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.

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