Sunday, July 3, 2016

The woman and the bees.

After our recent stay at BabylonstorenI received Maranda Engelbrecht's glorious Babel cookbook as a gift. That night, I devoured it from cover to cover.

How heartening to read that in 2012, when the book was published, head gardener Liesl van der Walt says that she wants to learn to be a beekeeper, with the knowledge of that wish now being a reality.

For in this garden, things happen that are beyond the realm of reason. Incredibly, outré cucurbits start their lives as crumpled white flowers.

I had forgotten the smell of papaya blossoms and the taste of a ripe tamarillo. I crunched along peach pip pathways, sniffing crushed bay leaf on my fingertips, daydreaming.

We sat at a table in the conservatory one morning, talking to Liesl. Battered panama hat, worn leather pockets on a gardener's apron, strong hands. Wagtails swooped and fluttered overhead.

I asked her if it was unusual to be a female beekeeper in South Africa. She looked down, smiled and said: 
Bye is meesal vrouens, jy weet.
"Bees are mostly women, you know."
I could tell that it was a love affair for her - this story with the  bees. She spoke about the otherworldliness of it all - the vibration of wings, the sound of a happy hive. That waggle dance they do.
She called them wild animals. I liked that.

We walked to the hives.

The bees had clover blossoms on their minds.

The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.
- Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, June 26, 2016


A few years ago, the tall man planted a sprouting sweet potato in our garden. It made a vine and after a year we dug up three or four tubers. One must have stayed behind, as a new year brought another vine and this time it flowered...

... betraying it's Morning Glory roots.
Yesterday's crop was somewhat of a revelation.

Missing from the picture is the largest one - which we cooked last night, wrapped in foil and nestled in the coals of our supper fire.
With melted butter, salt and pepper, it was fluffy and nutty and utterly yummy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Happiness is a garden and a kitchen.

Having to wake up at dawn last Tuesday morning at the Babylonstoren farm hotel was a sweet misery. The bed was so soft and there was a tiny skylight, high up above us, showing a myriad of stars.
But there was golden morning light to catch.

The night before, after dinner at Babel, we walked back to number five and found that unseen hands had placed a flannel-wrapped hot water bottle in our huge four poster bed. The smell of lavender floor wax brought back fond childhood memories of my grandmother's house.

As for dinner...

The starters were delectable.

The main course was so good that the tall man finished his by picking up his bone and gnawing at it. Later we found out that this behaviour is something that makes the chef particularly happy.
One likes a happy chef.

Dessert made us swoon.

Also, the tall man was wearing my favourite paisley shirt.

Back in our warm bed, I discovered the exceptional bedside lamps. (As important surely, as a sharp knife in the kitchen.)

The extensive library in the house felt as though it had been chosen just for us.
He read The Bird Guide of Southern Africa.
I read The Honey Bee Democracy.

Over breakfast the next morning, we had a good old natter with Babel's head chef. I'm  a little afraid of famous chefs, but it would be difficult to find someone more down to earth than Cornelle Minie.
A chef who doesn't hold her cards tightly against her chest, she shares ingredients and recipes without qualm.

Breakfast was a many-splendoured thing...

I chose guavas and cara cara orange with some rather startling granola. Savoury granola? The thought had never entered my mind. 
Toasty fennel seeds, coriander and a hint of curry.
I loved it.

The carrot garnishing my juice glass might very well have been one of a bunch I'd watched gardener Mariette pulling from the earth earlier that morning.

With the chef, we commiserated over childhoods of cooked-to-death vegetables. On this farm, the garden is the beating heart and the produce is the hero of the menu.

Once a week, to fulfil a daily order, Cornelle walks through the farm gardens with head gardener Liesl van der Walt. They discuss the needs of the kitchen, taking note of what is in season and what is budding and burgeoning. I'm sure that they also have time for a laugh or two.
Because this is what struck me over and over again:
the people who work here are happy.

I had an important question for the chef: what do you cook at home?
Ah: Skaapribbetjie (Mutton ribs). Chicken wings. And if time allows - time for cooking stock from scratch and those important things... oxtail. A girl after our own hearts.

A last walk through the garden after breakfast revealed that even water lilies have Autumn colours.

And that it is the start of waterblommetjie season. I am very partial to these flowers cooked in a lamb stew, with lemon rind.

A stone's throw from the restaurant, Liesl's African honey bees are very happy too.

The title of this post is a quote by Sir Terence Conran. I scribbled it on the flyleaf of a tiny black book which I took with me on my overseas wanderings many, many years ago. In it are my favourite recipes, written in the girlish handwriting of way back then. (Bobotie, Lamb and apple meatballs, my Ouma's date chutney...)

The quote lingers in my mind whenever I visit Babylonstoren.

(All photos by the sourcerer and a very tall man)

Friday, May 27, 2016

A charm to ward off lightning.

My white paintbrush lilies are blooming for the first time.
The flowers have a delicate, powdery scent.

I brought the bulbs back from Natal two years ago, carefully wrapped up in a piece of African fabric in my suitcase. They had clumps of red earth clinging to their roots and were given to me by a German woman I met in a shop in the Midlands.

She had baskets full of them hanging from trees in the driveway leading up to her house. She took me to places on the seamier side of town. She knew some Zulu and shouted good-naturedly at the women who tried to sell us things for more than they were worth.
HAIBO! she would shout, and everyone would laugh.

It's not always an easy thing, working so far away from home. But I often think of my time in Natal, the people I met there and how things seemed to happen in such fortuitous ways.

The Props Master told me that it was important to find a place in town that no-one else knew about. A place to think. Tell no-one, she said. After a few days, I stumbled upon a lovely old house in Boomstraat (Tree Street). There was a small antique shop, a restaurant, a room full of books and a topiary garden. Every day the statue of Mary at the bottom of the garden was adorned with fresh flowers.

The chef was very good.

Back home the time has come to harvest some turmeric root. Snow peas and broad beans are poking determined green heads through black soil. Aloes are bursting their seams. 

A pot of Osso Bucco is simmering slowly on the stove.
It's almost time to light a fire.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Autumn is a darker Spring.

Sulphur spotted lady bugs step out onto giant leaves of rhubarb for clandestine meetings with tiny white spiders. Under half cover of saw-toothed aloe, skinks scorch and blink.

There is evidence of fowl play.

The bulbuls slay meadow brown butterflies. Optimistic rats meet sticky ends. Unconcerned, the field mouse stands on his hind legs
to inspect a dandelion.

There are those that are precocious, while others - on a slower kilter, thrust out reptilian buds while we sleep.

Furred strangers brood beneath voodoo flowerets.

The guava tree, planted after Christmas,
offers up one perfect fruit.