October 31, 2012

Secret Society.

I will admit that sometimes I’m a bit envious of wannabe somewhat famous people/blogger for being invited to events which serve free champagne and macaroons. Usually I’m not. I prefer to buy my own drinks and treats and enjoy the freedom of not having to feign excitement over a not so exciting goodie bag. Or having to write about an evening even when it didn’t surpass a re-run of Friends on the entertainment scale. I realized a while ago that in these cases, working an event with easy access to the bar stock can be way more fun than receiving a personalized invitation which will only soothe my ego.

Last Saturday I wouldn’t have minded being an official guest, but attending in the function of mingler, decorator, baby-sitter, food pre-taster, hug giver, and enthusiastic noise maker while eating the food was much better…
My wonderful, talented cousin Thekla was asked to cook for one of the Spier Secret Festival dinners. Her parents own one of the original houses on Dorp Street in Stellenbosch, which they currently rent to Rheta Erichsen, who was hosting the secret dinner. The house itself is magical. It is full of nooks and crannies filled with memorabilia and stories of generations. The centre has always been the kitchen with various family members and selected friends cooking, tasting, exploring, eating, and sharing. It seemed almost logical that such a house would make the perfect stage for a special secret dinner and that Thekla, daughter of the house, should cook, sharing family traditions and even some secrets from this kitchen.

I had won tickets for the Toffie market so Adam, Thekla’s husband, and I started the day by drinking our way through some barrels of Chenin while chatting to old and new friends. We also stuffed our faces with everything there was from dumplings to Eton Mess and smoked cheese braai broodjies, so it was actually surprising I was still able to eat anything at all in the evening, not to mention the amounts.
In the afternoon we made our way over to the house where we were put to work and art&crafts was mixed with bubbly and posset tasting. From there I went on to baby and cat sitting while decorating the garden. While the house is reminds of the wardrobe of Narnia, the garden is as if Alice in Wonderland has sprung to life and the cat perfects it as it looks like the Cheshire cat sans grin. The property is small, but there are paths and a fountain and a pond, tables in different corners, a swing, and a platform which used to host my aunt’s summer bed, but was now converted to a stage for the musicians. That’s right – we had our own private band! Rheta had already decked the trees with lights and I was allowed to add pincushion proteas to the tables and work on perfecting the welcome cocktail.
That was all well and good and a fun way to spend an afternoon, but now I want to rave about the main part: the food. I learned through various historic novels that back in a day when a noble person was holding a banquette they not only served several courses, but each course consisted of several dishes. That’s how I imagine what it would be like if you were to eat at El Bulli every night and that’s what we got on Saturday, but without any explosions or test tubes. Thekla’s whole approach to food is simple and she cooks with an almost off-handed ease. Her menu was based on local, seasonal ingredients and childhood memories of cooking in her mother’s kitchen.

Summer was in the air with the first mozzies and rugby fans roaring over the walls when guests started to pour in. Each host was allowed to pick the amount of people they could cater for, but somehow Rheta was assigned everybody who was left and so we ended up with an eclectic group of almost 30 people and so everything was served buffet style.
We started with a variety of dips, crudité, and pot baked bread which revived the meaning of ‘breaking bread’ and was a nice touch to add for a group of people who didn’t know each other. If you think I got in by nepotism, you are right; if you think I’m biased, you are probably right too, but still…the dips already won over the toughest food critics amongst the guests and it only got better from there. The main starters were a raw Asian salmon trout salad and a plate of artichokes, which led to lots of laughter when Thekla was explaining how we needed to eat them as it involved lots of sucking and licking. And before you accuse me of a dirty mind and because some guests didn’t understand the subtle difference: you suck the leaves and then you lick your fingers and not the other way around.
For the mains we were snaking around the kitchen island and had the opportunity to make new friends over duck and lamb, both falling of their respective bones, rice pilaf with roasted vegetables, and mozzarella with peaches on greens. With smacking lips people went back for seconds only to be told that there was going to be not one, not two, but three deserts, which still required space. And so we also queued for hazelnut apple cake with koeksister ice cream, rice pudding with berry compote, and refreshing Mrs Moxon’s Posset.

After desert I decided it was time for a nap. So holding my full belly I quietly snuck out and made my way home. When I went to bed I dreamed of meals fit for a king and when I woke up I thanked the gods that I can call such a cook family and just invite myself for dinner whenever I need to feel like a queen for a day.

p.s. If you do wonder where the pictures of the food are, which will make you lick your screen, you will need to ask the master of the kitchen herself as my camera refuse to work after dark.

Thekla shot by Walter Koeppe.

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