Edible memories of a whirlwind year

Time to say goodbye to an exhilarating year to make way for the next. We are recording 2017 as groundbreaking, challenging yet always inspiring. So many lessons learnt, so many incredible experiences documented. One of the highlights of my work is reliving these experiences with you. A few memories immediately pop into mind – the exotic flavours of Mexico, Morocco and New York, the effervescence of Champagne, the beauty of Burgundy and the most relaxing space of all, Corsica, where the finesse of France gently flirts with the le dolce vita of Italy. Many local escapes too come to mind, where my memories are edible and delicious. I feel incredibly blessed to call Cape Town and South Africa my home.

The number one highlight of 2017 was plating 21 chefs at the launch of the 2018 JHP Gourmet Guide™, and then seeing the guides on sale countrywide in Woolworths, Exclusive Books, Wordsworth, online and some participating restaurants. Shortly thereafter I set off to Paris to witness the oldest, most prestigious chefs’ competition worldwide, le Taittinger Culinaire Prix with the aim of being able to help our eligible, plated chefs enter in 2018. Getting hot tips from my culinary hero Michel Roux Jnr is also a stand-out cameo in my mind! We forged some treasured partnerships at this event, and during this year too. Swiss International Air Lines, who will be flying our Culinary Innovation award winner, Chantel Dartnall of Restaurant Mosaic, to Europe for a gastronomic experience, is one that we are grateful for. Mervyn Gers Ceramics who created beautiful plates to present to our three, two and one plated chefs, is another.  Taittinger, a third.

This time of the year is often bittersweet. Back home this week a farewell lunch at my perennial favourite, Magica Roma, filled each taste pocket in my heart. Their Mediterranean grilled vegetables with calamari and a light touch of chilli always keeps me coming back for more. Chef and co-owner Ezio always complains that I do not deviate from my firm favourites. He and his team are closing for a well-deserved break, “Chilling at home and in the winelands, with a glass in hand.” Oh yes, me too.

Dinner at Sea Breeze in Bree Street last week got full marks, highly recommended by a few of our food-loving friends. On a beautiful day diners spill out onto the pavement, and between 12pm and 1pm and 5pm and 6pm tuck into oyster happy hour – 10 bucks a shuck. There are then two sittings for dinner, 7pm and 9pm. The menu changes daily according to what is fresh. We gathered there to celebrate a dear friend’s milestone birthday. Starters of the smoked snoek doughnut, local asparagus with a truffle hollandaise and crispy poached egg where as good as the angel fish taco. Mains of the hake and chips, seared tuna, kob on a bed of pea velouté flavoured with chorizo and the grilled swordfish were all excellent. We shared the very tart lemon tart and the decadent apple crumble cheesecake before leaving sated and happy. Service was animated, slick and friendly. Being personally allergic to two sittings and being rushed out to make way for more greedy diners, I was pleasantly surprised at how timeous service and a no-rush attitude prevailed. I shall be returning soon, perhaps again and again?

Breakfasts of the month were at Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room and The Nuy Valley and Café Dubois in Knysna.

Today our offices close, officially until 15 January 2018, for a much-needed break. I’ll be donning my frosty gear for a sojourn in Amsterdam and Berlin, to soak up some museums, galleries and history – and to make more edible memories (but not before a few family feasts at Thali, Chefs Warehouse at Maison and The Restaurant at Waterfkloof). May this festive season be safe and happy for you and your loved ones, and may we reunite a few kilograms heavier, and happier, to get 2018 off to a good start in January.

Read, eat and relax with me

Many followers are loving my first Moroccan chapter, and there are two more. But allow me to digress to share some local experiences too, good and bad. When I landed in Jozi I spent a day and night with my son. It allowed me a return visit to Coobs, having been there in week 6. This was week 14, again a superlative eating experience with exemplary service. It was poor service that landed us there. Not theirs. My son had tried to book for Brian Lara the week before, and was put on a waiting list. He followed up twice, and was told that they would call back. When they had not, a few hours before we were due there, I called, and the manager told me that we were top of the list, so should arrive and be seated at the bar. We would then be given first shot at a table. So we did, only to be told that the bar was full and that a new waiting list had been generated! I found that totally unacceptable. Staff here obviously need communication training. We called Coobs and they graciously gave us a table. Their de-constructed melanzane to start was phenomenal, and I was super-happy with the roast chicken, anything-but-average. Carnivore Gareth loved the pork (and a few cocktails too!).

The next morning I was woken early to be dragged off to Pablo Eggs-Go-Bar in Melville. Well worth getting out of bed early for – the eggs shakshuka were the best I have tasted. Vibey start to the day.

 

Back home we have had a few good meals – a great Monday night was spent with friends at the El Burro Taqueria in Kloof Street. Every mouthful had us ordering more after starting with the chicharrón (pork scratchings). Favourites included the chilorio pork twice-cooked pork chilli and garlic tacos, and the Baja-style smoked jalapeno and avo fish-fried tacos. The goat dish came out tops! Braised with cloves, walnuts, almonds, cumin, cinnamon and serrano chilli, that is what will get me back for more. They cater for vegans.

Pesce Azzurro is a charming Italian eatery in Roodebloem Road, Woodstock where they offer simple, authentic seafood and pasta dishes. Always have a good look at their specials, and if those don’t appeal, fall back onto the catch of the day with a Sicilian tomato sauce.

Peace Azzurro (2)

A lunch meeting in the gardens of the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands on a hot autumn day was improved by the salmon and camembert salad. The view of the mountain and beautiful gardens provides food for the soul. I’m watching out for Myoga’s winter specials.

Luke and Sandalene Dale-Roberts kindly hosted an eclectic group of media to say thanks for their support since opening six years ago. I am not allowed to have a favourite restaurant in my work, however, if I was, be sure that it would be The Pot Luck Club! Their new menu is even better than the last. In good company we devoured cocktails, champagne and a flow of tantalizing dishes that never stopped coming and delighting. Half of our table were pescatarians (the other half piscatarians?) and they were well catered for. When I close my eyes I can still taste some of those heavenly flavours. If I had to choose a favourite dish it would be the special Moroccan-inspired seafood tagine, of course. There were a few contenders for my dish of the day. Hmmmm….fish sliders, arancini, crispy calamari or confit duck leg? Maybe the miso-cured aubergine with goat’s cheese, carrot dressing, blueberry wine reduction and umami puree. Or was it the fish tacos? Not sure… shall have to return for more and a re-vote!

I have two special long-service friends with whom I celebrate my birthday. This year it took us six weeks to get a date – indicative of how busy this year has been. The first part of my treat was an aromatherapy session, which I found time for immediately! The second was for a gin tasting and lunch. We met at the Woodstock Brewery, which was informative and interesting. Four gins were enjoyed with a variety of accompaniments, the first with a wine base, the second beer, third white spirit and the fourth was a cask gin. We had time to quiz the brewmaster, and then headed off to Fat Cactus for a lazy, languid lunch in the courtyard, a perfect place to catch up on their news and regale tales of my recent trip to Mexico. The treat of travel for me is in sharing it.

 

Marigold Restaurant in Franschhoek was where I celebrated World Chaîne Day – with fellow members of the Chaîne du Cap – and Beau Constantia wines. Chef Vanie Padayachee is passionate about her food, and it shows. What the restaurant lacks in ambience it more than compensates with outstanding authentic cuisine and sterling service.

 

I spend a lot of time filling my stomach, but need to fill my heart too. The weekend climaxed with Last Night of the Proms at the City Hall, a musical extravaganza under the baton of Richard Cock. We are proud to have managed the publicity since our PR days, and having shed that sector of the business, we continue to support Wynberg Rotary in this fundraiser. Delighted that this year too was a sell-out on both nights, raising substantial funds for Learn to Earn, ELRU and Childline.

Due to popular demand, along with many requests for a Saturday we are having a repeat of the Moroccan demo which is filling up fast. Contact Natalie to book your place on rsvp@jhpr.co.za.

Saturday invite

Magic of Morocco

The magical palace called Ksar Char-Bagh, meaning ‘palace of precious water’ in Persian, was our first home on the Relais & Châteaux Route du Bonheur in Morocco. It was in this oasis in the quiet La Palmerie part of town, a mere 15-minute ride from the medina, that I immediately fell in love with Marrakech after stepping through the Moorish double doors glinting in the sun.

Called the Red City, Marrakech is vibrant, oozing vivid colours and exotic aromas. Gigi gave us a big smile and a welcome drink of almond milk and dates, suggesting that we eat odd numbers of dates or they would be bad for our health, before being shown to our breathtakingly beautiful suite (one of 15) with a spectacular view of the palm trees and pool. I was lucky to be experiencing the Route with my lifelong friend Michelle. I am godmother to her son and she to mine. We met when she returned from Cordon Bleu School in the UK whilst I was studying food, so we have remained united through that passion over the years, in spite of her living in Gaborone, a good reminder that true friendship is not defined by distance but by how you connect. We immediately declared our trip the annual Godmothers’ conference!

I wandered down to the pool, ordered mint tea and allowed the travel fatigue to ebb away whilst I took in my surroundings. Guests here are invited to eat where their fancy takes them – in a picturesque corner of the garden, at the pool, on their private balcony or in the world-class restaurant. Wherever it may be, they are sure to delight in every bite. Our first meal was sitting under the palm trees in the garden, where a simple salad of 10 ingredients picked in the chef’s vegetable garden that morning, introduced us to our first taste of local Argan oil. Whilst we may have been lunching al fresco, I noted the quality of the white linen and silver cutlery, and then my eyes reverted to the authentic Moroccan touches, silently adding ‘lantern’ to my shopping list.

All my senses had been awakened. The sounds of the birds tweeting, running water, the gentle punctuation of time created by the muezzin’s call to prayer. On our first night, we sampled the international menu. I rated the tiger prawn carpaccio with Moroccan organic tomato, 10/10. Michelle, a carnivore and director of a cattle business, loved her lamb with potato, phyllo croquette and spinach mousseline. Our waiter ordered her lamb ‘rosé’ not rare! Our evening concluded with mint tea and verbena on the terrace.

On day two I had the pleasure of meeting owner and art-lover Eric Rodrigues, who, based in Paris and Normandy, visits monthly. The warm and welcoming library showcases his love of art in books that he has taken more than 20 years to collect. Art and design aficionados must love this property that was built in 2003 and opened in 2004, based on the design of the Alhambra in Spain, for that and the attention to authentic detail. “We like guests to have a surprise” said Eric. There were many, and my camera clicked constantly.

The friendly concierge had organised a tour guide and driver to take us to the medina (walled city) for the afternoon. The first assault on our senses was overwhelming, we walked rather quickly past the snake charmers on the Jemaa el Fnaa Square. As a hawker approached us with a handful of leather belts and thrust them under our noses we jumped sky-high, thinking that they were snakes! We settled down and trawled the labyrinth of lanes in the souk with our helpful guide who helped me part rather quickly with some dirham for two pairs of soft leather shoes.

I proceeded on to see Medersa Ben Youssef, an ancient religious school that boasts breathtaking architecture and decorative details, the rug store and the spice shop. I noted then that every tour guide likes a detour to a friend or cousin who has a rug or spice shop!

I was welcomed back by the team at Ksar Char-Bagh and being treated to something that would etch itself into my muscle memory – a traditional hammam. If you read the guide books they will tell you that this is where you experience the best, and I would underline that…in red! Miriam gently lured me into a trance with her melodious singing and rhythmic washing and scrubbing, and I could feel the tension of travel. It was only the last dose of cold water that brought me back to reality.

I met the charming and informative Maître de Maison Kevin Ceccarelli who explained their ethos “If you do not give you cannot have”, and I then realised why many come to Ksar Char-Bagh to marry and never miss an anniversary there! Regulars stay mostly for three days, and many never leave the property. I was beginning to entertain the same thought. Bookings are often not made on the internet but in discussion, so that guests are given a plan with some ideas so that a custom-designed, memorable experience results. Approximately 60% come from Europe as the flights make it an easy break. Because the owner and management truly care for their staff, they truly care for the guests. I made a mental note to use this as an example in future brand performance sessions. Kevin as manager does not just work with numbers, he is there to greet every guest and to see them on their way. He truly cares and has a genuine sense of abundance.

After wandering around the vegetable garden with chef Aziz Haki I settled into dinner, another wonderful experience. Aziz and the kitchen crew come out after dinner to meet guests, for someone who has an insatiable curiosity about cooking and ingredients, that was bliss. Guests are catered for individually – feel like fish? They will source the best catch of the day, show it to you and then cook it. I watched a couple ooh and aah when theirs was served at the table after being cooked cased in salt, and I experienced true order envy.

The next treat in store for us after sleeping on the clouds, courtesy of the team, was a day in the Ourika Valley.  Our first detour with Izak, our patient driver who accommodated our many requests for screeching stops so that I could collect the perfect pic, was to the rug co-operative supported by the local Berber community. It is here that young girls before being wed, create carpets to show their worth and tell their story. Money from sales is shared in the community. After sifting through many piles of rugs I finally made a choice governed by the fact that this one in bold hues of blue had four evil eyes woven into it (one for each member of the Handley family). Each rug is bound on one end and has a fringe at the other, depicting that life never stops, it goes on. I did not have sufficient money on me, and was told that the rug would be delivered to my hotel and the transaction made at my convenience. Our first glimpse of snow on the Atlas Mountains (the second highest mountain range in Africa) was memorable. I stopped for a quiet moment to send some positive thoughts to my husband and son who were currently climbing the highest peak, Kilimanjaro!).

Another stop was at the Argan oil co-op where we witnessed the women taking the raw argans, grinding them into pulp and finally oil, for cooking and cosmetic purposes. We stocked up and then travelled past bright and welcoming restaurants literally in the river, camels, donkeys and stalls with other eager tourists to the waterfall. We stopped to capture our first sighting of a Berber fridge – running water directed from the river over bottles and cans – to keep them cold! Bright red poppies and bright white cherry blossoms added colour to our journey. At the side of the windy road we bought dates and bananas to sustain ourselves before lunch. Izak and I walked, Michelle for 20 dirhams, took the donkey up to the Kasbah du Toubkal.

Perched at a low table on the roof terrace awaiting our traditional lunch we savoured not our surroundings, the view of the mountains and Imlil Valley below, but more importantly the knowledge that this is where more than 200 young girls are housed and educated. We also marveled that like us, everything there had been walked up or taken by mule. Not an easy feat, one that demands endurance and intense determination. Umbrellas and straw hats were offered to shade the sun, fierce at the top of the mountain.

Lunch was a selection of Moroccan salads (cucumber, orange, lentil and pea, tomato and red pepper dressed with our now-favourite Argan oil), tagines (red meat with figs, dates and tomato, the other was chicken with couscous, sultanas, courgettes and sweet potato). A plate of apples and mandarins and yet another delicious pot of mint tea, gave us hearty sustenance. After lunch I was taken to see the accommodation.

We returned ‘home’ for our final night at the palace. I had requested that Chef Aziz prepare for us what he would traditionally cook for his family, a show of genuine hospitality. It would be hard to tear ourselves away, but we knew that the other two jewels in the Relais & Châteaux crown awaited.

For more about this fabulous food, and the exotic cuisine of Morocco, you will have to read a future edition of Food & Home Entertaining magazine, or attend one of our “Magic of Morocco” cookery sessions in May. The first date coming up is 9 May, one more seat available. Contact Natalie on rsvp@jhpr.co.za for future dates and more details.

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