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Myrna Robins

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THE PALESTINIAN TABLE by Reem Kassis, published by  Phaidon Press, London 2017

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Let’s start with the author – a Palestinian professional who offers a fascinating self-portrait in her introduction, also of her family,and  follows with the complex composition of the Palestinian table

Kassis’sr mother is a Palestinian Muslim from a rural village in Palestine’s centre, her father a Palestinian Christian from a mountain village in the far north. Kassis grew up in Jerusalem, a melting pot of food and cultures, where her parents ensured that their daughter took a route other than aspiring to marriage:  So, having focussed on her schooling, Reem was accepted, at 17, at several top American universities. A decade in the USA saw her attain professional degrees, followed by glamorous jobs and a hectic lifestyle. Then  after she met and fell in love with a fellow Palestinian, the couple moved to London and married there.

As a young mother at home with a small daughter Kassis had time to enjoy cooking trad dishes from her childhood,  and shortened  and simplified some of them. She noted that British restaurants serving Middle Eastern dishes displayed little Palestinian cuisine, and decided to share with the world family recipes  and others from various villages: the collection doubles as  something of a Palestinian chronicle as she weave tales of identity. Even in this fractured land, regional culinary variations persist, from the mountains of the Galilee to the southern valleys, and from the coast of Yaffa to the West Bank.

 Kassis starts with basic recipes that she deems essential to to exploreing the cuisine. Foundational food she calls these, comprising a spice mix, a broth and fried nuts, elements that lend dishes depth of flavour. They also include labaneth, tahini sauce, vermicelli rice and a sugar syrup flavoured with orange blossom water and rosewater. It’s easy to recognise similarities with the basics of other Middle Eastern fare.

Being a cornerstone of all meals, the chapter on bakes is largely about breads: Along with  pita and taboon other flatbreads resemble pizza bases topped with  ingredients such as  cooked red bell peppers, and also used as dipping tools. Elaborate pastry bases  are filled with vegetables and cheese or used as turnovers with similar fillings. Crackers, spiced and seeded,  can be savoury or sweet.

Palestinian breakfasts are  family affairs  where eggs play a major role in some delicious dishess. They well  illustrate how Middle Eastern  spices and classics transcend borders from Syria to Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and beyond. Eggs fried in olive oil scented with za’atar and sumac perch on pita breads with a slice of  labaneh. Frittatas are spiced and herbed and served with olives, spring onion, mint and tomato. The Tunisian shakshuka is a favourite in many countries, the Palestinian version using fewer vegetables than most. The   “Middle Eastern peanut butter and jelly sandwich”  is how  Kassis describes the popular tahini and grape molasses spread  paired with warm pita bread. The Egyptians use grape molasses, the Gulf States prefer  date molasses.

The custom of a table laden with dishes, large and small, for diners to help themselves is universal in the region. We are offered recipes for several dips like hummus,  snacks like kubbeh, deep-fried cheese and za’atar parcels, pine nut rolls, which can be served either for lunch or supper,

Salads are sturdy affairs, often based on tomato, cucumber and mint around a grain base. Simple soups and substantial stews are based on vegetables and pulses and grains like freekah,  (cracked green wheat) while others star  lamb, beef or chicken.  There are a couple of intriguing seafood dishes as well.

Sweet finales in Palestine are usually seasonal or  defined by the occasion, religious or family celebration with which they are associated. Some of them are complicated and time-consuming. Think of baklawa, shredded phyllo and cheese pie, semolina cake. However their fragrant milk pud with pistachios is closely related to panna cotta and easy to make.

Attractive food photographs and a glossary of ingredients add to the attraction of this hardback which is a significant addition to the cookbooks of the region. It is delectable proof that food can transcend  divisions of religions and politics  if allowed to do so. 

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PLATTER’S by Diners Club International: 2018 South African Wine Guide.

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Can you believe this is the 38th edition of this invaluable guide to wines, cellars, routes, restaurants and more across South Africa.  And, as remarkable, is the fact that its capable, meticulous, urbane and modest editor has seen this, his 20th edition, launched at the Waterfront in early November last year.

In his editor’s note Philip van Zyl briefly covers the scope of the guide, including recent additions to the information like GPS co-ordinates and acknowledges the efforts of his tasting team, one of whom, Dave Swingler, marks his 21st year of contributions.

Of the approximately 8 000 wines assessed, a few make it through to a second and third round tasting, and from these the five-star wines emerge, and ultimately, the Wines of the Year.  There is also a coveted award for Winery of the Year, this year presented to Raats Family wines. Highly recommended is another useful category to peruse, as are the Hidden Gems. Plenty of info for those looking for an industry overview, cultivars, competitions, as well as our wine regions, tours, restaurants and accommodation. The maps seem to be clearer this year as well. (And no, I have not acquired new spectacles).

Recommended price around R260 and of course, in addition to the print version of this comprehensive and essential companion, the guide is also available as an app and a web-based edition. 

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Overkill  by  James Clarke. Published by Struik Nature 2017

 

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The subtitle – The Race to Save Africa’s Wildlife – sums up the conservation goal, but the scope of the book is wider, offering readers a comprehensive summary of past and present threats to Africa’s wildlife, both marine and land-based. Describing 2015 and 2016 as “the worst of years and the best of years” Clarke refers to the former as the costliest in terms of the wanton slaughter of the continent’s megafauna. But the 24 months  will  also go down , he thinks, as the time when the tide started to turn...  As he puts it, the lowest ebb is always the turn of the tide

South Africans and those who come from afar to visit our parks and reserves have been reading about and viewing the wanton destruction wrought there in the present century, often with a feeling of helplessness as well as fury.  Plenty of facts in this paperback to add to those sentiments, but also some positive data to offset the gloom as we read of  the extent of international awareness and the gradual increase in African realisation of the benefits of eco-tourism.

Africa is the only continent that survived the disappearance of the world’s megafauna, as early humans migrated from Africa to the rest of the world. Clarke sets out to describe how this happened using the term “overkill” to mean anything done to excess.

In North America the European settlers extinguished whole species as they migrated southwards while similarly humans in Europe and Asia shared in the global overkill – all comparatively recently, geologically speaking.

But in Africa – the continent from which humans originated – this did not happen, and the fauna survived because of, rather than in spite of, the hunters. This was because the big mammals had watched humans graduate from stone-throwing hunters to athletic spear throwers and on to using  more sophisticated weapons and learned to keep their distance. But in  the 19th and 20th centuries this changed as hunters practised “overkill” – slaughtering all they could for the fun of it.  Their exploits, proudly published form the mid-1800s onward, make sickening reading.

With lion populations in steep decline today, Clarke muses that the well-reported killing of Cecil , the renowned Zimbabwean black-maned lion and subject of a research project at Oxford University resulted in international disgust and the start of laws prohibiting the import of hunting trophies in both the USA and the EU. The elephant slaughter is dealt with next, followed by that of the rhino, with the huge demand from China and Vietnam for horns. The shameful story of the recent exploitation of marine life and the pollution of our oceans  presents equaly horrifying reading.

On the positive side,  a year ago, in January 2017 , China announced its reduction and gradual closing down of the ivory industry which was a huge step toward saving the surviving elephant population.Fusing protected areas into mega-parks across Africa is another hopeful sign.

Clarke has been writing articles and books with environmental themes for decades, and writing for newspapers since he was 16. He is one of the three founders of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and one of the most readable of journalists, and his new title confirms this.

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The two titles reviewed here are  publications that will delight many readers, more particularly armchair historians, battlefield enthusiasts, Overberg lovers and travellers who like researching their holiday destinations both before and after their visits.

 

 

Guide to Sieges of South Africa by Nicki von der heyde. Published by Struik, 2017.

 

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Not only is this the perfect pocketbook for the legions of battlefiedl buffs who plan their trips around battlefields of Southern Africa, but it's written with such professional enthusiasm that it will surely draw new supporters to the fascinating  stories of the sieges that accompanied wars over two centuries.

This guide is a companion volume to van der Heyde's Field Gjuide to the Battlefields of South Africa which proved a highly successful publication. This specialist guide presents detailed descriptions of 17 sieges that occurred during the Cape Frontier, Anglo-Zulu, Basotho and Anglo-Boer wars. 

Some are well-known to most South Africans - such as the sieges of Lydenburg, Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith. Others less so - I didn't know that Durban had been besieged in 1842 nor had I read about those at Mount Moorosi in what was then Basutoland or the sieges of Fort Cox and Fort Armstrong in the Eastern Cape.

As public fascination with sieges continues, it's good to have a well-qualified historian who is also a woman in the male-dominated battlefield-guiding fraternity turn to writing on her subject. Not only does she present a very readable text, but includes personal stories of heroism and heartbreak that are part of every battle and siege. As the writer points out, with sieges civilians were freqently involved, and some of them kept diaries recording their hardships and personal experiences both tragic and humorous. 

 The pages are brought to even greater life by maps, timelines, many old and some new  photographs that accompany human interest stories gleaned from diaries and letters and records of the time. 

The detailed and professional index compiled by Emsie du Plessis adds considerably to the book's usefulness as a reference tool.

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HERMANUS by Beth Hunt. Published by Struik Travel & Heritage, 2017.

 

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With a subtitle listing Whales, Wine, Fynbos and Art, readers get an immediate picture of what to expect in this appealing hardback with its front and back cover photographs of the town's iconic old harbour.

As one expects in a publication like this, the gallery of fine photographs by Johann and Kobus Kruger play a major role in illustrating both the natural and manmade beauty of the town and surroundings, its people and many attractions.

Chapters on tourist drawcards like whales and sharks are given much space, as is the art scene which thrives there in  all its diversity.The cliff path, and the equally famous Fernkloof Nature reserve and other sources of floral wealth are featured,

 as is the equally lovely Hemel-en-Aarde valley which not only stirs the aesthetic senses but also offer fine New World wines from a number of farms that form one of the most bewitching wine routes in the Cape - and the world.

The fascination of the the past is well-captured taking us back to the time when the Khoi met the first Dutch settlers and a teacher and shepherd made the clifftops near a freshwater spring the site of his summer camps for his sheep. Hermanus Pieters died  in 1837 and was destined to lend his name to the site which became known as Hermanuspietersfontein.

The stories of the shipwrecks on the coast, of the famous long-established hotels  also make fascinating reading, as does the lure of game-fishing. Current tales take in more recent developments, around new suburbs that have sprung up and new communities settled there, adding to the enormous diversity that makes the town and surrounds so attractive to both permanent residents and holiday visitors. 

 

Well-researched and written this is a charming and informative title for both locals, visitors and those planning to make their way to the whale capital of the world.

 

 

 

 

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When the pile of healthy eating/diet/Banting/superfood cookbooks on my study table threatened to keel over, it was clearly time to tackle the range of diets they recommended. Looking back over my decades as a food writer, I lived through a fair number of diets, fads, claims and crazes, good, bad and indifferent, some of them extreme. They came, they flourished, then faded while most sensible people carried on eating moderate portions of a good, varied diet to maintain good health. Of them all, I have always fancied the Mediterranean diet as a lifestyle worth following.

I recall the Mayo Clinic diet that seemed heavy on hard-boiled eggs and grapefruit, with halitosis a common side effect. Then the sugar scare where everyone – not just those overweight - tried to cut out sugar completely and the Sugar Board spent much time and money on telling South Africans that sugar was OK – it offered energy  and had been eaten by humans for many centuries.

The salt scare was next, and as people struggled to enjoy their meals without salt, pretending that crushed dried herbs made a good substitute, others guiltily dropped salt into their vegetable water while cooking even if they left the salt cellar off the table. Butter became an enemy when the focus switched to cholesterol and margarine manufacturers scored big time. (Butter, now unaffordable to most, is now a Banting hero.) How many remember the grape diet which had followers crunching on pips, skins and even leaves off the vine, to be replaced by the avocado diet, which pleased the marketing staff of that particular board no end. And so it went, although none of those has probably had the same influence as the so-called Banting diet of recent years.

With the increase in diabetes among South Africans, a low-carb diet seems to be most beneficial for sufferers, with Vickie de Beer’s family - as reported in her cookbook – offering impressive proof . For those who are over-weight because they eat too much and the wrong food, the jury is still out... But here are some recent titles in our bookshops for readers, cooks and slimmers to digest and compare.

MY LOW CARB KITCHEN  by Vickie de Beer. Published by Quivertree, Cape Town and also available in Afrikaans.

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Vickie is an experienced, professional and popular food writer among both English and Afrikaans readers. Nine years ago her eight-year-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a potentially life-threatening condition. His parents followed the advice of both doctors and dietitians,  putting him on a low-GI wholegrain diet, with some success but when Vickie read Tim Noakes’ first diet book, The Real Meal Revolution and complemented this with articles by an American physician, the family changed their diet to one of low- carb food, sans all starches, sugars, processed and refined wheat products and processed foods. The results were impressive as their son responded positively, and she reports that the whole family has benefitted on every level, from mood to sleep patterns, energy levels, digestion and improved concentration.  She offers advice on how to achieve this major change of diet, replacing carbohydrate foods with proteins, fats and fibrous vegetables. No more takeaways, ready made supermarkets foods, cook- in sauces and pre-mixes, but plenty of full cream yoghurts, cheese, butter... she offers a weekly meal plan, a supermarket shopping list, and suggests weaning the family off sweetness rather than indulging in artificial sweeteners. The recipes are often aimed to produce leftovers  - roast two chickens at a time – for busy weekday suppers, while bolognaise recipes feature extra veggies, and form the base of cottage pie (topped with cooked mashed cauliflower), crustless quiches, or moussaka. Almond flour and ground sunflower seeds substitute wheat flour in pastry.

School lunches proved a challenge – but there is a delicious section of alternatives to sandwiches and packet chips. In all this is an exceptional cookbook for families coping with a diabetic where the experience of the de Beer family is sure to help and inspire .            

500 low-carb dishes by Deborah Gray. Published by Struik Lifestyle.

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This series of small, fat 500 -recipe compendium is both successful and very useful, no matter what subject they cover. The basic recipes, plus a number of variations offers the cook more choice than found in conventional cookbooks. I have always found the recipes to be of a high standard and those in this title are no exception. They have been designed for a low-calorie/ low-carbohydrate diet and aim to show that it’s not difficult to eat healthy, easily- prepared and tasty food without having to resort to faddy foodstuff or strange concoctions that usually cause dieters to abandon their diets pretty rapidly.

Calorie and carbohydrate counts are given for every recipe. Sugar is regarded as the main culprit behind the increase in obesity around the world – these recipes contain little or no-added sugar and a few of the dessert recipes use sugar replacements. Fats have been cut to a minimum in this collection to reduce calorie counts, unlike in Banting recipes, and portion sizes are recommended ( which I regard as so important, but often neglected). From breakfasts to sweet treats these well illustrated suggestions present a wealth of appetising choices for early starts, packed lunches, skinny snacks and complete meals.

THE MIDLIFE KITCHEN by Mimi Spencer and Sam Rice, published by Mitchell Beazley, London, 2017.

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I approached this book with some scepticism partly because the two authors, featured on the front cover, look far too young to know what those from 50 to 70- plus want from the kitchen. But I’m happy to admit that this is an intriguing collection of recipes for senior readers ready to change culinary direction and eat fare that helps meet the changing needs of elderly bodies. I learnt a new word from the introduction: “nutri-epigenetics” which has become a major focus of scientific enquiry, as certain vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals have found to be powerful potentials for reducing the risk of age-related disease.

Many older people are cutting their meat intake, lowering consumption of processed food, eating consciously to protect their bodies and the environment. This book, say the authors capitalises on this process, often inspired by the culinary traditions of Bali, Japan, Peru, India and the Mediterranean, all of which have  long acknowledged the symbiosis between health and nutrition. We apparently need a lean protein, moderate amount of slow-burn carbohydrates, plenty of gut-friendly probiotics, green leafy veg and legumes.  The book aims to make these as tasty as possible.

An unusual rating is the use of a star anise logo where each petal is a different colour, and each colour represents a health factor such as digestive health, energy boosting, bone and joint health, heart health, mind, memory and mood etc. Recipes are rated accordingly.The recommended ingredients in the midlife larder include a wide choice of fruit, vegetables, fresh herbs grains, nuts and seeds.  Only yoghurt and eggs in the dairy slot, only olive oil in the cupboard, and dark chocolate makes the list.

The recipes open with recommended mixes of spices, raw seeds, granola, dukkah , salad dressing, curry paste, a sugar-free sweetener and more. These are frequently used ingredients in the recipes that follow. Some recipes will take readers aback, others are familiar enough: Take the breakfast section – a yoghurt topped with citrus segments and pistachios, sweetened with a little honey and spiced with a few saffron threads will tempt western palates.  An oriental option suggests a dish of sweet and salty Balinese black rice, cooked in coconut mil, sweetened with date syrup and finished with the addition of seasonal fruit.

You will find seafood and chicken in the main course section but red meat is very scarce.  Sugar makes a rare appearance. This hardback is well illustrated and is as appetising as it is informative.

JUMP ON THE BANT WAGON by Nick Charlie Key published by Human & Rousseau, 2017. Also available in Afrikaans.

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A self-explanatory title and one on which first-time cookbook writer, regular blogger and Banting devotee Key expands as he shares 90 recipes that are low in carbs, gluten- and sugar-free and aimed at those on a budget. He lost 22kg on this diet after getting a wake-up call from his doctor reporting high insulin levels. He was 29. He also reports other health benefits,

The recipes will appeal to those who enjoy snack fare and fast food as Key has spent time creating equivalents that follow Banting principles. Think onion rings with sour cream dip, garlic butter prawns,  sweet potato nachos, cauliflower ‘pizza’ bases, ‘burgers’, tacos and crustless quiches. He uses xylitol extensively in his desserts and bakes and almond and coconut flour instead of wheat flour.

The subtitle proclaims “Quick and easy on a tight budget “ – I find little evidence of low-cost ingredients in his recipes – just the opposite in most cases.

DELICIOUS LOW CARB by Sally-Ann Creed, published by Human & Rousseau, 2017.

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The writer first leapt into prominence as a co-author of The Real Meal Revolution which started the Banting diet craze and the hullabaloo between Prof Tim Noakes and his detractors.

This new collection of low-carb, gluten-free, sugar-free recipes offer those already on a LCHF diet further culinary choices, It combines eye appeal with all the dishes that most families cook, including sauces and trendy pestos from ingredients like nasturtium leaves.  Pizza and quiche bases from coconut flour resemble traditional wheat flour ones. There’s a baby potato salad – surprise! – as she says our gut flora need resistant starch now and then.

Creed seems to concentrate on Banting-style versions of those goodies that most families love, therefore are hard to give up – finger foods,breads and pizzas , snacks, cakes cookies and desserts. There are also chapters with soups, breakfast, and main courses, and sides (which seems the preferred term today for veggies and salads). I think that nutritionists are focussing on making items like bread and pastry resemble traditional flour recipes, both in appearance and taste. Some of the early Banting loaves tasted pretty awful and were a (pricy) pain to make

iIn her introduction she relates how this diet enabled her to give up the numerous medicines she had been taking for chronic asthma. Her other culinary titles, also recommend  banning sugar, seed oils, margarine and microwave cooking . In one cookbook she bans all grains as they “...have a devastating effect on the intestines and digestive system in general... fattening, make you sluggish and lethargic...” all of which is unlikely to go down well with a few billion Asians who consume rice twice daily.

Creed describes herself as a FINT or Functional Integrative Nutritional Therapist, which – dare I say this – I find somewhat over the top. However, as a successful clinical nutritionist in private practice, she finds joy in “seeing lives changed daily”.

HOW TO EAT BETTER  by James Wong, published by Mitchell Beazley, London, 2017.

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It’s taken a cookbook written by a Kew-trained botanist, science writer and broadcaster to really tickle my tastebuds. Wong’s obsession with food equals his love of plants, which has seen him present BBC programmes like Grow Your Own Drugs and publish best-sellers on similar subjects.

He maintains that the recent advice to ban everyday foods like wheat, dairy and potatoe -, in fact most affordable staples - is not the only way to eat and be healthy. He focuses on careful selection, storage and cooking of your ingredients which can make a huge difference to the nutritional value they yield. And he stays with the more traditional advice that eating lots of fruit, veg, and whole grains, and going easy on the red meat, fat and sugar, are the best ways to go.

Some of his advice we have known about for some time – don’t refrigerate tomatoes, and cook them to get more nutritional benefit. Cooking also does this for carrots, squash and sweet potato.  Avoid processed foods, favour organic, local and seasonal produce.

When faced with the current insistence that we should all switch to a low-carb regime, Wong gently points out that diets based on complex carbohydrates pre-date the modern rise of diseases like obesity and diabetes by tens of thousands of years. In fact the total portion of carbs in many diets has actually fallen in recent years. And, very simply, all human civilisations evolved eating carbo-rich foods, grains especially, as their key energy source because these crops yield maximum calories per minimum land areas. 

Starting with vegetables Wong deals with the health benefits of each, tells us how to store them and cook them for maximum benefits. Which of the cabbage family for example, offers the ability to stop call-damaging free radicals that associated with developing cancer?

Cooking tomatoes more than doubles the quantity of bright red lycopene  in the fruit, also making it easier for us to absorb this antioxidant which is thought to lower risk of stomach and lung cancers. Good to see fruit praised after reading Banting books, such as bananas (“enjoy in all the ways you know and love”) but also trying cooking green bananas (a recipe for Singaporean green banana curry follows.) Grains and  pulses follow, along with discussions on the benefits of various teas, coffee, chocolate and alcohol.   How to make any food a superfood is the claim on the front cover of this hardback.  Living in a country like ours, with abundant sunshine that allows us to produce so much of our foodstuffs locally makes his advice that much easier to follow.

 

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