Tuesday 23 June 2020

Homesick for food……

Proust may have been transported back to his childhood by the taste of the “petite madeleine” dipped in tea and wrote most eloquently about it in Remembrance of Things Past, but there is nothing like the longing for the food of childhood – especially when it is 6,000 miles away.  

When I first moved to London when we married in the 1960s I was overcome from time to time by homesickness. Telephone calls had to be booked 48 hours in advance and cost £1.00 a minute at a time when my gross salary was £15.00 a week.  Only birthdays and anniversaries were important enough – and tragically in extreme circumstances when you could put a call through in two hours, which is how I learned of my father’s death. (Note to grandchildren – we did not have the internet, email, FaceTime, WhatsApp – landline or nothing!)

I learned to cook some of the foods of my childhood but there were some things like boerewors, biltong, Peppermint Crisps, Chocolate Logs, dishes made with Peri Peri – the list is quite long – that were not available.  

Strangely enough I was never nostalgic for cakes and biscuits – we certainly had them.  My treat was a “shop-bought” biscuits especially chocolate.

I grew up in Johannesburg – city girl – Number One Husband grew up in the country – Upington, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. No shop-bought there – everything was made at home. This introduced me to some traditional South African dishes which we had never had at home.  While there are several butchers in London and mail order companies that sell South African specialties (including all the ones mentioned above), these are best home made. They are called Boere Beskuit – literally “Farmers’ Rusks” but normally known as Buttermilk Rusks.  They keep for weeks, in any climate.  I have added a few tweaks and here they are.


Buttermilk Rusks


300 grams butter                                   

200 grams brown sugar

200 grams Bran flakes (Fruit and Fibre works!)

75 grams raisins 

80 grams bran

125 grams sunflower/mixed seeds 

500 ml buttermilk

2 eggs

1 Kilo self-raising flour                          

15 ml baking powder


Melt the butter and sugar and cool slightly. Mix the flour, baking powder, bran, seeds, raisins and bran flakes in a large bowl. Beat the eggs and buttermilk

Add the butter mixture to the buttermilk mixture and pour into the flour mixture. Mix well – add more flour or milk if necessary.

Form the mixture into balls and put them next to each other in baking trays (I find they all fit into an oven/roasting tray).  Bake at 190 C till light brown – about 25 – 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and break apart and put some onto a second baking tray so that they are separate. Reduce heat to 100C for 4 hours, switch off the oven and leave overnight.

Note: if you don’t have buttermilk you can substitute with one tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar per 250 ml of milk. 

Store in a tin. They are best eaten dunked into tea or coffee – eat your heart out Marcel….. 

Thursday 11 June 2020

Cucumber sandwiches anyone?

It seems extraordinary now that we have (pre Corona!) multiple restaurants, caf├ęs, coffee bars and fast food chains, that there was a time when there were very few places to go out to eat.  Certainly growing up in Johannesburg, apart from hotel restaurants and the main railway station, there were very few places to eat out.  There were tea rooms in the department stores and one or two restaurants in “town”.  

Pasta was macaroni or spaghetti, rice was white and bread was white or brown and rye bread from the kosher deli. My parents adored food - if we wanted asparagus we grew them and if we wanted lasagne my mother, with the cook, would make the sheets of pasta by hand.

We had over an acre of vegetable garden and as the keen gardeners out there will know, everything ripens at once. My sister in Los Angeles is in a similar situation but with the addition of goats, chickens, quail and a miniature cow so has a pantry full of bottled fruit, jams, chutneys and everyone who visits receives food parcels including cheeses and – honey from the beehives.

What do you do with cucumbers? My favourite was “bread and butter pickle”.  I don’t know why it was called that – the original recipe came from The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, first published in the USA in 1931 and my mother’s now very tattered edition was bought in 1945. The sub-heading is A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with an Occasional Culinary Chat. Before the internet you could find out how to cook almost anything from that book.

Rombauer’s recipe starts “1 gallon firm cucumbers”.  My mother’s recipe is probably scaled down from that for my more modest requirements but I am sure she used gallons of cucumbers when they were picked and she certainly preserved them in sterilised jars.  Here it is:

Bread and Butter Pickle

1 kilo cucumbers (small ones are best, must be very firm)
½ kilo small onions very thinly sliced
50 grams salt
300 ml cider vinegar (if you have it substitute 50 ml with distilled vinegar)
175 gms sugar
1 tab mustard seeds
1 teas celery seeds
1 teas whole cloves
½ teas turmeric

Wash but do not peel the cucumbers. Cut into slices about 2-3 mm thick  and similarly with the onions. Layer in a glass or ceramic container, sprinkling the salt between the layers.  Cover with cling film and place a heavy weight on top and leave for about four hours in the fridge.  

Drain and rinse under cold water and leave to dry on kitchen paper. Put the rest of the ingredients in a saucepan on a medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cucumber and onion and bring to the boil again. As soon as it is boiling take it off the heat and cool.

You can eat it immediately but best left for a day or two in the fridge where it will keep for a couple of weeks. If you are going to store it for longer it needs to be bottled in sterilised glass jars.

Note:  I have reduced the amount of sugar in the original recipe but you need to taste and decide.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

A chicken by any other name…..

I am uni-lingual.  I used to be able to speak Afrikaans and can still understand a bit but other than that never really learned any other languages. However, my restaurant French, Italian and German are not too bad.

We seem to have moved from menus having everything in French to having lyrical descriptions of each dish. I remember an hilarious dinner with (British) colleagues in San Francisco when the waiter came to our table to tell us the specials for the evening and started with “Smoked Scotch Salmon from Norway”.  I am not sure he quite understood even after we tried to explain it to him

One of my mother’s favourite dishes was Chicken in Red Wine. There seem to be many different recipes for Coq au Vin so this is as good as any. I use a mixture of olive oil and butter.

1 chicken, jointed into 10 pieces                   
110 grams butter
4 Tab sherry                                 
1 tab tomato paste
3 tab flour                            
12 shallots peeled but left whole
12 button mushrooms                   
350 ml red wine                            
350 ml stock *
salt, pepper, garlic and bouquet garni

Salt and pepper chicken.  Put garlic into butter and brown chicken.  Pour over sherry and cook for a few minutes.  Take out chicken. Cook onions and mushrooms for a few minutes and put with chicken.  Add tomato paste, herbs and flour.  Cook for a few minutes, add hot stock and bring to boil stirring all the time. Add 150 ml wine and taste for seasoning.  Strain if necessary and pour over chicken. 

Simmer for 1½ hours, adding rest of wine gradually – can be cooked on the hob or in oven – probably around 160C.  Leave to cool, skim off fat: reheats and freezes well. 

If you wish you can strain the sauce and reduce it before pouring over the chicken and reheating thoroughly.

 *if no stock was available she used half Oxo and half Telma chicken cubes– works for me

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Let’s talk about the weather

Several years ago we were in India – staying about 35 miles outside Jaipur in the former hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Jaipur. There are beautiful gardens and wonderful scenery. We were sitting in brilliant sunshine having tea (of course) and suddenly I could smell rain, just as I could as a child in Johannesburg.  I said so and everyone looked at me as if I was mad. There was not a cloud in the sky – within the hour the clouds swept over and the rain poured down. It was surreal.

In Johannesburg we never really discussed the weather.  In the winter it was very dry – the humidity levels could drop below ten per cent, the temperature was often below freezing at night and sunny and quite warm during the day. The sun shone and the temperature was mostly in the low 60s Fahrenheit or high teens Centigrade: nothing to talk about there.

At the end of winter, the grass now dried out and yellow where we lived on the outskirts of Johannesburg there was always a risk of veld fires.  The veld grass was long and tinder dry and the smallest spark would set the fields alight. The call would go out to all the men in the neighbourhood, employers and employees alike, and they would burn a fire break at the side of our and neighbouring properties.  This was for two reasons – to stop the fire engulfing the edges of the properties and to prevent the snakes, mice and rats from fleeing the flames into said property.

At the end of winter we would have the discussion about when the spring rains would arrive.  As soon as they did the black, scorched veld would turn green and our yellow lawn would as well. The only other weather discussions during the summer were about whether there would be sufficient rain. It rained almost every evening and sometimes there were, to me, quite terrifying thunderstorms.  Very often the lights would go, sometimes the telephone too. We knew that if we were outside we never sheltered under a tree and tried to get as flat as possible.  Every house had a lightning conductor on the roof, earthed so that the electric charge would go into the ground – sometimes it worked and sometimes not.

I was unprepared for the endless discussions about the weather in England of which I am now an enthusiastic participant. I didn’t realise that you could experience such variations.  My daughter’s wedding was in mid-June and the temperature was just over 10C (50F).  We have had lunch in the garden in March (especially this year) and turned the heating back on in May.

I was relieved that thunderstorms were no longer an issue but was brought low by the greyness. In Johannesburg if the sun shone in winter it warmed up – in London if the sun shone in winter it was colder than if the skies were grey, which was very confusing.  The past few days have been mostly grey but with not much rain, which is what reminded me. 

Wednesday 3 June 2020

When is a pint not a pint?

Although we have now moved on and everything is metric, time was when liquid measures in the UK were “Imperial”.  In the kitchen, even butter and flour was measured in cups rather than by weight. 

This is all well and good – but when I emigrated from South Africa to the UK in the 1960s, South Africa had changed from measuring in cups and ounces to metric. All my mother’s recipes were still in the old measurements. That would have been perfect as the UK had not moved to metric but for one thing…..

One of our favourite recipes (especially for Jewish holidays) was herring in mustard sauce. At home the salted herrings were pulled out of a barrel by the fishmonger and then soaked, filleted and cleaned.  I had no idea where to buy those so just used rollmops which I unrolled and cut into pieces.

So far so good:  I made the sauce, which was very runny. Help! I had a book which gave remedies for cooking problems, reckoned this was pretty much like a custard and added an extra egg.  It was better but still wasn't quite right so I added another egg and it was perfect. Thinking all the time that this was my cooking incompetence I left the recipe as it was and just added two extra eggs. 

I was asked for the recipe by someone and duly gave it to her.  Several months later she castigated me for giving her the wrong recipe, as it didn’t work – “All you had to say was that you didn’t want to give it to me”.  I told her about how I “fixed” what I thought was my problem but she didn’t want to know.  I was mortified.

A while after that I found out that South Africa had used American measures and the measures in the UK were Imperial.  Most of the time it didn’t matter but when proportions are critical it did.  An Imperial pint was 20 fluid ounces and an American pint was 16 fluid ounces – so I had been using too much liquid all along.  Here is the amended recipe – in metric!

6 rollmops, unroll and discard the bits! 
4 bay leaves
12 peppercorns                                      
2 large onions sliced

Cut herrings into largish pieces and alternate in layers in a jar with the onions, peppercorns and bay leaves.  (You can use a bowl with a cover.)


360 ml white wine or cider vinegar                         
2 teas dry mustard
3 large eggs well beaten                                
120 ml double cream
110 grams sugar

In a double boiler heat up the vinegar and sugar.  In a separate bowl, beat eggs, mustard, salt and pepper.  Add the hot mixture to the egg beating constantly.  Return to the double boiler and stir until it becomes thick and custard like. Cool.  Whip cream and add to cooled mixture and whip all together.  Pour over the herring mixture and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.

Monday 1 June 2020

Traditional South African recipe – ideal for hot weather

The weather has been extraordinary, very warm and sunny: although the gardeners are not very happy and believe it or not we could be facing a hosepipe ban.  From tomorrow we can meet up to six people outside, including in a garden – an exciting prospect. 

Would be good to have lunch outside – we could get a take-away so that everyone has their own parcel of food or perhaps I could make something like this and make sure that each person has their own serving spoon, everything to go straight into the dishwasher afterwards, don't touch your face, wash your hands.  Or perhaps I just dish up (wearing a mask and gloves) and no second helpings.  Or we could just eat it ourselves……

The first method is the family one but the second one works perfectly well and is less hassle. In South Africa we always used Kingklip which I have found very occasionally in London.  It is the best firm white fish!

1 K firm white fish fillets                          
4 sliced onions
about 350 ml white wine/cider vinegar
1.5 teas flour                                               
1 clove garlic, crushed                              
2 teas lemon juice
12 peppercorns                                           
6 bay leaves
¼ teas peri peri (hot chilli)                      
1 tab turmeric
sugar, salt and pepper to taste              

Cut fish into large cubes and fry in butter until golden and cooked through.  Remove and add more butter, fry onions for five minutes.  Push to the side of the pan, put in garlic, turmeric and peri peri, 2 teas sugar, salt and pepper, add flour and fry for a moment and then add vinegar and lemon juice and bring to the boil for five minutes.  Taste and adjust seasoning.

Arrange fish in a dish and pour the sauce over – cool and refrigerate.  Apparently keeps for two weeks – wouldn’t know never lasted that long.

Alternative method – less hassle!

Fry the onions, add the spices, flour etc as above and then add vinegar and lemon juice.  Mix together and cook for a few minutes to thicken. Put fish in an oven-proof dish, cover with onion mixture and bake at 180°C for 40 minutes.