Stories of a Stained Cookbook

It’s a memory thing for me, food. At least that’s what it’s become.

It didn’t start that way.

At university, I lived off packet Mi Goreng (2 minute noodles), microwaved baked potatoes and single serve frozen lasagna. Even though I’d grown up in a family of exceptional cooks, none of their skills seemed to have been genetically passed on.

In one of my more famous cooking disasters, a high school home economics class, I  used icing sugar instead of flour in my cupcake batter, resulting in a giant puddle of gooey sweetness not at all resembling the rest of the class’ fluffy, golden brown, take-home afternoon tea accompaniments. Not long after that, a friend and I baked melting moments in the oven that already had icing on them.

It seemed cooking was not for me.

At some point in early adulthood, Masterchef was introduced to the Australian television-watching public. My Kitchen Rules soon followed. Somehow, I got hooked. Watching cooking shows became an addiction. In fact, even when I went to live in Spain in 2012, I was watching the series online from my Madrid bedroom. And lo and behold, after a few years of this, some things started to sink in.

Instead of trying to make carbonara sauce by adding flour to milk (that failure experience made me cry), I started to see that with a few staples and good flavour combinations, a whole world of delicious food possibilities opened up to me. And some of these recipes didn’t even seem that difficult! I’m a visual learner, so when I watched someone cook something on TV that looked do-able, I’d try to replicate it.

At this point, some innate knowledge did start to appear between the cracks of my conglomeration of cooking catastrophes. I remembered how to make salad dressing – I’d helped mum with this hundreds of times. I knew how the layering worked in lasagne. I knew how to do certain things in the kitchen, just from having watched and helped prepare dinners growing up. So I practiced. I asked mum. I read recipes. I began to spend money on ingredients I couldn’t afford as a student.

Then I met Katja. Katja was really into cooking. I met her at my job in Madrid; she was a 26-year-old German who spoke 6 languages and knew how to make butter from scratch. Katja spent all her money on thick cookbooks and fancy Himalayan salts. She would bring food to work for us to try – cakes, breads, sushi… One day, she invited me over for a dinner party and blew me away with the incredible food she’d created from her tiny apartment kitchen. I think she had a big influence on me.

The other thing that has boosted my interest in cooking is my travels. I’ve always loved travelling and both Tyson and I travel largely because we are fascinated by different food cultures.

Now, I associate many happy memories with food: The days after our wedding, in Thailand, eating green curry and tom kha gai in the restaurant with the impatient waitress down the road from our hotel; salmon fillet with lobster sauce (I could have died that day and been happy) on New Year’s Eve in Stockholm; oily, delicious moussaka on a rainy night in Tinos, Greece’s tiny pilgrim island and the first of the Greek islands I ever visited on my 7 month solo trip around Europe; confit de canard (duck confit) cooked by an old lady in a little village, 3km walking distance from our holiday house built into the cliff along the Dordogne River in Southern France.

These are the memories which have made my life beautiful – times at which I’ve felt free; alive.

And these are the memories I want to recreate with my cooking.

The stories of my stained cookbook.

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Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” – Ernest Hemingway. 

It got me. Finally. Just like so many others, my husband and parents included. It happened a bit faster for them, and I’m sure that for each person the ultimate contributing factors and speed of effect are quite unique. Whatever it is, it seems to happen to people. And as I sit on my Qantas 747 looking out of the window at the yellow lights of Johannesburg shrinking slowly below, I am hit with the realisation. Africa. You’ve captured me.

I sit here now trying desperately to hold onto every single moment and memory of the last three weeks, dreading that with every kilometre we get further away the memories will grow dimmer. Already it feels like our days in Johannesburg and the national parks are a long time ago. We’ve seen and done so much in between…

Well. It seems I’m getting a little mellow and nostalgic.

Ain’t nobody got time for that! I haven’t filled you in yet on our last week – the gourmet end – of our South Africa anniversary adventure: our time in the Stellenbosch wine region and Cape Town, and our experiences at three of South Africa’s top restaurants.

Our first stop was the Frog Lodge, a small, simple cottage on a wine farm at the base of the Franschhoek mountains. Driving into Franschhoek, South Africa’s renowned food and wine capital, Tyson and I agreed that we had never seen a town set in such a magnificent location. We came through the mountains, having just driven through the smaller Robertson Wine Valley, and even there we were stopping constantly to take photos of the beautiful scenery. When we turned the corner and got our first glimpse of Franschhoek, a small town of white houses and vineyards surrounded by high, rocky mountains on each side, all we could say was wow. Clouds touched the top of the mountains as though placed there carefully, not daring the journey across the sky to cast shadows upon the beauty of the valley below.

At night, the wind howled through the trees outside our cottage, and in the mornings a completely blue sky was slowly touched with dabs of white as clouds crept in through the gaps in the surrounding moutains.

Franschhoek, the smallest and most spectacularly set town in the Stellenbosch wine region, is one of South Africa’s oldest settlements. It’s a charming town, though locals call it a village, and its main street is lined with cafes, gift shops and galleries. Family-run wine estates surround the town, some of which date back to the late 17th Century when French Huguenot refugees were given the land to settle in by the Dutch government.

Today, the whole region is well set up for tourists, and on our second day (we spent our first exploring the nearby city of Stellenbosch), we took part in a full day wine tasting tour featuring a small wine tram, six wineries (many still built in and around the original farm houses) and about 20 glasses of wine (each). We met some nice people, tried pairing different Biltongs and olive oils with wine, and attempted to locate bits of our palette which were able to deduce the difference between ‘intelligent vanilla flavours’, ‘red berry and tobacco notes’ and ‘subtle oak tannins.’ I am sad to say that despite this full day intensive workshop I do not consider myself any higher on the wine IQ ladder .  I admit this could also be due to the amount of wine consumed and that by the end we were happy to still be distinguishing between red and white.

Consumption of wine in excess of our usual amounts had also been a feature of our previous evening in Franshhoek, as we were lucky enough to get a table at The Tasting Room, an exciting and innovative multi award-winning restaurant spearheaded by Africa’s first Grand Chef, Margot Janse.

Because of the relativity of price and value compared to the same thing at home (a factor which has delighted us this whole trip), we decided to splash out and get the 10 course African-inspired surprise menu with matching wines. Dishes featured crazy creations like pure white ‘black pepper snow’ that disappeared on your tongue leaving a hint of pepper, tomato ice-cream, oyster mousse and a cocktail made with popcorn; and for each course the waiters explained the history and method of the dish and why the matching wine was paired perfectly. It was an incredible culinary adventure.

Although we would have loved to stay in Franschhoek for longer, it was soon time to head to Cape Town – the last stop on our amazing journey.

In Cape Town we were accommodated in Frances’ Air B&B apartment – a cool designer loft in the middle of a trendy but rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood. Woodstock, a fairly mixed race part of town, has lots of hip antique and design shops lined up beside great cafes and lots of colourful street art. The area is going through an urban transformation stage, though you could tell that there were still a few issues when the police showed up two nights in a row at the house opposite us in the middle of the night.

Just a short distance from Frances’ apartment lies the Old Biscuit Mill, home of a vibrant Saturday food and craft market and the famous South African restaurants The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club.

The Test Kitchen was listed 28th in the 2015 Top 50 restaurants in the world and Best Restaurant in Africa in 2015

. The Pot Luck Club, its newer sister restaurant, is just meters away, and while the food was tasty, it seemed that in every other way it was the ugly step sister to The Test Kitchen, as the service and other features simply did not compare. Tyson and I joked that it was the reject restaurant for everyone who wanted to get into The Test Kitchen but couldn’t – after all, when we tried to book a dinner in May for August, the place was booked through to November. We were lucky to get in for lunch. At The Test Kitchen, the food was beautiful and considered but less experimental than The Tasting Room. Tyson preferred this but I was more excited by  the abstract nature and creativity at The Tasting Room.

By the end of all of this (affordable!) fanciness (AUD 55 each for a 7-course degustation at Africa’s best restaurant) we were ready for some normal food again, and finished our last day in Cape Town with some seafood at the V&A Waterfront with Gareth, the friend who had taken us for dinner in Johannesburg on our very first night in the country.

Last but not least, we retraced our footsteps of 2006 (the first time both Tyson and I came to Cape Town) and visited Rick’s Cafe, the same place we randomly discovered on our first ever night  in the city.

And there it was. A full circle. A circle of food, roads, laughter, locals, animals, towns, beautiful scenery and memories so many they get lost in the vacuum.

It has been, without a doubt, and only in competition with my 7-month solo Europe trip at age 18, the best holiday of my life and my heart is full of thankfulness for every moment and every day that I got to experience this adventure with my best friend.

Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. – 1 Chronicles 29:13