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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Laws of Sports Neutrality

Oscar Foulkes July 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

With all the international sport on at the moment it’s worth re-visiting the old issue of which team to support. As a starting point, I share with you Blackshaw’s Law of Sports Neutrality. Always support South Africa. When South Africa is not playing, support the side that makes better wine (for example, this would see one supporting France against Australia).

I suspect, also, that on the losing-with-good-grace scale, France is not a bad team for us to lose to. Twice in one weekend? Difficult, but defensible when one can stand back and admire the phenomenal talent of a young flyhalf, like Bauxis. Ireland and Wales are good teams to support, especially when giving England or Australia a bloody nose.

The latter teams are a no-no under most circumstances, but as with all scientific issues, there are always exceptions. So, I happily supported Australia in the Ashes series against England last year.
The soccer World Cup raises a variety of issues around which team(s) to support. These have been addressed by a friend living in London, who produces a blog at www.voetstoots.blogspot.com. I still don’t quite follow the logic, but he somehow made a case for supporting England. And he’s a Transvaler!

Golf confounds the whole matter even further, especially when it’s a major, being played in the US. American parochiality reaches new heights when commentators pick up microphones. I suspect they regard it as a curiosity that non-Americans swing golf clubs, and even produce an International Leader Board to reinforce this view. So, it is no hardship at all to support even Australians and English golfers under these circumstances.

As you all know, in the Land of the (non-)Free they play sports which ensure that Americans will always be the world champions. They even play the World Series (baseball) against themselves (some people would argue that there’s a case for changing the ‘against’ to ‘with’). So I’m seldom pressed to make a call on which team I’m going to support when Americans are involved. The exception, of course, was Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, who – to the best of my recollection – is the only American sportsperson I have supported. The way he powered up mountains is an image that will remain with me for a long time. Which all goes to show, that – at the end of the day – it’s sporting prowess that really counts, not solely national fervour.

Especially in the Cape winter, I prefer to watch with a glass of red wine in hand, but as we all know, there are exceptions – even I prefer to drink beer occasionally. I’m told that beer sales in Europe are massive this summer, to the detriment of wine.

Les Cols

Oscar Foulkes June 15, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(de La Canya, Olot. Tel: +34 972 26 92 09. Email: restaurant@lescols.com)

Les Cols is the most extraordinary space. Occupying the ground floor of a large old house, it was renovated a few years ago. Walls and floor are clad in matt-finished dark steel sheeting. The same sheets, cut into 15cm strips, are used in an arrangement to separate tables along wall. The way the strips are attached to floor and ceiling makes them look like slightly twirled pieces of fabric. All tables and chairs are also metal – with a gold epoxy coating. The amazing thing about all this is that there is no sense of the space being hard and unfriendly, although soft lighting probably has something to do with it.

After the usual pre-prandial glass of Cava, the meal opened with artisanal bread accompanied by a selection of local olive oils. One would usually have associated the devotion to olive oil with Tuscany, but driving around Catalonia we saw several areas where ancient olive trees had been collected in preparation for sale and transplant to smart buildings in Europe’s capital cities. The gnarled trunks are – doubtless – a fabulous design feature in juxtaposition with minimalist modern interiors, but it does seem a shame to move trees from earth they have lived in for several hundred years.

We again selected the tasting menu, and found several of the courses enjoyable (lamb, roasted for 11 hours at 70 ºC was particularly good). However, we agreed that we would probably have been better off ordering from the a la carte menu on this occasion.

L’Esguard

Oscar Foulkes June 13, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(Sant Andreu de Llavaneres, Tel +34 93 792 7767, esguard@miguelsanchezromera.com)

Neurologist Miguel Sanchez Romera opened L’Esguard in a 17th century farmhouse about ten years ago, after teaching himself to cook – at age 45! With his medical training (he still practises on Mondays and Tuesdays) he approached cooking from a scientific perspective, understanding firstly the chemical and physical properties of various food ingredients. Using this knowledge, and working from a fundamental point of the raw materials’ flavours and textures, he creates his novel dishes. The end result is as much installation art as it is nourishment, stimulation and entertainment.

Apart from this restaurant, Sanchez Romera’s contribution to the world of cuisine is his invention of Micri, “a neutral, colourless, odourless, tasteless base made of vegetable matter (cassava) that is a stable emulsion capable of emulsifying vinaigrettes, stabilizing sorbets, creating sauces with ease and maintaining all of the natural flavours of the products”. Having eaten numerous dishes involving Micri (by other Spanish chefs, too), I can report that it truly does have the most amazing way of preserving the shape of sauces (more like gels, actually), at the same time as holding other components in suspension. Its translucence, and ability to ‘hold’ – whether warm or cold – are attributes that make it extremely useful in assembling beautiful plates. It’s to cuisine what silicone and collagen are to plastic surgery.

One arrives at L’Esguard through a tranquil garden and is taken on a guided tour of the downstairs area which comprises wine, cheese and ham cellars, as well as an extensive library of cookbooks.

The white-painted walls and ceilings of the upstairs dining area are broken only by black gilded cornices, suspended from the ceiling in non-matching sections, rather than being attached to the wall as an unbroken line. Light fittings (reminiscent of the large ones used in operating theatres) carry spot lights that are trained on each diner’s plate.

Noting from my email signature my involvement in wine production, the sommelier, Xavier (Catalan for Javier), had already selected which wine we would be drinking. In view of the menu this would be a white wine from Rioja, the 2003 Remelluri, a barrel-fermented blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Moscatel and Sauvignon Blanc. Not for one second need I have harboured doubts that I would be presented with a stereotypically oxidised monstrosity. Remelluri delivers rich waves of flavour, and did actually do a pretty good job throughout most of the tasting menu. He had envisaged us having a glass of red towards the end of the meal, but that quickly turned into a bottle!

Xavier’s wine selection was getting the scoreboard ticking quite rapidly. There’s nothing like a little forethought on the part of the restaurant to make one feel very special (even if you’ve caught the train to save on a 40 euro taxi fare). The amuse bouche consisted of a few tablespoons of fabulous olive oil, with pistachio purée, olive purée, tiny fried squares of potato and flower petals (could have been pansy). The presentation, as with several other dishes throughout lunch, was dramatic. The dish was served on slightly wavy large square plates, in the centre of which were small bowl-like indentations. So the kitchen was also now making its own contribution to the scoreboard.

The first course, a similarly impressive looking dish with two flowers – one pink, the other purple – stuffed with anchovies and olives, was set on a Kumbu sauce, the first of the Micri gels we would encounter. The visual excitement continued, with a translucent (micri?) disk covering shavings of fabulous jambon on top of a cheese mousse.

There are many reasons why our visit to L’Esguard was memorable. None, though, exceeds what to my mind is the most sensational vegetarian dish that has ever been put in front of me. It was served in three stages, the first of which was the hot dish (much like a large, flat-edged pasta bowl) in which a colourful mosaic had been arranged. The different coloured squares (each about 1cm in size, about 3mm apart from each other) consisted of various dried, ground vegetables and spices. The heat of the plate set loose the aroma of the various squares, the sum of which was spectacular. Onto this canvas was then put a spoonful of home grown baby vegetables tossed in Micri butter (hollandaise is possibly the only other way of getting a butter sauce to coat vegetables, but would have been too ‘heavy’), after which we were invited to pour a little vegetable stock over the entire arrangement. This stock was, without question, the most flavourful vegetable stock I have ever tasted. As we started eating the vegetables the squares dissolved into the stock, taking the flavours to yet another level.

About an hour later an adjacent table was served the same course. Once again we experienced the potent aromas emanating from the mosaic plates. This is a dish not only worthy of a detour, but probably an overnight flight as well.

When the time came for red wine, Xavier racked up yet more points with the 2003 Dominio de Atauta from Ribera del Duero. Made from tempranillo vines that somehow escaped the scourge of phylloxera in the 19th century, this wine embodies every reason why I love modern Spanish wines (especially when made from tempranillo). Along with its gorgeous fruit intensity is a fine vein of acidity that keeps the palate interesting. There’s no shortage of oaky flavours, but it’s all French and it doesn’t dominate the wine.

With the red wine came a piece of amazingly tender duck breast. Our happiness soared even as the alcohol was having its inevitable effect upon us.

To cope with the amazing cheese offering we ordered two plates, each with different selections. Heaven beckoned. The intended glass of red each had turned into a whole bottle.

Two desserts followed, but not being a ‘dessert person’ myself, any comment would not be entirely fair. I do, however, recall the use of Micri, which was also used in making the petit fours served to us with coffee. I would regard myself as being generally enthusiastic about the use of Micri in certain applications, but with coffee I prefer my chocolate to have richer flavour, with a more chewy texture. Chocolate jelly with espresso is just not the same!

The wine list at L’Esguard is extensive, with more than a passing reference to France, and did not seem expensive. Whatever is listed, though, I would give Xavier an indication of my preferences, and leave the selection to him.

A large part of the value derived from this kind of experience is the constant element of surprise, with the odd challenge tossed into the equation. For us, L’Esguard was an unforgettable dining experience in every respect.

El Celler de Can Roca

Oscar Foulkes June 13, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(Taiala 40, Girona. Tel: +34 972 22 21 57. Email: restaurant@cellercanroca.com)

It was with much anticipation that we departed from Castell d’Emporda for the 30 minute drive to Girona. El Celler de Can Roca was one of three Michelin-starred restaurants (it has two stars) we were visiting on a short trip to Catalonia, and had recently been listed at number 21 on a list of the world’s top 50 restaurants (headed by El Bulli, another Catalonian superstar).

The address given to us by the hotel wasn’t recognised by our navigation system, but we assumed we’d see signage of some sort to assist us once we reached Girona. Assumptions, they say, can be dangerous. We ended up lost, with Sally Garmin (as we named the voice giving us directions) driving us mad with her constant “recalculating” of our route. After phoning the restaurant we established the correct name of the road, Taiala (the hotel had told us Talaia). No wonder we couldn’t find it on the navigation system! The correct address was recognised, and we set off again.

Shortly thereafter, Sally’s monotone was telling us that we were “reaching destination on right hand side”. We could see nothing that looked like the world’s 21st best restaurant. After driving past the same address twice more we thought we could at least stop and get directions. Bear in mind that we were in a fairly downmarket-looking mixed residential and commercial area. We saw a local-looking restaurant, called Can Roca. Close examination of the adjoining building revealed a very small sign indicating the location of Celler de Can Roca. At last!

Celler de Can Roca is run by three Roca brothers – Joan, Jordi and Josep – while their parents operate the traditional Can Roca next door.

The front of house experience was tentative to say the least, with staff apparently giving our table a wide berth, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because of our lack of Spanish. Eventually we did manage to get glasses of Cava (specially made for them). The wine list was wheeled to us on a purpose-built trolley. With separate books for red, white and sparkling wines, the selection was huge. All we wanted was two glasses of white wine, and the recommendation of an interesting red to take us through the meal, but whether for reasons of language or general slackness we were having some difficulty. We did manage to get the white, and in the absence of a confident recommendation from the sommelier, eventually resorted to ordering a bottle of 1996 Gran Clos, a wine from Priorat that we knew.

Fortunately, what came out of Joan Roca’s kitchen was sensational. One of the early highlights was a little glass of fresh peas poached in lamb stock, topped with a mint jelly disk. Soon after came a slightly old-fashioned champagne glass with fizzing contents. This dish consisted of a cold, poached apple slice, its lightly-jellied cooking juices, and a fresh oyster, dressed with Cava poured in at the last minute. The combination of flavours was sensational.
For theatre, though, nothing beats the smoked calamari, served on a punctured sheet of cling film stretched over the top of a slipper-shaped glass bowl. Inside the bowl was a pile of paprika heated to the point of smoking, and this smoke was pouring out of the hole in the cling film. As far as we could establish this had been the means of smoking the calamari.

Quite delicious was a slice of slow-roasted suckling pig, which could have been from the belly.

Pastry and desserts in the restaurant are done by Joan’s brother, Jorge. One of our desserts, “after Gucci’s Envy”, comprised a variety of fruits (macedonia is the local word for fruit salad), with pieces of jelly. Intended to taste like the perfume smells (they brought testers to the table for us to compare), the dish was wonderfully refreshing. While its flavour was perfumed – in a most appetising way – I wouldn’t say it necessarily mimicked the perfume exactly. Its flavours carried all of the surprise that one expects from a restaurant of this stature. It was the perfect way to end the meal.

Style over Substance

Oscar Foulkes March 17, 2006 Hotels No comments

Following my sister’s good experience at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Hong Kong, I booked at their new hotel, the Cosmo, a few doors up the road. (You can get an idea at www.cosmohotel.com.hk)

Arrival was promising, especially with the scent of Shanghai Tang’s ginger flower spray in the reception area. From there on, it sadly went a little pear-shaped…

My room, although large by HK standards (and with a bed big enough for some serious carnal activity), smelt rather damp. The only way of getting rid of the smell was to switch on the air conditioner, except now it sounded as if I had an Airbus parked next to my bed!

As you can tell from the website they’ve tried really hard on the design front. But what you don’t get on the website is a sense of the oppressiveness of the silvery grey curtains (they’re so shiny someone could turn them into a matric dance dress).

I need to compliment them on one design feature – a little drawer with kettle and other coffee stuff, right next to a power point. Usually one has to schlepp the kettle across the room (often stationing it on the floor), or on top of a shut laptop on the only flat surface in the room. However, their choice of instant coffee and creamer was so not in keeping with the style statement they were making elsewhere. (Proper coffee, a plunger and long life milk would have been an acceptable substitute for having my own in-room espresso machine).

Having had my hot brown beverage (can’t call it coffee) I headed for the shower (as one does), only to end up with water spraying in all directions from the pipe of the hand-held shower head (hanging on the usual wall attachment). With much gesticulating I was able to explain the nature of the problem to the Chinese housekeeper.

Fortunately there was a back-up, in the form of a conventional wall-mounted shower that pumped out some serious jets. While in the shower I discovered that they also have one of those huge heads directly overhead. So, you can choose your favourite mode of showering by turning a tap on the wall (all a bit trial-and-error).

They also irritated me with a charge for broadband internet (and local telephone calls), which is very unusual for HK.

Breakfast continued the comedy. I could have cornflakes, cornflakes or … cornflakes, along with fruit. I asked for milk (for my coffee) and was told I needed to smoke outside.

That finished me. I went off to reception, where I told the assistant manager my opinion of his hotel, which by now was very much a case of “style over substance”. One of the things I did compliment him on, was the ginger flower spray in reception.

Delighted that he’d found something I liked, he even showed me where they sprayed it in reception. I then indicated that I’d like some in my room too, because it was a happy smell (I’d previously told him about the unhappy grey curtains). By now – I suspect – he was almost ready to pay for me to stay in the Shangri-La.

When asked when I’d like it sprayed (I think he meant now, or later), I leapt at the opening and told him I wanted it sprayed “every day”.

So, now you know, I’m a boy who likes to walk into rooms that smell of ginger flower…

Not Value at ANY Price

Oscar Foulkes September 25, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

A few months ago I flew to Johannesburg on Kulula. I had flown with them before, and the experience then was relatively painless. This time the aircraft was an MD-10, which has the engines attached to the fuselage at the rear of the plane. I sat in mortal terror at the back. The scream of the engines left me nearly deaf; the perilous shaking of the aircraft on ascent and descent had me in a cold sweat. I am generally a relaxed flier, but this time I was nauseous with fear.

Even at a ticket price of R1 this would not have been a ‘value’ experience.

There is something similarly perverse in lauding a group of wines largely scoring a theoretically undrinkable two or two-and-a-half stars (Wine magazine’s Best Value Guide). It didn’t help that the unfortunately named Bat’s Rock was the winning red wine (I have a friend who calls undrinkable wines “bat’s p*ss”).

I drink wine for the flavour, not the effect (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!), and food is not only about nourishment. I’m not in a position to buy any wine that takes my fancy, but regardless of how cheap the wine, if I don’t like it then I’d rather drink beer.

I suspect, also, that the scores reflect the context in which the wines were tasted. Judges would expect the majority of wines submitted for this kind of contest to fall into a one-star range either side of two stars. In a panel tasting for the main part of Wine magazine, they would be looking for wines that could be worthy of four stars, or more. So, there are wines in the Guide that were ranked alongside (and above) wines costing R70 to R150 when tasted for the magazine. No matter how good a taster one is, the overall milieu affects the scores awarded.

Playing around with the formula which drives the Value Rating System, I determined that a R35 wine composed of premium grapes would need to earn a rating of five stars to get the magical 10. A Pinotage at this price can’t do better than 9, even if it gets five stars. Similarly a R39 Cabernet that gets five stars. But a two-star Cabernet selling at R17.50 cruises to a 10. At this point it can become a case of how much pain one needs to endure in the pursuit of dubious pleasure.

Knowing how scarce five-star ratings are at a best of times, it is inconceivable that a wine could score five stars when tasted for the Value Guide.

A contest that mathematically makes it impossible for a certain type of wine to win, or that relies on statistical improbabilities, is inherently flawed.

A trader does it differently. He tastes a wine within the context of a price point and then subjectively rates the extent to which the wine delivers at that price. Perhaps the Bat’s Piss would still get 10 out of 10 for value at R14, but it would be fairer to taste groups of wine at specified price points and rate the ‘value’ accordingly. If nothing else, this more accurately reflects the conditions under which retailers select wine for the shelves, or consumers decide what to put into their trolleys.

We all want the best experience for the least money. Often we rely on insiders or experts to guide us in the direction of these undiscovered gems. Sadly, due to flawed methodology, the Best Value Wine Guide falls far short of its noble intentions.

I’m quite sure that consumption of the two-and-a-half star Bat’s Rock is not life-threatening. But I’m very thankful that, noisy engines and miscellaneous rattles aside, the pilot of that MD-10 had mathematics on his side.

Food & Social – the beginnings of Dish

Oscar Foulkes September 6, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

“Life is queer, with its twists and turns, as each of us sometimes learns.”

Late in 2002 we very seriously were ‘on the bones’. Following the liquidation of my wine shops earlier in the year I was getting regular visits from the Sheriff of the Court (bankruptcy is a long and messy process). I was not in any state to start a new venture. Initial euphoria at being released from a hopeless struggle had been replaced by extreme fragility. I recall it as a time of largely self-indulgent introspection. I was dealing with the failure of my business, while simultaneously trying to find a new direction for myself.

I wasn’t the only one struggling to earn an income. Andrea’s efforts as an estate agent weren’t yielding rewards anything approaching the effort she was putting into it. With children to feed, clothe and school, we needed to do something – anything – to earn money.

Aedan was then two-and-a-bit. One of his favourite toddler games was to put coins into keyholes, which – on one memorable morning – we had to retrieve, so that we could buy bread to make Sophie’s sandwiches for school (she was then six). I don’t have a clear recollection of exactly how we did it, but somehow we were getting by.

Andrea had occasionally done some catering as a favour for friends. She was again approached to do some catering, which she now started charging out. One of the first assignments was a party in Noordhoek. With 30 minutes remaining before departure, she halved a lemon. Then, rather than sensibly using a juicer or a fork, she shoved the small kitchen knife into the flesh, and squeezed. Three minutes later we were in the emergency ward of the hospital down the road, getting her finger sown up. Soon thereafter she was on her way to the function.

This episode speaks volumes for the way Andrea has gone about every aspect of her business. She has the most formidable commitment to getting the job done, literally regardless of personal pain. With a work ethic that extends to all hours of the night, and an almost infinite patience with people, she was born to be a caterer. I don’t know anyone else who, in the midst of being bossed around by the client from hell – complete with irritating nasal voice and varicose-encircled legs – can still compliment the woman’s perfume.

Andrea and I have always enjoyed cooking and entertaining. The division of roles was largely based upon me doing the majority of the cooking. She did salads, side dishes, styling and ‘front of house’ (she is very definitely more of a people person than I am). For home entertainers, we got quite slick at putting on social gatherings – we once put a birthday party together in a little over half-an-hour, from invitations to putting out food and drinks in preparation for the arrival of the first guests. To anyone looking from the outside, it was the most obvious business for Andrea to get involved in. Somehow the need to produce life’s barest necessities kick started the process. Under any other circumstances she could have spent a fortune ‘finding herself’ on a variety of New Age self-help courses.

We found each other on a wine course in 1993. I was new to retailing and new to wine, but that didn’t stop me from expressing opinions. I have it on good authority that she regarded me as obnoxious at the time. I employed Andrea over busy periods and on Saturdays when I needed a break. She was teaching Grade I at Sea Point Primary, and working a couple of shifts a week at Buitenverwachting’s highly rated restaurant.

Everything remained on a largely professional basis until I invited her to a dinner party in April 1994. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my Ossobucco did the job, but the rest, as they say, was history. Standing outside after leaving a party on a moonlit night in October later that year – without any premeditation – I asked her to marry me.

We fixed on Friday the 13th of January 1995 as the date for our nuptials, for which we managed to obtain the large lawn at Buitenverwachting as a venue. Rain that had been threatening stayed away, and as guests listened to a Xhosa choir instead of the traditional bridal march, a very nervous-looking Andrea walked down the aisle towards me.

On the very next Friday the 13th (September 1995) she phoned me at work to tell me that she was pregnant. This wasn’t exactly part of our immediate life plan, and she was almost paralysed with terror. In typical Andrea fashion, she worked until the day before her due date, and then presented herself at the hospital in the afternoon. She was determined to have a Caesarian (“vaginal by-pass”, as our friend Daryl puts it), but the gynaecologist was having none of it. Eventually they agreed that if there were complications he would wheel her straight to the theatre. She was given the necessary drugs to induce labour, and the wait began. Labour pains eventually started, but by mid-day the following day she was becoming very concerned that she wouldn’t have her baby in time for visiting hours (invitations had already gone out). Finally, just after 1.30 pm on 1 June, about an hour before visiting time started, Sophie was born. Forever the social creature, doing anything without at least one other person, but preferably enough to fill the room, is anathema to Andrea. At least a dozen friends crammed into her (private) room in the hospital.

Four years later I had the ecstatic experience of being called away from a wine launch in Stellenbosch because Andrea had gone into labour. This time the pregnancy had been planned, but the moment of delivery had not been controlled. Aedan was born on the 20th of July 2000, while the British Open was in full swing. Ever since then I’ve regarded it as an essential part of his birthday celebrations to park myself in front of a television set for four days during the third week of July.

If genuine love of people – especially lots of them gathered for a party – is one of her prime attributes for catering, the demon that continuously follows her is the accurate judging of quantities. Her absolute inability to cook less than double the rice required even received mention in my speech at our wedding. Express even in passing that you’re not entirely certain there’s enough food, and she instantly goes into a state of twitching anxiety. Then she clicks into overdrive, which usually involves sending someone to any shop that happens to be open (our cupboards are still full of tins of tuna and salmon she bought from the Robben Island shop during a high-profile launch, when no-one thought to include the numerous VIP’s body guards in the numbers for catering).

My sister, Tracy, was wrapping up her catering activities late in 2002 to concentrate full-time on NoMU, her range of spice and herb mixes. At first Andrea and her had a loose co-operation, but by early 2003 she set up shop at home as Dish Food & Social. Since then our home has been a continually busy – occasionally panic-struck on deadline – place filled with cooking smells and laughter. I get pressed into service after hours and on weekends. I get desperate calls to deliver missing ingredients, but I wouldn’t change it for all the duck in France.

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.