Perhaps my biggest achievement as a cook was getting our friend Bev to turn. She eats fish and chicken, but no red meat – until she ate a little piece of lamb I’d barbecued. Friend Sue, who has a bird phobia, wouldn’t eat chicken, but will now happily chow chook as long as the body parts aren’t recognisable. Friend Lee avoids pasta. Graham will eat spinach raw, but not cooked. We cater for vegetarians who eat fish. Intolerances? We’ve seen them all.
It’s enough to make one intolerant.
While the historical health reasons may no longer be valid, I do respect religious prohibition of pork. With half the kitchen staff being Muslim, and guests at Cape Town functions inevitably consisting of varying proportions of Jews and Muslims, pork does not feature on Dish menus. So, while it’s very definitely a home-cooking thing only, we seem to have become programmed not to use pork, with one very obvious exception.
As far as Aedan and Sophie are concerned, crispy bacon is food for the gods. Sandwich ham is a close second for Aedan, who once argued emphatically and lengthily that “pigs make bacon.” He didn’t like the thought that pigs are the bacon. Seeing their love for bacon, and relative dislike for most vegetables, makes me believe that children are naturally more carnivorous than adults.
I’ve never had the courage to tell them the full story of the suckling pig that was used for one of our dishes in the 2003 South African BBQ Championships. I was dead-set on the idea of doing gorgeously succulent and tender cutlets. Having made up my mind I discovered that I – in effect – was ordering a hit on some unsuspecting piglet. Suppressing all emotion I made the call, discussing in detail how I wanted the various cuts dealt with. When I went to collect my 7 kg of suckling pig, the only body parts that were recognisable were the legs, complete with tiny trotters. Even my usually strong constitution couldn’t cope with the idea of the head, so that part was left behind. Driving home I kept telling myself that a person buying pre-packed meat from a supermarket fridge is as guilty of ‘ordering a hit’ as I was in this case. Was it worth it? Well, every part of that suckling pig was delicious (and we won the competition). Would I do it again? I don’t know; perhaps if I could get it in pre-packed form at the supermarket.
I suspect that, to some extent, I’m still working off the Eisbein binge I went on in March 2004. I’d arrived in Dusseldorf late on a Friday afternoon, and was wandering past restaurants trying to decide what I felt like eating. Well, with snow falling and the cold going straight through to my African bones, what’s a person to do, but do as the locals do? So I went into a busy beer hall, where as a single diner I was seated at a table with another group (no problem to them – my knowledge of German is extremely scant). Having worked my way through at least 500g of eisbein, accompanied by potatoes, sauerkraut and the requisite number of beers I was ready for a blizzard. Good choice.
The next evening I joined another South African staying in the same hotel for dinner. She was keen to have something local, so off we went. I was still enjoying the eisbein, but starting to notice how rich it was. On night three I was invited to join a Norwegian customer and a wine producer from Portugal, who were probably in the same frame of mind I was in on my first night. More eisbein; it was starting to get difficult. I spent all of the following day cursing the local cuisine, vowing never to eat it again.
Finally, on night four I met up with hilarious Bernardo from Italy (accompanied by three other Italians) and Vianney from Champagne. Guess what, they were also doing the touristy thing. I searched the menu in vain for stir-fried veg and noodles and eventually settled on grilled pork chops. The Frenchman inevitably asked for bread with his meal – very charmingly, it has to be said (Vianney speaks some German and Italian, as well as excellent English). By the end of the evening I was desperate for a medicinal Jaegermeister or Underberg.
The Cape winter is not nearly as cold as what I experienced in Dusseldorf, but one still needs warming foods. Pea soup has been one of my favourites since childhood (for fear of asphyxiation Andrea has banned me from ever having bean soup again – certainly while in her company). I concede that a smoked turkey drumstick is an alternative, but there really is nothing to beat the flavour one gets from tossing a smoked pork hock into a pea soup. Recently I’ve also been making a pea and lentil soup into which I’ve sliced some chourizo. What is it with split peas and pork?
I don’t mean to get all homely here, but a pot of soup made on a Sunday afternoon is a healthy and enjoyable lunch for the rest of the week (especially for the budget conscious). The complex sugars in pulses release slowly, which makes them especially suitable for diabetics. Rich in protein, carbohydrate and fibre, these marvels of the plant kingdom are also low in fat (mostly of the unsaturated kind).
In partnership with a friend, I once tried to make my own prosciutto. I had the first, very necessary, facility, which was a wine cellar running at about 14 °C. I can’t recall whether it was for reasons of adventure, or cost-saving that I did this, but I do remember how difficult it was to find some kind of reference on how to do it. Eventually, I found something in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. Her description was – in her usual style – happily devoid of technical details, but there was enough to go on. Then, reassured with the thought that if peasants across Europe have done this for hundreds (if not thousands) of years it can’t be that difficult, we headed for a pork butcher in the country. Another time we could get authentic and have a piggery feed some prospects on parmigiano whey, but for a start any old pig would do.
We decided to do two legs, and so bought two of over six kilograms (it delighted my Dutch heart that the cost of each leg equated to a kilogram of ham from the local importer). Our intention was to try two different methods for salting the hams (I’d also picked up a reference to curing bacon in one of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s books).
I knew from people I consulted that the hams would need to be well-pressed to expel all liquids. Here I was at a loss. I just didn’t have the necessary equipment. Eventually, with these hams lying in wait, I made a plan. The technology wouldn’t go down as the most advanced, but it was worth a try. Without Andrea’s knowledge I grabbed two kikoyis that she had bought on a visit to Malawi many years before. (A kikoyi is about three foot wide and six foot long and is traditionally wrapped around the waist.) The hams fitted perfectly (best not tell the girls that use kikoyis when they go to the beach!). What I did was to lay each ham more-or-less in the centre, and then fold the kikoyi over, so that the bony portion pointed out. Then a knot, followed by a small plank, and another knot, and I was ready to begin. First I secured the plank, and then began to turn the kikoyi-wrapped ham. When I could turn no further, I secured my parcel, so that the pressure would be maintained. It worked like a charm – so much liquid oozed out that I had to place a receptacle under each ham. I had to concede that I was delighted with my ingenuity, but I had my doubts about my Andrea’s reaction when she encountered her now stained kikoyis.
With the hams happily ensconced in ‘presses’ I went in search of salt. The problem I had was that all salt sold in South Africa is, by law, iodised. Eventually I found some natural sea salt at a health shop. Looking around at every manner of seed, grain and pulse (mostly organic), I presumed it would be better not to tell the staff for what purpose I was buying their salt.
The only other ingredient I needed, Salpetre, was a straightforward purchase from the pharmacy. Following the vague instructions, we had the legs in salt for a month, after which we washed off the salt, and then hung them in the cellar to start the drying process. Several months later we started sampling for the first time. The one that had been in salt was too salty, and had dried out. The one that had been in brine to start with was more moist, but the flavour was a touch on the ‘high’ side. So, all-in-all this wasn’t a totally satisfactory outcome, but certainly worthwhile from an educational point of view. How difficult can it be? It’s only (sophisticated) biltong, after all.