Friday 6 March 2009

SA Food Fundis: Gilly Walters of Wedgewood Nougat

I've never forgotten a single heavenly dish cooked by Gilly Walters, cook, caterer, innovator and the creative brain behind Wedgewood Home Confectionary, a thriving family business based in the Natal Midlands, and now branching out in the UK and elsewhere.

I've been in raptures about Gilly's wonderful home cooking since I was four years old. And although she has long forgotten making those dishes, I certainly have not, and the memory of every slice of home-made, wild-yeast bread, every tender flake of roast chicken, every feather-light piece of cake, is indelibly imprinted on my tastebuds.

Welcome to the first of my new series about local South African food heroes!

I'm kicking off this series with Gilly Walters (my aunt) because she is quite simply the best home cook I know. Her instinctive flair in the kitchen, her fine palate, and her love of fresh, seasonal, locally produced ingredients are all vital ingredients in the magic Gilly-Walters formula. Even more important is that Gilly understands that food is there to feed not only your body, but your soul too.

Her food is simple, honest, fresh and heart-warming. And did I mention damn delicious? Whenever I, and my family, stop over at Gilly's house, en route to the Kwa-Zulu-Natal coast, we take along cricket bats and stun-grenades so we can beat off all the other people stampeding to her table. There's always a crowd gathered in Gilly's kitchen at meal times - her sons, her daughters-in-law, five million grandchildren, and assorted nogschleppers* - and it's a very happy bunfight.

Wedgewood Nougat

Gilly is very well known in the Natal Midlands, where she's spent many years cooking, catering and teaching. Her herb and veggie garden - which would make Martha Stewart weep with envy - is a green fountain. Her artisan-bread-making classes are legendary, as are the meals she's served up at classical music concerts hosted by her and her husband, my uncle Taffy Walters, at their home in Hilton, Natal.

It was at one of these concerts that Gilly served her first batch of home-made honey nougat, to the delight of her guests: a light-textured, not-too-sweet prototype that eventually became the popular brand Wedgewood Nougat. The range has since expanded to include a variety of nougat products containing macadamias, almonds, pecan nuts, black cherries and cranberries. Gilly's 'Angel Biscuits' - thistledown shortbread containing nougat chippings - have also proved to be big sellers.

Thanks to the energy and flair of Taffy Walters and the Walters brothers - my cousins Jon, Steve and Paul - Wedgewood confectionary is now sold all over South Africa, and overseas (under the brand name Walters Handmade Honey Nougat)

The famous Angel biscuits!
Their new factory in the Natal Midlands is a model for small family businesses: sustainable, socially responsible, and friendly to the environment. My cousins have developed their own Bio-Fuel plant that converts used fast-food oil into a high quality diesel; Wedgewood's vehicles, biscuit oven and forklift truck are all run on old chip-fryer oil.

Gilly has shared three of her recipes with me (I begged her to give me these particular recipes, which sent me into a faint when I tasted them).

Note: I've added these recipes to the blog in individual posts: click on the links to see them.

- Citrus Poppy-Seed Cake
- Easy Nougat Ice Cream
- Egg 'Bavarois'

And here are two of her secret flavour strategies:

Gilly's Gorgeous All-Purpose Pepper Sauce

'I picked up this tip from a cook who had trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland,' says Gilly. 'It's just delicious with fish and chicken.'

'You can also use it to make a fabulous salsa - finely chop the peppers, instead of puréeing them.'

4 ripe red peppers (capsicums)
a little olive oil
a little mild roasted garlic paste (see recipe below)
sweet chilli jam
salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Remove the stalks from the peppers, cut them in half, and strip out any white pith and seeds (or leave them whole).

Put the peppers in the oven, directly on the oven racks, and bake for 35 minutes or so, or until they are soft and the skin is lightly blistered, but not charred.

Remove from the oven, cover with cling film and set aside to cool for 30 minutes. Peel off the skin, dice, and place in a blender with a a little olive oil, a few teaspoons of garlic paste [see below] and a few teaspoons of sweet chilli jam or sauce. Season with salt and pepper, and blitz to a paste. Store in the fridge.

Gilly's Mild Roasted Pepper Sauce

'I always keep a jar of this delicious mild garlic mixture in my fridge,' says Gilly. 'I make a new batch about once a week. This paste should be added, in small quantities - just a teaspoonful at a time - to stews, soups, and so on, just before they are served.'

'Save energy by putting the garlic into the oven at the same time as you're cooking or baking a roast or cake.'

Do use fresh, snappy, plump white garlic for this recipe, not old, withered, yellow or sprouting cloves, which will taste stale and oxidised when cooked.

4 whole heads of fresh garlic
olive oil

Remove the papery outer skin of the garlic bulbs and break apart into cloves. Put the cloves onto a large piece of tin foil, shiny side in, and wrap into a parcel. Bake at 180° C for 30 - 40 minutes, or until the garlic cloves are soft. Remove the parcel from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Using a pair of sharp scissors, snip the pointy end off each clove and squeeze the softened clove into a bowl - they should pop out easily.

Add a generous glug of olive oil and some salt, and whizz to a fine paste using a stick blender, or the small grinder on a food processor. Tip the paste into a lidded jar, or a small plastic container with a lid, and pour a film of olive oil over the top to prevent the paste from coming into contact with air and oxidising.

Store in the fridge.


* Nogschlepper: it's difficult to define this piece of hybrid South African slang. It sort of means, a hanger-on, or someone who tails behind. It's a very nuanced word. 'Nog' means 'also' in Afrikaans, while 'schlep' is a Yiddish word meaning to move laboriously or slowly. In a South African context, 'schlep' means having to drag yourself off somewhere, largely against your will: 'It was such a schlep to go to to the supermarket'.

So, put together, the two words signify a person who drags themselves along too. Or 'with', as South Africans say.
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