Old school’s cool – Neil Stemmet

December 6, 2012 (Last Updated: January 11, 2019)
Old school's cool - Neil Stemmet

Old school’s cool – cookbook author Neil Stemmet serves nostalgia and memories in among the silver and crystal at his guest house in Gansbaai.

Old school's cool

Neil Stemmet’s debut cookbook sout + peper was regarded by many as something of a phenomenon. Reading through it, you weren’t sure at times whether you were reading the most heartfelt prose or even poetry. Each chapter of the book is punctuated by an extract from the work of JRL van Bruggen, known for his intense longing for the veld and its wide open spaces, far from the cities and the crass materialism that he detested. Then there are the typographical aspects of the book: Neil made no use of capital letters because, he says, that is the way a child writes – in plain lower-case letters. And this was what he wanted to convey – an honesty, a childlike way of looking at the world.

Old school's cool

The first imprint sold out within months, a second print is on the way and an English translation will be on shelf next month (salt + pepper, R330). Neil believes that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers understood how to cook simply without artifice or over-elaboration. It was a time when, instead of jus, people spoke of meat juices or gravy. A time before molecular cooking where the shape of food, so gorgeous in its natural state, had to be altered before being eaten.

The further they, the old Boer people, trekked inland, and the further they moved away from the Cape and its abundance of spices and herbs, the more the old grande dames of the kitchen had to rely on their own culinary skills, ingenuity and the best possible ingredients to feed their families. Livestock roamed freely and fed on wild herbs and grasses under a vast and pure sky.

Central to this lifestyle was always Sunday lunch. This was the time when the family got together, when grace was said with a deep sense of gratitude that permeated the atmosphere around the table. From the kitchen would come the heavenly smells of roast chicken and roast potatoes, the potatoes moistened by chicken juices and roasted until they were crisp along with the chicken. To celebrate a bygone era, Neil invited some friends to share a perfect Sunday meal, lovingly prepared from his cookbook, salt + pepper. The dishes were paired with wines from Lomond, produced a stone’s throw from De Kelders, Neil’s guest house in Gansbaai, two hours from Cape Town.

Old school's cool

For the occasion, Neil arranged spartan flowers in vases and brought out the linen and the Rosenthal dinner service, while the wine was served in the most delicate rose crystal glasses. The guests, his friends, and Wayne Gabb from Lomond sat down to a starter of tomato soup with freshly baked white bread paired with the 2010 Sugarbush Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. Fynbos grows profusely in the area and Lomond has named its wines after these glorious indigenous wild flowers.

The main course was roast chicken with roast potatoes, served with bread and pumpkin bake and toasted pumpkin seeds, and green beans with lemon rind, baby tomatoes and goat’s cheese. Neil calls the latter a new age  interpretation of a classic dish. A salad of avocado, cranberries, wild sorrel and egg was drizzled with a traditional, sweet-and-sour vinaigrette. The distinctive flavour of the salad resulted from cranberries that had been marinated in Muscadel.

Old school's cool
A delicious apple tart served with homemade custard and coffee provided a satisfying ending to a meal that invited a fierce nostalgia, reminding us of the simple, but good things, that life had to offer then. And, in a way, it was also a fitting tribute to those excellent cooks of yesteryear – our grandmothers.

By Bruce Tuck

By Johan Liebenberg

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