Monday, January 8, 2018

Mokala - thornveld, sunlight and space

I took remarkably few pictures while we stayed at Mokala, the newest in the collection South African National Parks (known as SAN Parks). Located fewer than 100 km southwest of Kimberly in the Northern Cape, visiting it felt like a gamble. The drive from the Eastern Cape and its green coastal thickets, through the wide and dry Karoo, was lengthy, there would be no exciting large predators (although I hoped to see the elusive black footed African cat, a little sweetie that looks just like a tabby house cat), we only had my cousin Andrea's well informed say-so for visiting, and I was nervous that it might not be worth the effort. The Frenchman has two weeks of vacation a year. They have to be good.

But my first impression of the suddenly changed landscape, which was about the time I snapped Picture No. 1, above, through the Landcruiser's window, was intense. "This is good," I thought. In the driver's seat, Vince was smiling. Praise the Cousin.

Every since we camped beneath the grand old camel thorns (Vachellia erioloba) of Namibia we have loved them. And Mokala was littered with these slow growing trees, acacia lookalikes whose dignified silhouettes sing Africa. Mokala is the Tswana word for camel thorn. Many southern Africans know the tree mostly as the best firewood - its hard wood burns long, hot, and beautifully, and our Namibian trips also yielded bags of camel thorn braaiwood, usually labeled kameeldoring - its Afrikaans name -  at every stop. I learned subsequently that the tree is protected. While you are allowed to collect and sell the wood with a permit, it is sometimes collected unscrupulously or illegally.

The last hour of our drive had been rough. After being snarled in consecutive Stop-Go's on the arterial N12, we left the tar road per my directions, deviating from Google's route suggestion, and choosing secondary dirt roads that were technically shorter, but whose corrugations were the worst we have ever encountered. If I had any fillings in my teeth they would have rattled right out. But at the very end we were rewarded with sand tracks like red velvet carpets. We had arrived.

We checked in at the main rest camp, a discretely designed collection of thatched buildings with impressive lightning conducting poles rising high above its rooves. This is thunderstorm country, but at the very tail end of winter the summer rains had not arrived, yet, and the veld was still brittle and blond. The warm and unaffectedly friendly greeting at reception was in stark contrast to the utter apathy we received all round at Addo Elephant National Park. It was such a relief.

From the main camp we drove slowly to our isolated cottage (also Cousin Recommended) several kilometers away, passing through a fascinating landscape pattern en route. Some of the national park is comprised of former farmland that had been over grazed. I assume this mysterious series of excavations is about soil rehabilitation. Make a hole, pile in brush, wait for rain, rain falls and gathers, collected seeds germinate, covering the exposed and vulnerable soil?

And then, late at the end of a long day, we were at our new home for three nights. Haak en Steek is a refurbished former hunting cabin overlooking a waterhole. No fencing, a warning about roaming rhino (they charge when upset), and a steenbokkie quietly grazing under the surrounding camel thorns. (Haak-en-steek is the Afrikaans common name for another tree, Acacia tortilis, with long white thorns.)

We unpacked the Landcruiser, made ourselves at home, poured the ritual gin and tonic, and took deep breathes of clean air. We kept our eyes peeled for buffalo (not an animal you want to surprise in the bush).

At Mokala you do the traditional park drive every day, choosing your route and stopping to look at the animals on the way. It is always like a treasure hunt. I left all the critter photography to Vince, content to drive or just look. There were many giraffes, and we saw rare antelope like tsessebe, roan and sable. My favorite animals were the little mongooses that lived near the house, and one evening an enormous hare with backlit pink ears sat tamely eating a blade of scarce green grass beside our porch. A sweet scent late one afternoon led me to the flowers above, belonging to a black thorn tree (Senegalia mellifera).

While Haak en Steek's location is stunning, the cottage itself needed - needs - some improvement.  I made the very simple move on day one of carrying outside two comfortable chairs (we took them in every evening to protect them from dew, and vervet monkeys). The only other seating outside was a trio of incongruous and very ugly picnic tables which would be better suited to a rest stop, rather than not-inexpensive accommodation, as well as a stack of even uglier cheap white plastic chairs. A place like this invites repose and contemplation, neither of which can be done from bad seating. Good outdoor furniture is essential, for practical as well as aesthetic reasons.

So there we sat under the camel thorns and their opening buds, and said and did very little.

Giraffes feed voraciously on these thorny branches. They must have interesting tongues and lips.

At the end of each day we sipped our drinks, resting on a borrowed riempie bench from inside. A herd of black wildebeest galloped into the dam one evening, stopped abruptly, dropped to its knees, drank from the trough of fresh borehole water that is provided in dry times, and galloped back out, like cowboys in a Western. We both burst out laughing. Another time we saw a male kudu drinking, once a trotting and thirsty jackal, often a lonely springbok, and every evening the bokkie eating fallen camel thorn blossoms under the trees.

I made roosterkoek one night, cooking the dough over the coals. 

While it baked I caught some cell signal on a high branch. How else was I supposed to post to Instagram?

The best way to eat hot roosterkoek is with butter and green fig preserve -thornveld hors d'oeuvres.

And while the next course of chops and boerewors grilled, its deliciously scented smoke wafting through the trees, we watched the sun go down, three nights in a row, and wished quietly for more.

So that is my Mokala post. Its brevity belies the place's special appeal. We loved every minute, despite some idiosyncracies. The cottage needs TLC, but the things that mattered were there: snow white linen, clean towels, a place to braai, friendly voices when you needed them, endless space, and the deep silence and crystal night sky that I will always, always associate with South Africa.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Goodbye, hello

New Year's Eve. Tomorrow is another day. All the rest is pressure. 

For us, this evening? Some ritual crab cakes, with a citrus and spicebush sauce. Preceded by baby baked potatoes with sour cream, salmon roe, and South African bottarga. Not for us? The ritual (see the December chapter of my book) walk to the Brooklyn Promenade. It is bloody freezing: 12'F/-12'C.

Cold, by our standards. We're staying put.

Now I go back to editing. The dishwasher is running, the house is warm, the Frenchman is reading his blog, and tomorrow there will be fresh brewed coffee, and work to be done.

The future? Do the small things well. Be kind. Pull your own weight. Hang out with people who know more than you do.

Carry on.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Apple magic

In case you missed it, I wrote an apple-loving cocktail post for Gardenista. Above you see 'Winter Banana'  at the top, with 'Honey Crisp' below, fizzing away. Why not use good apples to make new drinks?

In the story you will learn to make that fizzy apple cordial (ingredients: apples, water, sugar), an intensely flavoured apple and rosemary essence, above, and a handful of refreshing cocktails.

This is the Apple Rosemary Essence, made with the same apples you used for the fizzy cordial.

And this is a completely delicious cocktail I called Cold Snap, without an ounce of alcohol. Mocktail indeed, but it tastes kind of convincing (I am not sure that is the point, but it is very grown up). Go and read the story for that recipe, too (it will also send you to the cranberry cocktail post, for that tart Cranberry Sour recipe, above right - one of the cheapest and easiest mixers you will ever make).

That original apple fizz (which inspired it all) is now vinegar - on purpose! And I must taste and bottle it, soon. Lots of fun.

Who needs egg nog?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Pain d'epice

My holiday recipe for pain d'epice - little spice loaves, based on an MFK Fisher recipe (if you can call it that), with my own native American twist, is over at Gardenista.

My first batch was made with a honey and flour paste that had aged, probably fermenting very slowly, for a couple of months.

My friend Bevan WhatsApp'd me yesterday from Istanbul to inform me that the traditional medieval decoration for pain d'epice was boxwood leaves held in place "with cloves with gilded heads." Hm.

Maybe one day. I have box leaves. I have cloves. I just need the gold leaf and the bevy of indentured serfs to gild each clove. I imagine the cloves helped preserve the loaves, too. I am going very untraditional, heretical, even, and covering them with a think layer of rosehip jam, marzipan and royal icing, as we speak. Purely for looks.

But they are really best simply sliced very, very thinly, and buttered. With good butter. My go-to decent butter is actually just Land O'Lakes. But I love the Belgian one with with salt from the Camargue. I stocked up on it recently and the freezer is filled with the little salty bricks.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Winners, Come Forward!

Two out of the five winners of the giveaway have not checked back to see who won the fabulous-fabulous draw - the results were announced on Monday.

Please email me or I have no way to contact you.

Winners of copies of Toast and Jam are:

Patricia Forsyth, from the Hill Country of Texas
Sevans10, from outside Pittsburg, PA

If I have not heard from you by Monday the 18th, I will do a re-draw.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Christmas giveaway winners!

As of 11pm EST 10 December 2017 (phew) this giveaway is closed. 

Thank you for your comments! They make wonderful reading and give me a real sense of good lives being lived, across the US, as well as very close to home.

The winners have been chosen by random number generator.

And the winner of the ten gifts is...

Jo, from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Congratulations!

The four runners up who will receive a copy of Toast and Jam are:

EmmyG from Flushing, NY
Patricia Forsyth, from the Hill Country of Texas
Sevans10, from outside Pittsburg, PA
Anita K, Jackson Heights, Queens

Please email me so that we can arrange for your gifts to reach you.


Christmas could come early. I am so excited to share this giveaway with you.

For Gardenista I compiled my Gift Guide for Botanically Minded Cooks and Mixologists. It's a personal selection of my favorite things -  things that have made me happy, and that I think would be lovely gifts for you or for the cooks and cocktail lovers in your life. They range from lime trees to purple potatoes, and from books to beach plum gin.

Every item on that list can be won here by one lucky commenter. (I contacted everyone on the list and they each generously offered to be part of this giveaway.)

The monetary value is just under $500, before shipping, and shipping will be covered, so no need to worry about that, either. You can keep them all, or have them sent to friends. There is even a consolation prize for three runners up: a copy of Toast and Jam, provided by Roost Books.

The giveaway is open to US residents only (for shipping reasons). To enter, please leave a comment below telling us: 1. Where you live, garden, cook and shake up drinks. The deadline for the giveaway is Sunday, 10 December, 11PM EST.

Here are the details:

1. Any size tree from Lemon Citrus Tree.

I bought my beloved Thai limes (now overwintering in our bedroom windows, first picture) from Carol Kim, the new owner, is generously offering a choice of any tree you like on the site, as well as any size tree. It could be a Meyer lemon, a Thai lime like mine, a Key lime, Persian lime, a minneola,  an orange - there are lots of citrus choices. There also avocados, pomegranates, loquats and figs. And olives! All my favorite things. Go over and have a look.

Important: Not all states may receive citrus trees, and Lemon Citrus Tree spells that out on every tree's listing. If the winner (or receiver you designate) resides in one of those states, you may choose a non citrus.

2. I first met Cecil and Merl's delicious, small batch Apricot and Cherry bitters at a party for Remodelista, where I shook up - memorably - 500 cocktails. Their latest bitters batch is turmeric, with burdock. Right up my foraging alley. For this giveaway Cecil and Merl are offering the pictured combo of their handsome tote bag, Apricot and Cherry Bitters (both fantastic), and Made in Brooklyn, an inspirational catalog of the artisans and makers at the epicenter of Brooklyn's food and drink renaissance.

Bitters are not just for cocktails. Check out Cecil and Merl's recipes, too.

3. Two 1 oz packets of spicebush. My favourite spice, usually foraged, and native to the US east of those Rockies. If you can't forage it you can find it at Integration Acres. I will mail two packages to the winner.

If you like it, you can head over there and buy more. Include it in your holiday cookies and cakes.

4. Sansho, sumac, saffron and mahlab (above - cherry kernels) are my selection of spices from Raw Spice Bar, who contacted me some months ago about their spice offerings. I usually forage and grow these spices, but not everyone can. And I am including many recipes using sansho, sumac and mahlab in Forage, Harvest Feast, my new book. Having a good resource for readers who only forage online is fantastic. If you don't like my choice of four (but you should!), you may instead choose four other spices from their selection using a code that will be provided.

5.  Greenhook Ginsmiths make my favourite dry gin. And their beach plum (Prunus maritima) gin, above, is just plain exciting, especially for a forager. Our native fruits and herbs and spices are still massively underexplored or forgotten. These beach plums, ripe in very late summer, come from Long Island and are given a good, long soak in gin, with the addition of some sugar. A dash of this in your Champagne flute will make a very good Plum Royale...

6. Californian wildcrafter and foraging friend Pascal Baudar's New Wildcrafted Cuisine is stellar. It is packed with innovative techniques and original research, and has a wonderful list of edible Californian flora in its pages. The methods Pascal details can be applied to any region. His work is authentic and trend setting, and packed with integrity. His next book will be all about wild brews...

7. Emily Han's Wild Drinks and Cocktails is an elegant handbook on making just about anything botanical into something very good to drink. Her recipes are clear, simple and very appealing.

8. Stephen Orr's The New American Herbal is, for me, one of those classics that is not only collectable but hugely practical and informative. It is a fat, solid, beautifully photographed collection of hundreds of herbs, A - Z (some very unusual), and many ways to use them, including recipes. When he is not writing books, Stephen is the editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens. He will sign the copy that wings its way to a winner.

9. From ceramicist to rosarian to baker to award winning cookbook author, nothing Sarah Owens does is mediocre. Toast and Jam is her new book and it is filled with...toast, and jam! And tons more. Loads of bread, cracker, cake and scone recipes make up Part One, while everything that you can possibly put on top of them is Part Two. It's a beautiful, mouthwatering book. (You can read my 2014 story about Sarah in Edible Brooklyn.)

10. Ending on an earthy note: 5lbs of Purple Majesty potatoes could be yours from Grow Organic (shipped for spring planting). Even though I planted my potatoes way too early this year, and had them zapped by a hard freeze, they made it (there they are, above). A mound of mulch over the rows may have helped.

I planted Grow Organic's garlic just a few weeks ago, and my vegetable garden is amended with their crushed oyster shells (to raise its pH, which it did, admirably). Their packaging is how all packaging should be: plastic free.

There you have it.

What do you think?

Reminder: This giveaway is open to US residents only (for shipping reasons). To enter, please leave a comment below telling us: 1. Where you live, garden, cook and shake up drinks.

The winner and runners up will be chosen at random and announced on Monday the 12th of December, here. Please check back, then.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

First snow

We had snow. I went out into it to buy the ritual Reuben sandwich that the Frenchman and I share at weekends. The wait was so long at The Court Street Grocers that I placed my order and then took home my shopping and flowers and went straight back out again to pick up the sandwich. It still wasn't ready.

It's a good sandwich.

It has not been very cold - temperatures were hovering just above freezing, so very little stuck. But wet snow clings beautifully to branches.

Carroll Gardens - our Brooklyn neighborhood - was well frosted.

Later we went out to buy our tree. The Vermont sellers also have good maple syrup, so we stocked up.

I did not grow up with these winters. So it is still like theatre, to me. Watching people walk home with their trees is very touching. Everybody smiles.

At home the sparrows and their one eccentric all-American sparrow cousin - a fat Eastern towhee, not pictured - bickered over the seed I tossed for them.

In the back garden less snow melted. It is never in the sun at this time of year and the ground must be colder. Inside, we put up the tree, and I baked a savarin and cooked a pot of fragrant borscht.

Everything is falling apart, but some things keep it sticking together.

(Remember - you have one more day to enter the Christmas giveaway - ten very nice gifts.)

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