28 September, 2009

Equinox come and gone.

While afternoon temperatures still hover around 30 degrees Celcius, a shift has occurred, for which I am just not ready: the autumn equinox, when there is exactly as much day as there is night, was last Tuesday. The leaves are beginning to turn, and children wear sweaters in the early morning chill.

The outdoor markets remain stocked with the last of the summer harvest, but the annual fall visits of friends and family have begun, and so have my marinades. Of these, my garlic and rosemary is one of my all-time favorites. I adapted the recipe from one found ages ago in the pages of Bon Appetit.

As always, don't skimp on the quality of ingredients if at all possible.

For instance, a high-grade (read: more expensive), moderately aged (about 6 to 12 years old) balsamic vinegar will never be wasted, and is truly an integral part of my kitchen. I usually have two bottles open, one that is a bit more acidic for salads and vegetables, and an older one for marinades and finishing sauces. Funnily enough, although Italy is just over the border, decent and authentic balsamic vinegar is not something you run across in a well-stocked supermarket--not even in Paris or Lyon. The hunting for this nectar of Modena (do make sure it says Aceto Balsamico di Modena!) is worth it, however. Tip the bottle, looking for vinegar that is thick enough to leave a trace on the glass. Check the ingredient list, it should have no added color or flavor enhancers, like caramel, but needs to contain grape "must" and an indication of age. If you can taste the vinegar before purchasing, look for a smooth, rich flavor--nothing harsh or excessively vinegary. You should be able to enjoy it from a spoon...For a more in-depth article on this fabulous condiment, The Nibble, an online magazine, has a comprehensive history and detailed breakdown of the types of balsamic vinegar.

The most syrupy vinegars, aged 20 years or more, are prohibitively expensive (for me, anyway) and best used undiluted and drizzled very sparingly over fresh, organic strawberries, in season, or a crumbled piece of high-quality (not overly dry) Parmeggiano Reggiano, for example.

Cultural differences do still exist in today's Europe: I didn't have this degree of trouble in locating decent balsamic vinegar in Amsterdam, even though the distance from northern Italy is far greater. But back to the recipe at hand.

You can keep this marinade for a month, as long as it is refrigerated. It has a distinctive taste, as you might imagine from browsing the ingredient list, and does a good job of tenderizing, enhancing to no end lamb, turkey, and chicken. I have never tried it with beef, but then I don't often prepare beef--what do you think? I like it best with pork loin. You can try it with two different kinds of meats, as there will be enough marinade left over for a separate meal. The food processor makes this a moment's labor.

Marinade au rosemarin et l'ail (Rosemary and Garlic Marinade)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons honey, the darker and more robust in flavor the better
3 large cloves garlic, or half a head of slow-roasted garlic
1 tablespoon rosemary (half as much if using dried)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Blend all ingredients in a food processor until you have a thick, fairly homogenous, dark beige sauce. Place the meat you've chosen in a heavy plastic bag, and pour half or less of the marinade over the meat. Close bag, distribute the marinade evenly and refrigerate overnight. Refrigerate the extra marinade for another time.

If you choose pork loin, a half kilo should serve four nicely. Preheat oven 190 C. Discard the marinade and place the loin in a roasting pan. Roast the loin for about 25 minutes, and enjoy the dish while hot. Preferably someplace pleasantly sunny.

24 September, 2009

Just under the skin.

Stopping to mail postcards in Springbok, I could hear singing and drumming in the distance. The queue was short at the post office, and I walked out quickly to find where the music was coming from. Children and their teachers were playing drums and singing in the yard of a nearby elementary school. There was ululating, call and response, and layered thumps upon the taut skins of the drums. I ran up as close as I dared. This was not a public performance, so I didn't pull my camera from its place in my knapsack. The sounds elated and reminded me of sitting in drum class in Kinshasa. Of how to drop the hand for the affirming full sound, how to lean in on your other elbow to shift the voice of the drum. Done the right way, the hand doesn't hurt.

Done the right way, the music takes you to the forgotten places.

Near Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.

Thank you to Jan van der Meer for making this video of the Khula Happy Zulu Singers. (For the best results, click on play, then click again to pause the video so that it can fully load. Give it a few minutes; watch the gray indicator's progress. This will allow for a smooth playback.)

21 September, 2009

Of rooibos, french goats and other things.

hir·cine (hʉr′sīn′, -sin)
of or like a goat; esp., smelling like a goat

So I am trying to think back to the recent alternate reality that was my trip to South Africa. But it is not so easy to be in two places at once. Perhaps it is a lack of imagination that allows a lamb stew made with water flowers (waterblommetjie bredie) or rooibos-scented desserts, to ever be overtaken; whatever the cause, I find my present imposing itself.

Could it be because my present smells so hircine? I would normally now insert a charming photo of the new Rove goat, but the last I saw of him was the flash of his hindquarters, as he nimbly jumped a stone wall--at the one spot in the entire pasture where there was no electric fencing. He is now back at his original home (luckily more or less next door) while I have been scurrying around, wringing my hands (a bit), and goat-proofing (just a bit more).

Ehm, where was I at in South Africa?

While many indeed sing the praises of the wines of the Cape, significantly fewer are familiar with rooibos, or redbush tea. This tea is made from a plant found only in the Cederberg mountains of South Africa. Originally, the indigenous people gathered the wild plants' leaves and dried them in the sun. The plant caught the eye of not only various traveling botanists but also the Dutch colonials, who were pleased to find a local alternative to their prohibitively expensive imported tea. Someone finally worked out of way to cultivate it in the town of Clanwilliam. The photo below, taken from a bit of a distance, is of a vast amount of cut Clanwilliam rooibos sun-drying in the foreground.
The plant is indeed challenging to propagate, but once that bit's done, it is nearly maintenance-free. No heavy pesticide use, no irrigation, no macro-fields--and thus no impressive photo. A field of rooibos looks like not much more than a parched field overridden by splotches of uninspiring weeds.

But what fine flavor comes from these lowly-seeming plants! The tea is sometimes called red tea, for its deep, reddish brown tint when brewed. It is naturally slightly sweet, but contains no caffeine and is quite low in tannin. It does, however, contain high levels of antioxidants (such as aspalathin and nothofagin, to be specific). Rooibos additionally contains flavanols, flavones,
flavanones, flavonols, and dihydrochalcones, it would seem. Having these positive attributes necessarily results in a string of healthful accolades. It has been used for infantile colic, allergies, asthma and dermatological problems. You can now find rooibos in skin and hair preparations. It is one of the few things out there that has so far been found to have absolutely no adverse effects.

As childhood memories can cast the longest shadows, I still prefer it best the old South African way, made with milk and sugar. While I never stumbled across a definitive explanation of the rooibos grading system (something, in part, about leaf to stem ratio) it does exist, and the higher grade teas taste indeed more refined. If you were here, I wouldn't hesitate to offer you a cup of the Khoisan organic brand I brought back with me, with a dollop of condensed milk (yes, really!) as I do for children and others in need of comforting.

Another drink I like trying as I go different places, especially places that have had contact in one way or another with England, is ginger beer. This is quite easy to find in South Africa, which is unsurprising, but the range of ginger beer available is interesting. They run the gamut from an industrial kicky ginger ale, to fermented versions, which use simple live cultures, like baker's yeast, kefir or lactic acid bacteria. My at-home version just involves water, fresh lemon or lime juice, lots of ginger and lots of sugar--so lots of peppery kick but no fermenting involved. Great on a hot day. Homemade versions are often more particular in taste in effect. Since most (though not all) ginger beers are non-alcoholic, the one I had on the road in the Western Cape was also presumably alcohol-free. But something made me flush-faced and verbose, and it certainly tasted a tad different. Apparently I was too flushed to remember to ask. But this was their rest-room sign, which seemed absurdly funny at the time.
Another funny pair of signs were the giant highway ones bordering a farm that declared in bold-face "Ostriches Getting Laid" and "No Hooting Please". Maybe you had to be there.

Far, far from the dry, open highway and its attendant little follies, and a universe from up-to-the-minute Capetown and the rough reality of its satellite townships and "informal settlements" (a.k.a. "shacklands"), is La Petite Ferme. I had the good fortune to lunch at the serene restaurant and winery, tucked in a pristine white building just outside of the French Huguenot-influenced village of Franschhoek. Above all, the valley view predominates. Until the food arrives. My starter was a bobotie made of springbok. Granted, this was an exalted version of bobotie, accompanied by gorgeous fruit chutneys and sambals (and some pappadums to mix it up a bit). Tucked under that omelet top layer in the largest bowl is divinely spiced minced (farmed) springbok antelope. Eating this Cape Malay classic a bit more downmarket would involve egg custard and minced beef over rice, and be more deeply redolent of the Spice Islands, as the Malay influence stems from slaves and prisoners who were brought over in the late 1600s.

The bobotie was followed by a true conversation-stopper. Which is saying something, with me. I had an extraordinary seared Kudu venison, thinly sliced over a bed of vegetable crumble, with a deeply spiced, distinctly sweet sauce. The meat melted away in my mouth, reminding me of the texture of the finest toro tuna, from back when I still ate sushi (before my daughter heightened my awareness and attendant feelings of guilt).And yes, the washroom was a touch more elegant than at the rest stop.

18 September, 2009

Cape interlude.

Parched Cevennes is on the cusp of what promises to be a wet weekend, if the week is anything to go by. My mind is someplace drier and warmer.
I am half in reverie. Care to join me? (Click on the images for better perspective into the dream.)

17 September, 2009

Getting thirsty.

Pin cushion protea tree in bloom. South Africa has 370 different protea species, 120 of which are recognized to be endangered.

Barring limits imposed by religion or allergy, you simply cannot go to South Africa and not drink wine. If it isn't against the law, perhaps it should be. If you do have such a limitation, please bear with us wine drinkers. I promise I am also going to describe some delicious non-alcoholic options in an upcoming post.

Wine has been made in South Africa since the 17th century, far longer than either in Australia or California. While the original Dutch settlers brought French root stock with them, it was the subsequent wave of migrating French Huguenots who brought substantive viticultural skill and experience.
Today a broad swathe of the south-western Cape is South Africa's wine country, and quite spectacularly so. It is said that the world's longest wine route is the Cape's R62, which is peppered with hopelessly charming wine estates, many of which offer excellent, sometimes even world-class, dining and lodging. (I plan to write about my delectable experience at one of them in a separate, strictly food-related posting. My mouth waters at the memory alone.)
The main varietals, or cultivars, as the South Africans say, among the whites are Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (which benefits from having been planted for over a century), Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The white wines have a longer history in the Cape, but red varieties now make up over 40 per cent of the vineyard area destined for wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is now the dominant variety, followed by Shiraz and Merlot. A varietal developed in South Africa is the Pinotage, which was made in the 1920s by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It is a specialty--and the main ingredient in what have become known as ‘Cape blends’. According to Jancis Robinson, "some see it as South Africa's answer to California's Zinfandel and Australia's Shiraz." She goes on to explain that
...the structure of the South African wine business has also changed dramatically in the last 10 years. While the 60 or so co-ops are still important, providing grapes for cheap wines on the domestic market and some of the big export brands, there are now nearly 500 private wineries. It is hard to believe that only recently have individual wine estates been even allowed to buy in grapes, although a separate name must be used for the wine they produce - quite a contrast with most New World wine producing countries! South Africa is firmly hanging its hat on a programme encouraging wine farmers to adopt sustainable farming techniques and to retain the country’s exceptional biodiversity.
As with any travel, there was the inevitable constraint of time, and I don't feel that I came away with anything approaching a comprehensive viticultural understanding of the Cape. That being said, I did have the chance to taste some fine representative wines from the main regions.

Constantia, just outside of Cape Town, takes the honors as the Cape's oldest wine region. I enjoyed a dessert Vin de Constance Muscat de Frontignan 2004 from the Klein Constantia winery, although I was slightly deflated by its lack of a sustained finish.

Another prime area centers around the Afrikaans-dominated university town of Stellenbosch. I was advised to visit the beautifully restored town while class is in session, or else it seems rather barren. I can see where this might be true. I can also see happily spending a full day or two here, admiring the gabled and thatched-roof Cape Dutch buildings, browsing in the design shops and lingering over a local wine or two at one of the chic terraces. You may recall I recently got to take part in a viognier harvest here in the Cevennes. Terroir makes a huge difference, whether it is in the Cevennes, the Bouche du Rhone, or Stellenbosch. After getting over its startling difference to French viognier, I loved the very full tasting, slightly peachy organic 2008 Viognier from small Topaz Estate, one of the so-called boutique, or garagiste, wineries.

The third main area is Paarl, which produces even more wine than Stellenbosch, and is known for its fortified wines. I am afraid I wasn't able to visit. (Next time?) While I am thinking of it, I should note that all the wineries now charge a small tasting fee, which I am not used to. It seems that too many South Africans enjoyed themselves rather mightily...

I did spend some time in Franschhoek, which means 'French corner.' This is French Huguenot central, as one might infer, and a cute little place to boot. I visited the well-respected Boschendal winery, pictured below, where I quite enjoyed the Blanc de Blanc 2008. This predominantly Chardonnay blend was sprightly with a fruitiness that nicely balances its dryness. The winery describes it as having "pineapple and mango aromas."
But please remember, I'm no expert. For more in-depth opinions on all things related to South African wine, you can't beat the comprehensive, succinct and award-winning--yes, there are awards given for wine guides--Platter's. Keep in mind the major wine expo held every september--which I just missed. If you would like to plan a visit, or just dream about one, try Winelands. Happy sipping--and surfing.

15 September, 2009


A body can travel a long way to see flowers. In my case, it involved some 9,000 kilometers. Just in from the western coast of South Africa, below Namibia and well above Cape Town, there is an arid, wide-open landscape (some 450,000 square kilometers worth) that is the ancestral home of the hunter-gatherer San, or Bushmen.

There is art to be found in the vistas there, both man-made, in the form of shamanic San rock paintings, and natural, in the form of the rock itself, the mineral riches it yields, and the plants and trees that grow upon, through and under it.

The flora in South Africa is particularly diverse: botanists divide the world's continents into six plant kingdoms. The Cape floristic (also known as the Cape floral) kingdom is the smallest, but contains by far the highest known concentration of plant species in the world. The region's main vegetation type is fynbos, which are a collection of evergreens, shrubs, and small plants with tough, fine leaves, and reeds. In June 2004, the Cape floristic region was given international recognition as South Africa's sixth UN World Heritage site. More than 9,000 plant species make up the region--6,000 of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

Well-timed, ample rains permitting, the Namaqua expanses are utterly transformed during spring (which corresponds to the Northern Hemisphere's late summer). For a brief, dream-like span of time, the flowers come, in all their evanescent glory and variety.

There is more to a land than its vistas, of course, just as there is more to a meal than the accompanying wine. In the Languedoc, however, I have heard a saying: a meal without wine is like a day without sun. With this post, I begin then, with the 'sun' of the Western Cape. I hope you will enjoy the video--it was the only way I found to adequately give you a sense of the scope of a desert in bloom.

Shawn Colvin is performing "Ricochet in Time."
Tip: Click on the HQ icon for better viewing.

08 September, 2009

When things aren't as might be expected.

I haven't disappeared, but am simply somewhere else, very different indeed. Every now and then, La Vie Cévenole just isn't, well, Cévenole. This is one of those times. For the past week, I have been forging my way through the vast African expanses of the Northern and Western Cape down toward Cape Town. Access to a computer, let alone internet, has been non-existent.

I can't wait to share some of what I've been able to see, but I'll have to. I do promise to share stories and photos just soon as I am home again, in front of my trusty old screen...
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