How Paris “Sees” the World


Paris is our special dog. She can’t see a thing, but she participates fully in everything we do. She has character and strength and we love her very dearly. We are not sure how she lost her sight, but she is happy and well adjusted and very much part of the pack (see A Few Words on Pet Names).

Paris hears and feels her way through the world. She is happiest sleeping on her chair and listening to the world go by. She loves going farming with Quentin and sits happily on the back of the bakkie with the other dogs. She also loves going for long walks with us, usually glued to our heels. Her head is big and strong and often scratched from bumping into things.

A big strong head with lots of scratches.

She always walks with her head slightly cocked and ears alert so that she can hear where we are. She slobbers on our pants and tramps on our heels, but it is worth it to see how happy she is to be with us. Her bravery has no bounds. She will run full tilt behind the bakkie with the other dogs and trust that we won’t let her run into anything. She stops dead in her tracks when we shout “Careful Paris!” and changes track when she hears she’s going in the wrong direction.

Listening to hear where I am.

Walking with Patch and Tumi.

Paris loves her chair. It is her safe place. She has first choice, but the other dogs sometimes squeeze on with her especially when it’s cold. Two 60kg Boerboel dogs and one 10kg Jack Russell on one chair… no wonder it looks so shabby!

Paris in her chair.

Paris sometimes shares her chair.

Paris is very adaptable. If we rearrange the furniture she usually bumps into things once and then adjusts her path the next time. The only time we really had a problem was when we built our new kitchen extension and dug two trenches across the back veranda. She really freaked out with the change and didn’t come into the house for a few days until we showed her another way in. There was a plank across the trench, but she refused to walk on it. Other than that she’s been absolutely amazing in navigating around all the changes to the house in the past year.

The building works were a challenge for Paris.

She is kind and gentle and loves to have her tummy tickled. She also loves children, but we are a bit cautious with her because children can be a challenge for dogs at the best of times never mind if they can’t see the thing that is irritating them! As a puppy, Coco quickly learned to stay out of Paris’ way (see Coco’s Year in the Wars).

A sucker for a tickle!

Paris with Dylan after a long walk up the mountain.

We drag her up and down mountains through challenging terrain, but she is always there with us. A real trooper. Sometimes it all gets a bit tiring and she just needs some time out. Patch is usually there to make sure she’s okay. Three cheers for our beautiful, brave dog Paris!

Patch always takes care of Paris.

Walking up and down mountains is tiring!

City Highlights


I spent the past week working in Johannesburg. Since moving to the farm my office stamina has seriously diminished, but it is always good to spend time with my colleagues and to feel connected again. Time in the city reminds me how lucky I am to have the opportunity to move between my two worlds, but it also reminds me how stressed my life used to be. Working remotely shields one somewhat from the relentless day-to-day demands of the office, and of course living on the farm takes one away from daily irritations like traffic.

Below are some photos of central Pretoria from the 20th floor of our building. The big black building on the left of this photo is the South African Reserve Bank.

The Pretoria CBD.

We also have gorgeous views of the Union Building, which is where the office of the President is located. The beautiful sandstone building was  designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1910 to commemorate South Africa’s Union-status.

The Union Building in Pretoria.

After work I am usually busy catching up with friends and family. This week I managed to see quite a few people. The best way to see my sister is to join her on one of her power walks through the suburbs, usually on a Sunday. For added cardio, she usually includes the Westcliff steps in her walk. I love going with her, if only to catch glimpses of the gorgeous views over the city.

Walking up the Westcliff steps with my mother and sister.

I grew up in a neighbourhood called Saxonwold, which has very beautiful tree-lined streets. It is also situated next to the Joburg zoo, which is like a great big park. One can often hear the  lions roaring at night and spot game through the fence whilst walking. The Anglo-Boer War Memorial is situated at the top end of the zoo and forms part of the Museum of Military History. The memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was a contemporary of Sir Herbert Baker. He also designed India Gate in Delhi, which looks very similar. The memorial was originally dedicated to the British soldiers who died in the second Boer War, but in 1999 it was re-dedicated to “the men, women and children of all races and all nations who lost their lives in the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902”. One of my very favourite views in Joburg is the Angel at sunset. Somehow it always makes me feel at peace.

The Anglo-Boer War Memorial.

Most of my Joburg family live within a 10 minute radius of each other in this area, including my grandparents, Koos and Hannatjie van der Wat, who have lived in the same house in Saxonwold since 1955. My grandparents are truly amazing and we are so lucky to still have them in our lives. My grandmother turned 89 on 2 July and my grandfather will follow her shortly on the 11 August. I had dinner with them at my uncle’s house on Thursday night and I can’t believe how great they are looking. So stylish and elegant. This year they have been married for 64 years! My grandfather only retired from his work as a gynaecologist last year. My grandmother is an artist and she is still painting and exhibiting. What amazing role models to have in my life!

My grandparents Koos and Hannatjie.

Stylish Oupa Koos.

How life has changed: weekends at cattle auctions


The past week is a good illustration of my schizophrenic life. I spent the first few days of the week at home on the farm working and fixing things in the garden. I drove to Johannesburg on Wednesday afternoon and spent two busy days in the office on Thursday and Friday. There is never much time to catch a breath when I’m in the city. I’m either in the traffic commuting to Pretoria, in the office, or catching up with friends and family in the evenings. I never cook, hardly ever go into the garden and I don’t bother bringing walking shoes because exercise simply isn’t a priority. The complete opposite of life on the farm!

I was stuck in traffic for two and a half hours on Friday afternoon driving from Pretoria to a small town in the Free State called Parys, which also happens to be the Afrikaans name for Paris. While I have been very fortunate to go to Paris  (France) fairly often for work, I now also find myself in Parys (Free State) at least twice a year to support Quentin in his work.  This time it was the highly anticipated National Boran Auction (see The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen for a history of the Boran in South Africa).

Quentin became a Boran breeder about 2 years ago, but this was the first time he had animals for sale at the National auction. I am learning that auctions are not for sissies. They require a lot of hard work to get the animals prepared and the days leading up to it are nerve-wracking as one hopes that nothing will go wrong with the animals in transporting them and wonders how the prices will go! Fortunately, there is a lot of socialising that happens amongst breeders in the days around the auction which also makes it quite fun.

Before I went to my first cattle auction in July 2010, I knew very little about cattle and how they are farmed. Apart from knowing that I like my fillet steak done medium-rare, I had no idea about the difference between commercial cattle farming and stud breeding, never mind all that is entailed in managing a herd. Quentin has been very patient in explaining how things work so I know a little bit more now than I used to. He also started the stud business after I met him so in a sense we have both been on a steep learning curve.

This year’s National auction was the biggest yet, with 140 animals entered. The poor auctioneer must be congratulated for his stamina – he went non-stop for about 6 hours! The same cannot be said for the audience whose concentration flagged towards the end. I suspect this had something to do with the late-night socialising on the Friday, but it was a long day in anyone’s books! The guest of honour was the Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini who recently started a Boran stud. This added some pomp and ceremony to the proceedings.

Last year there was much excitement because Stephen Johnson from Frontier Boran sold a bull for a South African record price of R1 million. Not surprisingly, the bull will forever be known as “Mr Million”. This year, the highest priced bull was sold by Cyril Ramaphosa and his Thaba Nyoni stud. B04-001 otherwise known as “Ramaphosa” was sold for R770 000. Proudly, Vastrap Boran sold the highest priced female animal called Jackie 05-36 for R280 000.

All in all, it was a great event and we feel very proud to be part of this new community of breeders who feel so passionate about their animals. I look forward to many more visits to Parys in future and slowly becoming more cattle savvy!

“Parys Show Ground”

Quentin with the Vastrap Boran animals.

B04-001 known as “Ramaphosa”.

Refreshments at the Hotspot Boran stand… sherry and koeksusters.

Inconspicuous auction fashion.

Let the bidding begin! Only 6 hours to go.

Jackie 05-36 in the ring with a flurry of bidding.

Comfort from the Cold


Boy, its been cold this weekend! It snowed on Saturday and it was still only 2 degrees by lunch time today.

People tend to think that we don’t have cold winters in Africa, but that is definitely not true. Quentin calls the Free State province where we live the “Freeze State”. The first winter I visited the farm the minimum temperature dropped to -14 degrees Celsius! That’s definitely the coldest I’ve ever been outside a ski resort! But snow is still a novelty for us and people can’t help getting excited when the world turns white. In the three years that I’ve known Quentin this is the first time it has snowed at home – twice already. Unfortunately it generally melts quickly here on lower ground (1 650m above sea level), but the Maluti mountains will still be covered in snow for a few days.

The mountain behind the house.

Footprints in the snow.

Roses in the snow.

I love this old photo from the 1950s taken from almost the same position as the photo above, which shows that there can sometimes be much heavier snow falls.

Snow at Vastrap in the 1950s.

On a weekend like this, there is nothing better to me than holing up inside and cooking comfort food. We were expecting friends for dinner on Saturday night so I decided it would be a good opportunity to get cracking on the mid-year resolutions I made at the end of our Italian holiday. On the menu: spinach and ricotta ravioli with burnt sage butter; slow roasted pork shoulder with fennel and orange; and tiramisu. These tick all my boxes for comfort food, but if it wasn’t for my current obsession with everything Italian I might have preferred to end with a golden syrup steamed pudding with custard. I’m a sucker for anything that goes with custard!

Of course everything was cooked on the Aga stove. In weather like this one cannot help but put things inside and on top of the Aga, especially when the fire is well stoked and burning hot. As you already know – I love, love, love it!

The ravioli turned out beautifully. The pork was juicy and succulent and fell apart at the touch of a fork after 6 hours of slow roasting. The tiramisu was good, but not as good as in Italy. I think it has something to do with the type of finger biscuits we get here. Soaking them in the coffee for a bit longer might help.

Happy in the kitchen as my guests help with the ravioli making.

Experimenting with ravioli shapes using my new tools.

The recipes I used all come from food blogs that I have recently discovered. It is amazing how much information is out there and how many people are sharing their passion on the internet. For the pasta I used Grandma Menna’s ravioli from Juls’ Kitchen. It is extremely simple, but delicious. I learnt that for ravioli you only roll the pasta to the second last setting and if you can’t find durum wheat semolina use bread flour to make the ravioli more robust. I also used the tiramisu recipe from this blog.

I found the slow-roasted pork recipe at Leite’s Culinaria. It’s a real keeper. The flavour is all in the rub (orange peel, fennel seeds, salt, pepper, garlic) and the long cooking time. I had it in the Aga for almost 6 hours! But I took a risk since I didn’t actually know how hot the oven was. I had it in the “cool” oven for the first 4 hours and then put it in the hot oven for the last bit to caramelise the fennel and orange. I also added a glass of white wine at the start of cooking, but I don’t think this made too much difference to the outcome.

The weekend is coming to an end and the forecast is for it to get warmer towards the end of the week. We went out this morning to see if Quentin’s embryo calves that have been born to surrogate mothers over the past few days are still okay. The ones born yesterday would have been very vulnerable in the wet and cold. Fortunately everything was fine and we found one newly born girl calf, which made Quentin very happy. The dogs loved their muddy run behind the car and all had to be bathed when we got home. The air is fresh and clear, just as it should be at this time of year. Beautiful.

It’s a girl!

View of the mountain behind Vastrap and the winter sky.

My rose garden: a labour of love


It’s cold outside and it has just started to snow – the second time since June! We are more than half way through winter. That time of year when everything is dead and one cannot imagine how things will ever come alive again in the spring.

Yesterday I bought some frost cover at the local nursery to protect my tiny broad bean shoots from the ice. While there, I asked when the right time is to start pruning my roses. I was told that we have a two week window period in our area – from the last week in July to the first week of August. Any sooner and the new shoots will frost out, any later and the sap will be too far up the shoots (or something like that!) Looking at my travel schedule for the next while it seems it will have to be the first week in August for me.

This winter is the first anniversary of my rose garden. A labour of love that I hope will leave my personal mark on the Vastrap garden as it prospers and matures in the years to come. Telling the story of how the garden came about will cheer me up on this cold day.

View of the rose garden from the house.

Every single rose in the garden is special to me. They were given to me by friends as a going-away gift when I left the city to move to the farm. At my farewell party in October 2010, everyone was asked to bring a rose plant of their choice for my new farm garden. My sister hosted the tea at her beautiful guest house called Ilali. Some of the roses were chosen for their names like “Brides Dream”, “True Love”, “Forever Friends”, “South Africa” and “Madiba”. Others for their brilliant colour and scent like “Rina Hugo”, “Papa Meilland” and “Double Delight”.  Whatever the motivation, I was so touched by the care that everyone took and the fact that each one had its own special message written on gorgeous personalised gift tags from Macaroon.

My farewell party at Ilali.

My sister attaching the tags to each rose.

A line of rose plants with tags from Macaroon.

“Easy Does It” rose from Brenda.

Some of the rose names.

When the day finally arrived, I drove to the farm with a car loaded full of clothes, office equipment and a boot filled with 40 rose plants. The front seat was piled with a crate of books from the office. Along the way I was stopped twice by traffic cops for speeding (only a little bit). They asked me where I was going and why my car was so full of books and things. Without skipping a beat I said that I was on my way to the Free State to marry a farmer. They took one look at this woman in a black BMW wearing fancy office clothes on her way to marry a farmer and laughed…  the story sounded so far-fetched that they waved me on without a fine!

The roses were duly unloaded at Vastrap, but I soon realised that there was nowhere to plant them. A lot of work would have to be done to create the right space for a rose garden. My wonderful husband came to the party and suggested adding a section to the top level of our garden using old sandstone blocks from an underground circular well behind the house.  Construction started that December, but took almost 6 months to complete because things were so busy on the farm. It took a huge amount of man power just to load enough sand to fill the hole! It was like watching paint dry and I became more and more impatient as winter drew near.

View of the garden before construction started.

Construction of the rose garden.

View from above.

We eventually planted the roses on the last day of May. My gardener, Tsidiso was a star in getting everything organised, but he probably thought I was mad as I kept changing my mind about how they should be arranged. Some of the roses I had not even seen in bloom  so I had to go on the description on the tag and Ludwig’s rose catalogue to imagine what they would look like. Even then some of the tags had been swapped so it was very confusing! In the end we arranged them in two mirror image semi-circles as I had received many duplicates. We also created special places in other parts of the garden for the roses that did not fit in the main section like the climbers.

Ready for planting on the last day of May.

Then we could do nothing but wait and hope that they would survive the winter. I mulched and fertilised in the spring and they eventually started flowering in October. To finish it all off we added two bird baths, planted purple irises between the roses and violets around the outside. Later we added some pink daisies to bring colour in winter. Creeping jenny was planted between the paving, which has a gorgeous minty fragrance when you walk over it.

Tsidiso mulching with peanut shells and straw in the spring.

Everything was going well until I convinced Quentin that we needed to cut down the 80-year-old pine tree standing next to the house. It was casting a large shadow over the garden and posed a risk to the house. It was a touchy subject, because the tree had been planted by Quentin’s grandparents around the time that his dad was born. I bided my time and eventually got the go-ahead from Bill and Karine. A tree feller from town arrived one morning, but disaster struck soon after. While I was watching one of the main branches came crashing down on my precious rose garden! That was totally not the plan!!

Help – a tree fell on my garden!

R.I.P. pine tree.

Miraculously only one rose was fatally damaged. The rest all survived! And the removal of the tree was a resounding success as it let in so much more light to the garden and the house. Everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do. Plus we gained an instant supply of fire wood for the coming winter.

The plants are still young and when I look at some of the really old rose bushes in the rest of the garden – some planted by Quentin’s grandmother – I can see that there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, the whole project has already provided me with immense joy and been part of making Vastrap my home. Every time I pick a rose I think of the person that gave it to me. It is my special personal space and I can’t wait to see it grow!

View of the garden in January 2012.

View from below.

The dogs also love drinking out of the bird baths. And of course, there is nothing better than a house filled with beautiful bright blooms straight from the garden. My pruning shears are sharpened and ready for August – bring on summer!

Patch on the bird bath.

Roses and Dahlias, my favourite combination.

Mid Year Resolutions

I cannot lie. The past 10 days have been complete and utter bliss. We’ve been on a family holiday in Tuscany thanks to my very generous step father Charles, who has made it his mission of late to gather our large family together for holidays in beautiful locations. This time we were 13 adults and 6 grandchildren occupying two villas in the Chianti region just north of Siena. Thank you Charles for all the care and passion you put into organising the perfect holiday and overcoming the complicated logistics. It has been very special indeed! 

The view from Casa Gertrude in Le Barboccia.

Being in Europe in July feels like our summer holidays in South Africa which usually fall over Christmas and New Year. As I prepare to return home invigorated and refreshed it feels appropriate to make some mid-year resolutions – even if I’m never much good at sticking to resolutions!
Inspired by the beautiful Tuscan country side and the to-die-for food, here is my personal to-do list for the rest of 2012:
  1. Start preparing for a killer summer vegetable garden. I’m suffering from an acute case of veggie envy with all the gorgeous fresh produce that we’ve eaten on this holiday. It has totally inspired me to get stuck into my veggie patch this summer and to start experimenting with more exotic varieties of produce that is not commonly available in the shops in our area. This is not going to be easy as I tend to get paralysis even thinking about how I will do this, but if I manage to grow even one unusual vegetable it will be a win for me. 

    Lavender and loquarts.

    Apricot tree.

    Young figs ready to ripen in late summer.

  2. Be more inventive with home-made pasta. My father always used to make fresh pasta when I was growing up. He would often come home from shopping with new gadgets to make ravioli or different shapes of pasta. I loved watching and learning from him. At university I often made my own pasta for dinner parties and we would hang it over the backs of chairs to dry. It was cheap and delicious and rather a novelty for students! My father gave me a pasta roller as a wedding gift and I started making it again for the first time in years when I moved to the farm. But my efforts have been fairly tentative thus far. I am determined to step it up a gear and become more adventurous. I have started following a wonderful Tuscan cooking blog called Juls’ Kitchen for inspiration and I bought some new pasta making gadgets at a shop in Gaiole. So no more excuses!

    Ravioli stuffed with ricotta and sage.

    Pasta cutters for making ravioli and farfalle.

  3. Use fennel, sage and pork more often in my cooking. These have been my absolute favourite ingredients In Tuscany. The fennel grows wild on the side of the road and it is delicious simply fried in olive oil, as an extra ingredient in a meat ragu or sliced finely in a green salad. Sage always looks so gorgeous and I have it in my garden, but I never realised how beautifully it enhances the flavour of pork and chicken and how tasty it is fried to a crisp in olive oil. Similarly, pork is under appreciated in South Africa. We barbecued the most amazing pork and bistecca from the La Macelleria Chini butcher shop in Gaiole in Chianti, which has been in the business of pork since 1682! Although it would be impossible to replicate that kind of quality back home, a dish of slow roasted pork with fennel and sage would be absolutely perfect when we return home to the depths of winter. 

    Wild fennel on the side of the road.

    Fresh sage in abundance.

    Pork, turkey and lamb kebabs from the butcher shop in Gaiole.

    The parma ham curing room at La Macelleria Chini.

  4. Finish building our new outside entertainment area before summer. There is nothing better than eating al fresco under the stars watching the full moon rise… and as beautiful as it was in Tuscany there are few things to rival the full moon over Africa.

    Dining al fresco with the full moon rising.

  5. Learn to make gelato. A bit of a long shot I know, but having a go at home-made ice cream will be a good start. We’ll have to visit Italy more often in the future to get our fix of the real thing.

    Traffic jam at the gelato store – a common site!

  6. Since all of the above has to do with food and the eating thereof, my list of resolutions would not be complete without reference to exercise. Alas, this is the promise I most often fail to live up to. Will walking the dogs more vigorously suffice? 
  7. When the next two months of winter threaten to get me down, just breath deeply and think of this…
The quiet before sunset.