The first time I tasted garlic bread was when I was six or seven, at a birthday party, and I have never forgotten that first heavenly bite. Our friends, the Spences, lived not far from our house, near Swartkop in Muldersdrift, some 30 km north of Johannesburg. Situated close to the famous Sterkfontein Caves and the Cradle of Humankind, Swartkop is a twin-peaked hill that was a distinctive feature in a landscape of rolling golden grassland, or veld. It probably has townhouse developments gnawing at its lower slopes nowadays - I haven't been there for years - but when I was a child, it was the closest thing to a mountain I'd ever seen. In our family, it was always called 'Bosom Mountain'.
Anyway, the Spences lived just under Bosom Mountain, in a big house thatched with shiny grass the colour of a lion's pelt. Malcolm Spence (who died this year, at 73) was an interesting and clever man who - according to his obituary - had the distinction of winning the 400m bronze medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, in what has been billed as 'one of the greatest sprint races of all time'. Malcolm apparently didn't like to talk about his triumph, but on this occasion I remember him showing all the kids a jumpy black-and-white movie of his famous sprint (projected onto a white bedsheet nailed to the wall, which was how we watched movies in those days). After that, we watched an old and terrifying film about a sabre-toothed tiger that lived in a cave. Petrified, I crawled under a blanket and stuck my thumb in my mouth, vowing never to go to a birthday party at the Spences again.
But all was made right when Naomi Spence called us to the table. She'd made three or four loaves of garlic bread, tightly wrapped in foil and packed with garlic, chopped fresh curly parsley and lashings of farm butter. There was a cake too, strewn with little silver balls, and iced Marie biscuits with hundreds-and-thousands, and orange-skin wedges filled with red jelly, but all these delights paled when I tasted the garlic bread. I ate a lot of it, and threw up on the back seat of the car on the way home. This may have been the bumpy farm road, but it was probably the butter.
I can't eat garlic bread without remembering that party, and here's my attempt to recreate a special food memory. I've used a flat-topped, poppyseeded potbrood here, but any big loaf of good, fine-textured white bread will do. Don't worry if stalagmites of bread fall off when you've cut it in a grid pattern: tie everything loosely together with a piece of string or raffia, and remove the string just before you serve the bread.
Double-Craggy Garlic Bread with Herbs, Lemon and Peppered Cream Cheese
a large, circular loaf of bread, a day or two old
1 cup (250 ml/250 g) salted butter
8 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated
the finely grated zest of a lemon
1 cup (250 ml) chopped fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, oregano, rosemary, thyme, or whatever you have to hand)
freshly milled black pepper
125 g pepper-crusted cream cheese or goat's milk cheese
Heat the oven to 190ºC. Place the loaf of bread on a board. Using a very sharp serrated knife, cut the bread, to within a centimetre of its base, into thick (2 cm) slices. Now turn the loaf the other way, and cut across the slices to form a grid. Take your time about this, and use quick, light, sawing motions, pressing the slices you've just cut firmly together.
Melt the butter in a pan set over a medium heat (or in your microwave oven) and stir in the garlic, lemon zest, fresh herbs and pepper.
Squeeze the base of the loaf gently to splay out the 'fingers' of bread and, using a pastry brush or a turkey baster, liberally coat each finger of bread with the flavoured butter.
Brush the top and sides of the bread with more melted butter. Tie a piece of string or a strand of raffia firmly around the loaf. Put the bread on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Cover lightly with a sheet of tin foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for a further 10 minutes, or until it's beginning to crisp and turn golden. Take the loaf out of the oven, and crumble the peppered cream cheese over and around the 'fingers' of bread. Bake for a further five minutes, or until the cheese is hot and just beginning to bubble.
Serves 6-8 as a side dish. Print Friendly