Not the Sunday Times column s01e03

Give me meat and fork. Plates are for pussies.

Men are good at meat.  And I’m not just saying that because that sentence has a certain alliterative allure.

Or wait, are they?  I don’t know so much anymore.  The last couple of braais I went to, everyone stood as far away from the fire as they could, desperately ignoring the stack of chops that needed cooking in the hope that somehow it would magically get done, while simultaneously trying to avoid being the one who’d actually have to do it.

What’s happened?  This is meant to be the one area where we step up, where we deftly and confidently take charge, while all around us lesser beings cower in the presence of our general awesomeness, while the coldest beers in the land are offered up in gratitude.

Maybe its because these days our shoes are more expensive than they used to be, maybe it’s because it takes us longer to do our hair in the mornings, or maybe its because the internet has taught us that anything that takes longer than the amount of time required to download a video clip of a guy getting kicked in the nuts by a horse isn’t worth doing.  Lets face it, ‘braaimaster’ is a title created mostly so that the guy who now reeks of wood-smoke, is blinded from the bucket’s worth of ash he now has in his face, a snotty nose and most of the hair burned off his forearms – feels slightly better about spending the last three hours cooking everyone else’s dratted sosaties while the girl he was hoping to speak to was getting chatted up by a guy who has a Chinese-symbol tattoo that instead of saying “hope” actually says “finest cat meat”.  Oh sure, everyone will sling a torrent of compliments your way once their faces are happily stuffed full of boerie, but 20 minutes ago the only sentence you were likely to hear was, “Howz my sausage bru?”  And this spoken with the slight edge of someone who’s suspicious enough that you’re doing it wrong to come and check, but not concerned enough for its welfare to pick up the braai tongs.   You know what?  If that’s your attitude I’d rather be at home polishing my Spicy Christmas Nuts thanks.

This is how most social circles have come to appoint their Grill Warrior – the person who (whether they like it or not) is default braai guy. It’s a thankless task, but usually there’s someone who feels strongly enough about properly flame-grilled meat to wearily step up when the time comes.

Girls of course do salads (and by salads we mean something with potatoes in it, not this leafy crap we have to secretly scrape off our plates while we were pretending to go to the kitchen looking for chutney), for which we are thankful because girls are nice.

And yet at the same time – I’m faintly worried that we’re in the midst of a secret cultural coup that none of us are really paying much attention to.  What with every second person I know investing in a massive and fancy gas-braai unit that’s bigger than most people’s first car, I fear we might be watering down the cornerstone of what makes us stand apart from the rest of the world: we like the hell out of our protein, and we’ll build a fire to cook it on.  That’s our thing.  No doubt, gas braais are super fancy. They gleam mysteriously in the evening light with their exciting chrome bits and the trimming that was looted from an experimental military vehicle intended to detect unflattering attitudes toward American foreign policy.  But there’s something distinctly and uncomfortably functional about them – because what’s the point of inviting people around for a ‘braai’ if what you’re actually going to do is just cook some meat on a thing more sophisticated than your actual stove, which just happens to be within eyesight of the swimming pool?  Might as well just microwave a curry and let everyone get on with watching Idols.

Surely the point is that all you need to braai is a couple of bricks and a grill? You want to infuse your meat with the distinct sharpness of woodsmoke, the juices that send good smells and hot ash into your face, revel in that unique heat that burns the hair off your….oh, hang on.  Ah.  Hmm.

Yeah, I think there’s a braai I need to go and attend to.

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Eat the Welsh for Breakfast

The off-screen dialogue was a lot saltier than this plate, and featured people saying 'fuck you ref' a lot.

So, I had this cute idea the other day.

Wait, let me re-phrase:  I had an idea the other day.  In my head it seemed like a good one, but then again the last time I felt that way I ended up carrying a girl with a sprained ankle on my back for 2 kms at 5:30 in the morning. So….

A bunch of us were planning on getting together for the first South African game in the Rugby World Cup. But because the whole thing’s being held at literally the bottom of the world – it means rugby at breakfast time – which is a slightly different dynamic than a lot of us are used to (in the pub you always see large, confused men resolutely ordering coffee, usually to reckon ah fuck it, and getting rounds of beer by half-time).

So the plan was some mates, breakfast and early morning drinking – a conversation that inevitably turned to talk of me making the breakfast and then doing a lot of the early work when it came to the drinking, so that everyone else didn’t feel quite as bad about cracking the champagne. Yes, I’m selfless that way.

Breakfast for ten people is never really that much of a big deal – mostly because there’s a lot of frying involved and just about everyone can do that.   You fry enough things and the happy silence that surrounds the hardening of a room full of arteries is music to a breakfast-maker’s ears.  So the cuteness of the idea came when I was thinking what to do for the breakfast itself, and I was struck by the fact that we were playing Wales, and so we should have a Welsh-influenced meal so that we could literally eat the Welsh for breakfast.

I will now break off for applause.

The first problem is that, when it comes to breakfast the Welsh are fucking insane.  Because sure as I don’t really fit into my pants as well as I should, aint none of the people who were going to gather at nine in the morning to watch a rugby match going to be interested in savoury cakes made of seaweed and clotted-blood sausage.  No sirree bob.

Thankfully the Welsh are famous for something else which not enough people have discovered  because they think it’s made of rabbits, but is in fact one of the more glorious things you can do with bread and cheese.  Clue, you add beer to it.

It was a good thing the boks managed to cling on for the win (Francois Hougaard you ridiculously idiot-hairstyled beauty) – otherwise the whole idea would have been fucked, this post would have been pointless, and I would have been sad and possibly wandered out into traffic, come what may.

Rugby Breakfast Welsh Rarebit. (feeds 10)

It’s probably best not let anyone actually see you make this, as it’s just chock-full of butter, cheese, more cheese, more cheese and then some beer – just to seal the deal. It also looks like vomit when it’s being made – but trust me, tastes like golden naked angels when it’s all done.

Ingredients

 

100g butter

60ml Dijon Mustard

2ml Tabasco

2ml Worcester sauce

210 ml good beer (if you can get hold of a good micro-brewed ale you’ll be smiling – I used the new Robsons East Coast Ale, excellent)

100g camembert (make sure you cut off the rind)

300g mature cheddar

2 egg yolks

2 eggs

1 large handful of chives, finely chopped

salt

pepper

1 large loaf of bakery-fresh sourdough bread, cut into thick slices

What to do

Get a large pot, and into it put the butter, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, mustard and beer.  Turn the heat up to a gentle simmer and let it all melt together, stirring occasionally.  Turn the heat up slightly and add the two types of cheese and the chopped chives.  Stirring gently but constantly, let all the cheese melt and mix with the rest of it until you’ve got a thick, velvety, cheesy sauce – maybe about 20 minutes worth.

Now this is key. Take the pot off the heat, and let it cool for at least ten minutes.   The reason for this is that you’re about to add the eggs and the last thing you want is for them to scramble the second you add them to the sauce.

While the cheese is cooling, turn the oven to 220ºC, then separately beat the two yolks together and the two eggs and have them ready.  Then add them to the sauce and gently mix them in – it should create an extra silky sheen and thicken it slightly.

Rarebits in a row, bubble-and-squeak cakes, and many many roast tomatoes. This is not a nursery rhyme.

Lay all the sliced pieces of sourdough onto a baking tray, then spoon a goodly amount of the cheese sauce onto each slice.  Season generously with salt and pepper, whack them in the oven and wait for them to toast up until golden brown.  Serve on their own, or with poached eggs and fresh rocket.

Right after this photograph was taken, everyone dispensed with all drinks that weren't beer.

Not the Sunday Times Column s01e02


I once had to take a train trip from Pisa to Florence.  I was in Italy for the first time, I had stupid hair and was being very South African about it all, which generally meant being sweatily uncomfortable about anything that wasn’t Mrs Balls Chutney or songs about beer.   Needless to say that for the first couple of days I was there, I permanently looked like someone who’s just realized that they’ve tripped on something and are about to fall down in front of people who will judge them.

So, I duly got on the emptiest carriage available, because that way I could just get on with being awkward in as much privacy as possible. It turned out however that the emptiest carriage actually had someone already in it, a wistful and darkly beautiful girl of about my age sitting in the corner.  Naturally I sat as far away from her as I could and proceeded to furiously ignore her, because that of course is Universal Guy Language for, “Wow, you look fascinating – fancy a coffee or perhaps a Spicy Christmas Nut?”  Of course about two minutes later, a smallish, balding fat guy with a moustache stepped in, looked around, saw the girl … and without any hesitation whatsoever, made an infectiously enthusiastic beeline for the seat right next to her.

Of course.  He was Italian – and that’s how they do.

Within about twenty seconds, they were having the most animated conversation ever, and I’m pretty sure he got her number when she got off the train about three stops down the line and that right now they’re up to their elbows in olive oil, babies and mamma’s secret recipe for tuna sauce.  And that could have been me (maybe without the babies), if I’d just had the balls.

If Italian food were an animal, from an evolutionary perspective it’d be the annoying furry things that mopped up whatever was left of the dinosaurs after they’d gotten the crap beaten out of them by the giant meteor.  So successful has the exportation of Italian food and culture (same thing really) been over the years, that in many ways it’s superseded the national cuisines of a lot of the countries it’s been exported to.  And no-one’s complaining about it, because they’re all too busy smashing their faces full of thin crust pizza and laughing at Eddie Izzard jokes about Penne al Arrabiata (youtube it).

You can go on about pasta, ciabatta, parmesan, tinned tomatoes, capers, salami, pizza, pesto, expensive cappuccino machines – or any number of amazing contributions the Italians have made to the global food landscape  (arguably more than any other nation on the planet), but I’d say that none of those things are actually what’s made their food so popular.  For me it’s more the unimaginable and endless ocean of rampant enthusiasm they have for food and eating that’s done it.  It’s a stupid cliché – but one that has basis, because if the rest of us got half as passionate about whatever it is that we do as the your average Italian is about sausage – we’d have figured out how to make gold from the bits of hair that get stuck in the shower-drain ages ago.  This probably explains a lot about the fact that there are more Italian restaurants in the world than research-centers dedicated to Teleportation and/or Immortality.  It’s infectious – and you can’t help but wanting at least some of that in your life, and so we rhapsodise about prosciutto and mozzarella.  Weirdly all it really requires at the end of the day, is turning on the stove.

Some Italian kids, showing how enthusiastic they can be in a dark corner...

Without resorting to joining the endless ranks of people determined to fetishise food (thanks El Bulli), I like the idea that more kitchens become rooted in a genuine awareness and love for the pillars of Italian cooking: the best possible fresh ingredients, simplicity and good times (also, possibly some shouting and talking with your hands), all of which are dead easy and don’t require expensive kitchen gadgets designed by a depressed Swede.

At the moment, by virtue of where most of us end up eating out at least once a month, we’re all a little bit Italian, but I reckon that in spirit it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more (except maybe for Silvio Berlusconi, because he’s about as appealing as a dead dog sock puppet), because at the end of the day, no-one ever got anywhere by being too shy to speak to the pretty girl on the train.

Life is a buffet – until someone mistakes your hand for a prego and tries to eat it.

An empty plate? We're just getting warmed up...

There’s no place on this planet to bring out the worst in humanity quite like a buffet.  Although this is perhaps followed closely by an art gallery opening where the drinks are free.

Seriously, it’s as if the presence of a set price and a potential ‘unlimited’ amount of food short-circuits our central nervous system and we revert to some lizard-brained opportunistic sneak machine whose only motivation is to just consuuuuuuuuuume bitches! Kill! Destroy! Maim in the name of Meatballs!

You want to see a petite Chinese woman punch someone in the face to get the last ginger-lemongrass grilled prawn?  Just hang out anywhere that says “R100 a plate”.  Old people are suddenly transformed from reserved, slow-moving sweeties to ruthless, sharp-elbowed, queue-jumpers with no sense of anything other than how the fuck to lever more roast potato onto that plate.  Suddenly the dude who was best man at your wedding is locking you in the toilet so that he’s got a clear run at the lasagna.

My dear friend Candice – who I love and adore, once worked her way through thirty-six oysters in a single sitting, because some restaurateur was dumb enough to put them on his all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet.  He was later seen smoking cigarettes with emo teens in the parking lot, kicking cans and wearing a T-Shirt that said Fuck The System… and there may or may not have been tears.  Candice didn’t care – she’d just eaten thirty-six oysters for R100. Go her.

I myself grew up taking such unbelievably cynical advantage of the Salad Valley (R15 a plate back then) at the Grahamstown Spur, that I’m fairly sure I could have gotten an honorary engineering degree for some of the gravity-defying Heaping and Balancing that was carried out in an attempt to get as many fried pumpkin balls back to my booth as possible. Students – they’ll find a way.

It’s a murky, devious environment where the good go hungry, and only those who don’t mind a bit of collateral damage can kick back at the end of the day full of the pride that they didn’t flinch at that crucial moment when a man in a wheelchair (most likely fake, rookie) needed to be shoved out of the way in order to get the last pizza slice.  That, my friends, is a man who has conquered all before him and earned his Beer at the End of the Day (Carling Black Label I hope your overpaid advertising team is paying attention…).

The reason I bring this up, is that – on a recent trip to Capetown – I actually had the pleasure of a very good lunch-time buffet at Café Paradiso in Kloof Street.  It was a bargain at R45, and with a couple of very carefully applied rules – made for an excellent lunch on a day where old friends were around a table for the first time in forever and time was ours to do with as we pleased, because it was raining outside and no-one felt like being anywhere else in particular.

However – if you’re going to brave this Amazon Jungle of eating – you need to know these rules, otherwise you’re going to be one of those guys sitting miserably staring a plate of lettuce and shattered self-esteem.

The Rules of Buffet

  • Close students of the buffet will know that restaurateurs will always put a lavish basket of bread on the table: DO NOT DARE TOUCH IT.  Send it back immediately, put it on another table or throw it out the window.  This is fool’s gold designed to fill you up on relatively cheap starch, reducing your impact at the business end of the deal – the meat platters.
  • Be careful with drinks – for a buffet the prices are usually hiked up a bit, because that’s where the restaurant is planning on making their money for the day. Order lots of water and wine by the bottle, it’ll work out better that way. Stay away from beers, hard tack and wine by the glass.
  • Eat little of lots.  There’s a reason all the cheaper, bulkier stuff is placed enticingly up front – because these clever bastards know that with eyes bigger than our stomachs, we’re going to pile into the dratted pasta salad and then have no fucking space left for the fillet medallions. They’re sneaky these guys, so you have to be sneakier. Smaller portions of a wide range will make you the ultimate winner.
  • Know your enemy, and watch their every move.  Trust me, that sweet-looking little lady with the determined look in her eye is going to clean the fuck out of EVERYTHING – so whatever you do, time your run before she even thinks about pushing back her chair for the main attraction.  Also, big families and lone wolves are also mega-threats. The extended family of nine from Bryanston will feel nothing for throwing their screaming 4 year-old in your path as a smoke-screen while they totally clean out the seafood – down to the last crumbed mussel.  And the single assassin will strike quickly and with laser-efficiency – somehow always getting to the things you wanted just before you manage to get there.
  • Learn the fake out: duck left before you jink right… the dummy is one of your greatest assets.  Basic frenzy psychology tells us that what other people want is always one of the greatest factors in deciding what’s valuable.  I’ve eaten huge mounds of cold, minted potato because I saw some other slobby guy making for it like a fake mouse on a string: ‘it must be good – so I want it too’.  Pretend that the thing you hate is actually what you want, so while everyone else is scrabbling for the grated beetroot salad you so sneakily suggested was just scrummy, you’re loading up on chicken wings with barbecue sauce.
Go forth my children, and conquer.
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Commune1 in Wale street Capetown. It's rad. I know this because I dressed up for the opening.
Breadsmiles. It's the new planking.
Sunrise, sunset - and the meals in-between.

I’ve spoken about good buffets before, recently here, but if you guys know of places that do a particularly fine all-you-can-eat special, post it in the comments section.  There’s nothing quite like an informed, hungry mass that knows exactly where and how to take advantage…

Not the Sunday Times column – s01e01

About a month ago – I was approached with the possibility of writing a food column for a Large Sunday Newspaper (believe me, the best kind of phone call one can possibly get – apart maybe from the one where a kind lady says that the test results came back, and they’re negative).  

The particularly good thing was that it was meant to be a printed version of the kind of stuff I do here – with the same tone and subject matter – which was great and all very exciting.  Alas for one reason and another, it ended up not working out,  but not before I’d written the first four columns.  So, I’m going to put them up here in the order and with the timing that they would have appeared in the newspaper.  

Spring Cleaning or Where Exotic Ingredients Go To Die

Right now, my kitchen cupboards look like they were packed by blind, OCD meth-addicted nut-collectors (yes, this is a thing).  But you know what?  That’s okay, because at least I can find the Marmite when I need it.

Most of the time.

My kitchen is tiny – around the same size as the single bed you wish you didn’t have when you start having girls over, and there’s not really a lot of space to go around. And so, I haven’t got neat storage spaces with special places for the Tabasco sauce, but rather a sliding door that holds back the Condiment Apocalypse Of Death And Things That Smell Funny But You’re Too Nervous To Find Out What They Are.

I’m sort of at peace with this, because I think that’s really the purpose of a kitchen cupboard – a place to keep the two or three things you actually use (recognizable because they’re usually at the front), and then also a whole heap of other crap that you bought when you were either a) trying to impress the girl who’s later going to be disappointed by your single bed, or b) inspired by some smarmy cooking show to make some ridiculous exotic recipe called Fakmung, the primary ingredient of which is rat poo. But only the expensive kind that you get in supermarkets.

You think this is exaggeration?  Pah.

A quick rifle through my cupboards and without even having to try – I’ve already found:

  • Some Japanese whole-wheat spaghetti that honestly looks like someone cut strips of carpet and then put them in a packet with a logo of a dandelion holding a dagger on it.
  • A tub of novelty ‘Christmas Spiced Nuts’ that taste awful (is it sweet, is it savory? It’s so confusing).  Because, “Hey, do you want to come up for my spiced nuts?” is a killer line even when it’s not Christmas.
  • A bottle of Vietnamese snake wine – complete with an actual hooded cobra artfully coiled up in the bottle, preserved forever with an expression that makes him look like he just thought up a concept for Survivor: Uitenhage.
  • My watch, which I’ve been looking for for about 6 weeks now.

The snake wine was a present from my mom.  She’s a fairly weird (but lovely) lady who has literally dressed only in purple since about 1999 and frequently interrupts conversations about the petrol price to say things about ‘spiritual envelopes’.  I still have it because what else do you do when your mom gives you a bottled snake?  Well, shove it in the back of the cupboard and forget about it of course. The problem is that this gets to be a habit (and this is the point) even for the stuff that’s not weird or life threatening.

So although I might be okay with the fact that my storage spaces look like an alien nest, this is the time of year where people get twitchy and start to clean things for no apparent reason other than it’s slightly hotter than it was last week.  Which means that for me, and I suspect a lot of other people, the whole process of ‘Spring Cleaning’ can sometimes be a chastening exercise, because at the end of it you’ve got a heap of stuff that represents every single culinary brainfart you’ve had in the last 12 months, and would rather not be reminded about.  It’s the same for clothes, and when men get slightly older, Personal Assistants.  I can’t tell you how many things I’ve bought during flights of fancy when I think that I’m suddenly Rick Stein and that I actually know what to do with dried lime leaves.  The thing is, Spring Cleaning isn’t really about order or neat rows of vanilla essence – it’s actually about sloughing off the silliness of a previous year and clearing the decks for another round, which is entirely fine and part of being someone who has a stove that they make things on.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to make Fakmung, with a side order of snake-wine whole-wheat spaghetti flambé and spicy Christmas nuts.