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Almost exactly two weeks ago, I posted this as my facebook status update:

This is the story of how that happened.

So, I used to be married.

I’m not anymore – but at one point in my life I was in love, had the ring on my finger, struggled to remember anniversaries and all the rest of it.

Around about the time that we’d just gotten engaged, her family organized for the whole lot of us to spend a weekend away at a bush lodge in Natal. It was a big deal and I was apprehensively looking forward to it (apprehensive because I’m not great with people at the best of times, and abseiling off a waterfall is probably not the best way to overcome that. Or maybe it is and I’ve been missing out all these years).

Now, at the time I worked the kind of job where one was never entirely sure what one’s schedule was going to be like. It was possible (and almost routine) to make plans for a weekend only to be told at the last possible second that in fact you were going to be needed in the office. It’s one of those things you see in movies that feature An Evil Boss, but I guess anyone who’s been employed anywhere quickly realizes that this is one of the things that just happens when you’re at the bottom of the gravel-pit. You kinda just have to accept it, grit your teeth and get on with things, or resign in a hail of righteous indignation and possibly a flaming bag of poo.

Now, I expected that my fiancé and her family were going to have a good time. I expected to hear stories about how much of a good time they’d had. And I had fully expected to feel pangs of Fuck My Life at having missed out.

What I didn’t expect was exactly how much of a good time it was going to be. You see, if a Standard Good Time is say… The Ancient Monument of Stonehenge, or perhaps the Arc de Triomphe in the center of Paris – both in their own right, magnificent and miraculous achievements of human creativity, then what they had was The Fucking Great Wall of China of good times. You could see it from space. People visited it and took photographs of themselves pretending to hold it up. There may have been a range of stamps. It was a truly awful feeling, both knowing that I’d missed out on this incredible experience that probably would have brought me closer to my new family, and then also having to endure the 32nd story in the space of a day that started with “Oh! And remember when …”, and ended with people literally slapping their thighs in uproarious laughter, while the most interesting thing that had happened to me in the same space of time was a takeaway plastic tub of potato-salad.

The one positive that came out of it however (and this would be odd for anyone but me…), was a description of a spicy lentil soup that everyone had had, which they all agreed was incredible. I was seriously taken by the idea, and quizzed them closely about what had gone into it, to the extent that I hunted down the recipe and then spent the next 7 years or so adapting and perfecting my own version of it, only settling on a final incarnation a couple of months ago. I even cooked it when the House and Leisure folks came to visit (the recipe is here). The point being that a place I hadn’t gone to, and had only heard described by people who’d been there once, fixed into my brain and became the emotional definition of ‘happy times’ for me.

Then a funny thing happened.

I became friends with the family who owned Zingela. Quite by accident.

I think I probably tried to tell them a couple of times what this place of theirs meant to me, but I don’t ever think they really understood – especially since I hadn’t actually ever even been to the bloody place.  Then, I got to go there on a weekend that was as wild, brilliant and chaotic as anything I could have invented in my head, and if I’d been in puppy love before, now I was red-hot with fairly embarrassing lust.

Long time readers of this ridiculous little corner of the internet will remember a post from a couple of years back when I mentioned that I’d been invited to cook for a wedding of two close friends, and that in a fit of impulsive craziness I’d actually said yes. They were smart those two, they got me drunk, kept the guestlist small (70 people) and appealed directly to my brash sense of adventure. Basically they know I’m an idiot – and preyed cleverly on my weakness.

Well, this was the family that owns Zingela, and it was to be the venue for the wedding. And so, years after cooking recipes from a place that I’d only really heard about, I was now going to cook in that kitchen. For a wedding. With 120 guests. With no experience or training of what it’s like to cook for more than a dinner-party of 20 drunk people who probably don’t have the highest standards.

Fuck.

One Hundred and Twenty.  It’s a lot of people. You order 120 quarter pounders with cheese from McDonalds and see if you can even fit them in your car. Try and imagine 120 cats stuffed into a toilet (okay that’s weird don’t think about that), or that the average domestic flight has less people on it than I was going to feed three courses of food to in a single evening.

I’m not going to lie, but in the final run-up to the big weekend, I was starting to seriously consider just buying a one-way ticket to Macau, changing my name to Jorge and taking up a job as a yak-whisperer. Which, considering they don’t have yaks in Macau, would have made my job-related stress-levels fairly low.

But, not to sound like the chapter from the motivational video entitled: How To Access Your Power Animal And Break Through The Barriers You Didn’t Even Know Existed, there comes a point where you’re strapped in, the roller-coaster has made all the clanking noises that mean it’s starting up now, and no matter your views might differ on the matter, you’re going on this fucking ride whether you like it or not.

Farm kitchens. Roomy.

So, for 48 hours (the final 3 of which were during a monstrous rainstorm) I chopped, peeled, roasted, diced, blended, mashed, baked, rolled, mixed, tasted, fried, crushed, sliced, boiled, glazed, crumbled, and finally… plated my way back to sanity and 120 successfully-fed wedding guests. Oh and the couple said ‘I do,’ and everything, which was nice.

After that, I smoked the fattest cigar I’d been able to get may hands on a few days earlier, danced ‘til 4am and woke up with a penis drawn on my arm in koki-pen.

I’d call that a pretty successfully weekend.

From the beginning, to (almost) the end.

This was the menu.

Starter

Potato & Leek Cupcakes, with hickory-smoked trout, garlic béarnaise and chili, lime and ginger dressing,

0r

Potato & Leek cupcakes with roasted red peppers, braised in white wine.

Main course

Individually hand-rolled Greek salads with olive paste (Neil Roarke’s excellent recipe from his Freedom Café book)

Venison pie, cooked in ale and a hint of dark chocolate.

Wild mushroom, Artichoke and Crème Fraiche bake, topped with rye bread crumbs and parmesan.

Spicy Moroccan chicken.

*****

I wish there were more pictures. But you know…all that chopping etc. was fairly intense. 

*****

Lastly – I’d just like to thank everyone who helped in the final moments (Claire, Morne and Schalk – you were magnificent), and for everyone who said nice things when their mouths weren’t full.

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