Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Scottish Breakfast Tea Arrives

One of the things I love most about blogging is the way we can get to know people on the other side of the world, share a love of a place, food or pastime with strangers, who we soon feel are friends, and if we are lucky enough to meet them in ‘real’ life we do discover that they are indeed old friends.

I have a nostalgic love of Scotland from a childhood spent visiting grandparents in Edinburgh, being dragged protesting up mountains from picturesque cottages in remote areas of the north as a reluctant teenager, visiting historic houses and castles and picturing myself living there and enough Scottish blood in my veins to be entitled to a wear a kilt if I ever felt so inclined.

I’ve been reading Sophia’s blog Scotland for the Senses for ages, delighting in her gorgeous photos of Scotland’s landscapes and castles, seascapes and cloudscapes, all a million miles from where I am now in South Africa. There is something about the light in Scotland that she captures, which is so different from the light here, even though we also have endless mountains and coastline. Every now and again Sophia generously holds a giveaway of something Scottish and I got lucky last month and won some Scottish Breakfast Tea samples from the Edinburgh Tea and Coffee Company.

Since living in South Africa I’ve become a dedicated rooibos tea drinker, naturally caffeine free bush tea which is full of antioxidants and tastes great black and unsweetened. But I grew up drinking proper tea made with leaves in a warmed teapot: Ceylon tea for breakfast and China tea at tea-time: perhaps smoky Lapsang Souchong or an Earl Grey blend. We had a proper tea caddy and I learned early how to warm the pot and then  put in one teaspoon of tea per person and one for the pot, before adding the water on the boil and letting it brew for a few minutes.

Obviously I still have a hankering for these ancient traditions, as I jumped at Sophia’s offer and was very excited about the arrival of a small package yesterday with the promised tea and a gorgeous postcard of Edinburgh castle and Princes Street gardens. I solemnly brewed myself a cup mid-morning today. It seemed to require more than just a biscuit to go with it, so I made a slice of slightly singed toast with marmalade, which was just perfect. Sitting in our South African kitchen, winter rain blowing outside, one child doing sums for holiday homework, another watching a world cup DVD of the best players, I could picture myself in my grandmother’s Edinburgh basement kitchen thirty years ago, preparing to go out to Jenners or up Arthur’s Seat, finishing breakfast, looking out at her neat city garden. I don’t know whether I ever did drink Scottish Breakfast tea there, but it felt like I did as I sipped at it here. It was full bodied and strong but not overwhelming and with a lighter top note that just tickled the taste buds. I generously allowed my husband a cup and he agreed that it was a very superior tea indeed! I hope we haven’t spoiled him for Five Roses!

So thank you Sophia for sharing the tastes of Scotland with your readers, it is much appreciated!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Marmalade and Vuvuzelas

Golden tangy marmalade at first seems to have nothing to do with the vuvuzelas and flags to be seen and heard all over Cape Town today. With the excitement over the World Cup mounting, I’ve been mulling over the question of national identity in a mild way. As a transplant from England taking roots in sandy South African soil, my allegiance to a particular team is blurred. Any excitement I feel over the soccer World Cup is caught from the prevailing atmosphere, gees (spirit) and flag-waving around me, but I feel no need to get out a Union Jack to assert my original roots and cheer on ‘my’ team.

Instead I’ve realized that my national identity reveals itself through food. No surprises there! I love the variety of South African food, but still cling to my origins when it comes to a few basics. Threaten my stash of marmalade and you’re toast.

How the British developed a national taste for a preserve made from sour Seville oranges especially imported from Spain, oranges grown purely to feed the marmalade habit of a small (but perfectly formed) island on the edge of Europe, I don’t know. But the habit is as entrenched as PG Tips, fish and chips and Christmas pudding.

No-one else on our farm likes marmalade, thank goodness, so I can make a couple of batches every winter to last me through to the next orange season with a few extra for fellow devotees when they come my way. I haven’t yet discovered any Seville oranges here in South Africa; for some reason the oranges here are grown to be sweet enough to eat as they are! So to get enough tanginess to my marmalade I make a three fruit one, with grapefruit and lemons added to sweet oranges to balance out the taste. The first batch of marmalade I ever made here, with just sweet oranges, was revolting: sweet and cloying, it was orange jam, not marmalade at all.

So if your taste-buds reveal an element of English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh in your heritage and you are stranded in a country that doesn’t understand marmalade, then try this three fruit marmalade recipe; experiment with different citrus fruit combinations, (a couple of limes add a subtle and pleasing fragrance) and enjoy year round citrus tanginess on toast for breakfast, for the taste equivalent of a spirited blast on the vuvuzela!

Three Fruit Marmalade Recipe
2 grapefruit
2 lemons
3 oranges
4 pint/2 litres water
3 ½ lbs/1.6kg sugar (if you use sour Seville oranges you need more sugar - 5lbs)

Wash the fruit, scrubbing the skins gently to get rid of any chemical sprays or wax, but without losing all the aromatic oils from the zest.
Cut the fruit and rind into shreds, however thick you like your peel in the finished marmalade.
Remove any very pithy bits and pips. Usually one is told to tie these in muslin and cook with the fruit, to extract the most pectin available, then remove the whole package pips and all. I have never bothered to do this and the marmalade still seems to set.

Put the fruit and water into a large pan (preferably thick bottomed) and bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 1-2 hours until the rind is tender. Add the sugar, off the heat, and stir till it dissolves. Don’t let the marmalade boil again till the sugar has dissolved.

Boil briskly for about 30 minutes. Test for doneness by putting a drop on a cold plate. If it forms a light skin that wrinkles when you push your finger through, it is done. Keep testing every five minutes if not. The bubbles also change to be slower, larger rolling bubbles when it is ready. Ladle into hot sterilised jars and seal.

And if you love marmalade and have not a drop of British blood in your veins, I’d love to know how you came to acquire your marmalade habit, as my marmalade/national identity theory comes crashing down around my ears!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

South African Baking Recipes and World Cup Fever

South Africa is exploding in a fervour of flags, vuvuzelas, rainbow wigs and World Cup paraphenalia in the lead up to the big day on Friday. We’re slightly out of it here on the farm, but every time we go to town we get absorbed into the fever. The children are asking to go shopping in Spar on Friday to see all the staff in their crazy hats and wigs and feel some of the atmosphere. As a phlegmatic Britisher, I watch all this excitement over what is really just another sporting event (please don’t shoot me, I am flying the flag in the car, honest!) with slightly bewildered pleasure .

I don’t remember any of this national exuberance when Britain hosted a World Cup… or maybe we never did, it would have passed me by completely. (edited to add: My husband tells me I'm wrong, that there was great excitement and gees over the European Football cup when Britain hosted it. I must have been in Italy at the time, enjoying the emptiness of the roads and wondering where all the people were!) Here though, even people who are not remotely interested in soccer as a game are thrilled by the whole event. Perhaps it is because South Africa was so isolated for so long, that to be the centre of the world’s attention and entrusted with the honour of hosting the World Cup, makes us all feel proud and happy (I do feel proud of my adopted country too). Perhaps it is just that we need occasions like this to bring our diverse rainbow nation together in a common opportunity for hope, goodwill and celebration. Here's an article on what the World Cup means to South Africa that expresses it way better than I ever could.

So in honour of the occasion, I'm posting a round-up of my most searched for, authentically South African recipes: all baking recipes and learned from my in-laws or adapted from South African cook books when we moved here. After all my South African gees (spirit) manifests best through food!

Malva Pudding Recipe: Number one on the list of my most searched for recipes is Malva pudding, which seems to capture the hearts and taste-buds of so many visitors to South Africa. The restaurant version is soaked in a rich creamy sauce at the end of baking and is delicious and heart-stoppingly rich, but my home version is just the pudding itself, spongy and slightly caramelley with the apricot jam and served with custard. It's the kind of pudding you can throw together from store-cupboard stand-bys and still make the family happy.

South African buttermilk rusk recipe: A lot of people come to my blog looking for a rusk recipe. They fall in love with Ouma’s rusks when they come here and want to re-create them back home. Or else they are ex-pat South Africans desperate for a proper South African rusk, for which there is no substitute abroad. I can’t promise that my buttermilk rusks are exactly the same as Ouma’s, but they have been a staple in my family for eleven years now and are essential to mid-morning tea in our house.

South African Milk tart recipe: Milk tart is another dessert that you never see abroad. Our family crustless milk tart version is a whole lot easier to make than the traditional tart, as there is no pastry case and it can be whizzed together in the processor in no time: ideal for a calcium rich snack for the kids, or just comfort food for the whole family.

South African Crunchies: Last but not least the South African crunchie: I have got in a lot of trouble, both in the family and with patriotic readers for comparing it to the English flapjack, but it is true that the flapjacks (not pancakes at all) that I grew up baking in England were just like these wonderfully South African crunchy oat and syrup biscuits, except that they didn’t used to have coconut in. I make huge batches for class camps now and they always go down well.

So stock up the biscuit tin in time for the Fifa World Cup opening ceremony and then, even if you can't be here in SA yourself, it will taste like it!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

An Empty Weekend... with Chocolate Brownies

A weekend with nothing planned is a gift. When you wake up on a misty Saturday morning, knowing that there is no soccer match to rush to, no shopping still to do, the day stretches out invitingly with myriad possibilities beckoning, most of them centred around food.

Those oranges and knobbly lemons brought straight from a friend's farm are desperate to be turned into marmalade, with a little support from a jewelled pink grapefruit for extra tanginess.

The winter sun breaks through the mist, tentantively banishing the chill of morning and soon citrus smells waft out to greet it. The pot bubbles throughout an impromptu outdoor picnic lunch, preserving sunshine in pots for my personal delectation through the year. This year's first batch is now ready to fill up the yawningly empty shelves in the larder. Just in time. I was down to my last jar, an unthinkable state of emergency.

While the marmalade simmers there is plenty of time for a sortie to the orchard and veggie garden. The sun is afternoon hot now, what would pass for summer in England, so Middle Daughter comes prepared.

Our two guava trees are surpassing themselves this year, bearing the most glorious golden globes, the largest guavas I've seen before, with unblemished skins and fragrant fruit. We pick all the ones approaching ripeness, fill the basket to the brim, and still the boughs of the trees bend under the weight of more green fruit, promising to provide enough guava puree to fill our freezers over and over. We leave the heavy basket under the tree and continue on to the veggie garden, where Youngest and her aunt are busy spraying bugs with a garlic spray, checking for out-of-season strawberries (they found three!) and harvesting carrots.

The sunshine slowed our footsteps, no hurry to return to the semi-darkness and cool air indoors. We wandered back to collect the guava basket, up over the rise to our house, welcomed by the fluttering of laundry rapidly drying on the line on the stoep.

I tore myself away to the kitchen to hobnob with the marmalade and a brownie recipe and left the children to stock up on Vitamin D till sunset chilled the air once more and they had to be dragged inside from trampoline and garden.

Today the promise of more sunshine was never fulfilled, the clouds stubbornly blanketed the sky and a light drizzle hustled the kids back inside from the trampoline to find refuge on the sofa.

The importance of having a big sofa is never so apparent as on cold cloudy winter Sundays. I was getting Sunday lunch ready, but could have squished in if necessary... right in the middle of the card game.

I got busy working on my food photography instead, trying to style my precious brownies according to the advice from the Food Bloggers Conference. The clock approached closer and closer to lunch time as I went backwards and forwards between the computer and the kitchen checking out the latest shot and eventually getting what I was after, while the potatoes got crispier and crispier.

The joy of having an empty weekend stretching ahead to fill, now concertina-ing to a close with a flurry of playing Pit, hairwashing and walking dogs, but still time left to blog as my husband makes cheese on toast for supper.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Natural Firelighters

If we were truly environmentally friendly, then we probably wouldn’t be lighting fires just to warm ourselves and brighten up cold winter nights. After all wood cooking fires are one of the many contributors to the familiar murky brown line of smog that sits over Cape Town on fine days in winter, snuggling up to the mountain, after a run of fine winter weather, with sunny days and oh so cold nights. A spell of windy, wet weather blows it away and it is gone and forgotten till next time.

Sitting here on the farm the hazy tendrils of smog reach us too and yet we’re not ready to give up the joys of a roaring log fire to toast backs and warm hands before bedtime. Bedtime stories move to the sofa, so we can enjoy the fire a bit longer, before braving the chillier air of bedrooms and tucking up with a hot water bottle, bed-socks and extra blankets.*

All the kids, from an early age, have learned how to build and light a fire safely and take turns in the evenings. Our eco conscience is salved by the thought that we are only burning the wood from trees cleared from our farm as alien invaders. Our logs are Port Jackson, a tree from Australia brought to control the shifting sand dunes of our coast, which is now out of control and taking over fallow farmland at a rapid rate in our area. Our firelighters are also gathered from our property – the best natural firelighters in the world – dry pine cones. They really are the secret of lighting a good fire: two or three open cones nestled in the centre of a nest of newspaper with a tower of logs built around them will coax even the most sluggish of logs into action.

Every so often we lead a mission to the top of the farm, armed with bags. It takes no more than twenty minutes to collect all the cones we can carry and the pine trees are still loaded with more cones that will come down the next time the wind blows. The pine trees too are alien invaders, threatening to take over our top camp, but at least if we collect the cones we are slowing them down. We’re unwilling to clear them completely as they are the only full sized trees we have and they also provide us and our friends with Christmas trees. And where would we be without our incredibly effective natural firelighters?

Today I dragged the two boys unwillingly up the path to collect a sack-full, R. complaining loudly about the girls left ‘relaxing’ back home (Youngest with a sore knee and Middle daughter with a cough). I’d offered the services of our patent firelighters to the school for their St John’s festival bonfire next week, on the last day of term before our extra-long, soccer-world-cup winter holidays. Last year an immense heap of dead wood had been collected for the bonfire, but it wouldn’t burn, as the fire had been heaped higgledy-piggledy rather than built. It only really got going, (with the help of flammable liquid applications) after the kids had finished singing and throwing their wishes on to the sullenly smouldering fire, which was a bit of an anticlimax. So, this year I hope that our pine cone donation will do the trick and send those wishes merrily circling up into the air for the angels to read!

*Note for overseas readers - central heating is a rare luxury in South Africa, where houses are built for hot summers and we tough out the winter months dressed as Michelin men in the mornings and evenings. The kids often emerge from school in T-shirts at midday on sunny days laden to their eyeballs with shed layers of fleeces and jackets. The houses however stay fridge-like from May to September.