Monday 4 May 2009

SA Food Fundis II: Michael and Michele Karamanof

Say I had a choice: indulge in an exquisite meal at the finest restaurant in the city, or enjoy a home-cooked Sunday lunch, under a whispering tree, at the home of Parkview couple Mike and Michele Karamanof. No contest: I would head over to my friends' house with a bottle of wine and no regrets.

Maybe I'm getting old and crabby, but I'm fed up with restaurant food in Johannesburg. I can't afford to eat out often, and when I do, I almost always end up feeling ripped off. I do enjoy a slap-up meal at a good family steakhouse or pizza joint, if it's good value for money, but I really resent forking out R800 to R1000 - which is about what it costs to take five people to dinner at an upmarket restaurant these days, excluding wine - for a meal with absurdly stingy portions, pretentious stacked towers of food, dabs of this, drizzles of that, and shriekingly disgusting 'foamed' sauces that look and taste like spit.

All I want is a full plate - or several plates, for that matter - of honest, gutsy, delicious home-cooked food. I want it hot, I want it fresh, and I want it made in a home kitchen by a friend.

Chemical engineer Mike Karamanof and his wife Michele Botha (a graphic designer) have, for many years, and in their spare time, run a small home industry supplying several Johannesburg restaurants with top-quality home-made products, notably superior home-made pesto and tiramisu.

The Karamanofs are small fish in the Johannesburg-Foodie nibbling order: they're not caterers, chefs, restaurateurs or food professionals, but they are still among the best cooks I know. They have an instinctive love of food, they care about fine ingredients, and they understand simple combinations of brilliant flavours.

Welcome to the second of my new series about local South African food fundis!

Michael Karamanof is an ebullient, warm-hearted Greek with a passion for food that borders on obsession. His knowledge of food and ingredients is encyclopaedic: there are few butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and wine merchants in Johannesburg with whom he isn't on first-name terms. He loves food, he adores wine, and Michael's idea of heaven is whipping on his apron and spending countless deliriously happy hours cooking for friends and family.

Actually, Mike is a complete know-it-all about food, and the only reason he gets away with this insufferable attitude is because he does actually know an enormous amount about food, and especially Mediterranean food. Mike speaks fluent English, Greek, German and French, and can hold a conversation in Italian and several other languages.

Michele Botha, the thoughtful, organisational, highly creative wing of this partnership, and a talented cook herself, is frequently maddened by Mike (the Karamanofs cannot prepare a meal for friends without having a good argument before everyone arrives).

But, back to the food: although they can cook anything, it's simple Greek food that Mike and Michele really adore. And this passion has accelerated since they bought, a year or two ago, a beautiful, tumbledown old house on the Greek island Kythera. The Karamanofs and their son, Leo, try to get back to the old house twice a year. Most of their time there appears to be spent arguing with builders and architects and each other, while they figure out how to to renovate the place, but they also do manage to spend a lot of time finding, eating, and thinking about food. One of the gorgeous desserts featured here - thickened yoghurt with sweet stewed grapes - is a speciality of Kythera.

For weeks, I've plagued M&M, as they are known among friends, for recipes for my SA Food Fundis section of this blog, and as they haven't produced the goods, on the grounds that they 'don't really have proper recipes' (and they genuinely don't, preferring to cook from their hearts) I'm giving you what they made me for lunch a Sunday ago. This represents a tiny portion of the wonderful food I've eaten at their home over the years.

Our meal started off with beetroot greens - the top leafy portion of beetroots, with their crimson stalks - simply cooked and dressed with olive oil, vinegar and salt, and a loaf of yeasty home-baked bread. Thin-crusted, crispy pizzas, freckled underneath with the black spots you get only from a proper wood-fired pizza outdoor oven (manned by Michael in his apron) and topped with gorgeous mozzarella, anchovy, tomatoes, herbs, mushrooms and the best salami, came next. Then, when we thought it was all over, two earthenware dishes of youvetsi - a dish consisting of rice-shaped pasta (orzo) combined with the tender rippings of lamb cooked for many hours with tomato, and topped with feta. And then, to crown it all, the yoghurt and stewed grapes.

All this around a wooden table, under a tree, in glowing autumn sunshine, and the scent of lemons drifting from a nearby tree in Michele's organic vegetable patch.

Does food get any better than this?

Want to go for dinner at Chez Auberge de La Mon Repose in Poshville, Sandton, for a Tower of Scottish Salmon with Rooibos Jus and Biltong Spit?

I thought not.

Here are the recipes:

- Stewed Sweet Grapes with Thick Yoghurt and Mascarpone, Kythera-style
- Beetroot Greens with Olive Oil
- Mike's Youvetsi

This post is the second in my series about South African Food Fundis. To see the first post, about Gilly Walters of Wedgewood Nougat, click here.
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settledowndude said...

Great to hear its not just me! Why is it that there isnt a decent restuarant in JHB, I get sooo mad when I have to waste hours of digestion time on a crap meal, that I could have made better by myself with one hand tied. (they know who they are, the franchise slobs and the foam producers, the old slightly off minced pork belly and the bitter as gall Jus makers, the fake asian menu items.) BAh
Eating out in JHB is hard work, and unrewarding at that.

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