Monday, December 31, 2012

Tulips in December

Flowers in the House, on New Year's Eve (visit Jane for an international tour)

I have never made fuss about a New Year. I inherited from my mother a feeling of vague apprehension, open antipathy and and quiet suspicion about it. A reaction against knee jerk festivities and hollow celebration.

But I am looking forward to 2013. Does that mean it is going to blow up in my face? I am circumspect about optimism. Now is safer than tomorrow. Take care of today and tomorrow will look after itself.

And about the the local flower sellers (who rarely sell local flowers...) tulips have been a fixture for three weeks, now. I try to buy seasonal flowers. As a gardener, a grower of plants, a cook who loves vegetables and leaves that belong to now, it just feels better to be buying asters, rather than freesias, in October. Daffodils in April. Dahlias in high summer. And so on. But I have succumbed to the tulips, Sylvia Plath notwithstanding.

I don't know where these tulips come from. Nowhere in the world in late December is a tulip growing of its own volition. But the weather is cold, the bunches stay fresh in their buckets, in front of the ubiquitous, heavily pesticided roses, the blue chrysanthemums, the florists' gum...

And the New Year is around the corner. It is a rare moment when I can look back and say with satisfaction, OK, this is what I did, and that was good. And this is what lies ahead. And I can do that, too.

And things are possible.

(...if you need a snack to go with your bubbly, there are some crunchy roast pecans next door, at 66 Square Feet (the Food)...also Harry Belafonte. But that's another story.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

December dinner

Lamb with a Spoon and the recipe book my mom gave me when I left South Africa for the first time

I am busy cooking tonight's supper, for the editor of  Edible Manhattans and Brooklyn (and happily also now our friend), Gabrielle Langholtz. She has never seen this little apartment. Oh boy.


Garlic Soup (this will be in my book, part of the December menu)


Blood orange, Cara Cara orange and fennel salad with pea shoots and mustard leaves from the roof


Lamb with a Spoon (my mom's recipe - seven hours of slow cooking) with wild cherry jelly
Roasted cold season broccoli


Crème caramel (also in the book - and also my mom's recipe)

To drink? An unwooded Oregon Viognier/Chenin blanc that I love - Pine Ridge; and a New Zealand Pinot Noir - Yealands. Plus a tall, cool carafe of water with lemon and terrace mint. Gabrielle is not a big drinker.

But we are!

Update - the verdict: I killed the broccoli. It steamed while I showered. Bad idea. Watch the broccoli.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Evenings are a cocktail around 6. Mine lasts till well after 7. This disturbs the Frenchman.*

Evening is pots and pans being hauled from cupboards, ingredients chosen, and chopped. It is warm light and flowers on the table, music from the bedroom where Vince works on something at his computer. It is the cat asleep on the bed, the lights on the terrace - small bright spots in the cold dark, the drip of the tap into a pan that needs washing in the kitchen sink. It is the soft gasp of the gas oven, the hum of the fridge, a door slamming in a downstairs apartment. The drawing in and the drawing near, the coming home, the gathering close, the summoning and preserving of the pulse in the blood that makes us go, go, go.

* (read comments)

Winter. Still here.

The farmers market at Union Square. Cold, under a white sky. Black radishes in crates. We found our friend Ty at Cato Corner, and bought some cheese. Ty looked cold, and laughed his laugh.

Hilltops and valleys, filled with root vegetables. So this is winter? I think my body clock is at a loss. It says, If it's late December, it should be Cape Town. Year in, year out. 

Meadows of carrots and radishes.

Boxes of garlic.

Cataracts of cat grass.

(A what-to-do-with-root vegetables discussion continues on 66 Square Feet's Facebook page - some nice ideas... I'm making a list for the months to come.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What to do with oranges

Crêpes Suzette, last night.

Speaking of orange, the colour: which recipe should I post next at (the Food)? Tagliatelle with bottarga (very short), crêpes Suzette (long), or lamb-stuffed acorn squash (medium)?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Opening new doors

Yesterday, I walked into a shop called Two for the Pot. It's on Clinton Street, opposite the flower sellers outside Key Food (from whom I have been buying tulips. But where do tulips come from in December?). I pass or see this shop almost every day. After eight years of living in the neighbourhood, I have never been tempted to go in. But I was looking for something in particular, and thought they might have it. Can't say what until the Frenchie has unwrapped it. I found it - obviously. The small shop stocks coffee beans, English teas and biscuits and cookies, miscellaneous spices in large glass jars and coffee paraphernalia. I was served by the owner, who told me apologetically that they don't take plastic in payment. We haven't for 40 years, he said. 40 years... So I went out and found real money (cash back at Key Food, after a purchase of red wine vinegar and basmati rice).

So, there was that, and I left Two for the Pot, a real shop owned by a real person, with sundry items and a fragrant bundle. (Shouldn't it be called One for the Pot? One bag/scoop of tea for each person and one for the pot?)...

Then, I was looking for lime leaves. I wanted to make tom yum kung, the Thai soup that can be very, very good, or very, very bland, but which needs that lime leaf bitterness. I summoned up all my courage and walked into one of the Middle Eastern stores I have never entered, on the southern side of Atlantic, opposite Sahadi's (whose new layout and larger size have actually made human movement within it tooth grindingly difficult). I really don't know why courage was needed. Just the newness of the experience and the oldness of the shop. Why do you walk past a closed door for so many years, despite the interesting things in the windows, the open sacks of spices on the floor inside, the cat looking through the glass at the world outside?

Two cats greeted me inside. A mewing black shop cat and a shy stripey tiger on a shelf. The owner was behind the counter serving a customer, and two old men sat in a corner between boxes of liquorice sticks and what I think were carob pods. A fully veiled lady watched me, as I walked in. For that the courage. The ordeal of being watched. I waited and when he was finished with the earlier customer the white-haired man asked politely how he could help me. He didn't have lime leaves (who does?) and suggested I try Mr Kim's across the road. But I practically live at Mr Kim's and knew that was no good. Well, thank you, I said to him, and I'll come back for something else. Any time, he said, you are very welcome. And then said, Wait! and rushed to the end of the counter and lifted from a baking tray there a fat lozenge of layered phyllo stuffed with syrupy pistachio nuts and asked me if I knew what it was. Baklava, I said...Yes! he cried, as though I had performed a very clever trick. Handing it to me in wax paper he made to give me another and I demurred, thanking him, and walked back out into the dark afternoon taking an appreciative bite of the buttery pastry before saving the rest for the Frenchman.

Eight years I have lived here. Why now? Malko Karkanni Brothers. But apparently the sign is wrong and has been since 1917. They are the Karkenny brothers. I will shop there now, for a while. And if I learn Arabic (I wish), I can buy the The Arab Times there, too.

In the end, for the tom yum, I used some of the clementine leaves still attached to the fruit I bought a few days ago. And some lemon zest in a long peel. The soup was delicious, and just what my incipient sniffle needed. In it were a few fat shrimp that I bought at Fish Tales on Court Street, whose own line stretched to the door, mostly people picking up holiday orders, which were lined up in the chilled glass case at the end, in rows. What was in them? As I waited a man bounded in and handed a gift-wrapped bottle to Alex, one of the counterman. Happy Christmas! Another man heaved onto his shoulders a large box that said Live Lobster, Rush Shipment, and left with it. I got my guilty shrimp (the way they are caught kills a lot of other marine life) and one pound of wild salmon and left, past the Christmas tree sellers and their lights, past the traffic of cars with trees strapped to the roofs.

In our dark apartment I turned the lights on on the terrace, plugged in the tree and took the kikoi cover off the presents Vince had arranged at its feet. The cat likes to rip their ribbons apart and the kikoi deters him. I unpacked the shopping bag, hid some gifts, and started to peel shrimp.

(I'll post the recipe later. It really was wonderful.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012


The Lobster Place. A fish shop so clean and unfishy and tempting that I would be happy to move in. I'd sleep on a little cot in the corner, well swaddled. It's chilly, in there. We were at the Chelsea Market, the cave-like series of food shops and kitchen stores beneath the Food Network empire on a long block of West 16th Street and 9th Avenue, to look for a new chopping board and espresso maker. On the way out, loaded with the former but not the latter, we wandered in here on a whim, and wandered out with a sackful of shaved ice and two bags of oysters, still tightly zipped. We rode back to Brooklyn with them on the subway.

I unzipped them at home. I nearly gave up with the first three. How on earth...? Then got the hang of it. Less brute force than leverage.

Oysters. You either do, or you don't.

Do you?

Saturday, December 22, 2012


As isolated flakes of snow drift down onto the terrace and the wind makes the seams of the building creak, the fava beans still bloom above our heads. I'm not picking those stems. I am very curious as to just how long the flowers and beanlets might last.

And the cilantro (coriander for the dwellers on the other side of the pond) really does like cold weather. I've always had better luck with it when it is cool. Otherwise it's just bolt-o'rama. Yet it hails from southern Europe and North Africa. Warm places. I don't get it.

Speaking of leaves and vegetables -  if you haven't given yourself a present yet, make it Elizabeth Schneider's Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. A real book with real heft, and insanely out of print. Nevermind squashing spiders, it could squash a rat (I use my opera dictionary for the very control, when le chat noir decides to bring one of his cattle in from the summer range for our delectation - and no, I don't ever squash spiders). Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini is a beautifully photographed, encyclopedic reference book - each plant's history, cultural context and its nutritional information precede some very interesting recipes. It's a great source of inspiration. There are many unusual plants and vegetables in it, including the kind for which I forage, as well as mushrooms. At $70 it's not cheap, but it is a keeper.

On the terrace, as I type, stray dead oak leaves scuttle across the gravel, my peripheral vision interpreting them as mice or chipmunks. The cat is dozing under his Christmas tree, his new favourite spot, and is singing little cat Christmas carols to himself. Breakfast is long over and its dishes are being packed away. We had fruit buns and strong coffee.

Later we'll head to the Union Square Christmas market. Vince insists we need a cat-shape ornament for the tree, and all we have found, so far, is dogs.

Update: Indeed, the market had cat ornaments. Lots of cat ornaments. Also waffles.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Our tree

Late this afternoon I walked down to the basement laundry before going out to do the circuit of shopping for our supper and weekend breakfasts (Mr Kim's for squash and dill, the wine shop for wine and Stolichnaya, Key Food for milk and eggs). I needed to launder my gym clothes. That's another story. A membership at the nearby New York Health and Racquet Club*. The price tag alone guarantees my attendance.

[Ahem. That should have been New York Sports Club.]

As I passed the basement-level apartment of The Guy Who Has Loud Sex and Spanks his Partner (...I hear it, what can I say?), I smelled Christmas trees. Douglas fir, to be precise. I love this northern scent. Go figure, I thought, Porn Hound got himself a tree.

As I walked down the final flight of stairs the tree smell grew stronger and suddenly I saw not Porn Hound, but my husband, looking up at me guiltily.

I had caught him in the act of decorating a fragrant and apartment-sized Douglas fir.  He'd been hiding there, hoping to install it in my absence.  He was very remorseful at being caught with his tree pants down, but I was very happy. It had been a rare sleepless night, half awake with high winds and ice rain on the skylights, the neighbour's wind chimes hysterical on her terrace, and fretful scenarios in my head regarding books, life, death...and gym memberships. You know, one of those it's-spiraling-out-of-control-it will-never-be-OK  nights of the soul.

I've never had a tree. Ever. In the States, I mean. Usually I am in Cape Town for Christmas. Our six foot tree now presides over the cat's water and food bowls. It twinkles with lights and fragile red and gold and silver globes, and actual tinsel.

It made everything better. Brought to me by the man who dreads Christmas more than a hole in the head.

Morning and Night

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Winter blossom

Outside Borough Hall in Brooklyn the winter cherries are blooming. Prunus subhirtella "Autumnalis".

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Edible Brooklyn cover

This was a nice surprise - walking into our wine shop the day after we got back from South Africa and seeing the latest edition of Edible Brooklyn on display, with my Brooklyn Bitters cocktail on the cover!

See, there's the silver-plated cocktail shaker my mom gave us, one of the Woodstock glasses (late 19th century South African commercial glass enterprise) that survived The Tick, aka the cat sitter from hell, the big knife I haggled for in Cape Town (Are you from Johannesburg? asked the snotty salesman, crossly. New York, I said proudly. He rolled his eyes in an I-should-have-guessed-it circle. I got 10% off. It was a floor model!).

What else. Oh, red currant gin - all gone now, very sad, and hen of the woods mushrooms in the background. And the Missing Opinel. I lost it, somehow. I got a new one for my birthday. Can't live without an Opinel knife. High carbon steel - the blade that rusts if you look at it but which sharpens to a paper thin edge of dangerousness.

These bitters were wonderful, and next year I shall make vast quantities - mostly wild black cherry based. And next year it seems I will be leading a troop of bartenders into the urban wilds to teach them about what to pick and why. Also, next May, another foraging class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but this time with foraging walk thrown in. May is excellent for green foraging. Hoping for lots of burdock.

I'll post that date when I have it.

Raisin buns

I have been making buns. And now I'm seeing if the bun dough is good for raisin bread. Realized too late, though, post-kneading that I'd only added one teaspoon of yeast. Should have been a tablespoon. Drat. It is very slow to rise...

I love buns. And raisin bread.

Which is why I signed up for my very first American gym membership, yesterday, after doing a lap of shame around Brooklyn Bridge Park and Cadman Plaza.

Lightning flickered on the street as I signed the contract.

We'll see how that goes.

And I'll report on the bread as soon as I have tasted it.

11.40am - The Report: Dee-licious! Recipe for raisin bread is at 66 Square Feet (the Food).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

December leaves

Trout lettuce - of which I will never be rid, I suspect, after its prolific self seeding; spinach, its undersides infested with a tiny, reddish mite, hence too much trouble to wash and eat; unsure (some kind of chicory?) - nice and bitter; red romaine; giant red mustard - miniature here, but in my mother's garden so giant it is embarrassing; dwarf kale; peas and fava beans. All making lots and lots of leaves, right now. The mustard is especially good - tender and very hot.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I'll have a side of hope, with toast

Breakfast is, somehow, hopeful. And the enameled coffee cups help. They remind us of camping, and clean winds, and the smell of smoke, and a Piet my Vrou shouting in the green willow trees above our heads.

I bought the cups at Oep ve Koep, the morning we left Paternoster. We carried quite a lot out that we had not owned on arrival. Four large crayfish, for example. Hibernating in ice in a coolbag. But that was long ago, and far away.

So for now, there is breakfast. For extra hopefulness I put pieces of crispy bacon and sunny side up eggs (on the previous night's toasted wholewheat naan breads) on the praying mantis plates. And cut some green leaves from the terrace and put them in a Dead Horse Bay milk bottle.

And then we sat in the morning light and ate, and drank our coffee.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rising above it all

Algerian Sahara. Photo: Vincent Mounier

Click the link for a stunning series of aerial images of the Sahara Desert from the Frenchman. Later, I'll post mine.

Our flight in daylight down Africa, from Amsterdam to Cape Town, was unforgettably beautiful. The level of detail and number of topographical mysteries visible in the ancient landscape kept our noses glued to the windows.

What is even more remarkable is that he later found the locations on Google Earth. A massive crater was identified, where a meteor had impacted this planet 100,000 years ago. A sci-fi earth works was revealed to be a uranium mine in Niger.

Mysterious parallel lines and the isolated settlements I photographed still await explanation.

Friday, December 14, 2012

South African Food - Oep ve Koep

There was a time when the phrase 'South African food' could send a shudder down the spine of anyone sensitive about eating well (I refuse to use the word foodie. I hate the word foodie). It was - with exceptional regional dishes - the worst of English and Dutch culinary traditions, boiled, baked and soused to death.

If you'd said "boerekos" the reaction might be different. To an Afrikaans speaker. Literally, boerekos means farmers' food, and it idiomatically paints a picture of a plate of food, filled to the edges and with impressive topography, of good things like venison pie or spiced (well done) roast lamb tasting of the land, of sweet pumpkin or sweet potatoes, and carrot salad, and roast potatoes, and maybe even yellow rice, as well - the more starch, the better... Good boerekos is, despite its heft, well, good. Bad boerekos is awful. The best boerekos I ever had was in the little town of Calvinia in the Northern Cape, in September - flower season. It was like a pie chart of deliciousness: a magenta wedge of vinegary pickled beetroot, grated carrot moistened with orange juice, a wedge of venison: flaky, dark, clove-spiced meat beneath golden pastry. Smooth sweet potato.

(And if you'd like to read and see more about traditional South African food I urge you to buy Karoo Kitchen. It is a new, beautiful and illuminating collection of affidavits and recipes by people - brown, chocolate, beige and pink - who live in that famous, dry region of South Africa. Written by Sydda Essop, published by Quiver Tree and edited by our friend Johan van Zyl)

Of course, things have changed. A lot.

But even within the atmosphere of burgeoning creativity and a new attention to ingredients and their origin, Oep ve Koep in Paternoster is a few light years ahead of the curve. It's not really fair to compare what Kobus van der Merwe is doing in his kitchen with what other good restaurants produce because he is in a rare category of his own,  a very small one, shared by quiet chefs and superstars sprinkled across the globe.

Each plate is a story. In the story you read about the place, the land, its seasons.

But first you start with some local wine or beer off the very local list, and with fresh bread and farm butter and a tapenade where the anchovies have been replaced by a West Coast legend: bokkoms. Reviled by outsiders, inhaled by locals: wind-dried fillets of the maasbanker: Salty, intense, oily. There is a syrup-preserved naartjie (NAAR-chee), what South Africans call mandarin orange or clementines. It is topped with a shard of locally produced salt.

And then you think about lunch. Or, if you are me, you just say, Everything, please. 

Smoked angelfish is another South African standby. It makes a wonderful pâté, and here it was translated into soft, creamy-white clouds to spread onto crisp toasts, its saltiness relieved by traditional korrelkonfyt (KAW-rull-cawn-fate) - I bought some in Kobus' mother's shop, which is part of the restaurant: a whole-grape jam, syrupy and concentrated and a typical companion to smoked snoek in the Cape. The fresh grapes were a good foil, though I can see this reaching new heights at the end of summer, when the hanepoot (HAH-nuh-pwhurt)- local Muscat grapes - are in season.

An aside. We were very lucky to be having lunch with good friends (and Oep ve Koep regulars) and seasoned media professionals who seemed unfazed by my hopping around to take pictures of everything, even moving distracting bottles and cutlery out of the camera frame before I could ask. Johan van Zyl, left, Peter van Noord (and Le Frenchie, of course). Johan and Peter live at Koringberg, the little wheatland town about an hour's drive into the interior, in a former schoolhouse with high ceilings and white floors and a stoep where they have a long, long table at which friends sit and eat. A dream. It was Johan's story about our terrace in Visi Magazine that crystallized my book idea, convincing me to make it highly seasonal. It was a beautiful spread.


It was this plate that blew my socks off. Well, blew my flip flops off, then.

On the menu it was called Mosselbank at Low Tide. I'd seen its evolution on Kobus' blog, so it wasn't a total surprise. But the forager and leaf lover in me rejoiced to sink my teeth into a plant I have never eaten before. See the succulent leaves in the centre, front? Mesembryanthemum crystallinum (thanks to Rupert Koopman, for his ID confirmation). Locally called soutslaai (SOTE-sly), salt salad - a plant that grows in the dunes of this long, long coastline.

Wow (useful word). Juicy, beaded with little shiny cells of moisture, intensely oceanic with squirts of sourness. Kobus said it is more intense in summer because of the low rainfall - in winter it plumps up even more. It is one of the plants that produces the commonly-called and ubiquitous vygie flower of the West Coast.  FAY-(g)hee. But the (g)h is soft, like a not-very-angry cat hiss. The softer emerald leaves are sea lettuce, gathered from the rock pools and beach, and the almond makes very respectable sand, so much better to eat than the real thing. 

That is the superstar dish. 

It's not just that there is story telling going on, here. It's that you can eat the story with relish - it's not inaccessible cerebral self indulgence. It's food, drawing on traditions of veldkos (field food, foraged food) and paying its respects to the immediate environment. And it isn't just hand-me-down foam, let's-copy-a-trend-that-started-somewhere-else-four-years-ago, and skid-mark-schmears-on-plates. This is honest. It is unique. This is the edible equivalent of writing about what you know, with great elegance and restraint.

Plate of rocks, Madam?

On the rocks were local oysters, barely cooked, topped with beurre blanc, grated green apple, unripe gooseberries (ground cherries, Stateside) and...samphire! Creamy salt air and sea marsh. Be still my beating heart.

I think this was Peter's plate. The ice cream is infused with rooibos (ROY -baws) - Aspalathus linearis, a local shrub whose leaves now make it into teas often available in the States. The powder is, we think, roasted naartjiepeel, offsetting the meringue's sweetness and juiciness of the ripe nectarines. 

I have gone on. But it is exciting to experience something fresh. And it is quite rare. If you are within spitting distance of Paternoster, go. It is an hour-and-a-half's drive from Cape Town, and there are plenty of good places to stay. Oep ve Koep is open for lunch and for brunch, usually Wednesdays through Sundays.

Don't expect a menu the size of telephone directory (remember those?). It is small, and it is perfect. Three starters, a couple of main courses, one dessert. 

Expect to be enchanted.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Seven Lessons from my Father

[My father asked me to make the speech at his 80th birthday. This filled me with dread, for months. What to say, truthfully, but with immense love? About a man who was so many different things to different people? Finally, at 4am the day before the party, I sat down at the kitchen table in my parents' house, and wrote. Maybe jet lag helped. The next day the tent in the garden was filled with old friends, some traveling far to be there, who have known each other and my father for longer than I have been alive. Visiting family. My two brothers sitting beside each other, who have not spoken in years. Oceans of wine, rivers of flowers, and very good food, from the wonderful Food Fanatics, who are friends. There was much laughing. There was some crying. My dad laughed before he cried, and then he laughed again. One of his gifts - rare in most people - is to mock his own weaknesses.]

Seven Lessons from my Father                                                                           
2 December 2012

1. The first lesson my father taught me:

Every Sunday, in Bloemfontein, my father took my brothers and me to the big playground opposite the zoo. One Sunday my father engaged in a game of beach bats with a friend on the grass beside the lake, there. While he played I ran around and around the edge of the lake. Suddenly a small and very loud dog jumped from behind a tree and barked at me. At the age of four I already had a low startle threshold, helped along a little by a brother who liked to terrify me, and so immediately jumped into the air and sideways and fell into the water. I sank. I had not yet learned to swim. My father didn’t notice. He went on playing beach bats. I remember trying to find something to hold onto but beyond the brown water the walls were smooth and I went straight down. A stranger hauled me out and carried me around the lake, bawling, to my parent. We all raced home in our old pale blue Kombi and I was put into a warm bath, still wearing my brown sundress with yellow flowers on it. My swimming lessons began the same week.

If you can’t swim, you will drown. It was a lesson in extremes.

It was Lesson No. 1: Sink, or Swim

2. The second lesson.

When we were little the only possible way to avoid my father’s punctual wrath upon the identification of a transgression according to the penal code of 54 Paul Roux Street, Dan Pienaar, Bloemfontein, 9301, was to lie. It took me some time to realize that simple denial of an action wasn’t good enough. Had I bitten the hole in the leather upholstery of my father’s Jaguar so that the stuffing had come out? No! Then who had, since I was the only occupant of the back seat?


And that taught me to be creative with answers. And to stop biting upholstery.

In my peripatetic travels through three careers, white lies and a mild wiliness have occasionally been very useful. Could I design gardens? Why yes, of course I could. The lie bought me time. And I used that time to learn how to design gardens. Fast. Years later, when asked if I could produce professional quality photographs, the answer was an instant yes. 21st century technology and the inheritance of my father’s photographic eye helped me. That first photo I sold is now on the cover of a best selling gardening book.

Lesson No.2?  When in Doubt, Lie. Then work overtime to deliver.

3. The third lesson.

I’m not sure that my father has ever abandoned a tough situation. His admonition and motto is Deursettingsvermoë. Tenacity. A quality he regularly told me I lacked, along with guts, when I was very young. His own youth epitomised deursettingsvermoë. He spent his days in his father’s clothing shop and his nights at university; he wrote down every bob spent in a little pocket book (which he still owns). He worked his way up from selling socks to SC.

When I left the country in 1994, it was after a very rough year in our relationship. I was leaving not only to pursue a singing career, but to put as much distance between myself and my father as possible, and as fast as possible. Civil war was imminent.

Although I did not realize it, then, tucking my tail in and running away was the first step towards developing a good relationship with him. The process only took about twelve years.

But you have to start somewhere.

Lesson No. 3 was: To hell with deursettingsvermoë: When the Going gets Tough, Leave.

4. Which brings us to No. 4.

Running away leads, if you are lucky, to independence. Which is my father’s middle name. John Donne was entirely wrong about no man being an island. He never met Henri Viljoen.

My father was the unapproachable and unpredictable Krakatoa of our childhoods. And he became the Manhattan island of our growing years, his standards intimidatingly high, and his judgement swift and final.

 Lesson No. 4 was: If You can Make it at Home, You can Make it Anywhere.

5. No 5 is mercifully brief.

Nobody in the greenbelt gets as much respect walking their dogs as the man in the three piece suit with the pocket square and tie pin.

Lesson 5 is: Dress for Success.

6.  No. 6.

The man in the three piece suit was - and is - the owner of delicate 50’s era cocktail glasses, a hand-cranked ice crusher, a magnificently stocked bar and books of encyclopedically mixed drinks. I inherited this cocktail fetish. Luckily, I also inherited my father’s physical distaste for liquor in times of crisis. I drink when I am happy. And since the balance of any life is skewed, according to my father, toward unhappiness, with brief flashes of bliss, my sobriety has been guaranteed.

The cocktails and aperitifs that precede each menu in my book are a tribute to my father, and to the pleasure he takes in a well-mixed drink and its accompanying sense of occasion…

Lesson No. 6, with apologies to Paul Simon and his appearance with the Muppets, is: Drink Fast!

7. Finally:

Whether he is sitting under the tree here, looking at my mother’s garden, which he adores, or up at the mountain, or whether he is having supper at the candlelit wooden table in the kitchen, my father is able to submerge himself entirely in the pleasure of the moment. Inevitably, he says: "What privileged lives we lead." For me, this awareness is perhaps his greatest legacy. Because it is a way to live. It is a way to make mere survival pleasurable and it is an acknowledgement that most of our complaints are very petty. Looking at what is right in front of you, now, and appreciating it for what it is, is the life’s ambition of spiritual travelers and religious nomads worldwide. My father is the antithesis of both types.  He is a man who knows that there is no greater meaning, no bigger picture, just Now. He is a man who feels privileged to be alive.

He gets on his loathed bike and rides to a point of exhaustion in order that he may stay alive longer, to see more of this garden, or his next case, or to drink another glass of Nelson Estate Shiraz (2004), and to suck just a little bit more from the giant marrow bone of life. And if you think the metaphor is unwieldy (which it is), you have never seen – or heard - my father sucking an actual marrow bone.

But that is another story.

The final lesson is: Live. Now.

There endeth the lessons.

In closing, and to tie up some loose ends, I can only say that the man I resented, so much, 18 years ago, is gone. My father has changed. And I have changed. Then, I was more a sum of my fears than a sum of my parts; and fear has a very distorting lens, obscuring what is good and amplifying what is bad.

My father is like the best books. The kind you read again and again, like War and Peace, finding in its pages, at every fresh reading, something new. Because in the interim you have changed, and you return to this book with altered sympathies, and a greater experience of the complexity, pain, and pleasure of life. In such a rare - and ageless - book, all of this life is reflected and is waiting for you to find, when you are ready.

In its pages, you will recognize yourself. And, if you are me, in yourself, your  own father.     

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

66 Square Feet Calendar

A newsflash. It's the first 66 Square Feet calendar! A 12 month tribute to the loveliness of big seasons in small spaces. It is 11" x 8.5", closed, with a terrace or roof crop picture for each month.

Head on over to the 66 Square Feet store (!) if you would like one for yourself or a gardening friend.

(Check the Zazzle website for various sales promotion codes to type in at checkout)

Then the cat wanted one. Now he has one.

Sigh. I am his slave.

* -  Estorbo and I receive a 10% commission per sale: his goes towards his impressive vet's bills, to pay for his hyperthyroidism treatment, and mine will go towards my plant fund for the terrace.

(For international orders, here's a useful link. You may purchase it from - almost - anywhere in the world.)

Peas in winter

I was in the bedroom yesterday when a movement caught my eye, and made me look up. Through the skylight I could see green.


Peas! I had forgotten about the roof farm, and had not been up to check on it since leaving for South Africa 13 days earlier. I shot straight up. Within moments I had foraged a giant handful of tender, sappy, sweet pea shoots. And fava bean leaves, and purple mustard. In the middle (nearly) of December. Holy moly.

Some of the fava beans even had rows of their pretty white and chocolate flowers, so I left those stems, just to see what will happen. The stumps you see below are from the last time I picked tender shoots, a couple of weeks ago. 

And this was just weird. Nasturtiums. Still blooming.

The peas and fave went into a duck sausage sauce for pasta, wilted in at the last minute - a soft green incorporated salad, for those too tired to chew hard.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kirstenbosch in 80 minutes

In our eight days on the ground in Cape Town we had: helped with the 80th birthday preparations, written and given a speech, drunk Champagne, eaten two braais, slurped oysters, seen the sea, roared up to Paternoster, eaten at Oep ve Koep, seen two friends, bought and cooked fresh crayfish straight off the boat, hiked in the mountains above Silvermine, and picknicked at Cape Point while watching flocks of stilts and terns near the water. 

But we had not yet visited Kirstenbosch. So before lunch on our last day we scooted around the beautiful garden, where the clouds were just lifting from the mountain, and saw flowers that we usually miss on our late December or January visits.

You could spend a day, here, with a good lunch inbetween and serious book or plant shopping afterwards. These pretty yellow Cotula grew in amongst some campanula-ish flowers (please chime in with ID if you know) - part of the displays always planted in front of the upper level restaurant (avoid the lower level one, it's horrible).

One of my favourite sections of the botanical garden is the endangered and threatened species rockery. Here is a stunning erica, which I have never seen in bloom:  known commonly as rock heath, and properly called Erica quadrisulcata. Sulcata means furrows and somewhere, there must be four furrows. On the flowers? On the needle-thin leaves?

I can't tell my Leucaspermum from my elbow. It is all I can do to remember that they are not Leucadendrons, the coned bushes of fynbos. I suppose...I suppose those individual pins in their cushions do look a little - a lot - like sperm cells, yes? Seriously, I'd never thought of it before. Like, duh?

Commonly and collectively referred to as pincushions. The flowers. Not the sperm cells.

Above, another Leucaspermum but it had a handy label. Tufted pincushion, Leucapsermum oleifolium. Small flowers, about an inch-and-a-half across. 

Every week new flowers are collected from all over the garden to display here, with names. The change-over was in progress. I would like this job.

Below, our friend the tufted pincushion again, on the higher slopes of the garden with some magnificent Aristea macrocarpa behind. They top six feet, and most summers we only see their dried stalks and seeds on the mountain.

The smallest aristea I have seen is about four inches high, on Silvermine and at Cape Point.

More pincushions, below.

And Mimetes. I don't know what species, but they were everywhere.

Yep, another pincushion.

And a tree with a checkered past. Wild almond. Native to shady mountain kloofs, it was planted as a hedge by Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch commander to land at the Cape. He was collecting a herd of cattle to feed his Dutch East India Company employees, to use as trek beasts (to pull wagons and carry supplies) and to supply DEIC ships passing the Cape, and wanted to keep the best grazing near the mountain for his own herd, rather than allow the semi-nomadic KhoiKhoi to let their stock graze there, where they had, presumably for centuries. He traded hard liquor, tobacco and beads in return for their cattle. Sound familiar?

If you'd like to know more about that interesting time at the Cape buy Dan Sleigh's Eilande. It's a fat book  - a novel about South Africa's early colonial past - and will last a long time. I am rereading the original Afrikaans version, but Islands is available, used, in English, on Amazon. I think of it as the War and Peace of South Africa.

Back to the wild almond - Brabejum stellatifolium. This is reputedly one of the original trees. They were planted in the 1650's. Kobus van de Merwe mentioned when we were at Oep ve Koep that their fruit could be used as a coffee substitute. But that is another story.

The protea man was there, at the entrance, when we left. He brings his flowers from the farms outside Stellenbosch, and sits all day in his car, listening to jazz guitar music, which he plays when he is not flower-smousing, as we say in the Cape.

And then we charged off to Noordhoek, for lunch with my mom.