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Reviews

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MY KIND OF WINE by John Platter, published by Pawpaw Publishing, 2015.

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Good to see the Platters in print again, this time with a very readable and entertaining update of the Cape wine scene, one which reports on the exciting, vibrant world of our wine in the 16 years of the new century. John’s ramble through the winelands involved finding  old friends on farms and in cellars along with making several new ones.  He digested the huge rise in quality of the Cinderella cultivar as chenin is often dubbed, sampled the brilliant white blends now available by the dozen, and applauded the increasing number of good cab francs, a personal favourite.

He explored the growing number of organic wines and those made from organic grapes, along with the trend to unearthing ancient vineyards in remote areas and nursing them back to produce tiny, but intense harvest yields.

  He includes about 250 favourites of the many he wines sampled, along with the stories of those in the cellar and vineyard. He and Erica must have covered an impressive total of kilometres during the compilation of these appealing tales. Talking of Erica, the concept, editing and marketing of this title is her contribution, and I notice she is listed as Erica “The Chief Whip” Platter. As I know too well from chasing up info from recalcritant chefs at deadline, there has to be a chief whip if you want a book to appear…

John categorises his chapters by cultivar, starting with his favourite cab franc and working alphabetically through to viognier and white blends. The two groups of talented independent youngsters, the Swartland Revolutionaries and the Young Guns are given their own chapter, as are the redoubtable Rosa Kruger and Robert Parker – who share a legal background but whose approach to wine could not be more different.

There are 40 pages of well illustrated recipes collected under the heading of Wine Country Food. Actually some of them hardly qualify as such – Gyles Webb’s Best Braaied Lamb Chops is one such – but they add up to an appetising collection of country fare that winemakers cook and enjoy. Not only does this make a delectable finale to the vinous text, but it is certain that the culinary aspect will help sales when browsers are looking for gifts that will be relished by wine lovers and keen cooks.

All in all, a great read from a writer whose relaxed, contemporary style adds to the title’s charm, as do the excellent photographs -  both of the wineland characters and their workplace, the most beautiful winelands on the globe. I do have one gripe, however, and that is the lack of a title page. Certainly space was not the reason to axe it, as there are pages of photographs at the beginning and end of the book that could be regarded as surplus to the content. Call me old-fashioned, but if this omission is a new trend in book production, it’s one I can do without.

 

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The Outsider by Frederick Forsyth, published by Bantam Press, 2015.

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It’s been a long time since I galloped through an autobiography with such enthusiasm and speed. Forsyth fans who digested The Day of the Jackal, and all his  subsequent thrillers will find this, the real story, as exciting as any of his novels.

He sums up key moments in his life as follows: “I’ve barely escaped the wrath of an arms dealer in Hamburg, been strafed by a MiG during the Nigerian civil war and landed during a bloody coup in Guinea-Bissau. The Stasi arrested me, the Israelis regaled me, the IRA prompted a quick move from Ireland to England, and a certain attractive Czech secret police agent – well, her actions were a bit more intimate…”

Written in his relaxed, understated British way, Forsyth entertains with key events in an extraordinary life after an ordinary start. This only child of shopkeepers was born at the start of the second World War, and grew up in Ashford, close to the English Channel where the family grew used to the Luftwaffe bombers droning overhead on route to London. While most of his school mates were evacuated to foster homes, Frederick spent the war at home, used to solitude and eventually preferring it.

Owing to war duties his father had a petrol allowance which enabled him to take his son to a nearby base of Spitfire squadrons, a national icon then and now. From that day Frederick nursed an ambition to fly one of these planes, a dream fulfilled twice in later life.

Speaking French like a local came easily as his parents “twinned” with a family from Amiens where Frederick spent summer holidays. Later his parents sent him to German families so that by his mid-teens he could pass for a German in that country, an asset that proved useful in future sticky situations .

Before leaving school he succeeded in getting a Royal Air Force flying scholarship, and followed by joining the RAF where he got his wings. As Frederick had no intention of making this his career, he then became an apprentice journalist at a Norfolk newspaper. With a sound basic training under his belt, he headed for Fleet Street where his proficiency in languages catapaulted him into a post as foreign editor for Reuters.

From a stint shadowing De Gaulle during the 1962 clashes between Algerians and the French government, Forsyth twas assigned to East Berlin, where he was a one-man band, covering East Germany ,Czechoslovakia and Hungary for Reuters. There the first of many adventures and lucky escapes ensued but eventually his escapades made his position too precarious and he had to return to Paris.

Forsyth is particularly scathing about the actions of both the British government, the Commonwealth Office and the BBC during the Nigerian civil war. Having accepted a post with the latter, he was appalled at the incompetence of the Foreign Office and the slavishness of the famous broadcaster in following the official line, which was to deny the existence of a war in which a million children starved to death. He resigned, and went back as a freelancer, telling the story like it was.

Back in the UK he and other journos - including Winston Churchill, grandson of the war leader - were smeared by those in official quarters for writing the truth about events in Nigeria. With no job and little money Forsyth decided to write a novel. He sat down with his portable typewriter in January 1970 and 35 days later The Day of the Jackal was completed: His career as novelist was about to take off.

In susbsequent years The Firm, aka  British intelligence, asked Forsyth for occasional favours. One such assignment in 1992 involved South Africa, where - along with his two sons - Forsyth arrived, posing as an author looking for information for his next book. They booked into a Kalahari game lodge favoured by then foreign minister Pik Botha for a bit of game hunting. As they relaxed around the camp fire before settling for the night Frederick asked Pik what he planned to do with their six atom bombs once the ANC took over. Chuckling, Botha replied that Forsyth could go home and reassure his government that the plan was to destroy the lot.

My Life in Intrigue is an immensely entertaining read.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Megastructures-and-masterminds_cover_160315-1.jpgMEGASTRUCTURES AND MASTERMINDS: Great feats of civil engineering in Southern Africa by Tony Murray. Published by Tafelberg, 2015.

Just after this fascinating title arrived, the tragic accident involving the collapse of a temporary pedestrian bridge  in Sandton occurred, killing two and injuring others. The media coverage was extensive, accompanied by criticism of the contractor and pronouncements on accountability.

While we await the results from the investigation into the causes of this horrific accident it is seldom that we see headlines celebrating the successful conclusion of another major mountain pass, tunnel, bridge, harbour or dam across our vast country, yet there are more of these projects than there are major accidents caused bycontractors, their workers or their materials.

Perhaps because my better half was involved as geologist and civil engineer with building roads and the like for several years, I am conscious of infrastructural achievements: Whether driving through the Huguenot tunnel - or taking the old Du Toitskloof pass instead - whizzing up the wide road that Sir Lowry’s Pass presents today, while comparing it to its former condition, these monuments to past and present engineers continue to induce admiration. And, as Manglin Pillay, CEO of the SA Institution of Civil Engineering notes in the foreword, developments that have improved the safety of road and rail transport, water supplies, sanitation and shipping are seldom recognised partly because civil engineers are poor story-tellers. This title, at least, goes some way to rectifying this omission.

Tony Murray is unusual in that he is not only a prominent figure in local civil engineering circles, but has been chronicling the history of his profession in this country and – as proven by this title – presents the results in an appealing form that requires little scientific knowledge by the reader. He offers no less than 33 stories of structures in our country, listed chronologically. The historic circumstances precede a pen portrait of the personalities involved in decisions and actions – usually government officials who appoint the civil engineer to head the task force. The trials and tribulations of construction follow, and if the original project is one that can be visited today, details are given.

The original pass over the Hottentots Holland mountains, built between 1828 -1830 was named after colonial governor Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole who asked newly appointed surveyor-general and civil engineer Major Charles Michell to design a route that would enable Overberg farmers to bring their produce to the Cape market without using the dreaded Gantouw Kloof. The pass was widened to a four-lane highway in 1984.

Michell was also responsible for building the hard road aross the Cape Flats, the Montagu pass over the Outeniquas and the one through Mostert’s Hoek to Ceres, which carries his name.

Another of Michell's pet projects was to provide lighthouses around the coastline to increase the safety of shipping, an area neglected by officialdom. Eventually funds were made available for the building of lighthouses at Agulhas, Cape Point and Mouille Point. The Agulhas lighthouse – which celebrated its centenary in 1949 – has been saved from demolition more than once and is today a national monument that attracts visitors to this southernmost point of the continent.

Other gripping stories include that of the Swartberg pass, the Victoria Falls bridge and the building of the Table Bay harbour from start to the present V&A waterfront. From the north, the building of the Vaal Barrage and Kariba Dam are worth digesting, along with the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme. Diverse content to suit every traveller is complemented by photographs, some of which are historic gems. This well-produced softback deserves a place on our bookshelves, preferably alongside that equally enjoyable title, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes by Graham Ross.

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A TASTE OF ISRAEL by Nida Degutlené, published by Penguin Random House, 2015

 

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October means that we book reviewers can expect lists of  titles in our in-boxes to lengthen, as the seasonal harvest of new books starts arriving for the Christmas trade. I have waited until now to review this very delectable and well-produced cookbook as I didn’t want it regarded only as a book to dip into at the time of traditional Jewish holidays. It is certainly a compilation that celebrates the Israeli culinary tradition, written by a foreigner and non-Jew and perhaps this helps to make it a fascinating and tempting collection for  those cooks who savour exploring exotic cuisines.

The author is a Lithuanian businesswoman, food blogger and freelance journalist who married a diplomat who was sent to Israel in 2009 as Lithuanian ambassador. While there, Nida not only relished unearthing Jewish culinary traditions, but found that dishes from her childhood are based on Jewish recipes that have become part of Lithunanian fare. She started sharing her discoveries on her blog, and now has 30 000 followers.

Meze and appetizers make a colourful start to the recipes and between the well-known chopped herring and watermelon and feta salad, there are interesting bites like Muhammara, walnut and sweet pepper paste, courtesy Syrian Jews who spread it on pita breads and an Israeli take on Peruvian ceviche, paired with cubed mango. Among the breakfast ideas I honed in on a frittata with baby marrows, leek and walnuts – although I will use local pecans instead. The characteristic carmelised onions favoured by Sephardis feature in a baked fish recipe that includes a layer of tahini sauce and that is finished with toasted pine nuts. A chicken recipe enjoyed in winter when its citrus season adds orange and lemon juice and zest to chicken quarters, along with honey, Arak, garlic, chilli and cardamom – definitely worth trying,.

The chapter on street food is an enjoyable trip - celebrating classics like burekas,knish,shawarma and falafel. And lesser-known creations such as Sabich, a vegetarian sandwich of pita bread filled with tahini, aubergine, egg, and onion, made by Iraqi Jews.

Talking of meat-free fare, there is a great selection in the vegetarian section, from sweet peppers filled with cheese, through a selection of patties – leek, pumpkin, peanut - , and a Turkish phyllo cheese pie. From one of Jerusalem’s most popular restaurants  comes Machane Yehuda, polenta with mushroom, asparagus and poached eggs,   a favourite with diners that cannot be removed from the menu,

Bakes include a latkes selection – I rather fancy the potato and beetroot ones with onion and feta, that are baked rather than fried. An interesting article on kosher wine precedes the final chapter of “Extras” that includes a fiery spice paste called Zhug, a contribution to Israeli street food from Yemeni Jews.

Nida Degutiené is a publisher’s dream – not only does she write well and compile an enticing collection of recipes, but she does her own styling and food photography as well – this book has been well translated from Lithuanian by Medeine Tribinevičius and will make a popular addition to many a well-used cookbook collection this summer.

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NOTE: This review was first submitted to the Argus newspaper in late August for possible use during Woman's month. It was published on the Life pages of Saturday Weekend Argus on September 19 as a heritage month contribution.

BITTER + SWEET: A Heritage Cookbook by Mietha Klaaste as told by Niël Stemmet, published by Human & Rousseau 2015.

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Traditional country food meets a soul-stirring story of a rural woman, a domestic worker and nanny, who tells her life story to Stemmet in 29 chapters, reminiscences that start with her childhood on a farm near Robertson and finish as her charge, the adolescent son of her employers, leaves the Cape to head to a new life in the Transvaal.

 

Mietha Klaaste was also a keen and talented cook who regarded preparing meals a privilege rather than a chore. So it seems only right that between the events that coloured her humble life, she also shares her recipes, wonderful, honest fare where the simplicity of farm ingredients is never overshadowed by surplus ingredients or fancy garnishing.

 

A third element is Stemmet’s inclusion of carefully selected poems and excerpts that emphasise the content, physical and spiritual, of the preceding chapter. They come from diverse sources ranging from the Bible to Lewis Carroll, from Adam Small to Ingrid Jonker, from Antjie Krog to timeless nursery rhymes.

 

The food covers every occasion from breakfast to supper, including special occasions like tea parties and weddings. Breakfast highlight of baked sweetcorn offers a variation on rusks and porridge, while tea was likely to be Clanwilliam rooibos with condensed milk. To accompany it, over weekend, were scones or crumpets or delicious ginger biscuits. Weekday fare ranged from bully beef and rice when freat meat was not available, to warming bredies, served with snow white rice. Desserts were comforting and substantial, with buttermilk pud and melktert high on the favourites lists. Vegetables were always present, usually sweetened, and lightly spiced. One recipe I would have liked to have seen included in this collection is for a savoury dish using 'oukos', the buds of a Gasteria that folk in the Breede river valley used in place of waterblommetjies, which were not always easy to find.

 

Most of the recipes are illustrated with gentle colour photographs that are in harmony with the printed instructions.

 

Mietha’s childhood was happy, living in a house on the farm of her parents’ employers: her mother worked in the big farmhouse, her father was the foreman on the farm. It was the period in South African history when the apartheid laws were in full force, but this did not affect Mietha’s early days: this child of nature enjoyed school as much as she loved wandering along the banks of farm streams, looking for tadpoles and crabs.

 

There are also family stories that illustrate the hardship endured by those living further north, in arid Namaqualand, where real poverty invaded every aspect of life. Miethe longed to go there, and take them huge supplies of food to lighten their burden.

 

Life’s hard knocks started when Mietha was told she could not go to high school but had to start work for the farmer’s son Johan and his new wife Susan. Not long after this Susan gave birth to her first son Daniël, and, as his nanny, Mietha replaced her hurt about missing her education with a fierce love for this blue-eyed baby, a love that thrived and blossomed as she nurtured him from babyhood through to adolescence.

 

As a young teenager she was raped by a member of the employer’s family, an episode which affected her permanently, and resulted in attempted suicide. These low points were countered to some extent by a busy schedule of domestic duties, and always, the joy she felt when Daniël arrived home from school. He was a loner, as was she, he enjoyed nature, as she did and they both loved to cook and to eat, so the bonds between them were unusually strong.

 

This all came to an abrupt end when Daniël’s parents decided to move to Gauteng, or the Transvaal as it was then to look for more lucrative jobs. Mietha was told she could not join them, and was given a new radio, the furniture in her servant’s room and a box of chocolates as thanks for 16 years of dedicated service.

 

But, thanks to an innate strength, Mietha used the parting to return to school, going to evening classes, while working in a Robertson bakery during the day. She used the local library extensively, reading widely, listening to gramophone records, and studying recipes in cookbooks. She cooked them, first at home, then as the hotel cook at the Majestic hotel. She also entered – and usually won – competitions for jams and baked good at the local agricultural shows. She was, as she says, “known as a top-class cook.”

 

Of course a story like this ends with as many questions as answers, and we are left to ponder on many a subject even as we glance through Mietha’s method of roasting chickens which were sold in aid of funds for the local orphanage. This is a book that is probably best absorbed in Afrikaans, but Marietjie Delport is to be commended for a great translation. And all strength to Stemmet for choosing not to omit the parts that some readers would prefer not to find in a recipe collection!

 

In one of the weekend newspapers, Prue Leith is quoted as complaining that much of the culinary literature being published can be classed as ‘food porn’ – either featuring a celebrity of some kind, or consisting of numerous photographs of glamorous landscapes, such as Tuscany, with little or no real writing on the cuisines. Bitter+Sweet offers a striking contrast: Perhaps the publishers should forward her a copy.

 

Postscript: Niel has just told me that the publisher is going to forward Leith this book - I do hope she replies.

 

 

 

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