Sunday, June 23, 2013

Wine tasting in South Africa: Vergelegen and Fairview

ergelegen is a wine estate in Stellenbosch dating back to 1700. The name means "distantly located" in Afrikaans, and they are, indeed, on the very outskirts of Stellenbosch. 
They charge 10 rand entrance fee, which is totally worth it: you get to hang out in a series of resplendently laid out formal and English gardens featuring giant gnarly camphor trees, borrowed views (shakkei) of the surrounding hazy mountains and a baffling variety of rose bushes.  
You are also allowed to walk and gawk in their stately Dutch-gabled mansion complete with period furniture and old-looking paintings on loan from Cape Town museums. Wine tasting: 30 rand for 6 wines plus 10 rand for each sample of their flagship brands.

Fairview is a more recent development in the Paarl area. Their vineyards are spread in various locations in the Western Cape and hence produce an array of interestingly different wines.  
They also farm goats and make a range of cheeses, quite palatable, if, somewhat unfortunately, all made from pasteurised milk.
Their wine tasting is definitely the best organised exerience of the kind I've encountered in all my travels. It is a proper sommelier-guided extravaganza where 8 wines are expertly paired with 8 cheeses. It lasts up to 2 hours, so allow at least good half a day to enjoy roaming around the estate, checking out their cheese shop and petting the goats. 

My overall feeling about wine tasting in South Africa was that of a very pleasant surprise. All wines we sampled were elegantly Old World in style, nothing like the childishly fruity South African plonk we for some reason get in supermarkets in the UK and Europe. Go figure.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Mercado do Peixe@Maputo: fish market for the brave-hearted

aputo's fish market needs clearly publicised counter-indications for those with heart conditions. The fare is superb but the trade is rough. Even haggling in the Middle East can't touch this.  

Keep your eyes peeled and watch closely: the sellers are deft-handed and no bars are held in this survival game in a country ravaged by 20 years of civil war. Just like about everything else in Mozambique, price levels are decidedly not budget, unless you come from Switzerland or Norway, so don't expect bargains.

First you buy whatever you fancy in the market, and then proceed to the restaurants behind the market, where it all will be cooked and served with sides and alcohol. 

It is not as simple as it sounds as the restaurants' touts are louder, brash and more persistent than any Moroccan or Egyptian hustler you've ever met. Granted, no one is actually rude or abusive, it's all done with the Mozambiquan trademark suaveness, yet the pitch is hard enough to make a grown man cry.

We had to pretend that we were leaving to get rid of a swarm of touts following our every move and fighting between each other for our attention. Then we sneaked in through the back entrance and picked a quiet place away from the noise of crowds. There we were treated to an extended, almost family-like dinner. 
Everything is briefly marinated with parsley, lemon juice, salt and garlic and grilled on charcoals - perhaps, the best way you can do justice to the gifts of the ocean.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fields: Mediterranean flight of fancy in Hackney Central


he beauty of London is that here we have things that would never happen elsewhere. A combination of cultural lassez-faire attitudes, somewhat questionable excess of money, and diverse and dynamic populations snowballs into a milieu conducive to craziest, fanciest, most daring ideas and enterprises. 

Fields, an ostensibly unassuming restaurant in Hackney Central I visited the other day, is a shiny example of that. A brainchild of a Turkish Marxist historian passionate about food, it boasts a Mediterranean fusion menu craftily executed by a Maltese chef and a French sous-chef, and expeditiously delivered by a charming Spanish waitress. The effortlessly exquisite and refreshingly affordable wine list contains the best of all continents, save Antarctica. As I went through it, I noticed Argentina's vertiginously fragrant Torrontés, Chile's unwaveringly reliable Chilean Sauvignon Blanc as well as the best of Entre Deux Mer's whites and reds. Apparently, it was put together by another academic foodie, a Croatian/Bosnian lecturer from SOAS. Great food does take an intellectual effort.

A tableful of meze/tapas we shared between us proved a dinner in its own right:
  • smoked fish platter: salmon and swordfish;
  • smoked salmon stuffed with ricotta;
  • beef carpaccio with sliced artichokes and herbs.
The mains included:
  • whole chargrilled seabass marinated and stuffed with mint, fresh tomato, olive oil & lemon;
  • what they claimed to be Salade Niçoise turned out to be a huge chargrilled fresh tuna steak on a bed of French beans, fresh tomatoes, olives, peppers, new potatoes, lettuce, red onions and boiled egg with wholegrain mustard vinaigrette;
  • whole grilled sea bream arrived blanketed with stir-fried peeled shrimp and underscored with the chef's own creation, strawberry-and-mint sauce.
Surprisingly, these seeming culinary acrobatics yielded a very wholesomely delectable fare, with no whiff of Nouvelle Cuisine's studied trickery. The portions were generous and it took us an extra effort and extended time to tuck it all in. All fish dishes came with copious  amounts of  fresh lemons, nice  touch. Just when we thought we were about to meet Mr. Creosote's fate, a dessert sampler platter arrived, probably to illustrate the owner's leftist persuasion with an example of duped masses perishing from excesses of consumerism. How very decadently thoughtful!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Seafood chasers: South Africa

 ith two oceans surrounding it, South Africa abounds in seafood. As usual, we made a point to sample some wherever we went from Maputo to Lambert's Bay. 

Granted that this Ocean Basket chain restaurant was in the middle of the arid veldt, not far away from the northernmost stretches of the Kruger National Park, it was amazing that we served fresh seafood at all.

Knysna is hailed as South Africa's oyster capital. Its native oyster is on the smallish side, yet rather flavourful. Bizarrely, a bottle of Tabasco came accompanying our platter of  oysters but we duly ignored it in favour of lemon.

Lambert's Bay on the Atlantic Coast is famed for its open-air seafood restaurants. Although deep-frying seems the cooking method of choice, our langoustine, justly a matter of local pride, was grilled and as juicy as only freshly caught seafood can be. We had enough leftovers from this dinner to have a seafood lunch for two on our Cape Town - Johannesburg flight.