Hola cariños! Shall we braai?

September 23rd, 2014 § 4 comments § permalink

Yes, hello darlings! I am back in the shadow of old Table Mountain. We’ve been back for all of ten weeks now. I wish I could regale you with glamorous tales of dipping into the culinary delights of Cape Town, or basking in it’s low-slung wintry sunsets on an expensive lounger taking selfies of my sunglassed self chugging MCC.

But alas, the Vixen is now a mother and a partner and life is a Clockword Orange of trying to make ends meet. Nappy ends. Dog leash and stroller straps. Baby meals and señor-friendly suppers. Is it just me or do other mothers of really active toddlers also habitually find themselves leaving the house with their belt ends hanging loose, like some limp invitation to a deadbeat disco?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that my food mojo all but deserted me during my years in Spain. Yes, THAT Spain. Land of tapas and Adria-inspired sorcery – the country that gave France the gastronomical uppercut and now flaunts the heavyweight title on the best of the best lists. How did I manage this, one might ask. Was I just a homesick African, and in particular a dwarstrekkerige Afrikaner, who did not want to succumb to the allure of The Other? Well, yes. And no.

I realised a lot of things these past three years. Too many for this blogpost. And much of it didn’t come easy. Like that I come from a culture draped in a luxury that takes too much and gives too little. And I´m not talking about South African politics. Although I could. I’m talking about the cow. And the pig. And especially the potato. The noble tomato deserves its own post.

I’m not proud to say I was often critical of Spanish culture because it seemed too simple, too locked in tradition and peaseant-like. Coming from a new world country where strains of European culture straddled ethnic traditions to create, with all this glorious sun-drenched land bursting with undepleted earth, a flashy frenzy where only the choicest bits are deemed edible. Waste, for we want not. A bit like America-lite, and I thank God for that. That we are the lite version, if nothing else.

I missed the designer packaging and bespoke modern-madame product development of Woolies terribly. Not to mention the shelves lined with fresh herbs (which I missed more than anything, herbs, precious herbs) all year round. BASIL, ALL YEAR ROUND! My kitchen Id shriveled to the size of a peanut. I was lost in a sea of stews seasoned with bay leaves, sloppy one-pot dinners and shit-you-can-put-in-a-wrap. The latter, sadly, was the long-suffering señor’s favourite. (I’m not saying he lied to TASTE magazine about the Bolognese but he is very partial to a Mexican wrap thing.)

Now that I mention the señor, let’s just clarify. I cook at home. He is a work machine who is grateful for anything softer than a countertop to chew on when he comes home. Given their aversion to butter, Spaniards are quite happy to eat dry bread. But I don’t want to push it too far.

Inter-cultural culinary conundrums aside, I realise that having a baby (without the benefit of domestic help, or an ersatz mother, as is the case in SA) will grind many a bonny home cook to ashes in the first few years. South Africans so love to romanticize Euro-living but in reality, my time in Spain was more jabon jabon (soap) than jamon jamon…

Lesser spotted African dust devil

Just the other night I grafted some apples into the DNA of a stainless steel pot, plus had to abandon a bowl of grated potato to wrangle our lovebubble into his pajamas, only to return to a puddle of fashionably grey goop (now I know where Gwynneth got her blog name! Can I say ‘goop’, Gwynneth? Here, on my blog?) and although I have no Voortrekker blood (rough and ready overlanders who could teach the Scottish something about shafting the Queen), I bloody well fried those goop cakes just to see if temperature would redeem them to their previous state of potatoness. It didn’t.

Well anyway, where was I? AHA! Here in the Cape, where I want to be. And what a wondeful thing that is. So what now? I still have a very busy two year old and cooking a decent supper seems nigh impossible. But I do, finally, have a little garden and soon, I hope, a braai. And I think being here in Africa where open fires are not yet outlawed, I am going to go back to basics. Come summer, (which is pretty much like winter only with less rain and short sleeves YAAAY) I’m going to set up outdoors and grill away. I’m sure my son would love it. And I feel the need to start over. Small and raw. With the best this land has to offer. Real meat paired with crisp salad and sun-ripened veg*. With not too much fuss. The biggest thing the señor has taught me is respect for the product. And to always put a damp cloth under the chopping board.

So this is just a short yet rambling hola! to say we are here. The new wave Cape Spanish have landed. It’s a non-colonialism armed with soft roasted padron peppers, sharp cheese and ugly tomatoes that taste divine. I do hope we are here to stay. Our son’s first African word was ‘maroela’ (long story involving theft from CT International) and he yells PUSH without the H, so all’s good, on track – en lekker in die Kaap!

*No matter how many times you read this post backward, no subliminal banting recipes will be imparted.

 

 

The not so great Basque bake-off

November 21st, 2013 § 8 comments § permalink

In which I pitted myself against a small yet obstinately hot oven, a bag of moist flour and a baking culture that harbours deep suspicions of butter. The challenge was twofold. Deliver a plain biscocho (vanilla sponge) to my son’s play school for his first birthday. And bake something a bit more  extravagant to enjoy with friends later. I am not a baker. But when your baby turns one, you slap that apron on and go cruising the internet for a suitably simple recipe.

 

Birthday boy Ben

Forgive me for saying this but Spain’s baking culture is so dour and devoid of, well, BUTTER – that emissary of melt-in-the-mouth morishness – not to mention icing or ganache, without which no pious sponge can ever be pimped into a thing of wonder. So with two cakes to deliver in one day (never before, I tell you) my last flash of equilibrium entailed opting for a box of cake mix for the vanilla sponge. Thinking being: they’re one year old, most of it will end up on the floor, plus why waste precious time on something which is dull by definition. No. Instead I would lavish all my attention on the masterpiece for home consumption.

My first easy-peasy box of cake mix exited the oven in an angry hard lump with an unattractive bulging centre and what can only be described as cake acne. I deduced from the drawings on the box that the oven had been too hot. No problem, I bought another. This was a small distraction from the major crisis I was entering into regarding the showstopper I had to produce.

 

A lethal weapon at 20 paces

 

The week prior to Ben’s birthday I was so excited. So full of love for this little being. I needed to express it. And through some mysterious internal process the medium was to be cake. I became possessed and as the day drew closer, terribly anxious. I decided on red velvet cupcakes. A veritable sensory sucker punch. Cupcakes are only now becoming fashionable in Spain and surely Getaria had yet to taste its first. But when you live in Vanillaspongeville, decent red food colouring is impossible to find.

Martha Stewart came to the rescue via her website. Strawberry cupcakes with buttercream icing. Easy (Martha’s claim) and with enough fresh fruit to charm parents weary of nasty additives. You know how they say the first rule is read the entire recipe? Before you start? You should. And of course I didn’t. Because I never do. Which, in a nutshell, is why I suck at baking. I read the cupcake recipe which seemed easy enough but not the buttercream icing recipe. Who could anticipate that a buttercream icing would require a thermometer? And sugar heated to exactly 160 degrees. Clearly Martha and I have different definitions of ‘easy’.

I realised, as I buttered the cupcake pans, that my anxiety levels were completely out of whack. It was not about the cake. Despite being so excited about celebrating Ben’s first year with us, on the actual day, I was a sobbing mess. I missed my departed parents terribly. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of providing a wonderful life for this little man. Out of my comfort zone in a place where you can’t order a fun birthday cake or even a box of pretty cupcakes. I had managed to successfully infuse the baking of a cake with an entire existential crisis. Let it not be said that I do not, at times, overachieve.

 

I wish my parents could have met their grandson. Pictured here on their wedding day.

 

I took Martha´s hand and braved forth. The cupcake batter was delicious. Raw. Winning, I thought, feeling bolstered. The old gung-ho kitchen vixen reemerged. A batch of 12 cupcakes went in. There was a whole lot of batter left…just…in…case. And then it happened again. I took twelve rather pale (didn’t want hard edges again) cupcakes from the oven to find that some were still raw in the centre. All that strawberry pulp. Bugger. I quickly filled another cupcake tray and a small heart-shaped mould. Cranked the heat up just a little and got going with the buttercream frosting.

 

Heart-soaringly delicious batter

 

Which is when I read the recipe and realised I was just plain fucked. With no thermometer and no clue as to how sugar performed at 160 degrees, I cursed Martha and decided to blunder forth because this was the Titanic of baking and I was going down with it. With the feverish gleam of a gambler on his last chip, I separated four eggs and heated the whites with some sugar in a too small bowl, plonked in a pot of simmering water. Sure enough, the sugar melted. I whisked away, wondering what 160 degrees of molten sugar and egg white was supposed to look like. The odds were against me miraculously gauging the temperature but a giddy optimism took hold and I whisked and whisked until it became gluey, like taffy. This must be it, I thought, because what else could happen? A quick tally of all the wasted eggs, butter and batter that I had manifested in the past 24 hours brought a calm resignation. I had nothing left to lose. One egg, basically, I cackled.

 

Note crappy utensil

 

I thought of my mom whom I was missing so much. She was a wonderful cook and a reluctant baker. I couldn’t think of a single cake that defined the birthdays of my youth. Except, when I was about six years old, I was smitten with Moirs strawberry cake mix and insisted on having it a few years running. Then it struck that I was also making strawberry cake. Albeit the made-from-scratch version. So was all this about me trying to replicate my happy place? In my efforts to create a happy place for my son.  And stressing myself silly in the process. But let’s stay with the buttercream.  I was in the zone, beating the temperature-unknown sugary egg mix. Five minutes to stiff peaks, Martha said. The clear goo went a silky white and hope once again stirred in my breast. Could I still wing it? A quick peek in the oven revealed the cakes were coming along nicely. Rising evenly with edges not too brown.

 

It's no yolk

 

By God these eggs shall peak, I cried, if only by sheer force of will. And prayer and a fair bit of cussing. I prefer a multi-fangled approach. They thickened and clung coquettishly to the whisk but nothing peaked. Fine. I added the butter, whisked, tasted. A sugary mucus with globules of cow fat. Not to worry. A brisk whisk and two cups of fresh strawberry pulp later and I could almost see where Martha was going with this.

I was determined to see this fiasco through and started doing what all party planners do when they realise they’re bombing. I listened to 80s hits. I was dancing on the ceiling as the slack strawberry buttercream went into the fridge and the cake emerged from the oven. At Ben’s play school the teacher mentioned the weird lemony flavour of the biscocho but I shrugged it off with “it’s from a packet”. We had lunch with his lovely Spanish grandparents, filled the kitchen with balloons and Maya the Bee birthday paraphernalia (yet another of my childhood favourites) and just before the mini guests arrived, I took the buttercream from the fridge. Well, what do you know. The top few inches had set to a spreadable substance not unlike the topping on Martha’s cupcakes. I covered the heart – which ironically had survived the creation process in best shape – and the seven cupcakes I estimated were least likely to be raw in the centre with buttercream, perched a fresh strawberry on each and all of a sudden it looked just as it should. A nice kiddies party!

 

By the skin of my teeth

 

I had pulled it off, just like my mom had done for me. My son was so blown away by the people, balloons and gifts, the cake was of zero importance. But somehow, of everything, it had become the benchmark of my maternal fitness in this whole exercise. A rather dumb benchmark if you’re not a baker to begin with.

 

Lovely people. The key ingredient

But I did learn a few things.  Spanish flour (the plain kind) is too heavy for baked goods. Especially if the bag is left unsealed for two months. We live in a very humid place. In future I shall only bake with fresh cake flour. Am I blaming the flour? Well, yes. Mostly. Also the oven. And my fundamental inability to acknowledge and follow rules. And maybe also to focus on what Ben really wants rather than rehash my own childhood for sentimental reasons. But in all fairness, he is one year old. Maya, Willie and strawberry cupcakes are just fine. Soon it will be his call. And I will do my best to bake it or fake it. With a light and airy heart, even if the crumb isn’t.

 

Birthdays are cool, mama

The world could do with more Getaria

October 18th, 2013 § 10 comments § permalink

We came for lunch and decided to stay. I’d never heard of Getaria before nor could I remember the name until well past dessert. We’d been house hunting for several months in towns surrounding San Sebastian but nothing clicked. Row upon row of new and uninhabited apartment blocks in Orio gave me the creeps, Fuenterrabía was posh and out of the way, Zarautz homeowners sniffed and looked the other way at the mention of our dog, Astigarraga didn’t seem to have anything particularly for or against it, so when we finally sat down at Txoko restaurant in Getaria for beautifully grilled fish, in the shadow of an imposing Gothic cathedral and with a spectacular view of the quaint harbour, I turned to the señor and said ‘Why not here?’

 

Who wouldn't

When a week later I learnt that Getaria was number 41 on the New York Times list of 46 places to go in 2013, well, a rather extended visit seemed like a fine idea. Six months down the line, I feel blessed to be in this particular spot on earth and at the same time, am a little perplexed that it made the list. Not that it isn’t everything the New York Times said it would be. A gorgeous, centuries-old fishing village (of which there are many along the Basque coast) that serves excellent grilled fish (true, all restaurants have outdoor grills by special government concession) with ancient winding cobbled streets (standard stuff in Europe if you weren’t on a WW2 flight path) and despite its size (current population 2500) home to two famous sons: navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano, who was the first to circumnavigate the globe in the early 16th century, as well as 20th century haute couturist Cristóbal Balenciaga. Getaria has honoured its famous fashionista with a massive mirrored museum that clings to the hillside above the old town like a shiny armadillo. And, according to the New York Times, it is the museum that, since its opening in 2011, has drawn a more ‘sophisticated design set’ to Getaria. Of course, well-heeled French have long been trotting over the border for a good plate of food at better prices than their own restaurants can provide.

View from el Raton

I have my own idea of why Getaria has become such a hotspot. It includes the spectacular coastal drive, vine covered hilltops, ancient old city, beautiful harbour, historical statues and hi-tech museum, beaches and great fish, but more than that, Getaria offers all of this in a contained, easy to consume package. You can step off the bus, ride the escalator up to the Balenciaga museum, stroll down the cobbled main road, pass underneath the 12th century Gothic cathedral and step out into the sunshine on a high wall dotted with restaurants that overlook the harbour, hugged by the mouse-shaped el Raton mountain on the left and a sickle of beach to the right. It can all be consumed, including your three-course lunch with copious glasses of Txakoli, with enough time to spare for a siesta.

Sight-seeing is hard work. Rome in two days, London in five, half a country in a week. How exhausting. And the success of a trip is too often determined by how many of the must-see boxes are ticked. Even our downtime is infused with competitive objectives. If Paris is a sumptuous banquet and New York a multi-cultural buffet, then Getaria is one perfect little bite. A delicious and comforting morsel that pauses and replenishes. After just a few hours, visitors leave satisfied that they have ‘done Getaria’.  And that imparts a nice sense of accomplishment in a world so vast and multi-thinged that many of us sometimes feel somewhat sidelined.

 

On top of el Raton

We moved here when our son was six months old. To an apartment on the fourth floor of a casa in the old part of town. None of the old houses have elevators. Add a border collie with a dodgy bladder to the mix and suffice to say I found myself in a picturesque corner of hell. A pueblito also has less to offer in terms of amenities, shopping and wifi coverage. At times it felt as if I had stepped back in time to about 1948 without being in the mood for it. In short, I needed help. Which is how the beauty of Getaria unfolded. A fiesty little woman called Ana* helped us get settled in. A week later when our hound was at death’s door and the señor was stuck at work, her husband took Milly to a vet in the neighbouring town. Perfect strangers introduced themselves in the street, enquired how we were and insisted that I call whenever help was needed. I have never known such kindness. Soon everyone knew the South African with the friendly child and the gorgeous, goofy dog.

Winter dragged on forever. Dios mio. It was the worst winter the Basque country had seen in over 200 years. I walked the misty cobbled streets for hours while my baby slept snugly in his waterproof buggy. I once took shelter in a bar, glass of beer in hand, when the lights went out. What’s going on, I asked. A villager had died and as the procession moved through town towards the cathedral, lights were switched off in commiseration. People here grow very old. To reach 85 years of age is not unusual. Getaria nestles against a mountain. If you step out of your front door you are either going uphill, or down. It’s a workout any which way. Older gentleman take to scooters to zip around town but the ladies carry on walking. In many cases, people are born and die in the same house. Married to a childhood sweetheart. It is all so terribly not modern. Yet it is holding true for many of the younger generation.

If these walls could talk, I often think as I pass sandstone structures many hundreds of years old. A town this small must have its feuds, lingering resentments of old lovers’ quarrels, soured business partnerships and rotten eggs. If there is talk it would surely happen in Euskera (or Basque, as the ancient language is known in English) and never to an outsider. Children live close to their parents who care for the grandchildren while the kids get on with work. This sense of continuity provides a security that serves all generations. There are very wealthy people in this town but nothing is ever on display. The wife of the most successful restauranteer can be seen sweeping the forecourt of their restaurant in her sweats early in the morning. A wealthy retired businessman enjoys a pintxo with an old fisherman. Could it be that such a solid, rooted foundation negates the manic quest for materialist trappings?

 

Kids being kids

The Basque country is a wonderful pastiche of hi-tech and ancient. Details change to embrace progress but the underlying structure is, literally, cast in stone. Toddlers learn to walk on the same cobbled streets as did their great-grandparents. Grow up observing the workings of the harbour from the same window. Perhaps, unbeknown, experience the thrilling terror of a first kiss not far from where their parents shared a similar moment. This overlapping of lifelines may seem cloying to some but from what I’ve seen, it makes for a refreshing absence of existential angst.

So much of the fatalism, paranoia and anxiety of the modern world just does not arrive here. It’s hard not to live in fear of disaster given the sometimes horrific ways of the world, not to mention Hollywood’s obsession with annihilation. How often does New York not suffer celluloid destruction by aliens, cataclysmic disaster or some foul regime with too much firepower. I’m not saying a tidal wave can’t hit the Bay of Biscay. I’m probably just the only person who has ever considered it.

Getaria is growing into me, changing my patterns. Even in this quiet place with no real work to speak of, I hurry and stress too much. Pull and poke at the fabric of my life unnecessarily. I cloud my horizon with shadows from the past. Tranquila. We will help you, they say, as they laugh the rain away. There is music in the streets. Be it sardine season, a birthday, or just a jolly lone accordionist who drinks and jams his way through town, hitting keys above his head like a rock star.

 

Milly the muse (pictured here with a more sedate musician)

I don’t know how much time Sarah Wildman of the New York Times spent in Getaria. Whether she got to see past the museum and the pretty harbour. Not that it matters. Whatever their reasons, they chose well. They chose a mensch.

*Her real name. Recently she came to our rescue again by finding a wonderful casa for us. With spectacular views of the bay and only seven stairs. Life is good. If it carries on like this I may feel moved to pen a European romcom in the vein of Under A Tuscan Sun. The working title could be Under A Basque Cloud.


Sunrise from our new casa

 

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How to bake a lovecake

September 15th, 2012 § 26 comments § permalink

Yes. That header is so misleading it could be straight off the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. Because there is no recipe for love and if you’re looking for cake you’ve clicked on the wrong link. But it did hit me today that exactly one year ago, I landed in Cape Town after a ten day holiday in Barcelona. And that my life has changed so radically in one short year. Even by my standards, and I have a gluttonous appetite for change.

I get asked a lot. Why Barcelona? How did the señor and I happen? And the truth is that so much has passed that I’m either trying to catch up with myself or sitting quietly, whiplashed, too scared to blink for fear of it all evaporating. Let’s rewind a year.

 

My slice of paradise for one year. Little did I know that my pastoral idyll would make way for bustling Barcelona.

 

Me, forty years old, on sabbatical from my life as a magazine journalist and professional mourner. My thirties was one long funeral procession where I stared at the evil eye that seemed to be fixed on my life through the bottom of a tequila bottle. I wanted so badly to breathe again and step out from the shadows. So I moved to the countryside and rewarded myself with a trip to Europe. To visit my sisters. And then, seeing as though I was already in the old world, I’d visit my friends who live in a castle. Followed by the pièce de resistance in my goody bag to myself, ten days in  Barcelona. Why Barcelona? Because many years ago my friend Anna visited and said ‘B, I thought of you all the time. This is your city. If the men weren’t so damn gorgeous I would have become a lesbian.’ Pretty people, good times. I’m coming!

 

Princess for a week with Simon, Mark and their three chickens at magnificent Chateau d'Eoux outside Toulouse

So, Barcelona was to be the plaster on my sad sore. If you’re female and you’ve experienced turning forty as a singleton, you’ll know there’s a certain frisson that sets in just after your 38th birthday. Yes dear, you are standing on the docks and that big thing steaming South is the boat you’ve missed. From here onwards there will be only dinghies and leaky canoes. This story is going to nail a good couple of clichés, the first being ‘It will happen when you least expect it’. Of course I wanted to meet someone to love but I knew that just because I wanted it so badly, I wouldn’t. So I cancelled the want. Or just suspended it. I’m a crap tourist and except for two email addresses of friends of friends, I really didn’t have a clue why I was coming here.

Thanks to this blog and my gig as a restaurant reviewer on the Expresso Show (South Africa’s vibiest breakfast television) a friend of an old schoolfriend of Albert Adria managed to pull strings that I could eat at Tickets, the post-elBulli offering of the Adria brothers, a riot of colour and wit and showstopper tapas presented in over the top fairground fashion. Cue plinky-plonky circus music because this is where the magic happened.

 

Mr Tickets, Albert Adria, demystifying la vida tapas

I was a sticky ball of nervous anticipation when I walked through the door. Albert Adria was so welcoming and so attentive, I felt like yelling that I was just a little old blogger from a country far far away that uses too much sugar in its savoury dishes and this was not going to fill six pages in Vanity Fair. But then a very charming man came over to introduce himself. The head chef. He was witty and sweet like only broken English can be. As he turned away to talk to Albert, I thought ‘That’s what I need. A good man. A man who knows how to love.’ This type of wisdom, dear reader, does not come naturally to me. It was like the glittering diamond expressed from the muck of twenty years of gonzo dating. My second thought was, ‘Pah, he’s obviously married, or taken. The good ones always are’…

But fortunately, as with my initial appraisal of Madonna back in 1984 (‘We won’t be seeing much more of this tart’), I was wrong. We bumped into each other later that night and he invited me to the best paella in town on his day off. How magic is that? At least it would have been, if I hadn’t fucked it up. I was too scared. I didn’t go. I KNOW! You don’t get to being forty and single by being smart, do you? I didn’t think he really liked me and I didn’t want to be a nuisance. Not on his day off. I was so scared he would back out, that I did. Even writing this, one year down the line and pregnant with our son, I get downright anxious just thinking about that stupid me. But, for once, the plan was greater than my considerable capacity for sabotage.

It had been agreed that I would dine at Tickets not once but thrice during my stay. First, to try the savoury tapas. A second time to work my way through the dessert menu. And on my third visit I would go to 41 Degrees, the Adria’s sultry cocktail bar adjacent to Tickets. Imagine, I’d stood up the head chef and now I had to go back for multiple dessert courses presented by him. Because the señor is all about the sugar. He is a dessert master.  An alchemist of egg and air. I felt about the size of a cake candle when I walked through the door.

I instantly realised how foolish I had been. He looked… so hurt. It dawned on me that I had been doing the rejecting. I stammered through explanations and excuses more complicated than the wondrous creations he placed before me. And then he asked me to join him for coffee on his early morning shopping run at Barcelona’s wonderful Boqueria market the next day. Don’t worry, dear reader, I certainly did not slip up again. We walked and talked through aisles laden with produce from all over. I snapped away, ostensibly for my blog, but in reality I was taking photos just for me. Like a teenybopper at a Bieber concert. I had no intention of sharing the señor. It was far too precious and too precarious. We lived worlds apart. I was sure nothing would come of it but at least I had lots of photos…

 

Sneaking pics of the señor chatting to fish sellers at Boqueria

I’m not a blow by blow narrator so this won’t be going the Fifty Shades route. Suffice to say this market stroll was the highlight of our week. After that we chatted briefly when I was at 41 Degrees, exchanged numbers and the next I heard was a text message when I landed in Istanbul, en route to Cape Town. In real terms nothing much had happened. Except in my head. Then the odd email, followed by text messages that soon  converted to Whats App, which escalated into a rabid stream of communication delivered in English, Spanish and Afrikaans, courtesy of Google Translate. Both realized this was something special when on a Saturday, minutes before service started, he burnt his bread because he just couldn’t stop thinking about me. This man. Does not. Burn. Stuff. Roaming the folds of Simonsberg mountain like a lovestruck goatherd, this was music to my ears. The fact that he created a dessert in my honour… Well, what would you do? I simply had to have some Apricot du Plessis.

 

Oh my heart... a cheesecake globe, glazed in apricot and amaretto, served with lemon grass ice cream

So two months later I visited Barcelona again. Just for five days. To see if this was virtual infatuation or the real deal. And because the señor was heading to South Africa for his Christmas break and wanted to know if he should spend his time with me or with his buddy in Natal? He never saw Natal. From the farm in Helshoogte we drove East for some family time in Cape St Francis, which included a two day trip to Addo so the senor could see wild animals. And impress me with his rendition of a hyena’s mating call. Which worked – he lured not only a hyena but also a fox and a rhino to the watering hole. I was smitten. Time was not to be wasted. A month later I put my earthly goods in storage, left my precious hound *Milly with a friend on an equally beautiful farm outside Paarl, and headed for Barcelona.

 

Precious Milly. It has been hard on her. On me too. Soon we will be reunited. Hablas español Milly?

Huge strides. Heady stuff. We wanted it to be. We wanted it all, together. With me being on the other side of forty, we appointed nature as our family planner. The thinking was that it would take at least a year… enough time to sort out paperwork, learn the language, start working, get to know each other. Hahaa! Our unborn son was conceived in the very first month, which, dear reader, at my age is pretty much a hole in one. Talk about lift-off.

It hasn’t necessarily been easy. You swallow a lot of water in the deep end. I was basically a kitchen widow (all that glorious food the señor serves is the result of meticulous, labour-intensive graft), pregnant and very alone in a strange land, with all attempts at learning the language thwarted by pregnancy-brain (my verdict) and at a time when procuring permits and visas for foreigners was becoming downright nerve-wracking. I’m not a big city girl and after the luxurious Cape winelands, old Barcelona didn’t seem all that bright. Morning sickness, or in my case afternoon and evening sickness, didn’t help. But we’ve come through it all. Lord knows, the señor is a good man.

It’s just one little year since we first met. We’ve bridged continents, a deep language divide, culture clashes and personal whims. We are so terribly excited to meet our son. And we are dreaming a future together. Change is in the air. Nothing is certain. I for one am all too aware that things can go very wrong. Death and disease have darkened my door. It very nearly darkened my soul. Yesterday I logged on to Facebook to see RIP followed by a friend’s name. Llewelyn Roderick. A beautiful mensch, father of two small children, husband, brother, son to amazing people. I am again reminded. How everything can turn. To hurt love’s equal measure. Am I up for it?

 

Andrés and I. November 2011. We'd only just begun...

It is tempting to hide from the big decisions in life. That no bad may come your way. But no good will find you either. A year ago I threw the dice. I threw them hard.

I’m not saying I’ve hit the jackpot. But I am back in the game.

Did I hear ‘double or nothing’?

 

*After almost 9 months apart, Milly joined us in Barcelona yesterday and it’s like a big chunk of happy has hit our home. A chunk of happy that sheds piles of long white hair, but anyhow. I was absolutely amazed by how well she had endured the 36 hour flight, the charm with which she has taken to the streets and the traffic, and above all, that she didn’t suffer a second’s hesitation when she saw me. As if we’d spent only a day apart…

 

 

 

Hey BINGO!

August 29th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

I never wanted advertisers on my blog. Not because of lofty journalistic principles or concerns about credibility. It’s just all those colours and fonts. Things get so busy busy busy.  I just didn’t feel like it. Plus little windows popping up where you don’t need them. And it smells of added admin. But then Frank emailed me. And for a split-second, well, I thought, just maybe it could work. Then again, maybe not:

Hi Frank

My blog is about food writing from a very personal perspective. I wouldn’t know what to say about the online bingo industry, except maybe to take the piss. The few readers that I have (I’m pregnant and more interested in grazing indiscriminately than blogging) also won’t buy a thinly veiled attempt at punting online bingo. I may lose the shred of credibility and 3.7 readers I have left. Unless I actually try it, love it, and ideally could win some money. Then we’re in business! Other than that my blog may not be the ideal advertising platform for you. But please do send me a link to give the bingo thing a bash. Who knows. I convert easily. Especially when there’s yelling involved!

Thank you kindly for your interest.
Bianca

On Wed, 29 Aug 2012 16:53:52 +0100, frank@xxxx.com> wrote:

Hi Bianca,
Thank you for getting back to me.

After reviewing your website, we think that a new blog post would be the
best and least intrusive option for you. You are free to come up with the
content of the article or blog post, but we do ask that it is in some way
relevant to our client in the online bingo industry and is composed of
roughly 300 words.

We’ll pay $ 120 as an annual upfront payment and we will endeavour to make
sure that you are paid within two working days, using PayPal or
Moneybookers.

Please let me know if you’re interested, so I can have your site assessed
by our Technical team. I can then send the advert details and client
information.

Alternatively, if you have any more questions about this advert type, then
please do let me know.

Thanks,
Frank


Hey Frank, will this do? It’s 390 words and technically 169 of them are yours but it’s related to bingo. Do we have a deal?

Frank?

Take a bite of Barcelona

June 14th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

Spain is revered as the home of modernist gastronomy, having liberated fine dining from the clingy hold of French butter and cream with sultry oils and a fearless approach to technique. The thing about Spain is, they cook. Every city block has at least three restaurants, often feet apart. For every aspiring elBulli or Cellar de Can Roca out there, there are at least 1000 greasy tapas bars. You have to be selective. If, like me, you like fresh food or an element of freshness in your food, consider yourself slightly screwed. Oil and salt are constants in this flavour landscape. But let’s look at the good stuff, shall we?

 

 

From absolutely bloody brilliant to better than average


Tickets Bar: Ferran and Albert Adria’s brilliant take on tapas. I’ve tried other gastro tapas bars and nothing comes close to this. The Adria’s might be slumming it compared to the gravitas of elBulli but Tickets, for all it’s playfulness, serves little morsels of genius. The best tapas in the world. Reservations via their website only and they’re booked out three months in advance. Read my review of Tickets and 41 Degrees here. If you are intrigued by elBulli, do go to the elBulli exhibition at Palau Robert on paseo de Gracia.

41 Degrees: The disco sister of Tickets, also owned by the Adria brothers. Recently blinged-out with an installation of 20 000 crystals that manipulate light and sound,  41 Degrees is hailed as the ‘baby elBulli’. It’s a 16 seater that serves a mind-fluffing 41-course menu. The same tricky online reservation system applies. I’m going end of July and can’t wait to experience the sparkly new 41 Degrees. Watch this space.

Dos Pallilos: A sensual synergy of food savvy. Exquisite Japanese food served tapas-style. After 11 years as elBulli’s headchef Albert Raurich – inspired by his Japanese wife – opened this übercool eatery next to the trendy Camper Hotel in the Ramblas. Good luck getting a table at short notice. Read my review here.

Gresca: Creative, contemporary fine dining in an informal, chic space.One of the really good restaurants where you might get a table at short notice. Details here.

Alkimia: Modernist gastronomy with strong Catalan roots. Set menus offer a well curated overview of the best this area has to offer. Reserve online.

Dos Cielos: Comes highly recommended. The website gives a clear idea of what to expect and how to get a reservation for this sensory joy ride, engineered by handsome twin brothers Sergio and Javier Torres. I might have to go soon.

Rias de Galicia: For the best seafood in town. Enough said.

Of course, the most sought-after table to be had in all of Spain would be Celler de Can Roca. Rated second  in the world after Rene Redzepi’s Noma and just an hour’s drive from Barcelona in Girona, this would be well worth the effort if you’re serious about sampling the best.

La Boqueria: Barcelona and probably the world’s best fresh produce market. On las Ramblas, the city’s main tourist drag, the market offers freshly pressed juices popping with colour and flavour. Choose from guava and coconut, kiwi and pineapple – the list is near endless. I start every market visit with a different flavour. Buy fresh produce or wait your turn for a seat at one of the popular tapas bars in the market. Or just eat with your eyes. It’s a visual orgasm.

 

Las Ramblas has tourist trap written all over it but you have to see it. Eating there is perhaps not such a great idea. Except for Bar Lobo. As you wander down Las Ramblas, turn right on Pintor Fortuny and first left onto a charming  square. Surprisingly authentic and accessible considering the location. A clever menu that offers tapas but also heartier meals, catering to a global palate whilst retaining some Spanish flavour. Good value for money and no reservation required. With a bit of luck and patience, I’ve always managed an outdoor table after a few minutes’ wait.

El Born is a great barrio to stroll through. Ancient, bohemian, bustling. Get lost in the narrow lanes but keep an eye open for Cal Pep on Placa de les Olles. Tiny tapas bar, always jam-packed with desperadoes queuing at the door.

Everyone will confirm that Spain’s North is the holy food grail. Specifically San Sebastian. Famous for having more Michelin stars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world, and for pintxos.  Basically tapas of the North. Generally served on a slice of baguette, impaled with a toothpick. If you’re not going North and want to experience pintxos, el Born is also home to Sagardi Euskal Taberna at Carrer de l’Argenteria, 62. Grab a plate, pile it high and hang on to those toothpicks. That’s how they keep track of how much you’ve eaten…

Sick of tapas and fancy a hamburger the size of a toddler’s head, made American style – because burgers here are often served without a roll, lettuce and tomato – with everything? Pim Pam burger on carrer del Sabaret is considered the best in town. Sadly I can’t say the same for their hot dogs.

If you think the Spanish like chili, think again. They managed to colonize most of South and central America for centuries without succumbing to the charms of this hot little fruit. In search of a fix, I suffered some bad Mexican until I found Tlaxcal, also in el Born at 27 Calle Comerc. Classic Mexican, cleanly presented. Best nachos ever and do try the taco soup.

Barcelona has a lot of beach and many beach bars. The best paella is to be had at El Xiringuito de Escriba, by the famous Escriba family. The paella from the sea and the mountain (rabbit and seafood) is the best. Check out the fabulous Escriba website for info on Xiringuito as well as their two pastry shops. A must if you love confectionery. Candy rings, fantastical chocolate sculptures and some of the best pastry Spain has to offer. There’s a small Escriba pastry shop a few meters down from la Boqueria. Enjoy…

 

Barceloneta is riddled with groovy beach bars. If the food isn’t that great at most of them, the cocktails, views and people-watching will more than make up for it. Lying on the beach, you can’t miss Hotel Bella to your right, which looks like it’s about to strut into the sea. Also home to Michelin-star chef Carles Abellan’s Bravo 24 terrace restaurant. Much of what we ate here arrived with smoky grill flavours. I absolutely loved the lettuce, drizzled with chicken stock and cooked on the grill. A suave elevated seaside option with spectacular Mediterranean views. Abellan also owns Tapas 24 in the city center, close to paseo de Gracia. The poor man’s Tickets and a great place to get to grips with tapas without burning up your pocket.

‘What do Spanish people REALLY eat, besides bread and tapas, what is real Catalan food?’ That was the question after my first few months here. Fancy restaurants are great but with all that reinvention you need a set of tweezers to separate the traditional from the showstopper. I’d say the jury is still out on that one. But I do like Casa Paloma for several reasons. The interior is an unfussy blend of old world and contemporary sophistication. Much like the menu. Good Catalan food for discerning locals. Their daily specials offer comfort classics. And brace yourself, the steaks can be overwhelming in size.

Fancy a Catalan barbeque? Head for the hills and get your hands dirty at Casa Juaco, a truly rustic Catalan grill restaurant. One of my very best food experiences here. You’re given large plastic gloves (thin versions of the type normally used for cow insemination…) and a bib because it gets messy. Old terracotta roof tiles are plonked down, piled high with leeks charred over an open grill. It’s dirty work releasing the sweet center but very rewarding. This was my favourite part of the meal. Tiles of charred seasonal veg with aioli and romesco dipping sauces. Jugs of sangria and beer served in spouted glass vessels encourage communal drinking. Followed by a main of grilled meat (sausage and chops) and traditional creme Catalan for dessert. Go for the view, the vibe and the charred vegetables. Totally off the beaten track, it doesn’t get more traditional than this.

Rambla de la Catalunya is a great street to stroll down. Parallel to paseo de Gracia (Barcelona’s highest of high streets) but with less traffic and more trees, ambient cafes and interesting little shops.  Close to the corner of Rambla de la Catalunya and Majorca you’ll find Cerveceria, an above average tapas bar. Also home to the best hot dogs I’ve had here, albeit in tapas form so you have to order about 8 portions to get your footlong in… whatever it takes, right?

Hotel Ohla offers a 1 star Michelin restaurant, gastro tapas bar, chic cocktail bar and roof terrace. Impressive tapas of the not-so-pedestrian kind on the edge of the Old City.

All Italian food is comfort food to me. And sometimes when you travel you just want a big bowl of pasta or a pizza that doesn’t talk back when you chew on it. Considering our proximity to Italy, this city is not inundated with great Italian fare. The only one that’s given me joy is La Bella Napoli. Try the pasta in a parmesan basket.

Spain doesn’t have much of a breakfast culture. Generally a baguette with cheese or ham and a coffee will do. It took five months to find eggs Benedict in this town but I did. At a charming French bistro Cafe Emma at 142 Paul Claris in the city center. Good value for money lunch and dinner set menus make it a popular choice, which is why the service is somewhat disappointing. Open all day, every day.

I’m in my fifth month in Barcelona and there is still so much to discover. Areas like el Born and Gracia are riddled with little neighbourhood bars and restaurants and my advice would be, if the locals are having a good time, give it a bash. Vegetarians tend to have a hard time here in the heart of ham country but this link might provide some relief. For the rest, bear these pointers in mind when choosing an eatery.

1. Don’t eat anywhere with picture boards. Especially if the photos are sun-faded to a generic pulp. Because the food very well may be too.

2. Eat at tapas bars owned by Spanish folk. By the same token, Chinese restaurants should be owned by Chinese. You follow.

3. This one is global. The Michelin Guide said it best on Twitter “Why is it that the dining rooms with the best views serve food that rarely matches the optics? Location, location, frustration.” Couldn’t agree more. Am actually starting to think tourism is detrimental to food quality. So if your feet can carry you further, don’t eat right next to that atmospheric Gothic cathedral.

4. Aaah… la vida tapas! The world has truly gone tapas berserk. Like repeating your own name fast, I hardly know what it means anymore. Here, portions can be ample so eating tapas on your own doesn’t really work. You’ll end up eating a hell of a lot of one thing. A few roasted padron peppers are nice but you don’t want three fists full. Most dishes are either deep-fried or perched in a puddle of oil. Order in waves to avoid bombing yourself with too much of the same thing. When tapas is good, it’s wonderful. Back in the seventies in the Eastern Cape, my mom used to call it pick-n-mix. The best way to eat.

5. Plato del dia or meal of the day, available from most restaurants at lunchtime. Generally a 3-course meal with a drink or coffee included for around 12 Euros. Great value but don’t expect to be blown away. It’s simply a feeding so you can carry on with the business of having a good time.

6. “Hablas Ingles?” Shocker. In a city riddled with tourists, you’re lucky to encounter a poco English from the hosts. Without Google translate I might have starved in my first months or suffered death-by-tortilla (though, when in doubt a slab of potato omelet is a good filler). The bitch about Barcelona is it has two languages. Spanish (Castillano) and Catalan. Restaurants in touristy areas usually have an English menu but not always. Ask for carta Ingles. I’ve had to rely on my cellphone a lot and it helps if you know whether you’re dealing with Spanish or Catalan. Look for the word ‘with’. Can’t write a menu without it. In Spanish it’s ‘con’ and in Catalan ‘amb’… so, now you know what language you’re dealing with, order forth! And let me know if you find the good stuff.

This post may be subjected to updates and revisions. Follow me @kitchenvixenish on Twitter for bite-by-bite updates.

And on a non-food note, don’t forget to always look up at all the gorgeous buildings. There’s much more to Barcelona than Gaudi… although he is the most crazy beautiful of the lot.

 

Twinkle twinkle Michelin star

March 24th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

The best experiences in life are often unplanned. As was the case with my meal at Nerua, the Michelin-star establishment at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I’m not shy to admit it was my first meal at a Michelin restaurant. We have none in South Africa. Now that I’ve experienced the attention to detail that this accolade requires, I understand why.

 

God is in the detail

 

I snapped this photo in the service area and my expectations were instantly a-tingle. The glove did it for me. Nerua’s philosophy can be summed up as clean, delicate, light, balanced and fresh. Both in decor and food. The delicate simplicity of the dishes belie an intense and rigorous design process, with a dedicated space where five chefs focus solely on innovating and perfecting. Appetizers were served at a counter with a view of the kitchen. And the best beer I’ve ever tasted.

 

Crisped cod skin with pimenton dust

 

I love craft beer and Il Baladin Wayan from Piozzo in the heart of Piemonte’s wine country was a taste revelation. Creator Teo Musso, son of an Italian wine-making family, decided to go with the grain and focus his blending skills on beer. An apprenticeship with Belgian brew masters followed. Wayan is a multigrain organically brewed beer with the flavour complexity, balance and vital freshness of an award-winning wine. We loved it so much that we chose to enjoy our first few courses – normally paired with white wines – with this brew.

 

Mecca for craft pilgrims

 

We moved to the dining room which is completely unadorned so as not to detract from the main act: the food.

 

The stage is set. Not decorated

 

Most importantly, the chairs are perfectly comfortable. So many establishments get this wrong. And as far as I’m concerned it’s a near inexcusable misappropriation of priorities. But before I morph into Miss Rottenmeier, let’s move on to the good stuff….

The team under the direction of head chef Josean Alija served an 11 course product-driven tasting menu. First up, 30 month-matured Parmesan curd with truffle tears, mini bread sticks and shiso.

 

Understated elegance

 

After six weeks in Spain my Spanish is…. pequeño, almost nada, so I didn’t quite understand that it was a curd until I tried it. In spite of the Parmesan being mature, the flavours were subtle and beautifully balanced.

 

Cry me a truffle river

 

Next up was leeks on egg rice with a sheaf of dried Iberian pork juice. A very clean dish with low intensity flavours but not as profoundly so as its parmesan predecessor. To create a symphony, not every note should ring out. And this dish was more of a pause than an accent. If I hadn’t know the sheaf was dried pork juice I would have guessed it was a lick of Bovril. Meaty and salty.

 

A clean green interlude

 

The borage with grass broth, clams and coastal garlic had more personality. I love clear soups and this one tasted of crisp new growth tempered with a bit of marine minerality. But the dish really worked its magic when each spoonful was accompanied by a shred of  borage. The immense thought and restraint present in each composition dawned on me

 

Borage, clear grass broth and clams

 

Nerua’s cuisine is ‘rooted in Basque culture but open to the world’ and as demonstrated by the following, also capable of tongue in cheek trickery. Bilbao is famous for its salted cod or bacalao, prepared al pil pil. A classic consisting of four ingredients: cod, olive oil, garlic and green peppers and the ‘pil pil’ refers to the twisting motion of the pan to emulsify the oil and cod proteins.

 

You've been punked!

 

A humble white onion with a cod skin coat and a puddle of green pepper sauce passes itself off as that classic of Basque cooking… bacalao al pil pil. Very clever indeed. Onion layers masquerading as flaky cod. The señor was extremely impressed with this dish. And he has serious culinary chops so I acquiesce to his superior knowledge… but, dear friends, an onion is an onion and soft fish skin does not rank high on the list of things I love to eat. So once the novelty of the concept wore off, I let most of the onion pass me by. I include a photo (poached from the net) of the real deal.

 

The real bacalao al pil pil

According to Google Translate our next dish consisted of ‘grilled hedgehog-bottom algae’. I’m ever so glad Google is wrong. We had sea urchins. In a theatrical dish.

 

Where did you say you studied drama again?

 

The variety of seafood in Spain, compared to what I’m used to in South Africa, is quite staggering. I hope they leave some in the oceans for the 50′s. Like the 2050′s. Sea urchins have a slightly funky aftertaste that does not appeal to me but more than that, I struggle with the texture. Soft. Slimy when it’s raw and spongy when it’s cooked. It looks like a little tongue, complete with mini buds.

 

Sea urchin in algae broth

 

The dish was perfectly executed but I am incapable of ‘letting go’ and enjoying urchin. We’d finally progressed from the delicious Wayan beer to a vino tinto and with a two-sips-to-one-urchin ratio I made it through most of the dish.

 

A pleasing wine

 

The little crab balls with slivers of sweet potato, white bean broth and sea lettuce was a favourite at the table. The natural sweetness of the crab was complemented by the sweet potato and the subtle earthy broth. Most delicious.

 

Medley of delicate natural sweetness

 

With the mackerel, grilled onions and green olives, I suffered a bout of appetite failure. This invariably happens after three appetizers and 6 courses. For the life of me I can’t remember if it was slightly smoked, or pickled. I think the latter. But I do remember that the flavours were surprisingly subtle and more enjoyable than expected. Funny how appetite failure and information overload tend to hang out together…

 

Submissive mackerel

 

Finally it was Iberian pork time! With the tiniest of carrots and an artichoke emulsion. Cooked to perfection. They managed to crisp up the sides whilst leaving the meat juicy. Great taste, although the dish was served a tad cold.

 

HRH prince Cerdo, ruler of Spanish cuisine

 

The first dessert course consisted of avocado, coconut ice cream and grapefruit tears. Very interesting flavours and textures. Creamy, almost not sweet avocado mousse with coconut ice cream and crunchy tart and salty grapefruit ‘tears’ that popped and vaporised on the tongue. Definitely one of those dishes where your eyes widen as you try to discern flavour components, but not uncomfortably so.

 

Avocado, coconut ice cream and grapefruit tears

 

 

I’m not a huge fan of dessert but the next dish was my favourite of the entire menu. I like pumpkin and I love bergamot and beer so this combo absolutely rocked.

 

I could have licked my plate

Subtly rich and earthy pumpkin mousse with hints of bergamot, a chewy biscuit by chef Enkir and beer ice cream. Such clean and gratifying flavours, delicate and robust, so damn delicious I dreaded seeing the bottom of the plate. We had one more course to go but to me, this was the highlight and full stop of my meal. My attention wandered to the monstrous 30ft high, 33ft wide bronze spider on the other side of the window. Created by French artist Louise Bourgeois as a tribute to her mother, Maman is a wicked piece of sculpture to dine with. It was a misty day but the Guggenheim adds further drama to Maman’s display by releasing clouds of fog from a nearby bridge that envelope the spider at times. You don’t need to be haute on Italian craft beer to fall for her creepy charms…

 

Mommy dearest

 

Before you think Louise had serious issues, here’s why she immortalised her mother-love in such a way: “The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

Why do I digress? Because the point is, Nerua is part of the Guggenheim museum. And what a special place that is. Surrounded by some of the best art ever, the Nerua team goes all out to create a multi-dimensional sensory memory. It’s not just the food.  There’s the individually wrapped toothbrushes in the bathroom (I was too shy to take my camera to the loo) the service team’s gorgeous three-piece suits in thick weave, the gloves, the heated cutlery and napkins… the attention to detail that makes that little star twinkle so brightly. And that’s why Nerua in all probability won’t remain a lone star establishment for long.

But not to be rude… the last course:

 

Thousand leaves of potato, apple and lime

 

Potato, apple and lime piped and layered with wafers. Interesting as you can clearly taste the potato, tempered with apple and with lime to add zing. The quirky end to an 11-course journey into the essence of ingredients. I’ve used the word ‘delicate’ too many times already and I can’t quite bring myself to construct a sentence with ‘sensitive exploration’ but, I think you get the picture?

 

A layered experience

 

When we finished the museum had closed. Pity, but I wouldn’t change anything about our day in Bilbao. And as far as I’m concerned, food of this caliber is art. Gracias señor for my first taste of the North. I hope it’s not my last. I do need to actually go inside the museum… I leave you with another piece of exterior art. Puppy, the 12.4 meter topiary dog by Jeff Koons. Do you see him there? At the end of the road, guarding the Guggenheim with the green hills of Bilbao in the background?

 

Hasta la vista Puppy

 

For more info on Nerua or the Guggenheim click on the names to visit their respective websites.

As always, click on images to enlarge.

NO MAS PAN! she cried

February 29th, 2012 § 3 comments § permalink

Seriously, Europeans eat a lot of bread. White bread. With every meal. They seem to live on permutations of cheese and ham sandwiches, mostly without tomato or lettuce or anything juicy. So that, dear friends, was my dough-weary battle cry one chilly morning as I stomped my foot on a pavement in Ibiza. No more bread! The señor just laughed because it was also my first unbridled attempt at Spanish after three weeks in the country.

BUT… then I had pan con tomate - bread with tomato – a Catalan classic that is greater than the sum of its parts. Plus it’s hands-on messy. Serve this at the beginning of a meal or with cold beers while the sausage sizzles on the grid. You’ll need good bread, toasted, a ripe squishy tomato, whole unpeeled garlic cloves, good olive oil and salt.

 

Humble stuff

 

Slice the garlic in half and scratch the bread with it. Do the same with the tomato. Really wreck it. Then drizzle with as much olive oil as the bread will hold and sprinkle with salt. Be liberal.

 

My new best friend

 

It’s the taste bud equivalent of a great family reunion and I urge you to try it. My buds have been battling the last few weeks. There are many many restaurants in Barcelona and most of them should be avoided. Food can be very oily and if you love fresh zingy flavours, winter food in this town will break you. Barcelona has incredible culinary aces up her sleeve but the likes of Tickets and Dos Palillos are a far cry from what the average Jose eats. I had this gem at a lovely tapas restaurant, Casa de tapas de Cañota, owned by the Iglesias brothers who also co-own Tickets with the famous Adrias. Casa de tapas serves traditional tapas, made well. At affordable prices. Patrons are invited to rate individual dishes and the results are displayed.

 

Tapas hit parade

 

Tapas isn’t really an option if you’re eating solo. The idea is to have one or two bites off each plate and not a whole plate of say, croquetas. But the tacos de cochinillo caught my eye and I mistakenly assumed ‘tacos’ meant, well, tacos. They way Mexican restaurants in South Africa do them. But in Spanish it also refers to little blocks of meat. Although the pork didn’t look the way I expected, it was delicious. Rich, succulent and crispy on top.

 

You say taco I say... block

 

Most of my food woes this time around are simply due to not knowing. Almost no Spanish and even less Catalan. When I visited Barcelona the first time as a tourist I took taxis and ate at some of the best restaurants. Now I live like a local, taking the metro and hunting for cheaper but good ways to feed myself. Everything’s different, of course. I have yet to see a loaf of rye bread. And Spanish supermarkets are a far cry from the Americanesque food cathedrals we have at home. There’s a lot less packaging in the veg section and meat is not as fussily clipped and stripped of all indication that it once was animal. It’s all pretty darn real. Sections of my local market are downright scary. And when I hit the fish aisle I’m ever so grateful I can block my nose from the inside.

I’ve also realised that my perception of Spanish food was just plain wrong. I’m holding back on any sweeping statements until I’ve eaten the North but at this point, suffice to say that not only is their food not spicy, they actually dislike it. Which is why I’m really excited about a little restaurant we’re going to on Friday. Mexican street food by real Mexicans. Come to think of it, it’ll be the first time I ever eat Mexican prepared by Mexicans.

Living and learning.

If anyone’s still reading, please hold thumbs that we find a really nice apartment soon – with an oven – because I’m craving bobotie! Although I suspect the señor won’t like it…

 

Nobody’s ouma’s milk tart

December 9th, 2011 § 10 comments § permalink

To appease my acid levels after my bitch session in Do I look bloggered? and because I was feeling nostalgic, I decided to bake a milk tart for the first time in twenty years. Milk tart. That cornerstone of Boere culinaria and the absolute antithesis of newfangled confectionary. Even in our mothers’ era milk tart was considered a tad oudoos. It’s more of an ouma thing. It is currently enjoying a retro-cool revival but I have encountered a few pasty, gelatinous offerings in restaurants. Of course, always pimped as The Best Milk Tart Ever Made With Grandma’s Recipe. Did grandma have a rough time of it during the Great Depression… or are you just skimping on eggs and butter?

 

Mom's much handled recipe tome

 

I was convinced me and my grandma’s recipe could do better. And that I would find it in my mom’s big black book. Quelle horreur when a definitive family recipe was nowhere to be found! I found a milk tart crust on page 4 and further on my old neighbour tannie Evelene’s coconut milk tart, followed by aunty Elsabe’s regular milk tart towards the end of the book. All I know is I like my tart with a Tennis biscuit crust. And enough cinnamon on top. So I took Evelene’s crust and Elsabe’s filling and baked a tart that eclipsed any of my sepia-toned, butter and eggy custard memories. I will give you the recipe. If you don’t have a memorable milk tart recipe in your family, please adopt this one. Pretend. Copy and paste it any which way you like. Don’t bother with credits because this really is nobody’s ouma’s milk tart.

 

She's plain but all heart

 

Universal ouma’s milk tart recipe:

CRUST 1 packet Tennis biscuits, reduced to fine crumbs; half a cup of sugar; half a cup of flour; 125g soft butter

Cream butter and sugar together, add dry ingredients, mix well. Line a standard pie dish (pictured above), including the sides and press down gently to create an even crust.

FILLING 1 litre full cream milk; 125g butter; 1 cup sugar; 4 very heaped tablespoons flour; pinch salt; 4 eggs separated, whites beaten to soft peaks; vanilla (I used two vanilla pods but would guess a quarter teaspoon of vanilla essence should do it); cinnamon

Heat oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Pour most of the milk into a pot, leave a cup aside to add to dry ingredients. Add butter to milk and bring to the boil. Remove vanilla seeds from pods, add seeds and pods to milk. Let milk boil for a minute or three to absorb the vanilla flavour, stir to keep from burning. In a bowl, make a dough with the flour, sugar, salt, egg yolks and remaining milk. Once milk has boiled, strain through a sieve, pour over dough. Mix well and pour back into pot. Medium heat and whisk like hell otherwise you’ll have lumpy custard in no time. Allow to thicken, then add whipped egg whites.  Pour into pie dish, sprinkle with cinnamon and bake for about 20 minutes until set and crust edge is golden.

I strongly recommend you have a slice while it’s still warm. Delicious. My neighbour Simon described it as ‘quite possibly the best milk tart ever’ and Lord knows Simon’s a tough dessert diva to please.

Do I look bloggered?

December 7th, 2011 § 15 comments § permalink

I haven’t blogged for so long I damn near forgot my password. So I went to Barcelona, ate at some fine restaurants, did the write-ups and stepped away from the machine. I could say it’s because I discovered I was totally iron-deficient and only ate liver, spinach, steak and almonds for a month. Or that I was hopelessly in love for the first time in centuries and turned into the oldest teenager on the block. Or maybe it’s just that I had the one under-whelming restaurant experience after the other.

How pretentious. Go overseas, eat at a couple of great restaurants and now nothing here is good enough? Not quite. It’s just that when I started this blog, restaurant reviews weren’t really going to feature. Due to my involvement with the Expresso Show on SABC3 that changed. The blog became restaurant review-driven. But successive mediocre over-priced meals started chipping away at my initial resolve to not bitch about other people’s efforts.

Now I feel like a cheap vacuum cleaner stuck in a corner. The following must be said.

I am totally gatvol of pseudo fine dining. It’s like a hologram of the real thing. Except for the prices. They are very real. An assemblage of decor, verbose menus, flavourless and overly engineered plated ‘elements’ that add jazz-hands visual appeal with no integrity. I feel so cheated when I eat this crap. It’s the food equivalent of Hong Kong Vuitton. And I don’t even like Vuitton. I know the South African public is gullible and tourists go far far away soon after they’ve been ripped off…

But enough of that. Unlike the predictable big five list of usual suspects that feature on too many mains menus. Hmm…. let me guess: duck, pork belly, springbok, linefish and steak. What do they do with the rest of that pig because everyone is so stuck on pork belly these days. With star anise and five spice? Now where have I seen that before….  EVERYWHERE!

Why is this getting to me now? Am I eating out too much? Probably. Which accounts for most of the bitterbek food critics out there. They’re just not hungry enough. For the record, I’m very happy with simple food, done well. The key is honesty. Walk your talk. Which brings me to my next point. Talk. I know food is bigger than sex these days and chefs are the new rock stars but try and be more like a drummer than a lead guitarist, okay. Just a thought. You never know when humble pie is served again.

Am I done am I done? No. Dammit. It’s almost too easy to take potshots at waiters in this country but this deserves a mention. I recently ordered shrimp cakes with an avocado salad as a main. Cakes. That’s plural, right? Shrimp. Undefined multitude, maybe? I received one large family-sized viskoek. Shrimp are small, I know. And they come frozen and devoid of mega flavour. But they’re cheap so given the price of the koek (R95) I expected it to be packed tighter than a bulimic’s tuck box.

The koek consisted of kingklip and mashed potato with max 5 fingernail-sized shrimp. I was disappointed. When I inquired as to the whereabouts of the shrimp in my shrimp cake, I was told by a slow and overly-familiar waitress that I should be grateful for the abundance of fresh kingklip in my cake. This pearl of eschewed logic was delivered as she spun her weighty self around on challenged ankles. To illustrate how silly I am? THIS IS NOT A GAME OF WHOTHEFUCKAREYOU LADY I felt like shouting at her. Bring the shrimp.

 

Exhibit A: half a cake splayed open to reveal its shrimp content

 

Another attempt at shaming her into admitting that the dish was a farce resulted in an explanation that the shrimp was chopped finely to ‘spread the flavour’. Micro-science is alive and well in Seapoint. No, I don’t want a complimentary dessert. Bring me a drink.

I first coined the term food fraud in Stellenbosch in the mid-nineties when I ordered a toasted baguette with mozzarella, sun-dried tomato and basil and got a floppy supermarket hot dog roll with cheddar cheese and tomato, microwaved to a radio-active pulp and then artfully wrapped in tin foil to resemble a giant metal sweetie.

I hate it when pretty words pimp nasty food.

Like a dessert I had at an otherwise nice establishment in Constantia recently. Don’t you think ‘Thyme brioche with lemon cream, blood orange jelly and meringue’ sounds nice? I did. An interesting departure from the usual dessert line-up which always includes some death-by-chocolate tart or fondant, pannacotta and/or crème brûlée and a berry mess.

 

Exhibit B: Trifle with borderline personality disorder

 

In the words of the late great Amy Winehouse, what kind of fuckery is this? Scatterlings of dry left-over breakfast brioche with not a hint of thyme, instant pudding-like custard with a limey twang, rock hard segments of blood orange jelly and the inexplicable addition of micro greens as garnish. Bwegh. As mentioned, this is an otherwise nice establishment so one can only hope this colourfast flavour-conundrum soon finds its way to the recipes-never-to-be-repeated file.

Does it feel good to get my bitch on? Not really. I’d rather have good food. I stopped blogging at about the same time Another Damned Food Blog appeared. It’s hilarious. An anonymous author rips into everything that’s fake, faddy and fraudulent in the food industry. No, it’s not me. I’ve been asked a few times and though flattered (bitch can write) I would never use the word fuck so much. Because I know like…you know, lots of words, like, adjectives and shit.

 

O where was I where was I… am I done? NO!!! How could I forget?! Cookbooks. Dear Lord! Please save us from the tsunami of mediocre google-cut-and-paste easy-as-microwave-pie bullshit books hitting the shelves roundabout now to fill the Christmas stockings of unsuspecting folk that really don’t need another potato bake recipe. I love Deon Meyer’s crime novels but why… WHY a cookbook by Deon Meyer? I recently looked at a food author’s work and got the sneaky feeling a brief sleuth session on google would deliver most of her recipes, with minor adjustments. I didn’t bother. I did however bother to make a dish from a recently launched cookbook by one of our very own celebrity chefs. Much like Anthony Bourdain’s most recent literary offering Medium Rare, I got the feeling this chef was prompted by his handlers to produce a cookbook because it would be the money-savvy thing to do, rather than the expression of a soul brimming with culinary inspiration. I made a lamb knuckle dish that asks for 100g sugar to 600g of knuckle. What the… protein rich malva pudding? All I’m saying is people are gonna wise up. So surf this wave of indiscriminate consumption but just keep an eye on the rapidly approaching shoreline.

Funny how the guys at the top – apart from being really good because they are simply propelled to care more, try harder – usually don’t indulge add-on fuckery. Thanks David Higgs for creating a truly delicious and well-priced menu at your new joint in Joburg, thanks Bertus Basson for keeping it rock and roll real, thanks George Jardine for your individualistic flavour profile, thanks Richard Carstens for being the bravest food dreamer, thanks Luke Dale Roberts for spinning the funk into fine dining (your gourmand menu remains top of my bucket list), thanks Kobus van der Merwe for your articulate take on our orphaned food history, thanks to the Italian family who own Asta la Pasta because I eat there more than anywhere else, thanks Toerie from Umami for the best lunches in town, thanks Baker family from Wild Peacock for being real time food heroes, thanks Margot Janse for being the only woman to have truly given the boys a run for their money. There are many more… especially cooks rather than chefs, that feed us nicely.

Cheers to you

 

Your ever-lovin Kitchen Vixen