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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

Monday, 11 January 2010

New Year's letter

Christmas and New Year... a time spent with family and friends, with your most beloved ones. A time for introspection, to think, learn and forget about the past year and to make at least a few good resolutions for the year ahead. Waw, this is 2010. Did your past ten years go as fast as mine? I can still remember the taste of the delicate Cuban Rhum I was sipping on the night of 31 December 1999 in a famous Brussels bar...  as if it were yesterday.

2010 started rather strangely for me, with the discovery of a medium sized crab in my highly-chlorinated swimming pool (see picture). Did somebody have a similar experience or can one of you tell me how this can happen? It reminds me of that one day where I saw a snow-white rabbit sitting next to a black cat in front of my gate (not joking). Well, it promises to be a special year. I can't wait for the fresh lobster and oysters to appear in my swimming pool.

As usual, it takes me at least the month of January to adapt, that is: writing 10 on all my correspondence instead of 09. And as usual, one of my New Year's resolutions is following a healthier diet, with more room for organically grown vegetables and fruits. I couldn't resist buying the book 'Sumptuous' though, a new release from the hand of Marlene Van Der Westhhuizen with unique photography by Gerda Genis. Didn't see too much focus on veggies in there yet, but let's face it, if the years are flying by as fast as they are, why don't we try to make them as enjoyable as possible? And probably that's the only resolution I'll stick to: make more time for quality moments. That started yesterday by baking a Blueberry Clafoutis (see picture) together with my love, inspired by Marlene's book.

Talking about quality, the other fantastic book new to my library is called 'Home Baking' by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. In this book about bread and pastry, Jeffrey and Naomi reveal the secrets of the traditional sourdough bread, superbly illustrated with their worldwide travel stories about bread. I started my recipe with a Poolish for the 'Portuguese Rye' on Friday and tomorrow (Tuesday) I will finally be able to bake bread. Now, where last did you read a 5-day recipe? No wonder the years fly by in my kitchen.

Well anyway, I hope you all had a wonderful time during the festivities, with plenty of new gastronomical discoveries (crab?). I hope, after this well-deserved break, to be contributing in making 2010 an even more tasteful year for you and your beloved ones.

Thank you for your support and a I wish you a happy and healthy 2010.