Thursday, April 22, 2010

Autumn and the art of the scarf

There is a different blue in the sky. The shadows are longer and the piled-up leaves rustle restlessly from one side of the road to the other. The suburban streets and gardens are full of last-minute autumn glory, but the nights sink in colder. It is changing from rain-sodden summer into winter. Time to start thinking about dressing warmer, eating differently and coming to terms with the cold, dark, soul-searching months ahead.

In short, it's time to start wearing ... a scarf. Most of the "autumnal" poets (Keats, Blake, Elizabeth Barret Browning, John Donne, Shelley) have been inspired by this season's beauty and elegiac quality, and some must have at some stage addressed the humble scarf's literary merit. Emily Dickinson certainly did...

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry's cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I'll put a trinket on.

Emily Dickinson
Nature XXVII, Autumn.

A scarf can certainly be considered a trinket, and its lure wholly belongs to autumn and winter culture. Women and men in Europe have a lifelong romance with The Scarf, particularly the French and Italians (little French girls learn the art of the scarf at their mother's knee). They wear them with such flair, such style and such know-how - even with a plain white shirt. They sling long skinny scarves round their necks, wrap bandanas, knot short necktie scarves, slither on silk scarves from Hermes or Chanel (which come with booklets on how to tie them), double-wrap head scarves, twist neckwarming woolly scarves over coats, tie cravats and toss on pashminas. It's all in the imagination and today's scarves are a far cry from the mufflers that your granny used to knit to keep your chest warm! They are now the ultimate fashion statement - bang up there in the style firmament with shoes and bags.

The universe has finally smiled upon me and allowed me to find the perfect scarf-maker, right here in Johannesburg. Her name is Sanny Nijkamp and she is a Dutch artist who paints on silk. Just perfect for poetic autumn style!

Sanny, whose real name is Sara (her father visited South Africa and liked "Sanny") loves the art of the Japanese kimono, as well as traditional French silk painting, and it comes through in her love of bright colours. She has a signature style in her scarves: lots of geometric shapes, the use of dots, squiggly quill writing and lots of different coloured squares. It's literally art on a scarf.

Sanny's home is like one of her scarves. An eggshell blue ceramic stove dominates her living room and a steel flue leads into the ceiling. The house is full of light, colour and artistry. Three funky white recycled light fittings from lighting designer Heath Nash form a vertical line leading the eye down to the stripped wooden dining room table, and the walls are covered with local art.

She has been working in silk for 26 years and she sold to three shops in Holland before she moved to South Africa. Now I find her Sarasilk scarves in second-hand shop Rags and Lace where stylish saleslady Matilda Montanari wears them with her usual panache, giving tips on scarf-wearing to the uninitiated ("this is the hangman's noose ...").

Sanny's work is painstaking as she hand paints every detail on the white silk which she imports from China. After planning the design beforehand she stretches a silk rectangle on a homemade wooden frame in her studio and use silk paints made in France. "I love silk,"she says. "The colours are so beautiful and the paint flows. You can't make anything ugly." Luckily she has a supplier who gives her wholesale prices.

"Sirti" glue is one way of separating layers of colours from one another. It can be painted onto areas which need to be paler, which then stand out. After the hand painting process she fixes the colour by steaming the scarves. "I make a big roll in a white cotton cloth and put it in a steamer."

But the most incredible thing of all are the prices: R160 for a handpainted scarf? That's about sixteen euros!

Sanny's piercing blue eyes are testament to her Dutch genes, and she says that in Holland they love bright colours, particularly blues (to match the eyes). Everything around her, including her art and pictures, is an inspiration. I fall in love with the soft blue silk swatches from cocoons which she has arranged on a table, prior to it being made glued into paper and made into packaging for jeweller Marcel van Tonder's upcoming exhibitions.

Sanny has been experimenting with new techniques and I am captivated by a delicious medley of gold, sky blue, and violet squares and rectangles on a light-red silky background: it's ornamented with doodles, sunbursts and stars on the ends. I imagine it with a plain black dress and red cowboy boots ... and, even though I already have three other scarves by Sanny, I melt and buy my fourth.

Now I have an autumn scarf for my scarlet gown. Emily would have approved ...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The "lazies who lunch" find a secret garden

A "lazies lunch"? Sounds like a good plan for a bunch of hard working journalists and media types! We were told by chief lazy, Allison Macdonald, to meet at The Birdcage in Saxonwold, recently voted one of the top ten al fresco eateries in Joburg. I was early, as I was stressed that I would not be able to find the place. One hour to be precise, and I was starving, with a neck as stiff as a board. It wasn't so hard to find in the end, just off Cotswold Road and a block from Zoo Lake. The parking was a bit of a bind, but what a delightful spot ... a secret garden change from our usual Ocean Basket, fast-lane lunches.

The Birdcage lived up to its name - there were several attractive wicker and wire bird cages (sans canaries) dotted around the garden. It was a little gem of a hideaway tucked under tall trees and adjoining nearby boutique hotel the Villa d'Este, with its five-star spa. I love places like that, especially at the weekend, when all you want is to retreat from the traffic's roar, find yourself a newspaper and settle down with a lovely glass of Belgian hot chocolate while you wait for all the other "lazies", who clearly were not as lazy as me, to arrive. My sunglassed fellow lunchers were working on their laptops, feeding their children or just gossiping quietly with friends in the sun.

It had been a very tense week in South African politics. I was afflicted with our usual bipolar outlook, and was very down and depressed (the Saturday Star did not help with its sensationalist story of Eugene Terreblanche's murder accused. Although it did get an unwilling and disbelieving laugh out of me).

So the hot chocolate blocks which I stirred with my spoon to make decadent mocha swirls at the bottom of a tall glass of hot foamy milk eased both my hunger and my mood. Yum, yum! And the setting was so pretty, a feast for the eyes. Inside was a small, simple space with a tiny fountain and three big jars of fresh-cut, pretty-as-can-be pink roses at one end. A crystal chandelier gave a touch of luxury, with an array of tarts, cooked chicken, salmon tarts, pies, salads, asparagus dotted with bacon bits, breads, and baba ganoush dotted with slivered almonds on a generous buffet table. Guests filled the tiny space at regular intervals, each holding a plate, and proprietor Lara Meter patiently explained to all of them what every dish was, before their plates were weighed. I smiled at two little girls who wandered over to stare at me with big dark eyes.

A big table had been booked for us in the courtyard so I went outside after my hot chocolate and sat in the dappled shade. The "lazies" started to arrive at around 1'ish. First was Allison, in whose name the table was booked. She had spoken to our waitress Cleopatra (no, that was her name) or was it Patty? It was hard to get confused, especially as the afternoon wore on. Allison was looking relaxed and expressed pleasure at her choice of venue. Then Nia, Lesley and Andrea arrived, and we started to order drinks and wonder about lunch. Jane was in Paris, lucky woman that she was, working on a film, so no Jane.

It was one of those spots that, although the space seemed tiny, you always bump into someone that you know. Brandon McLeod from Newsclip suddenly appeared with his friend Roan from ModelCo and we invited him to join us as a fellow "lazy". Brandon and Roan ordered some Waterford Rose and settled down at the other end of the table. I have a soft voice and found it hard to speak to them so moved down to their end. By the time our table was in full swing and getting loud and happy. Our fellow lunchers gave us indulgent looks from time to time as our laughter burst forth under the trees.

"There's a hole in this bottle!" Brandon told Cleopatra, who grinned and went to get him another one. He held up his glass to the light, revealing the tiniest hint of pink in the wine. The cut glass jar with the ice was doing the rounds, and I put some into my wine.

Then Helen arrived. She was late because her daughter Layla was turning nine and had a birthday party later in the afternoon. We all had to admire pictures of 9-year-old Layla, looking beautiful and "schmodelish" in her mother's garden.

We went inside for lunch and loaded up our plates with the goodies on the table, using the funky salad servers (one printed and one dotted, in red). It was so good that I could not speak to anyone for at least ten minutes. But afterwards the conversation flowed, naturally touching on the events of the week. The setting, glorious food and afternoon sun somehow diluted some of the horrors that had passed and helped ease the wounds.

The smokers retired around the corner for their fix, and en route to the loo I went to see the gardens of the Villa d'Este, which were immaculately clipped and topiaried. Each space was more delightful than the next. Why had I never discovered this place before?

After pudding for some, tiny puffed up chocolate souffles oozing over ramekin dishes which everyone dipped their spoons into for just one taste, our bills arrived individually, a coil of paper in a rose-pink, Moroccan water glass set at each place. The lazies only started to leave at around 5pm, when Cleopatra, Patty and their fellow workers had to pack up for the night. It was hard to put an end to what had turned out to be a very fruitful and lazy day.

The Birdcage beckons with a date for a future long lazy lunch!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

How to have fun in a recession

It's 2010, the year that everyone said would be better, the year of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the year that would lift us out of the doldrums of 2009, the annus horribis. 2010 seems to be the year in which I have officially joined the ranks of the nouveau poor, as opposed to unofficially.

One has to learn to have fun while being a recessionista. Even if my life has become a series of ever-increasing restrictions and frustrations, some newfound penny-pinching habits have become a source of comfort and amusement. They appeal to the bargain basement diva in me and I intend never to desert them in better times.

1. Watching TV with the lights off, and enjoying an unearthly flickering on the walls which looks as though the aliens are in conference in my flat. Living by candlelight is terribly romantic so I get those little tea light thingies and float them in water, which makes the place look cool. Those solar lanterns from the Cape Union Mart or The Space are also quite fetching, especially out on the balcony. You could guide Boeings in with those things. They remind me of the hurricane lamps which my grandparents used on their farm.

2. Buying my loo rolls at Diskem for R24 for 10 rolls (in fact, buying all my toiletries there, instead of at the supermarket, as every time I buy something it creates points which means I can get something free somewhere down the line. Yay, free stuff!). You know you are down to the wire when you have to use your paper napkins when the R24-for-10 pack is finished. Or the tissue paper that you stuff your shoes with. Or you have to nick some from the nearest shopping centre loo. But I am always grateful for something to wipe my bottom with as my ancestors had to use grass.

3. Putting stuff back on to the supermarket shelves and remarking loudly to other shoppers: "Can you believe these PRICES?". Giving the manager level stares as you do this. In other countries you get to clip coupons but our mean supermarkets doesn't believe in letting us get soft and, shame, they have to make a living as we starve. I have also got very good at saying NO to myself especially in those queues in Woolies where they put all the good stuff along those lanes.

4. Buying Lotto and Powerball tickets every chance I get, just in case I hit the jackpot. My ticket showed two correct numbers and a Powerball number yesterday ... the machine made melodious little noises five times and I thought: "Gosh, what would it do if I won all six numbers?" Probably explode into a great ball of fire! I have given up SMSing numbers from Coke can tabs or Easter eggs as even in my desperation I have lost the power to suspend disbelief to that degree. Those guys are just scam artists.

5. Cooking on a Cadac gas stove. I was thrilled when I found that the garage up the road fills gas bottles but mine has lasted me since February 2008 so I don't need to use their services just yet. Even my tea is made on the gas stove. Sucks to Eskom. Outside braais are good too, but with the colder weather coming, gas is better.

6. Shopping at secondhand clothes shops. Thieves probably look at me on Facebook and think, well, she's a rich bitch, but I forgot to mention that the designer threads always go back. Instead I go off to Rags and Lace in Craighall Park with my old schmutters and find amazing things like Chanel sunglasses or suits from Paris or beautiful hand-painted silk scarves from a woman called Sanny Nijkamp who lives in Emmarentia.

7. Using pay as you go on my cellphone. Friends are used to conversations being cut dramatically short as my airtime runs out. I have found a way to recharge via the phone now, so this should no longer happen. But usually in my newfound thriftiness I ask them to phone me back. SMSs are also good.

8. Trying to do all my errands at once in a particular area so I don't have to drive around and use up all my petrol.

9. Watching movies with the old age pensioners on Tuesdays. Tickets on Tuesday are ostensibly half price for the OAPs, at R25, but the price is still equivalent to what it was about eight years ago. I have also invested in a movie card, so I accumulate movie moola and get to watch a free film once in a blue moon. Ster Kinekor has made it easy to save money on snacks as the Coke machine is generally on the fritz whenever I visit their establishments.

10. Finding a good backyard mechanic. If you like me have a Renault or an imported French car you know the pain of dealership prices for parts and labour. These cars break down a lot and are expensive to fix ... If you have a look at any passing towtruck you will always see a Renault Clio on board! It's important to know when you can use a generic part or ask your mechanic.

11. Shopping for appliances at places like Cash Converters/Cash Crusaders. So many people have left the country or sell off their worldly goods to these secondhand dealers that it is easy to find practically brand new appliances here at half the price. DVDs and CDs and jewellery are also nicely priced.

12. Using a laundromat instead of a home washing machine/tumbledrier. This does mean that you get nasty people who take all your stuff out and leave it in a wet pile while they do their load but they are in the minority. Laundromating is a great way to catch up on all the gossip too, who's doing what to whom and all that.

13. Buying your veggies, fresh produce in the country, or at a food market. I used to go and get a huge box of stuff (fruit, nuts, vegs, honey) at a fruit and veg shop but now I go and pick stuff myself from the soil for a fraction of the price.

14. Shopping around for car, hospital and household insurance. I was glad I was with Outsurance when I had an accident as I had a car hire policy and could keep the car for 31 days. Each insurance policy has pros and cons so you need to check out the small print before committing yourself.

So there you have it. Joining the ranks of the nouveau poor can actually be enjoyable as you figure out ways to beat the system. Or you could just go on moaning about everything. Do what you've got to do!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Of cheesely delights, Diski dancing and Scottish scams

This week I decided to indulge my inner foodie, as parties were scarce and the food markets beckoned. Robyn Higgins invited me to the party to celebrate the Codfather Food Market in Rivonia. We were all very worried about Robyn as all her friends received a message about her being stranded in Scotland and please, please could we send off a Western Union order to help her with her hotel bill and flight as she had lost everything. The odd thing was that the bank account was based in Cambridge, which wouldn't have been much help. It turned out to be one of those M19 scams that the Nigerians are getting so good at. Robyn is one of those people who would have travel insurance, but I felt quite awful I couldn't help her, until the scam was revealed.

Robyn was safe and sound however and getting ready for the CODFATHER FOOD MARKET in Joburg, the only Saturday market which has a selection of meat, fish, vegs, breads, jams, delicatessen stuff and herbs under a covered roof. I love the food markets in Joburg and visit them as often as my budget will allow, so this was a new treat. First person I saw was Mirella who makes the best pizza in town, just a simple thin crust pizza with a tomato base. So I got two of her closed pizzas with artichoke and salami, pronto. Then it was time to visit Rosemary, the herb lady (what else would a herb lady be called? A man would obviously be Basil!), and grab a big pot of healthy thyme to replace my one that died.

I popped upstairs to see Andy Green who used to run The Chocolate Room in Lanseria. He and his wife Marlize are running SI SI, upstairs from The Codfather (and there is a Cowfather, too, by the way for those who love their steak). Si Si was participating in a promotion whereby you can pay for a visit to the four restaurants in the block and get great value for money). Si Si is a lovely space, very simple and white with a few black and white illustrations (of a Vespa and an Italian scene) on the walls and a splash of colour over the bar. Andy is still doing his gourmet pizzas and cheese platters, this time with an Italian twist. And they are opening a new outside bar called The Office. Thank heavens the hot chocolate is still as hot and chocolatey as ever, so I had the coconut flavour. Their staff are all the same too, friendly and helpful.

Mid-week I decided to pop in to Jo Dick's cheese shop, THE CHEESE GOURMET in Linden (apologies to Jo, but her name always conjures up a secret South African joke for me, as in "jou ma"!). It's been something I have meaning to do for some time now and when Easter is upon you you need to do all those little indulgent things that time would not otherwise allow. Apparently Jo is one of the award winners in the 2010 Eat In, but the problem is that the publication of the magazine keeps being put off and put off. Remember I couldn't get hold of a copy in January? That's because there weren't any. And still we wait ...

Jo is an advocate of note for great South African cheeses. Her shop carries some of the finest examples of local cheeses, which have raised the bar for the cheese world and giving cheeses worldwide stiff competition. We chatted about local hotels and boutiques, and why they should be choosing local produce rather than lavishing cash on imported stuff. The Saxon used to be a very good client, she told me, but there is always a turnover of chefs in big hotels and new brooms sweep clean. I think they now offer platters of (pricey) French cheeses (which, I hasten to add, I am sure are world class).

Philippe Wagenfuhrer of Roots has also contacted Jo's cheese emporium; he's the one who told me about The Teak Place in the Cradle of Mankind where you can pick your own veggies and stagger off with R50's worth of seasonal goodness in a basket (I love their green tomatoes). Philippe loves good home-produced foodstuffs, and that's what South Africa does best. Even though the Cape is very snooty about their food, they can't touch us Highvelders in the good taste department. It's something about the big sky, the big rains, the electricity in the air, the endless sunshine and the mineral-laden soil. If you go out to the Magaliesberg, you could put a stick in the ground and it would grow, the soil is so good. Or is that just me being partisan?

I spotted a jar of homemade mulberry jam, which my Australian based sister would adore if I could manage to smuggle past the dreaded Tasmanian sniffer dogs, and asked Jo what would go best with it. She shaved off a sliver of Hester Hoogendijk's pecorino and offered it to me on the point of a cheese knife. "It's slightly salty," she ventured, and would go admirably with the dark-purple, seed stuffed mulberry jam, which carried the label "Homemade on Zondagskraal" and was decorated with a blue gingham frilled lid tied with raffia. Pure goodness in a jar. I had written about Hester's Hijke cheeses last year when I did a story on Joburg markets for Good Taste magazine and had intended very hard to get to her farm Doornkraal, outside Bapsfontein, for a taste but Jo's shop was clearly much closer. Hester won third place at the World Cheese Show in Dublin for her Gouda Light, and her cheeses are outstanding.

It's bloody hard to choose one cheese in Jo's shop. It's kind of like eating one peanut. The next taste she offered me was an "Oud Gouda", which was much sweeter and crumbly when she sliced it with an enormous mezzaluna knife. I had to have both and how satisfying it was to walk out with my squares of cheese wrapped up close in greaseproof paper. I am trying to give up plastic but it like being on diet in a world full of sugar. It requires the utmost willpower. Inside the paper the cheese was wrapped in plastic - and it seems so natural, as that is how cheese has always been wrapped my whole life.

I said goodbye to the bead and wire goat in the window which food reporter Hillary Biller had donated to the shop. It was all done up in a tiny Bafana Bafana jersey with a green cap stretched over its horns. Jo likes to dress it up in different outfits every week. On the subject of soccer, Jo's husband said that he wanted to try his hand at Diski dancing - I know if I tried it with my luck it would be Slipped Diski dancing.

Outside the Kia Piccanto which had been following me around all morning was waiting. Apparently Julius Malema (who to my delight no one has heard of outside this country) has decided that it is in the public's interests that journalists be followed and their private lives chronicled, as he feel that the boot should be on the other foot and he is (poor dear) the victim of a political conspiracy. It had, had, had to be the ANC Youth League, who was following me! Who else would take the trouble? What amazed me was not that fact, but the ineptitude of their technique. Same car, same numberplate, no attempt at disguise. Whatever happened to the art of surveillance? Was it because I joined the Facebook page, Helen Zille for President? Perhaps this could explain my missing number plates?

Anyway my life must have been ultra boring - no visits to brothels, no coke scores or visits to Nigerian drug lords in Hillbrow, no bribing of police officers (although this is probably the only country where you get locked up for not bribing the cops). No fun of any kind, not even a movie. The Kia Piccanto was gone by mid-afternoon. Obviously I need to do something much more scandalous with my life than go to markets and cheese shops. A tenderpreneurship or two? A fake driver's licence? A little porn?