things brought back from home

This is a long post. Apologies.

I was twenty-two when I went abroad for the first time. Amsterdam, Provence, Paris. I had €90 I could spend on things to bring back, and I still remember everything I bought. A print of Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom, white flowers speckling an intensely turquoise backdrop, which hung in my Arcadia apartment, above the dining table, for the next six years. A wide, shallow duck egg blue bowl and matching ceramic cups that reminded me of those Heidi drank from, from Hema in Amsterdam. In Paris I bought a skirt from a flea market in the Latin Quarter, also blue. I had just broken up with a boyfriend before the trip, in a period when Birthday Letters was a permanent fixture on my bedside table, and Ted Hughes’s voice would ring in my ears throughout the two weeks on foreign soil.

Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.
Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco
Folded your pregnancy
In crucible caresses.
Blue was your kindly spirit — not a ghoul
But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.

In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.

But the jewel you lost was blue.

I was determined not to lose the blue. When I returned home to a rainy Pretoria I walked into my apartment and started throwing things away. It was early summer and I was rearranging the house to encompass all I had seen outside, to situate all I had brought back. (Two weeks later I would meet Johannes, seated across from me at a birthday party table, but that is a story for another day.)


I still have an obsessive need to rearrange the house when I come back from any such trip, to lay out what I’ve brought back and figure out how it changes the landscape of what is already here. Below are the things I brought back from South Africa in the year of our Lord 2016.




Things that used to belong to other people.

Brown paisley scarf. Used to belong to my friend Jackie, who wore it in the very cold Parys winters. She died of breast cancer six years ago. Will now be worn in Toronto.

Red dress for a two-year old. Used to belong to me. No takers yet, but here’s hoping.

Gert Vlok Nel’s two poetry anthologies – Om te Lewe is Onnatuurlik (1993), and Om Beaufort-Wes se Beautiful Woorde te Verlaat (1999), both used to belong to my deceased godfather. Nel writes about all the best stuff – death, despair, family. I know these anthologies off by heart but have never owned my own copies, as they’ve been woefully out of print.

The other three books also came from my godfather’s estate. A copy of a cookbook produced by the wives of gunner’s in the South African army in 1983, Kannoniersspyskaart, which I will post about at some point. A guide to writing your thesis, published by the Potchefstroom Universiteit vir Christelike Hoër Onderwys in 1986, because it seemed apt at this point of my life, and a copy of a Tydskrif vir Letterkunde published in the 70s, which features a cover photo of Eugène Marais’s last home, also the spot of his suicide.




Things brought back from Munich, where we spent four days just before Christmas.

Various types of tea infusions – Strawberry and raspberry, Glühwein-flavoured, and one that smells distinctly of the candied almonds you buy on the street, roasted on the spot, hot and served in cones.

Chocolate-covered marzipan, chocolate-covered lebkuchen, chocolate-covered pfeffernusse. For eating on the couch.

Mustard, in a tube. And a glass ornament for a Christmas tree, either some very white-ass Jesus or one of the Magi?




Christmas brought an embarrassment of riches for our spice rack. J’s parents travelled to India and Sri Lanka and brought back curry mixes, and a bunch of small packets filled with ingredients we had never used before. Maldive fish chips (dried, pounded fish, for adding to curries), curd chillies (chillies dried in yoghurt, for making Indian rice with yoghurt), and dry mango powder, or amchoor, which gets added to a bunch of Indian chutneys or pickles, and which we’ve started using as a substitute for Middle-Eastern recipes that call for dried lime.

Friends visited the Seychelles and brought back the spice fixings for a Creole curry (including cinnamon leaf, excitement!). And enough cassia bark to keep us in good stead for a while. J’s sister Helen provided the black truffle salt (with actual pieces of black truffle, I don’t really do the body odour-flavour of truffle oil). The Moroccan rub and sea salt with lime, coriander and chilli are from two local brands I miss – Nomu, and Melissa’s.




More gifts. A beautiful blanket knitted by my friend R, from cream-coloured wool, with a grey mohair border. A Country Road milk jug from Stella. Two sets of earrings made by my sister-in-law Janie. And more additions to my growing collection of Great Trek commemorative crockery. They perhaps need a post of their own.




And finally, more food. For the coffee shelf, beans from micro roasters Truth in Cape Town and Terbodore in Kwazulu-Natal. For the chocolate shelf, dark chocolate coated whole almonds, dusted in cocoa, from Woolworths. (I’ve placed an embargo on buying chocolate until I’ve worked through my substantial collection at home. See the fact that an entire shelf is needed to house my store. These almonds were the exception. All three packets of them.)

For the general pantry, tomato paste in a tube (there’s a tube theme here, you’ll see), and sundried tomatoes, also from Woolworths. For the booze shelf: two bottles of gifted, local gin. Our favourite Amber Inverroche (a local gin which includes fynbos), which we drink over ice with a slice of grapefruit, and a new addition to the market – KWV’s Cruxland gin, infused with Kalahari truffles. Not pictured: more gin (good old Gordon’s, a fraction of the price in SA, compared to Canada), cheese! (from our favourite Dutch cheesemaker at the Boeremark, deliciously aged Gouda), more gifts from home, and a LOT of fabric. More on that in another post. For now I need to repack my cupboards and tackle my spice shelf.


lobster on a Sunday



It started snowing while we were in the greengrocer today. We are still so enamoured with the snow here, much to the amusement of the locals. I was looking up beyond the cauliflowers when I noticed the flakes falling through the window, and called out to J, standing at the other end of the store, picking out clementines, “kyk, Johannes, dit sneeu!” (look, Johannes, snow!), and people looked up, unaccustomed to the Afrikaans and the outside voice, and the genuine joy at what was falling from the sky. Our excitement extended to the winter vegetables, too, and we struggled to carry everything home. Cauliflower, for roasting and then covering in shaved parmesan, Brussels sprouts for tossing in a dressing of fish sauce, sugar, and mint, ginger and carrot and shallots so we can try out this dressing, beetroot to roast with cardamom, cumin and coriander, and eat with goat’s cheese.

Later in Chinatown we stumbled upon three (!) small lobsters sold at $4/lb, in an end-of-the-day clearance of the fish counter. So we are having lobster on this Sunday night, with seeded sourdough from the bakery around the corner from the Chinese supermarket, and garlic and herb butter for dipping the lobster flesh. Outside the frame, every conceivable surface around the table has been draped with yards of fabric brought back from home, drying from just being washed, soon ready to be sewn with.




focaccia with grapes and fennel seed



There’s no good way to start a blog, so I won’t even try. Instead I will say this: I have just returned from South Africa, where I spent the days thinking about the complexity of my country and the evenings cooking for those I have left behind. Both activities consume me. I made this focaccia multiple times over the course of weeks in Cape Town, now my home-by-marriage, and in Pretoria, where I lived for ten years before coming to Toronto, in the foreign kitchens I now find myself cooking in, where I can’t locate the knives and am unfamiliar with the oven, where everything seems off-kilter, everything but the people around the table, everything but the food.

In these foreign kitchens we baked this focaccia we’ve been making throughout the heady Toronto summers, when black grapes are easy to come by, for black grapes it must be – you need them to pop in the hot oven and bleed into the dough, leaving streaks of purple. I would make the dough the day before, leave it to prove in the fridge, wake up the yeast the next day by leaving it outside for a few hours. Pour the dough onto a heavily oiled oven sheet. Top with the grapes, roasted fennel seeds, salt. Bake in a hot oven, but turn down the heat if it seems like the bottom might catch.

All throughout the mixing of flour and yeast, and the slicing of the bread, in different kitchens and around different tables, Ivan Vladislavić’s line from Portrait with Keys runs through my head. It has become the soundtrack to my visits back home, the soundtrack to my life in the Canadian yswoestyn: “This is our climate. We have grown up in this air, this light, and we grasp it on the skin, where it grasps us. We know this earth, this grass, this polished red stone with the soles of our feet. We will never be ourselves anywhere else. Happier, perhaps, healthier, less burdened, more secure. But we will never be closer to who we are than this.”

How I long to be myself, elsewhere. How I struggle to find my feet.


Ps: Original inspiration for this focaccia is the wonderful River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook, but I use Saltie’s dough (via the Wednesday Chef) instead of their recipe.