Sparkling In the Kitchen

By Leigh Robertson
Photography Danie Nel

“I can only cook the stuff I love eating … and luckily I like eating a lot,” says Reuben Riffel. He has a look of Cheshire-cat satisfaction as he slides a spoonful of boozy strawberry and granadilla dessert into his mouth, in between sips of Graham Beck Brut Rosé. It’s the end of a long day of cooking, communal eating and bubbly quaffing, which was meant to end hours ago. The music has been cranked up and fresh flutes brought out as yet another bottle of bubbly maker Pieter Ferreira’s fizz is popped open.

There’s been much to celebrate: not only is the year winding down, almost reason enough to sacrifice a working week day, but Reuben’s debut cookbook (Reuben Cooks: Food Is Time Travel) is hot off the press and he’s elated. “It’s more personal than just a book full of recipes,” he says. “It’s also about my family.” But he is quite proud of those recipes: “They’re uncomplicated enough so you can cook them at home.”

Wild Mushroom Risotto served with Graham Beck Brut NV
Tasting Notes: Light yeasty aromas, good fruit on the nose, and rich creamy complexity on the palate. Fine mousse gives freshness and finesse. (Chardonnay 54%, Pinot Noir 46%) Click here for Recipe

Main Course: 
Reuben’s Chicken Supreme with Broad Beans & Vine Tomatoes served with Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2005
Tasting Notes: Rich yeasty aromas with hints of clean lime fruit on the nose. An exciting fine mousse and a creamy complexity on the palate. The wine ends with an elegant long finish. (Chardonnay 100%) Click here for Recipe

Bliss-ful Strawberries with Passion Fruit & Tequila Sabayon served with Graham Beck Brut Rosé 2006
Tasting Notes: Ripe strawberries from the Pinot Noir with a creamy complexity from the Chardonnay. An explosion of strawberry fruit together with some fresh sherbet on the palate with a long, fine, creamy mousse. (Pinot Noir 80%, Chardonnay 20%) Click here for Recipe

We rewind to the start of this bright summer’s day at the home of Pieter and wife Ann in the Franschhoek valley, a short walk from theGraham Beck cellar. Reuben, chef-patron of the eponymous restaurant on the village’s main drag, arrives in time for a cup of good espresso out on the sun-dappled patio. He’s dressed casually in jeans and grey golf shirt rather than chef’s whites, and he has brought neither trusty knife from his own kitchen nor any preconceived idea of what he’ll be cooking.

No stranger to competitions entailing ‘mystery baskets’ of ingredients, he’s been tasked with preparing a three course lunch to pair with Graham Beck sparkling wine. The catch is that he’ll use only the ingredients that happen to be in the grocery cupboard and refrigerator chezFerreira.  
The couple often dines at Reuben’s so it’s a novelty having the chef in their kitchen. But they are consummate cooks themselves, sharing the food preparation when friends come around, at least two or three times a week. “We love people, so entertaining is really an extension of this,” says Ann. That they enjoy it is easy to see; the open-plan kitchen is the focal point of their very stylish home.

And what does home cooking constitute? “Lots of fish, chicken and occasional risottos; old fashioned tripe but done the Italian way with tomatoes; seafood when we can get it,” says Ann. Pieter points out that they recently installed a wood-fire oven for making pizzas. This has been a hit with their two teenage children, William and Kate. (At 16, William has already notched up the title of youngest winemaker in SA with his own small wine offering including the wonderfully witty No Way, Rosé.)

Ann leads Reuben to her walk-in pantry, which by anybody’s standards is impressively well stocked, a foodie’s utopia. Its shelves are crammed with bottles of olives and preserves, speciality salts from around the world, decoratively labelled olive oil cans and more exotic ingredients than you’d likely find in your local deli. The fridge is full of its own surprises. “Ann’s got everything!” Reuben grins.

He’s clearly feeling quite lucky with the first of his finds: Arborio rice, a pungent hunk of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, baby vine tomatoes, coppa and Serrano ham (purchased by Pieter at a favourite Spaniard-owned butchery and deli in Jo’burg), a plump organic chicken, and all the fresh herbs imaginable, plucked from Ann’s garden.

“But where’s the porcini?” he jests. He can’t quite believe his eyes when Ann hauls from the freezer a Tupperware containing the fresh, monster-sized wild mushrooms she picked on the farm while walking a few days earlier. She came across so many she was able to dry a large batch too. “Jislaaik!” says a visibly pleased Reuben. “It’s like a cooking showroom here.”
Pieter disappears and returns with a gallon container of the couple’s own olive oil, made from olives bought in Robertson and pressed by their friends at neighbouring Waterfall River Farm. “It’s elegant and not too peppery,” explains Pieter.

“It’s divine,” says Reuben, eagerly adding it to his collection of ingredients. 
Ann admits she’s fortunate with the people she knows when it comes to obtaining fresh and special produce. Friends in Franschhoek keep her supplied with everything from asparagus to strawberries from their gardens. “Sometimes we’ll swap wine for produce.” As the Communications Manager for Graham Beck Wines, she also travels twice a week to Robertson, where the second estate (and MCC cellar) is located. While there, she always stops at the farmer’s market (for chickens) as well as the farm stall, Affie Plaas, for fresh figs and pomegranates, and Montagu cheese. You’ve got to love country life.

Reuben is taken by their vast collection of gleaming copper pots. Naturally, there’s a story behind them, and as Pieter pops open the first bottle of Cap Classique, he recounts animatedly how he sold his old Ford Escort so he could buy Ann her pots. “It was a way to get her closer to me,” he chuckles.

Reuben grabs several pots and makes a beeline for Ann’s gas stove. He’s decided to start off with a risotto, a dish for which the former Eat Out Chef of the Year is rather famous. For the stock he’s found leftover chicken and bones in the fridge, which he simmers along with water, carrots, garlic, a bay leaf, fresh oregano, black pepper and a good splash of wine. “With fresh chicken stock you have to be careful about it reducing and becoming too thick and strong,” Reuben tells his eager audience.

Ann can’t help herself and slips into the role of kitchen assistant, stirring the rice while Reuben raids the liquor cabinet for Vermouth. The mushrooms meanwhile are simmering away in some of the stock, and the aroma is overwhelmingly delicious. All the while Reuben and Ann enthuse about slow cooking and the produce to be found in the klein dorpies, trading secrets and special foodie contacts. The risotto being al dente, the chef pours over the browned butter he’s prepared with sage, rosemary and garlic, topping it with shavings of Parmesan.

The happy chatter continues as everyone grabs forks and tucks in, along with glasses of Graham Beck Brut NV. The creamy risotto with the richness of the wild mushrooms and butter is, unsurprisingly, a fine match for the sparkling wine: “Its clean flavour and freshness work beautifully with this dish,” Pieter sighs.

The plates cleared and glasses charged, Reuben gets back to work; he’s making “something with chicken” that will pair with the next bubbly, the Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs 2005. Our chef has found more ingredients, but the treasure of the day is the plastic bag full of broad beans, fresh from a friend’s veggie patch. He grabs Ann’s pestle and mortar and grinds up a wet rub, using anchovies, mustard, garlic, salt and olive oil.

It’s nothing short of diverting to watch him carve the bird with such deftness and precision, leaving the shortened wing bones elegantly exposed. “It’s much better than watching Master Chef Goes Large on TV,” chortles Pieter as he produces slivers of the Serrano ham (for encasing the chicken breasts) from his rather fancy slicer. 

Then the winemaker has a brainwave. He offers Reuben the cured rind from the leg of ham, which, when heated in a saucepan, will dissolve to oil, “perfect for shallow-frying the vegetables”. Reuben is pleased with the result, with the red onion, tomatoes and broad beans absorbing some of the sumptuous smoky flavour.

The bright colours of this dish alone inspire enthusiastic oohs, but Pieter hits the nail on the head: “It tastes just like summer!” He’s convinced the anchovies in the rub make the chicken taste ‘juicier’, but Reuben reckons it’s merely the excellent quality of the chicken. All agree that the nuttiness of the pine nuts, lightly toasted in olive oil and sprinkled over the dish, works wonders with the subtle toastiness of the bubbly.

Reuben himself is amazed by how well this impromptu dish has turned out: “Obviously I had no idea all these ingredients would be available, but I did have a flavour in mind. It all just came together. The best thing about today was the quality produce … with that, you simply can’t go wrong.”

The afternoon might be ebbing away, but there’s still dessert; Reuben has discoveredstrawberries and two giant-sized granadillas. He’s also found the tequila, which he’ll use in a sabayon with the granadilla pulp, while Pieter opens a bottle of Bliss Demi Sec, Graham Beck’s honey-toned sparkler. “Ah, just what I need,” says Reuben, requisitioning the bottle. 
But Pieter is chuffed Reuben will be using the Bliss to cook rather than pair with the pud: “It means we can open some Rosé!”