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Myrna Robins

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Posted by on in Reviews

 

JOHN LE CARRé THE BIOGRAPHY by Adam Sisman. Published by Bloomsbury, London, 2015.

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While waiting for this book to arrive, I went online to see what British reviewers thought of it, and was relieved to find that most express admiration for Sisman’s absorbing study. I was looking forward to reading this definitive biography and hoping that my favourite spy writer hero was not going to be reduced to a mere mortal in a hatchet job.

Indeed, I was glued to most of the 650 pages as Adam Sisman chronicled the life of one of Britain’s finest living authors, someone who has proved that spy thrillers can be elevated to a finer literary genre than generally regarded.

It is more than half a century since The Spy who came in from the Cold was released, among the first of le Carré’s many titles to became a world best-seller . Using his real name, David Cornwell, we are introduced to a man who is as enigmatic as his characters that he is still creating at the ripe age of 84.

David was born to Ronnie and Olive Cornwell in Bournemouth a few years after his brother Tony. Ronnie was the original conman, unscrupulous, amoral, persuasive, exuding optimism as he relieved widows of their savings and wriggled out of debts incurred. Olive, who had had enough of insecurity and his philandering, eloped with a friend, abandoning her sons when David was five. This was the start of an unhappy childhood as he endured primary school years, retreating further into fantasy during high school. The two boys were rootless, spending school holidays with proxy mothers, or were dumped on their grandparents.

On the bright side David proved to be a skilful actor and mimic and talented cartoonist. He wrote poems that impressed his teachers and had a flair for languages. To escape constant embarrassment from his father’s crimes, David fled to Switzerland in 1948, enrolling at Bern’s university to study German literature and philosophy. While there he met two women from the British embassy who took him in for Christmas lunch and probed him on his beliefs. Keen to prove himself a patriot, unlike his father, he was happy to sign a legal document pledging him to secrecy – probably a version of the Offical Secrets Act. He was then asked to attend meetings of left-wing student groups in Switzerland and report names of those he saw there, which he did without murmur.

By the time he started as an undergraduate at Oxford David had acquired a steady girlfriend, Ann Sharp and was asked to infiltrate left-wing groups and identify Communists, as part of MI5’s response to the discovery that Burgess and Maclean had been spying for the Russians. Years later David was asked if his conscience troubled him while he was a ‘sneak’, someone who had chosen loyalty to his country over loyalty to his friends. This dilemma was a theme that would recur repeatedly in his novels.

After marrying Ann and graduating, David accepted a teaching post at Eton. In 1957 Ann gave birth to Simon, first of their three boys. David became depressed while teaching and returned to MI5. He was involved in vetting former communists who wanted to work for British firms that manufactured military equipment. He became an agent-runner or controller of agents and became friends with a senior colleague described as “short, tubby bespectacled man… fiercely patriotic, whose right wing opinions were tempered by his humanity, sweetness of character and sense of humour.”

It was somewhat startling to discover that this colleague, John Bingham, was that cousin that the rest of my British family seldom mentioned, and about whom were vague when I inquired. I knew he wrote thrillers, that I found rather plodding, but never got to meet him. Perhaps spying was regarded as a subject not to be discussed, but Cornwell borrowed some of John’s traits for his most important character George Smiley – his unassuming, inconspicuous qualities and ability to “lose himself in a crowd.”

Soon after their second son Stephen was born David moved from MI5 to MI6. Gollancz wanted to publish his spy novel , as David studied tradecraft as part of his training. He was posted to Bonn early in the 1960s “a nest of spies” in the Cold War era, Ann joined him with their two boys and Call for the Dead was published in the UK to good reviews

A Murder of Quality followed , with similar favourable reaction, starring George Smiley and then came The Spy who Came in from the Cold with its seedy settings and ambiguous characters , contrasting well with the clear-cut ones of the James Bond books . American publishers bought rights, Paramount Pictures secured film rights, and the public loved the novel, even as real life was proving dramatic with spies like Philby surfacing in Moscow.

David was able to resign from the foreign service to write fulltime. He was a prolific author although less successful husband. His second wife Jane, to whom he is still married, proved to be an ideal companion for the long months when they are hermits while a new book is on the go. “I’m a liar,” Cornwell has written. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.”

More than 50 pages of footnotes, bibliography and index reflects the extent to which Sisman has delved to present a complete and honest portrait.  If memory, fact and fiction have become hopelessly entwined in the mind of Cornwell, Sisman has done a superb job in separating the strands.

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Let no one say that South African cookbook writers and publishers are not up there with the best when it comes to including current culinary trends . While some techniques that are in vogue are best left to chefs in high-tech kitchens, others can be easily practised by keen cooks and dedicated braai masters and mistresses.

Think smoking, curing, pickling, fermenting, foraging - venerable processes which have come full circle and are now trending. Add to that list the ongoing focus on healthy eating, using sustainably grown or produced ingredients, plus welcome environmental savvy by insisting on ingredients in season and we have a good summary of the current food spectrum.

From the pyramid of local cookbooks that have hit the shelves recently, five titles feature below: digest the brief round-up of their contents and decide which title(s) you would like to own.

 

 A Year of Seasonal dishes from Food & Home Entertaining. Published by Human & Rousseau 2016.

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Food & Home Entertaining is renowned for supplying fans with imaginative recipes for every course and occasion. This substantial compilation is organised according to month, making it easy to find ideas for both seasonal meals and entertaining menus. The well-illustrated recipes comprise the best of those published over the last decade. Diversity is the keynote, with dishes that take five minutes to assemble (Parma ham, blueberry and feta salad for high summer) to a gluten-free chocolate torte that replaces wheat with an egg-rich chocolaty ground almond batter. A few vegan options, several vegetarian recipes and many with Asian influence can be found. I particularly like their combination of sustainably farmed kabeljou with a trendy achar of guava, teamed with a spring salad and ciabatta toast. Cooks have the option of braai-ing or frying the fish and toast .

 

Baking with Jackie Cameron, published by Penguin Books, 2016.

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Chef Cameron is not only a great baker, but all-round talented cook, who opened her own internationally-recognised school of food and wine last year. In this mouthwatering collection of biscuits and breads, pies and tarts, cakes large and small and desserts and puds, the focus is less on trends and more on absolute delicious bakes, whatever course they serve.

However, Jackie is not immune to what’s in vogue and offers us gluten-free bread, and one based on   the indigenous tuber amadumbe. (Sweet potato can be substituted). Her red velvet cake adds cocoa to increase its appeal. She gives crème brulée a local twist by flavouring it with Amarula cream liqueur, and includes trad favourites like malva pud, melktert, millionaires shortbread and even an upmarket version of peppermint t crisp tart. The small selection of savoury tarts and pies is particularly appetising. This is an appealing, crisply designed compilation, that will be well used in every kitchen it finds itself.

 

One Pot Pan Tray by Mari-Louis Guy and Callie Maritz. Published by Human & Rousseau, 2016.

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Ever since this brother and sister team burst onto the gastronomic scene with an extravagant collection of bakes back in 2011, they haven’t paused, producing several more successful titles . In this colourful compilation they assemble whole meals in a pot, a frying pan or roasting dish, saving on labour and washing-up. The contents stay with savoury fare based on red meat, chicken, seafood, bacon and ham as well as meat-free suppers, each dish balanced with both a carb and veggies.

We find traditional boerekos favourites (curried banana meatball bake, teamed with butternut chunks and quartered red onions) along with baked chicken, mushroom and leek pasta topped with cheese sauce, and a Iberian-inspired bake of sardines and potatoes, flavoured with tomatoes, peppers and paprika and sauced with lemony olive oil. There are a few soups, and the haloumi and vegetable bake offers a delectable combination of fresh asparagus, baby marrows and onion mixed with the cheese, flavoured with citrus and oregano, spiked with jalapenos and garlic. It seems to sing of spring, and is adaptable – replace pricey asparagus with spring onions, for example.

 

All Sorts of Salads by Chantal Lascaris. Published by Struik Lifestyle 2016.

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This compact softback is both a convenient size for kitchen use and a practical and useful collection. The author came to entertaining and cooking after moving from corporate business to become a pilates instructor and developing interests in both health and salads, which feature high in her diet. The recipes tried and tweaked coincide, quite accidentally, with today’s culinary trend: Their simplicity is part of their attraction. Old favourites in new guises sees up –to- date versions of coleslaw, potato, Caesar, Waldorf and three-bean salads. The substantial vegetarian chapter includes some trendy combinations like beetroot, quinoa and rocket, and cauliflower, butter bean and feta.

Fish and seafood star in summery combinations – think grilled tuna steaks and nectarine salsa , salmon and pistachio, even a fish cake salad, complete with sweet potato chips and mixed salad. Calamari is teamed with chorizo and chickpea in an Iberian charmer. Meaty salads presents main courses packed with protein plus healthy green for all-round fare, such as the Med mini-keftedes teamed with tzatziki and salad.

 

Carmen’s Best Recipes by Carmen Niehaus. Published by Human & Rousseau, 2016

.b2ap3_thumbnail_CKBK-TRENDS-Banting-lasagne.jpgBanting lasagne from Carmen Niehaus

Food writer Carmen Niehaus has been supplying her many readers with flavourful, reliable family recipes for 25 years, and has developed a vast collection in the process. Having to select 100 for this cookbook, she finally settled on 10 chapters of 10 recipes, based on criteria like family favourites, recipes with reduced carb content, many starring veggies and salad ingredients. There are a few breakfast and light meal options along with those suitable for every course on the menu. Practical tips accompany every one, as do appetising colour photographs. Her fans will be pleased with this souvenir, that also caters for slimmers – see her Banting lasagna – which replaces pasta with aubergine and omits the white sauce without going overboard with weird substitutions.

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South African wine industry directory 2016/17. Published by WineLand Media, 2016

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Doing the impossible, says editor Wanda Augustyn in her foreword, is how she and her team regard the annual production of the new edition. Dipping into  the new title, I can well understand why – it must be a mammoth task, updating such a complex and diverse treasury of information, figures, opinions, entries, graphs, indexes and more, keeping them accurate, and launching the tome around midyear. The result is an essential reference work for anyone remotely involved or interested in the wine industry, and a title I would hate to be without.

 

In the first section, An Overview of the SA wine industry subjects like a brief industry history, a 10-year ‘snapshot’ of progress, a harvest report and vintage guide are given. The following section, comprises details on the multitude of industry organizations and education bodies. This ranges across all aspects from agricultural to organisations focussing on responsible alcohol use. Details are listed of the associations concerned with one or another cultivar, and international wine industry bodies are also listed.

Section three lists awards and competitions - just the contents lists takes a full column on the page, and this is followed by a directory of wine writers, the shortest chapter. Grape Production is subdivided into cultivars, viticulture and regions, while the following chapter presents information on producers and wineries, including an index of brand names and lists of winemakers and viticulturists.

A guide to industry suppliers is up next, and the final section consists of more than 40 pages of industry statistics: the number of cellars in each region, the area under vines, producers income and prices, exports, consumption in South Africa and international comparison.

Hearty congratulations to the researchers, IT specialists, proof-readers and graphic designers who were part of this important collaboration, compendium and wine writers’ companion.

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ALL SORTS OF SALADS by Chantal Lascaris. Published by Struik Lifestyle 2016.

 

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This compact softback is both a convenient size for kitchen use and a compilation that is likely to pay its way and more, a practical and useful collection that will be consulted often over the four seasons.

Its neither showy or madly original, and the author is someone who came to entertaining, food and cooking after moving from corporate business to become a pilates instructor and developing a new interest in both health and unearthing new ideas for salads, which feature high in her diet.

Lascaris tells us in her introduction that the recipes she has developed and tweaked coincide, quite accidentally, with today’s culinary trend. She says this, her first cookbook, took a while to materialize: its simplicity is part of its attraction and both health nuts and reluctant and nervous cooks will be among its keenest fans.

Use your freezer to keep crispy bacon bits and garlic croutons ready to add zip to salads, roast nuts and seeds when you have the time and keep them in a glass container. Freeze cooked rice, lemon juice and pesto as well as almonds for use in salads and dressings. (Pesto is best frozen without the parmesan cheese, by the way).

Old favourites in new guises sees up to date versions of coleslaw, potato, Caesar, Waldorf and three-bean salads, among others. The substantial vegetarian chapter includes basics like tomato and onion, lemon mushroom and the popular butternut and mozzarella salad recipes, and some trendy combinations like beertroot, quinoa and rocket, and cauliflower, butter bean and feta. I like her citrus salad for winter, which includes avo and cucumber, but I would omit the mangetout which is not a winter ingredient.

Fish and seafood star in some delectable summery combinations – think grilled tuna steaks and nectarine salsa , salmon and pistachio, even a fish cake salad which is also a main course , complete with sweet potato chips and usual mixed salad ingredients. Shrimp and avo are presented as a first course with green apple, calamari is teamed with chorizo and chickpea in an Iberian charmer. Chicken makes the base for a number of tempting meals, some of which take the form of open sandwiches, Asian and Occidental main courses.

The chapter on meaty salads presents main courses packed with protein plus healthy green and other ingredients for all-round one-dish fare. Ostrich, pancetta, egg and bacon, steak, bacon, beef carpaccio are all dressed up with ingredients to present a colourful and complete meal.

The collection concludes with fruit salads, some spiced, some spiked, with a final section of salad dressing recipes both conventional and innovative.

Good photographs add hugely to the attraction of this collection, which is also well-indexed.

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MY CAPE MALAY KITCHEN by Cariema Isaacs. Published by Struik Lifestyle, 2016.

 

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Unusually, this cookbook has a sub-title that precedes the main title. “Cooking for my father in” indicates the importance of the tender relationship between author and her late father. While her grandmother taught her how to cook, it was her father, recalls Isaacs, who taught her why we cook.

Her culinary interest was sparked in the family’s Bo-Kaap kitchen when, as a small child, she discovered jars of aromatic spices and was given tasks like shelling peas . Preparing food developed into a passion that endures today, as she recollects dishes she and her father cooked and enjoyed together as he shared his philosophy of the importance of cooking with love.

Opening chapters focus on bredies and Cape Malay classics such as denningvleis and mavroom. Cabbage-wrapped frikkadelle are placed on top of a mutton stew, while Cape Dutch or Afrikaans recipes nestle them in a tomato-based sauce. Either way, this sustaining comfort fare has been influenced by Indonesian heritage cuisine, along with many others.

Smoortjies star in another chapter – referring to fast meal solutions when time is short and money minimal. I like the fact that Isaacs includes humble dishes like Braised Penny Polonies (Gesmore Olap Worsies) in her book, which few others do. Onions are chopped and fried in oil, potatoes and water added, tomato paste follows, then the viennas or polonies are added to the sauce and the mixture simmered and served with fresh bread.

Curries make an aromatic section and readers can choose from mutton, mince, dal and prawn. Isaacs discusses th culture, customs and food served at times of celebration and sadness, including Ramadan. Snack fare that helps break the fast could be samoosas, daltjies , boeber, koesisters, pancakes, spring rolls and that ultimate comfort bite, pumpkin fritters. Eid sees cooks turn to biriyani, steak pies and corned beef and tongue for savoury highlights.

Contemporary recipes for working mothers break with tradition and include stir-fries, while novice cooks are encouraged to try one of Cariema’s potato and rice variations. Sweet treats include trad favourites like hertzoggies , Eid trifle and chocolate cake, along with sponge cake, kolwyntjies (cupcakes), date loaf and chocolate mousse, with lemon meringue pie making a luscious finale.

It’s been a while since we have seen a new Cape Malay cookbook – along with Cass Abrahams’ classic collection released in 1995 (and reprinted since,) Faldela Williams published two well-received titles and Zainab Lagardien added her beautifully illustrated title to the mix. In 2013 Bo-Kaap Kitchen presented a recipe treasury contributed by many Cape Malay cooks. Cariema Isaacs will renew interest (not that it has ever really flagged) to the flavourful delights of this exceptional cuisine, one that I think should be rated among the top peasant cuisines in the world.

Comparing versions of heritage classics shows that what some cooks call “the holy grail of bredies”, aka cauliflower bredie, does not feature at all on other Cape Malay menus. One bredie that everyone cooks is tomato, today a firm favourite with many South Africans – especially Afrikaans-speaking. For this, Isaacs uses no spices other than salt, and adds one green chilli. Abrahams starts hers by simmering peppercorns and cloves with onions then adds cinnamon, ginger and cardamom pods with the meat, along with green chilli . Lagardien includes green chilli plus turmeric and leaf masala. Williams adds a dry chilli, but no other spices. And so recipes vary and evolve, crossing continents , changing according to the availability of ingredients and personal tastes. This new title, a well-illustrated softback, adds much to the Cape gastronomic heritage, with added appeal in the form of an enjoyable family story.

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