Friday, 8 September 2017

Bernadette fits a dress

When Bernadette turned 48 years old, she knew that she would not be able to go on as she had before. She knew then that all attempts at subterfuge and sophistry would come to naught. She knew that her web of beliefs had been exposed for the falseness and treachery that they were. She had been exposed. She had finally come loose from the firmament of middle class morality. Bernadette was undone.

Up until then it was of not much significance that the cost of a dress could be the same as another person’s monthly wage. It was of no real consequence that the cost of an airplane ticket might solve another family’s financial crisis. It mattered only briefly that to attend Shakespeare’s Globe comes at the same price as another’s heating bill. Naturally, Bernadette, did think about these things. Her mother, eminent scholar and formidable ethicist, had tortured the young Bernadette with confounding questions about morals since she could speak her first words. But, in the past, the denouement of such musings would, minimally, be a sort of vague uneasiness, a confusion about what is right. At best it would result in finding another charity or visiting her dying, senile aunt. Sometimes just watching Sir David Attenborough expound the nature of Nature would bring relief. Learning a new language, particularly of those least favoured by the world economic system, would positively induce feelings of moral superiority in Bernadette. The point is, a sense of well-being and moral ease, could be achieved with relatively little effort.

Bernadette, looking into the mirror, waiting for the French lotions to take action that morning, knew evil had set in. It had set in with the knowledge thereof. And the romantic poets knew this would happen long before Bernadette was a twinkle in her father’s beautiful and wandering eye. In the past, in Bernadette’s youth, when her body was nubile and milky white, and when her mind was like a sapling, yielding and filled with hope, she could find ways to approve of herself. But when she became 48, and the world presented as brittle stories with definite edges, a just world was not credible anymore. And her moral goodness was not credible either. For the likes of Bernadette, her evil nature reared its monstrous head; it rose like the truest scion of this defunct world in which everyone fights for a bit of light. A world where the light is just a chipped, plastic sequin dangling over a dirty dance floor. Nothing more than that.

If all this seems a tad dramatic, a little too dark, Bernadette suggests that you, you esteemed reader, look to Al Jazeera. Look to The Guardian. Look to The Beijing Review. Look to the International Socialist Review. Look to the Great World Wide Web. Look and tell the scribe how brilliantly astute Bernadette is. I shall convey your compliments to her. Presently, she is fitting a dress and eating mozzarella boconcini.  

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Elizabeth David again; this time on presentation

I turn again to the inimitable Elizabeth David for inspiration. Here she has written about ‘buffet’ tables. She seems to have quite a lot to say about what such a spread should look like. Buffets are, of course, reminiscent of the ‘harvest table’ that is now on offer for lunch at the restaurant, during the week. The wonderful thing about David is that, while everyone else was decorating platters in the most unfortunate and embarrassing ways, or trying to get everything onto, or into, silver and glass, she knew better. Her culinary and visual taste transcended her time. She should be forever deemed an Ultimate Judge; a final arbiter of good taste. Hume was wrong about only this one thing; what is aesthetically correct is not subjective. Elizabeth David’s advice on the vessels for salads and stews and soups rises above the fashions of the 50s, 60s and 70s in England; the decades over which she produced her incredible books.

Here she is in ‘South Wind Through The Kitchen’ in a chapter called, ‘Buffet food’. She speaks about catering for a party; and what is the harvest table at The Glenwood Restaurant if not a party? I have edited her words slightly, to fit our physical page.

“The presentation of party dishes, and of course of all food, is an important point. Cold food should certainly have a lavish and colourful appearance, but to varnish it with gelatine or to smother it with whirls of mayonnaise seems to me a misconception of what makes for an appetizing appearance. The effect needed is not of food tormented into irrelevant shapes but of fresh ingredients freshly cooked and not overhandled. The most elementary hors-d’œuver such as a plate of radishes with a few of their green leaves, a dish of green and black olives and another of halved hard-boiled eggs (not overcooked) with butter and bread on the table, is ten times more tempting than the same ingredients got up in a pattern all in one dish and garnished with strips of this and dabs of that. You are, after all, preparing a meal, not decorating the village hall.

As for hot food, if it has not acquired an appetizing look during the cooking, a few blobs of cream or a border of mashed potatoes will do little to improve matters. There are, of course, way of making good food look especially beautiful. The colour, size and shape of the serving dish is obviously important; food should never be crammed into too small a dish; serve rice and pilaffs on large shallow platters, not pressed into deep glass casseroles; for the serving of fish and of grilled chicken, which could be spread out rather than piled up, a long narrow dish is best.

Paesant and country stews of beans or lentils, deep brown daubes of meat or game, onion and oil-flavoured ragoûts of pimentos or purple-skinned aubergines lose some of their particular charm (and also get cold) when transferred from earthen pots to a smart silver entrée dish, and all the delicious brown bits on the bottom and sides of the dish are lost. Dark glowing blue china, the dark brown glaze of slip ware pottery and plain white always make good backgrounds for food.”

The Glenwood Restaurant, like the Glenwood Bakery, is now open seven days a week, in one way or 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Massimo at Osteria Francescana, Modena

The Robinsons watched Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ few days ago. It was very interesting in parts. Very. What was particularly interesting was watching the episode on Massimo Bottura, an Italian born chef, working in Modena. There he is head chef for his restaurant called Osteria Francescana.

This restaurant was, during the early stages of its existence, so quiet that it sometimes fed no one. It now has three Michelin stars and is, as expected, fully booked for months. This is despite its home being a small and extremely traditional Italian village. Now, most will assume that it being in a small and traditional village is a challenge to its success because it is out of the way and populated with the non-cognoscenti one expects to find in rural areas. But, in fact, the reason why it is a wonder that it exists despite its surroundings is because the people of Modena, for a very long time after the opening of it, judged its extravagant and lawless reproduction of traditional Italian cuisine as unacceptable. What were those splotches, broken pastries and strange compositions which only remotely represented what they were used to eating? From where the audacity to mess with what has been firmly established and is, evidently, the food people have grown up on?

Of course, the Netflix ‘Chef’s Table’ sings the praises of Massimo’s self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision; one which flies in the face of tradition. The Glenwood Restaurant too sings his praises for his self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision. But we do not share his actual vision. We found ourselves strangely siding with tradition – with the people of Modena and not with the bedazzled Milanese making their way to Osteria Francescana to eat deconstructed tortellini en brodo. We found ourselves very sympathetic to the fact that there should be ten tortellini for every mouthful and not six marching on a piece of slate towards something which merely represents the brodo. Call us old fashioned, but we think the people of Modena have been robbed.

There are indeed many, many traditions which must go. Such as expensive wedding dresses and American movies with a Christmas theme. But do not mess with tortellini en brodo. Nor with lemon tart. So, if The Glenwood Restaurant ever closes its doors due to a lack of comprehension it will be because the supposed cognoscenti are looking for pieces of slate carrying food that looks like Jackson Pollock paintings (note, we are fans of Pollock paintings when done in oils on canvas). Such food, for good reason, will never, ever be found across our threshold.

Nevertheless, we genuinely love Massimo for his commitment to, and revelry in, cooking. Also for his evident skill. But we looked in wonderment, with much real entertainment and with not just a little horror at what emerges from his kitchen. Viva la cuisine!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

How to make risotto nero. Or, once more, unto the breach.

How does one make risotto nero? It depends on where it is being made. Cooking risotto nero can either be done in an hour holding a glass of wine, or it can take many days, as part of a violent battle. Cooking it in a restaurant makes it akin to waging war.

We know very little about each other’s professions. And why should we know more? We are, naturally, more interested in ourselves than in others. Some of us, however, have created a little soapbox to speak from. Here is that soapbox, and this is that speech. It is the speech that answers what it takes to make very simple, good food for restaurant patrons. It takes much, much more than what most people think. Any person who actually cooks, and by this we mean a person who takes in hand stuff that grows, walks, swims and flies, knows that to produce a plate of food which is good, even if it has seemingly only one thing on it, often requires many steps. Sometimes, but not always, it also requires a lot of time. But to make good food in a restaurant is never a case of combining pre-existing ready-made components in novel, or not novel, ways. Good food does not manifest from dabs of this, slices of those or splashes of that unless the dabs, slices and splashes were first made under a very watchful eye.

These steps include finding the raw ingredients. Thus, much time is spent holding a phone with a chin speaking to the butcher, the baker, farmers and grocers whilst bringing to the boil two or three stocks. Lists, which have been written at the end of the previous night’s service, over a glass of wine while high on adrenaline, are now studied and soberly executed. These lists are based on what has been used up and needs to be replaced – and this depends also on what will change on the menu that day and what remains the same. So the list is not simply a ‘stock’ take, it involves menu planning at the same time.

Any restaurant which actually engages real cooking, and The Glenwood Restaurant is sadly one of only a few in Durban, will have such lists. At The Glenwood Restaurant this includes instructions to make certain types of pasta doughs – things like herb tagliatelle, linguini, mezzaluna – butter, ricotta, tart pastries, butchering, poaching and reducing. Whilst three people attend to these lists as from 8 am, the head chef, if he is also the owner, will meet with managers, work out the cost of goods, determine the margins, look for better suppliers of better ingredients and fire bad ones. In the afternoons, wines must be tasted, wine lists updated to remain in keeping with the menu and the general ethos of the particular restaurant. This includes the decisions which have been made around the pricing of items on the menu. In short, a day running and cooking for even a small restaurant, which offers a certain type of menu, is a fourteen hour non-stop affair, if one is lucky.

This is certainly not a complaint. This type of work is self-inflicted, of course. And it is chosen as an occupation by people of a certain type. Given the chances of receiving criticism on a daily basis, because food and eating is a very emotional thing for most of us, often whilst under pressure and barking orders at others, makes for a nerve wracking work day. Like actors, cooks, have tomatoes thrown at them. As they should have. No, kitchens are not pretty. They are stages, bared to scrutiny. One either becomes an actor, soldier or a cook. Turning on the first flames and sharpening your knives when the sun has just risen, so as to feed people when the sun sets, is a case of ‘unto the breach, once more’. And the battle is won in systematic layers; each, time consuming and, all, indispensable. That is how one makes risotto nero with squid tentacles and mussels. It has very little to do with the tentacles and mussels, except that someone must be certain that they are very, very fresh. But it really starts early in the morning with a good stock and ends, before plating, with copious amounts of hand-made butter.

Important notices:

The Glenwood Restaurant now serves lunch all week, from 12 am to 3 pm, in the form of a harvest table. We are making beautiful salads, tarts and warm dishes. You may help yourself to what you want. Take-aways are possible. Weekend lunches, and all dinners (Wednesday to Saturday) remain menu based, as they always have been.

The Glenwood Bakery now serves breakfast all day.  

Thursday, 8 June 2017

I love you, Thomas Mann.

I have recently discovered Thomas Mann. I am not sure how I would have turned out had I discovered Mann in my youth. But there is no doubt that my character would have been significantly, and permanently, altered on reading his work. Even after just two novels.

I first read The confessions of Felix Krull, confidence man. And then I read The Holy Sinner. Presently, for me, if a novel cannot make me laugh out loud – preferably bitterly – it is doomed at the outset. Profundity, as a rule, is ruled out. If, however, profundity, is an absolute must for the author, it should present itself properly armed with satire, or it should invoke personal embarrassment in the reader, or it should make you want to meet the author and spend a whole night holding them very tightly. When it does all three, whilst firmly prohibiting any saccharin and exalted delusions of wisdom in the reader, it is safe to call the author a genius. Thomas Mann is such a genius.

He manages to consistently make me feel as if he has seen humanity naked, finds it often wanting and just as often beautiful, but never commits himself to an opinion. But this lack of commitment does not take the same form as J. M. Coetzee’s refusal to offer a moral exemplar. It is not nearly as self-consciously detached and objective (please note, I am a fan of Coetzee’s too). Unlike Coetzee, Mann often comments through his narrators. He judges, he approves, he fears for them, he puts his reader at ease about them. But his narrators (at least, in these two novels) are themselves characters like confidence men or Catholic monks. Objectivity is thus instantly thwarted. What I have loved about them both, the confidence man narrating himself into existence and the monk narrating a very holy man, is that through their respective biases there is a sort of fictionally tempered objectivity. I suspect Mann’s reasonableness, his clarity about people, is simply a feature beyond his control. He cannot help but see things like they are. His humour is surely an extension of this reason.

But, granted, love is blind. And I am in love with Thomas Mann. How is one when one is in love with Thomas Mann? You first tread carefully to see if it is appropriate to express this love. One does not simply fall at his feet. That would be madness. A path to self-ruin. If one wants the love to be reciprocated (figuratively, of course), one investigates, plans and then approaches head on. To love Thomas Mann is to approach confidently, but be ready to retreat should his gaze begin to, as they say, ‘go right through’. That would make one invisible – the death knell to a hopeful lover. Unless one’s flaws are interesting, sophisticated and even glamorous – in the broadest sense of the word – one should rather simply be Mann-perfect. Either way, it is very evident to me that what he wants from his lover is a person who is able to temporarily bend the path of his gaze. I’ll probably never be ready, but I will declare it in this very, very private place: I love you, Thomas Mann. Also for your politics. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The meaning of a white table cloth

What does the object, a white table cloth, mean? What does it symbolise, conjure up or denote? In terms of denotation, of course, a white table cloth is a white table cloth. Since there are no words involved here, the thing denotes itself. But what it conjures up and symbolises is as varied as the cultural milieus in which this item might be put to use. It is as complex as the societies which eat from its pressed linen surfaces. There are those who flagrantly spill wine on it, those who revere it, those who regard it as an indication of their excellent choice in eating place or those who regard it as an artefact, minimally, required for civilised eating. Does the reader find this hard to believe; the claim that white table cloths mean different things to different people? Can anything be a more unassuming object than a plain of white cloth? Bear with me.

Whilst making my case about white table cloths I would like the reader to extrapolate the moral expounded here to other physical features of eating places; such as tables (with or without white table cloths) set up with wine glasses and cutlery, the absence of brightly coloured menus with seasonal, uplifting messages on them, waiters in black and white, cut flowers, cloth napkins and many more. All these features, these moments of creating an identity for an eating place, have the potential for meaning different things to different people. Sometimes, they evidently mean different things to the Patrons and the owners.

In France something called a bistro or even a café can have starched white table cloths and waiters dressed in black and white. And that is not because a café in France is like a posh restaurant in South Africa. Cafés in France are what they say they are; places where people drink coffee during the day and have light meals, and perhaps a glass of wine. To eat in a café in France is to not plan one’s outfit, gather a group of friends and secure a booking. It is a place where one arrives, perhaps, in the middle of a working day, asks for a sandwich, pastry or bowl of soup and have that, perhaps, alone over a white table cloth served by a waiter dressed in black and white. One might do so in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Why is this? Why are the French not intimidated by the same things that we see as formal and demanding? I am not sure. Perhaps it was their revolution that changed things. This is not the seminal question though. The point is simply to show that white table cloths and other artefacts, mean different things in different contexts.

To others a white table cloth, or tables set with wine glasses, or cloth napkins means a show.  A show of pomp and ceremony; of finery and formality. But my suggestion is that to think of a white table cloth – and any of the other artefacts mentioned – as necessarily signifying formality is either a sad petit bourgeois hangover or it is an unresolved childhood fear of bed linen and going to sleep at night. White table cloths, wine glasses, rows of cutlery, cut flowers are beautiful, and beauty is supposed to bring succour to the artistic soul, the unconstrained soul, in pursuit of finer things. This is surely the only way to think of such things. Beyond social demarcations and etiquette – into a meritocratic world. A world where a beautifully arranged space can simply be there to form a backdrop to a quick bowl of soup and a glass of wine.  

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Dreams of farming, part 2

And so the successes lead to greater ambitions, greater disasters and greater successes.  Our neighbouring farmers’ patience was tried by escaping goats, pigs and cows.  At least I got to meet my neighbours, even though in their justifiably, irate state relations weren’t improved. 

Being the completely naïve and ignorant country person that I was, however much reading I did and however many short courses I went on, I only saw the problems after they had happened.  The need to administer worming medicine to the goats, the challenge of castration, the importance of fencing, housing and corals, the struggle to brand (and yes I did once wrestle a calf to the ground), the difficulty of getting a pig to the slaughter house (those intelligent and affectionate animals will not follow you on slaughter day) etc. etc. 

The only farming that I did start sensibly was bee-keeping.  I helped out a fellow bee-keeper for a month or two before getting my first hive.  And then started with only two hives.  Even so, when I felt that I was half competent, the swarming I engendered and attacks that I suffered were quite something.  It didn’t help that the local bees were Apis mellifera scutellata or African Killer Bees as the Americans, in their histrionic way, know of them.
Nevertheless by the time I left our lovely farm, I had 35 cattle, 40 goats, 40 bee hives, serial pigs, serial broiler chickens, the odd couple of sheep (too thick for my taste), 6 old and not so old layers and a vegetable garden that could meet about 75% of our vegetable needs.  What I did learn, and quickly, was, that if Armageddon comes while I am still alive, and I have to rely on my skills to feed myself and my family, we would all starve and pretty quickly.

Asparagus with beurre fondue

It took a while for our asparagus patch to take off, but when it did………..
There is no such thing as a glut of asparagus, there is only a feast of asparagus. My favourite way of eating those delicious stalks is probably the simplest way.

Pick and cook them as if it was one operation.  You cut the stalks with a small serrated knife on or just below the ground.  If you have cut them young enough there shouldn’t be too much of a woody base. Bring them into the kitchen and snap off what woody base there is, if any. Throw your grass into a capacious pan of boiling, salted water.

While they are boiling, take a tablespoon of their water and put it into a small pan.  Whisk cold, unsalted butter into the water piece by piece.  This is an emulsified sauce, not the classical English greasy condiment of unseasoned drawn butter.

As one piece of the butter is whisked into the water add another.  Then season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Pour over the cooked, drained asparagus. You can tell when asparagus is cooked by pressing at the base of the stalk.  If it is easily squashable, it is done.  No al dente, half cooked asparagus please.

At least 12 good spears per portion and 50 gms of butter

Tagliatelle with saffron milk caps, parsley and garlic

Like a many farms in our area, there were a number of pines trees planted about the place, some as decorative and some as a plantation.  I don’t know when they were planted or when the rootstock came out, but, with the rootstock came out spores of European wild mushrooms. We had boletus, both birch and slippery jacks, though unfortunately, I never found ceps. We also had a very productive patch of saffron milk caps.  A most delicious mushroom as its taxonomic name would indicate – lactarius deliciosus.  Like many mushrooms, great with all eggy things.

For three

To make the pasta, mix 300 gms strong (or bread) flour with 3 large eggs and a teaspoonful of salt.  Mix until you have a stiff dough; if necessary add another egg yolk or entire egg, but you don’t want a wet dough that will be hard to roll out.

Wrap the dough and let it rest in the fridge for an hour or so (or a day).   Assuming you have a pasta machine, roll out the dough to the penultimate setting (this does depend on what machine you have, but too fine a pasta sheet might well make soggy eating).  Hang it on a drying rack or leave lying on a floured surface until dry enough to cut. 

Wipe your mushrooms – about 400gms – and slice thickly.  Sautee the mushrooms in butter quite gently as they are not usually very watery. Season with salt and pepper and, when cooked, remove from heat and throw in a generous amount of coarsely chopped parsley and finely chopped garlic, about 2 tablespoonfuls.  Then add another tablespoon of butter

Cut into tagliatelle strips and blanch briefly in plenty of boiling salted water. Drain, but not too well. A certain amount of the cooking liquid helps lubricate and enrich your sauce.  Mix the pasta with the mushrooms and serve.  Add grated parmesan to each plate and pout ore parmesan on the table (with a grater of course).

Parsley.  Generally, you either have curly (English) or flat (continental).  It has been recherché amongst some to praise the virtues of the old fashioned English variety.  The chauvinist in me wants to agree, but unfortunately the flat variety is not only much tastier but also a million times easier to grow.