Edible Ode To The Vine

February 18th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m back in the Helshoogte mountains, surrounded by an undulating carpet of vine leaves. Just before Christmas, I was moved to express my gratitude for once again living in this verdant valley that produces such outstanding gossip wines. In a way that required a little more effort than simply raising a glass to the lights of Paarl twinkling across the valley at sunset.

Stuff them, I figured. With rice or pork, Greek or Middle-Eastern style. Undeterred by the fact that spring was a good few months past and the leaves were somewhat mature (thick and inflexible) for this exercise, I set off into the vineyard with a plastic shopping bag, clippers and a large hat. I was a straw hamper and wavy blonde hair short of a bucolic cliché. Or a shampoo ad.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 16.11.30

Pick shiraz leaves, the winemaker yelled as he drove past. » Read the rest of this entry «

Hola cariños! Shall we braai?

September 23rd, 2014 § 4 comments § permalink

Yes, hello darlings! I am back in the shadow of old Table Mountain. We’ve been back for all of ten weeks now. I wish I could regale you with glamorous tales of dipping into the culinary delights of Cape Town, or basking in it’s low-slung wintry sunsets on an expensive lounger taking selfies of my sunglassed self chugging MCC.

But alas, the Vixen is now a mother and life is a Clockword Orange of trying to make ends meet. Nappy ends. Dog leash and stroller straps. Baby meals and adult-friendly suppers. Is it just me or do other mothers of really active toddlers also habitually find themselves leaving the house with their belt ends hanging loose, like some limp invitation to a deadbeat disco? » Read the rest of this entry «

The not so great Basque bake-off

November 21st, 2013 § 8 comments § permalink

In which I pitted myself against a small yet obstinately hot oven, a bag of moist flour and a baking culture that harbours deep suspicions of butter. The challenge was twofold. Deliver a plain biscocho (vanilla sponge) to my son’s play school for his first birthday. And bake something a bit more  extravagant to enjoy with friends later. I am not a baker. But when your baby turns one, you slap that apron on and go cruising the internet for a suitably simple recipe.


Birthday boy Ben

Forgive me for saying this but Spain’s baking culture is so dour and devoid of, well, BUTTER – that emissary of melt-in-the-mouth morishness – not to mention icing or ganache, without which no pious sponge can ever be pimped into a thing of wonder. So with two cakes to deliver in one day (never before, I tell you) my last flash of equilibrium entailed opting for a box of cake mix for the vanilla sponge. Thinking being: they’re one year old, most of it will end up on the floor, plus why waste precious time on something which is dull by definition. No. Instead I would lavish all my attention on the masterpiece for home consumption.

My first easy-peasy box of cake mix exited the oven in an angry hard lump with an unattractive bulging centre and what can only be described as cake acne. I deduced from the drawings on the box that the oven had been too hot. No problem, I bought another. This was a small distraction from the major crisis I was entering into regarding the showstopper I had to produce.


A lethal weapon at 20 paces


The week prior to Ben’s birthday I was so excited. So full of love for this little being. I needed to express it. And through some mysterious internal process the medium was to be cake. I became possessed and as the day drew closer, terribly anxious. I decided on red velvet cupcakes. A veritable sensory sucker punch. Cupcakes are only now becoming fashionable in Spain and surely Getaria had yet to taste its first. But when you live in Vanillaspongeville, decent red food colouring is impossible to find.

Martha Stewart came to the rescue via her website. Strawberry cupcakes with buttercream icing. Easy (Martha’s claim) and with enough fresh fruit to charm parents weary of nasty additives. You know how they say the first rule is read the entire recipe? Before you start? You should. And of course I didn’t. Because I never do. Which, in a nutshell, is why I suck at baking. I read the cupcake recipe which seemed easy enough but not the buttercream icing recipe. Who could anticipate that a buttercream icing would require a thermometer? And sugar heated to exactly 160 degrees. Clearly Martha and I have different definitions of ‘easy’.

I realised, as I buttered the cupcake pans, that my anxiety levels were completely out of whack. It was not about the cake. Despite being so excited about celebrating Ben’s first year with us, on the actual day, I was a sobbing mess. I missed my departed parents terribly. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of providing a wonderful life for this little man. Out of my comfort zone in a place where you can’t order a fun birthday cake or even a box of pretty cupcakes. I had managed to successfully infuse the baking of a cake with an entire existential crisis. Let it not be said that I do not, at times, overachieve.


I wish my parents could have met their grandson. Pictured here on their wedding day.


I took Martha´s hand and braved forth. The cupcake batter was delicious. Raw. Winning, I thought, feeling bolstered. The old gung-ho kitchen vixen reemerged. A batch of 12 cupcakes went in. There was a whole lot of batter left…just…in…case. And then it happened again. I took twelve rather pale (didn’t want hard edges again) cupcakes from the oven to find that some were still raw in the centre. All that strawberry pulp. Bugger. I quickly filled another cupcake tray and a small heart-shaped mould. Cranked the heat up just a little and got going with the buttercream frosting.


Heart-soaringly delicious batter


Which is when I read the recipe and realised I was just plain fucked. With no thermometer and no clue as to how sugar performed at 160 degrees, I cursed Martha and decided to blunder forth because this was the Titanic of baking and I was going down with it. With the feverish gleam of a gambler on his last chip, I separated four eggs and heated the whites with some sugar in a too small bowl, plonked in a pot of simmering water. Sure enough, the sugar melted. I whisked away, wondering what 160 degrees of molten sugar and egg white was supposed to look like. The odds were against me miraculously gauging the temperature but a giddy optimism took hold and I whisked and whisked until it became gluey, like taffy. This must be it, I thought, because what else could happen? A quick tally of all the wasted eggs, butter and batter that I had manifested in the past 24 hours brought a calm resignation. I had nothing left to lose. One egg, basically, I cackled.


Note crappy utensil


I thought of my mom whom I was missing so much. She was a wonderful cook and a reluctant baker. I couldn’t think of a single cake that defined the birthdays of my youth. Except, when I was about six years old, I was smitten with Moirs strawberry cake mix and insisted on having it a few years running. Then it struck that I was also making strawberry cake. Albeit the made-from-scratch version. So was all this about me trying to replicate my happy place? In my efforts to create a happy place for my son.  And stressing myself silly in the process. But let’s stay with the buttercream.  I was in the zone, beating the temperature-unknown sugary egg mix. Five minutes to stiff peaks, Martha said. The clear goo went a silky white and hope once again stirred in my breast. Could I still wing it? A quick peek in the oven revealed the cakes were coming along nicely. Rising evenly with edges not too brown.


It's no yolk


By God these eggs shall peak, I cried, if only by sheer force of will. And prayer and a fair bit of cussing. I prefer a multi-fangled approach. They thickened and clung coquettishly to the whisk but nothing peaked. Fine. I added the butter, whisked, tasted. A sugary mucus with globules of cow fat. Not to worry. A brisk whisk and two cups of fresh strawberry pulp later and I could almost see where Martha was going with this.

I was determined to see this fiasco through and started doing what all party planners do when they realise they’re bombing. I listened to 80s hits. I was dancing on the ceiling as the slack strawberry buttercream went into the fridge and the cake emerged from the oven. At Ben’s play school the teacher mentioned the weird lemony flavour of the biscocho but I shrugged it off with “it’s from a packet”. We had lunch with his lovely Spanish grandparents, filled the kitchen with balloons and Maya the Bee birthday paraphernalia (yet another of my childhood favourites) and just before the mini guests arrived, I took the buttercream from the fridge. Well, what do you know. The top few inches had set to a spreadable substance not unlike the topping on Martha’s cupcakes. I covered the heart – which ironically had survived the creation process in best shape – and the seven cupcakes I estimated were least likely to be raw in the centre with buttercream, perched a fresh strawberry on each and all of a sudden it looked just as it should. A nice kiddies party!


By the skin of my teeth


I had pulled it off, just like my mom had done for me. My son was so blown away by the people, balloons and gifts, the cake was of zero importance. But somehow, of everything, it had become the benchmark of my maternal fitness in this whole exercise. A rather dumb benchmark if you’re not a baker to begin with.


Lovely people. The key ingredient

But I did learn a few things.  Spanish flour (the plain kind) is too heavy for baked goods. Especially if the bag is left unsealed for two months. We live in a very humid place. In future I shall only bake with fresh cake flour. Am I blaming the flour? Well, yes. Mostly. Also the oven. And my fundamental inability to acknowledge and follow rules. And maybe also to focus on what Ben really wants rather than rehash my own childhood for sentimental reasons. But in all fairness, he is one year old. Maya, Willie and strawberry cupcakes are just fine. Soon it will be his call. And I will do my best to bake it or fake it. With a light and airy heart, even if the crumb isn’t.


Birthdays are cool, mama

The world could do with more Getaria

October 18th, 2013 § 10 comments § permalink

We came for lunch and decided to stay. I’d never heard of Getaria before nor could I remember the name until well past dessert. We’d been house hunting for several months in towns surrounding San Sebastian but nothing clicked. Row upon row of new and uninhabited apartment blocks in Orio gave me the creeps, Fuenterrabía was posh and out of the way, Zarautz homeowners sniffed and looked the other way at the mention of our dog, Astigarraga didn’t seem to have anything particularly for or against it, so when we finally sat down at Txoko restaurant in Getaria for beautifully grilled fish, in the shadow of an imposing Gothic cathedral and with a spectacular view of the quaint harbour, I turned to the señor and said ‘Why not here?’


Who wouldn't

When a week later I learnt that Getaria was number 41 on the New York Times list of 46 places to go in 2013, well, a rather extended visit seemed like a fine idea. Six months down the line, I feel blessed to be in this particular spot on earth and at the same time, am a little perplexed that it made the list. Not that it isn’t everything the New York Times said it would be. A gorgeous, centuries-old fishing village (of which there are many along the Basque coast) that serves excellent grilled fish (true, all restaurants have outdoor grills by special government concession) with ancient winding cobbled streets (standard stuff in Europe if you weren’t on a WW2 flight path) and despite its size (current population 2500) home to two famous sons: navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano, who was the first to circumnavigate the globe in the early 16th century, as well as 20th century haute couturist Cristóbal Balenciaga. Getaria has honoured its famous fashionista with a massive mirrored museum that clings to the hillside above the old town like a shiny armadillo. And, according to the New York Times, it is the museum that, since its opening in 2011, has drawn a more ‘sophisticated design set’ to Getaria. Of course, well-heeled French have long been trotting over the border for a good plate of food at better prices than their own restaurants can provide.

View from el Raton

I have my own idea of why Getaria has become such a hotspot. It includes the spectacular coastal drive, vine covered hilltops, ancient old city, beautiful harbour, historical statues and hi-tech museum, beaches and great fish, but more than that, Getaria offers all of this in a contained, easy to consume package. You can step off the bus, ride the escalator up to the Balenciaga museum, stroll down the cobbled main road, pass underneath the 12th century Gothic cathedral and step out into the sunshine on a high wall dotted with restaurants that overlook the harbour, hugged by the mouse-shaped el Raton mountain on the left and a sickle of beach to the right. It can all be consumed, including your three-course lunch with copious glasses of Txakoli, with enough time to spare for a siesta.

Sight-seeing is hard work. Rome in two days, London in five, half a country in a week. How exhausting. And the success of a trip is too often determined by how many of the must-see boxes are ticked. Even our downtime is infused with competitive objectives. If Paris is a sumptuous banquet and New York a multi-cultural buffet, then Getaria is one perfect little bite. A delicious and comforting morsel that pauses and replenishes. After just a few hours, visitors leave satisfied that they have ‘done Getaria’.  And that imparts a nice sense of accomplishment in a world so vast and multi-thinged that many of us sometimes feel somewhat sidelined.


On top of el Raton

We moved here when our son was six months old. To an apartment on the fourth floor of a casa in the old part of town. None of the old houses have elevators. Add a border collie with a dodgy bladder to the mix and suffice to say I found myself in a picturesque corner of hell. A pueblito also has less to offer in terms of amenities, shopping and wifi coverage. At times it felt as if I had stepped back in time to about 1948 without being in the mood for it. In short, I needed help. Which is how the beauty of Getaria unfolded. A fiesty little woman called Ana* helped us get settled in. A week later when our hound was at death’s door and the señor was stuck at work, her husband took Milly to a vet in the neighbouring town. Perfect strangers introduced themselves in the street, enquired how we were and insisted that I call whenever help was needed. I have never known such kindness. Soon everyone knew the South African with the friendly child and the gorgeous, goofy dog.

Winter dragged on forever. Dios mio. It was the worst winter the Basque country had seen in over 200 years. I walked the misty cobbled streets for hours while my baby slept snugly in his waterproof buggy. I once took shelter in a bar, glass of beer in hand, when the lights went out. What’s going on, I asked. A villager had died and as the procession moved through town towards the cathedral, lights were switched off in commiseration. People here grow very old. To reach 85 years of age is not unusual. Getaria nestles against a mountain. If you step out of your front door you are either going uphill, or down. It’s a workout any which way. Older gentleman take to scooters to zip around town but the ladies carry on walking. In many cases, people are born and die in the same house. Married to a childhood sweetheart. It is all so terribly not modern. Yet it is holding true for many of the younger generation.

If these walls could talk, I often think as I pass sandstone structures many hundreds of years old. A town this small must have its feuds, lingering resentments of old lovers’ quarrels, soured business partnerships and rotten eggs. If there is talk it would surely happen in Euskera (or Basque, as the ancient language is known in English) and never to an outsider. Children live close to their parents who care for the grandchildren while the kids get on with work. This sense of continuity provides a security that serves all generations. There are very wealthy people in this town but nothing is ever on display. The wife of the most successful restauranteer can be seen sweeping the forecourt of their restaurant in her sweats early in the morning. A wealthy retired businessman enjoys a pintxo with an old fisherman. Could it be that such a solid, rooted foundation negates the manic quest for materialist trappings?


Kids being kids

The Basque country is a wonderful pastiche of hi-tech and ancient. Details change to embrace progress but the underlying structure is, literally, cast in stone. Toddlers learn to walk on the same cobbled streets as did their great-grandparents. Grow up observing the workings of the harbour from the same window. Perhaps, unbeknown, experience the thrilling terror of a first kiss not far from where their parents shared a similar moment. This overlapping of lifelines may seem cloying to some but from what I’ve seen, it makes for a refreshing absence of existential angst.

So much of the fatalism, paranoia and anxiety of the modern world just does not arrive here. It’s hard not to live in fear of disaster given the sometimes horrific ways of the world, not to mention Hollywood’s obsession with annihilation. How often does New York not suffer celluloid destruction by aliens, cataclysmic disaster or some foul regime with too much firepower. I’m not saying a tidal wave can’t hit the Bay of Biscay. I’m probably just the only person who has ever considered it.

Getaria is growing into me, changing my patterns. Even in this quiet place with no real work to speak of, I hurry and stress too much. Pull and poke at the fabric of my life unnecessarily. I cloud my horizon with shadows from the past. Tranquila. We will help you, they say, as they laugh the rain away. There is music in the streets. Be it sardine season, a birthday, or just a jolly lone accordionist who drinks and jams his way through town, hitting keys above his head like a rock star.


Milly the muse (pictured here with a more sedate musician)

I don’t know how much time Sarah Wildman of the New York Times spent in Getaria. Whether she got to see past the museum and the pretty harbour. Not that it matters. Whatever their reasons, they chose well. They chose a mensch.

*Her real name. Recently she came to our rescue again by finding a wonderful casa for us. With spectacular views of the bay and only seven stairs. Life is good. If it carries on like this I may feel moved to pen a European romcom in the vein of Under A Tuscan Sun. The working title could be Under A Basque Cloud.

Sunrise from our new casa


Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @kitchenvixenish


August 29th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

I never wanted advertisers on my blog. Not because of lofty journalistic principles or concerns about credibility. It’s just all those colours and fonts. Things get so busy busy busy.  I just didn’t feel like it. Plus little windows popping up where you don’t need them. And it smells of added admin. But then Frank emailed me. And for a split-second, well, I thought, just maybe it could work. Then again, maybe not:

Hi Frank

My blog is about food writing from a very personal perspective. I wouldn’t know what to say about the online bingo industry, except maybe to take the piss. The few readers that I have (I’m pregnant and more interested in grazing indiscriminately than blogging) also won’t buy a thinly veiled attempt at punting online bingo. I may lose the shred of credibility and 3.7 readers I have left. Unless I actually try it, love it, and ideally could win some money. Then we’re in business! Other than that my blog may not be the ideal advertising platform for you. But please do send me a link to give the bingo thing a bash. Who knows. I convert easily. Especially when there’s yelling involved!

Thank you kindly for your interest.

On Wed, 29 Aug 2012 16:53:52 +0100, frank@xxxx.com> wrote:

Hi Bianca,
Thank you for getting back to me.

After reviewing your website, we think that a new blog post would be the
best and least intrusive option for you. You are free to come up with the
content of the article or blog post, but we do ask that it is in some way
relevant to our client in the online bingo industry and is composed of
roughly 300 words.

We’ll pay $ 120 as an annual upfront payment and we will endeavour to make
sure that you are paid within two working days, using PayPal or

Please let me know if you’re interested, so I can have your site assessed
by our Technical team. I can then send the advert details and client

Alternatively, if you have any more questions about this advert type, then
please do let me know.


Hey Frank, will this do? It’s 390 words and technically 169 of them are yours but it’s related to bingo. Do we have a deal?


Take a bite of Barcelona

June 14th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

Spain is revered as the home of modernist gastronomy, having liberated fine dining from the clingy hold of French butter and cream with sultry oils and a fearless approach to technique. The thing about Spain is, they cook. Every city block has at least three restaurants, often feet apart. For every aspiring elBulli or Cellar de Can Roca out there, there are at least 1000 greasy tapas bars. You have to be selective. If, like me, you like fresh food or an element of freshness in your food, consider yourself slightly screwed. Oil and salt are constants in this flavour landscape. But let’s look at the good stuff, shall we?



From absolutely bloody brilliant to better than average

Tickets Bar: Ferran and Albert Adria’s brilliant take on tapas. I’ve tried other gastro tapas bars and nothing comes close to this. The Adria’s might be slumming it compared to the gravitas of elBulli but Tickets, for all it’s playfulness, serves little morsels of genius. The best tapas in the world. Reservations via their website only and they’re booked out three months in advance. Read my review of Tickets and 41 Degrees here. If you are intrigued by elBulli, do go to the elBulli exhibition at Palau Robert on paseo de Gracia.

41 Degrees: The disco sister of Tickets, also owned by the Adria brothers. Recently blinged-out with an installation of 20 000 crystals that manipulate light and sound,  41 Degrees is hailed as the ‘baby elBulli’. It’s a 16 seater that serves a mind-fluffing 41-course menu. The same tricky online reservation system applies. I’m going end of July and can’t wait to experience the sparkly new 41 Degrees. Watch this space.

Dos Pallilos: A sensual synergy of food savvy. Exquisite Japanese food served tapas-style. After 11 years as elBulli’s headchef Albert Raurich – inspired by his Japanese wife – opened this übercool eatery next to the trendy Camper Hotel in the Ramblas. Good luck getting a table at short notice. Read my review here.

Gresca: Creative, contemporary fine dining in an informal, chic space.One of the really good restaurants where you might get a table at short notice. Details here.

Alkimia: Modernist gastronomy with strong Catalan roots. Set menus offer a well curated overview of the best this area has to offer. Reserve online.

Dos Cielos: Comes highly recommended. The website gives a clear idea of what to expect and how to get a reservation for this sensory joy ride, engineered by handsome twin brothers Sergio and Javier Torres. I might have to go soon.

Rias de Galicia: For the best seafood in town. Enough said.

Of course, the most sought-after table to be had in all of Spain would be Celler de Can Roca. Rated second  in the world after Rene Redzepi’s Noma and just an hour’s drive from Barcelona in Girona, this would be well worth the effort if you’re serious about sampling the best.

La Boqueria: Barcelona and probably the world’s best fresh produce market. On las Ramblas, the city’s main tourist drag, the market offers freshly pressed juices popping with colour and flavour. Choose from guava and coconut, kiwi and pineapple – the list is near endless. I start every market visit with a different flavour. Buy fresh produce or wait your turn for a seat at one of the popular tapas bars in the market. Or just eat with your eyes. It’s a visual orgasm.


Las Ramblas has tourist trap written all over it but you have to see it. Eating there is perhaps not such a great idea. Except for Bar Lobo. As you wander down Las Ramblas, turn right on Pintor Fortuny and first left onto a charming  square. Surprisingly authentic and accessible considering the location. A clever menu that offers tapas but also heartier meals, catering to a global palate whilst retaining some Spanish flavour. Good value for money and no reservation required. With a bit of luck and patience, I’ve always managed an outdoor table after a few minutes’ wait.

El Born is a great barrio to stroll through. Ancient, bohemian, bustling. Get lost in the narrow lanes but keep an eye open for Cal Pep on Placa de les Olles. Tiny tapas bar, always jam-packed with desperadoes queuing at the door.

Everyone will confirm that Spain’s North is the holy food grail. Specifically San Sebastian. Famous for having more Michelin stars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world, and for pintxos.  Basically tapas of the North. Generally served on a slice of baguette, impaled with a toothpick. If you’re not going North and want to experience pintxos, el Born is also home to Sagardi Euskal Taberna at Carrer de l’Argenteria, 62. Grab a plate, pile it high and hang on to those toothpicks. That’s how they keep track of how much you’ve eaten…

Sick of tapas and fancy a hamburger the size of a toddler’s head, made American style – because burgers here are often served without a roll, lettuce and tomato – with everything? Pim Pam burger on carrer del Sabaret is considered the best in town. Sadly I can’t say the same for their hot dogs.

If you think the Spanish like chili, think again. They managed to colonize most of South and central America for centuries without succumbing to the charms of this hot little fruit. In search of a fix, I suffered some bad Mexican until I found Tlaxcal, also in el Born at 27 Calle Comerc. Classic Mexican, cleanly presented. Best nachos ever and do try the taco soup.

Barcelona has a lot of beach and many beach bars. The best paella is to be had at El Xiringuito de Escriba, by the famous Escriba family. The paella from the sea and the mountain (rabbit and seafood) is the best. Check out the fabulous Escriba website for info on Xiringuito as well as their two pastry shops. A must if you love confectionery. Candy rings, fantastical chocolate sculptures and some of the best pastry Spain has to offer. There’s a small Escriba pastry shop a few meters down from la Boqueria. Enjoy…


Barceloneta is riddled with groovy beach bars. If the food isn’t that great at most of them, the cocktails, views and people-watching will more than make up for it. Lying on the beach, you can’t miss Hotel Bella to your right, which looks like it’s about to strut into the sea. Also home to Michelin-star chef Carles Abellan’s Bravo 24 terrace restaurant. Much of what we ate here arrived with smoky grill flavours. I absolutely loved the lettuce, drizzled with chicken stock and cooked on the grill. A suave elevated seaside option with spectacular Mediterranean views. Abellan also owns Tapas 24 in the city center, close to paseo de Gracia. The poor man’s Tickets and a great place to get to grips with tapas without burning up your pocket.

‘What do Spanish people REALLY eat, besides bread and tapas, what is real Catalan food?’ That was the question after my first few months here. Fancy restaurants are great but with all that reinvention you need a set of tweezers to separate the traditional from the showstopper. I’d say the jury is still out on that one. But I do like Casa Paloma for several reasons. The interior is an unfussy blend of old world and contemporary sophistication. Much like the menu. Good Catalan food for discerning locals. Their daily specials offer comfort classics. And brace yourself, the steaks can be overwhelming in size.

Fancy a Catalan barbeque? Head for the hills and get your hands dirty at Casa Juaco, a truly rustic Catalan grill restaurant. One of my very best food experiences here. You’re given large plastic gloves (thin versions of the type normally used for cow insemination…) and a bib because it gets messy. Old terracotta roof tiles are plonked down, piled high with leeks charred over an open grill. It’s dirty work releasing the sweet center but very rewarding. This was my favourite part of the meal. Tiles of charred seasonal veg with aioli and romesco dipping sauces. Jugs of sangria and beer served in spouted glass vessels encourage communal drinking. Followed by a main of grilled meat (sausage and chops) and traditional creme Catalan for dessert. Go for the view, the vibe and the charred vegetables. Totally off the beaten track, it doesn’t get more traditional than this.

Rambla de la Catalunya is a great street to stroll down. Parallel to paseo de Gracia (Barcelona’s highest of high streets) but with less traffic and more trees, ambient cafes and interesting little shops.  Close to the corner of Rambla de la Catalunya and Majorca you’ll find Cerveceria, an above average tapas bar. Also home to the best hot dogs I’ve had here, albeit in tapas form so you have to order about 8 portions to get your footlong in… whatever it takes, right?

Hotel Ohla offers a 1 star Michelin restaurant, gastro tapas bar, chic cocktail bar and roof terrace. Impressive tapas of the not-so-pedestrian kind on the edge of the Old City.

All Italian food is comfort food to me. And sometimes when you travel you just want a big bowl of pasta or a pizza that doesn’t talk back when you chew on it. Considering our proximity to Italy, this city is not inundated with great Italian fare. The only one that’s given me joy is La Bella Napoli. Try the pasta in a parmesan basket.

Spain doesn’t have much of a breakfast culture. Generally a baguette with cheese or ham and a coffee will do. It took five months to find eggs Benedict in this town but I did. At a charming French bistro Cafe Emma at 142 Paul Claris in the city center. Good value for money lunch and dinner set menus make it a popular choice, which is why the service is somewhat disappointing. Open all day, every day.

I’m in my fifth month in Barcelona and there is still so much to discover. Areas like el Born and Gracia are riddled with little neighbourhood bars and restaurants and my advice would be, if the locals are having a good time, give it a bash. Vegetarians tend to have a hard time here in the heart of ham country but this link might provide some relief. For the rest, bear these pointers in mind when choosing an eatery.

1. Don’t eat anywhere with picture boards. Especially if the photos are sun-faded to a generic pulp. Because the food very well may be too.

2. Eat at tapas bars owned by Spanish folk. By the same token, Chinese restaurants should be owned by Chinese. You follow.

3. This one is global. The Michelin Guide said it best on Twitter “Why is it that the dining rooms with the best views serve food that rarely matches the optics? Location, location, frustration.” Couldn’t agree more. Am actually starting to think tourism is detrimental to food quality. So if your feet can carry you further, don’t eat right next to that atmospheric Gothic cathedral.

4. Aaah… la vida tapas! The world has truly gone tapas berserk. Like repeating your own name fast, I hardly know what it means anymore. Here, portions can be ample so eating tapas on your own doesn’t really work. You’ll end up eating a hell of a lot of one thing. A few roasted padron peppers are nice but you don’t want three fists full. Most dishes are either deep-fried or perched in a puddle of oil. Order in waves to avoid bombing yourself with too much of the same thing. When tapas is good, it’s wonderful. Back in the seventies in the Eastern Cape, my mom used to call it pick-n-mix. The best way to eat.

5. Plato del dia or meal of the day, available from most restaurants at lunchtime. Generally a 3-course meal with a drink or coffee included for around 12 Euros. Great value but don’t expect to be blown away. It’s simply a feeding so you can carry on with the business of having a good time.

6. “Hablas Ingles?” Shocker. In a city riddled with tourists, you’re lucky to encounter a poco English from the hosts. Without Google translate I might have starved in my first months or suffered death-by-tortilla (though, when in doubt a slab of potato omelet is a good filler). The bitch about Barcelona is it has two languages. Spanish (Castillano) and Catalan. Restaurants in touristy areas usually have an English menu but not always. Ask for carta Ingles. I’ve had to rely on my cellphone a lot and it helps if you know whether you’re dealing with Spanish or Catalan. Look for the word ‘with’. Can’t write a menu without it. In Spanish it’s ‘con’ and in Catalan ‘amb’… so, now you know what language you’re dealing with, order forth! And let me know if you find the good stuff.

This post may be subjected to updates and revisions. Follow me @kitchenvixenish on Twitter for bite-by-bite updates.

And on a non-food note, don’t forget to always look up at all the gorgeous buildings. There’s much more to Barcelona than Gaudi… although he is the most crazy beautiful of the lot.


Twinkle twinkle Michelin star

March 24th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

The best experiences in life are often unplanned. As was the case with my meal at Nerua, the Michelin-star establishment at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I’m not shy to admit it was my first meal at a Michelin restaurant. We have none in South Africa. Now that I’ve experienced the attention to detail that this accolade requires, I understand why.


God is in the detail


I snapped this photo in the service area and my expectations were instantly a-tingle. The glove did it for me. Nerua’s philosophy can be summed up as clean, delicate, light, balanced and fresh. Both in decor and food. The delicate simplicity of the dishes belie an intense and rigorous design process, with a dedicated space where five chefs focus solely on innovating and perfecting. Appetizers were served at a counter with a view of the kitchen. And the best beer I’ve ever tasted.


Crisped cod skin with pimenton dust


I love craft beer and Il Baladin Wayan from Piozzo in the heart of Piemonte’s wine country was a taste revelation. Creator Teo Musso, son of an Italian wine-making family, decided to go with the grain and focus his blending skills on beer. An apprenticeship with Belgian brew masters followed. Wayan is a multigrain organically brewed beer with the flavour complexity, balance and vital freshness of an award-winning wine. We loved it so much that we chose to enjoy our first few courses – normally paired with white wines – with this brew.


Mecca for craft pilgrims


We moved to the dining room which is completely unadorned so as not to detract from the main act: the food.


The stage is set. Not decorated


Most importantly, the chairs are perfectly comfortable. So many establishments get this wrong. And as far as I’m concerned it’s a near inexcusable misappropriation of priorities. But before I morph into Miss Rottenmeier, let’s move on to the good stuff….

The team under the direction of head chef Josean Alija served an 11 course product-driven tasting menu. First up, 30 month-matured Parmesan curd with truffle tears, mini bread sticks and shiso.


Understated elegance


After six weeks in Spain my Spanish is…. pequeño, almost nada, so I didn’t quite understand that it was a curd until I tried it. In spite of the Parmesan being mature, the flavours were subtle and beautifully balanced.


Cry me a truffle river


Next up was leeks on egg rice with a sheaf of dried Iberian pork juice. A very clean dish with low intensity flavours but not as profoundly so as its parmesan predecessor. To create a symphony, not every note should ring out. And this dish was more of a pause than an accent. If I hadn’t know the sheaf was dried pork juice I would have guessed it was a lick of Bovril. Meaty and salty.


A clean green interlude


The borage with grass broth, clams and coastal garlic had more personality. I love clear soups and this one tasted of crisp new growth tempered with a bit of marine minerality. But the dish really worked its magic when each spoonful was accompanied by a shred of  borage. The immense thought and restraint present in each composition dawned on me


Borage, clear grass broth and clams


Nerua’s cuisine is ‘rooted in Basque culture but open to the world’ and as demonstrated by the following, also capable of tongue in cheek trickery. Bilbao is famous for its salted cod or bacalao, prepared al pil pil. A classic consisting of four ingredients: cod, olive oil, garlic and green peppers and the ‘pil pil’ refers to the twisting motion of the pan to emulsify the oil and cod proteins.


You've been punked!


A humble white onion with a cod skin coat and a puddle of green pepper sauce passes itself off as that classic of Basque cooking… bacalao al pil pil. Very clever indeed. Onion layers masquerading as flaky cod. The señor was extremely impressed with this dish. And he has serious culinary chops so I acquiesce to his superior knowledge… but, dear friends, an onion is an onion and soft fish skin does not rank high on the list of things I love to eat. So once the novelty of the concept wore off, I let most of the onion pass me by. I include a photo (poached from the net) of the real deal.


The real bacalao al pil pil

According to Google Translate our next dish consisted of ‘grilled hedgehog-bottom algae’. I’m ever so glad Google is wrong. We had sea urchins. In a theatrical dish.


Where did you say you studied drama again?


The variety of seafood in Spain, compared to what I’m used to in South Africa, is quite staggering. I hope they leave some in the oceans for the 50’s. Like the 2050’s. Sea urchins have a slightly funky aftertaste that does not appeal to me but more than that, I struggle with the texture. Soft. Slimy when it’s raw and spongy when it’s cooked. It looks like a little tongue, complete with mini buds.


Sea urchin in algae broth


The dish was perfectly executed but I am incapable of ‘letting go’ and enjoying urchin. We’d finally progressed from the delicious Wayan beer to a vino tinto and with a two-sips-to-one-urchin ratio I made it through most of the dish.


A pleasing wine


The little crab balls with slivers of sweet potato, white bean broth and sea lettuce was a favourite at the table. The natural sweetness of the crab was complemented by the sweet potato and the subtle earthy broth. Most delicious.


Medley of delicate natural sweetness


With the mackerel, grilled onions and green olives, I suffered a bout of appetite failure. This invariably happens after three appetizers and 6 courses. For the life of me I can’t remember if it was slightly smoked, or pickled. I think the latter. But I do remember that the flavours were surprisingly subtle and more enjoyable than expected. Funny how appetite failure and information overload tend to hang out together…


Submissive mackerel


Finally it was Iberian pork time! With the tiniest of carrots and an artichoke emulsion. Cooked to perfection. They managed to crisp up the sides whilst leaving the meat juicy. Great taste, although the dish was served a tad cold.


HRH prince Cerdo, ruler of Spanish cuisine


The first dessert course consisted of avocado, coconut ice cream and grapefruit tears. Very interesting flavours and textures. Creamy, almost not sweet avocado mousse with coconut ice cream and crunchy tart and salty grapefruit ‘tears’ that popped and vaporised on the tongue. Definitely one of those dishes where your eyes widen as you try to discern flavour components, but not uncomfortably so.


Avocado, coconut ice cream and grapefruit tears



I’m not a huge fan of dessert but the next dish was my favourite of the entire menu. I like pumpkin and I love bergamot and beer so this combo absolutely rocked.


I could have licked my plate

Subtly rich and earthy pumpkin mousse with hints of bergamot, a chewy biscuit by chef Enkir and beer ice cream. Such clean and gratifying flavours, delicate and robust, so damn delicious I dreaded seeing the bottom of the plate. We had one more course to go but to me, this was the highlight and full stop of my meal. My attention wandered to the monstrous 30ft high, 33ft wide bronze spider on the other side of the window. Created by French artist Louise Bourgeois as a tribute to her mother, Maman is a wicked piece of sculpture to dine with. It was a misty day but the Guggenheim adds further drama to Maman’s display by releasing clouds of fog from a nearby bridge that envelope the spider at times. You don’t need to be haute on Italian craft beer to fall for her creepy charms…


Mommy dearest


Before you think Louise had serious issues, here’s why she immortalised her mother-love in such a way: “The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

Why do I digress? Because the point is, Nerua is part of the Guggenheim museum. And what a special place that is. Surrounded by some of the best art ever, the Nerua team goes all out to create a multi-dimensional sensory memory. It’s not just the food.  There’s the individually wrapped toothbrushes in the bathroom (I was too shy to take my camera to the loo) the service team’s gorgeous three-piece suits in thick weave, the gloves, the heated cutlery and napkins… the attention to detail that makes that little star twinkle so brightly. And that’s why Nerua in all probability won’t remain a lone star establishment for long.

But not to be rude… the last course:


Thousand leaves of potato, apple and lime


Potato, apple and lime piped and layered with wafers. Interesting as you can clearly taste the potato, tempered with apple and with lime to add zing. The quirky end to an 11-course journey into the essence of ingredients. I’ve used the word ‘delicate’ too many times already and I can’t quite bring myself to construct a sentence with ‘sensitive exploration’ but, I think you get the picture?


A layered experience


When we finished the museum had closed. Pity, but I wouldn’t change anything about our day in Bilbao. And as far as I’m concerned, food of this caliber is art. Gracias señor for my first taste of the North. I hope it’s not my last. I do need to actually go inside the museum… I leave you with another piece of exterior art. Puppy, the 12.4 meter topiary dog by Jeff Koons. Do you see him there? At the end of the road, guarding the Guggenheim with the green hills of Bilbao in the background?


Hasta la vista Puppy


For more info on Nerua or the Guggenheim click on the names to visit their respective websites.

As always, click on images to enlarge.

El Bulli is Tickets

July 19th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

Yip, the great Ferran Adria is serving his last supper at the world’s most famous restaurant, El Bulli, on Saturday 30 July and to celebrate his massive contribution to modern cuisine, our own Richard Carstens will be hosting a tribute dinner at Tokara restaurant on the very same night. I’ll be there! And I won’t say a word about foams and skidmarks and blobs cause it’s going to be SPECTACULAR. Book now.

Am I the only one that thinks El Bulli is Tickets is funny? Ferran is closing El Bulli and he’s already opened a molecularly inclined cocktail and tapas bar in Barcelona called Tickets. Riiight?! Maybe all that safety dancing at the 80’s party I crashed last night has caused a humour regression of sorts… right back to about 1986. Any event, I’ll be visiting Tickets when I hit up Barcelona in September. My friend Guy sent me this pic of their dessert plate.


Ferran slumming it at Tickets


Richard Carstens, fresh from Hong Kong


Richard is buzzing after a two-week cooking stint in Hong Kong. He says the veins of influence between the East and Ferran’s wizardry run deep. So expect to be blown away by his tribute dinner. From where I sit, I can see little tufts of smoke rising from his lair above the Tokara kitchen… inspiration distillation in progress.

I’m reviewing Tokara and my epic ten-course meal on Expresso Show next Wednesday 27 July. Or click here for the blog review.

Also on the 30th of this month, yet on a slightly less accomplished note, I’ll be doing a food demonstration (my first) at the Stellenbosch Wine Festival (massive culinary events colliding, I know – El Bulli closing, my demo, the Tokara tribute – aeish!) to an audience of about 80 unsuspecting folk. I’ve chosen food and wine pairing as a topic and am marrying duck and Pinot Noir shotgun-style. Which is why I spent my weekend boiling wine to make jelly. I hate wasting good juice but I have to get it just right. My first attempt resembled chopped liver.

Check out the Festival website here.



King of Zing at The Test Kitchen

July 12th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

I love freshness. In everything. Wine, food, people. The opposite of stodgy and staid and stuck in a rut. With food, it’s about more than the newness of the produce. That elusive fresh element has to do with a balance of flavours and a certain zing most commonly defined as acidity. Don’t let the word put you off. It’s when food hits your tongue and your mouth waters for more.

Chef supreme Luke Dale-Roberts talks about umami. That elusive fifth taste that fuses flavour to create a mouthfeel greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like a natural MSG that leads to unbridled plate scraping. And my meal at The Test Kitchen in Woodstock’s Biscuit Mill was laced with it. In The Test Kitchen, Luke has created the perfect playground for his imaginative East-meets-West flavour combinations to shine.


Keeping it tight - LDR and his team


I’m a sucker for cheese and tomato combos. From the humble braaibroodjie to this: home dried tomato, pickled tomato, miso cream cheese, wood fired aubergine dressing and jalapeno and apple puree…


Did I mention the parmesan crispy thingies?


It was incredible. Saliva inducing flavour bursts, with every item distinct yet in perfect harmony. You just want more. Conceived to make fine dining more accessible, The Test Kitchen is small, informal and very trendy. Beautiful hand-stitched chairs by Casamento next to metal-topped tables with felt lamps overhead. The lunch menu is compact with starters in the Asian flavour range and mains leaning towards Euro cuisine. I opted for the wood fired pork belly, coco bean and bay leaf jus, TK kim chi and pak choi.


Pork belly with asian greens


I noticed a neighbour’s perfect vegetables popping with colour. All done sous-vide at 85 degrees for 50 minutes, thereby retaining just-plucked colour and texture.


Bags of goodness, sous-viding away


Confession time – my lunch made one thing very clear. I have to return for the 11 course gourmand tasting menu – The Fantastic Eben, Adi and Luke Show – served evenings only. Luke goes all out to knock your flavour socks off, with wines by Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst of Swartland fame. Like the foie gras, red cabbage and fig ‘mi-cuit’ (semi cooked), rabbit ham, braised chestnuts and gently pickled quince paired with Sequillo White Port 2010. Eben Sadie has been called the Baby Jesus of the wine industry (he can do no wrong) and Adi as the Elvis Presley (cause he rocks) and together with the King of Zing, this is probably the most profound food experience to be had in this country. And it belongs on every foodie’s bucket list.


The Fantastic Eben, Adi and Luke Show


Time magazine agrees. Read about it here. Or visit The Test Kitchen’s website for full menus and images. Or catch my review on SABC3 Expresso Show tomorrow morning at about 7.40am’ish, give or take a few minutes.

I daresay, I think I’m back in the fine-dining saddle… thanks Luke. I needed to be reminded. And I’ll be back for the big show.


Good Mood Food

June 28th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

Poor me landed at Dear Me’s doorstep after months of gorging myself on rich, over-faffed food, feeling like a foie gras duck minutes before the slaughter. With a bit of bronchitis thrown in to drive the point home that I was bent out of shape and desperately needed to recalculate. My inner GPS was free-wheeling through Lardville. And Dear Me was just the place to remind me of my true food self.


Yes, you deserve a medal


‘Green is the colour of true love’ some hippie whispered through a bong haze in my distant past and it also happens to be my favourite colour. And Dear Me is all about the love. Or just being good and kind to yourself and the planet. But there’s none of that neurotic wheatgerm gleam in the eye that some health stores get off on. This place was a long time in the making and it shows in every inch of bespoke, conscious quality. From the slinky green Thyla chairs to the Deep Heat infusion (ginger, lemon, chili and apple) that manager Ronel suggested for my beleaguered bronchi, smart sensibility prevails. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to your health and the planet’s, being kind means being clever. In the long run.


So pretty to me


Deep Heat infusion


Call me feeble but glass teapots really excite me. Dear Me has juices, teas and smoothies down to a fine art. The menu changes constantly but if ever you’re there and the warm cauliflower & cheddar tart is available, it is God’s way of telling you to have it. I know foams, emulsions, reductions and sous vide sakkies don’t come easy (or cheap) and they have their place in this world but to me, a bite of this tart is the milk of human kindness made edible. So simple, yet so delicious. The cauliflower held its own and for once, unadorned by a whole team of flavours, displayed depths and nuances beyond its humble reputation* and of course the cheddar, in line with Dear Me’s superb provenance philosophy, was of the kick-ass, tongue-puckering kind.


Plain fabulous



Perhaps it was my lucky day but they just happened to have some of my favourite flavours on the menu. Like horseradish and celeriac… nothing new-fangled and technique-driven, just the cleanest, most thoughtful combinations, mindful of tried and tested flavour relationships. Sensibly, most dishes are available in two portion sizes and prices are extremely fair. Chef Vanessa Marx is ex-Caveau Newlands, if that adds to the picture.


Beetroot-cured trout gravadlax, fresh horseradish cream, pickled carrots, dill, lumpfish caviar



No blobs or puddles, just seared kudu, celeriac remoulade, red onion & rocket


I’m a graduate of the skidmarks-belong-on-tarmac school of dining and though flexible, it was a truly heart-warming experience to find a restuarant that so met my true food needs. I could throw endless adjectives at it but I’ll leave you with real, true & beautiful.

Cape Town has many great eateries but every few years, a place opens that raises the bar in terms of capturing Deep Cape Cool and I daresay, Dear Me is that. Owner Ilse Koekemoer and her team have added much needed freshness to the CBD. But it gets better. Just above Dear Me is Tjing-Tjing Bar. Tjing-Tjing opens when Dear Me closes, at around four. The same kitchen team provides light meals for the trendy bar crowd. Tjing-Tjing is retro fab gorgeous.


Painting in the stairwell leading from Dear Me to Tjing-Tjing



And I’m going there tonight. So, dear friends, if I seem a bit slow on the uptake at 7.30 am on SABC3 Expresso Show tomorrow – when I will be reviewing Dear Me –  you’ll know why…

PS – Dear Me serves filtered tap water – still and sparkling – for free. Restaurants, take note…

*proof that the frequent reading of wine writing leads to ebullient poncification of inanimate and blameless entities

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