July, 2010

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Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Ever since bright yellow, spicy, roasted corn soup was ladled over a sprinkling of popcorn in my bowl at a gourmet Indian restaurant, I have been thinking about popcorn in a whole new light, as food rather than as packaging material or a crunching nuisance spoiling my cinema experience. Jokes aside, some overzealous eco-minded retailers did try using popcorn as an alternative to Styrofoam. It turned out to be both a hazard and a disastrous idea.

Perhaps those bags of coloured popcorn we pelted each other with as kids led me to forget it is a food. Then again, some of the popcorn served at one of the big movie chains nearby, especially if it is the morning screening, really isn’t edible; it’s not even warm; I think they use the leftovers that stood out all night. Unlike me, Munchkin is someone who goes to the movies in order to eat popcorn. Fortunately, Munchkin will indelicately hoover through a tub before the trailers are over.

Popcorn is a food, a good one nutritionally speaking, and it has been eaten for thousands of years. We certainly like the smell. I wonder what that first Native American who heard and saw how with a resounding pop a little seed magically transformed into a white puff thought. There is evidence of early man popping corn in heated sand. The conquistadors found it among the Aztecs and the Peruvian Indians, where it was also used in sacred ceremonies and for decoration. Some people still thread garlands of popcorn and even use it as Christmas decor. The American colonists had popcorn with milk for breakfast.

Popcorn received its big boost during the Great Depression when mobile steam and gas-powered poppers first appeared. At between 5 and 10 cents a bag, it was one of the few affordable treats. Consumption trebled during the Second World War, with the scarcity of candy; sugar being reserved for the military maw. Then, in the 1980s, microwave popcorn was born offering an assortment of flavours and a fool-proof method of popping. Heating from the inside produces larger and tenderer flakes, and Munchkin enjoys standing with an ear to the microwave listening to the comestible fireworks inside.

The biggest consumers remain North Americans who annually consume about 200 cups for every man, woman and child, only a third of it at cinemas and stadiums. The Midwest produces a staggering 400 000 tonnes; consider that 30g makes 4 cups when popped. The fastest growing markets are Mexico, South Korea, Japan and China.

Remember when ready-to-eat popcorn (with flavours such as white cheddar or green onion) packaged like crisps became a brief craze in the 1990s? Today, on limited shelf space in our supermarkets, local brands retail at about R100 per kilogram; imports at R200 per kg; weigh that up against unpopped which is only R13, and for my money none compare to home-made.

Popcorn is currently outperformed by sales of corn chips and many other snacks, so sellers are turning to its health properties: high fibre, low calorie, carbohydrate rich, sodium and sugar-free. Yet the calories can be deceptive. Air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories per cup; oil-popped has 55; most microwave brands more. However, when lightly buttered the calories can rise up to 133. Some movie theatres in the United States use coconut oil to pop the corn and add margarine; one of these supersized buckets can have far more calories than a double burger. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, popcorn is the one corn product that is least likely to have any genetic engineered modifications, although plans are in the pipeline.

The maize used for popcorn is zea mays everta. The kernel can be red and even black (I’ve seen these ears in Peru), but only white and yellow are in commercial use. Sweet and field corn do not pop, and neither does popcorn straight after harvesting. It needs to dry out a bit, ideally says the science to a moisture content of 13.5%. It keeps well, apparently they have even managed to pop 3000-year-old corn; but don’t store yours in a refrigerator as it may dehydrate the kernels.

This brings us to what the industry calls popability. Water inside the kernel heats up and turns to steam; at 180°C it reaches a pressure of about 930 kPa expanding the endosperm until it explodes through the hull to form that familiar little white cloud of starch and protein polymers, blossoming to up to 40 times its original size. But overheated popcorn forms hard balls. The unpopped kernels (in good popcorn this should be under 2%), those deadly bits that threaten to break your teeth in the darkness of the movie house, are known (stupidly) as “old maids” by the industry. There are tricks to resurrect them after a few days.

The flakes are categorized as either the large, fluffy, irregular “butterfly” or the ball-shaped, denser “mushroom”. To my mouth, the butterfly flakes are much more satisfying, but the hardier mushroom shape is usually what you’ll find in packets of ready-popped corn as they survive better in packaging.

If you search “Chinese making popcorn” on You Tube you’ll see how roadside vendors in Beijing heat the kernels in a cast-iron cylinder rotated over an open brazier. When hammered open the corn all pops at once with a spectacular explosion flying into a large canvas sack.

In South Africa we have amakiepkiep, the multicoloured sweet township popcorn. It comes from kiep-kiep, the onomatopoetic expression for calling chickens, itself derived from the Dutch “kip” meaning fowl.

To make amakiepkiep, pop 500grams of popcorn; heat butter (4 tablespoons), sugar (600grams) and water (125ml) until the sugar is dissolved; divide this mixture into several batches and colour each with blue, red, green, yellow or orange or whatever food colourant takes your fancy. Pour over the popcorn in separate bowls, coating it and stirring; too much butter though and it will go soggy.

For the more adventurous, there are even recipes (I haven’t tried any of them) where popcorn is ground finely in a food blender and used to make popcorn bread (with mielie meal), or muffins (with sugar and flour and almonds)or even used in meatloaf. Popcorn can be made into a crust for macaroni and cheese, or with peanuts to encrust deep fried Thai chicken.

If those recipes aren’t funny enough, let me conclude with the use of popcorn in humour. Archbishop Fulton J Sheen is quoted as having said, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”

To visit the heartland of popcorn you could visit the Popcorn Festival, next month, August 12 to 15, 2010, in Van Buren, Indiana, USA (it has been going since 1973) or join the many activities at the 30th anniversary of the Marion Popcorn Festival, September 9 to 11, 2010 in Marion, Ohio.

Published in the Mail & Guardian, 16 July 2010.

Darling Wine Route

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Fifteen years ago, a distinguished Stellenbosch winemaker told me the west coast was in many respects better terroir for viticulture than the Boland. The soils have natural lime, which didn’t have to be imported (as was the case on his farm); the icy Benguela current brought fog banks that cooled the grapes perfectly; and although one thinks of the west coast as an arid, flat sort of skeleton coast, there is surprising elevation, with many vineyards sitting at 300 metres.

The last decade has proved him right. Grapes used to be sent to the local farmers’ co-operatives for bulk production wine, but now, small private estates are popping up like daisies. The latest to move from garagiste to label are Oudepost and Franki’s Vineyards (bottling Mourvèdre since 2007). The Spice Route (spearheaded by Charles Back of Fairview) led the charge in 1998; their pricey, high quality wines changed perceptions of the district.

Declaring Darling as a wine region in its own right has encouraged local producers to set up a wine route and open facilities on their estates. Tastings are still free, and prices close to wholesale. Combine this with the spectacular wild flower season, coming into bloom as I write, and you have a magical winelands trip.

Ormonde Vineyards has the advantage of being right in the town of Darling. The estate offers several wine ranges, something of a recent trend among South African producers. Their Alexanderfontein wines are easy drinkers made from vines grown in ribbons of terra rouge clay soil. The sauvignon blanc (2009) stands out, and at only R38 a bottle it trumps Groote Post’s flagship sauvignon going for R62.

The Ormonde range is presented as their finer wine with good ageing potential, up to 15 years for the Theodore Ecksteen red blend (2007, R180) of 65% shiraz and 35% Grenache; a new world wine with an old-red South African architecture to it. The cabernets franc and sauvignon blend Vernon Basson (2007, R170) is a ruby fruited juicy red, but with respectable dimension.

But it is the Ondine range, billed as their experimental wines, that caught my tongue. Named after the ballet that Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn, a pair of ballet slippers, a silver statuette and a photo of the prima ballerina are on display in the tasting room (where you can also buy pineapple flavoured olives!). The label was originally developed for a chain of restaurants.

Rather cleverly, and especially useful to visiting foreigners, a tag on the label can be peeled off to remember the wine by.

The 2008 shiraz is spicier and truer to the cultivar than the Alexanderfontein bottling; the 2007 cabernet sauvignon has an unusual nose, a bit like wet cement, and an earthy taste of tubers and beets; the 2008 cabernet franc has proved very popular and is the most easy drinking of this flight, and as a varietal bottling the only one in the region. The 2007 merlot is only available from the farm; I’ve used it to stunning effect both in and to accompany a French beef stew; at R59 it isn’t too expensive for the pot.

All the Ormonde wines exhibit a certain homogeneity, a slightly sweet, but pleasing, fruity finish. A winemaker I spoke to speculated that this was due to a fructophilic yeast that distorts the proportion of glucose and fructose conversion.

From Ormonde one heads out past fields of arum lilies to the Darling Cellars. Renamed in 1999, it was formerly the Mamre Co-operative (founded in 1948). It has that charming, old co-op feel: flat, functional buildings; walls covered by certificates and award diplomas in the pleasant little tasting area with practical, small round tables.

A big capital expansion and modernisation project in recent years is paying dividends. They have numerous ranges and a huge variety of cultivars, from the cheap and cheerful Flamingo Bay range (R23 to R25), and the low alcohol (9%) Zantsi sweet wines to their premium Onyx range grown on the best parcels of land with deep granite soils.

This unpretentious cellar concentrates on honest, easy drinking, good value wines. I found them rather shy on the nose, but the Onyx cabernet sauvignon (2007, R79) has that true Swartland style to it; the shiraz (2007, R79) is seriously oaked (22 months); the DC “six tonner” merlot (2009, R43) is exceptional value. They also do an unusual easy drinking 100% petit verdot.

From here, it is a five-minute drive past marvellous birdlife, a pelican colony, flamingos and flocks of herons, to Cloof. They’re a hip, slightly eccentric crowd. Many estates could learn a bit from them as far as marketing goes, as their informative, snazzy website attests.

Interestingly and contrary to brand orthodoxy, wines here are not in a range, but each given a clear identity and their own label, such as Lynchpin and Happy Dragon. A stylish Inkspot vin noir (2008, R45)); Dark Side Caberent/Shiraz (2007, R45), a rich and robust but smooth wine; Very Sexy Shiraz (2008, R75), a chic, integrated, full-bodied wine with a gentle nose. The whole region is gaining a shiraz reputation, though the Cloof Crucible shiraz (2006) at R450 a bottle is not offered for tasting. Probably just as well, as it is at a whopping 15.5% alcohol.

I am not a fan of pinotage, but the Cloof Pinotage 2005 (R75) is a gorgeous wine, and not to be confused with their rather musty Cloof Dusty Road Pinotage (2005, R35).

Also noteworthy is the Kalumpie & Co, made by the assistant winemaker, Frederik “Bolle” Kalumpie. Previously limited in his duties to farm labourer under the old SA, this was his first wine. All proceeds go to the farm school (2005, R45 a bottle).

Light lunches are served for around R35 to R50. Four little Jack Russells see you to your car.

Taking the R307 out of Darling through the wild flower reserves, freckled herds of Nguni cows, and if you’re lucky you’ll see blue cranes courting in the fields, you turn off to Groote Post.

In the ten years since their first release, they are a efficiently run, established and dependable brand.

Their salmon-pink, Old Man’s sparkle is the only méthode cap classique (Brut, R75) in the ward, and most unusual for its 59% merlot base (as opposed to the classic pinot noir). I predict this new wine is going to go places. They do have pinot noir growing on their south facing slopes, and they have the only bottling of this savoury wine in the region (2008, R112).

The Old Man’s red blend, sold also in magnums for R90, is a very quaffable, cabernet-based, red ‘cool drink’ with minimal consequences the next day.

Recommended among the whites are: the light, almost effete weisser riesling 2008 (R67) in a dry style, while the 2010 just released is sweeter; the award-winning chenin now back in stock (2010, R45) sheds a whole new light on this jug varietal; the reserve sauvignon (2009, R95) made only when the best grape quality is present (previously in 2005 and 2007);the unwooded chardonnay (2009, R62) is hugely welcome after so many bloated, over-wooded chardonnays of recent years.

All this tasting, entreats one for lunch, and Hilda’s Kitchen is the star restaurant in the district. Named after Hildegonda Duckitt (1840 – 1905), Groote Post manor house, now a national monument, was this grand dame of Cape recipe’s birthplace and home. Slaves liberated off the coast by the British squashing the trade were indentured as farm labourers. One of them was Duckitt’s cook. These days you’ll find cordon bleu chef Debbie McLaughlin at work in the kitchen.

You can dine in the homestead or al fresco. The staff offer the best Cape farm hospitality. Hung from the umbrellas are see-through plastic bags filled with water, apparently to keep the flies way.

The food is unfussy but not rustic and the portions large. If you ever come across Hildegonda’s original recipes you have to divide by four; they had large families and enormous appetites back then. The springbok carpaccio (R56) starter has sole-size slices (R56). In Duckitt’s day duiker was commonly used as springbok were rare in the Western Cape. Today, the 2000-hectare farm offers drives to see kudu, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, bontebok, springbok, eland and gemsbok.

For mains, the chicken (R90) cooked in wine with bacon, onions and button mushrooms (in which the drumsticks fare better than the thighs) is best eaten with its flowering basil garnish on top.

The tender lamb shank (R110) comes in a light gravy with tomato, carrot and green beans. The pork belly (R110) has a shy plum sauce, served with Asian noodles, sprouts and tatsoi, which seems to be more about having fun than creating fusion tastes.

Open in July for the first time, their special winter menu includes braised beef, lamb osso bucco and chicken tagine.

All of this is less than an hour from Cape Town.

Cloof Wine Estate, Mamreweg, Darling. Tel: 022 492 2839.
Darling Cellars, Mamreweg, Darling. Tel: 022 492 2276.
Hilda’s Kitchen, Groote Post, btwn Darling and Malmesburry. Booking essential. Tel: 022 492 2825.
Ormonde, Mount Pleasant Street, Darling. Tel: 022 492 3540.

An edited version published in the Mail and Guardian, 9 July 2010