Sunday, January 20, 2019

Traveller's Joy

Late afternoon kitchen scene. From a local ramble in search of too-old chicken of the woods (whose fruiting was prompted by unseasonal and welcome summer rain), sprays of Clematis brachiata, an indigenous South African clematis I found scrambling prolifically over a rock wall in full sun. And a posy of fiddleheads - the hairy tentacles of an invasive tree fern, and the smooth crosiers of bracken.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Forage Cookery Class

I am thrilled to be teaching a class at beautiful Cook Space in Brooklyn on February 28th.

The class is called Foraged Fare Cocktail Party, and it will draw on winter's preserves and seasonal produce, as well as the wild things that are flavorful in freezing February. Think spicebush twigs, mugwort sticks, and field garlic greens. We will make and enjoy Seed Crackers (bonus: gluten free!), Sumac Carrots, Labneh Whipped with Field Garlic Greens, and Mugwort Lamb Skewers.

The class is two-and-a-half hours, starting at 7pm with a welcome drink and snack. We then go on to make (and enjoy) three canap├ęs, and a low octane forage cocktail. The tickets are $115. Please reserve your spot via Cook Space. Can't wait to see you!

I will be pairing this class with a late winter forage walk on February 24th, so save that date if you'd like to attend both. Details for the walk to follow soon.


Friday, January 4, 2019

Bottling it up

The road to vermouth does not always involve sorrow.

I had not stayed with my father the night he died. He was alone. I had not known he would be, but the night before, when Vince and I left the hospital, my body collapsed in grief. It knew, if I wasn't sure, that I would not see him alive, again. I never cried in the room with him - I never wanted him to see that sorrow, or to feel anyone else's stress. And so at unexpected times in those five days I would have to pull the car over, or risk accident.

When the call came to the house in the 4.30am dark,  I went to sit with him for the last time. The small dark nursing sister was there, and I was glad she had been on duty. Looking up into my eyes, she held my arm firmly and told me she was sorry. On a previous night, she had held my shoulder with that same firmness as I sat beside him, reading him childhood stories, from books whose pages were falling apart. The ward staff were kind. The previous day I was brought a tray of coffee, and asked if I would prefer hot or cold milk. And there was a cookie. I don't like cookies, but I ate that one, very carefully.

Immediately afterwards, that final morning, the shocking bureaucracy and decision making of death evicted any possibility of mourning. But in the blank days after my father's cremation, and when my husband's warmth had returned to New York, I began to gather wild flowers and fynbos herbs from the mountain, the surrounding green spaces, and my mother's garden. In small jars each plant began infusing in good vodka. Elderflowers and wild plums began to ferment.

On the last day of 2018 I blended and bottled the vermouth. That year is over. And from its end there is a local alchemy that tells the story of this Cape Town summer.

Vermouth captures time and place like nothing else I know. When I open it in Brooklyn, sometime in a new year whose days remain to be filled, I know I will cry.


(Yes, there is a vermouth recipe)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Cape Town Elderflowers

My conservationist-friend Don (who is the new curator of the Stellenbosch Botanical Garden) heard I was foraging for elderflowers in Cape Town. So he WhatsApped me a map with a pin GPS'd onto a "motherlode" of the shrub. It is is (very) invasive locally. I headed there and struck summer gold. 

I love picking elderflowers - so  quick easy. The umbels are snappable and packed with little blossoms. 

I had already started a small batch of fermented elderflower cordial, and I boosted it with my fresh finds. (Don't be tempted to keep the green stems in the ferment or syrup. Pick-pick-pick. Apart from their potential toxicity I am more offended by the viscous quality that too many green stemmy bits will lend to the cordial.)

The kitchen table at No. 9 is a good place to work. 

It thrills me that I can find elderflowers in New York and in Cape Town, two hemispheres apart. It's a tough and adaptable plant. My friend Jacqueline kindly brought my mom a copy of Forage Harvest Feast from New York, back in September, so I could use my own recipes (made with Brooklyn flowers!). At the time it was not available in South Africa, but it is now being sold on Loot and it will be in local shops around late February. Ask your local bookshops (and please tell them that SG are the distributors, if they want to know; it will help them order!).

The elderflower cordial has been fermenting for four days now and is fizzing nicely. Last night I could not resist, and scooped some out and added it to a summer cocktail of white rum, fresh lemon juice, mint from the and fizzy water.

But there are lots of other uses for it, from incredible vinegar (a second and longer fermentation), to potted shrimp, pan juices and deliciously tender madeleines.


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Hike it out

I uploaded these pictures weeks ago and never hit Publish. Family events have swamped other impulses. But this was a lovely walk, and allowed me to reconnect with my niece, whom I have not spent time with for a very long...time.  It also gave us both a really good workout. The first hour-and-a half is steadily, steeply, strenuously uphill (upmountain - why is that not a word?).

If you know what that moth is, please say. My South African insect book is sitting uselessly in Brooklyn. The moth is on scabiosa, a South African native that is now common in the international nursery trade.

Remarkably few Capetonians (certain biologist-friends excepted!) seem enthused about walking on the beautiful mountain smack in the middle of the city. It still surprises me. It is famously/notoriously accessible and reveals a world of botanical integrity that is kind of mind blowing. Luckily The Niece is intrepid, and she and I slogged our way up Skeleton Gorge, stopping often to pant, before reaching the top. Approached from this angle it is not, as many visitors think, flat.

Ella is not an ugly girl. Here with Watsonia tabularis.

Real plant ladies. These are the kind of people who first introduced me to the plants on the mountain. Long pants, hats, backpacks, walking sticks, sandwiches and flasks of tea.  The eldest in their party must have been in his early 80's. They were walking with a young guide, possibly to act as muscle in case they needed it. Like us, they were in search of an ethereally beautiful local orchid, the drip disa, Disa longicornu. It flowers in December only in the cleanest of seeping or dripping water.

We found the disas in their usual spot. They are enchanting. 

The botanical ladies also showed me this tiny orchid, about four inches high, growing from the same rock face. Holothrix. I think the species is villosa.

Fifteen minutes later I returned the favour and showed them this exquisite little disa, hidden in a mossy wall. They told me it was Disa vaginata (what if women had described and named more plants?). The flowers less than half an inch across.

The Frenchman and I always make a ritual stop as this little waterfall. I filled my water bottle, and The Niece splashed.

Fast forward past a breakfast break, a long hike down deep gorges past pools flowing with fynbos water the colour of Coca Cola, two reservoirs, and a landscape of twittering orange-breasted sunbirds (if only I had my telephoto with me), and we had come full circle, arriving at the top of our route down: Nursery Ravine. Recent fire had provoked this flowering of Bobartia indica.

It is a relentless series of steps and if you have sore knees, forget about it. I'm not sure Ella has forgiven me. But there is always the gentle jeep track if you need a slower descent.

You can't repress the inner forager. Bracken fiddleheads in abundance invited harvesting. Blanch them in boiling water before eating, and they are delicious (in Forage Harvest Feast they are one of the two fiddleheads I recommend eating).

Long hike, and two days later I was really stiff, but it was wonderful to reconnect with what matters; in most ways (with exceptions, of course) 2018 has been a year to forget rather than remember. I have lost parts of myself along the way, and I have changed. I don't like the change, and I will be working to find the lost bits and perhaps some new ones, too. The only truism I know remains intact: life may be unfair, people do not have to be. We can all choose to act with integrity. I am beyond lucky to be married to a person who has had as tough a year, more so, in some ways, but who has managed to be a solid support - and lifebuoy - throughout. Time for me to return the favour.

In other news, if you usually find me via Facebook, I will be deleting my Facebook accounts at the end of the year, but will still be on Instagram. The latter may be owned by the former but - for now, at least - the privacy and data concerns are far more controllable on Instagram, and I just prefer it as a way to communicate. I will keep posting here too, but as time allows.

And I will be posting a new, late winter walk schedule, soon. On February 28th there is also a wild-inspired cooking class and cocktail-supper lined up for Brooklyn's beautiful Cook Space. I will add these links as soon as they are live.


Dear 2019: Be nice.

Monday, November 26, 2018

My father

Henri Viljoen, 29 November 1932 - 23 November 2018

There will be a remembrance for my dad in my parents' garden on Saturday December 1st at 5pm. 

I do not believe we will meet again, but ever since I heard Laurence Olivier reading it (as a very old man, in a documentary of his life, which my mom and I and my dad watched together), I have loved this poem. 

Death Is Nothing At All, by Henry Scott-Holland

Death is nothing at all. 
It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened. 

Everything remains exactly as it was. 
I am I, and you are you, 
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. 

Call me by the old familiar name. 
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference into your tone. 
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. 
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. 

Life means all that it ever meant. 
It is the same as it ever was. 
There is absolute and unbroken continuity. 
What is this death but a negligible accident? 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? 
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just round the corner. 

All is well. 
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. 
One brief moment and all will be as it was before. 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

For more about my dad, you can visit Seven Lessons from My Father

Thursday, November 15, 2018


As snow flurries shroud Brooklyn I hurry this post out to show autumn on Long Island, last week. Beautiful Caumsett State Park is just over an hour's drive from home and is near the town of Oyster Bay, where I think I could live very happily. Quiet water and big trees. Strangely, there is always a long line of cars waiting to get in at the gates, but somehow all the human cargo is dispersed once there. Or perhaps we head in an unpopular direction? We rarely see more than a couple of people once we are off the main paths.

The massive beech above must be one of the most beautiful trees in the state. 

Juniper berries (really cones) were prolific and sweet beside a well trafficked and tarred path. Soon we branched off into the rustling woods and tramped through rustling leaves.

Our destination was the beach and we found it at extreme low tide in the long shadows of winter's time change.

Last time we were here all these rocks were under the shallow, clear water of the Long Island Sound.

A man in his late 70's stood and looked out at the water for a very long time.

The sand was covered in these shells, which proved to be occupied. I have never noticed them, before.

They are slipper shells - Google images revealed this after I searched for "Long Island molluscs stacked." They are native to these eastern Atlantic shores but have now invaded France, where they poach the food from mussels and oysters and scallops. They are hermaphrodites: The big one on the bottom is a female, with males stacked above. If she dies, the next in line male switches to female.

Our picnic on the sand started with salmon roe on the popular seed crackers, with crunchy radishes, then a warming course of beef and beer stew (From Darra Goldstein's lovely Scandinavian cookbook Fire and Ice), and ended with some runaway cheese.

(Darra wrote a very kind review of Forage, Harvest, Feast for The Times Literary Supplement, calling it "a joyous cookbook about the delights of the natural world"- you can read the whole review if you are subscribed!)

We walked down the beach and up through the woods, in a big circle.

We saw only one deer on our walk, and heard lots of woodpeckers, and an owl.

Today it must all be snowed under, and one day we will visit when there is snow and a hard freeze to make it stick.

The linden viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum, locally very invasive) that I collected along the way has been turned into a quivering, crimson jelly, just in time for Thanksgiving. I may make the goose from Forage, Harvest's Feast's list of seasonal wild menus at the back of the book - but our new apartment's oven is small, inside. Perhaps it will be duck, or ducks. Juniper is in season, and I am still finding lots of red berries (viburnum, aronia). Lambs quarter seeds, too. So there is still lots of wild, out there, and plenty from the year's preserves in the forage cupboard.

What will be on your menu?


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