Saturday, November 29, 2014

Jam in the Morning

The kids leave for school in a flurry of lunch bags and ten-ton rucksacks, piling into my sister-in-law’s little red car at seven in the morning. There’s a momentary lull. I finish my cup of tea, sometimes I haven’t had my own breakfast yet, but then there is another tug of demand. George is patiently waiting for his walk, lying out on the brick path. His eyes are focused on my movements through the doorway. If I don’t seem to be coming soon enough, he’ll be at my side with a plaintive whine, then bound to the door again if I move half an inch in that direction.

At this time of year I take my basket with me every day. Our walk around the circular dirt road takes us past the veggie garden and the orchard, and there is always something  in urgent need of picking.We had so many carrots last month that I picked 20 kilos and took them down to sell at Camphill market. We were giving them away to friends, juicing them like crazy and eating them at every meal. Now we're down to just a few baby carrots, but have gallons of green beans, sacks of spinach, loads of leeks, and the courgettes have just started producing, so I have to  pick them every morning otherwise they seem to turn into marrows overnight.

The veggie garden is currently full of spinach, leeks, carrots, green beans and a ton of onions - such a blessing!

We had tearing winds just when the plums came ripe, so I was picking up wind-falls every morning and evening.

George keeps busy while I pick, chasing off the guinea fowl and peacocks.

The plums ripen within a day to dark purple and dripping with juice

This last two weeks we’ve had an entire tree of plums all coming ripe in one week. At the same time as the apricots, which all had to be stripped from the tree and jammed with great urgency, as they’d been ‘stung’ by fruit flies. So every morning I’ve been making jam, great pots of it, sometimes two, and every evening I’ve been preparing the next lot of fruit for the next lot of jam.

Part of today's strawberry harvest

We’ve got enough plum and apricot jam now for the year, but our strawberry crop has been woefully late and sparse. Only three pots of strawberry jam sit on the shelf, swamped by an ocean of plum and apricot. But finally the berries are getting going and I picked four ice cream containers of berries first thing this morning. Enough for several pots of jam, for my sister-in-law to make strawberry ice-cream, and to have some left over to eat. Phew – our jam self-sufficiency is safe for another year!

Apricots on the way to jammy deliciousness

The jam isn’t the only reason I’ve been neglecting my blog. I had a long succession of writing deadlines through September and October. Great for my work, not so great for me wanting to sit at the computer and write some more in my free time. So there were a whole load of things I was going to write about here, now just a distant memory and a handful of photos on Facebook: our spring festival, a visit to the Oranjezicht City farm market, the Make It New exhibition of Western Cape design and craft, project managed by my sister-in-law that I helped behind the scenes with, and then there was the Camphill Music festival with Freshly Ground playing live just down the road from us. All these things deserved a post all to themselves.

Maybe they’ll get one, after I’ve finished making jam, baking Christmas cakes and have survived the end of term whirlwind of end of exam parties, prize-givings, concerts and all that malarkey. Real life is taking over here and not leaving me enough time for my virtual reality! Anyway,  Marcheline, I’m still alive and well, if slightly sticky and enveloped in a veil of jam fumes!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

La Mouette

We don’t get out much. At least not if getting out means restaurants, city life, happening events and all that jazz. Living on a farm means that most of our getting out is looking at sunsets or moonrises, walking dogs, going to the market, or if we’re very lucky the razzmatazz comes to us. I’m thinking of the music festival at Camphill Village in two weeks where Freshly Ground are coming to play, almost on our doorstep and we are really looking forward to it. But every now and again I come across somewhere in town that niggles at me until we just have to go. La Mouette in Sea Point was one of those places that grabbed me from the first time I read through one of their tasting menus.

Chef Henry Vigar opened La Mouette in 2010 with his wife Mari and business partner Gerrit Bruwer. Between them they have created a wonderful restaurant. It manages to be comfortably stylish without being pretentious, the atmosphere is cosy, friendly and relaxed, and the food? Well the food is what I was there for and it lived up to my expectations and beyond, when we went there a couple of weeks ago with friends to celebrate my birthday.

The menu looks straightforward, no flights of fancy in naming dishes: mushroom soup, beetroot salad, fish pie, crispy pork cheeks, roast chicken, mushrooms on toast, waldorf salad, rhubarb crumble. But the flights of fancy are in the myriad pops of flavour in every dish, keeping us engaged and full of anticipation as each new dish was presented. I can’t remember another meal where I have had such a voyage of flavour exploration and have finished the meal replete and satisfied, without a trace of that overfull feeling that too often follows a celebratory dinner. Contemporary with French and South African influences, Henry is big on authentic seasonal flavours, has just enough fancy twists to make things sing without going overboard, and keeps the surprises coming course after course.

First off a plate of delectable breads, from miniature vetkoek to small cheese muffins along with dabs of aioli and dips. Then the mushroom soup came along, in the form of an abstract arrangement of cheese and truffle croquette, cubes of mushroom jelly, parmesan crust arranged in the bowl. At the table the soup itself was poured over, so that every spoonful came with a different zazz of extra flavour. Next up a beetroot salad, with a gorgeous peppery goats cheese, candied pecans, sumac and a hazelnut dressing.

The next course was a choice and of course we made sure that between us we chose both options so that we could taste them all (images above). I'd never order pork cheeks as a main dish, but these little cubes of crispiness were so succulent and delicious that I was left wanting more, and the crackling really did crackle. It came with a celeriac puree, pickled apple and wholegrain mustard. The other option was 'fish pie' on a mustard mash with a mussel, a sea foam and a leek and potato sauce, also melt in the mouth delish

More choices to be made ( images below): mushrooms on toast proved to involve a rich French toast and a truffle sauce over a mushroom ragout together with Bearnaise sauce and parmesan, stunning winter velvety flavour; the roasted chicken was light and delicate with Asian flavours in the pot sticker, pickled shitake, spicy butternut puree and coconut foam.

Almost there and we weren't in the least flagging, just wishing this would go on forever! A fresh sweet savoury bridge in this 'waldorf salad' made up of celery pannacotta with a sweet apple granita and raisin puree. And deconstructed rhubarb crumble was the finale, a base of almond crumble with rhubarb compote and a rhubarb and custard ice cream.

I'd love to go back... well pretty much every month, as the tasting menu changes regularly, but especially in summer, as the restaurant is set back from the busy Sea Point street with a gorgeous big courtyard, trees and of course a fountain, so it feels like a whole other world. The winter atmosphere was also lovely with log fires and several separate rooms in the original old building, so that it never felt crowded even though it was a busy Saturday night.

Our winter tasting menu was R195 per person (for the rest of the year the usual price is R295). One of us also had the wine pairings with the menu which was R335.

La Mouette Restaurant. 
Tel 021 433 0856. 
78 Regent Road, Sea Point, Cape Town.

Disclosure: We paid in full for our meal. No review was asked or paid for and all opinions are my own.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Summer Holiday in Cornwall

Cornwall has its own magic. Whether it’s the nostalgia of endless summer holidays, the ancient legends of King Arthur or the fabled light and skies that always attracted artists to St Ives,  there’s an air apart about Cornwall.

Driving down from Somerset, through Devon, all sleepy lush lanes, verdant hedgerows and trees, trees, trees, there’s a point when the rolling hills open up to brisk sea winds, when solitary wind turbines dot across the landscape and villages are built from stoic grey stone to withstand winter storms.

For some reason we never came west on childhood holidays in my family. Grandparents were in Edinburgh and Norfolk, and it was always north and east on day long car journeys, testing parents’ patience with the eternal refrain of ‘how many more miles?’ So heading there with  our combined families wasn’t a nostalgic return but rather a new discovery for my brother and I, taking our kids there for some bucket and spading and family togetherness.

We were near Polzeath in a big house with ample room for us all up on  a hill above the Camel estuary. There were several beaches within walking distance  (even for my three year old niece though she demanded a shoulder ride every now and then) and it was a wonderful novelty for our farm kids to be able to get about on foot.

I loved the lanes edged by dry stone walls overgrown with flowers, the contrast between the vivid green of the hills and lanes and the steely grey of the local slate, the layers of history that are present everywhere.

The big painterly skies are a common thread with South Africa, but here they were delicate cloudscapes, as the weather blew hot and cold on us, a rainstorm hurtling across the horizon at lunch time, brilliant sunshine for an evening walk.

And we had the kind of weather when you put extra clothes on to go to the beach, but go anyway, only the adventurous going right in for a swim, the rest paddling and defying the waves with sand fortifications and spades.

Another short diversion on the way to the beach at Daymer Bay on the River Camel estuary was to St Enodoc’s church with its appealingly crooked spire and green grassy churchyard.

Apparently it was almost buried by the sand dunes for a couple of centuries before being excavated again in the mid 19th century. There’s a John Betjeman poem about Trebetherick that about sums up the kids on holiday feel of this particular corner of Cornwall.

Four nights was all too short, we could have spent another week or two there.

Girls at Polzeath beach more interested in observing stranded jelly fish than surfing.

The lane leading down to the beach at Daymer Bay
We stayed in Evergreen Lodge, which is perfect for two families or a group of friends - lots of space, big kitchen, long tables, big sofas and a nice enclosed garden. Hope we can go back there one day!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

England and Tintagel

We’re been back home long enough that England and summer seem a distant memory. We’ve acclimatised back to winter rains, winter sunshine and chilly nights, got used to school mornings of getting up in the dark and leaving before sunrise. There’s been a loss in the family, my husband’s oldest brother, who after a long degenerative illness was taken by a short sharp bout of pneumonia. Most of the family were luckily able to spend time with him before he went  and they will all be together next week for his memorial service.

It’s a light relief from sadness to be able to go back over the photos from our holiday, revisit the time spent with my family, getting to know my nieces and sinking into the soft pillow of English countryside, hedgerows tall and summer green, trees more than I ever remember, hills rolling, lanes winding, West Country accent soft and unhurried to my ears, now re-tuned to a South African wave-length.

The kids got a highly skewed view of England, all idyllic Somerset countryside, Cornish beaches and historic houses. No cities, no malls, no grim industrial landscapes. So if they get a shock when they encounter London as young adults, it will be all the fault of an unashamedly rural family holiday taken at an impressionable age!

The Cornish stone walls of the ruined castle at Tintagel

There were so many beautiful days that can’t all be crammed into one post, so maybe I’ll spread them out and start off with our visit to Tintagel in Cornwall. The craggy remains of an ancient castle perched high on a headland, it’s a romantic enough spot already, but at some stage someone decided it needed an extra dash of PR spin. To draw the crowds, a legendary connection to King Arthur has been inflated out of very little – supposedly he was conceived there. – and you can now buy plastic Excaliburs outside every little shop in the village, buy Merlin crystals and goodness knows what else. However much of a grockle (tourist) trap the village is, the castle itself is unspoilt, with dramatic views down the Cornish coastline and you can see why it was such a fantastic stronghold over the centuries – no-one would be able to creep up on you unawares here.

A further reason that Tintagel repels invaders of sedentary coach parties... the steep and narrow climb to the castle gate is enough to challenge anyone but a mountain goat. So though there were plenty of visitors when we were there, it never felt crowded and there is the whole headland to spread out onto once you’re up.

Of course once we were up there we realised that it was the perfect place for a picnic and that we should have grabbed some Cornish pasties at the ‘Genuine Cornish Pasty’ shop in the village and hauled them up with us. We managed to keep the kids going on the secret stash of mint imperials in my bag, long enough to appreciate the views, give parents heart failure by peering over the edge, investigating wells and walls and wildflowers.

When the brisk breeze became a little chillsome, we made our way back down the precipitous path, passed a whole lot more people struggling up and went down on to the beach to see the caves, perfect for smugglers.

And then there was a less thrilling walk back up to the village. The youngest member of the party got a lift up in the Landrover, which ferries the exhausted back up the road. The pasties once I'd queued for them, were huge, tasty and sustaining, even if they were crimped on top, which the internet has assured me was not a genuine Cornish habit but a Devon interpretation, and not one child balked at eating the swede (must be the only way in the world to make it palatable to kids!). They even said that my attempts at Cornish pasties were almost as good as the real thing!

Then it was back in the van to face the ever windy, motion sickness-inducing lanes and re-join my husband who had stayed home to make the bread, read his book and recover from a dose of flu which had caught up with him after the flight.

Tintagel is a gorgeous place and well worth a visit if you have strong legs – go in the morning before the crowds arrive and take your pasties and picnic up with you!

The cousins together at Tintagel

Monday, May 26, 2014

Plain Fruit Cake - No Icing Required

Is it just me that is fed up with cupcakes surmounted by voluminous froths of icing? Sometimes I feel like the Grinch when I have yet another request for cupcakes at school and I know that mine will be the humble Cinderellas of the parade... in my day (hrmph, bah humbug and all that) they were called fairy cakes and had a thin glaze of glacé icing and some hundreds and thousands sprinkles for decoration. If you were going all out for glamour you could add silver balls or Smarties. While today’s elaborate creations are undeniably beautiful, I find the rich, very sweet icing overwhelming and would rather just eat the cake underneath.

I’m finding myself more and more attracted by the plain, un-iced cakes of old-fashioned tea-times. Not hotel teas or birthday teas but family weekday ones. The kind of cake that keeps all week in a tin and that you eat in front of the fire with a mug of tea, after having polished off the crumpets dripping with butter. When I was a child and we visited my aunt, there used to be two or three cakes on the go at any one tea-time. Usually a fruit cake, perhaps a ginger one and some sort of light sponge. We’d come in from walking the dogs and tea would be taken along to the sitting room on a trolley to have by the fire: bread and butter first, then a piece of cake or two and then biscuits to fill in any corners. I don’t know how we managed it all, as there would be supper a couple of hours later. Maybe the plethora of cakes was just when family was visiting, but I’m pretty sure that my aunt always had a cake of some description on the go. Here we go with the nostalgic childhood memories, I must be getting old!

My mum’s old-fashioned ginger cake recipe is a good un-fancy cake that lasts for days, and after our Easter Simnel cake was finished I went looking for a plain fruit cake recipe that would also do as an everyday cake. This Dundee cake recipe fits the bill perfectly. It’s light with a citrus freshness, and improves with keeping a few days. I thought about adding some spices to the mix, but am glad I resisted as the orange and lemon zest is all the flavour you need.

Dundee Fruit Cake recipe

150g/5oz soft butter
150g/5oz caster sugar
3 eggs, beaten
225g/8oz plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
450g/1lb fruit cake mix (sultanas, currants, candied peel)
2 tablespoons ground almonds
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
50g/2oz whole blanched almonds
2-3 tablespoons milk (if needed)

20cm/8 inch cake tine, greased and lined
Preheat oven to 150C/300F

Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add eggs, a little at a time and beat in well.
Sift together flour and baking powder. Carefully fold it into the mixture.
The mixture should now be of a soft, dropping consistency. Add  a couple of tablespoons of milk if too stiff and dry.

Fold in the dried fruit, ground almonds and zest.
Spoon mixture into the lined cake tin and level with the back of a spoon.
Gently place the whole almonds in a circular pattern on the top of the mixture. Avoid pressing down, as the cake will rise up to meet them!

Bake until the centre is firm and springy and a skewer comes out clean, about 2 hours.
Cool in the tin, then store in an airtight container.

What about you? Do you have any favourite plain cake recipes to share?

Monday, May 19, 2014

It Ain’t Cornish, But It’s A Pasty

Cornish pasties are one of those food conundrums. Born as a convenient and rather humble packed lunch for those out working in the fields or mines, with no pretensions to grandeur, they are now a cherished part of the Cornish heritage and guarded by a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), with heated debate and irate comments lathered around the web under any recipe that dares to call itself a Cornish pasty, if it breaks any one of the number of rules. One of those rules being that it has to be made in Cornwall, I’m putting a disclaimer in right from the start. This is not a recipe for a Cornish pasty.

I’ve broken too many other rules in creating a tasty version of a pasty anyway; the most important of them is that I’ve used carrot instead of swede – a huge No No among the defenders of the Cornish pasty heritage. In fact I’m wondering if when we visit Cornwall next we’ll be met by a pasty posse at the River Tamar and be refused entry on the grounds of defiling the reputation of the pasty. (Oh and don’t tell anyone Cornish, but I used mince rather than chopped beef skirt here, because it’s easier and cheaper and after all I’m making a meal for the family here, not re-enacting a historical event.)

Another hotly-defended rule that I’ve kept to, is that the pasty should be crimped along the side, not over the top (which is apparently a habit of those in the next county along, Devon). If you want to adapt this recipe to make the genuine article, you’ll need to use finely sliced beef skirt and swede, rather than mince and carrots, then, as long as you are in Cornwall at the time, you may be justified in calling it a Cornish pasty!

My latest pasty showing my best efforts at crimping

So with all that said, my main aim was to find a pastry recipe that would do the job. It needs to be strong enough to hold the filling and be easily transportable without breaking open, with a hint of a flake for lightness once you bite in. Don’t even think of using puff pastry here though, you want the firmness and crispness of shortcrust. I tried several recipes before coming up with one that I think is just right and my investment in really good lard paid off. Now I just need to find a more affordable source of that homely fat and convince the kids that it’s not too gross for words!

All in all the pasties were a big success with whole family and are a wonderful example of how you don’t need fancy ingredients to make something really scrumptious.

Cornish pasties are a D-shape, crimped at the side. This is my second attempt with rather dodgy crimping!

Not a Cornish Pasty Recipe
500g white bread flour
100g lard
45g butter
5g/1 teaspoon salt
175g iced water

350g beef (mince or finely sliced skirt)
350g potato
200g carrot
200g onion
Salt and pepper
25g butter
Beaten egg to glaze

Makes 6 pasties

Rub the lard and butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Gradually mix in the cold water and knead until it comes together in a pliable dough. You may need slightly more or less water depending on your flour.

Roll the pastry into a long cylinder shape and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for at least an hour in the fridge to rest.

Finely chop the vegetables. I’ve made them into fairly small dice, but the more traditional method is to cut them in thin slices. Whichever you choose they should be small enough to cook through evenly without any pre-cooking.

Mix the meat with the vegetables and season generously to taste with salt and pepper. There is no other added flavouring so don’t stint here.

Divide the pastry into six even pieces. Roll each disk out to a circle roughly 22cm/8 inches in diameter.
Divide the filling between them.
On each heap of filling place a generous sliver of butter.

Use a little of the beaten egg to moisten the edge of the pastry and fold one side over to meet the other.
Press to seal.
Now crimp the edges. Start at one corner and fold the bottom piece over and pinch it together all the way along the edge to make a good seal.
Brush the rest of the beaten egg over each pasty.
Pierce a hole in the top to allow steam to escape

Bake at 200C/400F for the first 25 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180C/350F for another 25 minutes. Allow to rest for about 5 minutes before serving, as they are hot! Also good eaten cold for picnics and haymaking.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Easter, Simnel Cake and Stuff

A rather rustic Simnel cake
Easter is all but a distant memory already, the only witnesses to it actually having happened are the three baskets still overflowing with chocolate eggs in the larder, which have to be shifted off my box of flour and dry ingredients every time I bake. Oh and the Easter trees still dangling decorated blown eggs, even though I told the kids that we’d take them down again the weekend after Easter.

April has gone by in flurry of life happening too fast. First George had biliary fever, (not unusual for young dogs living on a farm here where ticks are an inescapable part of life, but it can be fatal if you don’t treat it) which luckily we caught early enough for one visit to the vet to cure quickly. Then that was put out of our minds by Middle Daughter getting sick, and staying slightly sick with a low grade fever for over a week. The first visit to our GP/homeopath revealed nothing more than a sore throat, even with blood tests, the second visit with X ray and more blood tests had us despatched post haste to a specialist physician in the hospital. He dictated an overnight stay, as she had an atypical pneumonia, sneakily lurking at the top of one lung where it’s hard to hear.

Never having been in hospital with any of my children (since Middle Daughter’s fall from a kitchen counter as a 6 week baby, don’t ask! – even more scary than this occasion) it was both an experience I never want to repeat and one that we both found an interesting learning experience. She was feeling tired but not all that sick and was completely stalwart about the horrors of having an IV drip put in, not once but three times, when they couldn’t find a vein that would do; this after undergoing the earlier blood tests, where it took them four goes to get a vein, and two lots of blood type thumb pricking, which seems to be just part of the admissions procedure. There was a whole lot of waiting around, very nice friendly nurses, who got us into a single room, so that I could stay with her, even though she is now old enough to be in the adult ward. Then there was the fun of ordering from the menu for the next day and pretending we were in a posh hotel (for the cost of an overnight stay it certainly felt like we should be!).

The lunch menu

Luckily our physician was very sympathetic and let us go home the next morning with a huge goodie bag of antibiotics, nebulising capsules and probiotics, and she got progressively better. After another week off school she had recovered enough to gather her Easter bounty of way too many eggs without staggering under the weight of them all! And now she just gets irritated when we check how she’s feeling, as she is completely better, back to school, riding again, as if nothing happened. Thank goodness!

About to set off on a farm-wide Easter egg hunt

We always have a Simnel cake at Easter, with its balls of marzipan enclosing a heap of speckled eggs. It’s a family tradition, one that my mother used to make, though now she says she hasn’t made one for years. My brother in Australia went all nostalgic when he saw my picture of it on Facebook and asked for the recipe, so I’m sharing it here and have promised to make it for him when we meet up in the UK in July at my Mum’s for a family reunion. I always use Delia Smith’s recipe from her Book of Cakes, but over the years I’ve found a couple of little tweaks make a difference, so here is her recipe with my adjustments.

Simnel Cake Recipe
175g/6oz butter
175g/6oz sugar
3 eggs beaten
500g/18oz mixed dried fruit/fruit cake mix
zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
225g/8oz plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon mixed spice
3 tablespoons milk

350g/12oz ground almonds
350g/12oz icing sugar sifted
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon either brandy or sherry
1 tablespoon apricot jam
1 egg beaten for glaze

20cm/8inch cake tin lined and greased
Preheat oven to 150˚C 300˚F

First make the marzipan.
Combine the ground almonds and icing sugar in a bowl and mix well.
Beat the egg yolks with the lemon juice and brandy and mix the liquid into the dry ingredients.
Mix and stir and knead until it all comes together in a pliable ball.
You may need more lemon juice. Try not to overwork it with your hands as this can make the marzipan oily, especially on a hot day.
Divide the ball into three equal parts, wrap in clingfilm and keep cool until needed.

Now to the cake mixture.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs one at a time.
Fold in the dried fruit and orange and lemon zest.
Sift the flour with the mixed spice and the baking powder.
Fold the flour into the mixture, alternating with the milk. You may need another tablespoon of milk if the mixture is too stiff.
Spoon half the cake mixture into the lined cake tin and smooth it out so it is level.

Roll out one portion of the marzipan to fit the cake tin.
Lay it gently on top of the cake mixture.
Spoon on the other half of the mixture and level it out.
Bake in the centre of the oven for about 2 hours until the centre is firm and springy.
Cool on a wire rack

When the cake is cool, prepare the rest of the marzipan.
Roll one piece out to fit the top of the cake.
Divide the other piece into twelve and roll into small balls.
Brush the top of the cake with apricot jam.
Lay the circle of marzipan on top and press down gently.
Brush the top with beaten egg.
Make twelve small crosses (arranged like the hours around a clock face) with the point of a knife and fix the balls around the edge of the cake.
Brush them with beaten egg too.
Put the cake under a hot grill for just long enough to toast it to a golden colour, perhaps 5 minutes. Keep an eye on this as it is very easy to go dark tan rather than golden glow(see my picture!)
Cool and store in an airtight tin.

And just a few pictures of our early morning Easter egg hunt:

The final haul being audited and re-distributed where numbers aren't even.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Chocolate Makes the World Go Round

Organic cocoa beans at CocoaFair
Or if it doesn’t it certainly makes it a better place. Especially if it is artisan chocolate, made from ethically and organically grown beans. It was a Monday, the start of a short, one-week, pre-Easter school holiday and I decided that this was the perfect ‘take my girls to work with me’ opportunity. I was writing an article on artisan chocolate producers in the Western Cape, and CocoáFair invited me to come and look round. Usually all my kids see of my work is me sitting in front of the computer all day, so what better way to bring the world of writing to life than to see me gathering its raw material, in this case chocolate!

The first thing to greet us is a warm and velvety smell drifting alluringly up the steps to the doorway. It doesn’t take the glance through the glass walls to a tap splurging a stream of chocolate into a gleaming stainless steel machine to know we’re in the right place. CocoáFair is at the trendy Old Biscuit Mill in Cape Town’s Woodstock, where on Saturdays the Neighbourgoods Market is a bustle of flavour and hipness. On a Monday it is quieter, but there is still quite a vibe going on. The premises is under the old silo and the old grain chutes are incorporated into the decor.

We are whirled through the chocolate finishing room, through the chilly cooling room and to the start of the process, the inside room where the beans are first transformed into chocolate. Our guide is Marlon, who has been involved  in CocoáFair right from the start 4 years ago, acquiring that sixth sense needed to coax the cacao beans to perfection. We meet his babies and his mother-in-law, the shining specialist machines imported from Scotland that are one reason that there are so few artisan bean to bar producers. Besides the fact that the machinery is a huge investment in itself, the level of skill need to roast the beans to the exact point where they are warm and nutty without a shred of bitterness, isn’t something that can be acquired overnight. And that’s only the first stage of the highly skilled operation.

Marlon with his 'mother-in-law'

Marlon talks us through the process at a chocolate- fuelled pace and the kids and I learn all about the various processes. We crunch a roasted bean, see how the beans are separated out into nibs (the cocoa-loaded bit in the middle) and husks (which are then used by an ex-employee to make an exfoliating body-scrub, all part of their no-waste ethic). We taste the liquor (chocolate liquid and nothing to do with alcohol) mixed with cocoa butter and organic sugar in the process of being refined, which can take a couple of days, and promise faithfully not to drop anything into the mother-in-law, the imposing machine that refines the chocolate and which costs R35,000 just to open, drain and service once a year. It’s only ever used to produce dark chocolate and it’s a feat of mathematics to work out quantities when switching from 71% to 95% varieties.

A peek into the luscious swirl inside the machine

By the time we leave the inside room, with its chemical-free fly strips to catch any exotic bugs that might hatch out of the hessian sacks of beans (don’t worry any bugs and bacteria are naturally dealt with in the roasting process, without any need for contaminating chemicals), the chocolate has reached the stage of being big blocks ready to work with further. Big 1 kg slabs are sold on directly to hotels and restaurants and the rest is moulded into bars, Easter eggs and other delights. We meet Zuki, who has a delicate hand in making luscious chocolate truffles, and the four employees currently busy wrapping bars by hand. Part of the social enterprise aspect is creating jobs and training new employees gradually in the skills of chocolate. They start sweeping floors, move up to wrapping and then gradually become absorbed into the actual making.

Moulded Easter Eggs hand-painted by the CocoaFair team

Now we start to taste the finished chocolate. I hurry to taste, take notes and compare, but find that it all goes by in a flurry of Mmmmms. The 95% is incredibly smooth and not at all bitter, my girls both like the 71%, when they find most dark chocolates too strong. There’s also an 85%, a 65% and a sweet but still satisfyingly dark 56%. The percentage indicates the amount of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the other part of the equation being pure organic sugar.

Then there are bars with added flavours, all of which have been carefully created to complement and not overwhelm the chocolate. The mint comes from Marlon’s garden to ensure it is organic, the bruised leaves then being infused in the chocolate for a clean and aromatic flavour. The chilli flavour was worked on for 3 weeks to get exactly 10s delay in the chilli glow coming through. There’s an espresso coffee, a hazelnut, a sea salt and some milk chocolates, the surprise hit being a subtle liquorice milk chocolate which is interestingly moreish. And the white chocolate has a warm creaminess that is more than just sugar, being made with a substantial amount of pure cocoa butter, no other vegetable fats, just milk and sugar added.

The staff are given a free rein on decorating the moulded chocolate Easter eggs and encouraged to experiment on developing new flavours of truffles and pralines. These are sold on the market stall and if they are a success become part of the range on offer.

Filling the chocolate moulds...chocolate on tap!

We receded out through the last room to the intense scent of orange and the sight of moulds being filled quickly and deftly with the molten magic. Then we were left with the hardest decision of the morning. Which of the bars we had tasted to buy for the rest of the family at home?

Thank you so much to Heinrich for inviting us, to Marlon for the fascinating tour and to the whole CocoáFair team for producing such delicious chocolate!

CocoáFair is at: The Old Biscuit Mill (under the silo), 373-375 Albert Road, Woodstock
Open: Mon-Fri 8-5pm  Sat 8-2pm
Tours: Saturday 10-2pm R50 pp and groups by appointment during the week
Tel: 021 447 7355