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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Kos & Wyn | Food & Wine > Rubrieke | Columns > Michael Olivier: Notes from my kitchen table

My kitchen table: Old food, colourful food, great food

Michael Olivier - 2006-07-07

With all the fashion for Asian food, fusion food and con-fusion food, there is something comforting about old food, colourful food and great food.

I have been fortunate to have been exposed twice recently to one of the greatest of the old food cultures - the food of Italy, perhaps the best known of the earliest of the foreign cuisines in South Africa after French. (Chinese was perhaps next, followed by the slew of nationalities that makes eating out so exciting in Cape Town and indeed many cities of South Africa – though I think we do the restaurant thing best in Cape Town – but I am more than slightly biased, having lived here for most of my life.)

I recently took a group of ladies from places as far apart as London and Singapore, Napa Valley and South Korea on a very special trip to have lunch at my cousin’s house in Franschhoek. The ladies were here as part of a 950 strong delegation of the Young Presidents Organisation attending their Global Leadership Conference which was held in Cape Town recently.

The house is a dream - in the middle of the town, yet with such a verdant and peaceful garden, it could be out in the country, the high blue mountains on this perfect day providing a backdrop to the old oaks close to the house. Inside it has high ceilings and is classically decorated with comfort and peace in mind.

To call it lunch is a bit like calling Michelangelo a craftsman or Vivaldi a busker. It was lunch supreme - an Italian lunch cooked by one of the best-known Italian cooks of the Cape, Simonetta dalla Cia, ably assisted by her daughter Marta. Fortunate we were too, to have Giorgio dalla Cia, the pater familias, there to lead us in his inimitable, almost philosophical, grandfatherly way, through a selection of wines made by his own hand. We started with a glass of Prosecco made from the eponymous grape in the Veneto, north of Venice. Harmless as a glass of fruit juice and way more fun, this is the ultimate refreshing bubble, not pretending to be something that it isn’t - simple and straightforward. Best consumed mid-morning when you need a little lift to make the day exciting.

Glasses in hand we went through to the kitchen to watch Simonetta finish off the most perfect of simple risottos. The antipasti she had laid out on the large diningroom table inside - we were to eat in dappled shade under a pergola on the flagstones overlooking the garden. The riotous colours of the foods were matched only by the vibrancy of the flavours. There were slices of bright orange, sappy sweet aromatic melon draped with paper thin pink prosciutto, thin like a bride’s veil. The contrast of the sweet and salt so beloved of the Spanish Lady Smith - Juana, wife of former British Governor Sir Harry Smith - who ate this dish for breakfast and gave the local name Spaans Spek (Spanish ham) to the melon. There were slices of the palest white buffalo mozzarella interleaved with the reddest of ripe tomato and vibrant green, deeply aromatic sweet basil. Quarters of vibrantly coloured roasted red and yellow peppers lying next to long slices of grilled aubergine. A platter of grilled seafoods, prawns, tiny little calamari sacs and the purple tentacles cooked separately and deliciously garlicky tender. Slices of the most exotic of salamis and Parma Ham glistened on an Iceberg Rose white charger. The wines were two of the Meerlust Giorgio made there while cellarmaster, the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir followed by his eponymous Sauvignon Blanc and his Bordeaux blend called Giorgio. And does he make a mean Bordeaux Blend. Utterly delicious - “iron fist in velvet glove” - fully deeply coloured with all the attributes given it by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and fine ripe, somewhat grippy tannins, making it the ideal food wine.

Followed by one or two delicious little Italian sweet pastries and carta musica - music sheets – crispy brown dredged with snow white icing sugar, an espresso and a glas of Giorgio’s own grappa.

A perfect day ended and the ladies returned to Cape Town in a threesome of 4-seater Bell helicopters while I slept gently on the back seat of the coach going back to Cape Town!

More wondrous Italian food was served at a tasting of Peter Finlayson’s Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal. Going back four years to the first wine whose launch I attended. Italian varietals Sangiovese (Blood of Jove), Nebbiolo, Barbera and splashings of Pinot Noir and Shiraz. An African wine using the varietals of Italy and France. Hannibal the general having crossed the Alps from France to Italy on African elephants, the whole name thing is neatly sewn up. The 2003, my favourite of the four, is the vintage currently on the shelves. The price per bottle is of the “splashing out” range, but for a special occasion, perhaps with a gentle lamb stew or even a robust risotto, I could think of no nicer wine to drink with my love. Peter is able to create a mouthfeel of fruit rather than acid and make wine which is really friendly.

One of the ladies who accompanied me on the trip to Franschhoek was the South African-born wife of the owner of the Indian beer brand Cobra, Karan Bilimoria. Cobra is available in South Africa and in Indian restaurants and in major supermarket groups in the UK such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.

Cobra beef casserole
This is like the Belgian Carbonnade, one you can make with little fuss using good quality topside of beef and easy-to-serve accompaniments like really creamy mashed potatoes and lightly steamed cabbage with lots of freshly milled black pepper and nutmeg and butter! For the beer it is better to use Cobra, a smooth, less gassy beer, rather than a heavy beer like a stout.

You'll need
1 kg topside of beef
seasoned flour (see truc at end of recipe)
sunflower oil
unsalted butter
1 kg onions - peeled and thinly sliced
3 fat cloves garlic - finely chopped
1 tsp brown sugar
4 little branches of fresh thyme
1litre Cobra beer
1 tsp smooth French mustard
and a squeeze of lemon.

Slice the beef so that you end up with slices about 10 cm square and about 1 cm thick. Dip them into the seasoned flour and give them a good shake to remove any excess.
Heat a tablespoon each of oil and unsalted butter in a casserole dish. When the oil is sufficiently hot, brown the meat - not too many pieces at a time - for about 2 minutes on both sides until all the meat is done.
Keep the cooked pieces on a plate while you finish the job and use the juices which run off it, in the dish.
Now without wiping out the casserole, add more oil and butter and brown the onion and garlic over a high heat, turning all the while until browned. Add the brown sugar and cook a couple of minutes longer before adding the branches of thyme (OK, sprinkle over about a tsp of dried thyme then!) and the beer.
Gently bring it to the boil and add the beef and its juices, mixing the meat in well amongst the onions.
Pop the lid on and bake in a 180°C oven for just short of an hour. Remove the lid and stir in the mustard and lemon juice.

Serves six.

Truc [little tip] for seasoned flour: Sprinkle a healthy layer of cake flour onto a saucer and season well with sea salt, a touch of paprika and freshly milled black pepper, or be clever and use Ina Paarman's All Natural Seasoned Sea Salt.

A couple of books which will amuse you have passed across the kitchen table recently.


  • Click below to buy this book
    Click here to buy Apples for Jam
    Tessa Kiros has produced magnum opus no 3 with a fabulous book called Apples for Jam, published by Murdoch Books. Following on the heels of Twelve and Falling Cloudberries this is another book without which I am not prepared to live. Rich in colour and feel, with brilliant photography and really great food. There is no end to the talent of this Greek/Norwegian/South African/Tuscan food writer who has worked in London, Sydney and Mexico. Cape Town chef Peter Goffe Wood - himself a published author with his successful Kitchen Cowboys - worked with Tessa Kiros at The Groucho Club in London and had no end of good words about her. She was in South Africa just after Easter and my sadness was that she did not come south from Johannesburg.


  • Click here to buy other titles by Michele Cranston
    Michele Cranston continues to produce further excitements in her series of Marie Claire books. Following hot on the heels of Hot and Crisp are Spicy and Easy. Such fabulous little books – fit onto a small shelf in the kitchen and produce just the sort of food you are able to produce in a hurry with maximum flavour. In the style of Donna Hay, for whom she worked as a stylist, and Bill Granger she produces colourful, flavourful food using the sort of ingredients you can get in any good food section of your favourite supermarket.





Well, let me scrub down the old oak kitchen table. I'll keep my notebook and pencil handy so I'll have lots to talk about next time.

Please visit my website www.noshnews.co.za - it's been recently upgraded. There's a mine of information there about books, wine, places to stay and good food. If you need any more information about the above, please email me at noshnews@iafrica.com. Also, if you live in or near Cape Town and would like to come to one of my monthly Pick ‘n Pay Wine Club wine-tastings, please email me and I’ll send you an invitation. They’re free and we do it for the fun of it – no smoke and mirrors, no winespeak, no mystique. Great wines and snacks served afterwards

Till next time, eat and drink well.