Sugar Man

Words: Leigh Robertson
Photography: Warren Heath
 

“The first time I tried a macaroon was when I baked one for the first time. I had never been to Paris and had only seen pictures of them. I had no idea of how they were meant to taste,” confesses Martin Senekal. The young chef’s confectionery is causing a stir among sweeter-toothed foodies in the Cape. 

His stand at the trendy Neighbourgoods Market, the extravaganza of fresh, organic and artisan produce, is a first stop for many shoppers who can’t get enough of his imaginative cakes. Packaged in decorative paper and grosgrain ribbons, they could be straight off the pages of Vogue, let alone a recipe book.
  
It took Martin two months to perfect his macaroon recipe, he says, pointing to a baking tray polka-dotted with freshly made mini macaroons, the same pastel tones as his icing pink shirt. The flavours might be dark chocolate and cream, white chocolate and yoghurt or cream cheese and rosewater, but, like his repertoire of miniature cakes, he says they change all the time.
This particular batch is destined for the Parisian inspired Myatt Café & Chocolatier at the V&A Waterfront. As a consultant chef to the stylish café in its opening phase, Martin was asked if he could make macaroons for them rather than their having to fly them in from France.

“Incredibly, my very first batch came out brilliantly, while the second, third and additional attempts were a disaster!” He threw kilograms of ruined macaroons away. The reason, he says, is weather-related. “The ingredients are deceptively simple, but it’s all about the ratios, which strangely enough have to be altered depending on where in the world you are. Cape Town’s weather and humidity levels are completely different from those in Paris.” 
Some people who see the price tag on his macaroons at the market are shocked, he says. “They think these are just ordinary biscuits!”

There’s certainly nothing ordinary about this confectioner’s wares, which his regular customers “don’t only buy for eating, but for the whole appreciation of the design”.

Martin and his new business partner Beate Strydom, with whom he studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) in Stellenbosch, evidently share a deep appreciation for aesthetics. Dressed in fetching black layers and ballet pumps rather than a chef’s uniform and clumsy clogs, she deftly applies cream cheese frosting and a candied carrot topping to a carrot, walnut and pineapple cake. Before joining Martin she was a junior lecturer at a private hotel school, “But now I’m doing what I love most, confectionery.”

Their business is appropriately named Soet, the Afrikaans word for sweet. “And we will probably introduce a Sout (salt) element soon, to take care of the savoury bakes,” she smiles.

Both have been baking since childhood. For Martin, it was cheese scones as an eight-year-old. Yet after school he studied graphic design, which he didn’t ever complete. It was while working as a waiter that thoughts of cooking for a living entered his mind. And coming from a family of serious foodies (his father is in the restaurant industry), he was encouraged to continue his studies at the ICA. 

An internship at the Cape Grace under acclaimed chef and restaurateur Bruce Robertson launched a career that included stints in the kitchens of some of the Cape’s better fine dining establishments—including Robertson’s Showroom, and the former Manolo and Blue Danube restaurants. “But I wasn’t doing the pastry section,” he grins. “It was meat and fish, month after month. I was working 17-hour days, six days a week, and was starting to feel bored. I needed a change.”

Martin set up a catering company “to do small dinner parties for groups of between eight and 20. It was all about bringing fine dining into private homes.” He also took on a few projects as a restaurant consultant, including at Myatt.
“I quickly realised there was a market for aesthetically pleasing confectionary,” he says, emphasizing the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ part. “There was little available that wasn’t over the top, tacky or gaudy. I saw a gap for confectionery that was stylish and well thought out.”

Having never found the time to travel, Martin says much of his inspiration comes from his passion for magazines. Not so much food-orientated magazines as those about architecture and design, “which is where most of my ideas about colours and textures come from”. And there’s an element of couture too. “I love Prada,” he enthuses. “Fusing food with modern design trends is what it’s all about for me.”

So it makes sense that their petits gâteaux include such fashion forward-sounding combinations as caramel, pineapple and cardamom, and pistachio, yoghurt and cardamom. Right now he’s adding the finishing touches to Beate’s personal favourite, the rose cake with its pistachio frosting and topping of home-made Turkish delight, arranged in artful little twirls.
The Saturday market is where they test their latest flavour inventions, although some regulars would cause a riot if the popular chocolate and carrot varieties were discontinued. “Annoyingly, it’s the plainest cakes that often sell the fastest, although our new beetroot cake is also doing well.”

Their cakes, Beate explains, are as natural as something this decadent can get, and of the highest quality. Only imported Belgian couverture chocolate is used, for example. None of their products contain any artificial flavourants, stabilisers or preservatives. Everything is made from scratch too, including meringues, marshmallows, and the candied fruit and vegetables used for toppings.

Amazingly, the cakes’ taste improves with a little age, she explains, demonstrating how they infuse the basic sponge with vanilla bean syrup to keep it moist. And this before each cake is dressed-up from a choice of ribbons in clashy Prada-esque colours. 
Frowsy fare for grandma’s tea parties these creations are not—you may want to serve them with, say, champagne rather than Earl Grey. Thanks to the sweet inspiration of these stylish young things, confectionery may well be the new sexy, at least in foodie circles.

Find SOET at the Neighbourgoods Market, Old Biscuit Mill, Woodstock, on Saturdays, or visit www.martinsenekal.com

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When confronted with the news of a French nation short of bread, Marie Antoinette, who met her end by guillotine, is infamously, if mistakenly, credited with having uttered the words “Let them eat cake!”

  • In Sofia Coppola’s opulently-styled film, Marie Antoinette, the doomed French queen as portrayed by Kirsten Dunst whiles away her time at the Palace of Versailles by indulging her passion for couture, designer shoes, Paris Hilton style yap-dogs, the opera, an illicit romance and, not least of all, that most ubiquitously Parisian of confectioneries, the macaroon.
  • Not to be confused with the chewy coconut variety, the traditional French macaroon, or macaron, is made of egg whites, ground almonds, icing sugar and castor sugar. It resembles a dainty ‘sandwich’ of two thin meringue-like cookies filled with a cream or ganache.
  • While the pretty, brightly coloured French pastries depicted in the film were sourced from the famous Parisian pâtisserie, Ladurée, this was by no means a case of style over substance. In fact, the macaroon dates back to the 18th century, and was in fact served to royals at Versailles by members of the Dalloyau family. It is thought to have been imported to France from Italy during the 16th century by Catherine de Medici and her pastry chefs.
  • That the macaroon is still adored in its mother country is no surprise, as the French love for—and mastery of—pastry making is legendary. But the cult of the macaroon has spread well beyond Europe, with blogs in the US expounding the delights of this notoriously tricky to make, and thus expensive, confection. Not to mention debating the nomenclature: which is more correct, macaroon ormacaron?
  • Neither, it seems, is incorrect, and perhaps it’s a relief for those who battle to get their tongues around the rolling French Rs. A peek at the website of Ladurée (www.laduree.comreveals the English version will do just fine for them. Enough said, coming from the pâtisserie first responsible, in the 1900s, for filling the cookies with ganache, and who today bring out seasonal ranges with flavours from Orange Blossom and Apricot Ginger to Java Pepper and Indian Rose.