Ultimate Braai Master

Written by Brent on March 16th, 2013

Justin Bonello

With the first series of the Ultimate Braai Master, celebrity bush cook Justin Bonello (pictured above) inducted the first batch of South Africans into the world of reality TV cooking shows. Fifteen teams of two contestants covered 8 000km and 13 locations around Southern Africa in a 52-day outdoor cooking roadshow that involved “extreme cuisine” and gruelling challenges. Auditions for a second season are now underway.

The first series excelled at showing off, TV fashion, the beauty of South Africa, with colours boosted in post-production and tumid Carmina Burana-style music. The format of an escalating tournament with elimination rounds had the suspense, judging and rewards of shows such as Master Chef.

There were elements of Survivor, as when in the fourth episode Bonello told contestants that it was very likely they could be bitten by a snoek, which has anti-coagulant mucus; in the event of that happening, they would have to burst one of its eyeballs and rub it on the wound. Some challenges, such as dishing out huge, whole catfish for braaing, evoked Iron Chef.

But, even for an arch sceptic of reality television, there was something more honest about Ultimate Braai Master compared with most reality TV shows, which are notorious for their misleading editing and hidden scripting. In a departure from the norm, Braai Master had a sense of generosity and bonhomie among the competitors; the finalists even made a pact to share a portion of the prize money.

Bonello, the man behind the series, is similarly down to earth, despite his meteoric career — a dozen books and TV series and more in the pipeline. He is sporty, slightly rugged, loquacious but also discerning, alert and cultivated — more metro-oke than metrosexual.

He insists he is a cook, not a chef. “I’ve never said I’m anything else.” A chef “is trained to give you an experience. I can just give you an experience”. When he was growing up, he was “lucky” in that his family went away a lot, and he was the one who went diving for abalone, harvesting mussels and fishing. His grandmother taught him to make pancakes at the age of six.

I ask Bonello what he looks for in participants. “I’ve discovered that five-tenths of the protagonists we use in content will develop ego, and ego is the killer for me … If they can retain the humility, then I’ll use them again.”

And in the contestants? “Obviously they have to be able to cook but, then again, it’s television and there has to be the entertainment element.”

Aspirant braai masters have to be screened and must answer an on-line questionnaire. For the first series, one question was: How would you cook a warthog? “Venison is notoriously difficult to cook but the minute I saw the third red wine and pineapple recipe, I knew it was cutting and pasting from the internet, and there is no skill set involved in that.

“I boiled it down to one point — generally, the contestants were the one within their circle of friends who was the braai master … the gregarious one, the life and soul of the party.”

After a few days, the contestants forget about the camera.

Now that people have seen series one, won’t things be different, I ask.

“I think people were scared by the calibre of what was produced [in series one].” But, says Bonello, people shouldn’t be discouraged; those contestants improved enormously during the filming from having to cook every day and going through the challenges under pressure. They developed their expertise in leaps and bounds.

Getting it right
I say that there must have been an enormous temptation to manipulate the show, especially in the South African context, to get the demographics right for the TV audience. Series one ended with three pairs of whites. “Yes, you can skew things in reality television but, if you blow your integrity …” He shakes his head. “We have an obligation with the contestants to tell the truth … Only you can make yourself look bad … We don’t construct.

“We really wanted Nqobani and Mbuso [Mlagisi] to go through but there was nothing I could do … at the end of the day it’s who did the best.”

Looking ahead, I wonder what is left to braai in the second series. Bonello laughs. He says almost anything can be done on the braai. “We’ve been cooking in the outdoors from time immemorial … There’s an alchemy behind food … You can do an Eggs Benedict on the braai!”

Indeed, before electricity and gas, fire was the stove. And the fire, like Bonello’s own flair, gives it something unique.

This aticle first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.


Beefing up the burger

Written by Brent on January 17th, 2013

It was a burger in New York that ended my nine years of vegetarianism, five of them as a vegan. Apt enough, because the burger has done more to turn eating meat into a regular meal than any other dish. My Jewish host insisted I have a bacon burger with cheese and pickles; otherwise, it was like going to Rome and missing the Coliseum, he said.

I’m not sure what it was exactly that made me, in that moment, overcome my revulsion of red meat. Perhaps because visiting New York back in those days was part of a broader, wilder adventure — his neighbour had just been murdered in the apartment next door.

The burger was delicious, nothing like anything I’d ever been offered back home. The bun was lightly toasted. It was tall and messy. I wonder whether the humble burger started the craze for stacking food?

“South African!” said my host. “Put down that fork and knife.”

My table manners were embarrassing him. You wouldn’t lick your fingers, but even in this fairly upmarket restaurant one was expected to use hands when it came to eating burgers. It’s the only practical way to get to grips with the thing.

It’s really a sandwich. Based on the eponymously named creation of the fourth Earl of Sandwich remade American style, the burger was probably invented in the 1880-1890s near Chicago, surmises Andrew F Smith, author of Hamburger: A Global History (2008).

Where the English had cucumber and delicate slices of roast beef, the Americans placed a thick, roasted patty of ground beef.

In the battle between the ranchers’ lobby and the pig farmers of the United States, the burger played its role in spreading the wonders of beef. There were even laws passed forbidding pig fat in burgers. Which is why the word “hamburger” initially confuses some.

It originates with Hamburg steak, which in the late 19th century was believed to be the best gourmet beef brand. But by World War I the German connotation was elided with the misnomer “Salisbury steaks”, the way French fries briefly became freedom fries after 9/11.

With the rise of industrial agriculture and unprecedentedly cheap meat, families no longer ate meat once or twice a week. The burger must take responsibility (or credit, depending on your view).

Once the conveyor-belt approach of mass assembly was applied to the restaurant, the fast-food chain was born and burgers conquered the world.

In Italy you won’t find Starbucks, but McDonalds abound; there are two within metres of the Spanish Steps. There is a McDonalds in the basement of the Louvre.

But those industrial patties that look like someone sat on them don’t cut it for many of us. The secret of the great burger is, of course, the quality of the meat. Mincing your own at home from a well-marbled bottom sirloin produces the best patty and the best way to cook it, in my experience, is on the braai. This summer, forget the lamb chops, and try a burger on the grid.

Long popular in South Africa, in the past few years burgers seem to be having an African Renaissance of sorts. Cape Town has seen a spate of “gourmet burger” establishments trying to reinvent the humble patty. The Royale Eatery in Long Street was one of the first of these trendy burger joints, offering not only beef versions but also ostrich, Karoo lamb and even pork between buns.

Nearby is another great spot for casual dining on trendy burgers — the idiosyncratic Lola’s. It used to be a hangout for transvestites, Dutch tourists, Bohemians and the great unwashed backpacker brigade. It also used to be vegetarian, but since it had a makeover has started serving burgers.

Film-crew types and the concomitant sagging pants and exposed underwear crowd have hung on. Smoke drifts in from the outside tables. The jumbled clientele lends much charm. The wild-boar cheese burger with chips stacked like Jenga pieces is novel, yet loyal to what makes for a great burger.

For the trendiest burger in town go to hipster hangout Clarke’s with its American diner-inspired menu and late-night hours (open until 2am, Wednesdays to Saturdays).

It is the only Cape Town restaurant I know of that has tables and counter spaces marked stammtisch — a forewarning that these are preferred tables for regular guests and you may be asked to move.

The clean, white, hardy space nonetheless has a design feel, with bare, oversized lightbulbs and abundant pot plants that make for pleasant displays.

The burger here is made with premium beef from Bill Riley and out of the ordinary, tasty brioche buns from Trevor Daly, served with homemade slap chips in a paper-lined basket.

The patty itself lacks the caramelized meat exterior, but it is very juicy with a satisfying fat content. If you don’t like it rare you must tell the waiter. Based on several experiences you won’t be asked how you like it done and it will come bloody. Perhaps hipsters enjoy this in the small hours when out on their own wild nocturnal adventures.

No need to go to America anymore.

Clarke’s Bar and Dining Room, 133 Bree Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 7648
Lola’s, 228 Long Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 423 0885
Royale Eatery, 273 Long Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 422 4536

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 11, 2013.



Written by Brent on December 28th, 2012

In the summer of 2011, I spent four days in a log cabin in central Finland without electricity or piped water, harassed by clouds of mosquitos that could bite through gloves. We brought with us potatoes and tomatoes, but that was all. Every day we caught perch and vendace in the lake, and foraged in the forest, where sea buckthorn grows and the floor is carpeted with blueberries, lingonberries and great patches of chanterelles.

There is a primordial thrill about finding free, wild food.

That said, it was hard work; from sunrise we chopped wood, gathered the fishing nets, gutted and filleted the catch, rummaged through the forest floor, fired up the wood stove, and then, towards evening, set out once more to drop the fishing nets.

There was no time to write a novel.

We dined simply; you’d be hard put to improve on fillets of fresh vendace barbecued over the coals. More organised Finns commonly have a dedicated barbecue hut (called a kota) with the fire and chimney in the middle of a central table.

For the Finns, hunting and gathering is par for the course; almost everyone has a cabin somewhere in the countryside. But most people in the world live in cities and forage for dinner among the shelves of their local supermarket.

It was after Nordic chef René Red-zepi’s Noma in Copenhagen became “the number one restaurant in the world” in 2010 that the food media started to pick up (and to some extent create) a new trend to forage. What made Noma special was Redzepi’s predilection for using wild ingredients.

Foraging became fashionable: finding mushrooms in city parks; hardy edible weeds growing alongside railroad tracks; duwweltjie leaves on pavements; and, in the United States, abandoned fruit trees in the gardens of foreclosed homes after the subprime mortgage crisis.

Foraging has inspired books (one of this year’s favourites is Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong), guided tours through urban forests such as New York’s Central Park and a daring new cuisine cult among some of the world’s top chefs.

Wild radish may be the new rocket for the jaded gourmet palate, yet we are also trying to reconnect to a planet in greater ecological peril than ever before. Foraging dovetails neatly with the organic, locavore and slow food movements. On a small scale, foraging has joined the rebellion against industrial agriculture.

Revolutionary zeal aside, foraging is undeniably about our desire for new and tastier experiences. Chefs have to some extent always foraged, especially in Europe (think of truffle hunts and seasonal berry picking), but Redzepi took it to a whole new level of sophistication and opened people’s eyes to edibles previously overlooked.

Soon foraging was picked up by Martha Stewart and others such as Eddy Leroux at Daniel in New York and Alice Waters at California’s Chez Panisse.

On the home front, several Cape chefs have also turned their talents to foraging.

Eric Bulpitt of the Roundhouse in Camps Bay said it is a “long and very time-consuming” process to find the right taste combinations using untried ingredients.

“There are so many edible herbs out there and a lot of them are not recorded,” said Bulpitt of the pioneering effort involved in creating delicious new dishes that don’t give one’s guests stomach cramps — or worse. Redzepi, for instance, forages with an iPhone and sends images to experts when he isn’t sure of something. At the New Yorker Festival in October, Redzepi told the audience: “I’ve choked, and I’ve had on-the-spot violent diarrhoea.”

Although many chefs love to forage for themselves, a new industry of professional foragers has emerged. Miles Irving, for instance, the author of The Forager Handbook (2009), started a company to supply British chefs with wild ingredients. Today he has a catalogue of more than 120 edible ingredients.

Bulpitt has used Kalahari truffles in the past and is currently verifying and experimenting with a great variety of plants, among them wild ginger and rooiwortel, and herbs such as dead nettle, sow thistle, Cape wormwood and four varieties of wood sorrel. He is still working out how exactly to use them.

Chef Peter Tempelhoff of The Greenhouse at the Cellars-Hohenort (awarded restaurant of the year at last year’s Eat Out DStv Food Network restaurant awards) loves the red berry-like fruit of Carissa bispinosa, known as num-nums. You’ll find locals on the roadside in KwaZulu-Natal selling this fruit in late summer.

In another dish Tempelhoff matches tuna with smoked snoek broth, tofu and daikon with bokbaai-vygie. He forages for cep mushrooms on Table Mountain, samphire from the Keurbooms River estuary and picks sea lettuce off the rocks at the Marine in Hermanus.

Chef Shaun Schoeman at Fyndraai near Paarl serves katballetjies, the tiny bulbs of an indigenous, liquorice-flavoured plant, uses salvia in a mayonnaise emulsion and flavours crème brûlée with the fragrant fynbos shrub buchu. On the Solms-Delta wine estate he has acres of fynbos at his disposal.

“We are making the most of our wild plants and herbs, which we grow in our culinary Dik Delta garden,” said Schoeman. He uses herbs “on a daily basis in almost every dish we prepare at our restaurant … plants such as citrus buchu, wild rosemary, wild garlic and pelargonium”.

West Coast chef Kobus van der Merwe said: “Collecting food from the wild is very much part of our heritage in Africa. I grew up with my grandparents collecting karkoere and !N’abbas [Kalahari truffles] in the Northern Cape or picking seaweed for making jelly and harvesting mussels when we were at the coast.”

Nutty, mushroom-tasting !N’abbas are delicious peeled and gently fried in a little butter.

As an example of what can be accomplished by foraging, Van der Merwe cites his current signature dish: “I call it ‘Mosselbank at low tide’, which is where and when I collect these specific edibles — ice plant, soutslaai, dune spinach, wild parsley and sea lettuce. I pair these with poached pear and homemade maasbanker bokkom [a type of dried fish], raw celery, ginger and almonds.”

“Winter is the best time … sow thistle can be cooked like spinach. Wild radish and wild mustard seed pods are delicious in salads and stir-fries. Depending on the condition of the specific plant, the young leaves can also be eaten like rocket. Oxalis leaves, stalks and flowers are invaluable when making traditional waterblommetjie- or veldkoolbredie”.

Foraging might have been plucked from recent obscurity, but it has a pedigreed literary history of fine dining.

The poet C Louis Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery (unpublished when he died in 1947) has a whole veldkos section. It includes such tantalising comestibles as blue-white iris corms, wild sorrel (gathered by sailors to ward off scurvy since before Van Riebeeck’s day), wild fennel, wild anise, wild almond tree seed, and water hawthorn.

But before you look twice at that mushroom you used to dig out of your lawn with annoyance, consider the three Ps of foraging: permission, pollution and poison.

In Finland everyone, including visitors, is allowed to forage in the forests for free. In the United Kingdom, the landowner may chase you away but, as long as what you’ve taken is for personal use, he may not confiscate your pickings. In New York expect a $250 fine if you’re caught raiding the lawns of Central Park for minty ground ivy without permission.

In South Africa, make sure you are not pillaging a protected area. One hears about the poaching of Kalahari succulents and the wholesale plunder of wild garlic in the Cape’s Tygerberg reserve. You should always forage with a view to sustainable harvesting. Never pick every last mushroom or pull up a plant by its roots.

Many plants are poisonous, especially mushrooms, and thanks to nature’s disguises it can be devilishly difficult to identify the edible from the deadly. Urban areas are also highly polluted. The peppery nasturtium you just picked by the roadside might have been used minutes before as a signpost by a dog.

For recipes visit Kobus van der Merwe’s excellent blog.

Seasonal expeditions for mushrooms, Kalahari truffles and waterblommetjies are arranged by slowfoodmothercity.co.za

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian 30 November 2012.


South Africa’s first paella competition

Written by Brent on June 13th, 2012

Eight teams had assembled on the lawns of the Constantia residence of the Spanish Consul General, Ignacio Garcia-Valdecasas, for South Africa’s first paella competition. They had brought their gas burners and cooler boxes of ingredients. Several of the paelleros (the paella cooks) were wearing frilly polka dot aprons. It was a warm day and the sangria was flowing within minutes.

Paella is one of Spain’s great gifts to world cuisine. It is considered a national dish globally, but it is thought of as a regional dish in Spain. Its origins are Islamic; the Moors of Andalusia brought rice to Spain in the 9th Century, but rice only started to be widely cultivated around the 15th Century in the region of Valencia, the home of paella. What we call paella today emerged in the 19th century.

Paella is at once a great comfort food – there is something peasanty about dishes where everything is cooked in one pot – and yet it has the opulence of saffron and can be brim-full of such extravagant ingredients as lobster tails and tiger prawns.

If you’re lucky you’ll find paella cooked in pans on open fires on the backstreet pavements of Valencia. The pan is called a paellera. It is shallow and may be a metre across, though most people use pans half that diameter. Paella is popular for celebrations and get-togethers. Traditionally men cook, much like our braai tradition. You eat straight from the pan, which becomes the table.

If cooking paella at home there are recipes for hot plates and ovens, but these end up as a sort of casserole. You need a gas burner; and many of our stoves don’t have wide enough burners to spread the heat under large pans so it’s worth using a Cadac burner. Gas allows you to speed or slow the cooking which is the essential paella skill.

Only use olive oil. Real paella is all about the rice and first prize is Bomba, but it isn’t readily available here. Arborio works perfectly well. The key is rice that it be super absorbent.

Unlike risotto you do not braise the rice first. You never stir it either, but pat it. And unlike risotto you don’t slowly ladle in the liquid. The biggest test, and this is where experience shows, is getting the right ratio of liquid to rice. The liquid should be the finest stock you can make. If you’re making a marine paella use seafood stock.

The other vital ingredients are the sofrito of tomato (some say never use onions), rosemary, and of course Spanish saffron (never turmeric!).

I enjoy a paella that celebrates the omnivore in us, but opinions about what is and what is not appropriate to go in paella can be tetchy. As the dish has spread across the regions of Spain and indeed the world, it has obviously attracted as many different ingredients and combination of ingredients.

Valenica’s purists abjure seafood and use meat, but never Chorizo or sausage. Green peas are considered traditional. Original versions of course included whatever came to hand, such as frogs. Many purists still insist on snails and rabbit.

Paella marinera (seafood) is possibly the first thing most South Africans associate with paella.

I simply look for a balance of ingredients and I am not too fussed if I find poultry, seafood and meat all in one. The end result should also not be greasy, which is the fate of most paellas.

The real hallmark of great paella is the socarrat, the caramelized portion underneath or on the sides of the pan where the flames have licked the rice, while the top remains fluffy. Paella should stand for a few minutes and is best served tepid, not piping hot.

The teams had to be ready to cast their rice by 2pm (paella is traditionally eaten only during the day), when we judges would make the rounds, armed with plastic forks and paper plates, not the traditional boxwood spoons.

Third prize went to a vivacious group of ladies which included team members from Spain, Argentina and Chile; second prize to Miguel Calvo for his rabbit paella; first prize to the golden grains of Pedro Sanchez.

In our local restaurants however risotto remains king.

If you’re in search of paella your best bet is La Bruxia (341 Main Road, Sea Point; Tel: 021 434 8797).
Liam Tomlin’s Spanish cooking class includes paella at the Chef’s Warehouse and Cookery School (50 New Church Street, Cape Town; Tel: 021 422 0128), where you can also obtain real Bomba rice.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 8 June 2012.



Written by Brent on November 18th, 2011

If my editor ever wanted to get rid of me, all he would have to do is insist that I start using stars to rate restaurants. When I still ran a weekly theatre review, people would often ask me: “Why don’t you use stars like the other newspapers?” My reply: “Why do you need stars if you read the review?”

I understand the concept of awarding stars when it comes to rating wine, running shoes, generals in the military or the creditworthiness of Greece. But it is dreadfully unfair and misleading when applied to experiences such as a Shakespeare production or a banquet in a Chinese restaurant.

The Zagatification of life keeps spreading. In Europe, star ratings are closer to hotel classification — there is a strictly controlled checklist so that you know what it means, and the public has a pretty good idea of what a three-star Michelin restaurant is.

But the newspaper critic’s star ­system is in his mind and readers come with their own assumptions of what it should mean, so the system is flawed from the outset. There are places I would give five stars for their dumplings but readers would scream at me when they see the tacky venue. There are other eateries where they could put me in a golden armchair and serve me champagne in a hand-blown glass and I would still knock off a star if they tortured me with loud, inappropriate music.

Yet there is no point arguing with the Zagat restaurant guides — they are a phenomenal success story. Unsurprisingly, they started in the United States where folks like things simple: on or off, good or evil, for or against us, dead or alive.

Zagat bases its stars on the ­opinions of thousands of voluntary reviewers. Its method prefigured what is now ubiquitous on the ­internet — from Amazon.com to ­Rottentomatoes.com. You can even rate the reviews.

The most useful and comprehensive national guide for restaurants in South Africa is Eat Out. It does not use stars officially but it does encourage online readers to post reviews and aggregate an average user star rating.

“Restaurants are automatically notified when a review is posted and given the opportunity to respond,” said Anelde Greeff, content ­director of Eat In and Eat Out. “We don’t ­censor as a rule. We fix obvious spelling and grammar mistakes and delete offensive language.”

Awards, also ubiquitous these days, involve a lot more thought and discernment than arbitrary stars. So when it comes to selecting the 10 best restaurants in South Africa, is it any less problematic?

The annual Eat Out DStv Food Network Restaurant Awards will be announced on November 20 in the Rotunda at the Bay Hotel in Camps Bay at what promises to be a spectacular dinner (R1 000 a head) prepared by several of the country’s top chefs.

The sole judge is Abigail Donnelly. She received “input from a panel of professional reviewers across the country”, comprising more than 30 individuals. Restaurant customers — 75 000 readers — have been able to submit their reviews online and input from both these sources was taken into account before the judging started.

The awards really are a big deal in the industry.

But how do you weight food, ambience and service to ­produce an overall fair assessment?

“My philosophy is that taste is the emotional component of a dish. It is about caring, passion, ­dedication — an uplifting philosophy and ­consistency that shines through,” said Donnelly.

To be on the top restaurant list, an establishment must “set standards that lift the restaurant industry in South Africa to new heights”. Out of a total of 100 points, food counts for 70 and is broken down as ­follows: appreciation of the use of local, ­seasonal produce, ethically sourced animal products and ­sustainable fish species (15); presentation, plating and accuracy of the menu ­description (15); taste (25); value for money (5); and wine choice (10).

Service counts 20 points and ­covers the diner’s experience from making the reservation to settling the bill, the attitude of staff, their knowledge of the menu, specials and wine, and the willingness to go that extra mile to accommodate special requests.

Ambience counts only 10 points and covers an establishment’s atmosphere, comfort, design, interior decor, glasses, cutlery and linen, cleanliness, music and bathrooms.

This year Eat Out will also announce winners in six new ­categories: best Asian restaurant, best Italian restaurant, best steakhouse, best country-style restaurant and best bistro, as well as the Boschendal Style Award for “the most stylish restaurant”.

To get into the top 20, the restaurant “must illustrate astonishing talent in an establishment of world-class standard. It must leave you inspired and enraptured.”

This year’s nominees:

Azure Restaurant
DW Eleven-13
Grande Provence
The Greenhouse
Hartford House
Jordan Restaurant
La Colombe
Mosaic Restaurant
Pierneef à La Motte
Planet Restaurant
The Roundhouse
The Tasting Room
The Test Kitchen

Published in the Mail & Guardian


Turning the tables on disability

Written by Brent on September 3rd, 2011

People with mental illness and disability – or as current politically correct speech has it, the intellectually challenged – suffer an enormous amount of discrimination and isolation. Broader society is impatient, defensive, usually awkward, and often hostile if not openly vindictive towards them. Meanwhile 99% of what irks the world is perpetrated by those ostensibly of sound mind.

Fortunately, under our constitution, people with special needs qualify for “disability grants” (over one million South Africans currently receive permanent disability grants). But that doesn’t change the need for a sense of self-worth, to enjoy meaningful work, to have at once some independence and yet the feeling that one belongs to society.

20 Breda Street is an old mansion. It was a hostel for young women and home to some of the Jewish refugees who came on the S.S. Stuttgart in October 1936. The house has remained to serve the Jewish community and today it houses the workshops for Astra, a sheltered employment centre. Started in 1950 with one person, there are now 65 people working here, all with special needs.

Director Merle Furman took me on a tour. Upstairs and downstairs there are various work rooms, one with several magnificently old wooden looms, still in use, producing quality work. A soft baby blanket is in the making according to pattern and design by its operator. There are sewing rooms, rag doll manufacturing and a carpentry shop making doll houses. One fellow collects stamps from envelopes to sell to philatelist dealers for the centre. I notice a page of six-cent Ugandan stamps with George the Fifth’s head on them.

All the manufactured items are available in a spacious gift shop.

There is also a restaurant café open to the public. Renovated and reopened in March last year, it is now housed in a solarium with views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Glass panel walls can slide open in summer and there is an outside table too. It’s an airy, comfortable space. Twice a day, a dear called Margaret Catzel plays the piano.

There is no signage on the street, just look for number 20.

The waiters greet you and introduce themselves. As several struggle with writing, the menu is accompanied by a pen and a form on which you fill in your own order.

I found staff interactions relaxed and virtually normal. One was gratified by the thought too of how the tables are turned here – since some of the waiters would probably be less enthusiastically welcomed in return if they went as patrons to certain restaurants in the city.

Destigmatization and breeding familiarity is an important function of this kind of establishment.

The kitchen is kosher and all items are milchik – in practice it’s vegetarian, though there is tuna lasagna and smoked salmon bagels. (The chef overseeing the kitchen is fully qualified.)

Breakfasts are the normal options (no bacon of course): muesli, yoghurt and stewed fruit compote or omelettes, scrambled and fried eggs with tomato and toast. For light meals there are sandwiches, salads, baked potatoes; and then there is a soup, quiche, and pasta of the day. The thick, traditional butternut broth I tried was quite fortifying.

The restaurant kitchen also does outside catering, providing large foil containers serving eight persons by pre-order. Prices are reasonable.

Coffee time is also open on occasional Sundays (they do advertise in the paper) and available for for private functions.

I doubt there is anything like it elsewhere in the world.

COFFEE TIME at 20 Breda Street, Gardens. Tel. 021 461-8414. Open for breakfast (served all day), teas and light lunches. Monday to Thursday 8am to 3.45pm, Friday 8am to 3pm. Booking essential.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 12 August 2011.


Fasting and feasting

Written by Brent on September 3rd, 2011

Not eating certainly builds character; if it is by choice, of course. Well over a billion Muslims will observe the fast of Ramadan this August. The faithful refrain from smoking, eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. Imagine – no coffee.

Ramadan is the 9th month according to the Muslim calendar. In the Southern Hemisphere this year it’s an easier time thanks to our short days in August (around 10 hours in Cape Town; 15 hours currently in the United Kingdom).

Ramadan commemorates the month in which the holy Qu’ran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is a period of greater introspection, of doing good deeds, of contemplating the word of Allah. The mosques have special congregational prayers and the entire Qu’ran will be recited within the month.

Fasting exists in many religions, not only the Abrahamic, but also in Hinduism and Buddhism. It can positively focus the mind and build solidarity. (Purges and fasts have also become popular among alternative health practitioners.) But in Islam it is one of the pillars of the faith, and a time to turn away from worldly ways.

In some parts of the world, however, Ramadan is becoming commercialized (as Christmas has in the West). The Middle East television channels run special soap operas during which period many companies spend half their annual advertising budgets. A few years ago in Lebanon there was a backlash against the extravagant night feasts in tents that included belly-dancing.

Suhoor is the morning meal, before sunrise and prayer. The Cape Malay word for this was “sowah”, but Arabic terms have in recent times become dominant.

The breaking of the fast after sunset is Iftar (the Malays call it ‘buka puasa’). It’s such a special time among the Cape Muslim community that this year I joined my friend Faizel and his family in Belgravia to explore their tradition.

The kitchen has been busy. The daughters complain genially that they work all day and still have to do the cooking. (I’d find it extremely hard to prepare food after fasting all day without tasting it, not to mention all those enticing smells, but then I haven’t had the training.) More and more people buy food ready prepared, and there is a growing trend to go out at night to halaal restaurants (Kaprino’s in Green Point is running a Ramadan buffet special).

It is 5:45pm and seven-year-old Aaliyah is rearing to go. Children start with half-day fasts until they reach puberty. She has a pink napkin wrapped plate of granny’s bollas (spherical donuts with coconut). The tradition is to go door to door swopping treats with your neighbours. We head off from Martin Luther Street towards Salaam Street.

Aunty Jessie, who has a reputation for her chicken curry, has made flapjacks; there are pies in the oven, and on the table samosas, dhaltjies (deep fried chili bites made from pea flour with chopped spinach, lettuce, grated onion or potato) and bhajias (chili bites but with bigger leaves).

On 8th Avenue, Aunty Wieyah has samosas and pancakes (without coconut, because, she jokes, her husband says coconut, not smoking, makes him cough).

It is nearly sunset. Faizel tells me that years back everyone used to wait outside on the pavement to listen for the call to prayer as the mosque was rather far away. Today, we wait, tuned to Radio 786 (the number is a numerological abbreviation for the phrase “in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate”).

We break the fast with a single date, in accordance with the tradition of the Prophet. After prayer, the table is set with a fine spread.

Rukeya serves her thick spinach and beef soup, and offers us a glass of cold pink falooda, made with milk, elachi (cardamom) and rose syrup and greenish basil seeds (which Faizel calls ‘frog eyes’).

Then there are bowls of Amina’s delicious, warm milky boeber (made with vermicelli pasta, cinnamon sticks, sago, sugar, to which sultanas and almond flakes are often added).

Aquilah has made sweetcorn fritters; Nadia has attended to the Jasmine rice (best soaked in cold water for an hour before cooking); Faizel has prepared a scrumptious butter chicken – cubed fillets sautéed in butter, with ground coriander, chilies, cumin, tomato paste, cream, and a sprinkling of fresh chopped coriander.

I understand why some people even put on weight over Ramadan. But Faizel’s father, Ebrahim reminds us, “You never know what is on your neighbour’s table, if anything.”

Once everyone has finished eating, in Muslim tradition, the food no longer belongs to the hosts. At weddings and functions guests load and take what is left, colloquially called a “barakat”. I know I’ll enjoy mine tomorrow.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 12 August 2011.


French cooking with Nadege

Written by Brent on July 17th, 2011


French is to fine dining what Italian is to opera or Russian is to ballet. They are superlative adjectives, the acme of the art. After all, wasn’t the modern restaurant born when revolutionaries of no fixed abode flocked to Paris and the best chefs in the world, those of freshly decapitated aristocrats, found themselves unemployed? Actually this is just a popular myth invented by the Goncourt brothers.

Restaurant comes from the French word for a restorative medicinal bouillon. Hence, “restaurateur”, a person with skill to do this (and not ‘restauranteur’). Places serving these tonics were common before the revolution and catered to the fashionably delicate.

The revolutionaries however promoted working-class eateries for fraternal feasts and communal square meals. They spurned the former chefs to the aristocrats, executed at least one who had managed to find a job in a revolutionary kitchen, and were suspicious of former royal staff. Nor would they have anything to do with extravagant dishes or such ‘wasteful’ ideas as reductions. Louis XVI was arrested when he stopped to stuff himself at an inn, while attempting to escape.

After the Terror however, Parisians began to recover their joie de vivre and the restaurant tradition of the west was born from the innovations of the ascendant new bourgeoisie.

Separate tables were introduced; kitchens were sealed off; establishments became gilded and decorated with chandeliers and mirrors; menus were instituted, listing a variety of dishes, often with their provenance. ‘La carte’ means both ‘menu’ and ‘map’.

From the outset, restaurant criticism (modeled on the drama review) and early guide books to the eateries of Paris played a major role in shaping the institution into its modern form.

During the 19th century, restaurants became fashionable places frequented by foreigners, particularly the British and Americans who found Paris remarkably cheap.

French chefs were trained through a system of apprenticeship arising from the former guilds. They worked hard at protecting their craft by persuading the rest of the world, particularly the English-speaking nations, that as the inventors of haute cuisine they possessed its secrets.

There may be a Starbucks in the Louvre and a MacDonalds on the Champs-Elysées, but the French have been remarkably successful in retaining their pre-eminence.

My partner in gastronomy, Munchkin, and I decided to go for a French cookery lesson. In Cape Town there are numerous cookery schools in various formats. These run from amateur to professional, include demonstration chef’s tables, six-week long curricula covering the bases, day-long explorations of specific ethnic cuisines, ‘fun’ internships in actual restaurants (for which you pay), and even raw food courses where you learn to not to cook food.

I particularly liked the sound of one run by Nadège Lepoittevin-Dassé. She promises to help one reach the “fabled status” of Frenchiness. Here you book as a private party with up to six friends. You agree beforehand on a menu. You cook and eat the meal at her home in Fish Hoek overlooking the ocean. Nadège says from the bedroom you can sometimes actually hear the whales when they come into the bay to breed.

We arrive with wine, our aprons and sharp knives, as instructed. Nadège, always neat, precise and professional, has recipes printed out, the menu chalked on a blackboard in her elegant hand, and work stations set at the domestic kitchen counter. Chanson and French pop play in the background.

Nadège, who is taking a respite from the financial world to pursue her passions, has been in South Africa for ten years and her enthusiasm for the country is infectious. This September she will also be running an impressive-looking culinary tour of her home province Normandy.

We start with onions and tips on how to slice them up with the minimum of tears. But the secret to French onion soup lies in the stock already prepared by Nadège about which she briefs us. Nadège says this dish is a favourite at midnight on New Year.

Her class is open to skilled and unskilled chefs. She doesn’t blink an eye when I drop an egg on the floor or when Munchkin pours the yolk and milk meant to baste the puff pastry for our fillet en croûte into the blender with the chicken liver paste for coating the beef. I however blink when she adds a good measure of very fine Cognac; no cheap substitutes in this kitchen.

Next up is the reason I’m here – to perfect sauce Béarnaise. Nadège inducts us into getting the sabayon base frothy and airy and stable enough. I then discover what I have been doing wrong all these years. Of course, I can’t give any secrets away here.

For dessert we fold a lemon soufflé. When we remove it from the oven Nadége shushes us; if it has turned out a success the slightest noise will make it collapse, she jokes.

It has been an enchanting evening and we still get to eat the delicious fruits of what has been a near effortless labour.

Contact Nadège at: http://www.nadegecuisine.com/Contact.html for cooking classes.

The tour to Normandy is from September 5 to 12.

 Further reading:

The Invention of the Restaurant by Rebecca L. Spang (Harvard UP, 2000)

Haute Cuisine: How the French invented the culinary profession by Amy B. Trubek (University of Pennsylvania, 2000)

 This appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 1 July 2011.


Tipping point

Written by Brent on June 15th, 2011

My lesser self wants to giggle when a waiter introduces themselves as, “My name is –– , and I will be your waitron.” What a dehumanizing term. It says: I’m a sexless cog in a machine to serve you. The other extreme is “I’m your service ambassador”.  How pompous. It fills me with dread. I know the service is going to be hard work, like negotiating a trade agreement. These are true believers. The specials will be recited with immoderate detail. You will be menaced by a three-foot-long peppermill. If the ambassador isn’t looking down their nose, they will be complimenting you on your choices, one of several idiotic habits waiters develop, such as the presumptuous inquiry, “Is everything alright?”

There are places where three waiters will ask this in succession giving the impression the establishment lacks any confidence. A waiter should simply ask if there is anything else they can get one, just once and suitably timed.

Then the crux: what is an appropriate tip for an ‘ambassador’? Is it more or less than for a ‘waitron’?

If you’re like me, irritations, pet peeves, sheer folly and shabby service makes no difference. I still tip upwards of 10%. Tipping usually feels somewhere between a toll fee and an act of charity.

If the idea behind tips is to incentivize, anyone who eats in Cape Town knows it doesn’t work. The cheapskate is not going to tip well, no matter how good the service; and no matter how bad, most people are shamed into adding 10% regardless. I’ve had appalling service where the waiters are 100% dependent on their tips, and brilliant service where the service charge is added automatically.

Tipping is a messy business and many diners find it stressful and confusing. How messy it gets, I’m about to relate. Unlike New Zealand or Japan (where to tip is to insult), we’re stuck with it.

Governments don’t like it either. In some places the taxman presumes waiters earn 10% of turnover. In Paris a 15% service charge is added by law.

In the United States tipping is a national scourge. A waiter in Los Angeles once gushed breathlessly when she brought me the check, “I do this for all my clients,” she said. “15% is the minimum, 18% if you liked the service, 20% if you happy with me.” On the slip she had written down the total next to each percentage with a smiley face in blue ballpoint pen.

In New York 20% is now standard, though many diners calculate this on the before general sales tax total, and some tip lower on the bar portion.

In China you never tip, but in New York’s Chinatown my exit from a cavernous restaurant was blocked by a stocky man with folded arms and the demeanour of Oddjob in the Bond film Goldfinger – the one with the lethal bowler hat. “Where’s the tip?” he demanded.

In London, a ‘voluntary’ service charge of 12.5% added to the bill has become common. South African tourists are mostly unaware of this and regularly add 10% on top.

The argument against tipping that says parsimonious restaurant owners are just foisting their wage bill on the diner is fallacious. Yes, you are covering the wage bill by tipping, but the personnel are in theory being paid what you felt they were worth. The alternative would probably just be higher prices on the menu.

In parts of Europe, where waiters are paid adequately, tipping is not expected. In South Africa, waiters in upmarket restaurants are earning fairly well actually, considering the skills for the job, and relative to the average income of the population. Many also escape tax. In a high end restaurant that has 200% markups on the retail price for wine, it is quite possible that the waiter is earning more from the bottle than the estate that made it. Seriously.

But waitering can be tough. This column was prompted by a dreadful altercation I saw in a Portuguese eatery in my street. A middle-aged, rather nasty-looking couple had left no tip. The perplexed waitress asked if anything was wrong. The male half of this villainous pair released a torrent of abuse, repeatedly shouting, “An outrage! How dare you?” No comment was made on the service, only her audacity to expect a tip. The waitress stood helpless, tears streaming down her face, trembling.

A compulsory service charge however gives the restaurant owner full power. In the UK, several cases were exposed where the service levy was not paid over to the staff. In one, it was used to pay the minimum wage and the balance retained by the owners. In another, it was used as bonuses for the management. I know of one five-star hotel in Cape Town where years ago the shop stewards took the vast amount of tips (several hundreds of rands for each of them) and handed the waiters R20 at the end of the evening.

In many places, credit card tips never reach the waiters. Deducting 5% for credit card commission before paying on to the staff is however sensible accounting.

I recommend where possible pay cash directly to the waiter. Of course, you don’t know if the place is operating a tronc or if the plongeurs are to get a share, but at least you have completed your side of an established expectation.

Article appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 3 June 2010


Eating Fynbos

Written by Brent on May 23rd, 2011
I find 'my boat' in Paternoster

I find 'my boat' in Paternoster

Kobus van der Merwe

Kobus van der Merwe

Though it has not been immune from development, the West Coast fishing village of Paternoster, 120km north of Cape Town, has maintained much of its charm. White-washed, self-catering cottages for holiday hire now concentrate along the beach. At least the buildings are pleasingly small and sympathetic in scale to the flat almost endless stretches of blinding white sands that make this barren coast so scenic. 

You might not want to be caught here at the height of the summer season when the place becomes a parking lot for coach tours. The second you open the car door you are besieged by offers of fresh crayfish and mussels, presumably hidden in the plastic bags the local urchins hold up to view.

There are other good reasons to visit. As you enter the town, you will find on your left the Oep ve Koep general dealer store, a relic from a bygone age still surviving. Behind the store is a tiny bistro, seating at a big push 30 people, though the chef-proprietor silently hopes he will never have to entertain such numbers.

Chef Kobus van der Merwe runs a one-man show. His kitchen is neatly organized with a small office at the back. The batterie de cuisine is certainly modest, but what this chef has is a superlative command of presentation and an acute sense of taste and balance. Most importantly Van der Merwe has a yen for adventure to match his remarkable palate.

Here all the elements for a good story come together; he is what food critics like me dream of finding. He is world famous in Paternoster. His operation (started last season) is artisanal, intimate, personal, and off the beaten track, yet the finished product is consummately professional. A plate at Oep ve Koep looks as if it came out of the kitchen at Jardine’s. Best of all, Van der Merwe is forging a new cuisine, introducing us to tastes most of us have not previously experienced, and he is doing it with ingredients indigenous to the Cape.

In the gravel courtyard at the back, fringed with multi-coloured bougainvilleas, and surrounding a manatoka tree are a few stone chairs and tables covered by funky tablecloths, sporting such themes as Facebook or Football. A small striped field mouse, courageously diurnal, seemed to have free reign outside. On the border of the dining area, a vegetable patch and organic herb garden are cultivated in old wooden fishing boats, to which the chef makes intermittent trips during the course of the meal.

In pots beside the kitchen door he keeps edible fynbos. You will find wild sage (salvia africana), dune salvia (salvia africana lutea), Cape sour fig (carpobrotus edulus) and its relative the Eland vygie (carpobrotus quadrifidus) with bigger fruit and yellow flowers. There is dried red seaweed, “klipkomberse”, sea lettuce (a bright green, edible algae that looks remarkably like lettuce) and some fynbos herbs used to smoke food. The curiosity to see what he will produce with all this certainly excites the appetite. 

While we consult the menu, three of us unwind with doorstops of white plaas brood and a very fine chenin blanc from the tiny Secateur’s Estate in Paardeberg, with the claim on its label that it is “handmade” (or should that be foot-made, one wonders?).

As an amuse bouche on a block of painted white wood is crumbly porcini mushroom ‘soil’, sour fig, freshly picked rocket, and moskonfyt (a Cape grape must jam, once ubiquitous and now increasingly hard to find).

The menu, chalked on a blackboard, varies daily. Choice is easy; we decide to have everything.

For starters, a West Coast salad (R40) with slices of quince balanced with segments of grapefruit, feta to add body, and descriptively called seekoraal (as it looks a bit like  fingers of thin coral).  Also called sea asparagus or samphire (salicornia)it grows in very specific patches along the coast and even further inland in brakish vlei waters.

The other starter, strips of calamari (R40) in a bowl of hot and sour broth garnished with coriander was inspired by local “kreef” curry, but Van der Merwe is allergic to crayfish.

We also opt for a main course to share as a starter – bokkoms (salted and wind-dried  fish fillets) from massbanker (horse mackerel) slightly reconstituted in a marinate of olive oil and lemon juice then panfried and served on thin slices of toast  with  green apple slices, citrus beurre blanc, basil, poached egg, seaweed garnish and a few gooseberries. It is a main, but unless you have acquired the taste for bokkems, which I recall years ago hanging above bar counters like tobacco leaves in rustic pubs, the fish will be too pungent. Using thin slices instead of the whole fillet would make this a perfect dish to my taste.

The main courses: ‘Paternoster palak paneer’ (R55) made from homemade buttermilk ricotta, topped with buttermilk ice-cream and accompanied by dune spinach (tetragonia decumbens), which is wilted slightly; raw, it is bit wooly; blanched, these bright green leaves make a succulent warm salad. The young tips of the plant are cooked in the masala sauce.

Sandveld potato dumplings in a Polish style (R60), are shaped almost like oversized ravioli, sprinkled with whole blanched almonds and mangetout,  ladled with a sauce of mushroom and herbaceous, slightly nutty purslane (in French porcelaine).

A square of beef bobotie garnished with baby nasturtium leaves is accompanied by beetroot, cabbage and apple, a condiment of fruit chutney made from peach and prune, and a delicate sambal of coconut and banana.

Umqa (R48), made from Invicta maize rice meal, is traditionally cooked up with pumpkin and butternut.  Van der Merwe has transformed this by cooking it as a creamy risotto, adding wine first and then ladle by ladle, chicken stock. The finished dish adds slow roasted tomato with a little balsamic vinegar, combining familiarly with the parmesan.

For dessert there is a choice of sorbets, including rose geranium (pelargonium graveolens) and such unusual but successful combinations as  grape and olive oil with basil; pineapple and lemongrass. He also makes an avocado sorbet, but it is not served as a dessert.Finally there is honeybush tea panacotta (a reduced cream) and moerkoffie.

This is one local gastronomic experience not to be missed.

Oep ve Koep Bistro, Saint Augustine Road, Paternoster, Tel 022 752 2105 . Open Wednesdays to Saturdays for breakfast 9–11am; lunch 12:30–2:30pm; Sundays from 9–10:30am and noon to 2pm.

Edit: This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 13 May 2011.

See also Kobus’s beautifully illustratred blog: Sardines on Toast.