Figs and Witblitz- a decadent weekend away
Having read through the African Relish cookery class schedule, I knew that this had to be the weekend that I attended- it was the only course for the year featuring fresh figs, which I simply adore. I have been purchasing the sweet, forbidden beauties religiously all summer and then a few weeks ago, the store that I normally purchase them from, had none. I returned every few days, but to no avail!
Lured by the promise of figs (and lamb) grown in the Little Karoo (a semi desert region) and a well thought out itinerary for a weekend of cooking and feasting, we headed 400km out of Cape Town to African Relish situated in the little town of Prince Albert.
From the moment we met Jeremy Freemantle, the course coordinator and manager and executive Chef Vanie Padayachee, I realised that if I had any pre-conceived expectations, they were going to be surpassed.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was the only student in the class, which to my husband meant, I was being educated in the fine art of pastry, sauce and more, all for his eating pleasure. It was weekend, I let him latch onto what made him happiest. And eat, we did!
Weekend in the kitchen and out
On arrival on Friday, after being briefed about the course and other activities, we settled down to lunch of focaccia, lamb bobotie (which is a Cape Malay spin on the cottage pie, baked with a savoury egg custard instead of mashed potatoes, and containing turmeric and raisins), salads, fresh figs and a shot of witblitz.
What’s witblitz, you ask? It’s a uniquely South African spirit (and hang onto that word; I’ll tell you why later), translated from Afrikaans, it means “white lightning” and is distilled under special licence in the community, made from wine and at the end of the process, has a very high alcohol percentage: try 62%!
It’s very much like American moonshine or grappa, a very potent grappa. Far too strong for me, but is sure to keep wounds clean in case of emergency, and fears at bay when bravery is required.
If you can stand the fire
I got stuck in immediately, helping Chef Vanie with prep for dinner. The African Relish restaurant opens for dinner on Friday and Saturday, though the chief focus is the cookery school. Chef Vanie is gentle and warm in her instruction and we jelled immediately over a love of spices and well seasoned food. “It’s all about the flavour”, she quipped and I knew it was going to be a very happy weekend indeed.
We made chicken tagine, a spicy couscous, grilled aubergine with a sumac yoghurt dressing, marinated biltong for a salad, spicy butternut and vegetable paella.
We headed off to the local dairy, Gays, just down the road and tasted the various cheeses that they produce using old-fashioned and time honoured practices. The produce is unpasturised, so very strict controls are in place and inspections are regular.
The kitchen, as you can expect is highly organised, constantly cleaned and the assistants work together in a seamless fashion under Chef Vanie’s benevolent authority. The kitchen is open plan flowing directly onto the dining area, so it is crucial that services are meticulous and there is no room for panic or drama. And there is no worry of such, either.
Spirits of another kind
Just before dinner, we went on a history and ghost walk of the town (I told you to keep spirits in mind) with the wonderful Ailsa Tudhope, story weaver deluxe!
It appears the sleepy little town has not only a fascinating history, but a number of other interesting, ethereal inhabitants. I kept my eyes peeled and even studied my photos afterwards for odd markings or jagged lightning bolts. I’m disappointed to say, we’ve found nothing! This could be attributed to the copious amounts of garlic I add when cooking.
Saturday morning started with a slow walk up a part of the Swartberg pass with Jeremy.
After breakfast, and a visit of the local market, butchery and the collectible stores (I absolutely must, in every town/city we visit) we started with what, in my opinion, was a mammoth day of cooking. I have new found respect for the Chefs and catering cooks who churn these dishes out effortlessly day after day.
Just before Chef Vanie and I tackled the cooking, Jeremy demonstrated some basic knife skills and I made a mental note to sharpen my beloved globals more often.
We made focaccia which I studded with tomatoes, lemon zest, olives and glugs of local olive oil and Maldon salt, twice baked butternut and sage souffle, profiteroles, a classic creme patisserie, iced tomato consomme (an absolute labour of love, to extract the essence of tomato, and a small quantity at that) slow roasted beetroot with soet karoo(port) jelly, a de-boned stuffed rack of lamb with balsamic reduction, carrot and curry leaf quinoa, aubergine casserole using the most beautiful white aubergines, and a fresh fig and almond tart- my crowing glory, if I may say so myself.
The most satisfying part, was eating these dishes with my husband for lunch and dinner. I did get worried when he mentioned looking forward to profiteroles in the week though. Luckily, the folks at African Relish send you off with a binder of recipes of the foods prepared during the course.
Easy like Sunday morning
Sunday started early with botanist Dr Sue Milton, a specialist in Karoo biome biology in what can be best described as a 2 hour amble, a fascinating one at that, identifying local plants, the ethnobotany and measures taken to preserve them in her private nature reserve.
My advice would be to take a hat, wear a long sleeved cotton shirt and double up on the factor 30- even at 7am, the sun is blazing furiously.
Sunday breakfast, followed with Chef Vanie and I whipping up lemony spinach and chick pea falafels and fig and cheese sesame seed balls.
1. The African Relish course schedules for the year are already up on their web site, including one with Andy Fenner of “Jamie Who” fame. It is scheduled just after the olive festival- so expect a visit to the olive oil press.
Another course geared at food bloggers is also in the works- this particular one will be discounted- do keep an eye on their web site for details and contact info (the accommodation is an absolute treat as well).
2. Kudu salami and lamb from the local Prince Albert butchery
3. Figs from Weltevreede Farm
4. History and ghost walk with Ailsa Tudhope and botany walk with Dr Sue Milton.
5. If antiques and old kitchen equipment are your thing- look at the collectible store in Mark Street. Don’t expect any super bargains though. Tourism has long destroyed that, as it has in most little towns and villages.
*Note, as stated in my About page, I am an independent blogger. All opinions expressed are done so in my own capacity. Interpretations of the menus, food and drinks enjoyed and prepared are also my own. I apologize for any inaccuracies *