The organisers of the Spier Secret Festival invited me and a variety of local cooks, caterers and food personalities each to host a dinner party at an undisclosed venue, for unidentified guests. We were provided with a budget of R100 per head, in the form of Woolworths vouchers, and no restrictions were placed on our choices of menu.
|Preparing my starter of Gin-Cured Gravadlax, to be |
served tartare-style with capers, dill and chives.
I always plan my menus with the following criteria in mind: the food must delight the guests, it must tickle their tastebuds and it must leave them feeling satisfied and comforted. But how on earth do you select appropriate dishes if you don't know who's going to be eating them? One thing I did appreciate was that anyone who had forked out for a ticket to the festival would expect something more sophisticated than the food I'd normally serve at a feast for family and friends.
|Lovely little rainbow carrots|
I think it's best to draw a veil across the state in which I found the venue, suffice to say that due to organisational misunderstandings, I was not expected there, and it took a full ninety minutes of persuasive talk for me to gain access to the building, figure out how to work the kitchen equipment and find an appropriate table to lay. Once all these ducks had been placed in a haphazard row, with the help of the festival's organisers and my heroic kitchen elf Tania Roux (see end of this blog post), it was time to cook.
But before I tell you about the food, let me describe the venue, because it was peculiar. I found myself in labyrinthine boarding house (or perhaps an old school, circa 1925, judging from the leaded windows and soaring ceilings). The entrance hall was welcoming, clean and cheerful, with its wooden floors and community notice boards, and behind it were three cavernous kitchens well equipped with gas ranges, fearsome industrial ovens and pots the size of swimming pools. But leading off this entrance hall was a long, murky, somewhat mildewy passage, opening on to fifteen or so locked bedrooms, and numerous other rooms and bathrooms and warrens that were so deeply shadowed that I felt a genuine frisson when I scurried down the corridor to have a wee. I could almost hear the distant laughter of children, and I've never pulled up my knickers in such a hurry.
|Where we dined, as viewed from|
a spooky corridor.
They were very gracious, my guests, climbing obligingly into the wines provided by Spier, ignoring the cacophony coming from the kitchens (chiefly, my howling as I burned a hole in my thumb, and the timers on the monster ovens shrieking every ten minutes). If they were astonished and creeped-out by this spectacle, these well-mannered people did their best to hide it, and within half an hour the conversation was a-sparkle and any house ghosts had given up their lurking and sloped sullenly to the far corners of the boarding house.
The dinner was a thundering success in the end, and my guests greeted the food with great appreciation and warmth (click here to read a guest's account of the food and party, by the charming Pat Elk of Yumsy). We finished up with a fizzle and crack as dessert was served and small fireworks were lit, and there was merriment for many hours.
I didn't take a camera, so relied on my cellphone for these snaps of some of the starters.
|Judy's Toffee Tomatoes with Basil|
|'Lollipops' of Springbok Carpaccio filled with horseradish- and |
white-pepper-flavoured cream cheese,with Verlaque pomegranate syrup
|My Nasturtium & Macadamia Pesto on toast.|
|Passion Fruit, Crème Fraîche and White Chocolate Cream Tart (an old photograph, from this recipe post)|
www.manythingsiam.org. I have followed Tania for several years on Twitter (and met her briefly at a book event a month or two back) but we don't know one another.
Imagine my astonishment when Tania tweeted me, out of the blue, on the Saturday of my secret dinner, offering to drive all the way to Stellenbosch to help me. I'd sent out a wailing tweet earlier that morning when I discovered that other secret dinner hosts had roped in helpers (including some professional chefs, which rather defeats the purpose, in my view). I didn't expect anyone to have any sympathy, because it was unrealistic to think I could manage this alone, but Tania rose most elfishly to the occasion. Given the delays and the odd choice of venue, I am so grateful that she volunteered to help, because I couldn't possibly have dressed the table so simply and stylishly, and put food on it, in so short a time. Tania toiled cheerfully for hours, without my once having to slap her around her pointy ears or lock her in the onion drawer, as one must do with troublesome kitchen elves. Thank you so much, Tania - your generosity is heartwarming. Here's her short account of the evening. Print Friendly