No questions asked.

Okay, I know this is actually a blog about food – but occasionally I do lift my head up from the eternal slop-trough of my own life and focus my pigesque face on something that’s not covered in a cream sauce. And because this is my corner of the internet where I get to park whatever random, ill-informed nonsense gets trotted out as a result of those experiences – I’m taking a slight detour from the food stuff for just one morning.

I hope you’ll indulge me. God knows you’ve been doing it for three years, you should be used to it by now.

Anticipation is delicious. Even more than things that are deep-fried.

South Africans seem to have a knack for turning seemingly innocuous and mostly innocent things into deadly weapons. Penises, paintbrushes, car-tires, plastic bags, fashion-sense, and 15-seater vehicles manufactured by Toyota; ultimately it appears that our most exportable and marketable talent is instantly being able to figure out a way to kill someone with a Hello Kitty lipstick.

Need to turn a Get Well Soon card into something that could kill a full Bolivian diplomatic delegation, assigned to investigate the particular sense of loss felt when you realize that there will be no more episodes of Quantum Leap? Find a South African. Want to permanently silence a Thai airhostess with Travel Scrabble? Dial +27WHATEVER.

Well, it saddens me to add another thing that, in our hands, get’s hopelessly twisted, abused and made to stand in the corner blubbing about how crap it is and ultimately fashioned into a dishearteningly lethal hitting-thing in our rough and unsubtle hands: and that’s a Q&A after a standup comedy show featuring international famous guy – Eddie Izzard.

Before I carry on any further – I just want to say clearly and distinctly: South Africans are olympically bad at expressing themselves in public, and should not be allowed to say anything to anyone in an open forum.

Ever.

And just in case you were gearing up to call me an Imperialist Colonialist fuck-face, I’m inescapably South African, I tar myself with the same brush. I have the green book and everything.

We will, without fail, when presented with the opportunity to sum up a zeitgeist, to articulate that thing that we’re all feeling but just need someone else to say for us – load up both barrels and then barge off to go foot hunting.

So, Eddie Izzard – wildly famous, funny and mega-accomplished stand-up comedian comes to South Africa to attempt a pretty intense form of personal exploration loosely aligned with Nelson Mandela’s 27 years as a political prisoner. Specifically, he planned to run 27 marathons in 27 days in a sort of symbolic tribute to Madiba’s years spent incarcerated by the Apartheid regime, something Mr Izzard felt he should have done more to actively try and stop at the time (other than not buying oranges with the word “Cape” on the box – which was actually the source of one of his funniest bits of the night), hence all the running.

It’s sort of gimmicky, sort of mind-blowingly awesome – and also, it didn’t really work. Eddie had to bail after four marathons, because you know…this shit is hard. But all credit to the guy, he stood up and said so, refused to back out, will attempt it again, and just for good measure decided to throw in an impromptu show for the people of Johannesburg. And because he’s interested in people, humanity and all the things that happens when you put the former in a room to discuss the latter, decided that the second half of the show should be a Q&A to discuss the general question of how “We, as a country, feel we’re doing.”

Wow. Big fucking mistake.

Not because we’re a politically-charged cross-section with a crackling and electrified sense of the nuance of our own social landscape – so much so that it threatens to boil over and become a forceful and informed debate leading to insight and understanding of our current condition.

No.

Because we’re all dumb shits, and when there’s a microphone in our faces, we can’t decide if we’d prefer to be; sycophantic, self-promoting, ignorant, in love with our own voices, whiny – or just go for broke and shoot for all of them in a cosmic big bang of awfulness that, if a mad scientist decided to harness, could possibly lead to the invention of something worse than strawberry-flavoured condensed-milk in a tube.

Seriously. It (obvs) started with Jacob Zuma’s cock, as represented by that stupidly mediocre painting, and just spiraled from there. And after about 30 minutes or so of people complaining about…

  • Government and why it doesn’t care about white people,
  • Why they weren’t more famous as a comedian,
  • Eddie Izzard not performing the “Star Wars Canteen” because some fat guy had demanded it from the back,
  • Another stab at why no one was acknowledging how good they were as a standup comedian…

…the most insightful things that were said about our own situation were coming from the foreigner sitting on the stage who was only there because he wanted to know how we felt. All while Kagiso Lediga did his best impression of a moderator desperately trying not to be too embarrassed on our behalf.

Politicians often talk about “taking the temperature of the room” – in which case our room was the embarrassing uncle who gets drunk at Christmas and then very loudly tells the story of how you “accidentally” fingered a dog when you were four.

We were offered this golden opportunity, dare I suggest, a once-in-a-lifetime moment to make an impression, to set ourselves forth as people who grasped the issues that we face and had feelings and insight into how to overcome them, and instead of seizing it and sucking the juice out of the occasion, we kind of stuck our finger up our own collective nose, wandered off into a corner to pee on ourselves and then whined about how everything smelled funny.

Did I mention that this was all being filmed for a documentary? Oh, the horror.

We are better than this, I just wish that we’d behave in a way that let other people know from time to time.

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Balls.

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The passing of a great restaurant, or even one that one was just mediocre, but had a couple of good things on the menu, is honestly like a death to me.

This is of course because my best friend is a biscuit, and so ‘places that feed me’ is just about all I’ve got to cling to these days.

From a food perspective there are few worse sensations than pitching up at your favourite place, expecting to be tucking into that thing that you order every time with the usual greedy, piggy-face, to not only find that the restaurant isn’t there any more, but that now it’s a shop that sells toilets.

It feels like getting mugged, and then having the mugger kick you in the shins because they’re also communists and you confess to not having read Das Kapital – and I’d know. I’ve been mugged a lot. And even though I claim I’ve read Das Kapital, I haven’t really.

My very, very first experience of this kind of thing was with a place in Grahamstown, which is where I grew up, that my mom used to take me to called Davenports. In reality it was probably a stuffy old-school type tea-room filled exclusively with old ladies who thought that putting a flower arrangement on their head constituted ‘being a progressive about hats’, but in my mind it was The Best Restaurant In The World (aged 4) because it was the first time I was allowed to have an Appletiser. Which was a big deal in those days.

It promptly closed down and became a Spur, which is still there. The ladies who wear hats are not.

Also in Grahamstown was a Bavarian grill-house which was called Tiny’s, because no doubt it was run by a jolly and usually quite sweaty, fat man called George Gruber (which is totally the best fat man’s name ever) and back in the 80s, no one had yet gotten tired of that joke of naming something its opposite. Of course, you can’t be called George Gruber and not be a jolly, big guy who runs a steak-house with his dumpy wife – it goes against nature.
Gruber’s favourite thing in the world was to flambé a steak at your table as an excuse to hold forth on the wonders of Austria for as long as it took to burn your face off with flaming Kirsch, but it was a proper ‘grown-up place’ and the rare occasion when my parents decided on a night out at Tiny’s, it was always a ridiculous highlight to go there. It was also the first time I was introduced to the idea of monkeygland sauce, which let me tell you, provided an endless source of debate for an 8 year-old and his dumb mates; mostly revolving around exactly how many monkey-glands went into making enough sauce for a burger, and did Vervet monkey-gland taste different from, say Baboon or Bonobo?

Sadly Gruber died and the restaurant closed, and for years no-one could make anything else work in the space. At one point someone tried a rip-off KFC-style chicken joint called Southern Fried Chicken, which closed almost immediately after the first person actually tried something off the menu. Today however it’s the legendary and institutional Rat and Parrot, which is the pub equivalent of getting kicked in the face by a pack of talking dingoes in party dresses. Again, I would know.

I’ve long suspected that the Burger Quality Debate Index is the primary indicator of a high standard of living. This must be the case, because apparently it’s the only thing anyone in Cape Town, that dear fishing village by the sea, has any time for – since they’re always super-quick to laconically declare how awesome both they, and their standard of living, are. It seems that the energy of every single person in that city is bent towards a permanent, in-depth, absurdly passionate debate about Who Makes The Best Burger, where if you dare to suggest it’s Royale (as opposed to Hudsons or Clarkes) then you clearly have the taste of a dust mote or a goat-rapist, or you’re from Johannesburg, in which case they pat your head you’re a retarded child who, shame, can’t be expected to know any better.
The reason they’re all wrong, and are about to be robbed of seemingly the only point to their lives, is that the best burger in the world used to be made a lanky vulture-like woman who was the owner/proprietor of a ridiculously-named fast-food joint called Bambi’s. And yes, there was totally a giant picture of Bambi painted in the window – which if you think about it, raises some very odd thoughts about exactly what was in those burgers. Years after she’d retired from fast-food, I actually went and tracked her down at her house, determined to get her to fix me up one last burger, which – incredibly, she did. Because it was that good. Enormous and dinner plate-like in its roundness, the Bambi Burger was a secret-sauced, pickled-up burgerous marvel in a soft white bun – and to this day I’ve never had one to match it.

This ‘passing of a favourite’ thing also happened more poignantly with the first restaurant I ever developed a meaningful relationship with after moving to Johannesburg. It was an Italian place called Lucci’s in Westdene – owned and run by, of course, old Mr Lucci (no such naming cleverness for the Italians – a spade is a spade, and a restaurant run by a Mr Lucci, is called Lucci’s).

Lucci was a clever fucker, because he knew a good thing when he saw it, and he saw quite a lot of his own fine Italian daughters (not in that way fuckos). And as a result, most of the time you were waited on by one or several of those fine and exotic women. That meant that as a teenager I spent a lot of time trying to hide unfortunate boners with a napkin while trying to eat mushroom Risotto.
It was one of those places where you instantly knew that it was run by a real Italian, because instead of stupid faux-Tuscan brickwork and stock art of grinning fat men holding loaves of bread, the walls were covered with the only things truly close to an Italian’s heart – pictures of Ducatis and Ferraris. Of which Lucci had many. There was also a picture of him posing with Pavarotti, and if a guy has fed Big Luciano, then it’s totally okay for him to feed me. It was the first time I’d encountered pesto made properly, and a man who point-blank refused to serve decaffeinated anything in his restaurant and who also probably felt more distraught about Saltimbocca being poorly-made than he did about baby seals being clubbed to death by Japanese people.

It’s an estate-agency now.

The thing about this dirge-like list of places that I used to eat at which don’t exist any more, is that it happened again recently. It’s funny – I’ve written about Lapa Fo on this blog before, and paradoxically enough, it was to complain about their rather cynical pricing of a particular bottle of wine. But it was like one of those relationships where although someone did something shitty to you, you can’t stop seeing them because the sex is just too good to ever sanely give up, and so you just keep on going back and back. Which was the case here, and oddly enough it wasn’t even for the thing they were famous for; because for a place whose speciality was (incredible) pizza, my favourite thing on their menu was the meatballs.

I know right? Fucking meatballs?

Well, I loved the shit out of them, and it was rare that I’d ever go there and order anything but. Well, now it’s gone and I’ll never have those balls in my face again. And so, in an attempt to not let this piece of warmth and nostalgia die completely, I went home the other night and tried to recapture the essence of my favourite thing of theirs. And so, here is my commemorative Lapa Fo meatball recipe, in a sad and probably meaningless tribute to a thing I liked.

There is a greater point to all of this – and that is (duh), don’t take these places for granted. Because one day they won’t be there, and you’ll never have that particular thing, in that particular way, ever again (Yes, it’s a metaphor for life. Get over it). There’s something magical about the alchemy that goes into the creation of a signature menu at a favourite restaurant – and that special combination of ingredients, suppliers, techniques, chefs and kitchen atmosphere will never come together again. Don’t just assume that it’ll be there forever – because it won’t, and then you’ll be one of those people that starts conversations with “Remember that whatever that so-and-so used to do at blah blah blah, back in the day? I wish I could have it one last time, we never went there enough.” And then you’ll get sad, and then maybe go home and be cruel to your children and/or plants. And that’s how M Night Shyamalan movies happen.

My Meatballs

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Ingredients

A generous glug of olive oil
2 tins of whole, peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 tsp brown sugar
1 splash of sherry vinegar

For the meatballs

500g of minced beef
40g of breadcrumbs, some extra for dusting
A goodly handful of grated Parmesan
175 ml milk
2 teaspoons of minced garlic
A handful of finely-chopped parsley
1 tsp dried organum
1 tsp of coriander seeds, crushed into a fine powder
2 large eggs
A generous pinch of Chilli flakes

What to do

Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, and gently mix them all together until loosely combined. Season well with salt and pepper, then coat your hands with olive oil and gently pack into smallish balls, not pressing them together too tightly. Dust each one with some breadcrumbs.

Rub a roasting tray with olive oil, and get the oven grill onto about 200 degrees Celsius. Pack the meatballs onto the tray, giving each one a bit of breathing space, and brown them on both sides in the oven – it should take about 20 minutes or so.

Then get either a casserole or a cast-iron pot and add the olive oil, tinned tomatoes, bay leaves, sugar and vinegar, then season generously with salt and pepper. Gently break up the tomatoes a bit with a wooden spoon. Toss in the meatballs, pop on the lid and put it back in the oven for another half an hour.

Serve with pasta or as part of a meal with salad and crusty bread.

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Cheers Lapa Fo, you will be missed.

Roamin’ in the gloamin’

Travel is a funny thing. People either use it to confirm the fact that they love the place they come from more than anything else the rest of world has to offer, or it serves to make one restless and dissatisfied with the place you’ve chosen to call home.

I’ve recently had to do a bit of wrestling with those feelings as a result of spending some time in a couple of places on literally the other side of the planet. Rather uncharacteristically – I don’t have a singular vegetable patch of writing to encompass everything, but rather some bitty and scattered thoughts which I wanted to park here, mostly because that’s really what this little corner if the internet is for anyway.

Beer as bond.

There is no single human being more aware of what it means to be an inhabitant of The Global Village than the barman in an international airport.

Sitting with a drink in a proper international hub, somewhere like Dubai, Singapore, New York or Hong Kong, the kind of place that pretty much just exists for people to hang around in for a bit before they go somewhere else, is probably one of the true great pleasures of life. That knowledge that you’ve got a finite and very specific amount of time to spend at a weird airport drinking-hole ordering a pint of something that’s probably not your first choice and eating a plate of crappy nachos paying for it in a currency that you don’t reeally understand, is made magical by the people you stumble across while doing it.

Being able to have a properly meaningful discussion about the IPL with an Aussie and a Texan, bound for Hyderabad and Chennai respectively while watching a Yankees game on the TV, is a lovely illustration of chaos-theory made tangible.

Seriously Australia?

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Australia is a tough place for a South African to be in. Firstly it’s expensive. Like, moere fokken expensive. A pint of beer that you’d normally pay maybe R25 for, will cost you about R80 in Melbourne, slightly less in Brisbane, and don’t even think about in Sydney.

But that’s not the real reason it’s tough. The real reason is a deep cultural one, one of sociology, background, expectation and of life itself.

South Africans expect things to be hard. They expect life to be difficult, for the obstacles between what one hopes will happen, and what will most likely happen to be very high indeed. Nothing is a straight line in our dear, beloved country – and that is what sometimes makes our journeys that much more unexpected and exciting, but it also means that our default setting is to be disappointed, to be thwarted, to just not have things be … easy.

But that’s okay, because you go to other countries, places like, London or Paris or New York, and you see efficient, bustling cities, full of things that just work, but it’s easy to dismiss them, because they’re so different from ‘back home’. The weather is shit, or the buildings are poky, the people are rude or the food is funny. It makes it more comfortable to accept the difficulties that come ready-baked into our country. Our safe-word is, “yes, but we have…” and then we proceed to fill in one of the following: weather, beer, beaches, bush, food, space, people…etc. It’s our safety-blanket – and we’re very loathe to let it go.

Then Australia comes along. Fucking Australia. Because it looks just like us. It sounds like us. The weather is like us. The people are like us. They drink like us. They drive on the same side of the road like us. They like sport like us. Cook like us. Laugh like us. Value the same things as us. But, and here’s the kicker, everything…just…works. It more than just works. It’s brilliant. Proper fucking brilliant. And it truly and utterly messes with your head and your heart. Because suddenly you become acutely and painfully aware of the half-life that you’ve been living. The shadow-version of an existence that you thought was full and vibrant and had meaning, but was actually a shabby, badly-made thing. And it makes you angry. Firstly for the time you’ve spent being a half-person. And then that a place exists with the audacity to be everything you wished your own country could be, but knew in your heart of hearts would never. Which sounds either harsh or pragmatic – depending on how you choose to take it.

Because its not normal to see a thriving city that almost could be Capetown, but with trams and busses and subways and trains, and get angry about it. Angry because it’s so unexpected to see those things in a place that otherwise looks and feels just like home.

This is not to say that I’ve resolved to pack my bags and say cheers – my weird and crooked little path is too tied up in my homeland – but it’s quite a thing to be made aware of.

Melbourne in particular has a food-culture, quirk and a brand of ‘interesting shit’ coming out the wazoo like it has an endless supply and they don’t really get what rationing means. The suburb defined by the rod-straight 2 km stretch of Brunswick street is home to more creative, gastronomic and drinking delights in one little patch than I’ve ever seen before, and it’s almost overwhelming, and that’s not even getting into enclaves like St Kilda or the city center.

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Then, take a deep breath dear possums (see what I did there?) because – having been to food markets in France, Italy, England and of course at home – the Queen Victoria market in Melbourne is probably one of the best I’ve ever been to. No wonder this city is fast (and justifiably) getting a massive reputation as becoming one of the food capitals of the world.

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I didn’t nearly have enough time to look at it all properly, but at least I know that I can go back.

All of this has an uncomfortable sense of rant about it, so I’m going to stop – and just say that Australia is really not what you think, which – funnily enough – is exactly what we like to say about South Africa.