Bottles, Bubbles & Big Hearts
Two things happened when I was asked to host a Secret Dinner as part of the Toffie Events Spier Secret Food Festival this year, as one of sixteen hosts: I felt elated to be asked and then my heart seized with terror momentarily. And by momentarily I mean for at least a week.
Oh, you know- much could go wrong. Unknown guests with obnoxious attitudes. Where on earth would I hold the dinner in Stellenbosch? I may poison the lot of them. And so the list of legitimate concerns rolls on.
I love to cook, and I love to ply my friends and family with dishes from recipes I’ve created or discovered, especially if the food has some link to a story about our travels, but they are obliged to like it all. And pretend if they don’t and if there are tastes they really don’t enjoy like rose water, well I accept that. Friends are meant to be odd, after all. No use having a bunch that are all samey-samey.
But chef, caterer or restaurateur I am not. I decided soon into it, and seeing that I was to be abroad for a significant part of the run-up to the dinner, to ask some friends if they could assist in any way. Perhaps someone knew of some venues I could approach to host the dinner at, preferably with a kitchen or someone could bounce a few ideas with me on how to host a group of strangers.
Big, Big Hearts
- Katie Barratt of De Morgenzon for providing the perfect canvas for us to host our dinner in a glass bottle installation and for not just cooperating but for providing solutions and impeccable hospitality.
- Corina du Toit- friend, wine maker & academic. Sommelier and waitress on the night
- Cyril Naicker – friend, event planner and mind behind the glass bottle installation and connector. Oh and awesome table decorator.
- Neill Anthony – friend, accomplished chef, chief chopper and supreme organiser.
- Talia Sanhewe, friend, vivacious presenter and television producer
- Sharyn and Dara, talented duo behind PlumSong Cabaret.
- Nawaal Deane of ZiaVisuals – photographer & videographer and Abe Deane for waitering.
- Mahen – brother, waiter and carrier of stuff
- Jelle – sweetheart, who’s got the ‘never say never’ attitude going on.
The result of the request, and subsequently my dinner, is an example of the pure generosity of spirit of some incredibly talented people that I have the privilege of calling friends. And what really, really blew the lid of my red pot away was that some of them invited their own friends to participate. For nada.
I texted my friend, chef Neill Anthony and asked if he’d keep the 27th clear. “Done”, his reply. I’ve grown to become less conscious of my ‘home style’ cooking in Neill’s presence. I knew I did not want to serve anything I hadn’t made before or refined cuisine you could find on a restaurant menu and having Neil in the kitchen would be ….well, like the dinners we held at home. Neill, my choppy chef and restrainer of my scattered brain.
Along with Neill, my husband and brother were going to come along. Things started to feel more like a gathering of friends. And I felt a little more at ease.
My dinner was held at the utterly breathtaking de Morgenzon Estate, where classical music is played to the vines, 15 minutes away from Spier. Guests were picked up, and driven to the estate, no clues were given as to where they were headed. We had moved around 16 000 bottles (well, a man with a forklift did) to create a glass bottle installation, that enclosed the dining table, and was lit up from below. This structure sat in the triple volume old wine cellar and we planned to move food from the kitchen at the guest house next door. A projector displayed a selection of images from my travels on the free white wall and a bubble machine was at the ready to keep things playful. Still, I had a few concerns….
I had stayed up until 4am that morning baking three cakes and after a short sleep got an early start on prep – everything had to be made and packed at home in Cape Town. Neill helped me to seal all our pots, pans and bowls and off we went to Stellenbosch. I hoped we hadn’t forgotten anything. I took the home made ice creams up a few days before; had any of the service staff switched off the fridge, I wondered.
“We are here to support dreams and help them become reality” said Nawaal, our awesome photographer for the evening and a woman I had never met before the dinner, moments before the guests were to arrive.
I must admit, it took a lot to keep the tears at bay after that wonderful sentiment.
When our guests arrived, they were welcomed by Talia Sanhewe, who is both gracious and an exceptionally gifted speaker who offered them a drink, told them a bit about the estate and took them around to the courtyard where we had a little surprise waiting for them….
My friend Cyril had invited mom and daughter cabaret duo Sharyn and Dara of Plumsong to entertain our guests while they sipped on De Morgenzon Garden Vineyards Rosé 2011 and our waiters (my brother, Corina and Abe Deane) served them appetisers. Featured: my Gambas Pil Pil on Couscous Nests, Cucumber Cups filled with Chevrè, Preserved Lemon, Pomegranate Arils & Za’atar. Slow Roasted Tomato, Halloumi and Mint was served on retro ’80’s toothpicks.
It was only at this stage, after the entertainment when we opened the huge doors of the old wine cellar from the inside, that I met the guests and welcomed them in. I must admit, I was a little nervous.
A Food Traveller’s Tale
And We’re Off!
Talia gave me a wonderful introduction but I folded and ran off to the kitchen to help with getting the first course out – a board of tastes that represented my recent visit to the south of Spain and Morocco.
We served a variety of charcuterie bought in Granada and Catalonia, a warm flat bread and Moroccan inspired trio of mint and sweet paprika carrots with honey, aubergine zaalouk – a smokey aubergine paté with coriander and lemon and lightly pickled saffron cauliflower. Served with the Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc.
I felt more at ease at this stage and so began the night of sharing snippets of my travel stories with our guests and engaging in wonderful banter between serving them and running to the guest house kitchen where some of my friends were enjoying seat and a hard earned glass or three and others were waiting for the next course instructions.
Mumbai Diaries – Bollywood Bokkie
The main was a slow cooked rump of spingbok, roasted at 140 degrees over 8 hours, shredded and served in a curry sauce that straddled a Durban curry with a meaty stock base and a South Indian tomato and tamarind sauce. I took hours to get the flavour balance right and serving a curry to unknown guests whose chilli tolerance you don’t know is tricky. I exercised much restraint and decided on a sauce with moderate masala strength.
I served this with a side of rich korma sauce with toasted almonds (this was one of the three sauces I made to serve with the trial run of springbok I prepared two weeks before) and sambals, as well as basmati with golden fried onions.
This was served with both the Spier 21 Gables Pinotage and the de Morgenzon Chardonnay.
Take a Break
The intermezzo was a playful fusion of textures and flavours – I made a rose and mint sorbet which we allowed to turn to the consistency of slush, and served this in long shooter glasses, interspersed with pink boba pearls brought back from London. Boba is a large tapioca pearl (like sago) and used in the refreshing bubble tea that has reached cult status all over the world. To slurp it all up, I served it with large bubble tea straws.
Dessert was an old fashioned orange and cardamom chiffon cake, that reminded me of the aunties who lived up the road from our house when I was a child who were excellent bakers and who often sent us paper plates of biscuits, slices of swiss rolls and other cakes. I topped the cake with marinated orange segments echoing my memories of the fruit enjoyed in Turkey, Portugal and Morocco, drenched in bay leaf liquer made locally by artisanal distillers Jorgensen’s Distillery and orange blossom water that I bought in Fes. This I served with mascarpone orange blossom ice cream. The chiffon cake was paired with de Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2005.
Guests asked for more. I could not have been paid a bigger compliment, but was transfixed for a few seconds before running off to get a knife to cut the cake.
Amanda Lewis of Saucisse Deli helped me to choose three cheeses to end the meal, in keeping with the cuisines of the countries I featured – we went for a spicy marisch by Anura, an unctuous sheep labneh made in Smithfield in the Free State, and one I love using as well as a creamy semi-soft cheese by Indezi called Kwaito. I served the cheeses with figs sprinkled with oregano that I brought back from Chefchaouen in Morocco and fresh mint tea with honey.
The bubble machine which got stuck earlier, made a valiant effort to close the dinner.
By the end of the evening, I had a few blisters from walking up and down, but had had a thoroughly rollicking time with great company at the dinner table and in the kitchen.
I can not thank everyone involved in our evening enough.
Thank you to Dawn of Jorgensen’s for spoiling our guests with mini Bay Leaf Liqueurs, Amanda of Saucisse for the cheese and mini salami packs and to de Morgenzon for the gorgeous wine. The Food and the Fabulous kitchen made a spicy vegetable and green apple pickle add to the goodie bags.
*Kindly note, items for the goodie bag were sponsored generously by the various parties and I received no kick back or remuneration for mentioning them*