Monday, December 29, 2014

A Happy Christmas

Christmas approached in an accelerating rush of presents not yet, bought, not yet made, not yet wrapped; it caught the whole family wrong footed this year, even Middle Daughter, who usually starts making presents in October, was caught short by the reality of high school with exams and projects, and only started making her presents once school holidays kicked in – despite this she was ahead of the rest of us.

Youngest came to me the day before Christmas Eve and stated decisively that she needed go to the crystal shop in a tone that allowed for no negotiation ... so we created a window among the mad rush of Christmas Eve cooking and sped down the road to our nearby village of Philadelphia, where present salvation is to be found in the form of a glittering treasure chest of semi-precious stones, crystals, pretty jewellery, clothes, enough to solve any gift dilemma, as long as you don’t have teenage boys on your list (she had made fudge for her brother so that was OK).

Getting our tree is a whole family affair. We usually bring it in on the Sunday before Christmas Day – the Saturday is taken up with our summer festival and my SIL works in the week and is an enthusiastic tree-chooser and cutter so it would be unthinkable to do it without her.

This year she was on leave so we suggested getting the tree the week before to have it in time for the festival, but with one thing and other it didn’t happen, so the tradition of the Sunday before Christmas held true (to Middle Daughter’s secret relief – a traditionalist at heart).

This year’s tree was the one SIL had picked out already, tall and elegant it only just passed the raised stick test for height (any taller than that and even our ceiling is challenged). Carried home in triumph and set up in a tub full of bricks, roped to the wall and adjusted for uprightness, then it is over to me for the putting on of lights. This brings out the most irritable side of me, so don’t get in my way when I’m unwinding strings of lights from their coat-hangers, clambering up ladders and teetering there with broom outstretched to get them perfectly wound around the topmost branches.

Middle daughter is looking poised to take over these duties any time I bow out and did a fine job with getting the tinsel up high, she and Youngest doing most of the putting up of decorations. Son put up those ornaments nominally his, and disappeared back to a gaming conversation with friends on his computer.

Then Monday and Tuesday were both shopping days – husband having hurt his back carrying in the tree, so I did his share of driving around looking for wish list items as well as my own. I felt like a cave dweller out foraging all day for rare and desirable pieces of rock or berries, as I shuttled from specialist computer shop in the back streets to mega-store and shopping mall, eventually staggering home with a few hard-won prizes to go under the tree.

Apart from the brief foray to the crystal shop, Christmas Eve was spent in the kitchen, steaming up as the gammon simmered for slow hours, red onion marmalade for gifts cooked down, and building up the stripes of different colours in the jam-jar jellies, to the sound-track of Christmas carols and the despairing cries of kids trying to finish off and wrap their presents. By 4.30 when I had to ferry the girls down to take part in the Christmas play at Camphill, I hadn’t wrapped a single present, but other than that everything was ready.

Almost time to relax.

The play over, girls exchanged their gifts with their friends, and then had to be torn away from them and back to a quick supper and family Christmas carols, when we always have to sing our way through the entire book of carols. This left all the wrapping to be done from 9pm onwards, including Father Christmas’ wrapping (he needs so much help these days), so it was after 11 before the kids were quiet enough for us to at least pretend they were asleep and stuff their stockings, which they still insist on hanging at the end of their beds. And then collapse on the sofa in a daze of tinsel and sellotape.

The view from the sofa at almost midnight

Then the day dawns early, and stockings are opened, attended by Bracken and including a flurry of messaging with friends... now we know we have teenagers.

It turns out to be one of those precious cool Christmas Days, overcast with occasional showers of fine rain, this is a good thing in the middle of a hot dry South African summer, meaning we don’t have to do any watering, and that we can have the children’s favourite roast potatoes and veggies to accompany the turkey and gammon, instead of boring old salads.

My mother and the girls on Christmas morning, and George smiling too!

 And this year our lunch went smoothly, without last year’s drama of fire fighting, only enlivened by the sighting of a large cobra beside the bunny cage, which sent the snake catchers out in force just before the food was on the table. The snake went off and hid, was sighted again on Boxing Day and we’re still checking the  bunnies regularly to make sure there are two of them.

Crackers, too much pudding, a rustle of wrapping paper, movies and finding room for Christmas cake at supper time, family Christmasses at home are a treasured part of our family recipe book.

Happy Christmas, Everyone!  (especially Marcheline, who I know is reading, because she comments even if I haven't posted anything, just to keep me on my blogging toes :) )

Wishing you all a wonderful year ahead full of much joy, love and laughter.

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 glacĂ© 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?