This week’s posting is by guest blogger Stiv, my man on the street in Cape Town. Stay tuned for more of his wonderfully descriptive postings of the South African culinary scene.
When I first started travelling the world, I learned that when you come from a place like South Africa, you are the exotic, and not the other way around. From my perspective, for example, Europe – with its splendid history and architectural magnificence – is exciting, aged, a place where tourists go. But I quickly realized that the tip of Africa, with its safaris, its startling first-world / third-world blend, its seething social history, was just as fascinating to “foreigners” as their countries are to me. Correspondingly, tastes and combinations that I might take for granted will seem exceedingly exotic to a different cultural norm. Prices will raise eyebrows. Cultural range might surprise.
But with this one short essay I couldn’t begin to assault you with everything from Cape Malay biriyani to descriptions of dried Kudu with mustard seeds or the pleasures of Cape Salmon nigiri, freshly caught from the cold Atlantic – at prices that have made Swiss friends of mine weep with a desire to move here and just eat.
So I thought I’d follow Milena’s example, and go to the market.
I live in Cape Town, which is ever-so-slightly like the 1970’s Berkeley cross Tibetan Buddhist cross south coast of France cross Sydney surfer child of the African continent. Ahem, yes, draw your own conclusions. This past Saturday, I went to Porter’s Market – an organic-themed market set up on the lower slopes of the Table Mountain National Park above the neighbourhood of Constantia, where Simon van der Stel first started to grow wines in the Cape almost 400 years ago.
In what I assume to be a growing global trend, we too, here down at the tip of the mother continent, are edging towards buying produce that is grown locally, shying away from mass-production pesticides, trying to be more seasonal… but like the rest of the world, this trend only seems to have affected those who can afford it – the poorest of poor have always done so automatically. The Porter’s Market parking area was littered with Mercedes SUVs, BMWs with their tops down, rich families who didn’t care that they were wearing their Crocs out in public, and the most hi-tech baby strollers the world has ever seen. I felt a little guilty that the wonderful things to see, buy and taste were being experienced by such an elite few. Perhaps in future I’ll have to venture forth into ‘townships’ where sheep’s heads (called “Smileys”) are put on display and sold to passers-by, where medicinal herbs are laid out on mats in the dust, where beer is served through rusty cages at the backs of illicit drinking establishments (called “Shebeens”)… but that’s another column.
Instead, I bit the bullet (notice the clever use of a food-based metaphor with socialist tendencies) and decided to taste what was offer.
I started at a cheese stand, where unpasteurized cow’s milk, fermented for just one week, formed the base for a range of cheeses flavored with everything from vynbos (indigenous, fine-leafed plants, many of which are considered medicinal, with often subtle, herb-like flavors and fragrances), to fresh chili, to the ubiquitous olive and oregano favorites. These were all on offer for R170/kg, which equates to around 15.50 Euros per kg (the South African Rand currently trades at about R11 to the Euro, and around R8 to the US Dollar).
Near to that was a Cape-influenced variation on a fishmonger – local and international fish, smoked and pickled (most often in a sweet onion-based brine), and sold as either filleted portions, or pâté. Smoked pepper Snoek (a long, dense-fleshed, bony fish) was on offer for 1.30 Euros/kg, Angel Fish done the same way was 2.40 Euros/kg. These are excellent as pâté, smeared generously on crostini or melba toast and enjoyed at a picnic. Spread out before me at 10 o’clock in the morning, I was somewhat overwhelmed by their heady aromas, and had to work hard to put myself in a lunchish frame of mind to consider which flavors I might enjoy.
As it was, I eschewed the fish, and bought a hand-span sized quiche filled with roasted butternut, chunks of blue cheese and caramelized onion with vaguely discernible sprigs of thyme sprinkled on top for my lunch (2.30 Euros), accompanied by a chunk of chocolate cheesecake brownie (0.90 Euros) the size of a small novel, which ended up lasting through into Sunday morning because it was so rich. This was washed down with ridiculously expensive cappuccino, considering that it came from a mobile dispensing unit topped with cream from a can. South Africa is not only a melting pot of cultures, it’s also a clash of gastronomic and beverage influences, from the insulated take-away coffee cups of New York sidewalks to the toughened shot glasses of Morocco, filled with mint-steeped sweet tea. Prices range from mere cents to reasonable to Euro values transcribed into Rands; it’s luck of the draw, depending on where you are.
I meandered past the organic veggie market where rich people fought to out-green each other, and paused for thought at the stand selling wicker-woven baskets, hand-made by blind people. A few years ago, the South African government decided to make everyone pay for plastic bags in an attempt to reduce the number of yellow, white and sun-bleached olive tatters that littered wire fences across the land. Micron count of the plastic was upped to ensure that they could be re-usable or viable for recycling, and everywhere you go, supermarkets will ask you if you want bags before charging you the 3c (Euro) that authorities told us would go towards national recycling projects and similar developments. Years on, and I’ve recently read an article that claims that no one actually knows where the millions of Rands in revenue that have been raised by charging for plastic have actually gone. They’re just gone.
But the intent is there, and those of us that bother, dutifully store our shopping bags or use cloth ones whenever we go to the store. Woven wicker baskets are the next step up, and the half-round wheelie version with a walking-stick handle was on sale here for 32 Euros. Large picnic baskets were going for 14 Euros, and laundry hampers cost 55 Euros.
Before I headed home, I spent time trying out various chili pastes, which, the lady who ran the stall informed me, were made according to traditional Mauritian recipes. My favorite was a subtle mix of a purple-colored chili, chopped dates, assorted nuts, and a fair amount of peanut paste – almost satay-like in flavor, but with an even more exotic edge. I wasn’t sure if that was because she’d told me it was of Mauritian origin and I was being influenced by aural ingredients… but isn’t that the point?
Because that is the essence of what these stories do for us: we pause for just a fraction longer when we consider the adventure that each bite of what we’re munching might hold. How do those lemons smell? Name the flavours underlying your glass of Merlot! Is your potato a purple one, or brown? Consider the complexities of lettuce!
I hope I’ve done my hostess’s request justice. Thanks for the opportunity M; I look forward to wondering around a market with you again soon, so you can show me how it’s really done!
From 25˚C of mid-wintery Cape Town,