Toffie Food Festival 2011- an independent view

I’ve taken long enough with this post, and for many reasons. I wanted to distance myself from the hype, the excitement and disappointments preceding and post the weekend and filter through to the lasting impressions I feel are a fair and untainted overview.

Toffie Food Festival is the brainchild of creatives Peet Pienaar and Hannerie Visser, who run a design/marketing company The President and was held on the 3rd and 4th September in the Cape Town City Hall. A brave move, I thought as I’d only ever been to the austere city hall to attend a recital before and it’s sturdy structure echos formal gatherings, serious concerts and old South Africa.

There were months of build up to the event, with tweets flying around and pop-up dinners held at secret locations and for some reason I never had a Thursday free and had to cancel my reservations. I was later told that the meals were mediocre for R350 a head. Now 35 euro is nothing for dinner in Europe, let alone a fancy concept one but in South Africa, and in Cape Town specifically we know what our money can buy. R120 for a 6 course tasting menu cooked by a top London Chef, R95 for two hearty courses of quality fare at the local bistro diner, 7 courses for a-spoil-your-partner-dinner in lush surrounds at R195 per head. You get the picture. Still, I can’t judge and I’d have liked to have seen if the novelty factor would have made up for the price.

Now while on the topic of the Benjamins, let’s chat ticket price. I can’t not, as I forked out R1710 (171 euro) for it and this is one of the reasons so many foodsters and bloggers I chatted to in person and on twitter, refused to attend. The swaying factor for me was to listen to Julie Powell (of the book and movie Julie and Julia fame) and Anna Trapido, author of Hunger for Freedom, a look at Nelson Mandela’s life through food. I had a month or two before the festival purchased a copy of Hunger for Freedom and was eager to hear first hand what Anna had to relate.

Apart from this (cost factor) and despite navigating the web site many times, sending a few emails to the organisers and talks with friends in the food world, there wasn’t a clear idea of the premise behind the festival. What other reasons were there to fork out the bucks? What was the message exactly, how did the festival promise to be different or enlighten us about food in ways that justified the money? And the time- two days of a weekend for that matter.

Now, I’m all for fun and froth and sometimes excess. For goodness sake, I have a “The Fabulous” section on the blog. I have a closet built for a party girl (which I’m not, sadly). I like to travel in search of the best pastries. I enjoy fun, for fun’s sake.

However, art for fun’s sake and food for fun’s sake when being marketed to a very knowledgeable, food conscious, earth conscious local crowd is a different story. We may like pretty pictures on our home’s walls that provoke thought or laughter, but when it comes to food, we know the authors, the chefs, the ingredients and what a sensitive topic food is in a world with just under 1 billion people starving. I refer you now to local academic Sarah Emily Duff’s piece on Toffie’s Menu Magazine. Up until this point, I had not seen the magazine and like Sarah, I have to agree that styling food in wasteful poses, on the floor, street and the like is hard to digest. I’ve asked myself if I’d feel the same if I was not involved in campaigns to educate food bloggers and the public about hunger. Was I being too sensitive and not as far “out there” as a creative should be?

The sentiment I shared prior to the festival, was not one of judgement about the magazine, but rather a need to discover the artistic angle that the publishers took. And once again, food unlike art requires explanation. Just like the everyday questions we ask about it: where does it come from/how do you make it/is that saffron you’ve added/where can I find it/what does it cost? And sometimes when you’ve added too much salt, what were you thinking?

Let the festivities begin

The city hall was decked in marvelous pink paper flowers, the halls dotted with colour-coordinated fruit and vegetables and brown paper bags bulging with spices. The rooms were haphazard in design, one a deep vivid blue with Spier wine tastings, another a rich orange with two vertical foliage arrangements on the wall. The pinata room draped in colourful streamers, gleaned by far the most enthusiasm from visitors. How could you not be transported to children’s parties and days of care-free fun just looking at it? Impossible.

The eating hall and breakfast rooms had brown paper covered chairs (rustle-rustle) and rows of flags strung from the ceilings. Apart from the flags and beer stalls, I got a back to University residence kind of feeling, which is a good thing in my case.

There was a room dedicated to a small range of cook books from around the world and the novelty items sold by the organiser’s store Church, which you can find in Spin Street in Cape Town. Robertson’s Spices, a sponsor had a room with their wares on display and Chef Reuben Riffel beaming his “paste” adverts from a flat screen television. One the second day (unless I missed it before), there was a ‘statistics’ exhibition in one room, with cakes adorned with hundreds and thousands reflecting various figures from the number of alcohol consumers in Cape Town to the percentage of people with an income in excess of R350 000 per annum. I did wonder if the cakes were real but resisted dipping an errant finger into the icing.

The market portion of the festival (R50 for non attendees) featured a handful of the regulars at the local markets and a few interesting additions like African Relish Cooking School in the Karoo (you can read about my adventures there earlier this year, here). A number of twitter buddies asked for a description of the vibe and decided not to attend, as the other weekend markets offered better variety at no charge.

I had to miss the secret dinner due to a prior engagement, unfortunately. These were the highlights for me, in no particular order:

Kobus van der Merwe

It was a treat, having eaten at Kobus’ restaurant Oep ve Koep in Paternoster on the Cape West Coast the Sunday before during a food foraging excursion, to listen to him explain his inspirations, motivations and ethos on food. Kobus tries to source as much of the food items he uses, locally, such as flour, honey, bokkums (salted,dried fish of which he makes his own now), eggs, salt, crayfish and his foraged plants like soutslaai (salty leaves), veldkool (resembles asparagus) and some lichens.

Kobus, draws inspiration from the Malay food he considers “home cooking” that he grew up with in the Boland, and as a result boboties and sosaties appear often on his menu. He showed the audience a swoon-worthy array of plated food slides- his attention to detail and creative interpretations are akin to the food served in Michelin starred restaurants. “Earth-to-plate” is what Kobus refers to it as. That and exceptionally artful, I’d like to add.

Kobus considers food scientist and historian Renata Coetzee (who spoke at the close of day one) as his mentor as regards food foraging and understanding local food culture goes.

Anna Trapido

In her talk, Anna looked at the topic of food as identity and posed the question, “If we are what we eat, then who are we?” In a society for whom our national identity to some degree is gauged by Nelson Mandela’s (Madiba), it is most interesting to view his life through the food he ate (and at times, didn’t eat), through both the good and bad memories.

The audience was presented with a large brown paper bag, filled with containers of food and Anna talked us through a selection of Mandela’s food memories, including the first time he was obligated to use a knife and fork at age 14, with his posh girlfriend and her sister who presented him with chicken wings(!) to the wedding cake that his former wife Winnie Mandela took with her from house to house for 30 years, where finally the cake burned along with the house, to the prison rations for those in isolation.

Mandela gravitated toward Indian food and the Indian community as the communal values of eating together, with hands and off shared platters appealed to him, Anna revealed.

This was by no means a joyous lunch. I sat next to the lovely Jacs of Chef Prive and it was clear that both of us were fighting hard to keep the tears at bay.

Anna’s talk has reminded me to re-read Long Walk to Freedom – I recall carrying a leaden heaviness in my heart for months when I read of the story of the wedding cake Madiba never enjoyed and saw Winnie in a different light through the eyes of their youth.

Eloise Alemany

Eloise is a cookbook author and publisher who now resides in Argentina, her adopted homeland. Coming from a fashion background, she branched out into publishing and photography. Her work is warm, and slightly kitch, and reflects the type of food shots you may take in your grandmother’s kitchen (aided by a skilled stylist, of course) and laced with very covetable props. The design is thoughtful and the recipes are time honoured treasures from her family and her own collection.

Eloise conveyed her talk in a very gentle manner, showing us slides of the pop-up dinners held at unexpected places all around Buenos Aires, scenes from friends’ barbeques and snippets from both her books.

For a more in-depth, beautiful account of both Anna and Eloise talks, please visit the fabulous Sam Woulidge’s blog Confessions of a Hungry Woman.

Renata Coetzee

I had a short chat with food scientist Renata (who must be in her late 70s if not eighties now) in the bathroom, and she expressed her concern over presenting as she hadn’t done so in a while, she said. Instantly, I felt drawn to her and her honesty. I’m fascinated by her – her life of more than 60 years in the study of food culture, all the things she must have witnessed as governments have changed and the physical climate too.

Renata covered the origin of mankind in Africa, the foods modern man first ate, cooking methods of the Khoi peoples as well as their favoured foods. I was most intrigued by her tales of the plants that the Khoi children ate as sweets and chewing gum, as well as her story about the perfumed Koekemakranka plant, the title of her latest book.

Together with the wine estate Solms Delta, Renata has cultivated a nursery on the property consisting in indigenous edibles and has experimented with modern cooking methods using the plants eaten by the Khoi such as wild mushrooms, the kalahari truffle, berries and buchu.

It was clear from her beautiful images of the plated food, that Kobus draws much inspiration from her work.

Julie Powell

Julie Powell, unlike her on screen character played by Amy Adams in the movie Julie and Julia is bold, delightfully self-depreciating in humour and hungover. Or so she says, regarding the latter.

Julie speaks about the blog that started it all, The Julie and Julia Project, the novel, the movie and her second novel Cleaved as well as the problems in her marriage. She’s candid and funny, speaking of the parallels she finds between Cape Town and her home. Things get sticky when she reveals two negative food memories, one being her grandmother’s funeral and tasting pimento cheese sandwiches for the first time, thinking they tasted awesome and feeling guilt over that. The second was being 10 years old and handed a caramello chocolate slab after her school play by a tall, dark haired and glamourous woman and knowing instantly that this was her father’s mistress. And yet, the chocolate tasted so good.

You can see how the audience would ache for her 10 year old self and yet identify with the guilty pleasure of the chocolate moment too. Ms Powell is a good story teller and I just may order Cleaved on the Kindle.

*I had intended to attend Pete Goffe-Wood and Denis Silva’s food and beer pairing, which I have no doubt would have been exceptional, but despite booking and receiving a confirmation of booking, I was told the workshop was full when I registered*

Cracks in the pudding

The festival ran on time for the most part, but lacked one vital element: direction.

A brief five minute introduction as to the organiser’s vision, how they selected presenters (clearly, this was not an African themed festival, unless Madiba is the only food cultural icon and reference point us Africans have?) and what they expected us to gain out of the event. There was, in my opinion, a clear disconnect between the voice of the organisers and the audience.

I haven’t seen any disagreement about the disappointing R150 pp (15 euro) braai (1 sausage, 1 chop, 1 bread roll) eaten inside the eating hall- no salads, pickles, relishes and if meant to reflect a South African braai (I heard many conversations about expectations of an Argentinean BBQ), it failed to deliver. I’m just glad that some of my guests who wanted to attend, did not.

I’ve said it above and I’ll reiterate, while food needn’t be perfect picture book pretty as per the way we’re used to viewing it, unlike design and art, food will for every human mean sustenance at the very basic level. It hits a raw nerve for several reasons, think religion (pork, beef), difficult economic circumstances (can we afford to celebrate Max’s birthday with all his friends this year?), scarcity, food politics and the list goes on.

Food deserves sensitive treatment and alienating the food community (either by excessive ticket prices, lack of communication or a combination thereof) is not the way for a food festival to generate interest and longevity. Gaining fame via notoriety and bad publicity is good for pop stars and shock artists.

I would like to see the festival succeed, there is clearly a hunger for something of the less mainstream variety as far as food goes and Cape Town has the density of food loving community to tap into for support.

The people who know food, who buy, cook ,write about and celebrate with it are your greatest resource. Include them.

And they’ll Toffie it up with you.

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