The fifth Franschhoek Literary Festival kicked off yesterday with a panel discussion on ‘What’s Cooking’, with writers of three cookbooks Reuben Riffel, Marita van der Vyver, and sisters Annalie Nel and Zuretha Roos, chaired by TASTE food editor Abigail Donnelly.  For food lovers considering publishing their own cookbooks, the message was loud and clear – one has to choose one’s publisher carefully, and be flexible to take directives, often conflicting with one’s own ideas.  Food trends evolve, and cookbooks document this.

Reuben Riffel is a Franschhoeker, who opened his first Reuben’s restaurant eight years ago in Franschhoek, and now owns two more, in Robertson, and at the One & Only Cape Town.  It is primarily his endorsement of the Robertsons spice range that has made him a household name and TV chef, but may have cost him his credibility as a chef.   His second cookbook ‘Reuben cooks local’ (R394) is the most recently published of the three books which were discussed.  Reuben talked about how big a step it was for him to open his own restaurant, having been taught by masters such as Richard Carstens. He reads a lot of books by Australian chefs, following their trends.  His grandfather was planting vegetables for their family eating, ahead of their time. Reuben was approached by publisher duo photographer Craig Fraser and Libby Doyle to do a cookbook, and he liked the idea, always having wanted to have a cookbook which he could keep on his own bookshelf!  Reuben liked working with this team, having had other approaches which had been more prescriptive, which he did not like.  The latest cookbook is about foods he likes to eat and the flavours he enjoys.  While it was hard work, it has been a great sense of achievement. Unusual in the book is the list of suppliers that Reuben uses, something he used to feature on his menus too. His cookbook is dedicated to his late father, and Jos Baker wrote the foreword.  He writes that he likes to combine seasonal ingredients and fresh flavours. Reuben spoke about his love for fresh ingredients, and that broadbeans and asparagus are the best thing about Spring. Reuben said he would never throw away a flop dish, always looking to add to it to improve it.  We asked him how he could reconcile the trend by top chefs to use fresh herbs with his endorsement of Robertsons’ bottled spices, and he replied that not everyone can afford to eat at his restaurant, or to buy or grow fresh herbs, nor are all herbs available all year round. Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves are needed all year round. Reuben’s favourite ingredients are Karoo lamb, snoek, naartjies, springbok, waterblommetjies, West Coast mussels, guinea fowl, guavas, and mielies. Reuben changes his menu every day, based on the fresh produce he receives on a particular day. The foods he grew up on include waterblommetjiebredie, ‘stamp en stoot’ (a mix of beans, white corn, meaty bones and marrow), and Karoo lamb chops, he writes.  His book contains 77 recipes of foods sourced from the ocean (Cape Malay mussel dish above), the field, the orchard, the earth, the wild, and the vine.  Few herbs and spices are contained in his recipes, and Robertsons spices and herbs are not recommended in the book.

Marita van der Vyver was the best known writer, better known for her novels (‘Griet skryf ‘n Sprokie’ was her first book, and has been translated into more than ten languages).  She married Frenchman Alain Claisse, lives an idyllic life in Provence, and her husband seems to do a lot of the cooking for the patchwork family of his, her, and their children.  She admitted that 25 years ago she was barely able to cook an egg, nor bake. Publisher Kerneels Breytenbach came to visit, and they decided to prepare their everyday food for him, which her husband calls ‘French peasant food’.  He was so excited about what he ate with them that he invited them to publish a cookbook about Provence. Marita wanted it to be more of a storybook, but the publishers insisted that the recipes of the dishes written about were included, which cramped the style of both her and her husband.  Marita wanted the freedom to write her book ‘Summer in Provence‘ (R264) as she wanted to, and Alain is a creative cook who takes a pinch of this and one of that in preparing his dishes, never replicating any, and always experimenting and adding new dimensions to it.  Lien Botha came to France to do the Provence photography, and the dishes were recreated locally and photographed.  She told us that all food in France is seasonal, even the cheese!  All the recipes in her book specify ingredients which one can buy in South Africa. Marita says she misses waterblommetjies in France. They have not had a vegetable garden up to now, due to the good availability of fresh produce at the local markets, but having moved house recently, they now have space to start one. They have always grown herbs on their windowsill, and she would never cook with dried herbs, she said.  They cannot do without thyme, as it symbolises Provence. Marita’s policy on ingredients is “Beste Beskikbare Bekostigbare” (best affordable available).  The book covers recipes and photographs of the dishes and life in Provence, for asparagus, pumpkin, chicken, spanspek, trout, tarts, stews, cheese, risotto, fruit, polenta, couscous, berries, spinach, figs (photograph of her baked fig and nuts), chocolate, and more.  Marita has just had a new novel published, called ‘Just Dessert, Dear‘, not about cooking at all, but the main character is a food writer.  She said about the theme of her newest book: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”!

Zuretha Roos and Annalie Nel grew up in the Hex River valley.  Both were teachers, with a passion for food, and were approached by a publisher to write ‘Roast Duck on Sundays’ (R254).Their mother was a ‘splendid’ passionate cook, and served Muscovy duck weighing up to 7 kg on Sundays, her ‘piéces de résistance’, and now very hard to source.  Annalie had a catering business, and now experiments with recipes.  Zuretha used to be the cookery editor of the now defunct Darling magazine, and has written a number of other cookbooks. They had to use ‘ordinary’ duck for their cover photograph, they said.  The pages of the book have an interesting brown weathered look about them, and the photographs look like they come out of an old family photo album.  The book contains more than the Sunday roast duck – it also covers recipes for soups, breads, pastries, dressings, sauces, fish, shortcrust pastry, venison, cakes, and puddings.

No cookbook is prescriptive, and recipes should be amended to reflect one’s taste and the availability of ingredients. The altitude at which one cooks, one’s stove, the appliances, the quality of the ingredients, and a number of other factors can influence whether a recipe will be successful or not. There was quite a discussion about duck, and how difficult it is to source it with the right fat/meat ratio.  The audience laughed when Reuben said that duck fat is healthy!  Zuretha and Annalie said ‘that it makes the most beautiful roast potatoes’.  Increased usage of star anise and white pepper are two new spice trends, said Abigail.  Old-fashioned recipes are making a come-back too. Marita said that research has shown that a cookbook owner only uses 3 – 4 recipes out of a cookbook.  The great joy of writing a cookbook is that one can source one’s book all the time, to make one’s favourite recipes.  The reliable sourcing of fish is becoming more difficult, Reuben said. Guineafowl can be sourced from Wild Peacock, Reuben said when asked in question time. Kalahari truffles can be sourced from Melissas.  Abigail confirmed that ‘foodie’ is a term which is no longer acceptable to define foodlovers and writers.

What’s Cooking‘ was an interesting start to the Franschhoek Literary Festival 2012 yesterday, and in a way Abigail Donnelly, the panel chairman, probably would have been a better source of information on many of the questions she asked the panel.  She was well prepared, having read all three cookbooks, and Reuben and Marita were talkative, which made her task easier.  The two sisters Zuretha and Annelie were less communicative, yet charming in their honesty when they spoke.  All three cookbooks are likely to do well, all three being very different.

POSTSCRIPT 12/5: One wonders what Robertsons, the One & Only Cape Town, the Robertson Small Hotel, Quivertree Publishing, and other business partners would say about Reuben Riffel’s abusive reaction on his Facebook page to our Robertsons’ endorsement question at the Franschhoek Literary Festival yesterday (see the Comments to this blogpost).

POSTSCRIPT 13/5: Reuben Riffel has closed down his Facebook account!

POSTSCRIPT 22/5: Chef Reuben has reinstated his Facebook page, and has apologised for his disparaging comment on it, which we accept.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage