By Malu Lambert, Photography C&D Heierli
We’re at the house of Susan Huxter, owner of Le Quartier Français. Margot has invited me to experience a South African Flavours cooking class.
She designed the course along with culinary concierge Annemarie Steenkamp—who usually teaches the class.
Annemarie pops open a bottle of Môreson Méthode Cap Classique and fills our glasses. “First the bubbly,” says Margot. “Then we play.”
Susan’s home reflects the quirky style of Le Quartier Français. The fridge is a lime green Smeg. The dishwasher is also lime green. There’s a hot pink suede couch. And the walls are covered with family photos.
Inside the kitchen is a large cooking centre. “This was built,” says Margot, pointing at the island, “for the cooking classes.” On it are a gas stove top and a gas grill. And enough counter space around which to fit a large group easily. “The cooking class revolves around one plate of food. We bring together three South African elements: rooibos, buchu and biltong,” says Margot. We’re making Hake with a Biltong Crust, served with Buchu Gnocchi and a Samp and Corn Ragout, and Rooibos Spuma.
“So, first the biltong,” says Margot. On the counter is a tray with four long cuts of fillet. The meat has been vacuum packed with red wine and coriander seeds.
“Why the red wine?” I ask.
“Well, biltong is all about flavour,” says Margot. “It’s been marinated for five days.” Margot is pushing steel hooks through the meat. “Now we hang it to dry at 20˚C for another four to five days.”
Annemarie is slicing a ‘ready’ piece of biltong. “Here, try this,” she says, offering a slice.
Fred and Ruga, a French basset and bulldog respectively, have their noses against the glass back door. Both sets of eyes are following the biltong.
“If you want to do this at home,” Margot says, “get a large cardboard box. Attach a light bulb inside and hang the meat from hooks. Poke a few holes for ventilation. Put a tray at the bottom to collect the drippings. And in five days you’ll have biltong.”
The biltong goes—finely shaved—into the crust mixture. Annemarie places a few spoonfuls on a baking sheet and places another sheet on top of that. “You want to get it as flat and as even as possible,” she instructs. “Smooth it out flat with a rolling pin. You can wet the surface so the paper sticks to it. It makes it easier to work with.”
Hubbard Squash and Buchu Soup. Click here to view the recipe
Then the gnocchi. Annemarie had put potatoes in the oven three-hours earlier. They sit atop coarse salt and are a baked-brown colour.
“Slice them down the middle,” Margot says. “Then place them face down on the tamis (drum sieve) and push through.”
The potato comes through velvety smooth. The rest of the ingredients are mixed in, and then blended into dough.
Margot wets the counter surface with a damp cloth. “Now,” she says, “a trick.” Margot places a roll of heavy-duty cling wrap at one end of the counter and places a dishtowel on the lip. “Stretch the plastic out with the cloth,” she says. “It’ll stick to the surface. Then place the gnocchi dough a few centimetres up. Fold over the plastic and form a sausage. Get rid of all the air.” Margot demonstrates as she talks. “Note the hip action.” She secures one end of the ‘sausage’ with her hip and ties the other side.
The gnocchi is poached for nine minutes—in the cling wrap. “Miraculously the plastic doesn’t melt,” says Margot. “You can use cling wrap a lot in cooking. To shape steak and fish fillets. You can even use it as a lid for a pot.”
Annemarie, in the meantime, is heating a pan on the gas cooker. She shows me how to sear the cylindrical fillets of hake. She then places a round of biltong crust on top. The fish is then finished off in the oven.
Margot plates meticulously - even when she is kneeling on the ground.
Another pan is soon smoking hot. Margot drops in butter—it bubbles and foams at once. “Never be shy with butter,” she says. The gnocchi is sliced into rounds and then pan-fried in the butter.
Once all the components are ready Margot plates the food. For the final touch she aims the nozzle of an aerosol canister at the plate and out cushions the Rooibos Spuma. “We use salmon stock for the Rooibos Spuma,” says Margot. “I don’t like fish stock. It’s too, well, fishy. We make the stock with the bones from the smoked salmon from Three Streams Farm in Franschhoek. The stock has a lovely smokiness. The bones give it depth.
“Okay,” she says, “grab a fork and let’s eat.”
Later, we’re at Haut Espoir on a buchu reccie. Winemaker Rob Armstrong is our guide. He’s a giant of a man, yet he’s so gentle with the world around him. He’s mad about conservation. Fynbos in particular. “This is the citrus strain of buchu,” he says showing us the plant. We climb a bit further up the hill. “And this is the liquorice. Over there is the garlic type.”
Margot and Annemarie are still in their chef whites. They’re chewing the proffered fynbos. “The liquorice buchu has an amazing flavour,” says Margot. Her mind is clearly ticking over what dish she can make with it.
Soon we’re settled under a tree on a blanket. We have a sweeping view of the Franschhoek Mountains. The sky is a hot blue bowl above us.
Rob has brought some buchu along. He’s idly chewing on it. “Buchu is a diuretic,” he says. “It’s good for your liver and kidneys. The Khoi knew of buchu’s health properties. To get rid of colds they would dry it, crush it, and then inhale it. They called it sneezing out the lion.”
Annemarie pours Chilled Hubbard Squash and Buchu Soup into small bowls. “Don’t inhale it,” she jokes as she passes it around.
Rob’s wife, Erica, and their baby daughter, Isabella, have joined us on the blanket. There’s also a salad with biltong chips, as well as goat’s milk Brie and chutney with fresh bread.
Rob pours a couple of glasses of chilled Rosé. “Wine and food pairing is not so important at a picnic,” he says. “Picnics are about relaxing. Drink what’s coldest.”
The mood is idyllic, convivial and comfortable. Margot is cuddling baby Isabella. She’s been friends with Rob and Erica for a long time. Annemarie pushes spoons into jars of Rooibos Cream with Poached Pears and Oat Crumble. The dessert is deliciously light.
Margot and Annemarie make an inspiring team. “One day we’ll take this on the road,” says Margot. “We’ll call it The Mo and Smo Road Show!”