Search this blog

Monday, 12 September 2011

Cooking with Jan at Vygeboom Dam

On 10 September we kicked off 'Cooking with Jan'. A while back, we decided with four other couples to organize monthly cooking days where I would be the guest chef and teach the group some culinary secrets. This fantastic initiative was brought to life with the passionate drive of Bertus and Danny Vos, two first class gourmet lovers. Danielle, a Belgian globetrotter, inherited a family tradition in gastronomy, having dined in some of Europe's best restaurants. This passion only got fired when she met Lambertus Petrus Vos, a South African with the same love for the good things in life (such as cooking a stuffed 'Beeshart' (Beef heart) in a 'Potjie' (a cast-iron pot used to cook on open fire) and water-ski with open mouth).

Anyway, too cut a long story short, it is now 7h30 and I am watching the sun rise over Vygeboom Dam in the Highlands Meander in Mpumalanga, enjoying the coffee after the first cooking session yesterday evening. Hans and Tine's daughters successfully revived a half-dead Bat on the beat of Kurt Darren and just as it managed to fly out, it got caught by a Fiscal Shrike in front of the Dam. This is Africa! Yes, it was Kosie Vos' (Bertus' cousin) cooking night, giving it a few unforgettable extras:
  • it didn't remain a cooking night as first agreed, but a weekend breakaway;
  • Kosie having the finest collection of Single Malt Whisky, along with a collection of concert DVD's that can wake up South Africans on the other side of the Dam;
  • water-ski end jet-ski sessions to warm up for the dinner.
So next time you hear Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, Mark Knopfler or Amy Belle, and you are remembered of the Whisky cream sauce, here are the tips and hints to take away from this dinner:

Smoked Trout and Mango chutney tart with Lagavulin cream


Trout Tart
  • Wafer-thin sliced Smoked Trout
  • Smoked Trout fillets
  • Fresh Mango
  • Cucumber
  • Tomato
  • 1/2 teaspoon French Mustard
  • 2 tablespoons Balsamic reduction with Blueberries
  • 1 squeeze Lemon juice (to taste)
  • 1/2 Red onion
  • Freshly chopped  Parsley
  • 6 tablespoons Canola Oil
  • 2 tablespoons Virgin olive oil
  • 15 pink peppercorns
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • 2 dl Full Cream
  • 4 tablespoons Lagavulin
  • 1 tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1 squeeze/tablespoon of Lemon juice (to taste)
  • White pepper
  • Salt


Mix all the ingredients for the sauce and let it rest in the refrigerator (if the sauce becomes too thick, dilute it with some water). Mix the cucumber, mango and tomato cubes with the vinaigrette and fill the trout tarts in alternating layers of chutney and smoked trout fillet. Decorate with some finely sliced cucumber skin that has been in ice-water for 30 minutes (it will get crunchy). Drizzle the sauce around the tart and finish with a few drops of Balsamic reduction.

For the frying of steaks and red meat, please see my previously published article: 'The art of frying red meat'.

Gratin of sweet potato

  • Sweet potato
  • Firm cooking potato
  • Full cream
  • Milk
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • White pepper
  • Nutmeg

Slice the peeled potatoes and place them in alternating layers (sweet potato - potato - sweet potato) in a buttered oven dish (you can rub the dish with a garlic clove first).
Mix the cream with nutmeg, pepper, salt and 1/4 teaspoon of freshly crushed garlic. The mixture should taste hearty and slightly salty. Add a little bit of milk if needed to make it lighter (maximum 1/5 of the mixture). Poor the cream mixture over the potato slices (the level of liquid should be barely covering the slices) and place in a pre-heated oven at 230 degrees Celcius. Bake for 1h30 until the potatoes are done, yet not mushy. Most of the liquid should have been absorbed by the potatoes. Just make sure the top layer of potatoes is covered with cream and does not burn. Note that you can make this dish beforehand, e.g. the day before.

Custard Cream

  • 12 egg yolks
  • 300 grams of sugar
  • 1 litre of milk
  • a vanilla pod

Bring the milk to the boil with the opened Vanilla pod. In the meantime, beat the egg yolks with the sugar so it becomes a white mass. Pour the boiling milk onto the mixture and then return it into the casserole. Stir with a wooden spoon until it reaches about 65 degrees Celcius and it thickens without resulting in an omelet on the bottom. Cool down.



Monday, 07 March 2011

Willow Warbler

If a butterfly has landed on my flowers grown
If my bushes have provided sheltered rest
to a Willow Warbler during Summer months alone
If I have planted trees on which a bird could nest

This very thought would let me go in peace
if I were to close my eyes a final time tonight
Though even if I might have made a lot of enemies
I will have changed the world for friends in flight


Sunday, 30 January 2011

Don't bee afraid

Last week I was having my morning kick-start coffee with a colleague at work. I noticed he was distracted from our joyful conversation, since his coffee cup seemed to form the major interest of a bee that had just woken up.

I changed the topic and bravely stated: "there's no reason to be afraid of these bees, they won't bite you..."

Last summer, I had been burning straw around a large bee nest under the pool filter in the garden, in an attempt to reduce the size of the massive colony of bees, by now taking the proportions of a Hitchcock movie scene when flying out. (being a nature lover and totally against chemical pesticides, at least I decided to use fire, a very common natural phenomenon in Africa)

Nonetheless, I myself  had made the very same mistake: under-educated about these small flying creatures that provide us with sweet nectar, I did not want somebody to end up in an anaphylactic shock when having a fruit juice (or beer, a very likely event) in my garden.

Only two weeks ago, I was browsing trough an interesting encyclopedia that covers Wildlife in Southern Africa. To my great surprise, I discovered that the bees in my garden - the same coffee-loving species from work - are so-called stingless bees. They can't sting!

That morning, my colleague screamed "Noooo!" as I enclosed the bee in my hand. He looked at me as if I was kissing a hungry lion or a disorientated hippo.

I explained to my colleague what I had learned: that not all bees form a danger for those who are allergic to their sting, as some of the bees are even physically not capable of hurting a fly - they are called 'Stingless Bees'.

I suddeny realised that this was a perfect example of how humans tend to over-react, how human life is very often lead by fear. The fear of the unknown. The fear of something that is different. Having lived in 'The rainbow nation' for almost four years, I figured it must be this same fear that causes hatred amongst people. The hatred between black and white. Because we simply don't know each other. If only we would speak each other's languages, we would understand that we are - all of us, with the odd exception - stingless bees, struggling for survival and looking for love on this lonely planet.

It is with great exitement that I study the spiders in my garden, who are abundantly present since my ecological efforts in turning the garden into a botanical paradise. I do no longer experience the screaming childhood spider-fear and have absolutely no problem moving a large spider with my bare hands if it is staring at my wife before bedtime. Because I have read about these wonderful creatures. (Did you know that some spiders construct underground trap-doors to cach their prey? Did you ever watch an Orb spider's web in the morning dew?)

Knowledge is power. And maybe, unfortunately, that is why many countries in Africa and other third-world countries around the world remain unstable - because of a lack of education and knowledge.

We all have our story. We all have a friend that died, a love that ended, a neighbour that annoys us. The strange thing is, we usually only realise how important someone or something is in our lives if we have to miss it. In the same way, we often only discover how ridiculous our fears were when we are finally confronted with the very thing we feared all this time.

So don't be afraid and never stop learning. Let me finish with one of the poems that forever changed the way I look at life:

Instantes (Instants)

If I were able to live my life anew,
In the next I would try to commit more errors.
I would not try to be so perfect, I would relax more.
I would be more foolish than I've been,
In fact, I would take few things seriously.
I would be less hygienic.
I would run more risks,
take more vacations,
contemplate more sunsets,
climb more mountains, swim more rivers.
I would go to more places where I've never been,
I would eat more ice cream and fewer beans,
I would have more real problems and less imaginary ones.

I was one of those people that lived sensibly
and prolifically each minute of his life;
Of course I had moments of happiness.
If I could go back I would try
to have only good moments.

Because if you didn't know, of that is life made:
only of moments; Don't lose the now.

I was one of those that never
went anywhere without a thermometer,
a hot-water bottle,
an umbrella, and a parachute;
If I could live again, I would travel lighter.

If I could live again,
I would begin to walk barefoot from the beginning of spring
and I would continue barefoot until autumn ends.
I would take more cart rides,
contemplate more dawns,
and play with more children,
If I had another life ahead of me.

But already you see, I am 85,
and I know that I am dying.
Jorge Luis Borges

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Twenty 2 Eleven

If you are under 18 stop reading now. No don't even try it, I know you are continuing!

Well, OK, this article is about the famous mathematician Bourbaki. I thought it might not be the proper topic for those below 18 years old.

It's now 20 minutes to Eleven O'clock here in Johannesburg. Madredeus is playing on the background. This means, even in the bestest of moods I'm in, it asks for melancholy. Memories. Re-living distant experiences that converted the ego in myself into what it is today. Ah, music. Apart from fragrance, the sense of smell - there is nothing that can make you travel further back in time.

Gosh, I didn't write for at least 8 months. Shame on me. But nobady even noticed or asked me: Jan, what's going on? (just like nobody saw the major spelling mistake in Nobody)

Yes, that"s life in this man-made metal-concrete-polluted world. Even the environmental-friendly dishwashing liquid is sold in non-recycable plastic. And the world keeps turning...

So here come the excuses (please start feeling sorry for me now if you never did before):
  • March: my wife Katrien had a Double and quite complex (it both suits her character) Tibia Fracture (let's not talk about relationships further). 
  • May: I get a new Job and need to learn a lot.
  • June: My 25 year old gardener, with whom I've spent probably more time in the past three years than any of my family members or fiends,  is hit by a drunk driver. His wife is left alone in Malawi, pregnant of a second child. Good news: the plants are still flourishing. The grass is long though I'm sure Bob Marley and Jim Morrison would have loved it. Talking about gardeners, for those who haven't seen the movie 'The Constant Gardener' yet, please rent it this year. You have to watch this one twice to really grasp the emotion (at least that's my experience, but it might be because of the Titanium radiation ;-), and because I keep on seeing Ralph Fiennes as the Psychopath from his appearance in Red Dragon). That reminds me of the fact that, inspired by Auguste Escoffier's high class cooking, I might create a new dish: Foie de Veau 'Lecter': Liver with Port and Taragon ('Dragon' in my mother tongue Flemish).
  • September: just after turning 34, I hear that a close former colleague got murdered.
  • Novenber: My wife gets a new Job (no it does not involve her legs). I need to act as Serotonin Inhibitor. Not much Dopamine there for me.
  • December: My beloved uncle dies after a long battle with cancer. He leaves many loved grandchildren behind. There goes the final Dopamine and all the rest.
Anyway, I wish you all a fabulous 2011!

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Ronda Factor

Six years ago, I decided to obtain a teaching certification in Belgium. Like with many things in my life, just like my life itself, it all started because of my father.

Until then, I had sworn that I would NEVER (read: never ever) go teaching, since half of the family (grandfather, mother, father, brother, aunt, uncle, ...) had been teaching and I decided “I did not want to become just like one of them”, remembering the all-too-loud family reunions with endless discussions destined to change the world. I had been unwillingly excused for most of these remarkable events, since I ended up working in the hotel and restaurant industry, where the grass was green and the girls were pretty.

At some point in time during my career as a young Chef, I realized that earning all that money and working up till 16 hours a day in a stressful environment wasn't bringing me all the answers in life. Although I had everything one could possibly dream of, I was not completely happy. So I asked myself: “Can you remember a time when you were happy? What where the circumstances? Why where you happy then?” And this personal quest brought me back to the days were I had almost no worries: the days I spent at school. Why? Life at school is organized, structured. There is routine. There are rules. With the occasional exception, that means your official part in the modern slavery system only happens from nine to five.

So when my father, administrative director of a hotel school, asked me if I was willing to temporarily replace a teacher on sick leave, I decided it was time to accept my family legacy in the education department.

In my 4 years of teaching, I probably learned as much as all my pupils together. I widened my interests. That is what I like about decisions: they create some sort of snowball-effect. Usually, we end up covered by the snow because of unexpected circumstances or other people's decisions, e.g. somebody ending a long-lasting love relationship. The nice thing about taking decisions yourself is that you are in control. Once in control, you are better prepared for the unforeseen situations in life, since you learned to be responsible and accountable. It somehow makes it easier to recognise the events that happen beyond your control, and it helps in order to accept them. Being adventurous and taking that doubtful decision broadens your horizon. You will always be able to look in a direction where the sun or the stars are shining.

I like the way Leonard Modlinow talks about how “people like to exercise control” in his book The Drunkard's Walk, a book that deals with randomness in our daily lives (and that is also what this article is about):

“many of the same people who drive a car after consuming half a bottle of Scotch will freak out if the airplane they are on experiences minor turbulence”.
During my extremely turbulent ride as a newbie teacher, I met Koen. Koen was taking his teaching certification at the same institution, and one afternoon, during a coffee break (or was it a beer break?), we ended up talking about our shared passion for hiking in the mountains. A few months and beers later, we spent two weeks in the snowy mountains of central Norway, with a magna cum laude certification in our dangerously overloaded backpack. 

We still laugh about the scene where I simply said “No thanks!” to this most beautiful Norwegian blonde girl that, clearly interested, asked if we needed any help, standing in front of a street map in Oslo.

It might be Koen's educational background in back-end computer programming that sharpened his mind to pull off those notorious jokes with perfect timing. He is a really funny guy, with a good sense of humour. My favourites are his exceptional impersonation of Sean Connery with the sentence “On screen I look older” ([On 'Ssqueen Ije Loek 'Aulde] or something like that.) and the unforgettable 'Shrimpin' business' scene with Bubba from the award-winning movie Forrest Gump (see picture).

In Norway, somewhere on the highest point in the mountain range we were climbing, we did a mysterious archoleogical discovery (see picture). 


How and why did these extremely heavy, strangely shaped and decorated objects end up in a place that is at least a full day hike away from civilization? Maybe the blonde girl in Oslo would have known the answer... If you know what this is, please mail us. No, you will not win that Samsung flatscreen TV, since we ourselves don't know what it is so we cannot verify your answer.

In the meantime, the Belgian brewery company Interbrew had grown into one of the world's biggest breweries InBev. Koen and I decided to organize a short city trip to Rome. Organizing meant: booking flight tickets, and that's it. Maybe because I was gradually gaining more control over my work life, I started enjoying the poor planning and the unknown, thus leaving plenty of room for sheer adventure in my spare time.

In Rome, we lingered in the streets for 3 days, being led by the scents of the  city, the wind in the trees, the local inhabitants and their houses. We did not go to the main tourist attractions. Of course, we inevitably saw some of the monuments, but we deliberately avoided being 'the average tourist'. Ever since our journey in Norway, we found that this 'more natural' way of travelling, of following our instincts, could make a trip so much more interesting and rewarding, whilst the world famous tourist venues, apart from being over-crowded, often left us with a feeling of disappointment. One can read all there is to know about the Sistine Chapel in a book, but how can one experience the atmosphere and odours of the streets in Rome, the glow of the sun on the face of a local as it is setting in Tyrrhenian Sea? I decided to honour this way of life by inventing the saying:

'Visiting Rome without seeing the Colosseum'.

Just back in Belgium from the capital of Italy, I realized that Koen must have said a lot of silent prayers at the Vatican, since I received an e-mail from my aunt: “is anybody interested in flying to Andalucia for the weekend? We had bought these tickets, but due to act of God, we can't make it...”

We landed on a sunny morning in Malaga, barely recovered from our Roman indulgences the week before. We had no accommodation booked, no plans... actually, we had no idea at all where we were. So after an hour walk and two legendary Sean Connery impersonations, we came to a bus station. Instead of storytelling on the bench with a box of chocolates, we decided to jump on a random bus.

The bus must have taken us through one of the most ugly parts of Spain: the entire coastline of Malaga seemed one big building project, catering for the British and German tourists and pensioners. This seemed to go on for miles and miles, until the bus took us inland, through the mountains. Our final destination was Ronda.

In Ronda, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful towns on this planet, I suddenly realized that I was not far from the production region of one of the top wines in the world: Sherry. (Jerez/Xerez); a wine with no match that had previously gained my interest and favour since I had been both learning and teaching about it in hotel school. It didn't take me long to convince Koen that the typical dry Fino and Manzanilla wines are the ultimate accompaniment to Tapas, the typical counter food from Spain. This lead us to Cadiz, Jerez and finally San Lucar de Barrameda, where, while enjoying a Fino and looking out over the Atlantic, we suddenly decided to catch a train to Sevilla

In Sevilla, we happened to have arrived in the midst of the Semana Santa festivities, and all kind of strange things were happening around us. The oddest thing of all was that I encountered two colleagues from work, which amongst themselves, had accidentally run into each other in Sevilla. And all of this was happening because my uncle could not make it that weekend... Now, if you read The Drunkard's Walk, you will understand that situations like that are actually all very normal, they are even statistically predictable to a great extent. With a romantic soul like mine, it is hard to believe that such encounters would not happen for a reason and that they would not be orchestrated by some divine force.

Since I emigrated to South Africa 3 years ago, Koen and I virtually didn't see each other, apart from a few catch-up-over-a-beer-sessions we had whenever I was visiting family in Belgium. That finally changed when Koen flew over to South Africa last month. And of course, we focused on regions that attract fewer tourists than other parts of South-Africa: the Karoo and the Cederberg area. In Tulbagh, temperatures were reaching almost 40 degrees Celcius. When Koen was taking pictures of the area, he would bring up Sean Connery and say: "On screen it looks colder". You can have a look at our pictures in my photo gallery.

I hope you enjoy the pictures. And I truly hope that next time, in your travel, you follow your instinct and not the tourist guide. That you may explore unvisited places and try new things, by letting that random factor lead you. By 'Visiting Rome without seeing the Colosseum'.

By allowing that Ronda Factor.

Friday, 05 February 2010


In the beginning of this week, I received one of the nicest e-mails one can probably get. It was entitled 'Leave' and came from my manager: 'you have an excess of unused leave. We appreciate your dedication, but from now on, we would like you to stay home one day a week...'
Since sitting still is not really my thing, from the evening I received the e-mail, I started doubling my sourdough starter (natural leaven) every day and decided to bake a larger batch of Portuguese mountain rye bread today, just like the ladies in Sabugueiro, a village in the Serra da Estrela would do it:
Talking about leave and mountains, I went on a splendid hike in the Magaliesberg mountains the other day:
After a long hike, there is nothing better than a good meal. A Karoo leg of Lamb for instance. I received the nicest compliment about the below recipe from a lady I recently invited for dinner: "Normally I don't eat lamb, but this is simply delicious".
Slowly roasted leg of lamb and sweet potato gratin

This is a perfect dish to serve if you are inviting people for dinner as everything can be prepared well beforehand and is cooked in the oven; this leaves you with a clean stove and kitchen while your guests arrive.

  • a leg of lamb (1,2 kg)
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 2 onions
  • 1/2 kg potatoes
  • 750 g sweet potato
  • 400 ml cream
  • 150 ml milk
  • olive oil or grapeseed oil
  • 50 g of butter
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 3 juniper berries
  • fresh rosemary (2 branches)
  • fresh hyssop (3 branches)
  • ground cumin
  • ground curcuma
  • dried or fresh savory
  • thyme
  • dried oregano
  • sweet paprika powder
  • nutmeg
  • salt
  • pepper 


Two oven dishes: one for the leg of lamb and one for the gratin.

The night before, mix 5 tablespoons of olive oil with 5 crushed cloves of garlic, a full teaspoon of cumin, a tablespoon of salt, a teaspoon of curcuma, a teaspoon of paprika, the freshly chopped rosemary and hyssop leaves, a tablespoon of oregano, some thyme, the crushed bay leaves and juniper berries and some freshly ground pepper.
Rub this mixture well into the leg of lamb, cover and let rest in the fridge overnight.
Take the leg of lamb out of the fridge 6 hours before serving.
Peel the potatoes and sweet potato and make slices of about 2-3 mm thick.
Mix the remaining crushed clove of garlic with the cream and the milk, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Place the slices in a buttered oven dish in alternating layers: potato - sweet potato - potato... and poor the cream liquid over it until all the slices are completely covered (if needed, add a little more milk/cream to the mixture) 


4 hours before serving, drizzle some olive or grapeseed oil into an oven dish and place the marinated lamb on it. Cover with thin slices of butter.
Place in the lower part of a preheated oven at 180 °C.
Reduce the heat to 140 °C and let roast for about 2 hours. Spread the roughly cut onions around the roasting lamb; they will release their unique aroma to the lamb and the juice. Regularly spoon some of the juice over the lamb to prevent a dry crust.
After 2 hours, remove the lamb from the oven, cover it with some foil and put the gratin in the oven at 200 °C. After 20 minutes, reduce the temperature to 160°C and leave for another 40 minutes. Remove the gratin from the oven, turn off the oven and put the lamb inside to heat it again (25 minutes). You are now ready to serve; if reheating is needed, leave the gratin with the lamb for another 10 minutes.

Slice the lamb on a preheated plate; it should be beautifully pink and tender; spoon some of the roasting jus over it. Serve with the sweet potato gratin and seasonal vegetables. 

Hints and tips
  • Add enough salt to the gratin cream mixture. Taste the mixture; it should be very hearty. Alternatively, replace the milk with chicken or veal stock.
  • Use freshly ground nutmeg
  • Freeze the remaining meat jus if any is left; it can serve as the perfect sauce for your next roast.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Bread and Wine

In the past years, I have felt this ever-growing sensation of 'wanting to go back in time'. An urge for times where the word pollution was not in our dictionaries yet, a deep longing for purity, nature, balance. Three years ago, this quest brought me to Africa, where somehow, my heart came at ease.

We live in a harsh world, where honesty and freedom are often losing the battle against short term gain. We live in a fast world, out of control, yet controlled by revolutionary technology and powerful politicians claiming immortality. More and more people have this restless feeling of being incomplete, of betraying their true self. Mindfulness training sessions are the sell of the day. That is if one has time after the 16 hour work day. And the baby keeps crying.

There is a climate change. There is an increasing awareness amongst the educated within the 6 billion of us, that this is not it. There is more. Or, let's rather say: there can be less. A global warming of the hearts. We no longer want more. We want quality. Small things, slow things, ... old stuff. Or am I being idealistic here?

Personally, I discovered a slice of heaven by exploring the secrets of the old days' bread. Nothing better than kneading a dough after a stressfull day in the office.

Well, anyway, we live in an incredible era; anyone having seen the 3D movie Avatar will undoubtedly have praised the Lord for being born in a time like this. What an honour. A true privilege. Especially when thinking about the thousands of people that are currently suffering from famine, war and disease. I have learnt that even the best wine can have two flavours: Sweet or Bitter. It depends what you are thinking of.

So let's make the best out of 2010, and add some sugar where there's bitterness.

I organized dinner for some friends last weekend, here is my latest creation:

Lasagne of lightly smoked Trout and Nori, crispy Sesame salad basket with a Wasabi and Fennel mayonnaise