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A while ago I had the pleasure of visiting Cornell & Pieter de Villiers in Hermanus to have a look at the only “bean to bar” chocolate production facility in South Africa.

Upon arrival, we indulged in mugs of steaming hot chocolate and platefuls of chocolate muffins. I could definitely say at this stage that the de Villiers’ style of breakfast is a mythos I could adopt! After a radical sugar spike, we headed for the bean storage facility, where each origin of bean is stored  separately.  Stored in 25kg bags, the beans are kept on wooden pallets off the floor, in order to keep any pests away from the precious morsels.

A former electrical engineer turned chocolatier, Pieter has designed & made a large portion of the equipment necessary for his chocolate production. Internationally, chocolate production utilizes very large and extraordinarily expensive equipment which, for the micro chocolatier, is simply not feasible.

Pieter’s engineering knowledge has not just been limited to converting domestic, everyday items into chocolate-friendly machinery; he also developed the computer software that all his machinery is programmed to. For example, the bean roaster (which once was a pretty standard domestic oven) has a myriad of different roasting settings, all particular to the origin or ‘personality’ of the bean it’s roasting – certain beans may require a higher roasting temperature or a longer roasting cycle. Each batch of beans that is received is tested for defects, pests, mould & moisture content and is programmed into the system accordingly. This is one well thought through operation, and you can taste it in their chocolate. For a more thorough breakdown of the chocolate-making process, take a look here.

Roasting & conching the beans, then tempering the chocolate

Cornell & Pieter tell me that their strategy is to introduce a few more lines once they have a handle on how the general public receives their chocolate. Initially, they thought that the South African consumer would struggle with the fact that their chocolate is unflavored. Dedicated to introducing SA palates to ‘real’ chocolate, Pieter & Cornell painstakingly selected a range of 5 origins from a list of over 25 different origins, based on their taste profile, and launched these just a few months ago.

For chocolate that contains 70% cocoa butter and no other flavorings, the flavour notes that come through across the various origins is phenomenal. It cannot accurately be explained in words, you simply must taste the chocolate yourself.

Currently, DV Chocolate is sold in a select few establishments around the country, but the good news is spreading fast! To see where you can get your paws on these delightful treats or become a stockist, click here.

To get in touch, contact Cornell  on 028 316 4850 or email info@dvchocolates.com or visit them here.

*All images courtesy of DV Chocolates

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Savingnac brandy & chocolate truffles

A few weeks ago, I met Dawn Jorgensen after having mentioned that I was a huge limoncello fan.  Dawn kindly offered to do a tasting of her and her husband Roger’s Primitiv vodka and organic limoncello.  Roger is the master distiller and an alchemist of all things boozy!  Dawn handles the marketing, and has generated an incredible amount of excitement around the brand in a very short space of time.  After tasting their delicious vodka and limoncello, and hearing how passionate these people were about what they were doing, I knew there was a trip to the Jorgensen’s farm in Wellington to plan and a wonderful story waiting to be told.

Primitiv vodka dinkies & the organic spelt it's made from

I visited the distillery on the first day of Roger’s absinthe production, and couldn’t believe my luck!  Rog had laid out all of the ingredients out for me and took me through each one, how it was grown, where it came from and the part that it played in the final product.  I was astounded at the number of herbs and spices that made up the absinthe, and took pictures of each to bring back and show you.  Certain ingredients are used to flavour the spirit, thus they are added at the beginning of the process.  Others are added after distillation and are used to colour the absinthe and add lighter notes, creating a complex, well-balanced flavour.   The absinthe is distilled in a copper pot still at a consistent temperature of 75’C, and takes about 24 hours to distill 1000 liters of spirit.  I never got to taste the final product that day unfortunately, but Dawn and Roger had a stable full of other equally enticing treats up their sleeves for me to try.

Field of Dreams absinthe

The copper pot still during absinthe distillation

Dawn and Rog founded their distillery on their gorgeous farm Versailles, in the heart of Wellington, and it is from here that Rog first grew and nurtured the Chenin Blanc grapes that feature in his pot still Savingnac brandy.  The brandy is made in the typical cognac style, is twice distilled in a traditional copper pot still and matured for a minimum of 10 years in French oak.  I tasted the brandy in its 13th year, and it was surprisingly smooth yet incredibly complex and rich. Exotic spices, molasses, chocolate and sandalwood all come through on the nose, and the palate is just as delightful.  We tasted the Savingnac accompanied by local handmade chocolate truffles filled with a rich ganache center.  A sip of brandy, swirled in the mouth and swallowed, a bite of chocolate, letting the chocolate linger on your tongue while taking another sip of brandy, letting the two do a little dance inside your mouth… Sheer heaven!  What’s interesting is how the flavour of the brandy changes when you have the chocolate in your mouth.  It becomes nuttier, spicier & more bold in flavour. An absolute joy to encounter.

The Savingnac was Dawn and Rog’s initial venture, but it was going to take the better part of a decade and then some to yield anything near desirable in Roger’s opinion, so the couple decided to look into other boozy projects to pass the time while their beloved golden nectar aged. They didn’t have to look very far.  Organic lemons grown in the valley, organic spelt grown above the snowline in the Cederberg mountains, exotic African Grains of Paradise and a host of rare and mysterious herbs & spices that make up Roger’s acclaimed and authentic Field of Dreams Absinthe.

Angelica root & seed, coriander seed & star anise

Roman wormwood, khaat, southern wormwood

Melissa, grand wormwood & sweet flag

Buchu, wild dagga & hyssop giant anise

Hyssop & liquorice root

After a long stay in Italy, Rog and Dawn were captivated by limoncello, and  introduced the first product in their Naked range, using the organic lemons mentioned earlier, which rivals most of the Italian varieties I tasted during my travels to Amalfi and the rest of the Campania region in Italy. Rog and Dawn will also be extending the Naked range to include more fruity liqueurs, so look out for these on their website.

Launching in March 2011 is Jorgensen’s Gin, a fascinating blend of Macedonian juniper and Grains of Paradise (a peppery-flavoured spice grown for the Jorgensen’s as part of a community upliftment program in Ghana).  I’m super excited about tasting this one in particular, as I do fancy my gin!

Roger recently listed the Primitiv vodka and Naked limoncello with Pick n Pay’s flagship store PnP on Nicol in Johannesburg, which will be sold in their bottle store. It’s pretty clear that Jorgensen’s Distillery is going places, and I’m hard-pressed to find two other equally passionate people who are more deserving of having their products flourish as Roger and Dawn have!

Visit Jorgensen’s Distillery or contact them on 021 864 1777 or email Dawn on dawn@jd7.co.za for stockists around the country.

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There have been a few unhappy chappies about town after a number of unsavoury restaurant reviews had been published via blogs. Whilst I enjoy visiting restaurants and writing about my dining experiences, I do not claim to be a food critic, nor do I pretend I have any clout as an official restaurant reviewer when visiting such establishments. Nor do I slate the establishments and their management to the extent that these critics do. I do however feel that it is necessary to continue to share my dining experiences with my readership, and not simply bail out when the blogging community comes under scrutiny.

I am not one of those people who only dine at fancy 5 star establishments. I enjoy eating a bunny chow on the sidewalk from Rose Cafe in Bo Kaap just as much as the next person. I’ll totally blog about it as well. Which brings us to the reason for this blog post: Curry Quest. A true gem. Not a particularly shiny or fancy gem, but one of those stellar curry houses that will continue to do good business long after the fanciful, trendy establishments with fantastic views have opened and closed. When the beautiful people move onto the next ‘right now’ place, Curry Quest will still be serving consistently good food, at very reasonable prices.

It’s located on Durban road in Mowbray, and serves the best Durban curry this side of Chatsworth. A fitting address, you’ll agree. It’s positioned along a road with other similarly decent restaurants – a great Greek place that’s sadly closing soon, a good Thai cafe, and a Mexican joint at which I can only pass judgement on the frozen margaritas.

I went there for lunch last week, and upon arrival was met with an empty restaurant. I will admit that I felt a tad sceptical, but my lunch companion insisted that this was the place for a good curry, of which I am a big fan, so we sat down and ordered some drinks and starters. The decor is simple; bright orange walls with wooden chairs and tables decorated with intricately hand-stitched table mats. Framed accolades & magazine clippings adorn the walls, highlighting just how proud the owners are that their humble establishment has tickled so many diners.

Our mince samoosas and potato & coriander samoosas (R3 each) arrived within minutes, piping hot and incredibly crispy. They were served with a spicy dipping sauce which I discovered after the second bite was in fact Chippies prego sauce (I am their biggest fan!) that had been transformed with the help of some fragrant Indian spices into an Eastern dipping delight. It went particularly well with the potato & coriander samoosa, and for the grand total of R6 per person, that was our starter.

The menu is basic, and features a handful of vegetarian, chicken-based and lamb-based dishes. Each dish is available in two sizes, so it becomes possible to try a few different dishes, rather than order just one. I am told that the bunny chows make men cry tears of joy. Same goes for the biryani, equally famous for authenticity & delivering on the delicious factor. I’m looking forward to trying one on my next visit.

Our waitress was very helpful & elaborated confidently on the dishes we were considering. We eventually settled on a lamb curry (on the bone, R63 for the large portion), a chicken curry (R48 for the large portion), some basmati rice (R8), a side of raita (R9) and 2 roti (R8 each).

The lamb curry’s heat index was high, yet the flavour was not compromised. Notes of cloves, cinnamon, garam masala came through the flavoursome gravy strongly. The portion was large, with lots of chunky lamb, tender potatoes & tasty sauce. The rice would have been better served with this curry, as the sauce was more liquid than the chicken curry, but my companion endured with the roti, and fared well.

My chicken curry was absolutely mouth-watering. Cardamom, mustard seeds, coriander leaves & loads of fresh, zingy ginger and garlic in a tomato gravy. It took me straight back to Durban, to that dodgy curry shop in Pinetown where I almost sold my shoes for another fix. (Almost being the operative word there.) I had it with basmati rice, and a side of raita. It turned out my sniffling compadre needed the raita more than I did to put out the fire in his mouth, but the little that I did taste was refreshing – very crunchy cucumber & cool Bulgarian-style yoghurt.

Our bill came to R163, and by the time we walked out the restaurant, all the tables were full with equally content customers. If you enjoy a good Durban curry, or just great Indian food, this is the place to visit.

Find Curry Quest at 89 Durban Road, Mowbray. Contact them on 021 686 3157 or email curryquest@mweb.co.za

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As some of you may know via that wonderfully endless portal of information Twitter, I recently had the opportunity to be a judge at Cape Town’s very first bacon croissant competition organised at a moment’s notice by the folk over at Eat In.  Not to be confused with a bacon croissant eating competition, which I would gladly have offered my services for as well!

Upon arrival at the New Media Publishing offices in Bree Street, I was immediately made to feel super-duper important in my honorable judging capacity by the lovely executive editor Anelde Greeff & introduced to my fellow judging compadres, Fleabeke & The Foodie.   Whilst we were all getting acquainted (and patting each other on the back for scoring such a wicked gig), the chefs from Jardine Bakery, Rcaffe & The Taj came in with their freshly baked stars of the show!  Not being allowed to see the goods before we judged them, they were whisked away into the boardroom & each competitors goods were set up for a blind tasting, so that none of the judges knew whose croissant they’d be eating.  Fair’s fair people.

We were ushered in, and took our seats in front of all the contestants & a row of still-warm croissants & steaming coffee.  *Moment of gloating. Sigh. Okay. Done*  Coffee & croissants first thing in the morning? Fine, but bacon croissants? Heaven! The competition was stiff – The Taj had great texture, and got those lovely crispy layers spot on, yet there was not a whiff or hint of bacon (think they missed that memo), which was totally disappointing.  Rcaffe had a good flavour, with chopped up bits of bacon in theirs, but their pastry was more shortcrust-like than croissant-like.  Jardine hit the nail on the head & delivered great texture with a hunk-a-chunk piece of smokey, salty back bacon in the middle of theirs.

The results were more of a formality after the tasting (and much umming and ahhing and omnomnomnoming), and Jardine Bakery came out tops!  The runners-up were great sports, and took their places gracefully on the podium beside the big kahuna, Jason from Jardine.

It was a fun morning all round, and the first I hope of many similar challenges – it’s a great way to get exposure to those smaller establishments that perhaps don’t have the marketing footprint or consumer following just yet.  All I know is, today Jardine bakery were sold out of bacon croissants by mid-morning, all thanks to this little adventure.  Snaps to the awesome folk at Eat In for putting together such a great event & congrats again to the participants – y’all are awesome!

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Thomas Maxwell Bistro

It takes a very special place to wow me to the extent that Thomas Maxwell Bistro in Parkmore, Johannesburg wows me.  I’ve even gone so far as to call it my favourite restaurant in South Africa.  So when I found myself in Jozi last week, it was a happy day securing a last minute reservation at this much-loved establishment.  I think I could have done a little dance.  Just possibly maybe.

In all my previous visits to Thomas Maxwell, I have tried to take in as much detail as possible.  To say that I still find interesting little trinkets & treats around the edgy, bare brick New York style restaurant tickles me in ways I find hard to verbalise.  From the pewter greyhound in the bar area, to the wooden pineapples featuring randomly throughout the restaurant, the incredibly fabulous art deco red leather & brass chairs, and the hat boxes that adorn the wine crates & vintage dressers that separate the kitchen from the dining area, this is one eclectic yet well thought out space.

I immediately like a place where the chefs run the show.  Yeah yeah, I get that that may not be everybody’s cup of icky earl grey tea, but I appreciate that the focus is on the food experience, rather than fancy-pancy waitrons flouncing around in stiff whites jabbering unashamedly amongst themselves about how few tips they’re making.  I like that Thomas Barker & his sous chefs engage every diner & explain the day’s/evening’s specials, because they know exactly what they’re talking about & can recommend suitable wines for every dish.  I love that every time I go I pour over the menu, agonizing in my selection process as every item pulls at some or other taste bud & heart string & I feel as if I’m doing a  disservice to all the other items on the menu by not ordering them instead.

The food is uncomplicated.  The menu is not extensive, focus is on quality ingredients & complimentary flavours.  Steaming mussels & pommes frites with garlic, lemon & parsley cream (a Thomas Maxwell staple), tomato tart, and warthog carpaccio adorn the starter menu, while main courses like rabbit & chorizo risotto, fillet medallion in a truffle cream sauce topped with a foie gras and thyme butter crust, cappellini pasta with queen prawns, rocket, basil pesto & parmesan shavings excite even the most unadventurous diners.  Dessert here is certainly not an afterthought:   crème brûleè (10/10 from me, a brûleè connoisseur),  decadent chocolate torte & summer fruit crepes with zabaglione continue the trend of classic, well-executed dishes.  The wine list however is extensive & sadly didn’t inspire or excite.

I ordered the tomato tart on my first visit here, which I have never ever been able to substitute on subsequent visits.  The pastry is perfectly crisp & thin, the tomato petals taste as if they’ve been poached in pure happiness & are seasoned to perfection.  The soft goats cheese cuts the acid & the sweetness of the tomato & the deep-fried basil leaves add a crunchy, pungent vibe to complete this truly wonderful dish.  My dining companions ordered the warthog carpaccio & the creamy mussels, and so I didn’t feel like such a fool moaning and groaning from sheer delight over my tart, as they were making similar gestures of ecstasy themselves.  Two of us had the creamy mussels & pommes frites as a main course, while our compadres enjoyed the rabbit & chorizo risotto and one of the evenings specials, a chicken, porcini & truffle pie served with pommes frites & creamed spinach.  We were slightly disappointed with the texture of the rabbit, which was on the chewy side, and the risotto was a little too starchy.  The moment the chicken pie pastry was cracked open, the most incredible aromas filled our little nasal cavities & warmed the cockles of our hearts.  The portion of pie was large, and was bursting with juicy chicken & big chucks of porcini mushrooms.  It wasn’t swimming in sauce, but was coated with a lovely smooth, thick sauce smacking with truffley flavour.  A perfect winter dish, conjuring up childhood memories of home-made pies on steroids.

None of us could manage dessert after that, which was a fairly disappointing performance on our part.  But just so that we’d remember on our next visit, our bill was presented on a large vintage silver cake stand teeming with petit fours & cupcakes.  Somehow we found our sweet-teeth and our wallets & left a still-full restaurant with full, content bellies.  Dinner for 4, consisting of 3 starters, 4 main courses & 1 bottle of wine came to R860.  I don’t know about you, but I think that’s damn good value for such a winning dining experience!

Find Thomas Maxwell Bistro at 140 11th Street, Parkmore, Johannesburg.  For reservations call 011 784 1575 or visit them here.

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Lately, I’ve been all about comfort-eating, and I haven’t quite pinned down what the catalyst for this calamity is:  could it be that we’re one World Cup game away from mass hysteria & a national depression after one of the greatest highs in our country’s history?  Or maybe it’s that winter has decided it’s time to quit being polite for the nice visitors & descend upon us like an angry Greek god upon their nemeses?  It could be that I’m newly single and having a hard time chewing on anything other than my own misery & complex carbohydrates…  Perhaps it’s all of the above; but be that as it may, I’m embracing it.  The Bikini-Readiness Program has been completely abandoned for the moment, and all ideas of health-related blog posts are being ignored.  Deal with it, my lovelies – we’ll get through this together!

So, Thursday evening I had the pleasure of hosting an impromptu dinner-cum-photo shoot with their loveliness’ Dizzy & Polly Linguist. I’m trying to get my food styling mojo back, as it’s been a wee while since my last foray.  I also connected with my good friend Darryn Lazarus of Sagra Food & Wine Merchants who sent me away with a bottle of prized hazelnut oil* after a visit, so it was a truly congruent occasion.  I’m giving myself a double word score for congruent, okay? Boom!

Your selection of mushrooms really makes this dish, so be sure you get your hands on some special & different varieties beforehand.  The major retailers in SA have a good selection of fresh varieties now, and if you’re in Cape Town like me, your choices are endless as to sources.  My two faves have to be from the folk at the Biscuit Mill on a Saturday morning – the mushrooms skewers they make on their little griddle are reason enough to get on down there, but they also sell a wonderful selection & will tell you magical stories about them if you let them – and the other is going hunting for them in the Newlands forest with a guide.  Gary Goldman is a serious fungi aficionado and knows his enoki from his shiitake, and will take you on an early morning hunt for porcini the size of a small baby.  No spice!

What you’ll need… (serves 4)

½ bag dried linguine

3-4 cups of mixed mushrooms, torn/sliced/whole/ as you please

1 tbsp olive oil

4 cloves garlic, smashed

1/3 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1 lemon, zested

½  tbsp hazelnut oil

Salt & coarse pepper

Grana Padano shavings (Parmigiano Reggiano is too bold a flavour for this dish, so stay away)

And then…

Get a big pot of salted water on the boil.  Once at a rolling boil, do the twisty thing with your linguine like we did here & throw it in the pot.  Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan & add your mushrooms.  Toss them gently until they start to get some good colour on them.  Add the garlic, parsley & lemon zest & continue to toss well to incorporate all those crazy flavours.  Pull the mushies off the heat & set them aside.

Once the linguine is al denté, drain it immediately in a colander & transfer it back to the pot it boiled in.  Pour the mushies over the pasta along with the hazelnut oil & season with salt and pepper.  If you have rubber-tip tongs those would be great right now, but two spoons work just as well to incorporate all the ingredients together.  Transfer immediately to bowls & serve with grana padano shavings.

* Hazelnut oil is a very unique ingredient to use, although it can be daunting to the lay-cook.  Use it sparingly in salad dressings, in baked fruit desserts and even drizzled into steamed puddings.

I used Vilux hazelnut oil, a brand synonymous with quality oils, vinegar & mustards.  They’re available through Sagra Food & Wine Merchants, who stock a vast selection of specialist food ingredients.  Contact them here.

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I decided to capitalize on the public holiday & went out to Stellenbosch to stock up my stash of wine.  Between all the gorgeous estates, we felt compelled to stop off & do a tasting at Kleine Zalze.  A lovely case of wine later, we exited only to find ourselves right in the middle of the Terrior action.  “Dessert?” he offered.  “Absolutely” came the reply.  You know life is good when you just eat pudding.  So we sat down at the only available table on the terrace – it seemed as if they’d saved it just for us – and ordered coffee & pud.  Let’s see what Chef is offering today shall we?

Can you decide?  I couldn’t.  I was kinda expecting them to have my favourite favourite: crème brûleé.  And they did.  Only it has been changed from the classic baked custard with the hard caramel topping we all know I adore so much.  It came with a passionfruit caramel jelly topping & was served with coconut sorbet.  Let’s see how that came out…

If I’m honest, I’m loathe to say a bad word about Terrior & their food because I am one of their biggest fans.  Truly.  But I couldn’t help myself today.  My dessert wasn’t great.  The texture of the custard seemed as if there was a bit of gelatine featuring somewhere in there in order for the pud to be unmoulded.  Not cool.  I’m not a fan of passionfruit except when you cut them open & suck the sloppy membrane out.  Sounds delightful, right?  So I pulled the jelly topping off & got stuck in.  The coconut sorbet sat on a bed of toasted fresh coconut bits, which I thought was a nice touch, and the sorbet had been sprinkled with black sesame seeds, which weren’t entirely befitting the theme of the dish, but added to the visual appeal.  If we lived in the land of “Give everything a score out of ten”, I’d give it a 4.  Sorry guys.  I feel wretched.  Even the waitress was surprised when I didn’t clear my plate.

Now, it’s not all bad.  That’s right – always leave the best for last, I say.  My guy ordered the chocolate fondant, and he was bang on the money.

A soft, gooey fondant that had a great balance of cocoa & chocolate – not too bitter & not too sweet.  There were different flavored ganache drops underneath each ice-cream scoop, which were scoffed before I even got close, but one was peanut, one was horlicks & the other was chocolate.  The ice cream for me was the piece de resistance because Chef had attempted (& struck culinary gold) hazelnut ice cream, which was perfect.  I liked that it still had a few grainy bits of nuts, which added another dimension to the texture.  The little ball of spun sugar on top of the fondant entertained My Lovely enormously, as he was taken back to his childhood to the days of eating candy floss.  “Candy floss is spun sugar, baby!?” Yes my darling.  Just sugar.  This from a doctor, who witnesses complex medical anomalies on a regular basis.  Shock, surprise & ecstasy over sugar.   Love it!  The tuile was cute, very crispy & paper-thin & there was a lovely tangy red berry coulis, just to add a bit of tartness.  Always essential for a tart to be present.  All in all, a brilliant dish.  Wonderfully executed.  Go team!!  Definitely a win for the Terrior okey pokes.  They may have lost me as a new-age brûleé convert, but they certainly haven’t lost me altogether.  See you soon darlings!  Mwah x

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