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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

The Pursuit of Predictable Uncertainty

Oscar Foulkes August 21, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

It is my experience that serendipity is a highly effective phenomenon. One of my favourite ways of channelling it is to wander around trade shows without any researched route. It can be an almost transcendental sensation, as one finds exciting new products apparently by chance. By the very nature of the trade shows I most regularly attend, the finds would normally be wines. But I amazed even myself at a food and beverage show in Hong Kong, by discovering porcini, morels and black truffles that had been grown in Yunnan province in China.

During an extended power failure in May 2005 I took a walk around Cloof, and came across a most impressive crop of mushrooms. At this point I had an interest in mushrooms – mainly for gastronomic reasons – but only knew enough to know not to eat mushrooms I could not identify with absolute certainty.

Fortunately I had a digital camera with me, so I photographed them from every angle. Even more fortunately, there was still a little battery life left in my laptop, so I was able to dial up to the internet. A Google search quickly gave me the contact details for the mushroom expert at the National Department of Agriculture, and within minutes Adriaan Smit had images of my funghi find in his inbox.

He thought they could be macrolepiota, but cautioned against ever identifying mushrooms on the basis of pictures alone. Then the world became really small. He called me back a few minutes later to say that Abe Beukes (the winemaker at Darling Cellars, a few kilometres down the road) a mushroom-collector, had an excellent book for assisting in averting death by mushrooms. Abe was with me in a flash – it turned out that Mr Smit is his brother-in-law.

After detailed examination of mushrooms in various stages of growth Abe pronounced that they were most likely macrolepiota, and that he’d be quite happy to eat them. The main features of the poisonous ones that look similar were not present (I later established that the mushrooms I found were actually a different variety, which shows how careful one needs to be). We both harvested several kilos. I immediately cooked a thickish slice in butter to test for toxicity in advance of dinnertime (the literature cautions against combining alcohol with unknown funghi, which is a problem). It was delicious; if this were my moment to slip off the mortal coil, what a way to go.

The main part of our dinner that evening had already been prepared, so I cooked the sliced mushrooms with butter, which we had on my toasted sourdough bread as a starter.

Other than when I was a toddler I’m not one to ingest unknown substances or objects (I’m not into Russian roulette!). But to have found mushrooms, eaten them on the basis of some research – and to still be alive to return to pick more – satisfied primeval urges in the best possible way. Foraging for food (usually processed) in the aisles of even the best supermarkets somehow doesn’t seem nearly as satisfying.

I subsequently found three other varieties of edible mushrooms at Cloof, and now find myself scanning the countryside for outcrops as I’m driving around. I have my own ‘secret’ spot for Boletus in Tokai forest, where I have also harvested Pine Rings. It’s as if the scales have been removed from my eyes. I haven’t lost my respect for the mushrooms that can kill you, but I’m able to recognise the features to watch out for.

I’ve even gone mushrooming in the forests around Oslo. Out in the open it was a beautifully sunny, crisp autumn day, but in the forest the light was so gloomy that I could barely make out the pygmy chanterelles we were gathering. It took forever just to get a kilogram, which would ultimately cook down to nothing. My hands were icy and I had lost all sensation in my nose.

On the way back into the city we stopped off at a supermarket, where we bought Arborio rice and some veal loin. Later I turned the provisions into a chanterelle and truffle risotto, topped with medallions of rare veal loin. It was a most satisfying meal!

Cape Town’s chief mushroomers are Italian. One of them – let’s call him Mario – related an experience he had in finding a large crop of porcini under a group of pine trees at a restaurant near Wilderness, on the Garden Route. As a polite citizen he’d first asked permission of the owner, who gave the go-ahead on condition that Mario point out the edible ones to him. Mario kept to his side of the bargain, and took his haul off to a friend for dinner. His friend (also Italian) lamented at length that Mario had let the owner in on the secret. He was almost in tears by the end of the evening. Finally, the next morning he had a solution: “Tell him, when we go for lunch, that there should have been three of us, but the other guy died from eating mushrooms last night.”

One has to be in the forest at the moment that the first light arrives, and probably slightly before, to get ahead of Mario and his kin. It is for good reason that they rejoice in the ignorance of Anglo Saxons who call mushrooms toadstools and fear their toxicity. They may even be fighting a secret media war to perpetuate our fear. The more of us that invade the forest, the fewer funghi there’ll be for them.

The first rains of the season, followed by a few warm days, are theoretically ideal conditions for the sprouting of mushrooms. But then, as any mushroom gatherer will tell you, the only predictability of mushrooms is their unpredictability. This phenomenon is not entirely dissimilar to the apparent – but highly fallable – causal link between the giving of gifts, flowers or other favours, and women’s willingness to join in physically intimate activity. In fact, to take the similarity further, paying for them is the only certain way of getting mushrooms.

Should one be surprised that most mushroom gatherers appear to be men, forever in pursuit of predictable uncertainty?

Working on New Year’s Eve

Oscar Foulkes August 20, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

Andrea attracts generosity. Maybe it’s because she’s such a giving person herself. For her, starting a new business without resources, the greatest kindness that people could bestow upon her was to pass her number on to friends with a recommendation.

Among her many guardian angels few shine brighter than Mrs A. In fact, if she wasn’t already married, and if I wasn’t, I would want to be married to Mrs A. She has a heart bigger than herself, a wicked sense of humour, and an uncanny ability to know exactly what’s going on, even if isn’t obvious. Probably a good 25% of Andrea’s business is a product of her referrals.

So, at the end of 2004 we were on location every night for two weeks. Mr and Mrs A. had their son visiting from overseas with a variety of South American friends, as well as a business connection – the very attractive marketing executive for one of the big Italian fashion brands, whom we’ll call Federica. With all these young Latinos and Latinas partying in Cape Town, dinner was programmed for 9.00pm, which usually meant that it started at 9.30 or 10.00. With peak season stretching the (wo)manpower, I was on duty most often.

It must be mentioned that I was also doing my normal day time work, and 10.00 pm is my usual bed time. The good thing about the late start is that I had time to relax at home with the kids for an hour before heading out again. On bar duty and general service was Mark – a borderline professional rugby prop forward for whom wearing a tie would be the greatest unkindness. So, we’d be doing our prep in the kitchen and Federica would get back from gym. In the very tiniest lycra hot pants she would open the fridge, bending forwards as she reached for a drink. I was at least able to have a discreet look while chopping onions. Mark just stood and gaped, clearly delighted that she’d spent some time on the exercise cycle (with obvious effects on the positioning of her pants).

Some time later the guests would assemble for dinner having had naps and showers. Mark would open the wines I’d selected with Mr A. and dinner would be served. Occasionally I’d be required to tell the table about the food and/or wine being served. With the domestic worker conveniently taking the night off (or perhaps in umbrage at her usual fare being scorned), I’d wash the dishes and leave the kitchen in spotless condition. This is the life of a caterer. Of a self-declared high-powered marketing man? Maybe not.

New Year’s Eve was slightly more complex from a logistical point of view. We had five different functions running, including the wedding of a 6?-year-old woman getting married for the fifth time. Let’s just say that she’s to plastic surgery what Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney. I suspected that changing her facial expression from wide-mouthed smile wasn’t something she did voluntarily.

The early part of my evening consisted of delivering food and equipment to various locations around Cape Town, including the wedding venue, where the white-frocked bride was getting her wedding pictures done in advance of the ceremony. I was already home, getting ready to leave for Mr and Mrs A’s party when Andrea called in great distress. They couldn’t find oyster knives. Guests would be arriving in 15 minutes, and oysters were part of the canapé assortment. I dashed around the house looking for alternatives, on impulse grabbing a parmesan chisel.

I don’t think that oysters have ever been opened as quickly. This, I have decided, is the finest tool one could ever use for opening oysters. The point is sharp, and therefore perfect for gaining initial access. The blade is broad and strong, which gives great leverage. And the handle is substantial enough to allow one a really good grip.

I arrived at my own function to find that the sushi chef had arrived with fish, avocado, soy sauce, wasabi, mats, knives and rice, but had left his nori behind. Fortunately I could despatch someone to dash across town to pick up the missing ingredient.

The rest of the team had already done most of the set-up, so I got busy with organising fires for the food we’d be grilling much later. The well-toned Federica may have flashed her derriere at us, too. I checked the Arabiatta sauce that Andrea had ordered in (sometimes when there are this many functions on the go it’s better economy to buy some things ready-made). It was too delicious for words; Thomas had surpassed even his own high standards. Then I looked a little more closely. Lurking in the rich, dark tomato base were squares of meat that looked unmistakeably like bacon. Thomas had made an Amatriciana; a delicious one, but not necessarily appropriate for a Shabbat dinner.

I toyed briefly with the idea of blending the sauce, so that there would at least not be visual evidence. I couldn’t; even if it could perhaps pass as smoked chicken, I would know that I had deceived the guests. Maybe they all ate bacon on a regular basis, but that was of their own choice. This, I could not do.

So, a runner was sent to an all-night store to buy tomatoes, garlic and chilli. There’s a very quick and easy pasta sauce we do, where we fry some garlic in olive oil, then scald fabulously ripe tomatoes in the same pan. We rip basil leaves into it just before serving. That was the plan, except for the addition of chilli. The tomatoes weren’t great, but I was able to rescue the situation.

Food service went smoothly, starting with sushi, and followed by canapés. The main part of the meal was a variety of things straight off the barbecue and onto platters for guests to eat a mano. Tuna on lemon grass skewers always go down well (we once had a guest profusely thank us for the delicious beef – he didn’t eat any fish or seafood – at a function where we were asked to produce a seafood extravaganza). The hit of the evening, though, were the French-trimmed chermoula-marinated lamb cutlets. Apart from the absolutely awesome flavour, the great thing about these is that the chine bone is removed, so the meat is attached to the rib only, and is dead easy to eat while standing around.

One of our big jobs over that period was to do the food for a party house being run as a promotional exercise by an international liquor brand. New Year’s Eve was not part of the brief, but that didn’t stop them calling Andrea (who called me) to complain about the state of the platters (well, hello, they were delivered for lunch, not late dinner!) and insisting that we immediately deliver more food. It turned out that Client was bringing a group of about 40 to watch New Year’s fireworks from the house. So I dashed over to spruce up the platters, Andrea sent some of her leftovers with a waiter, I cooked some more beef and chicken skewers, and the day was saved. Happy Client, happy event co-ordinator, more business for caterer.

At midnight I was back in the kitchen, but I at least had a glass of bubbly. After the cheering and out-of-tune Auld Lang Synes had died down there was an approaching chant of “Oscar, Oscar”. Did I mention that I may not only be a closet surgeon or closet chef, but perhaps also a closet rock star? Or that fighting for my headspace are voyeur and exhibitionist? A chain of Latinas came dancing into the kitchen with yet more bubbly for me. Everyone wanted to hug and kiss me. Fab party!

Playing with Pork

Oscar Foulkes August 18, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

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.

Playing with Fire

Oscar Foulkes August 16, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

Fire food has become an integral part of the Dish repertoire. The most obvious reason for this is that we can produce hot, tasty food, even if we’re in the middle of nowhere. The other reason is that it’s just one of those things we do. We get a huge kick out of taking something that people most usually associate with men-drinking-beer-around-a-fire-while-burning meat, and using it to produce the kind of stylish, sophisticated food they would normally expect to find in a good restaurant.

It’s not that we’re the only ones. You will even find a charcoal grill holding centre stage with the super-stylish cocktail bar at London’s vaunted Zuma restaurant in Knightsbridge. Contrary to expectation, Zuma does not refer to South Africa’s heat-taking ex-Deputy President. The restaurant is Japanese, with a particular focus on robata.

Coals are a heat source, just like any other. No matter what stove, oven, pot or pan a chef is using, the dish needs to be matched to the appropriate type and degree of heat. It so happens that the kind of intense heat one can get over coals is absolutely perfect for cooking various ingredients. Or perhaps one is after a gentler preparation with some wood chips for extra smokiness. The problem with braais, charcoal grills or barbecues, is that they can be extremely hot – even to stand next to – and one has less control over the exact degree of heat. In a way, it’s the culinary equivalent of extreme downhill sports. With experience one can learn to manage the variables with skill, but disaster can be looming at any moment.

One of the early events we did at Cloof was a small lunch for a book launch. Well, it was supposed to be small – so small that I didn’t think we needed someone to open and serve wine. At the last minute the publisher added half a dozen additional guests, which kind of tipped the whole thing over the edge. I seem to recall the starter being a salad with caramelised pear and gorgonzola cheese. No great challenge there for the grillmester. But with the main course being rolled loins of lamb, lengthy preparation time was needed. So, as the guests were busy arriving I put the loins onto the grill and went inside to open more wine. I returned to find my meat engulfed by flames that looked as if they extended three foot above the grill. Doing a passable Red Adaire impersonation (but without the asbestos suit) I dashed in and rapidly grabbed the meat off the fire. I swear that my arms were thereafter devoid of hair below the elbow, and I may also have done my eyebrows some damage.

Lamb, of course, is one of the best meats to barbecue, precisely because of its fat content, and no part of a lamb is fattier than the outside flap that gets rolled around the loin. Fortunately the burnt parts flaked off, so a major crisis was averted, but cooking these loins were more than a little trying as I’d started with too much heat. The slightest drop of fat – an inevitability given the fat on the outside of the rolls – resulted in more flames. Having charred the exterior of these things it became much harder to judge the degree of done-ness in the centre. When Andrea started slicing in preparation for plating, the lamb wasn’t only just a little bit too pink. Scorpio started venting at Libra, who went in search of a cooler spot next to the fire.

Even at long-distance, well-balanced Libra has a part to play. I’d checked into a hotel in Edinburgh, sitting on the bed reading the Sunday papers for the first time that day, flush with the spiritual experiences I’d had on the East Lothian links over the weekend. I was in a Zen state (and it wasn’t just because my legs were crossed) when my phone rang. Andrea was in the middle of a crisis to end all crises. She was doing a barbecue for a group of 20 or 30 lawyers in Camps Bay in conditions very far removed from the grey, gentle drizzle in Scotland. The legendary Cape south-easter was in such full force that the Weber had been moved into the garage. So, Andrea had her Spanish-flavoured rolled chicken legs and thighs on the conventional, brick braai-place in the front of the house, and salmon in the garage. She popped into the kitchen quickly and returned to the garage to find the salmon on fire. Fortunately the fish had been packed onto a grill that enabled her to lift it off quickly. As she did so, the wind caused a (new) black garbage bag to swirl around the garage, which then shrink-wrapped itself around the fish-filled grill. This was when she phoned.

She didn’t get much sympathy, I have to admit, “I never leave salmon unattended,” I deadpanned (which was true – all the fat that makes salmon so gorgeous over coals is also its nemesis if it is left on the grill). The conversation didn’t go much further.

Feeling remorseful I called her a few minutes later with some suggestions for what she could do to rescue the situation. By now the chicken – which was similarly unattended – was also surrounded by flames (the predictable consequence of fat dripping onto hot coals as the chicken starts cooking).

Fortunately events like these are the exception rather than the rule. We have successfully cooked a huge variety of dishes, in dozens of different locations, using direct – or indirect – heat from coals.

There are several marinades we use regularly. Our Chermoula works brilliantly with lamb – French-trimmed chops or butterflied leg – especially in conjunction with the smokiness from the coals. Beef is great with olive oil, rosemary, Dijon mustard, raw onion and garlic. Asian flavours – ginger, soy, chilli, garlic have an amazing affinity for being grilled over coals.

Universally, though, nothing has earned us more compliments than the Dish Oriental BBQ sauce. If culinary achievements qualified for Nobel prizes, this sauce would have to be a nominee. It is just the most miraculous flavour combo with salmon, tuna, duck or beef. Especially on the braai. Lest you think that culinary salvation awaits you over the next page, accept that we’ll gladly share dozens of our recipes, but this one particular receipt (as they used to say in the very old days) will have to remain a family secret.

Canard on the Wing

Oscar Foulkes August 15, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

The first time I roasted a duck was one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. I’d started with something the size of a rugby ball, expecting to feed six people. By the time it was cooked I had a pan-full of duck fat, and I needed to roast a chicken as well. But, having discovered Magret de Canard in France, I was determined to try again.

During 2001 we did a series of dinners at Enoteca (my wine shops), in one of the branches. Entitled Pleasure In Store, they were intended as a means of generating some income and getting feet into the shop without having to splash out on additional wine stocks. More than anything, though, it was probably the beginnings of Andrea’s later catering activities. Duck was on at least two of the menus, which we sourced from a free-range farmer that Andrea still uses. His identity is a closely-guarded secret at Dish.

One does occasionally find people who don’t like duck, but as a menu item it has huge glamour value. People are generally too intimidated to ever cook it for themselves, and usually associate it with smart French restaurants. Simply put, there is an expectation that is an expensive item (partially correct), so the perceived value can sometimes be useful when one is pitching for a job against other caterers. The other benefit of duck is that it is relatively forgiving of caterer-style cooking.

Restaurant chefs have the stress of getting out a la carte orders on time to the correct tables. They are also forced to keep stocks of perishables. But they work in the same controlled environment every single day. On the other hand, caterers are forever schlepping food and equipment around. They prepare as much as possible in their kitchen. Then everything gets packed up, loaded into vehicles, off-loaded at the venue, and unpacked so that the food can be assembled. Often there is no kitchen at the venue. If there is one, it’s fine for a domestic quantity of guests, not the 80 to 200 that usually attend parties. It is not unusual to arrive at a client’s house to find that the designer oven has never actually been connected. For all its usefulness they may as well have installed a flat screen TV.

So, how does one go about cooking a duck breast? Step one is to use a very sharp knife to score the skin on the diagonal, at about 3 mm intervals. The breast is put, skin-side down, into a pan, so that the fat can be cooked. This takes anything up to 10 minutes. I have also done this on the barbecue. The dripping fat results in flames, but the crisping of the skin is actually much better. This part of the process is done in advance of leaving for a function. At the last minute the breasts are put into a hot oven, skin-side up, and roasted for the 10 minutes, or so, it will take for them to reach medium. Depending upon the flow of the meal, they can be rested for a few minutes, before being sliced (again on the diagonal, but about 5mm apart). [One of a caterer’s most important tools is heavy-duty foil. With insufficient oven space, or people making longer speeches than programmed, one is forever needing to keep food warm.]

Duck legs and thighs require slow-roasting. Again, nothing could be easier. We put them in a roasting dish (with high sides to cope with the inevitable rendering of fat) flesh-side down on top of a sprinkling of fresh thyme. We liberally spread Dijon mustard on the skin-side, drizzle a little honey onto this, and then grind black pepper and salt over everything. We cover the dish with foil and put it into a medium oven for 90 to 120 minutes, by which time the meat should just about be falling off the bone. Up to this point can be done in advance of departure. Just before serving, the foil is removed and the dish is put into a hot oven to crisp the skin (if it isn’t already sufficiently crispy).

We also do a variation, following the method for Confit de Canard. This requires that we first brown the flesh side of the legs and thighs. They are then put into a roasting dish with fresh thyme and slivers of garlic (if we have time they spend a night curing on salt and thyme in advance of being browned). We cover the whole lot with duck fat and roast it gently for a couple of hours. It can now be stored in a cool larder almost indefinitely, but we generally use it within day. One of the tastiest ways of warming the legs & thighs is over hot coals. The outside is crispy; the flesh has a slight smoky taste and literally falls off the bone.

There have been times when our fabled supplier has run short. The only solution, under the circumstances, has been to buy whole frozen ducks. These are delivered in cardboard boxes, usually eight to the box. In the beginning refrigerated storage was in very short supply at Dish, so we used to leave them in the original packaging, where they would remain frozen in the store room for at least 24 hours. So it was that when Andrea arrived home one Saturday morning and started quizzing everyone on the progress in each respective job that needed to be done, I could quite truthfully answer that the ducks were swimming. Sure enough, when I led the disbelieving Andrea into the bathroom, the day’s duck requirements were slowly defrosting in a bath of water. All-consuming laughs are never far away in the Dish kitchen.

I sometimes wonder if I’m a closet surgeon, rather than a closet chef. Filleting, cutting and portioning are tasks I happily fulfil for the kitchen. My only requirement is that I have my own, sharp, knives. All those swimming ducks are my responsibility. I can reduce a whole – defrosted – duck into separate piles of wings, breasts, legs and thighs, and carcass in a couple of minutes.

Returning to the house later that day Andrea got into a flat spin wanting to know where the legs and thighs were. Once again I led her to the bathroom, where the dressed duck portions were on roasting trays, ready for the oven, underneath a sheet of cardboard, and resting on a bed of ice. Perfectly good refrigeration!

It’s a wonder, though, that we still offer duck. We had the famous legs and thighs on the menu for a major Cape Town society wedding, for about 170 guests. I personally put six roasting trays, each containing 30 portions, into the ovens. I also took them out of the oven. There were six; I know it for certain.

Because of the size of the main course plates they weren’t all set out at once, so we didn’t have a running tally of how many portions had gone out. There was also a vegetarian option, which would have thrown the numbers out slightly. We were just starting to relax, having plated all the duck in the kitchen (a trying experience to say the least, because the ground in the field kitchen was sloping, with the result that carefully-positioned sauce kept running to one edge of the plate), when waiters started returning to pick up more food. Like a scene from a Hollywood slapstick comedy, the later arrivals were slamming into the backs of the waiters in front.

We had to put something on the plates. More butternut ravioli with burnt sage butter sauce was rapidly knocked together. One guest, who didn’t eat any yellow vegetables, was extremely gracious about having a dinner of rather sweet caramelized onion tarte tatin with sundry mushrooms.

Dead ducks don’t fly (certainly not when they’re crispy). The staffing company insists that the waiters didn’t build up a private stash of plated main courses around the corner. Somehow the equivalent of one entire roasting tray of duck went missing; where to, no-one has ever been able to establish.

During the same wedding I was having some of my own difficulties. The staffing company were responsible for making bonfires in half oil drums around the garden. The boss-man had loaded them up with anthracite, and carefully stacked the logs underneath the drums. I have no idea how he thought he was going to get the coal burning without first having some blazing logs. I dashed around repacking and lighting the fires – not necessarily the caterer’s responsibility, but when things aren’t running smoothly at a function the host generally regards the caterer as the scapegoat.

The host had arranged his own coastal (i.e. not cultivated) oysters, as well as someone to shuck them at an oyster bar where guests would help themselves. The same staffing company were supposed to have a couple of hot-shot shuckers on standby to assist. Coastal oysters are flatter, and don’t have the same uniform shape as cultivated oysters, so opening them takes at least twice as long. So, guess who had to jump in and assist when the standbys weren’t available? After wrestling with oysters for more than an hour my arms were aching. I had lost the use of my hands. The sole consolation was the sparsely dressed women unwittingly exposing their breasts at us as they reached across the trestle table to get to the condiments.

Some months later Andrea was once again doing the same duck at a wedding. Among the guests at this wedding were renowned foodies who had been so blown away by the duck at The Society Wedding (clearly they were among the lucky ones) that they insisted Dish be given the job. Around the same time, Andrea lost a wedding because the mother of the prospective groom had heard about Dish running out of food at The Society Wedding. You win some; you lose some.

A Black South-Easter

Oscar Foulkes December 3, 2004 Uncategorized No comments

I have no doubt that on a sunny, windless day Oudekraal beach, on Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard, is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Huge, wave-rounded granite rocks rise out of the almost perfectly blue sea. The view is back towards Camps Bay, with the Twelve Apostles looming to the right of the picturesque scene. The sun sets over the horizon to the left. It’s a great venue for events. If you get the weather right.

Cape Town has a few pockets that are sheltered from the south-easter, and Oudekraal is not one of them. When it’s blowing – a regular occurrence throughout the Cape summer – this has to be the closest thing to hell on earth. It’s certainly not a place where you’d want to be cooking. The wind comes racing down the mountainside, directly at the beach. There is no temporary structure immune to the force of this gale, and certainly not the free-form, open-sided Bedouin-style tents that event planners like to use here.

After the first time, when we struggled in the dark to get hot, grit-free food onto guests’ plates, after which all our equipment had to be carried back up the hundred-and-plenty steps at 1.00am, I swore that I would never – ever – again set foot on Oudekraal if the wind was blowing.

Just enough time had passed when Andrea was asked by a client to cater for his weekend-long birthday extravaganza. Guests had been flown in from the UK, and were being accommodated at various swish hotels. Friday night was to take place on Oudekraal, with a succession of gorgeous nibbles coming off the fire. After several days of unceasing wind I was in the process of slowly going mad. As Friday approached there was no chance of the wind letting up. Even after a site meeting at lunch time on Friday, where the tent-man said that putting up the tent would physically endanger his staff, the client insisted on going ahead. I was getting more and more grumpy, not aided by the failure of said client to pay the necessary 50% deposit.

“If we’re going to end up paying for an expensive party, let’s at least do it in nice weather”, I moaned to Andrea.

I wandered around the venue, trying to find a relatively sheltered spot. Eventually I gave up, and picked a spot on the sand (the last thing I needed was to start a fire that would rage across Table Mountain for days). I amused myself with visions of the guests trying to snort cocaine in a howling south-easter. It helped. What helped even more was that the host had assembled a whole crowd of very beautiful people. As long-legged babes with short dresses wandered by I found myself praying for that strategic gust of wind that would console me for being consigned to misery by my wife.

No matter where I stood, I had smoke in my eyes. I seemed to have sand in every orifice. I couldn’t see what I was doing. And then Andrea had the cheek to arrive from the dinner she’d been doing (indoors) elsewhere, and be cheerful! How dare she? All this when the host, in Gatsby-esque white suit (who hadn’t come up with any dosh yet) was drifting around in a narcotic haze.

Mood-enhanced guests crowded around the fires to keep warm. They grabbed food straight off the grill before it was ready to be sent out. They dropped forks into the sand, never to be found again. They dropped their cigarette butts onto the coals I was using for cooking. The host was starting to get hyperactive; not only, I suspected because the transport was arriving soon and dessert still needed to go out.

Oh yes, the dessert – pistachio baklava phyllo springrolls cooked over coals. In broad daylight, for a dozen people, I happily take on this highly skilled and technical bit of barbecuing. Doing it in pitch darkness, with sand flying everywhere, for 70 people, has a substantial difficulty level.

Feeling very sorry for myself I thought that my just reward would be to get sent home with one of the faux models I’d been admiring. But no, what goes down has to come back up. Headachy with fatigue I then joined the rest of the crew in carrying equipment back up to the car park. My entire body was aching, and still the wind was blowing. All I could think of was getting into the shower.

My face was black – I truly could barely recognise the frizzy-haired apparition that looked blearily back at me from the mirror. I was too tired for thought; I cursed the circumstances that had put me out on Oudekraal on a night like this.

The difference between Andrea and I is that she was at it again the following night. Client Gatsby hadn’t yet decided what he wanted to be serving his guests for dinner. Somewhere around midday on Saturday he finally made up his mind, leaving Andrea to dash around Cape Town finding crayfish tails, duck and assorted other delicacies, for which she had to shell out her own money (no deposit yet). She also had to shop for crockery and cutlery on his behalf. I truly do not know where she finds the patience.

Dinner itself was relatively straightforward, except for Andrea’s usual angst about having enough food. First she thought she’d be OK, because the guests all seemed to be powdering their noses upstairs (up the stairway “to heaven”, as she puts it). Then she smelt someone smoking a joint and feared them all getting the munchies. Taking a break outside the kitchen she then discovered two women having very noisy sex. I really do pick my moments to take the night off! (I was on my way to Hong Kong on a night they catered for an up-market swingers’ party.)

Calls and emails to client in the weeks that followed were dodged or ignored. All the suppliers on the job were chasing Andrea for payment. Finally she managed to get a morning appointment with him. He was making himself an espresso when she arrived at his house. He sloshed some J&B into the cup and lit up a joint, “May as well put all that leftover booze to good use.” (One of the queries on his account was that the bar service had left him with more than a case of unwanted whisky).

Without ever resorting to confrontation or threat, the way that most of us would have, she did finally get paid in full.

Oak in wine – a blessing or curse?

Oscar Foulkes August 22, 2002 Uncategorized No comments

In the world of wine, oak is an international currency. Consumers, collectors and show judges alike are seduced by the flavours and aromas imparted by new oak. Every year tens of thousands of mature trees are cut down for the barrel industry. In the absence of empirical measurement of flavour and quality we are cast adrift in a swamp of subjective opinion. Much of what follows is undeniably the product of my – subjective – tastes and preferences. For that I cannot make any apology. Wine would be a boring industry indeed if we all had the same tastes.

Where oak is concerned I have two major recollections from my early years of tasting. Firstly, how easy it is to be turned on by the sexy aroma of a wine that’s been in new oak, regardless of how it performs on the palate (actually, if you have tasted enough wines, that part becomes partially numbed, anyway). Secondly, the difficulty I had distinguishing between fruit and oak tannins. I think I’ve learned that oak tannins dry out the mouth much more – almost like blotting paper.

I’ve developed the opinion that you can tell more about a wine from how it feels in the mouth, than where it fits on the flavour wheel. This is a critical part of understanding the role of oak in wine. For me, real fruit extraction expresses itself in the feeling of that flavour coating in the mouth, after the wine has been swallowed. The feeling could variously be described as silky, velvety, chunky, syrupy or viscous. A wine novice gave me the best metaphor for describing this. Imagine mixing a glass of Oros concentrate with half a litre of water. Now compare that with a table spoon of oros mixed in the same amount of water. Intensely fruity wines are like the former example, and are preferable under all circumstances.

In my view, oak performs at least two important functions in a wine. The first, and most obvious, are the contributions to flavour and structure. The second is a process of controlled oxidation, which helps to ‘polish’ or finish off a wine. The proviso is that the amount of oak deployed is in balance with the degree of fruit intensity in the wine (see the Oros metaphor above). There is no question that some vineyards have a higher quality potential, and hence deliver better concentrations of fruit. Consequently, not only are these wines better equipped to cope with the oak regimen employed, but are also enhanced by judicious barrel maturation. These cuvées (e.g. grand cru Burgundies, single vineyard wines, classed growth chateaux) happen often to have a high percentage of new oak, but it’s the intrinsic fruit quality that makes these wines exceptional, not the oak per se. They may not be quite as profound without the oak, but it’s the fruit that drives the wine, whether it’s a classical Old World superstar or a New World hype wine.

I have come to develop a rather jaundiced view of ‘Reserve’ wines, particularly from the New World. Occasionally there is a difference in the fruit quality between this and the standard release, but the major difference is generally that the reserve has had a whack of new oak. Yes, it has more flavour; yes, it may win awards, but is this what winemaking is really about? Does it come down to a battle of the barrel budgets?

I am regularly presented with samples of new releases across the price spectrum, but seldom find red wines that deliver on the palate. In many cases these are wannabe premium wines, that fall into that category by virtue of new oak and price tag alone. It must be said that winemakers, like consumers, have their own tastes, and there are many of them that like strong, oaky flavours. It is their prerogative to produce for their own tastes, as it is our prerogative to not drink what they make.

Some of my wine drinking experience is based on wines from the Rhône and Southern France, where oak appears not to be an important tool.

It would appear that the barrel-filled chais of Bordeaux have had a major impact on world winemaking. It was here, after all, that Max Schubert was inspired to make Grange Hermitage. But a very tiny percentage of the wines produced in the world are ‘premier cru’, and only these wines realistically deserve – or need – the full oak treatment. I cannot decide whether so many wines are barrel-driven because of the desire to win awards, or because marketing departments have decreed that oaky wines are easier to sell. What I do believe is that many lesser wines would be a lot easier to drink if they hadn’t gone into barrel.

It intrigues me that the same consumers who won’t drink wooded chardonnay will lap up a sexily oaked, fruity shiraz.

The world is about to experience a glut of wine as a result of huge plantings in the New World (25% of Australia’s vineyards haven’t yet produced a harvest). Now that’s a challenge for marketing departments! No doubt some of that could end up as “90-pointer” wine, but what to do with all the rest? My view is that the dwindling (or stagnant) wine market could be stimulated if the some of this increased production of red were sold as fruity, soft, round, unwooded wine, with a commensurate drop in price. This style of red wine can be marketed within months of the harvest, with much-reduced production and holding costs.

Clearly, all of this is subjective, and perhaps my taste in oak is more conservative than most, but I can’t help feeling that the use of oak is like kicking in rugby. It’s a useful tool, once you have the fundamentals in place.