday evening at a free wine tasting “laundry party”, photographers, designers and artists launch their work in the gallery and shop space. The result is a kaleidoscope of creative delights, and as a result the interior is completely redecorated on a four-week cycle. Even more novel, one can lease the art on a monthly basis for one’s own home or office.

There is a steady traffic of people dropping off their laundry, which is returned discreetly, rather quaintly, wrapped in orange paper, so you don’t have to bare your undies in public; not that this seems to bother anyone these days as under 30-year-olds regularly sport their underwear in the street while wearing it.

The turnaround time is 4 to 5 hours (at R10 per kg), but there is an express service that does it in 2 hours at a higher rate. That’s enough time to do some errands in the CBD, catch up on the free Wifi, and enjoy a cup of Brazilian jogajoga coffee at the laundry’s espresso bar. The coffee is served with the ambiguous slogan, “drink it naked”, which doesn’t mean you have to check your clothes at the laundry door, but suggests you try the coffee without milk, sugar or other “contaminants”.

With or without a washing basket it is worthwhile popping in for the dim sum made by Maria Tia and her family, formerly chef at the well-hidden Bamboo Restaurant off Long Street. The dim sum is Korean style, which means no fish oil and no wheat in the pastry. Pure rice flour and water is used to produce three thicknesses of pastry depending on the consistency of the filling. There are meat options, but most offerings are vegetarian. Vegetables respond better to steaming in any event. The pricing, as with all the products and services at I Love My Laundry, are reasonable. Portions cost R30 and consist of eight dumplings served on a bed of spinach in a bamboo steamer.

The tofu dim sum uses the firmer type of tofu and minced vegetables and carrots. The pastry is silky and pleasingly light. I highly recommend the kimchi filling, which includes a little tofu too. On the table are bottles of oyster sauce, soya, chili, and sweet mango sauce.

Surprisingly, there is only the faintest hint of laundry smell. The detergents used are all organic, eucalyptus based and fragrance free. Windows are usually kept open however and four fans spin from the roof.

As a registered heritage building, a fat trap could not be installed, which is why cooking is by steam. But every Thursday, there is a fondue evening at R125 per person. On the table are four stations, each with three shared fondues: three cheeses and three breads – a sour dough, a sweeter bread and an oil-based bread; a beef consommé with fillet, rump and green peppercorn steak, and rye bread croutons; and a dessert pot with dark chocolate fondue, brandy, marshmallows, sponge cake, orange segments and banana.

To accompany the food there is no shortage of wine as the laundry is also Cape Town’s only social media wine distributor and wholesaler. They buy in bulk and offer some wines at silly prices, such as R28 for a bottle. There is a shelf of current wines with their prices clearly displayed attached with washing pegs.

The venue can also be hired for parties of up to 60 standing or private sit-down dinners for 14 people. As one would expect, Howard and Botha have a dozen suggestions for themes, including toga parties.

At this laundry, you can easily find yourself three sheets to the wind.

I ♥ My Laundry, 59 Buitengracht Street, Cape Town. Tel 084 660 0777 or 083 602 0291.

This aricle first appeared in the Mail & Guardian 19 April 2013.


Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Perhaps no food has been more closely linked to health geeks than yoghurt. In the old South Africa, yoghurt used to be vaguely associated with people who eat wheat germ and await flying saucers to take them to a better world.

In fact right up and until the late 1980s, almost the only yoghurt available locally was the thin “Bulgarian” variety from Dairy Belle, sold in cartons for drinking through a straw, or thrown in as an ingredient for certain baked goodies.

And yet, there were always South African backpackers returning from exotic climes on the Mediterranean with fantastical tales of delicious extra-thick yoghurts and rumours of goats milk yoghurt laced with honey.

In the end, yoghurt caught on mostly thanks to the health kick industry of the early 1990s and reports about the longevity of Bulgarians. Places such as Camphill Village led the way with organic pastures. Yoghurt-making machines became a brief craze and could be found on hypermarket shelves. Anybody completing a course of antibiotics was encouraged to binge on yoghurt. Today, yoghurt is virtually a staple food in South Africa.

Yoghurt is essentially fermented milk, not curdled milk as reported by among others the Oxford English Dictionary. Two strains of lactic bacilli working together are responsible: Lactobacillus bulgarius, which acidifies the milk, and Streptococcus thermophylus, which provides that distinct aroma and the tart Granny Smith apple flavor.

Much continues to be made of the digestive health benefits of prebiotic and probiotic cultures in yoghurt. In general, strains used by industrial manufacturers are either killed in pasteurization or don’t survive in the human intestine, so the idea of repopulating your gut’s flora and fauna with those yoghurts is quackery. Some strains do colonise however, and these “probiotics” must be live and noted on the labels, although my GP says you’d have to eat kilograms of the stuff to get the equivalent benefit of a good probiotic pill.( A warning: the market is flooded with thousands of dud probiotic drinks and products.)

Sticking to the health theme, frozen yoghurt was “invented” in the 1970s in the United States as an alternative to ice cream. In South Africa, it was pioneered by Marcel’s, starting in 1989 in Stellenbosch. By 2005, probiotic BB-12 cultures were introduced and the fat content reduced to 2.4%. They have 19 stores in four provinces and are expanding to Saudi Arabia.

Another frozen yoghurt franchise is Wakaberrÿ which started in Durban in May 2011 and now has 16 outlets in four provinces.

When a little frozen yogurt parlour opened on Kloof Street in December 2011, it appeared Cape Town had been blessed with yet another brand, Myög. Its bold and cheerful signage, cool colour scheme, and eye-catching logo led many to assume it was the first branch of some international chain.

But the interior was slightly quirky, with AstroTurf on the counters and the floor, and funky white leather couches and chairs. Taken together with the extremely attentive and personable service in slightly hesitant English, one quickly gleaned that behind the counter were owners not employees. They are the handsome duo of Frenchmen Joris Hadjadj, who hails from Auxerre, and Jean-Eric Leblanc of Montereu.

Myög (standing for My Yoghurt) has been an instant hit, though somewhat forsaken during last year’s long, Cape winter.

The story is familiar to Capetonians. They came on holiday to Cape Town, fell in love with the city, and devised a way to stay.

They did their research and saw a gap in the market for their passion – frozen yoghurt.

The South African taste it seems is for creamy and sweet. They too focus on health, outlawing artificial flavourants and heaven forbid no yoghurt powder (which gives some frozen yoghurt brands a sherbet taste). Their frozen yoghurt is rich in calcium, potassium, and its halaal certified. It has 5% sugar and 2% fat (Myög prefers to advertise this as “98% fat free”). In comparison, normal yoghurt has 4% and Greek-style 10% fat. By contrast, regular cream is 18% and double-thick cream 48%.

A regular size Myög serving is 150ml and has 75kcal. The yoghurt is specially produced for them from a single Cape dairy farm using fresh skimmed milk (not UHT), which means the yoghurt has a relatively short shelf life. This is partly why in addition to plain they offer only one weekly flavor, cycling through real peanut butter, coconut (very subtle), mixed berries, Nutella, and rooibos. They will soon add cinnamon.

Toppings include nuts, Astros, muesli, Oreo cookies, fresh seasonal fruit (in summer and when available, mango, kiwi, strawberries, pineapple and melon, and in winter apple, pear and banana).

Myög offers its flavours in smoothies. The rooibos is my favourite; the inclusion of nuts with the rooibos was a taste revelation. You can also try the parfait with layers of yogurt, muesli and fruit.

To date Myög had been open from noon till 10pm, but will soon open for breakfast from 9am. Large waffles promise to be popular, as well as their invention, a Yoffee – coffee with frozen yoghurt instead of milk or cream.

Plans are now well underway to open an outlet in Sea Point. Perhaps, a new franchise has landed after all.

Myög Frozen Yoghurt, 103 Kloof Street, Gardens. Info: myog-frozen-yogurt.com

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 3 May 2013.

Foodism: Let them eat artisanal cake!

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

‘You are what you eat” has never rung truer. The revolution has failed. Consumerism and globalisation have triumphed, and it has been done through food.

Where once there was a rebellious middle-class youth, today there are little gourmands more interested in lemon grass than marijuana, in menus rather than manifestos, in mixing pisco sours rather than lobbing Molotov cocktails. It’s no longer the doors of culture they want to see opened for the proletariat, it’s the pantry.

Dinner conversation among the chattering classes has turned from Marikana to parmigiana, from the arms deal to where to get the best veal, from discussing the secrecy Bill to fussing about what doesn’t go with dill. What piques us is not the Nkandla scandal but cooking à la king.

Foodism is supplanting art and culture. We prefer fettuccini to Puccini; bok choy to Tolstoy.

As a food columnist I feel partly responsible.

The change in my lifetime has been remarkable. When I grew up in the 1980s, the culinary culture of South Africa was dire, sexist and very unhealthy.

But, in my case, the die was cast early. As an eight-year-old on the school playground the other kids would run away screaming when I opened my lunch box of stinky Roquefort cheese sandwiches, courtesy of my Belgian father.

At home, we had witloof (chicory — almost unheard of in those days) and ate raw herring. On the rare occasions my school friends visited, they thought my family was trying to poison them.

They were accustomed to braais and potjies, beef and potatoes with gravy powder, chicken and white rice with canned mushrooms, cauliflower with instant white sauce, I&J fish fingers and slap chips. For a while, the snackwich machine cheered everyone up.

Coffee was instant chicory. Pasta was macaroni baked with slices of watery tomato and melted sweetmilk cheese. When the first packets of dried spaghetti arrived, South African housewives cooked it until it had the texture and taste as close as they could get it to spaghetti in a tin. Bolognaise was made with sugar and a packet of tomato soup.

Going gourmet
Today, our supermarket shelves groan with variety. In Woolworths, you find carrots in three colours, Polish blueberries, Mexican avocados and snoek from New Zealand, not Kalk Bay. Pick n Pay has dozens of brands of olive oil and balsamic glaze, and even sells lime foam in aerosol cans.

My local Checkers, for years a shabby place where anything special would expire, now offers live crayfish, an oyster tank, rabbit and buffalo milk mozzarella.

My hamburger, my boerewors roll, even my samoosa have gone gourmet. With the current meat scandals, and apparently giraffe and kangaroo doing the rounds in our biltong, and possibly horse in our supermarket burgers, there seems to be a cogent argument for gourmet fillings, where one has the reassurance that only the choicest ingredients procured from the best suppliers are used.

Within 250m of my living room (I have measured this on Google Earth), I have a choice of dozens of restaurants, including fusion, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Lebanese and Indian.

Perhaps it’s because I live in Cape Town where we are obsessed with eating out. I mean, how many sous vide water baths are there outside the Western Cape?

I admit, I would rather talk about creamy potage than grubby politics these days, but I’m beginning to have some doubts. My bedside creaks under a pile of biographies of the pineapple, the potato and tuna, and an autobiography of a chef, Anthony Bourdain. Morris Kline’s Mathematics in Western Culture has been pushed aside by Cooking for Geeks; my Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology is invisible beneath my Larousse Gastronomique. On Sundays I no longer paint: I cook.

Thankfully I don’t have television (it has been replaced by the oven) or I would end up watching reality TV shows such as Junior MasterChef (there are now versions in 10 countries) with children aged between eight and 13 making nori rolls and parfaits. How did we get to a point where four-foot-high tykes are pitted against each other imitating Heston Blumenthal with foams and molecular cuisine?

Insatiable eating machines
Is this a better world? Part of me wants to rebel: I wonder whether it’s not all too gluttonous and self-absorbed; a great distraction from what really matters; a world where we are turned into profitable, insatiable eating machines consuming more than we need, driving up demand, chasing every new fad.

As the fashion industry gave us the must-have item for every season, now we will have the flavour of the month.

Just as the pharmaceutical industry invented all kinds of new ailments for us, the food industry — at a price — will keep finding new things to free us from — not from wage slavery, but from eggs, caffeine, gluten, lactose, sodium, sucrose, genetically modified plants and the preservatives and additives they added in the first place.

Is it even possible to rebel? Isn’t the real appeal of the free-range, organic, local, artisanal, humanely butchered slow food not altruism, not hitting back at the corporations, nor even saving the planet, but the greedy promise of the next titillation of tastier, more scrumptious, guilt-free food?

Some worry that foodism is a fresh form of class warfare, a new disguise for snobbery and elitism. Are the yuppie markets and little eateries springing up in Woodstock and Salt River or Maboneng really the fifth column of gentrification?

Instead of critiquing the latest art-house movie or Booker Prize winner, you will end up being looked down on if you don’t know how to thicken a runny ganache or rescue separated mayonnaise — that is if you still dare to buy mayonnaise in a bottle, chicken stock in a cube, or sneak bottled salad dressing under your guests’ noses.

You will only impress if you can pontificate on why egg whites are best whipped in copper bowls or know what length makes a French loaf a baguette, a bâtard or a ficelle — all this in a country where the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research says we throw away 9.04-million tonnes of food a year. In pure maths terms, that is half a kilogram of food waste every day for every one of the 50-million people in South Africa. How many half-kilos are you responsible for?

And on a global scale, the foody quest for exotic wonders is harming communities out of sight and far away. The global popularity of sushi has pushed the bluefin tuna to the point of extinction. Since quinoa was discovered by Westerners and its virtues extolled by food writers, myself included, Andean peasants can no longer afford what was once for them a dirt-cheap and vital staple protein.

Perhaps, as with all cultural revolutions, there are aspects we love and others we hate. We should be on our guard: foodism has the potential to be as oppressive and harmful as any of the isms, from consumerism to communism. We have become wary of politicians and not wary enough of celebrity chefs.

And we best be mindful that, unlike art, food only superficially nourishes the soul.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 8 March 2013.