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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Kos & Wyn | Food & Wine > Rubrieke | Columns > Paul Murray: Murray's Food Trails

A little bit of Machiavelli at the Waterfront

Paul Murray - 2009-10-22

The words of the wise Florentine Machiavelli, that "Benefits should be conferred gradually; and in that way they will taste better", could well be used to explain Balducci's rise from a coffee bar nine years ago to one of the Mother City's top fine-dining haunts. In fact, Machiavelli himself would have felt completely at home at Balducci’s on the Waterfront in Cape Town, because there is so much that is Florentine right here. Sent to Villa Mangiacane, the original Machiavelli home outside Florence in Italy, the chefs from Balducci return well trained to serve up dishes à la italiana. That’s why the pasta is al dente, the osso buco cooked for hours and the wine pure Tuscan. And that’s why it could be said there is a little bit of Machiavelli at the Waterfront! 

Figure 1. Villa Mangiacane, just 12 km south of Florence, is a magnificent 15th-century villa built by the Machiavelli family and bearing the unmistakable hand of the Renaissance master Michelangelo. Photo credit: http://www.mangiacane.it

The starter, served with pinot grigio, was aubergine with parmesan, and the way the chef prepared it ranks alongside the Pirozzi Sisters' Eggplant Parmesan, from the Island of Ischia, which has something added to the ingredient nobody has managed to figure out: "Some said eggs, and others even suggest chocolate."

Figure 2. An absolute must at Balducci’s is the brinjal starter. Left: the brinjal, or eggplant (aubergine), before it’s cooked; right: the finished product.

After the starters and some pizza it was Balducci magic at its best: a range of first courses came rolling in – all accompanied by a selection of Italian wines; there was also Machiavelli’s Mangiacane from the Machiavelli Estate in Florence and then the Florence-Cape Town blend Capaia (from Capo and Ornellaia – Cap-aia), and not least Berardo Chianti Classico,made of 100 percent Sangiovese from the grapes of the Tuscan hills. The pizzas are made with wood from alien trees, so eating your pizza cleans up the environment. It’s not the right thing to eat pizza and pasta together. But the evening was full of surprises, bringing together a diverse group consisting of coffee makers, restaurants critics and a food and history writer.    

Figure 3. The pizza oven is powered by wood from alien trees. The wines are Italian.

Figure 4. One of the proprietors of the Balthazar-Balducci stable, Jonathan Steyn (left), with JP Rossouw of Rossouwsrestaurants, and on the right, coffee makers Helen Vaerlien and Renato Correira. The meal ended with having their delectable home-ground coffee.

Who would have thought that after the scrumptious pastas served with rosé there could possibly have been more to come? The twist to the tale was the oxtail, after simmering in the pot for half a day, and in addition, veal cutlets done the Milanese way. Balducci and Balthazar’s are in the same stable and their butchery has only the very best in cured meat:  a walk into the fridge with the kind permission of the manager provided a colourful photograph:

Figure 5. The butchery at Balthazar’s which supplies the meat for Balducci: on the right, the oxtail with mash mixed with first-grade parmesan cheese.

One wonders, while sitting drinking Machiavelli’s wine at Balducci’s and savouring the dishes prepared by the chefs trained at the Villa Mangiacane, just how The Prince himself would have felt sitting there enjoying it all. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that the Medici princes have long since gone, but Machiavelli’s legacy continues, all around the world. 

Here’s another irony: Florence’s surviving Prince Filippo Corsini loves coming to Cape Town; and in fact, as recently as two months ago I had the honour of meeting him in my own city, having met him in his Palazzo in Del Prato in Florence in 2000. 

Cape and Tuscan go so well together, and in particular the two cities Florence and Cape Town.  The character Mario Salviati in Etienne van Heerden’s novel The Silence of Mario Salviati was born from a visit to Florence. Sitting having an espresso in Florence’s main square, the Palazzo della Signoria, you could envisage Mario making his way home after a long day in the quarry outside Florence – the seat of the stone blocks and statues that were used to construct the elegant Florentine palaces and the stone statues that today adorn the Loggia of the city square. Mario’s trade was learnt in Florence, before he enlisted as a soldier in the Second World War on the side of Hitler’s Germany. Captured in the North African desert and brought to Zonderwater Prison outside Pretoria, he was eventually billeted to a farm in the Cape. As a prisoner of war he worked on the Van Heerden farm, Doornbosch, between Murraysburg and Graaff-Reinet, and became the main character in Etienne's acclaimed novel. We read from the magnificent Van Heerden magical prose how Mario rendered in stone his Pietá, in the tradition of Michelangelo and Verocchio, themselves Florentine to the core. Their common feature is the aesthetic high forehead and aquiline nose so characteristic of the people who witnessed the Renaissance flourish in their city in the 15th century.

Figure 6. Mediterranean products are easily grown in and around Cape Town because of the similar climate.

Gradually, over the decades, Cape Town has adopted a range of Mediterranean eateries where the ingredients – olives, celery and pasta – are easily acquired. They look as nice as they taste, and it’s said the Mediterranean diet is good for you.  It’s a Renaissance of Mediterranean cookery in the 21st century right here in our own city!

For more Balducci magic, try the Balducci levitation:

(1) Stand in front of the person, facing away, with your body positioned at about a 45-degree angle to the person's point of view; (2) Turn so that they can see your left foot and heel, and the back of your right heel; (3) Use your hidden right toes to slowly push yourself up a few inches, keeping your heels together; (4) Remember to keep the heel of the foot closest to the person level with the ground, to provide a sense of level levitation; (5) Hold the position for 2 or 3 seconds, then let yourself down quickly, avoiding sudden moves or shudders. (http://www.wikihow.com/Perform-the-Balducci-Levitation)

And for more about Balducci’s fine fare and a magical experience in eating, service and decor, go to www.balduccis.co.za – and don’t be surprised to find Machiavelli seated there enjoying a bowl of pasta – after all, at Balducci’s they learnt how to make it at his villa!

Figure 7. The meal ended with home-ground beans for the espresso.