Viva the Spice Girls!

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It was freezing cold this weekend, which put a bit of a dampener on our celebration of Spring Day. The Aga stove was fired up full steam hopefully for the last time this winter. The days are noticeably brighter and lighter and the jasmine outside my kitchen door is in full bloom so things can only get better from here! Fortunately, the cold weather didn’t stop us having a very enjoyable weekend, especially on Saturday when I joined three friends from cooking club to participate in the annual Masterchef competition at the Ladybrand church bazaar. It was a first for all of us, but we had a blast and our team, The Spice Girls, walked home with first prize!

The rules of the competition are simple. You need to bring all your own cooking equipment and be ready to face the elements cooking outside. Each team of four people has three hours to conjure a delicious main course dish using a meat cut provided by the judges and ingredients from the pantry. The judges had to score based on innovation, technique, creative use of ingredients, taste, presentation and team spirit. Heidi, Jenny, Vicky and I came well prepared with two Weber braais (gas and charcoal), a two-plate gas stove and every piece of kitchen equipment we could think of, including our pasta roller and ravioli cut-outs. We were only limited by the fact that there was no electricity so everything had to be done by hand. We had great moral support from our husbands, who sat in the morning sun drinking sherry and whisky happily banned from touching the fire or helping us in any way. My sister and nieces popped past for a visit on their way back from the farm to Johannesburg. City-slicker teenager, Sibella was mortified by the old-school “Boere musiek” blaring from the loudspeakers, but Sophia and Ashley were blissfully happy chomping cinnamon sugar pancakes and enjoying the cute home-made treats on sale at the bazaar.

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The look and feel of the Spice Girl tent was very understated compared to the other teams who went all out with coordinated uniforms and brightly decorated stands. We didn’t allow this to distract us from the task at hand though! At 9am the judges revealed that we had to cook with a rack of pork, which was a bit of a surprise as we were sure it would be lamb or beef. After a few minutes of consultation we rushed to the “pantry” to gather our ingredients. There was a reasonable selection of produce, but we had to make do without butter and olive oil and luxuries like parmesan and sage. We decided to risk it anyway and stuck to our plan of making ravioli to showcase some of the skills we’ve learnt over the past year in our cooking club. We made our own ricotta and two types of ravioli to complement the pork, one with roasted butternut, sweet potato and ricotta and the other with spinach and ricotta. We slow-roasted some tomatoes for a sauce. The pork was poached in a fragrant broth of apple, clove and thyme and then marinated in a sweet honey, ginger and mustard sauce before being seared on the gas. Instead of chops, we cut the pork into medallions for more elegant presentation. The crackling was salted and cooked on the braai until crisp and then cut finely and crumbled over the final dish to add texture and flavour.

We had lots of people stopping by to watch the pasta-making and the pork turned out deliciously succulent and full of flavour. The only down-side was the time it took for the judges to make their way to our table, which left the food ice cold! Fortunately, that didn’t matter too much and the Spice Girls went home victorious. All in all, it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning and we really enjoyed ourselves. My preggie belly especially enjoyed the steaming hot cinnamon pancakes our support team fed us through the morning and of course I could not leave without devouring a bowl of bazaar trifle for pudding! The things we do for entertainment in a small town….

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Many hands make light work!

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I can finally sit down and write a little bit about my experience organising the first annual Vastrap Boran auction. Wow, it really was a steep learning curve and a very exhausting week, but I’m so relieved that everything went off smoothly with no horrible surprises. I could not have done it without the help of many friends and family members who all mucked in to get things done. As someone commented during a particularly frenetic time, “this really is a case of many hands make light work, rather than too many cooks spoil the broth!” I was in charge of marketing and catering, while Quentin took care of all the cattle logistics and making sure that the building of our new cattle facilities was finished on time. I stepped in at the last minute to finish off the decor. It was a real team effort! So much of the work we did this year will not have to be repeated next year so hopefully it will not be quite as stressful the second time round.

We hosted a whisky tasting and dinner for 50 people at Vastrap on the night before the auction. The next day we provided hot drinks and refreshments before the start of the auction followed by a lunch for 100 people. I have never catered on this scale before and really didn’t know what to expect. Thank goodness for two angels who really helped me so much – my friend Vicky Barnard from Mequatling Angus and my sister Beatrice. They really do deserve special mention even though many other people also helped. Vicky is a seasoned auction organiser, having run one of the most successful Angus auctions in the country for the past eight years. She and her husband Philip have endured relentless questioning by me and Quentin over the past few months and very generously shared all their secrets about what works and what doesn’t. My eyes were truly opened when I went to help Vicky at their sale in July. It made such a difference to see everything in action. As a result, I pretty much knew what to expect on the day and made sure that I had my lists and instructions in place.

Beatrice came up specially from Stellenbosch to help us for the week. She is an absolute star in the kitchen and stepped in to help with a big smile on her face. And boy, did I need the help! With the Coco and the puppies needing to go to the vet and unanticipated errands cropping up all over the place, it was great to know that someone was at home getting on with the cooking and doing it better than I ever could! We had partners in the auction and fortunately some of them arrived the day before and helped with preparations. Debbie Johnson got stuck in with the flower arrangements and Karen Peinke immediately bonded with Beatrice in the kitchen. A real dream team! Not to mention the delicious steak and guinness pie made by Laura and patès made by Heidi for the whisky tasting, and the rusks made by Jenny!

Thank you Vicky!

I couldn’t have done it without Vicky!

Beautiful Beatrice.

… and beautiful Beatrice!

Preparations for the whisky tasting.

Preparations for the whisky tasting.

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For the auction lunch, we kept things simple. A steak braai with pepper sauce and sides of green bean, baby potato and red onion salad and a rocket, feta and roasted pumpkin salad. I ordered the most delicious mini koeksisters (a typically South African dessert) from Bloemfontein, which were devoured by all. A great trick we learnt from Philip and Vicky is to put some snack packs on each seat in the auction tent so that people don’t get too bored and hungry during the auction. We received many compliments for this little extra touch.

All in all, we couldn’t have asked for a better turnout and better day. The weather played along, although it was a tad chilly, but the sun was shining and the wind stayed away. All the cattle were sold and our beautiful white cow Hope MHB 04-11 achieved the top price on the day followed closely by Kelly MHB 04-24. We are sad to see them go, but know that they will be happy in their new homes. Now it’s time for a little break before life returns to normal and we start to think about doing it again next year!

Karen and Matshepang making sandwiches on auction day.

Karen and Matshepang making sandwiches on auction day.

Posters for the cattle pens.

Posters for the cattle pens.

Tea station.

Tea station.

Stylish Debbie did a great job with the flowers.

Stylish Debbie and her beautiful flower arrangements.

The lunch tent.

The lunch tent.

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The auction ring.

The auction ring.

Let the bidding begin!

Let the bidding begin!

Gary and Andre, the steak braaiers.

Gary and Andre, the steak braaiers.

Happy Cooking Pasta (Again!)

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We had a long-overdue meeting of our cooking club last week hosted by Heidi at the White House (so called because it’s painted white inside and out, including the floors!) Last year, we had lots of fun making pasta and all the girls had requested that we have another session to brush up on our skills (see Happy Cooking Pasta!) It is always great to get together on a Friday afternoon to share our common interest in cooking and learn something new. We kicked off the day with some champagne to celebrate the happy news of my pregnancy. I sipped on a small glass! Vicky bought bags full of lemons for everyone from her garden, which added an amazing splash of colour to the table.

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Most of us have our own pasta rollers, but some of us have been too nervous to use them. After this session I think we are all sorted and ready to show off our skills. We experimented with different flours, like cake flour, ’00 and semolina and how they impact on the texture of the pasta. The semolina is much courser and requires a lot more kneading, whereas the ’00 flour very quickly results in a smooth fine texture. It really depends on individual taste which one you prefer and also the kind of pasta you are making. We use a general guide of 1 egg to 100g of flour with a touch of olive oil and some extra water if needed to bind it all together. Depending on the consistency you are after you can combine the different flours. For example, I like to use 1/2 white bread flour to 1/2 ’00 flour for ravioli pasta because it creates something more robust that won’t fall apart easily with a wet filling inside. For fettucine ’00 flour creates a beautifully smooth texture, but Wendy’s boys (who have become pasta making experts since our last session!) prefer the bite of semolina pasta. That is the beauty of it – you can do pretty much whatever you like! We all had a go at kneading and rolling different kinds of pasta which were then combined with different sauces. Laura made a delicious saffron and prawn sauce, which we paired with fettucine infused with saffron water. We also made a butternut and pork filling for ravioli, which goes perfectly with burnt butter and sage – a firm favourite with all of us. Wendy made a red pepper pesto, which we combined with the thin spaghetti pasta. All totally delicious!

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We also experimented with a slightly different kind of “pasta” called malfatti, which is a spinach and ricotta gnocchi served with a napolitana sauce. This has been a staple recipe in my family for years and is a perfect vegetarian alternative. Good quality ricotta cheese is hard to come by in a small town so we decided to make some after reading a very easy looking recipe on the Bartolini Kitchen’s blog (click HERE for the recipe). It is so simple and totally delicious! Absolutely perfect for the job. Making the malfatti is a messy business because you have to roll the little balls with your hands. Our mixture was slightly too wet and extra messy, but still worked out well. We used the recipe from Tessa Kiros’ book Twelve, with slight adjustments to reflect the way my mother taught me.

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After far too many courses we moved on to the all-important desert! Heidi presented affogato made with home-made ice cream which was amazing and some Italian pastries called crostoli. Some chocolate salami bought in Clarens rounded it all off perfectly.

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After such exertion there was nothing left to do, but fill a glass of wine (Cola Tonic and soda for me!) and enjoy the last rays of late afternoon sun. On the way home, I couldn’t help thinking of all the poor people sitting in Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic in cities all over the country. What a pleasure to be the only car on our farm road home. It’s only a pity about all the potholes I had to negotiate to get out of town!

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Big news and strawberry popcorn!

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I only have time for a very short post this week. We are taking a short break at the end of the month for our annual fix of the bushveld with Ashley. I cannot wait! But of course there is a lot to do before we leave and not enough time! I am also doing my very last trip up to Pretoria for work… yes, after 6 years with the Treasury (2.5 working remotely from the farm) I have resigned and finish on Friday! It is quite daunting to leave my life as an economist behind, but I know that lots of exciting new things await. The time has come to embrace this new life of mine and carve out my niche properly, without dropping everything and running back to the city every second week. You will have to watch this space to see what develops!

My former life... with the Budget team in 2011.

My former life… with the Budget team in 2011.

On a totally different and unrelated note, I have been meaning to share these photos of my experiment with strawberry popcorn. I was intrigued last year when I ordered a packet of heirloom seeds for “strawberry pink popcorn that grows about 1 meter tall and produces small strawberry shaped and coloured cobs on each plant” from Living Seeds. I planted them and nurtured them and when the time came I harvested the cobs. They have been hanging in my kitchen since March drying out.

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When my beautiful niece Sibella came to visit at the end of May we decided it was time to try them. She diligently picked the dried kernels from a bunch of cobs and then we popped them in a pan. It was quite a delight to see and taste the result! The kernels are much smaller than normal popcorn so one has to be careful not to burn them. I think we were probably too sparing on the oil and could have used more to get the kernels to pop more quickly. We had a big debate about whether the kernels should be placed in cool oil first and allowed to heat up or straight into hot oil. I’m still not sure if it makes a difference! As a kid we had one of those air blown popcorn machines which worked like a charm and I’m really wishing I had one now!

Anyway, I can highly recommend trying this for a treat. They are easy to grow and look pretty hanging above the island in my kitchen. One small bunch yielded a whole bowl of kernels and popcorn for the masses. I was rather hoping that the final popped corn would be pink too, but alas, it’s not!

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Happy Birthday Blog!

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I can’t believe it’s been a year since I started this blog! At the time it seemed like a crazy thing to do, but now it feels like an integral part of my routine. I had no idea how much I would enjoy sharing our experiences at Vastrap with you and how valuable it would be to join the community of bloggers on WordPress from all over the world. It is crazy how much one can learn from others and how one can develop friendships with people you will probably never meet. The whole experience has really been so much more rewarding than I ever anticipated and I am so grateful for that.

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In memory of the past year, I thought I would share some facts and figures about this blog and a few of my favourite posts.

  • Vastrap Farm has 107 full-time followers, but many people view the blog via Facebook and stumble across it through online searches. By far the most popular search terms are related to information about Boran cattle. Quite a few searches have also involved information about Aga stoves.
  • Including this one, I have written 74 posts and 5 pages.
  • There have been 10,917 views of pages on the blog over the past year, with the most views (301) on the first day when people read my first post Welcome to my World! and the pages I had set up About Me, History of Vastrap and About Ladybrand.
  • The most viewed page has been The Boran: God’s Gift to Cattlemen, which provides information on the benefits of Boran cattle and shows some photos of the Boran in their original habitat in Kenya. Because of the huge interest in our cattle, I designed a dedicated site for Vastrap Boran in December with detailed information about our stud (www.vastrapboran.com).
  • Vastrap Farm has been viewed by people in 101 countries! About half of total views have been from South Africa (5,302), followed by the UK (989) and the US (750).

It is hard to choose favourites, but posts that stand out for me about the farm include R.I.P Little Calf (about a newborn Boran calf that didn’t make it through a very cold snap in winter) and Mellow Yellow (photos of the sunflower crop in full bloom). Many people were amused  by my experience at Stockman school, which showed just how much life had changed for me since moving to the farm (see The stockman and his love)!

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Stockman 010I had great responses to my posts about our Aga stove (see The Magic of Aga), and I hope that some of the information has been useful to people with anthracite stoves.

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There have been quite a few cooking posts, although I really am not an expert in the kitchen. I write about things I actually make regularly rather than designing recipes specifically for the blog. My favourite has to be Let’s make jam! simply because it’s one of the most typical things farm wives are associated with and because it was one of the very first things I did when I moved to the farm. There are also some great stories about our cooking club, (see Happy Cooking Pasta! and Cooking in a Castle)

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We have done a lot in the garden over the past year, but our dry summer made it difficult to sustain things for very long. In retrospect the garden was definitely at its best in December (see An Explosion of Colour!) I was very proud of the changes we made in the vegetable garden, although the free-ranging chickens dug up more heirloom seeds than I care to think about. Such a shame! I will definitely not let that happen again (see What a coop!).

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There were a few stories very close to my heart celebrating the achievements of family members – see My extraordinary mother, Purple rain and A lifetime of love.

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Finally, our dogs are ever-present in most of my stories. They are such an integral part of our lives as any visitor to Vastrap will attest! My favourite dog post is without a doubt How Paris ‘Sees’ the World, about our beautiful brave blind dog Paris and her unfailing zest for life.

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Well, all I can hope is that the coming year provides lots of material for some great stories to share with you. Life is never static on a farm and you never know what lies around the corner. Keep reading to find out! I really appreciate all your feedback and support. Please let me know what you have enjoyed most and what you would like to see more (or less) of on the blog. Your opinions are highly valued!

Cooking in a Castle

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I had the most wonderful weekend of cooking with good friends from Ladybrand, Maseru and Bloemfontein. The cooking club I belong to, which is called “Happy Cooking”, organised a two day course with a well-known Johannesburg-based teacher, Alexis Kriel, who specialises in vegetarian Indian cooking. Unfortunately I have missed all our cooking club meetings this year, which have included a Spanish day and a master class in meat cutting (for examples of what we did last year see our blog Happy Cooking Club). I wasn’t going to miss out on this weekend though as I knew it would be special. Our friend Adri organised for us to stay at a wonderful guest house called Union House near Fouriesburg and we spent the whole of Saturday cooking in the kitchen of Destiny Castle, which is perched on a cliff with 360 degree views of the Maluti mountains. It was simply spectacular. In Alexis’ words: like being on top of the beanstalk! 

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And the cooking was spectacular too. Alexis has a very particular food philosophy or consciousness, which stems from her years living in a hindu temple in Chastworth. In essence, it is thought that the person who cooks the food and the way in which they interact with it makes a huge difference to how the food is experienced on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. Before we started she explained all the different spices we would use. There were some that we had never heard of like asafoetida (hing), which is often used in place of onion or garlic. Then she requested us to use all of our senses whilst cooking so that rather than constantly tasting everything we should touch, smell, listen and observe the food to assess when it is ready. We should also not tamper with or stir the food too much. This was quite a difficult thing for many of us, but it really worked to maintain the integrity and beauty of the final dishes.

DSC_4163We chose to cook her Bollywood menu, which includes deep and pungent Indian flavours based on dishes we know well from restaurants. Although everything was vegetarian, most of the dishes could be easily done with meat too. The first day included: Paneer Tikka Masala (including home made paneer); Mushroom Rogan Josh; Apricot Chutney; Biryani; and a sweet dessert called Dhapa Dhoi.

DSC_4209On the second day we combined all the dishes that she would normally teach in two classes: Cashew Nut Curry; Soy Beef Vindaloo; Pear Chutney with Star Anise; Dried Fruit Pulao; Paneer Makhani; Coconut and Cashew Nut Rice with Mustard Seed and Curry Leaf Tempering; Pistachio Korma with Cauliflower; Green Chutney; and dessert of  Choclat Burfie and Black Tea Cinnamon Truffles. We also begged Alexis to share her secret for perfect rotis, which she graciously did and they were a big hit!

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We cooked in the amazing kitchen in the castle with a roaring log fire in the dining room. Destiny Castle used to run as a guest house, but the owners recently tithed it to the Church and plan to use it as the location for a very high level faith-based leadership academy. It certainly is the right place for quiet thought and contemplation of the complex leadership issues facing our continent.

Needless to say, it all ended in a feast of flavours! The pictures speak for themselves. We drove down the treacherous hill back home sated and satisfied. Everyone agreed that we had experienced something truly unique in a quiet little corner of the Free State.

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Malefah’s Rusks

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While Quentin’s cousin was visiting us last week, I was in the middle of preparing for the real V.I.P. visitors from the Cape we were expecting for the weekend. Every single bed in the house would be occupied for the occasion of my half-sister Beatrice’s 21st birthday celebration – 12 adults, 2 kids and my Dad’s dog Chloe. We were so thrilled when Beatrice asked us if she could have a gathering at Vastrap and didn’t hesitate for a second to agree. You see, people who are lucky enough to live in the Cape need a very good reason to leave their beautiful surroundings to visit other parts of the country. Moreover, the Eastern Free State is not exactly around the corner being 1150km away! So, this would be the perfect excuse for a gathering. A way to get the whole family together in new and different surroundings to mark a very special event.

My sister Hannia and her family also joined us from Johannesburg and were kind enough to bring Quentin’s daughter Ashley with them. She had not been to the farm since January so we were very excited to have her “home” albeit only for the weekend. I organised a special surprise for her by redecorating her room with a an old four poster “princess” bed that Hannia and Beatrice both used when they were little girls. I love the idea that this special piece of furniture is being passed down from generation to generation.

Antique four poster bed with cushions from Living Life.

Antique bed with Living Life cushions and light.

There was a flurry of activity as we got everything ready for the big event: planning menus, baking rusks and biscuits, making lemon syrup, stocking up on biltong and slaughtering sheep to exchange for a cooler full of fish promised by my brother Johnny, the spear fisherman. Food is an essential part of our family bonding so I wanted everything to be just right with all the warm and fuzzy “home-made” trimmings that are associated with being on a farm.

There are few things more evocative of South African farm life than coffee with home-made rusks. Quentin and I cannot start the day without our morning ritual of rusks dunked in a mug of steaming hot coffee. We always have a fresh supply in the house and even carry them with us when we travel.

Rusks are basically like dried out biscuits. They come in all different shapes, sizes and flavours. At the moment my favourite kind is packed full of nuts, seeds, raisins and cranberries, like a wholesome breakfast in one bite. Quentin still loves his mother’s recipe for buttermilk rusks the most, but I’m not good at making them so I leave it in the capable hands of our housekeeper Malefah who used to work for my mother-in-law. The funny thing about these rusks is that they aren’t made with buttermilk at all, but rather Amasi or maas (fermented milk widely available in South Africa). I don’t know if it makes a huge difference to the taste, but Malefah likes to stick with tradition. The recipe is not written down anywhere so I just watched her and documented the steps so you can see how easy it is. The aroma and anticipation of fresh rusks baking in the oven is simply heavenly! (see also Tempting Buttermilk Rusks).

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Malefah’s Amasi Rusks:

2kg self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

500g softened butter

3 cups castor sugar

4 eggs

2,5 cups Amasi (substitute with buttermilk or plain yoghurt)

Mix the sugar, eggs and Amasi together. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking power and salt together. Rub the softened butter into the flour mixture until fully combined. Add the sugar, egg and Amasi mixture to the butter and flour mixture. Work together with your hands until combined.

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Grease a large deep baking pan with some leftover butter. Press the mixture into the pan and smooth over the top.

Bake in 180 degree oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour until golden brown on top. Allow to cool in the pan then tip out and cut into rusk size rectangles (if you are lucky, you have a fancy pan with dividers that cuts the rusks automatically!) Place on baking trays and dry out in 80 degree oven for 6-8 hours or overnight. Enjoy dunked in hot coffee!

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