Saturday, 16 December 2017

Bernadette becomes a vegetarian

Even though Bernadette’s parents were not animal rights activists, nor kind people, they did love horses and dogs. Also whales and dolphins. And lastly, lions and elephants. They were, naturally, vociferously posed against hunting for sport and also against eating dogs and horses. On the other hand, they always maintained, while presenting some rather startling lines of reasoning, that one could eat cows and sheep and could hunt salmon and tuna. 
Now, despite Bernadette’s meticulous schooling by a posse of classically trained monks, on her mother’s appointment, she found it difficult to live with her parents’ incoherent beliefs about animals. Despite the fact that she had been taught to argue deities into existence, her will out of existence and to make injustices just, she simply could not make head or tail out of how her parents thought about other sentient beings. The inductive leaps, the contradictions, the strange favouritism and, generally, just the tension between their hedonism and their compassion left her awe struck.
Bernadette, when she was awe struck, preferred it to be due to dresses, food or wine. She was her father’s child in this regard.

It was, therefore, with some trepidation that Bernadette decided to try her hand at vegetarianism. A sort of designer type, which permits the consumption of anchovy. One of her tutors, a breatharian (who, naturally, has recently shuffled off this mortal coil), had instructed her as to how one makes a transition from one set of values to another. Given that there are many, many sets of values, none of which have any firmer factual foundation than the next, he always became very flustered when Bernadette asked him what was right and what was wrong. What was good and what was bad? His eyes would widen and he would breathlessly reply: ‘It is impossible to tell, Bernadette, with any certainty. So, it is best to be flexible about good and bad. As long as your beliefs all fit together nicely.’

So, Bernadette did not become a vegetarian because she thought it was morally better. She became one because she believed her parents were paragons of unreason, and she could not abide it. Like not abiding people who wear stretched purple velvet and many bracelets, Bernadette could not abide the sentimental underpinnings of her parents’ world view about animals. Neither of her parents would ever wear such things, of course! They had better sense than that. Her father, as we know, was a style icon, clad only in shades of black all made of either of the finest Egyptian cotton or Chinese silk. Her mother, eminent scholar and formidable intellect, wore mostly hooded capes of roughly hewn cloth, in dark brown. Her only luxury being the satin slip between that and her brown skin.

No, Bernadette’s vegetarianism would be analogous to crisp white shirts with starched collars. It would the bedfellow of finely crafted wine and slow fermented sourdough. It would be the favourite peer and confidante of a perfectly roasted little quail. Metaphorically speaking.

On that day, the 16th day of December, Bernadette became a vegetarian. One who eats anchovies; thus rendering her vegetarianism like a Persian carpet.*

*The real reason is that she simply could not forego Caesar salads nor spaghetti puttanesca.

Important notices: The bakery will be closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and on New Year’s Day. The restaurant will be open as per usual over this time (i.e. closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and open for the rest). But the restaurant will close for two weeks from the 15th of January, and open again on the 31st of January.  

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Letters from friends

From Jo Corrigan to Adam Robinson

To follow is a beautiful letter sent to Mr Robinson by his friend, Jo Corrigan. Ms Corrigan cooked with Robinson in London, during the 90s. Her current occupation is working with her partner to forage for wild things for the kitchens of knowing chefs.
 Shared here, with her permission.

" I'm sitting on a beach on Phu Quoc Isle, Vietnam, having had ten splendid days here with Matt. The flowers and the fruit are on steroids. The sea is bath warm and roars on happily outside our villa. It's monsoon and, whilst our fellow travellers struggle, their humour noisily suspended by the constant downpour of inches and inches of tropical rain and the absence of hot water due to solar interruption we are both just- well - very content. 

We are cocooned in the heat and the sheer luxury of swapping our Macedon Ranges home, which currently battles snow and ice, for this life of freedom in the shape of an old motorbike, beautiful people, night fish market feasts of razor clams, grilled squid and pho, plates of sautéed morning glory, whole days motionless... reading and reading... and sleep- the kind of sleep it's hard to really have unless you momentarily hang your life on a high shelf. 

Life at home has finally settled into a beautiful yearly rhythm where we do exactly what we planned we always would - pretty much the length of the year. 

From February onward we go into mushroom season. Matt and the team start in the Blue Mountains in some of the most beautiful old forests I've ever seen. Towering, they are miles from civilisation. We see few folk through there, the odd cattle farmer who shares the boundary with the forestry commission. These forests are rich in all wild mushrooms, blackberries, river mint... Their slopes are high. They test the spirit and the legs. 

I travel between there and Melbourne with early loads then I catch further tonnes off overnight freight in one of the vans and deliver to the wholesale market and the restaurants. It's a great sustainable business. It can be demanding, however. The light at the end of the tunnel is this period in July, August/September when we can ramble happily and live without a plan. 
We are often joined on our mission by travellers eager for an experience of food in the wild. The last lot boasted a very good fisherman. This made for some pretty memorable suppers. 

We finish in NSW when the local season starts on Mount Macedon around April/May. 
We spend a couple of weeks changing spots into south Australia where we have a cabin for 3 months a year, a beautiful spot with koalas, a lemon tree, a pub and about 20 huge forests that offer kilos and kilos of mushrooms at a time of year that others find it difficult to source them. Sometimes we head into Adelaide, catching a game of our beloved Collingwood and driving happily through the Adelaide Hills and a favourite spot, Basket Range, where wild watercress is delicious right from the stream. We found lovely Porcini here one year... under a set of swings in a park! 

Spring. September offers us morels. We head to the snow country after the thaw. We're still yet to crack the tonnes that we experience with the other varieties but we get a little better every year. Matt is such a happy camper if we can come home with 40 kg. They don't taste as strong as European morel but they're thrilling to sleuth out and always sell well. 

Cooking is still my first love. However, I do not miss the shape of it in terms of restaurant life. Where did honest food go? I know it's on our table at home. It is in the homes of our friends. That's where we eat more and more.  I don't miss owning a restaurant. I don’t miss fielding a young chef’s desire to create something 'new' when all we really need is to combine a menu that reflects a good combination historically. A menu that will take into account the skill on board and the ingredients available locally. Then back all that up with good, honest warmth and hospitality. We supply many, many kitchens that champion these values, certainly values that The Brackenbury instilled in me. Since joining Matt in his quest to put hard to get gear onto the chopping boards of like-minded chefs I have so enjoyed walking into those businesses and seeing faces instantly light up as they chat excitedly about what they will cook with whatever we have brought them.

In previous summers we have lent our time to part time gigs, event catering and so on. Instead, this year, we are going to finally complete our dream of growing 12 different heirloom tomatoes on a large scale. We did a test amount last year in our back garden and produced a good 70 kilos which went to favoured chefs. Wonderful! I wrote a form letter last month and, being in winery rich/organic country I popped it through twenty or so letterboxes. I wasn't prepared for the response. 10 properties offered spare land, a tractor and bore water and so the project took joyous flight. We chose three of the local wineries and we start ploughing and preparing next week. They will receive vegetables for the house on return. One fellow, giving us the biggest area, has requested 6% of our total crop earn. A good deal in the end. 

To aid the size of all of this we finally purchased a beautiful big green house. We have this delivered the day after we get back and our seedlings will go in. Joy.

Hoping my yearly yarn finds you both well and enjoying both your businesses. I do check them out from time to time and do dream of visiting. I do know I'll find honest cooking there and it's not too far to go to find it."  

Friday, 8 September 2017

Bernadette fits a dress

When Bernadette turned 48 years old, she knew that she would not be able to go on as she had before. She knew then that all attempts at subterfuge and sophistry would come to naught. She knew that her web of beliefs had been exposed for the falseness and treachery that they were. She had been exposed. She had finally come loose from the firmament of middle class morality. Bernadette was undone.

Up until then it was of not much significance that the cost of a dress could be the same as another person’s monthly wage. It was of no real consequence that the cost of an airplane ticket might solve another family’s financial crisis. It mattered only briefly that to attend Shakespeare’s Globe comes at the same price as another’s heating bill. Naturally, Bernadette, did think about these things. Her mother, eminent scholar and formidable ethicist, had tortured the young Bernadette with confounding questions about morals since she could speak her first words. But, in the past, the denouement of such musings would, minimally, be a sort of vague uneasiness, a confusion about what is right. At best it would result in finding another charity or visiting her dying, senile aunt. Sometimes just watching Sir David Attenborough expound the nature of Nature would bring relief. Learning a new language, particularly of those least favoured by the world economic system, would positively induce feelings of moral superiority in Bernadette. The point is, a sense of well-being and moral ease, could be achieved with relatively little effort.

Bernadette, looking into the mirror, waiting for the French lotions to take action that morning, knew evil had set in. It had set in with the knowledge thereof. And the romantic poets knew this would happen long before Bernadette was a twinkle in her father’s beautiful and wandering eye. In the past, in Bernadette’s youth, when her body was nubile and milky white, and when her mind was like a sapling, yielding and filled with hope, she could find ways to approve of herself. But when she became 48, and the world presented as brittle stories with definite edges, a just world was not credible anymore. And her moral goodness was not credible either. For the likes of Bernadette, her evil nature reared its monstrous head; it rose like the truest scion of this defunct world in which everyone fights for a bit of light. A world where the light is just a chipped, plastic sequin dangling over a dirty dance floor. Nothing more than that.

If all this seems a tad dramatic, a little too dark, Bernadette suggests that you, you esteemed reader, look to Al Jazeera. Look to The Guardian. Look to The Beijing Review. Look to the International Socialist Review. Look to the Great World Wide Web. Look and tell the scribe how brilliantly astute Bernadette is. I shall convey your compliments to her. Presently, she is fitting a dress and eating mozzarella boconcini.  

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Elizabeth David again; this time on presentation

I turn again to the inimitable Elizabeth David for inspiration. Here she has written about ‘buffet’ tables. She seems to have quite a lot to say about what such a spread should look like. Buffets are, of course, reminiscent of the ‘harvest table’ that is now on offer for lunch at the restaurant, during the week. The wonderful thing about David is that, while everyone else was decorating platters in the most unfortunate and embarrassing ways, or trying to get everything onto, or into, silver and glass, she knew better. Her culinary and visual taste transcended her time. She should be forever deemed an Ultimate Judge; a final arbiter of good taste. Hume was wrong about only this one thing; what is aesthetically correct is not subjective. Elizabeth David’s advice on the vessels for salads and stews and soups rises above the fashions of the 50s, 60s and 70s in England; the decades over which she produced her incredible books.

Here she is in ‘South Wind Through The Kitchen’ in a chapter called, ‘Buffet food’. She speaks about catering for a party; and what is the harvest table at The Glenwood Restaurant if not a party? I have edited her words slightly, to fit our physical page.

“The presentation of party dishes, and of course of all food, is an important point. Cold food should certainly have a lavish and colourful appearance, but to varnish it with gelatine or to smother it with whirls of mayonnaise seems to me a misconception of what makes for an appetizing appearance. The effect needed is not of food tormented into irrelevant shapes but of fresh ingredients freshly cooked and not overhandled. The most elementary hors-d’œuver such as a plate of radishes with a few of their green leaves, a dish of green and black olives and another of halved hard-boiled eggs (not overcooked) with butter and bread on the table, is ten times more tempting than the same ingredients got up in a pattern all in one dish and garnished with strips of this and dabs of that. You are, after all, preparing a meal, not decorating the village hall.

As for hot food, if it has not acquired an appetizing look during the cooking, a few blobs of cream or a border of mashed potatoes will do little to improve matters. There are, of course, way of making good food look especially beautiful. The colour, size and shape of the serving dish is obviously important; food should never be crammed into too small a dish; serve rice and pilaffs on large shallow platters, not pressed into deep glass casseroles; for the serving of fish and of grilled chicken, which could be spread out rather than piled up, a long narrow dish is best.

Paesant and country stews of beans or lentils, deep brown daubes of meat or game, onion and oil-flavoured ragoûts of pimentos or purple-skinned aubergines lose some of their particular charm (and also get cold) when transferred from earthen pots to a smart silver entrée dish, and all the delicious brown bits on the bottom and sides of the dish are lost. Dark glowing blue china, the dark brown glaze of slip ware pottery and plain white always make good backgrounds for food.”

The Glenwood Restaurant, like the Glenwood Bakery, is now open seven days a week, in one way or 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Massimo at Osteria Francescana, Modena

The Robinsons watched Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ few days ago. It was very interesting in parts. Very. What was particularly interesting was watching the episode on Massimo Bottura, an Italian born chef, working in Modena. There he is head chef for his restaurant called Osteria Francescana.

This restaurant was, during the early stages of its existence, so quiet that it sometimes fed no one. It now has three Michelin stars and is, as expected, fully booked for months. This is despite its home being a small and extremely traditional Italian village. Now, most will assume that it being in a small and traditional village is a challenge to its success because it is out of the way and populated with the non-cognoscenti one expects to find in rural areas. But, in fact, the reason why it is a wonder that it exists despite its surroundings is because the people of Modena, for a very long time after the opening of it, judged its extravagant and lawless reproduction of traditional Italian cuisine as unacceptable. What were those splotches, broken pastries and strange compositions which only remotely represented what they were used to eating? From where the audacity to mess with what has been firmly established and is, evidently, the food people have grown up on?

Of course, the Netflix ‘Chef’s Table’ sings the praises of Massimo’s self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision; one which flies in the face of tradition. The Glenwood Restaurant too sings his praises for his self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision. But we do not share his actual vision. We found ourselves strangely siding with tradition – with the people of Modena and not with the bedazzled Milanese making their way to Osteria Francescana to eat deconstructed tortellini en brodo. We found ourselves very sympathetic to the fact that there should be ten tortellini for every mouthful and not six marching on a piece of slate towards something which merely represents the brodo. Call us old fashioned, but we think the people of Modena have been robbed.

There are indeed many, many traditions which must go. Such as expensive wedding dresses and American movies with a Christmas theme. But do not mess with tortellini en brodo. Nor with lemon tart. So, if The Glenwood Restaurant ever closes its doors due to a lack of comprehension it will be because the supposed cognoscenti are looking for pieces of slate carrying food that looks like Jackson Pollock paintings (note, we are fans of Pollock paintings when done in oils on canvas). Such food, for good reason, will never, ever be found across our threshold.

Nevertheless, we genuinely love Massimo for his commitment to, and revelry in, cooking. Also for his evident skill. But we looked in wonderment, with much real entertainment and with not just a little horror at what emerges from his kitchen. Viva la cuisine!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

How to make risotto nero. Or, once more, unto the breach.

How does one make risotto nero? It depends on where it is being made. Cooking risotto nero can either be done in an hour holding a glass of wine, or it can take many days, as part of a violent battle. Cooking it in a restaurant makes it akin to waging war.

We know very little about each other’s professions. And why should we know more? We are, naturally, more interested in ourselves than in others. Some of us, however, have created a little soapbox to speak from. Here is that soapbox, and this is that speech. It is the speech that answers what it takes to make very simple, good food for restaurant patrons. It takes much, much more than what most people think. Any person who actually cooks, and by this we mean a person who takes in hand stuff that grows, walks, swims and flies, knows that to produce a plate of food which is good, even if it has seemingly only one thing on it, often requires many steps. Sometimes, but not always, it also requires a lot of time. But to make good food in a restaurant is never a case of combining pre-existing ready-made components in novel, or not novel, ways. Good food does not manifest from dabs of this, slices of those or splashes of that unless the dabs, slices and splashes were first made under a very watchful eye.

These steps include finding the raw ingredients. Thus, much time is spent holding a phone with a chin speaking to the butcher, the baker, farmers and grocers whilst bringing to the boil two or three stocks. Lists, which have been written at the end of the previous night’s service, over a glass of wine while high on adrenaline, are now studied and soberly executed. These lists are based on what has been used up and needs to be replaced – and this depends also on what will change on the menu that day and what remains the same. So the list is not simply a ‘stock’ take, it involves menu planning at the same time.

Any restaurant which actually engages real cooking, and The Glenwood Restaurant is sadly one of only a few in Durban, will have such lists. At The Glenwood Restaurant this includes instructions to make certain types of pasta doughs – things like herb tagliatelle, linguini, mezzaluna – butter, ricotta, tart pastries, butchering, poaching and reducing. Whilst three people attend to these lists as from 8 am, the head chef, if he is also the owner, will meet with managers, work out the cost of goods, determine the margins, look for better suppliers of better ingredients and fire bad ones. In the afternoons, wines must be tasted, wine lists updated to remain in keeping with the menu and the general ethos of the particular restaurant. This includes the decisions which have been made around the pricing of items on the menu. In short, a day running and cooking for even a small restaurant, which offers a certain type of menu, is a fourteen hour non-stop affair, if one is lucky.

This is certainly not a complaint. This type of work is self-inflicted, of course. And it is chosen as an occupation by people of a certain type. Given the chances of receiving criticism on a daily basis, because food and eating is a very emotional thing for most of us, often whilst under pressure and barking orders at others, makes for a nerve wracking work day. Like actors, cooks, have tomatoes thrown at them. As they should have. No, kitchens are not pretty. They are stages, bared to scrutiny. One either becomes an actor, soldier or a cook. Turning on the first flames and sharpening your knives when the sun has just risen, so as to feed people when the sun sets, is a case of ‘unto the breach, once more’. And the battle is won in systematic layers; each, time consuming and, all, indispensable. That is how one makes risotto nero with squid tentacles and mussels. It has very little to do with the tentacles and mussels, except that someone must be certain that they are very, very fresh. But it really starts early in the morning with a good stock and ends, before plating, with copious amounts of hand-made butter.

Important notices:

The Glenwood Restaurant now serves lunch all week, from 12 am to 3 pm, in the form of a harvest table. We are making beautiful salads, tarts and warm dishes. You may help yourself to what you want. Take-aways are possible. Weekend lunches, and all dinners (Wednesday to Saturday) remain menu based, as they always have been.

The Glenwood Bakery now serves breakfast all day.  

Thursday, 8 June 2017

I love you, Thomas Mann.

I have recently discovered Thomas Mann. I am not sure how I would have turned out had I discovered Mann in my youth. But there is no doubt that my character would have been significantly, and permanently, altered on reading his work. Even after just two novels.

I first read The confessions of Felix Krull, confidence man. And then I read The Holy Sinner. Presently, for me, if a novel cannot make me laugh out loud – preferably bitterly – it is doomed at the outset. Profundity, as a rule, is ruled out. If, however, profundity, is an absolute must for the author, it should present itself properly armed with satire, or it should invoke personal embarrassment in the reader, or it should make you want to meet the author and spend a whole night holding them very tightly. When it does all three, whilst firmly prohibiting any saccharin and exalted delusions of wisdom in the reader, it is safe to call the author a genius. Thomas Mann is such a genius.

He manages to consistently make me feel as if he has seen humanity naked, finds it often wanting and just as often beautiful, but never commits himself to an opinion. But this lack of commitment does not take the same form as J. M. Coetzee’s refusal to offer a moral exemplar. It is not nearly as self-consciously detached and objective (please note, I am a fan of Coetzee’s too). Unlike Coetzee, Mann often comments through his narrators. He judges, he approves, he fears for them, he puts his reader at ease about them. But his narrators (at least, in these two novels) are themselves characters like confidence men or Catholic monks. Objectivity is thus instantly thwarted. What I have loved about them both, the confidence man narrating himself into existence and the monk narrating a very holy man, is that through their respective biases there is a sort of fictionally tempered objectivity. I suspect Mann’s reasonableness, his clarity about people, is simply a feature beyond his control. He cannot help but see things like they are. His humour is surely an extension of this reason.

But, granted, love is blind. And I am in love with Thomas Mann. How is one when one is in love with Thomas Mann? You first tread carefully to see if it is appropriate to express this love. One does not simply fall at his feet. That would be madness. A path to self-ruin. If one wants the love to be reciprocated (figuratively, of course), one investigates, plans and then approaches head on. To love Thomas Mann is to approach confidently, but be ready to retreat should his gaze begin to, as they say, ‘go right through’. That would make one invisible – the death knell to a hopeful lover. Unless one’s flaws are interesting, sophisticated and even glamorous – in the broadest sense of the word – one should rather simply be Mann-perfect. Either way, it is very evident to me that what he wants from his lover is a person who is able to temporarily bend the path of his gaze. I’ll probably never be ready, but I will declare it in this very, very private place: I love you, Thomas Mann. Also for your politics. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The meaning of a white table cloth

What does the object, a white table cloth, mean? What does it symbolise, conjure up or denote? In terms of denotation, of course, a white table cloth is a white table cloth. Since there are no words involved here, the thing denotes itself. But what it conjures up and symbolises is as varied as the cultural milieus in which this item might be put to use. It is as complex as the societies which eat from its pressed linen surfaces. There are those who flagrantly spill wine on it, those who revere it, those who regard it as an indication of their excellent choice in eating place or those who regard it as an artefact, minimally, required for civilised eating. Does the reader find this hard to believe; the claim that white table cloths mean different things to different people? Can anything be a more unassuming object than a plain of white cloth? Bear with me.

Whilst making my case about white table cloths I would like the reader to extrapolate the moral expounded here to other physical features of eating places; such as tables (with or without white table cloths) set up with wine glasses and cutlery, the absence of brightly coloured menus with seasonal, uplifting messages on them, waiters in black and white, cut flowers, cloth napkins and many more. All these features, these moments of creating an identity for an eating place, have the potential for meaning different things to different people. Sometimes, they evidently mean different things to the Patrons and the owners.

In France something called a bistro or even a café can have starched white table cloths and waiters dressed in black and white. And that is not because a café in France is like a posh restaurant in South Africa. Cafés in France are what they say they are; places where people drink coffee during the day and have light meals, and perhaps a glass of wine. To eat in a café in France is to not plan one’s outfit, gather a group of friends and secure a booking. It is a place where one arrives, perhaps, in the middle of a working day, asks for a sandwich, pastry or bowl of soup and have that, perhaps, alone over a white table cloth served by a waiter dressed in black and white. One might do so in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Why is this? Why are the French not intimidated by the same things that we see as formal and demanding? I am not sure. Perhaps it was their revolution that changed things. This is not the seminal question though. The point is simply to show that white table cloths and other artefacts, mean different things in different contexts.

To others a white table cloth, or tables set with wine glasses, or cloth napkins means a show.  A show of pomp and ceremony; of finery and formality. But my suggestion is that to think of a white table cloth – and any of the other artefacts mentioned – as necessarily signifying formality is either a sad petit bourgeois hangover or it is an unresolved childhood fear of bed linen and going to sleep at night. White table cloths, wine glasses, rows of cutlery, cut flowers are beautiful, and beauty is supposed to bring succour to the artistic soul, the unconstrained soul, in pursuit of finer things. This is surely the only way to think of such things. Beyond social demarcations and etiquette – into a meritocratic world. A world where a beautifully arranged space can simply be there to form a backdrop to a quick bowl of soup and a glass of wine.