Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Well, it's happened again. I've been hit with a serious desire to pack a suitcase and get out of town. I dropped off a friend at the airport yesterday, and was a little tempted to grab a space in long term parking, duck into the international departures terminal, and buy a ticket to anywhere. 

I've been settled in one place for about seven months now, with only three trips away-- quite a long stretch for me, so I'm actually surprised this urge didn't grab me earlier. 

The weird thing is that I'm actually very happy to be in Cape Town right now... we're really getting settled and our apartment is finally getting comfortable, the weather in Cape Town is turning nice (slowly but surely), and it's starting to become the season where we can hike and spend time on the beach again. But the need for a long flight and a few weeks in another country has definitely hit me badly.

Any tips for dealing with wanderlust? Anywhere you're dreaming of going?

Friday, September 25, 2009

La mer.

I've just finished reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, and despite some of the novel's more troubling themes, was rather put in the mood for a little holiday on the Riviera. Do you think a morning out on Cape Town's False Bay will be able to substitute? I'll be back next week to report on that.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My honeymoon with lamb.

Despite the reputation small towns have for turning in early, we found ourselves among the first tables seated for dinner at Jessica’s. We glanced at the menu, though really, we’d both decided what we would have when we had scoped out the restaurant earlier that afternoon. We were each presented with a white plate topped with three slim cuts of steak. It was the first meal of our trip, so we had both chosen the sample of local specialty meats, dubbed the ‘Karoo Trio’. There was fillet of ostrich, served in a lime sauce; springbok loin with a sour cranberry compote; and Karoo lamb, presented simply in a light dressing of rosemary and red wine.

We took the meal slowly, enjoying rich mouthfuls of the trio between bites of roasted root vegetables and sips of a local shiraz. Everything was fantastic, yet as the meal wound down I noticed that we’d both saved a little of the lamb to savour last. It had been prepared beautifully, a thin layer of crisp fat on top contrasting with the meltingly rare meat underneath. The lamb truly stood out, however, in its flavour. For though the springbok was rich and delicious, it was almost indistinguishable from other game meats. The ostrich, similarly, could have passed for beef. The lamb, however, was distinct and recognizable for exactly what it was in each mouthful.

Walking back to our guesthouse, we observed the town of Montagu asleep. In the dark we could make out the town’s low skyline of Victorian houses, the steeple of the church punctuating it right in the middle. Montague is a humble dorp, and a good introduction into the charms of Karoo life. It was the first night of our honeymoon in the Karoo, the vast semi-desert that sprawls across much of South Africa’s interior. We had come for the desolate and romantic desert landscapes, and to relax in among the region’s small towns. But on a more material level, our route had been planned by out taste buds. We had come for the lamb.

My husband Bordeaux and I are well paired in that we both love to travel, and in that we both think that tracking down a delicious meal is a perfectly acceptable excuse for doing so. We had come back to South Africa at the beginning of the year to get married; getting to know more about South Africa’s cuisine was a bonus. And in the process of learning about that cuisine, I had come to develop a love for lamb.

I really didn’t care for lamb when I was growing up, mostly, I suppose, because I don’t come from a culture that really eats it. The meat counters at the American grocery stores of my youth were divided up between beef, pork and chicken; in the same way in which whole turkeys suddenly made an appearance just before Thanksgiving, lamb was only given deli space around Easter. And even when served it irregularly at holidays, I had little appetite for its strange and unfamiliar flavour.

Thankfully, by time I married into a lamb eating culture, a lot had changed in my sense of taste. Along with a growing distrust in the lack of flavour in factory-produced meat, I had come to really enjoy the taste of lamb because, well, it actually tastes like lamb. There’s something wholesome and natural to it that seems to hark back to an era of farmhouse dinners and Sunday roasts, a subtle note of nourishing nostalgia in every bite. Karoo lamb is especially delicious; it seems to me to have a faint whiff of the dry spiced desert where the animals grazed.

Out of this newfound devotion, Karoo lamb had made its way to the centre of our wedding feast. A few days before the wedding we visited the town of Prince Albert, where we picked up two legs of lamb from a local butcher. Bordeaux’s father roasted them with sprigs of fresh rosemary and cloves of garlic, and as guests arrived they were greeted by its warm, welcoming scent. So when we planned a quick midweek honeymoon near our home in Cape Town, it seemed the perfect idea to centre the trip around following the lamb back to its natural habitat, and enjoying it at home in the Karoo.

After leaving Montague we drove to Barrydale. We drove in under a sudden cloudburst, the town’s scent of wood fire and lavender mixing with the smell of the baked earth receiving the rain.

After checking into the local hotel, we headed for lunch at Clarke’s. The menu at this local institution is a selection of regional favourites, headlined by a lamb curry that Clarke himself tells his customers is the best thing he serves. But I was after something less complex, so I selected the lamb cutlets. They arrived as three neat packages of lamb practically caramelized by the grill, the meat hemmed in between bone and a thick ribbon of fat. The lamb was served with a vinaigrette made with fresh mint leaves, so different from the candied mint jelly of my childhood that I doubt they would recognize one another as distant relations. Splashed over the cutlets, it added a cool Mediterranean breeze to their grilled smokiness.

We sat that afternoon on our balcony, sipping a bottle of a regional red wine as the day slipped away. As dusk broke the hills around town blushed a pale shade of rose for one brilliant moment, then slipped into purple shadow. The sudden silencing of the sunset gave way to the rhythm of crickets, and the faint song of television sets blaring in distant living rooms.

After finishing the last sips of our wine, we headed to dinner up the hill at Jam Tarts. Amid the glow of a blazing wood fire pizza oven we enjoyed thick lamb burgers, the flavour of the meat melding with exotic spices of nutmeg and cinnamon. They were accompanied by florets of home-grown broccoli that had been prepared so simply that all you could taste was fresh and green. As we savoured the dinner, I felt almost positive that all of the meals on our honeymoon would be perfect.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t be. Perhaps our mistake was in leaving the rustic, wholesome flavours of the Karoo? From Barrydale we drove through the Tradouws Pass, a winding canyon road brimming with golden flowering fynbos that took us out into the Overberg. Even someone without any knowledge of South African geography could guess that we had left the Karoo behind; the rugged wilderness of the desert had been replaced with an open sea of manicured fields. Green waves of wheat alternated with golden waves of canola, their placid surface rippled as wind rolled through their stalks. But even though we had left the Karoo, we spotted flocks of fluffy white sheep, a comforting sign that we were still in lamb country.

We spent that night in Greyton, a misplaced English hamlet set in a grove of similarly misplaced Bluegum trees. Though its quiet streets follow the same church-centred layout as Montague or Barrydale, the atmosphere in town felt oceans apart. Brilliantly green knee-high grass chokes the empty spaces between houses, a lush contrast to the dorps of the Karoo.

When evening arrived, we discovered that there was only one place in town open for dinner. Greyton is supposed to have some fantastic restaurants; this, unfortunately, was not one of them. We stopped by, checked out the menu, and then circled town hoping something else might still be open. No luck. So we headed back, took a table, and hoped the restaurant would defy our low expectations. We both opted for the lamb, which seemed the safest bet. Our plates were set before us. The potatoes had been reshaped into floury wedges as tasty as paper napkins. The vegetables had been boiled soft, and then in case they still looked too much like something that might have once come from the earth, covered in a gooey cheese sauce. We focused in on the meat. Mid-bite we paused, and looked to each other for confirmation. It was delicious. Beneath the smoky flavour of the grill was soft rare meat full of rich lamb flavour. It was natural and wholesome, the slight hint of wildness tempered by something nurturing and warm. It was a flavour as comforting as being welcomed back home. Or in my case, being welcomed to my new home.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spring in the Cape.

I'm currently looking outside at a day as bright and crisp as laundered linen-- spring has arrived in Cape Town, and with it I'm feeling quite relieved. I have to admit that in the past spring was the season that interested me the least; it never seemed a match for the freedom of summer or the pleasant brooding atmosphere of autumn. But after the last few weeks of Cape Town's winter turned out to be unexpectedly cold and unpleasant, I'm glad to have clear skies and a warm breeze again. I don't think I'm the only one feeling relieved, either-- everyone in Cape Town seems to look suddenly healthier and happier; they've thrown off winter coats, and are back to colourful skirts and funky shorts.

And the city is looking much better, too. The trees are sprouting new growth, we encountered a troop of fluffy goslings marching through the park, and every day seems to break with a chorus of chirping song birds-- so much nicer than the chorus of shouting homeless people we went to sleep hearing last night.

I still have to write about the honeymoon (it was fantastic), but you might have to wait for that-- at the moment, I'm tempted to escape to the beach for the rest of the day.

Friday, September 11, 2009


It’s been about two months since I got married, so it’s about time that we actually got out of town on a honeymoon. We weren’t really expecting to take one—we spent the first three years of our relationship traveling, after all-- but the time seemed right to get out of town for a few days. We came really close to taking one retail space in August, and when we really decided that it wasn’t the right space for us and backed out, I think we were both pretty depressed for a few days. And a little traveling seemed perfect for lifting our moods. So on Sunday we’re leaving Cape Town to spend a few days driving around the mountains of the Overberg. I won’t be blogging next week, but hopefully I’ll be back the following week with some photos of beautiful South African landscapes, unusual small town architecture, and delicious Karoo food.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Daisy gazing.

It’s daisy gazing season in South Africa. Along the West coast, spring brings the blossoming of beautiful Namaqua daisies to the shoreline grasslands. On Sunday, five us squeezed into a tiny car, and drove north in search of the flowers. As we got away from the city, we caught sight of sudden patches of intense pink, purple and blue bursting through the grass along the highway, and they seemed to hint at what we should expect to see. But in the end, we weren’t terribly successful. The daisies we encountered once we reached our destination were somewhat underwhelming-- we mainly saw a dusting of faintly pretty yellow blooms, not the bold carpeting of colours we wanted.

Thankfully, we found other things to distract us. We visited the West Coast National Park, which is an unbelievable landscape of fynbos, sandy dunes, and turquoise water. Set just a few hours north of Cape Town, it’s an incredible daytrip I’d never known about.

And while we had set out expecting to view daisies, in the end we spent more time viewing wildlife—ostriches, springbok, wildebeest, bontebok, and a huge herd of eland, which looked bizarrely out of place in the coastal setting. Most interactively, we encountered five tortoises, three of which we helped to cross the road.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

eatingCULTURE/eaten: Vetkoek.

Eating the world, one bite at a time.

Cape Town’s Milnerton Market is not only a fantastic place to look for second hand kitchenware and used books; it’s also a great place to sample some simple South African foods. On our last visit, we went specifically with one food in mind: vetkoek. With a name that literally means fat cake, you shouldn’t be surprised by the bread’s somewhat greasy texture and flavour-- it’s a little like a savoury donut. We had ours filled with ‘mince’ (ground meat), for a rich and nicely greasy snack—a filling antidote to the cold rainy weather.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

What a difference a rain makes.

While looking through images of National Parks for several of last week’s entries, I came across these nearly identical images of blesbok from Mlilwane National Park in Swaziland. I hadn’t planned to take such similar images at the time, but somehow nearly everything matched up. The two shots were taken almost exactly six months apart—the first in the dry winter month of July, the second in rainy steamy December.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Report from the Field: September 2009

Location: Cape Town
Date: September 7, 2009

Doing: Coming up with a plan
This September I hope to making a serious plan. We spent most of last month searching for a space, and almost thought we’d found one—it had a lot of character, and an unbelievable rent. But at the last minute we backed out, as we realized that the grungy and unpleasant neighbourhood wouldn’t make the most of our potential. We realized that we might be able to just get by in that space, but we wouldn’t be able to achieve our goals of actually building up something spectacular. So we need to start working out our exact goals, and come up with a solid plan to get us there. Hopefully we’ll find the right place soon—tomorrow we’re going to look at another spot with a much better location and vibe, and of course, a much higher rental price to match.

Eating: Asian All Stars
In hopeful anticipation of us actually finding a rental space for a Piesang Café, we’re working on developing a menu. With the limited space at the market, we were somewhat inhibited in the range of what we could sell. But with a café, we’d be able to offer a wider range of dishes. So we’ve been busy in the kitchen, perfecting some of our favourite foods from Southeast Asia. We’ve almost got a decent binh my worked out, Bordeaux has perfected a fantastic khao soi, and I’ve almost got the skills down to make a thin, lacy banh xeo. Now if only we could find a decent space with a good rent…

Friday, September 04, 2009

National Park Umbrellas.

Ok, and it can't really be called a series-- I only have two photos-- but here's some fun images of umbrellas taken at national parks to close out this slightly odd week's photos. Maybe it's just the rainy patches we've been having in Cape Town that inspired me? Either way, hope this weekend is sunny-- for you, and for me.

Pictured above: Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Pictured below: Machu Picchu, Peru.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

National Park Signs.

Compared to the photographs of restrooms I showed yesterday, these photos of National Park signs make for perhaps a more normal series on the mundane side of travel and tourism. Sometimes I liked the signs for how they added a layer of visual meaning through which to interpret the site, like at the Grand Canyon; sometimes I liked the unusual iconography, like at the Bayon at Angkor; other times I was just struck by an odd phrase, like at the Valley of the Kings, or at Mlilwane Park in Swaziland.

Pictured (from top): ‘Grand Canyon Vista’ at Grand Canyon NP, Arizona, US; ‘No sitting on Balustrade’ at the Bayon at Angkor, Cambodia; ‘Look at the Glory of the Ancient’ at Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt; ‘Fish Poaching is Stricly Prohibited/ Keep Away from Waters Edge, Crocodiles!’ at Mlilwane, Swaziland; ‘No Visitors Beyond this Point’ at Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe.