Chapter 1: 150 friends for lunch
I fled from the chaos inside the house.
Outside, an entirely different and tranquil scenario awaited me, where a gloriously, peaceful morning had dawned two hours before.
It’s 8 am Sunday, early in winter, where I stand on the front verhanda looking out across the valleys of the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. A mountain chill lingers in the air and the shadows under the giant conifer trees are still brightened by frost. That will disappear soon - it looks like a fine day ahead reaching low 20C’s - usual for this time of the year. In the distance magnificent Giant’s Castle rises languidly out of the early chill air, catching the early rays of the rising sun.
When I return inside the house it’s bedlam. There are picnic baskets everywhere. Fifty large ones for adults and thirty kid size ones make an obstacle course - across the lounge floor, the sofas, the spare room bed, the temporary table, on top of the TV - anywhere there’s a flat surface.
It’s going to be a big day – the trial run-through of the brand new Horizons Gourmet Picnics business. My bride to be, Athena and I, have bravely (or stupidly?) invited many of our friends and their children to test the systems before we officially open to the public in a week’s time. As today got closer the numbers grew from sixty to seventy and now we were expecting ninety adults and who knew how many kids.
Years in the advertising industry have hardened me to deadlines and a stint as catering manager for the Royal Cape Yacht Club have given me all the basics of the restaurant industry. Nonetheless my excitement for today is tinged with not a little anxiety. Fear of the unknown.
I navigate the baskets to the kitchen. How anyone can work in there is a wonder. More baskets cover the floor, the table has hundreds of little plastic containers sliding off the edges and there are giant pots and trays of food balancing on the stove and fridges. The industrial size oven is on Gas mark ten as it battles to keep up with rows of ramekins waiting their turn. Yet labouring in there are five Zulu ladies and my gorgeous wife Athena who could be a reincarnation out of Greek mythology.
“Taste this please, Ian, I think it needs something,” asks my goddess as she hands me a sample spoonful of her legendary insalate di mare (yet to be bettered anywhere).
“As good as ever,” I mumble as I savour the vinegary, lemony, garlicky, olive oily, parsley, black peppery chunks of seafood.
It’s the eleventh dish I’ve tested since getting up so my taste buds are already well tuned in. There was the chilled cucumber soup, the tonnato, the lamb casserole, the mielie bread, the...
My mobile rings and it’s one of my golf friends we invited. I fear it’s bad news – a last minute cancellation. “Hi Ian”, he says, “looking forward to seeing you midday.” I relax a bit. “By the way, we had a few friends stay over last night and I thought it would be good for them to find out about your picnics – may they come – they’ll pay?”
“Of course, and we don’t expect anyone to pay. Today’s on us to get people to know about it. The more the merrier.” Athena gave me a strange look.
The food – unbelievably – was coming together, although we knew our challenges were far from over.
How would our little-trained, local Zulu farm workers cope with presenting our high end, al fresco, gourmet picnics? Would our oven cope with crisping up the baguettes and heating lamb casseroles for ninety adults? Had we mastered making espressos and Capuccinos to pump out sixty in half an hour?
Would Athena and my relationship stand up to this weekend in and weekend out?
The next dish I had to do was one of the most important, and alongside Athena’s insalate di mare our other signature dish – my carpaccio made with my specially cured bresaola. I had been building up expectations all week and now was my time to deliver. Most of the work was done and it was simply a matter of slicing it and plating it up.
Bresaola – a cured topside of beef - was one of many dishes inspired by our travels, in this case to the north of Italy. I sourced the basic recipe off the internet and had given it a South African twist. Sliced less than a millimetre thin, this is the main ingredient of my carpaccio. Because of the curing, it makes for a serious version, unlike the insipid affairs served in most restaurants made with tasteless fillet.
My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of Flo, who we had brought to Horizons to help with the load of the extra work. She is a little woman (compared to the huge size of the maids that one can see around), and as an outsider (she was from a different African tribe in the Umhlanga Rocks area on the coast) and she was standing up to her proper right in amongst the half a dozen ladies that we had working today. These were locals from the farms in the area and the nearby village, Bruntville,
Back to the bresaola. For this I trim a full topside (about seven kilos –readers, don’t try this at home!) of the flap and all fat. Then I cure it whole in a few cups mix of sea salt and sugar and about a cup mixed of ground black pepper and coriander seeds. After four or five days I rinse it in vinegar and rest it in the fridge for another few days for the flavours to penetrate through before it’s ready.
The ingredients are inspired by those used for biltong. This is the dried, cured meat developed by the voortrekker pioneers to preserve their slaughtered beef as they trekked on their conquest of savage southern Africa. I only use the meat from a Midlands butcher – reared solely on its lush pastures. It’s some of the finest – a deep, rich burgundy colour.
The rest of the dish is simple but requires equally good ingredients.
We served it by plating a portion for two on a sideplate, covering it with about four delicate slices of the bresaola. A handful of shaved Grana Padano (similar to Parmigiano Reggiano but less expensive) is scattered over the top (can’t be too frugal with this as it adds to the rich umami flavour of the dish). Then follows a dressing of olive oil and finely chopped sweet basil. Lastly a couple of lemon slices to be squeezed over just before eating with a grating of black pepper.
This would be one of our signature dishes upon which we build our reputation.
However I digress (food does that to me).
“Bring me the mkulu nyama - the big meat,” I shout above the voices of the six Zulu ladies all going in different directions across the kitchen, doing their best to avoid tripping on the looped picnic basket handles sticking up in the air.
This is one of the big moments I’ve been waiting for – to christen our brand new meat slicer. My mind flashes back to the many delicatessens in Europe where I’ve watched prosciutto, coppa, parma and salami deftly sliced to order, and I keenly anticipate using our new Rheninghaus Stellina – all shiny, stainless steel and brand new out the box.
Every self respecting restaurant should have a good quality meat slicer. It’s an essential piece of equipment – along with a good espresso coffee machine. So we’d had no hesitation in investing in a top of range German make that was the price of an overseas airline ticket.
I fetch the box from the store room where it’s lain unopened since the catering equipment company delivered it at the last minute on the Friday. It weighs a ton and has no pictures but lots of German on it – a good sign of a quality slicer.
Around me the buzz continues with Athena efficiently commandeering the plating up of the insalate di mare, folding the cutlery in the napkins, and making sure there are butter dishes, salt dishes and pepper mills in every basket. Meanwhile I’m picturing myself in a Milanese deli savouring a slice of cured ham – either the dark, slightly sweet San Danielle or the truffly Pata Negra made from pigs that forage the forests for their favourite food - acorns.
“Get on with it,” Athena yells, “you still have to fetch the twenty bags of ice from the trading store and our guests are on their way!”
I open the box and glimpse the shiny machinery through the layers of plastic packaging. Impressive. Carefully I lift the couple of pieces out and unwrap the biggest piece first. It’s the length of my forearm and as thick as my leg and looks like a cannon. I’m a bit puzzled.
“What’s this?” I say, but no-one takes any notice.
My bresaola waits to be sliced. The ice waits. Lunchtime and our guests approach.
I unpack more and suddenly the horrible realization hits me. Slicing the massive bresaola into paper thin slices for nearly 100 guests has just become another, unexpected challenge to serving our test picnics.
Why? Because what has been delivered is not a slicer. Instead, before me is an industrial strength, very large and impressive - but quite useless to me with 100 guests on their way - meat mincer!
What a thing of beauty, I momentarily think before realizing this unexpected predicament.
I look at the six kilograms lump of bresaola sitting on the table that should be in 300 slices. I look at the machine that could pass as a World War I cannon.
With an hour to go before our guests were due to arrive, the plan was unravelling fast!