• South Africa’s own spice girl, Ina Paarman, invites some of the members of her team to a candlelit dinner in her Constantia  home.

    Ina Paarman’s seasonings and sauces are as well loved in South Africa as biltong and boerewors. The Paarman empire extends as far as Australia and in countries like Dubai, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman she’s almost the household name she is back home. Tonight around her dining table, her Middle Eastern fan base is one of the topics under discussion. It seems one of the reasons for her popularity there – she’s even been in the Dubai media – is that her products are halaal, a convenient result of being a Cape Town company catering for local Muslims.

    At home with Ina Paarman

    Having removed the floral apron she was cooking in, she’s now wearing Errol Arendz sexy black chiffon and glittery black high heels, which lift this tiny blonde dynamo to just over five feet tall. “I’m so enjoying this. One really should do it more often,” she says, eyes twinkling. It’s clear her playful approach to life gets her through the pressurised existence of an international culinary tycoon. “Trouble is, in the evening I’m always in the home office. I usually work until 10:30.” Fortunately the home office is next to the kitchen.

    Tonight she has invited some of the hardworking members of her team. A few admin types have come directly from the Diep River factory where about 100 workers produce the wide range of Ina Paarman products. It includes pestos, chutneys, stocks and stuffings, along with the chocolate cake mix that Nielsen’s market research rates the best-selling cake mix in South Africa.

    There are also two lovely blondes from the Ina Paarman Development Kitchen. This vital part of the company is located in the garden of the five-acre property, in a state-of-the-art double-storey with acres of glass. It houses the apartment of Ina’s son, Graham, who runs Paarman Foods. When he joined the business 22 years ago, he relocated his mother’s home-based industry to factory premises and aggressively expanded the product range.

    At home with Ina Paarman

    “He’s the boss,” says Ina. “He pours every ounce of energy into what my late husband used to call the stainless steel palace. I’m the one flying the flag, doing product development and writing recipes (like the mini cookbook, Supper’s Up!, which is seventh in a supermarket series that fit into a handbag), but without Graham’s hard business sense and impeccable organisation, the business as it is today would never be a reality.”

    Surrounded by a garden and forest of cork oaks, the house was built in 1935 on the slopes of the Constantiaberg. On either side are deep stoeps with pillars where Ina does summer lunches for family and friends. Rooms are large with high ceilings, big fireplaces and raw Oregon pine floors covered with chobi carpets the same seductive pale gold colour. It’s elegant but warm and comfortable, like the owner.

    The heart is the spacious country kitchen with its terracotta flagstones, huge cottage pane windows and a cosy corner with a blazing cast iron stove, two cane armchairs and Ina’s snoozing Rottweilers. The action takes place on the marble top of the king-size island in the middle, where wooden drawers and cupboards are filled with designer kitchenware.

    However, it’s the design of the work spaces that Ina really values. “Where people go wrong is thinking of appliances instead of ‘Where do I work?’ The best thing about this kitchen is the work triangle – the chopping board right next to the sink, then the bin below, and the fridge behind you. Also, people try to save money on kitchen equipment when your best investment is decent pots and pans. Handles that are welded on and not screwed in, for example.”

    She says her approach to food is as practical as that of the grandmother with whom the family lived after her father died at 37. “It was a dairy farm with fruit trees and a vegetable garden. The dark polished wood of tonight’s table glimmers. There are tealights in tiny bowls at each place setting as well as big fat candles in glass holders.

    For the main course Ina puts the salad, potatoes and green beans on the table and asks one of the men to carve the leg of lamb, which she’s laid on a massive wooden block at the top end, a stage for the main theatrical event. “Carve it down to the bone, not with the grain,” she tells him sweetly. “Nice dainty slices. You don’t want a big klomp of meat. A good butcher is the trick when you want something special. Yes, this is dead right,” she says, tasting it.

    “Tender, and dark pink near the bone but not bleeding. The anchovy paste brings out the flavour but doesn’t overwhelm it, and the goat’s cheese on the salad is an outstanding combination with the lamb.” Her eyes sparkle. “Delicious! Really, one should do this more often!” Ina uses her own brand of seasonings in all the recipes that follow.

    By Bruce Tuck

    By Hilary Prendini Toffoli