Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sourdough Bread Baking Class

My first loaf of sourdough baked at home
Baking bread is something I do several times a week to keep us in school sandwiches. It’s usually white bread nowadays because the kids prefer it, sometimes wholewheat to salve my health conscience. A long time ago it used to be a rye mix and I even developed my own recipe that the Camphill baker of that day adopted, but in all these years I’ve only once tried baking sourdough. It was rejected by the family wholesale and I never had the will to keep baking against the tide of public opinion. Even though I like sourdough bread and all I’ve read about it says that the sourdough process makes gluten and wheat that much more digestible and nutritious.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when Camphill Village decided they would do two classes at their market, one of which was in the bakery learning about sourdough. Camphill Village is a residential farm community for adults with intellectual disabilities just down the road from us, I write for their website and social media and go to most markets, so it was the perfect opportunity to expand my bread baking skills.

Originally the classes were planned as short one hour introductions, but from the minute the six of us walked into the bakery it was clear that Max was an enthusiastic teacher, full of stories that would take more than an hour to share. Plus we were going to bake our own loaves.

Max describing how sourdough works

Meeting the two sourdough starters

We were introduced to the 14 year old starter that has been powering Camphill bread for all this time, nicknamed The Legend, which sits bubbling gently to itself in a cool place in between bakings. It’s fed with flour and water each time some is used and just keeps on regenerating and gaining in strength and maturity. There was a younger 4 year old starter too, much more feisty and bubbly.

Left: The feisty younger starter  Right: the more mature Legend

Max explained the whole process with lots of illustrative stories – you can’t rush sourdough baking, to get the best flavour the sourdough enzymes and the flour need time to get together and get to know each other in a relaxed way. It’s clear that sourdough is more of an intuitive process than a set of rules and Max was teaching us to feel our way with it. We smelled the starters, and tasted the first stage mixture which had been mellowing overnight to be ready for us.

 Camphill bake in large quantities with an industrial mixer, so we were working in proportions rather than quantities per loaf. The first stage mixture went first into the huge bowl, then the flour and enough salt to offset the tang of the sourdough starter (don’t let the salt get too close to the starter, mix it in with the flour, Max advised, as they fight to see who’s boss) Then add the water and the mixing begins. Seven minutes at most is what it needs, but we stop and check it after 2 minutes to see if it’s the right consistency, adding flour as we’d been too generous with the water (as a rule it’s better not to add flour after the mixing has started, to rather go easy on the water, but it’s not the end of the world if you get it wrong).

Another simple rule of thumb from Max: if the weather is hot enough to wear short sleeves use cold water, if you need to wear long sleeves use warm water.

Once the dough was mixed it was time to leave it to rest. We were hungry by now and dived into the selection of bakery treats put out for us to taste: excellent hot cross buns, rusks and biscuits. Our brains reeling with information overload, we piled back out to the market to shop at the stalls, and I found that Peter had kept me a lovely edition of a Georgette Heyer at his second-hand book stall, always some bargains to find there.

Learning how to shape a free-form loaf

Back in the bakery it was time to shape our loaves. Something new I learned is never to pull off hunks of dough at this stage, but rather to cut pieces off, as the dough has already been worked enough and it doesn’t like overstretching. A floury surface and gently folding the dough over to firm out air bubbles round and round, using palms rather than fingers. Sealing the join, turning it over and easing into a good shape for a free form loaf baked on a tray.

Not my loaf, the cuts here are deep enough

The hardest bit for me was slashing into the dough with a sharp knife, to let air out and give the loaf room to expand. My cuts were too tentative, as I discovered after baking when my crust has risen sky-high at one end with a huge bubble of air underneath.

The next stage was proving on the trays in the steamy proving cabinet. And finally the trays were wheeled across to the industrial oven and baked.

We had another break to relax in the market at this stage and re-assembled just as the market was closing, when our loaves came out of the oven and we all hurried to identify our individual masterpieces.

These we got to take home, and even better, a reason in itself to attend the course, we were each given 500g of the Legend starter to take home with us so that we could carry on baking under our own steam.

Bubbly starter to take home
 Previously I’d thought that the upkeep of a sourdough starter was a bit of a chore. In a lovely novel by Sarah-Kate Lynch By Bread Alone, which hums with the tang of a sourdough starter, practically another character in its own right, the protagonist feeds her starter religiously every day and bakes a loaf each morning. But Max assured us it could keep quite happily in the fridge even for months in between bakings.

I baked my first loaf at home yesterday, very tentative, trying to remember everything from the class, looking at the quantity notes I’d jotted down, but not too sure if I’d got it right. It was a coolish day and all the risings took longer than they had at the bakery, but the end result wasn’t at all bad. I’d got the proportion of salt wrong and put in too much, but it’s still edible and the texture is just right, so I’m feeling like I’m getting somewhere. The family ate it and, apart from it being rather salty, liked it. Next loaf coming soon with half the salt!

So thanks to Max and Camphill Village!

Here you can see all the things that I got wrong: big air bubble, split side, uneven browning but it's not bad for first try!

If you are local to Cape Town and are interested, there will be a repeat of the bread baking class, as well as the class in the cosmetics workshop about essentials oils, at the next market on 1st May. You do need to book as there are limited places. Details  here 

Full disclosure - I do the social media for Camphill Village and was invited on the course free of charge, but there was no requirement to carry on baking at home!

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Matric Nostalgia and a New Website

A request for a picture of our son’s first day of school came through last week. It’s his Matric farewell dance coming up in April (how did that happen?! Our son is in his final year of school already?!), so we’ve been plunged into a flood of nostalgia going through the ancient archives of pictures on our computers. Sighing and aahing (the kids too not just us!) over how cute they were, little girls in princess dresses, gap-toothed and sparkly eyed, our son dressed as a cowboy, a native American Indian, an army soldier, a pirate, round cheeked with a big smile. Of course we haven’t found a single picture of the first day of school. So he has a choice – in what role does he want to feature at his Matric dance – pirate or Indian, cowboy or army dude?

When I started this blog, coming up for ten years ago, the kids featured a lot – it was never specifically a mommy blog, but they got in on almost every post. Then at some point I felt that it was time to step back a bit and leave them out of the spotlight. The focus shifted to farm life and food, and always our festivals. But I don’t regret a word of those early posts documenting them as small kids – it’s my photo album, my journal, a place where all those funny moments and sayings have been preserved…in lieu of that proper photo album, which I’m always meaning to put together, but haven’t yet achieved.

That nostalgia for past cuteness is a strange thing. I wouldn’t for a minute turn the clock back, as that would mean turning my back on the amazing, interesting individuals they’ve grown into as teenagers, but it’s hard not to feel a little sad that all those baby and little kid days are behind us. Now I know why moms start agitating for grandchildren the minute their kids leave home! Anyway right now we’re in full on teenage mode ever since Youngest turned 13 last year and we went shopping for her first high heels for the Grade 7 farewell. Middle Daughter pointed out that her younger sister got high heels before she did, which didn’t seem right, so she compensated by getting the silveriest strappy high heels possible for the school’s Valentine’s dance. But enough, I said I'd taken the spotlight off them and it’s starting to reflect back in a myriad of highlights from glitter and sparkling nail polish.

My blog has become rather thin on the ground lately, I know. Is anyone still reading this? Anyone? I know Marcheline will stop by sooner or later, and my Mum, but quite understand if everyone else is off reading someone who actually posts more frequently! The reason/excuse is that I’ve been writing so much more for work as a freelance writer over the last couple of years that the last thing I feel like doing on weekends is sitting back down at the computer again.

I’ve been a regular contributor to Neighbourhood, a lifestyle and property supplement in South Africa’s Sunday Times, since it started up in July last year. I’m writing about food: restaurants, cafes, artisan bakeries, chocolate, anything and everything to do with food in the Cape Town area and it’s been great. Sometimes I get to review fine dining restaurants, other times it’s a new deli or cafĂ©. And then there are interviews with all sorts of new businesses that aren’t food related, or spotlights on a suburb of Cape Town, chatting to residents about what it’s like to live there. I fully intended to write up separate blog posts here to share the experiences… but that’s up there in the realistic stakes with my plan to create a family photo album. But here's the news: my husband has built me a new website as a portfolio for my writing work, and I’ve got a Facebook page to go with it.

So if there’s nothing new to read here, and you feel like a glimpse of the Cape Town food scene, head over there. Or if it's the farm and family life that you want more of why not go back into my archives and share the retrospective mood that I've been indulging in.

I’ve just been re-reading my blog posts from 2006 (getting diverted from writing this post by all those vivid memories brought back from ten years ago) and I’m feeling slightly damp-eyed and nostalgic all over again. For my kids and all those little details that I would have forgotten if I hadn’t blogged them; for the early days of blogging when it was a whole community thing, when I made new friends, and we commented on each others blogs regularly, some of those friends I’m still in touch with today, some still blogging, others just on Facebook; and for those crazy days of being a full time mother with three small kids.

So a shout out to all those early bloggers of 2006 and to others who started a year or two later like Marcheline of Mental Meatloaf, and who are running with the baton in the true spirit of blogging now that some of us oldies are flagging. And a special mention to Corey of Tongue in Cheek, who started blogging just before I did and who has posted EVERY SINGLE DAY for the last 10 or more years, delighting followers with French brocante, gorgeous pictures and stories of family life in France. I wouldn't be doing what I do today if it hadn't been for my blog and I'd have missed out on knowing some lovely people! I feel like starting a retro blog meme all of a sudden, any takers?!

Thursday, January 21, 2016


The donkey on the last quarter of Christmas cake looks comfortably cool with his hooves plunged in snowy icing, isolated under the cake dome in another world… the very opposite of the rest of us, sweltering in South Africa’s current heatwave. There’s something not quite right about the conjunction of Christmas cake and forty degrees of sunshine, to me at least with childhood memories of Christmas cake gobbled up beside a roaring fire.

We still eat it, trundling in from the school run, dumping heavy bags and getting out homework (school has started for real now, despite the heat) because it’s delicious and we can’t resist, but a rich, heady fruit cake isn’t the ideal teatime treat, when the only comfortable place after about nine in the morning is in the swimming pool. What we should be eating are luscious, chilled  slices of juicy watermelon, or home-made ice-cream, smoothies thick with frozen berries from the garden... (we do have those too, but we're stubbornly diligent about making our way through the last of the cake.

Our straw bale walls keep the worst of the heat at bay for at least half of the day, but by late afternoon we are desperate to fling open doors and windows, and only the still fierce heat outside makes us wait just a bit longer for the promise of a cooler evening breeze. On days like this the only thing to do is get most of the work done in the morning, so that when the heat overwhelms the brain with sluggishness you feel justified in collapsing with a book beside a fan, or seek relief in car air-conditioning by heading out on the school run.

Everything's dry, dry, dry, the moles looking for moisture by the sprinkler. Can you feel the wall of heat?

We scan the weather forecast several times a day, elated when heavy rain is forecast for Saturday, frustrated and disappointed when the forecast shifts and offers a measly light drizzle as an alternative, then later loses any hope of rain at all. Two degrees lower is cause for celebration, not concerned that 38C is still darn hot… it’s a reprieve from the horror of 40C and upwards and we cling to faint hopes.

On the bright side it’s still cooling down at night most nights. In the small hours before dawn cooler air flows from somewhere magical and trickles in through an open window, so that we pull a thin sheet over ourselves with the luxury of snuggling under something. When we wake properly at 5.30 or 6 the first thing to do is run around the house opening every single window at its widest to fill the house with that coolness before it dissipates over the next two hours.

The best place to lie in the middle of the day

The toughest thing to judge is exactly what point to run around shutting them all again – is that breeze still cool, or is it getting warmer than inside now? Get it wrong, sit at the computer too long and forget to close the windows, and the house fills up with hot dryness again and there is no getting away from it. Then, once the sun has dipped below the hill and I can bear to cook supper, we eat outside lingering at the table until it’s dark, long after the kids have cleared their plates and disappeared off, because finally we’re cool and the house is still too hot inside for the sofa to hold any appeal.

Most summers we have a period like this, but in recent memory it has been only a few days, here and there, perhaps a short spell in November and again in February and March. This is the first year that we’ve been here that the heat has been something to endure over a long period of time.

With the whole country groaning under drought conditions, we are luckier than many. We have water. Though our vegetable garden is drying out and producing very little, we are able to keep our trees alive.

The gleanings of a dried out veggie garden

There are almonds to harvest, tomatoes to pick up off dried out plants and make sauce with, the last few mielies (corn) to pick. The leeks have gone to flower and make weird and wonderful summer flower arrangements. .And when I head to school to fetch the kids and nip into the local town for the bank or shops, it’s right on the beach and the temperature drops to a blessed 28C, pleasant summer hot, beach weather.

All we can do is pray for enough rain to fill depleted dams, for it to fall where farmers need it most, and where firefighters need its help. (Scary fires are raging in the wine farm area of Simonsberg, there was a bad one up near Elgin and another in the Cedarberg, the list goes on, the land is so dry that bush fires start at the merest spark)

Here’s hoping for temperatures to ease off to more bearable levels, so that we can grumble about something else for a change, like the free-falling rand, for instance!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Chicken Pie Recipe

A couple of years ago, in honour of a birthday present Le Creuset pie dish, I made a chicken pie that finally ticked all the boxes for my kids. Attempts back in the mists of time had left half the family lukewarm and, let’s face it, if you’re going to all the effort of making a chicken pie from scratch you want a few wows, some applause, at the very least a series of ‘yums’ running around the table. Finally however I’d found the right recipe for my family, creamy enough without being too rich, not too dry, no weird / scary vegetables lurking in the depths. That was a while back now and recently I started getting some less than subtle hints from the kids that they’d like another taste of that chicken pie.

A few weeks ago,  I finally had a few days without major writing deadlines, when I could abandon the computer early without a qualm, so I went looking for that chicken pie recipe as a starting point. Could I remember where I’d found it? I searched here on my blog, because if a recipe is that good the safest place to record it for posterity has to be here... only the failures came to light. Nigella’s pot pies may have wowed her children, but mine evidently have different tastes. I went back into Facebook archives to see if I’d mentioned it there. No joy. Finally I dusted off some recipe books languishing at the back of the pile under the kitchen counter (possibly two years worth of dust, it was hard to tell!) and finally found my source in Gordon Ramsay’s Cooking for Friends, given to me on the same birthday as the pie dish. I hadn’t followed the recipe to the letter, but it was what I’d based my successful pie on, so I was in business.

What I like about this recipe is that it uses the minimum of pots, just one in fact plus the pie dish, so you don’t end up with piles of washing up, and you could prepare most of it in advance quite easily and just post the pie into the oven in time for supper, if you were ever that organised. It’s also easy enough to substitute any vegetables that your kids find acceptable instead of the original mushrooms and baby onions that Gordon advises. I ended up using roughly chopped onions, carrots and potatoes because that was what I had, but peas could easily replace the carrots and, if I were making it for adults, leeks and mushrooms would be perfect too. Plus it’s relatively quick, apart from leaving things to cool before putting it all together.

Because I can see myself searching frantically  for the recipe again in another two years time, I’m posting my version here as a permanent reminder.

Chicken Pie Recipe

800ml chicken stock
2 sprigs thyme and bay leaf
500-600g chicken breasts
300g onion roughly chopped
200g vegetables chopped (potatoes, peas, carrots, leeks or mushrooms)
50g butter
50g flour
100ml milk or cream
1 egg yolk mixed with 2 teaspoons water
Pastry made from 250g flour / 125g butter / 6 tablespoons iced water or enough ready-made pastry to line top and bottom of a 23cm pie dish

Bring chicken stock to a simmer and poach the chicken breasts in it with the herbs for 10-12 minutes until cooked through. Remove the chicken to a plate to cool. Then chop into bite-size pieces.

Add onions to stock and cook for 5 minutes. Then add the rest of the vegetables according to size so that they are all cooked to al dente tenderness at same time. Remove to a plate to cool.

Boil the stock until it has reduced to about 1 ½ - 2 cups in volume. Tip it into a jug.

Melt the butter in the pot. Stir in the flour to make a thick paste. Keep stirring for about 3 minutes to cook the flour. Add the stock a little at a time, stirring in thoroughly until you have a thick smooth sauce.

Add the milk or cream, stir well and simmer, stirring often until the sauce is thick and creamy.

Mix together the chopped chicken, cooked veggies and sauce and leave to cool completely.

Line a 23cm pie dish with pastry. Add cooled filling in an even layer.

Beat up the egg yolk with water to make an egg wash. Brush a little around the edge of the pastry. Put the top layer of pastry on, trim and crimp the edges. Cut a cross in the middle. Use any trimmings to make decorative leaves to go on the lid if you wish. Brush the whole top with the egg wash.

Bake at 200C/400F for approx 35 minutes until the top is golden and the the filling is bubbling.

 Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Garam Masala Recipe

Once quite by chance I bought the perfect garam masala mix. It was aromatic and light, but also had warm depth, the whole spectrum of spicy notes, high and low. Several favourite recipes became dependent on it... and then I finished the packet. And couldn’t find the same brand again, anywhere. I tried other brands but they were disappointing, with the subtlety and shading of a brick. Eventually after many requests for that spicy bean soup, whose vital ingredient was garam masala, I did what I should have done ages before, I googled garam masala recipes, found two which sounded right and made my own.

There is no such thing as a standard garam masala in India. Every family has their own combination of spices, some more aromatic, some milder, some hotter. So it’s up to you to find the balance that suits you. For me that was aromatic and relatively mild, enough pepper to tickle the taste buds but not enough to sear them, and chilli an optional extra to add to an individual recipe later. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, nutmeg provide the aromatics; black pepper, cumin, coriander and ginger the heat and depth.

The recipes I used as a guide were both Punjabi ones, advising you to dry the spices in the sun, once you’ve cleaned them all carefully. It was winter when I was making this, so I took the alternative option and lightly roasted the spices in a hot pan, one spice at a time, so that the smaller seeds didn’t burn. Then once they’d cooled, all I had to do was grind them up in the coffee grinder and inhale the gorgeous aromas.

(TIP: unless you like your coffee chai scented, you might need to grind a few coffee beans and discard them to get rid of all the spice oils before returning the grinder to coffee duty!)

So this is what I used for mine. Feel free to create your own version of garam masala and customise your Indian recipes. I’m never going to buy ready made garam masala ever again, that’s for sure.


½ cup coriander seeds
¼ cup cumin seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 tablespoons cloves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
8 sticks cinnamon
4 bay leaves
1 nutmeg

Other things you can add: 1 star anise, 1 inch dried ginger, mace.

Once you’ve ground up the spices, store them in an air-tight jar and use within a few months, otherwise they lose their aroma and you might as well have bought that sadly flat, dull brand from the supermarket.

Two favourite recipes that are totally dependent on really good garam masala: my Persian bean soup, and Madhur Jaffrey’s sag aloo.

P.S. Just in case you’ve been wondering where I was in August (thinking of you here, Marcheline, as my most attentive reader!), it was somewhere exciting and I’ve got a ton of photos to sort through before I share some of it here... hint, there were huge sand dunes and lots of wildlife.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Seapoint Research Trip with Chocolate

Serendipity on a plate at My Sugar
There are two sorts of days when you write for a living. The ones where you sit at your computer all day, um, writing...  plus the ones where the entire day goes by at your computer not actually writing anything publishable, (make that three sorts), but sending out endless emails to people that you need information or images from with  frequent lapses onto Facebook just to distract you from the fact that not a single word has been written, apart from all those email words which don’t count towards your word count.

And then there are, very occasionally, days like today. Golden days. Days that start out with one plan and end up serendipitously turning into something else. Today we had a client meeting in town at 10, which I planned on following up with a quick drive around Seapoint in Cape Town, to research background for an article that has a looming deadline. So I dressed for a casual meeting,one step up from my work at home winter uniform of jeans and fleece jacket, and headed out with my husband (we work as a team for our web clients) into a sunny but very windy winter day driving along the N7 to town, long views of Table Mountain all the way.

Then just as we hit the N1 he gets a call to cancel the meeting, one partner called away the other one keeping the business going single handed, can we postpone?

So suddenly the whole morning lies ahead of us and all of Seapoint to research. Our first port of call is a little cafe called My Sugar that opened recently and that I will review for another article later on. I’d originally planned on just a quick look in today, but now with no meeting and Patrick desperate for coffee, we grab a table and I settle in to tasting... chocolates. Yes my best... and if ten o’clock in the morning ought to be too early who cares, chocolate is always chocolate and this is the real deal. I’m not going to review it here yet because I need to save the drum rolls for my print article, but suffice to say that if you love good chocolate and good coffee, you have to go there and taste for yourself.

Two perfect chocolates on a plate at My Sugar
Back to the car and ready to go exploring we find ourselves in the road a friend now lives in. On the off-chance we phone to see if she’s around, to find her kicking her heels at home between the arrival of various electricians and window fitters, with plenty of time to chat. A cup of tea and catch up are followed by a personalized guided tour of the back streets of Seapoint, gathering way more detail and local gossip than will ever fit into my article but so much more interesting with a life-long local to show you around than to go researching on your own.

We headed up to the heights of Fresnaye where huge houses are worth multiple millions (R60 million for some), and where stunning views out over the ocean or up behind at the mountain are enjoyed by security watchmen and builders, while absent foreign owners are off enjoying somewhere else’s sunshine. Then we descended to lower levels where the air is less rarefied and more suitable for mere mortals to breathe, muddled along Main Road, pottered along the promenade and went to gaze at the lone swimmer doing lengths in the Pavilion swimming pool, where the temperature was advertised at 13C today, one degree warmer than the ocean. Everyone I'd previously spoken to about Seapoint had told me that it’s got the best weather and is much less windy than the City Bowl. Well today was the day that proved the exception to the rule. The wind was blowing in earnest, palm trees having a bad hair day, but the sun was shining and those veteran die-hard swimmers aren’t deterred by such considerations as comfort.

Seapoint Pavilion - salt water pools with the ocean behind
By then after so much leisurely and pleasurable dawdling, school pick up time was nagging at our thoughts. Far from our West Coast stomping grounds with dog food to buy, petrol to put in and three kids to collect, we relinquished the urban vibe, calculated that our whole farm with four houses on it would probably not even buy us a two bedroom flat here and pointed the car to Melkbos.

And as this was a day of being a food writer and food trucks are one of the current Cape Town food happenings not to be ignored, we patronised our I love Melkies food truck for the first time for a late lunch (I was slightly jittery on caffeine and chocolate by this time) and had a very enjoyable toasted bagel with scrambled egg and red onion for me and a real proper hot dog for him with red onion, gherkins and sweet chilli sauce. Definitely a good street food experience to be repeated.

I Love Melkies food truck in Melkbosstrand

Now I’ve got enough notes to write my Seapoint article, an almost written review and a whole blog post out of my day, I feel energised and well fed both physically and mentally, and it was great having my husband along for the adventure too, all thanks to the postponed client meeting. Here's to many more research trips with him along as driver and co-ordinator!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Our Winter Festival Over the Years

Christmas in summer still doesn’t feel quite right for me, even though my kids have grown up with it. Sunshine, salads and a cold lunch are quite normal for them, though they always prefer it when it’s cool enough for roast potatoes to go with the turkey. So when we first got here we came up with the idea of cramming some of those wonderful winter traditions from my English childhood, sparklers and bonfires on Guy Fawkes night, mulled wine and lanterns at Christmas, into one big celebration of winter.

That first festival back in 2002 revolved around making lanterns and carrying them on sticks in a procession to create our circle (the circle that is now the centre of all our festivals). We then came back down the hill to light a huge bonfire and drank mulled wine. I think we had sparklers that time, if not then certainly by the next winter they had been added to the essential ingredients list, along with soups and boerewors rolls and an avenue of lights made from tea light candles in brown paper bags.

When the kids were smaller the most exciting thing about the evening was being able to run around outside in the dark, while the adults stood around the bonfire warming hands on mugs of mulled wine. Now the older ones have graduated to sitting around the fire watching sparks fly, though nobody has quite got too old for a sparkler or two, and licensed pyromania retains its allure.

Our festival a couple of weeks ago heralded the winter holidays and was a really lovely one. We had new friends join us and the kids did most of the preparation work themselves, with teams  decorating the archway,  filling bags with sand for the candlelit pathway and the boys building the bonfire. The Malawian couple who live on the farm joined us for the first time, intrigued by the whole idea, as in the days leading up to the festival Simon had been working on clearing some of the restios that were gradually overgrowing the sandpit.

Lanterns lit and ready for the procession to the circle

 The chilly wind died down while we were busy making lanterns inside and by the time the sun had gone and we were lighting the lanterns it was almost warm and completely still, the moon well up and the Venus Jupiter conjunction bright in the night sky. It really was magical as we sat in the circle, read our blessings and the vision prayer and coaxed the kids into singing.

Then a few of us rushed to the house to bring the soups and mulled wine out, others put a match to the bonfire and the men started braaiing the sausages around a smaller fire. We had a fine array of soups from butternut to lentil, chicken to beef and barley, as well as a bean stew. Two huge plaited loaves disappeared without any trouble and there were still boeri rolls for those with any room left. We were all loath to leave the fire so it was late before we eventually moved indoors for puddings, some of the littlest having already fallen asleep on the sofa inside, though signs of life returned once the scent of pudding was in the air.

Look for the Venus Jupiter conjunction just over our heads.

Licensed pyromania

Altogether a wonderful festival leaving us all feeling re-connected, to the turn of the seasons, to the earth and to each other.

Read more about our winter festival and building the bonfire

Friday, May 08, 2015

A Foreigners’ Guide to Load-shedding

Homework by candlelight
Some things are uniquely South African, like braais, fynbos, vuvuzelas and Table Mountain. Now we have one more thing to bewilder and confuse visitors from abroad and overseas readers of our social media platforms: load-shedding.

Load-shedding has consumed all of our energies and channelled our collective frustration into a froth of social media invective and subversive wit for the last several months now. If you’ve seen the word Eishkom once you’ve seen it a thousand times, but if you’re still in the dark (pun alert) about what we’re talking about, here is a short guide:

Load-shedding is when the power to your whole area gets switched off for a few hours, usually when you have a cake in the oven, an important deadline to meet, or a very exciting rugby game on TV. You may know in advance that it’s going off, or you may have no warning at all.

In theory a schedule is all  worked out and clearly defined. You can look up your area's schedule of 2.5 hour slots online and see what times are allocated to your area.

For each area there are three scenarios: Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3.

Stage 1 is relatively benign – one of your three daily time slots alternates over three days and some days you have none at all.
Stage 2 you have one slot every day, sometimes two.
Stage 3 is the killer, two or three slots every day

But here is the wild card.
You never know if there will be load-shedding at all, if so what time it will start, and which stage will be put in place.

It might start off being announced as Stage 1 and then suddenly change to Stage 2 with less than a minute’s warning. Or they might say all day that there will be no load-shedding, only to put Stage 1 in place a minute before 6pm, which is when our time slot starts, crashing all our computers.... again.

So what is that Eishkom thing all about?
Eskom is South Africa’s national energy provider.  Eish is a very South African word expressing exasperation or disbelief, with a long drawn out vowel sound to funnel all that frustration. A natural match.

Why are Eskom doing this to us?
It’s not just to browbeat us into submission and make those new-age hippies advocating alternative power accept the need for more nuclear power stations built by the Russians (I think... unless you subscribe to conspiracy theories). Our national power demands have gone up and the infrastructure is all suddenly getting older (apparently Eskom didn’t see that one coming) and is in urgent need of maintenance. Some of our shiny new wind power farms are working, others are standing there not turning and waiting for parts that never come. We have lots and lots of free and gorgeous sunshine, but it’s too expensive to harness it (why?).

Because this is a light and fluffy post I won’t mention that pundits tell us this is only going to get worse, or how bad this is for our economy, and can reassure those who are thinking of coming over here to visit our beautiful, hospitable country that all the essential infrastructure is still working – hospitals don’t get load-shed, most hotels and restaurants have generator back-ups and much of the CBD isn’t targeted at all. If you come and stay with us I can promise candlelit dinners cooked over our gas hob, braais and, without the distractions of computers and TV, long chats on the sofa in the dim candlelight.

We’ll survive. Our computers might not and our cakes may all collapse but, to look on the bright side, (call me Pollyanna if you want) this might be just what is needed to get the solar industry to go mainstream and to motivate a whole lot of us to get off the grid, so that Eishkom won’t need to build any more nuclear power stations after all. Here’s hoping!

Fellow South Africans - if you haven't yet got a reliable load-shedding alert system, try Gridwatch, a Smartphone app from News24, that works pretty well... as long as Eskom give anyone advance notice that is!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Guilt-Free Chocolate Discovery

Edited to add: Before you get as excited as I was about this new chocolate there has since grown up a storm of controversy around it. Its labelling is misleading at best - there is sugar in this bar, it just comes from honey according to the makers, but it isn't going to be any good for diabetics or paleo people. They do a diabetic bar apparently, but check it all out  before you buy and don't go by the over optimistic labels shown below! Shame as it's very tasty! Here's the manufacturer's statement.

Oh my word! I have just discovered the chocoholic’s dream fix – a bar of dark chocolate that is sugar-free, fat-free and perfect for sharing with banting friends (or is the sharing aspect a down-side? Will have to think about that).

Basically this bar is all chocolate, no weird ingredients, and it is smooth and dark, just how I like my chocolate. Only problem is it disappears too quickly – the bars look nice and big, but they are thin, so the temptation is to keep snapping off a bit more and a bit more till it’s all gone. But then that happens with any good chocolate in this house.

The story that I was told at Nature’s Deli, where we happened upon this bar the other day, is that the Swiss technology division who produce the couverture have developed a new natural way of taking the bitterness from the cocoa beans, a bit like decaffeinating coffee, but without using any chemicals. So all you get in the bar is 70% organic cocoa and 30% organic cocoa butter. Then it’s tempered six times instead of just once or twice, to get silky smooth chocolate that melts in the mouth.

If I have any criticism it’s that the packaging could do with a little more work to make it user-friendly. Because the bar is thin it has a cardboard backing and the foil inside is glued to the card, which made it hard to re-wrap neatly. Not something that’s going to put me off buying it though!

The Le Chocolatier factory is in Paarl and their retail shop is in Stellenbosch. You can also buy online or at a few health shops around Cape Town. Oh, and it only costs a few rand more than my other favourite (but mass-produced with no pretensions to organic status) chocolate bar, so it's good value for that amount of foodie halo polishing credentials.

Now I’ve gone and finished the bar, all in the name of research while I was writing this, so I definitely need more, sooner rather than later.

Disclosure: I wasn't asked to review this product and my sister-in-law bought it for me to try, thanks SIL!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Autumn Festival

In almost every festival post I say something about how the festivals have their own independent energy and our autumn one on Saturday had completely its own feel. Whether we invite all and sundry or don’t send out any invitations and rely on friends remembering the date and getting in touch, those who are meant to be there come, sometimes creating a gathering of 40 or more, other times less than 20. This time three families of friends from Cape Town who are regular festival attendees couldn’t come for various reasons and so it was a small group of our local friend-family, with the gang of six girls who’ve grown up together through many years of festivals, in charge of the sand sculptures.

The theme for autumn is earth and harvest. When the kids were little it was all about making sand-castles decorated with shells and harvest things. We don’t have the rich colours of the Northern hemisphere autumn, the landscape is still dry and bleached after a long hot summer, but there are seed heads and dry grasses, restios and the fruits of the vegetable garden to remind us of the season. Now the children are older the castles have shifted to elaborate sand sculptures laboured over for hours, perfect sand balls, and stick and fabric light towers flanking the entrance to the circle.

I usually assemble a basket of things harvested from the farm as a symbolic thank you for the abundance of the garden. This year’s held almonds, tomatoes, a pomegranate, carrot and red onion. Last year’s autumn festival jar of strawberry jam was still sitting in the centre of the circle when I was tidying up, its contents reduced to a third of their volume, but still a healthy colour, not that anyone volunteered to taste it! And an enduring reminder of festivals past is the little almond tree, that grew from one of the almonds left there one long ago autumn festival and has managed to survive against all odds in the hot mini-desert of the sand-pit without any irrigation.

The harvest offerings the next morning, the little almond tree behind.

Our festival yesterday will be remembered for another thing. Earth Hour may be due next Saturday 28th, when we plan to switch off lights between 8.30pm and 9.30pm, but yesterday we had an Eskom enforced Earth Day, the whole day without electricity (due to a fault being repaired), which meant a complete shake around of any plans I’d made for baking quiche, biscuits, roast tomato soup and so on. It also meant that we had no water pressure, so dishes kept piling up on the chopping table while we hoped against hope that the power would come on before friends arrived, so we could do the washing up. It didn’t, so we reverted to the old method of boiling a pan of rainwater, and rinsing in the trickle of water that manages to come through the tap without the pressure pump.

And it turned out it didn’t matter. With most of the guests the kids’ friends, and the only adults our family and a couple of friends who might as well be family, it didn’t matter that things were less than perfect. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t get to the computer to write our blessings and retrieve the St Francis’ prayers, or that I never did make quiche. The bread was baked in my SIL’s gas oven, was burnt and very crusty on the bottom and slightly paler than usual on top, but it tasted good. I jigged the tomato soup recipe to a stove top version, only to remember that I usually liquidise it, which would er... need electricity... and luckily located the mouli-legumes than I use for guava puree, which did the job.

Olaf the Sandman feeling very relaxed!

 So it turned out to be a very relaxed and laid back festival, doing what we could and not fretting about the rest. The girls had learned one of the St Francis prayers as a sung version a couple of years ago and so opened our circle celebration with it. We all took turns to say our thanks and blessings straight from the heart and off the cuff, sent golden healing energy to a family friend who is fighting cancer, read the vision prayer together, and then the older girls played a few songs on the treble and tenor recorders, which always sound so evocative and medieval listened to under a starry sky with the chirruping of frogs as the backing vocals.

Willow loved her first festival, having a giant game of hide and seek among the bushes and restios

We walked back to the house under bright stars to flickering candlelight and slight chaos as we tried to find plates and cutlery in the semi-darkness. More and more tea lights were lit until the room had a gorgeous glow and there was just enough food to feed us all. After 8pm when our eyes were used to the warm glow, the electricity came back on again, so that we could dismiss the lurking worry about our full freezers, leave off the overhead lights and switch on just a few side lamps and carry on with the mellow evening. And luckily my SIL had made double quantities of choccie pudding so that everyone was able to have seconds.

More Autumn festivals through the years:
In 2013 it was just us and the same gang of kids, just two years younger.
In 2010 we had some fantastic straw angels and celebrated Earth Hour for real.
In 2009 more straw angels, some great pumpkins and a gorgeous sand mandala.