Sunday, June 19, 2016

Midwinter Festival

It’s almost midwinter and the rain that has been lashing down on our tin roof all day is a welcome relief in a country where you spend the first half of winter worrying about the rains not having started properly yet, where dams are still alarmingly empty after the summer drought, where we are all too dependent on a borehole, and a falling water table is a potential disaster. So rain = good.

Except that earlier this week, when a drenching cold front was forecast for yesterday, the date of this year’s winter festival, we were a little bit ungrateful. Luckily the weather angels moved it back a bit; so yesterday the bonfire building, the making of lanterns, the filling of brown paper bags with sand for candles were done under grey blustery skies, the strong wind worrying cautious elders; should we be lighting a big bonfire with forceful gusts ready to carry sparks all over the place?

But the angels had this taken care of too. We decided to keep going with the usual plans, bonfire, braai fire, tables and food carried outside, and once it was dark and we were ready to carry out our lanterns, the wind eased; not completely but enough for it to be fun sitting outside around a bonfire, so that kids with colds could stay out long enough for sparklers and soups, so that we could be thoroughly smoked, and even catch a glimpse of the almost full moon appearing behind scudding clouds.

Our kids are all teens now, but there are still several younger kids to take up the torch of eager excitement and anticipation, to run around in the dark and get a thrill from sparklers and legalised pyromania.

A new highlight this year was the beautiful origami phoenix, made by a 10-year-old friend especially for the festival, to be set ablaze ceremoniously.

It was so meticulously folded with such intricate detail that we were all loathe to see it go up in smoke, but Leo was determined that that was what he’d made it for.

It proved harder to set alight than expected.. he and his sister tried a sparkler applied to its tail, which started to catch and then fizzled out. So he took it over to the bonfire on its stick and dunked it right in to the flames, after which it blazed in spectacular style.

(No-one has been out to the fire remains yet today to see if a phoenix egg has been left among the ashes... but I guess it would be a paper origami egg and so would be now sodden in the rain!)

The original inspiration for our festival, conceived 14 years ago when we’d just moved out from London with two young children, was to indulge in all the winter highlights that otherwise fall in summer here in the southern hemisphere. So the bonfire and sparklers from the UKs Guy Fawkes night, the mulled wine and lanterns from English Christmases and any other fire themed extravaganzas that inspired anyone along the way. The festivals have evolved to be an occasion to gather with friends, to give thanks for the gifts of the season, to connect with the flow of the year and each other. And to feast, run about madly and catch up with friends.

When the kids were younger and several families of friends slept over, they’d be out by the embers of the bonfire at first light next morning, making new mini fires from any still glowing coals. This year we woke to the rain and the damper of high school exams tomorrow, with studying to be done. But there are still the joys of a lunch of extravagant leftovers, a fire to bit lit in the fireplace and maybe once studying is done a movie snuggled on the sofa.

Last year's winter festival.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sourdough Bread Baking Class

My first loaf of sourdough baked at home
Baking bread is something I do several times a week to keep us in school sandwiches. It’s usually white bread nowadays because the kids prefer it, sometimes wholewheat to salve my health conscience. A long time ago it used to be a rye mix and I even developed my own recipe that the Camphill baker of that day adopted, but in all these years I’ve only once tried baking sourdough. It was rejected by the family wholesale and I never had the will to keep baking against the tide of public opinion. Even though I like sourdough bread and all I’ve read about it says that the sourdough process makes gluten and wheat that much more digestible and nutritious.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when Camphill Village decided they would do two classes at their market, one of which was in the bakery learning about sourdough. Camphill Village is a residential farm community for adults with intellectual disabilities just down the road from us, I write for their website and social media and go to most markets, so it was the perfect opportunity to expand my bread baking skills.

Originally the classes were planned as short one hour introductions, but from the minute the six of us walked into the bakery it was clear that Max was an enthusiastic teacher, full of stories that would take more than an hour to share. Plus we were going to bake our own loaves.

Max describing how sourdough works

Meeting the two sourdough starters

We were introduced to the 14 year old starter that has been powering Camphill bread for all this time, nicknamed The Legend, which sits bubbling gently to itself in a cool place in between bakings. It’s fed with flour and water each time some is used and just keeps on regenerating and gaining in strength and maturity. There was a younger 4 year old starter too, much more feisty and bubbly.

Left: The feisty younger starter  Right: the more mature Legend

Max explained the whole process with lots of illustrative stories – you can’t rush sourdough baking, to get the best flavour the sourdough enzymes and the flour need time to get together and get to know each other in a relaxed way. It’s clear that sourdough is more of an intuitive process than a set of rules and Max was teaching us to feel our way with it. We smelled the starters, and tasted the first stage mixture which had been mellowing overnight to be ready for us.

 Camphill bake in large quantities with an industrial mixer, so we were working in proportions rather than quantities per loaf. The first stage mixture went first into the huge bowl, then the flour and enough salt to offset the tang of the sourdough starter (don’t let the salt get too close to the starter, mix it in with the flour, Max advised, as they fight to see who’s boss) Then add the water and the mixing begins. Seven minutes at most is what it needs, but we stop and check it after 2 minutes to see if it’s the right consistency, adding flour as we’d been too generous with the water (as a rule it’s better not to add flour after the mixing has started, to rather go easy on the water, but it’s not the end of the world if you get it wrong).

Another simple rule of thumb from Max: if the weather is hot enough to wear short sleeves use cold water, if you need to wear long sleeves use warm water.

Once the dough was mixed it was time to leave it to rest. We were hungry by now and dived into the selection of bakery treats put out for us to taste: excellent hot cross buns, rusks and biscuits. Our brains reeling with information overload, we piled back out to the market to shop at the stalls, and I found that Peter had kept me a lovely edition of a Georgette Heyer at his second-hand book stall, always some bargains to find there.

Learning how to shape a free-form loaf

Back in the bakery it was time to shape our loaves. Something new I learned is never to pull off hunks of dough at this stage, but rather to cut pieces off, as the dough has already been worked enough and it doesn’t like overstretching. A floury surface and gently folding the dough over to firm out air bubbles round and round, using palms rather than fingers. Sealing the join, turning it over and easing into a good shape for a free form loaf baked on a tray.

Not my loaf, the cuts here are deep enough

The hardest bit for me was slashing into the dough with a sharp knife, to let air out and give the loaf room to expand. My cuts were too tentative, as I discovered after baking when my crust has risen sky-high at one end with a huge bubble of air underneath.

The next stage was proving on the trays in the steamy proving cabinet. And finally the trays were wheeled across to the industrial oven and baked.

We had another break to relax in the market at this stage and re-assembled just as the market was closing, when our loaves came out of the oven and we all hurried to identify our individual masterpieces.

These we got to take home, and even better, a reason in itself to attend the course, we were each given 500g of the Legend starter to take home with us so that we could carry on baking under our own steam.

Bubbly starter to take home
 Previously I’d thought that the upkeep of a sourdough starter was a bit of a chore. In a lovely novel by Sarah-Kate Lynch By Bread Alone, which hums with the tang of a sourdough starter, practically another character in its own right, the protagonist feeds her starter religiously every day and bakes a loaf each morning. But Max assured us it could keep quite happily in the fridge even for months in between bakings.

I baked my first loaf at home yesterday, very tentative, trying to remember everything from the class, looking at the quantity notes I’d jotted down, but not too sure if I’d got it right. It was a coolish day and all the risings took longer than they had at the bakery, but the end result wasn’t at all bad. I’d got the proportion of salt wrong and put in too much, but it’s still edible and the texture is just right, so I’m feeling like I’m getting somewhere. The family ate it and, apart from it being rather salty, liked it. Next loaf coming soon with half the salt!

So thanks to Max and Camphill Village!

Here you can see all the things that I got wrong: big air bubble, split side, uneven browning but it's not bad for first try!

If you are local to Cape Town and are interested, there will be a repeat of the bread baking class, as well as the class in the cosmetics workshop about essentials oils, at the next market on 1st May. You do need to book as there are limited places. Details  here 

Full disclosure - I do the social media for Camphill Village and was invited on the course free of charge, but there was no requirement to carry on baking at home!

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Matric Nostalgia and a New Website

A request for a picture of our son’s first day of school came through last week. It’s his Matric farewell dance coming up in April (how did that happen?! Our son is in his final year of school already?!), so we’ve been plunged into a flood of nostalgia going through the ancient archives of pictures on our computers. Sighing and aahing (the kids too not just us!) over how cute they were, little girls in princess dresses, gap-toothed and sparkly eyed, our son dressed as a cowboy, a native American Indian, an army soldier, a pirate, round cheeked with a big smile. Of course we haven’t found a single picture of the first day of school. So he has a choice – in what role does he want to feature at his Matric dance – pirate or Indian, cowboy or army dude?

When I started this blog, coming up for ten years ago, the kids featured a lot – it was never specifically a mommy blog, but they got in on almost every post. Then at some point I felt that it was time to step back a bit and leave them out of the spotlight. The focus shifted to farm life and food, and always our festivals. But I don’t regret a word of those early posts documenting them as small kids – it’s my photo album, my journal, a place where all those funny moments and sayings have been preserved…in lieu of that proper photo album, which I’m always meaning to put together, but haven’t yet achieved.

That nostalgia for past cuteness is a strange thing. I wouldn’t for a minute turn the clock back, as that would mean turning my back on the amazing, interesting individuals they’ve grown into as teenagers, but it’s hard not to feel a little sad that all those baby and little kid days are behind us. Now I know why moms start agitating for grandchildren the minute their kids leave home! Anyway right now we’re in full on teenage mode ever since Youngest turned 13 last year and we went shopping for her first high heels for the Grade 7 farewell. Middle Daughter pointed out that her younger sister got high heels before she did, which didn’t seem right, so she compensated by getting the silveriest strappy high heels possible for the school’s Valentine’s dance. But enough, I said I'd taken the spotlight off them and it’s starting to reflect back in a myriad of highlights from glitter and sparkling nail polish.

My blog has become rather thin on the ground lately, I know. Is anyone still reading this? Anyone? I know Marcheline will stop by sooner or later, and my Mum, but quite understand if everyone else is off reading someone who actually posts more frequently! The reason/excuse is that I’ve been writing so much more for work as a freelance writer over the last couple of years that the last thing I feel like doing on weekends is sitting back down at the computer again.

I’ve been a regular contributor to Neighbourhood, a lifestyle and property supplement in South Africa’s Sunday Times, since it started up in July last year. I’m writing about food: restaurants, cafes, artisan bakeries, chocolate, anything and everything to do with food in the Cape Town area and it’s been great. Sometimes I get to review fine dining restaurants, other times it’s a new deli or cafĂ©. And then there are interviews with all sorts of new businesses that aren’t food related, or spotlights on a suburb of Cape Town, chatting to residents about what it’s like to live there. I fully intended to write up separate blog posts here to share the experiences… but that’s up there in the realistic stakes with my plan to create a family photo album. But here's the news: my husband has built me a new website as a portfolio for my writing work, and I’ve got a Facebook page to go with it.

So if there’s nothing new to read here, and you feel like a glimpse of the Cape Town food scene, head over there. Or if it's the farm and family life that you want more of why not go back into my archives and share the retrospective mood that I've been indulging in.

I’ve just been re-reading my blog posts from 2006 (getting diverted from writing this post by all those vivid memories brought back from ten years ago) and I’m feeling slightly damp-eyed and nostalgic all over again. For my kids and all those little details that I would have forgotten if I hadn’t blogged them; for the early days of blogging when it was a whole community thing, when I made new friends, and we commented on each others blogs regularly, some of those friends I’m still in touch with today, some still blogging, others just on Facebook; and for those crazy days of being a full time mother with three small kids.

So a shout out to all those early bloggers of 2006 and to others who started a year or two later like Marcheline of Mental Meatloaf, and who are running with the baton in the true spirit of blogging now that some of us oldies are flagging. And a special mention to Corey of Tongue in Cheek, who started blogging just before I did and who has posted EVERY SINGLE DAY for the last 10 or more years, delighting followers with French brocante, gorgeous pictures and stories of family life in France. I wouldn't be doing what I do today if it hadn't been for my blog and I'd have missed out on knowing some lovely people! I feel like starting a retro blog meme all of a sudden, any takers?!

Thursday, January 21, 2016


The donkey on the last quarter of Christmas cake looks comfortably cool with his hooves plunged in snowy icing, isolated under the cake dome in another world… the very opposite of the rest of us, sweltering in South Africa’s current heatwave. There’s something not quite right about the conjunction of Christmas cake and forty degrees of sunshine, to me at least with childhood memories of Christmas cake gobbled up beside a roaring fire.

We still eat it, trundling in from the school run, dumping heavy bags and getting out homework (school has started for real now, despite the heat) because it’s delicious and we can’t resist, but a rich, heady fruit cake isn’t the ideal teatime treat, when the only comfortable place after about nine in the morning is in the swimming pool. What we should be eating are luscious, chilled  slices of juicy watermelon, or home-made ice-cream, smoothies thick with frozen berries from the garden... (we do have those too, but we're stubbornly diligent about making our way through the last of the cake.

Our straw bale walls keep the worst of the heat at bay for at least half of the day, but by late afternoon we are desperate to fling open doors and windows, and only the still fierce heat outside makes us wait just a bit longer for the promise of a cooler evening breeze. On days like this the only thing to do is get most of the work done in the morning, so that when the heat overwhelms the brain with sluggishness you feel justified in collapsing with a book beside a fan, or seek relief in car air-conditioning by heading out on the school run.

Everything's dry, dry, dry, the moles looking for moisture by the sprinkler. Can you feel the wall of heat?

We scan the weather forecast several times a day, elated when heavy rain is forecast for Saturday, frustrated and disappointed when the forecast shifts and offers a measly light drizzle as an alternative, then later loses any hope of rain at all. Two degrees lower is cause for celebration, not concerned that 38C is still darn hot… it’s a reprieve from the horror of 40C and upwards and we cling to faint hopes.

On the bright side it’s still cooling down at night most nights. In the small hours before dawn cooler air flows from somewhere magical and trickles in through an open window, so that we pull a thin sheet over ourselves with the luxury of snuggling under something. When we wake properly at 5.30 or 6 the first thing to do is run around the house opening every single window at its widest to fill the house with that coolness before it dissipates over the next two hours.

The best place to lie in the middle of the day

The toughest thing to judge is exactly what point to run around shutting them all again – is that breeze still cool, or is it getting warmer than inside now? Get it wrong, sit at the computer too long and forget to close the windows, and the house fills up with hot dryness again and there is no getting away from it. Then, once the sun has dipped below the hill and I can bear to cook supper, we eat outside lingering at the table until it’s dark, long after the kids have cleared their plates and disappeared off, because finally we’re cool and the house is still too hot inside for the sofa to hold any appeal.

Most summers we have a period like this, but in recent memory it has been only a few days, here and there, perhaps a short spell in November and again in February and March. This is the first year that we’ve been here that the heat has been something to endure over a long period of time.

With the whole country groaning under drought conditions, we are luckier than many. We have water. Though our vegetable garden is drying out and producing very little, we are able to keep our trees alive.

The gleanings of a dried out veggie garden

There are almonds to harvest, tomatoes to pick up off dried out plants and make sauce with, the last few mielies (corn) to pick. The leeks have gone to flower and make weird and wonderful summer flower arrangements. .And when I head to school to fetch the kids and nip into the local town for the bank or shops, it’s right on the beach and the temperature drops to a blessed 28C, pleasant summer hot, beach weather.

All we can do is pray for enough rain to fill depleted dams, for it to fall where farmers need it most, and where firefighters need its help. (Scary fires are raging in the wine farm area of Simonsberg, there was a bad one up near Elgin and another in the Cedarberg, the list goes on, the land is so dry that bush fires start at the merest spark)

Here’s hoping for temperatures to ease off to more bearable levels, so that we can grumble about something else for a change, like the free-falling rand, for instance!