It was the beurre blanc sauce that did it in the end. Sitting in The Cactus Club Cafe in Vancouver, swirling the last morsel of butternut squash ravioli and perfectly grilled prawn through the delicate, buttery emulsion I was suddenly miffed. Why do we not get food like this at home? I mean really, how hard can it be?? Butter? Check. Prawns? Check. Squash? Check. We’re not talking eye of newt or toe of dragon here! You can buy everything at your nearest supermarket for crying in a bucket! Okay, it wasn’t cheap. But then nothing is cheap when you’re buying with a few bruised and battered rands. But on my chicken index (closely related to the Big Mac index and, inexplicably, my scale of choice for comparing prices on this particular trip) this plate of gastronomic grub had only cost 1.2 chickens before tax and a tip. And we found the same thing everywhere. Both the food and service was exceptional. It didn’t really matter whether we were doing fine dining at C Restaurant or just having fish and chips at the first place we found in Qualicum Beach. So why is it so hard to get the same thing here? It’s not because we don’t have the talent in South Africa. You need only venture beyond the borders of Mossel Bay and Sedgefield to get generally good food and service. And a trip to any of our local markets will quickly dismiss any suggestion that it could be a lack of excellent, fresh produce. It’s the mentality of this town when it comes to all things foodie and the mentality of South Africans in general when it comes to demanding to get what you paid for. If The Cactus Club had to open a location in George they’d be gone within a year. And a Wimpy would probably spring up in its place.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Wimpy. A Wimpy coffee and a breakfast is the highlight of any rainbow blooded South African’s every road trip. But there is a time and a place. And Saturday morning – so close to the Wild Oats Farmers’ Market in Sedgefield that you could brain a stall holder with a well aimed Mega coffee – is not the place. And yet, there they sit in their droves: Garden Routers who would rather eat yet another Wimpy breakfast than have anything as outlandish as a crispy potato rösti topped with salmon, a poached egg and real Hollandaise sauce from the market. For the same price. And THAT is why we don’t get food like we did in Canada, in George. Because we don’t ask for it. We are happy to pay for mediocre food and atrocious service, clandestinely murmuring our dissatisfaction to our fellow diners, but never daring to raise our objections with the owners of the establishment.
We need to be more discerning. More demanding. If you’re going to pay a ten percent tip to your waitron anyway, shouldn’t they at least clear your plates in a timely fashion and fill your wine glass before it is empty? If you’re going to fork out money for a plate of calamari, shouldn’t it at least be a good plate of calamari? There is a restaurant in town (that shall remain nameless) that was always a favourite of ours for really, really good seafood. But they’ve been, well, total crap of late. We tried three times and the outcome was the same. And while we will never go back, it is still jam packed when you drive past there, because the clientele just doesn’t seem to care. So how will they ever get better? They’ll just keep turning out the same plates of mediocre food to an undemanding audience, because they CAN.
I understand that you know what a Wimpy breakfast tastes like, and that that is why you will keep going back there. I get it. But there are 5 Wimpy’s in George alone. Five! Yet restaurants like Margot’s, Tarragon’s and Sunsutra didn’t make it. No one wants to try a lamb burger with chermoula when they know exactly what a Spur burger tastes like. I have seen local menu’s change from iced berries with hot white chocolate to ice cream with hot chocolate sauce (oh, the *yawn* excitement) and the concomitant extinction of that little spark in the restaurateurs eyes. And when you look again, they’re gone. So next time you’re in the area, why not stop at the Wild Oats market and have a fresh roll topped with fluffy, creamy scrambled eggs and perfectly crisp bacon instead of your usual? Just once. Support the brilliant food stalls at the Outeniqua Farmers’ Market on a Saturday. Live totally on the edge and have a croquette or Thai chicken curry for lunch. Have dinner at The Old Townhouse for a change and try one of their biltong, feta and peppadew springrolls or one of Dario’s weekly specials using the freshest seasonal ingredients at La Locanda. Surely fresh asparagus with parmesan cream sounds more appealing than yet another salad bar? It’s not that scary! Try it. You’ll probably like it.
Anyhoo. On to the cooking.
We might not be discerning when it comes to restaurants, but if there’s one thing we know here, it’s braaiing. Real braaiing. On wood and everything. We were only gone for four weeks, but we suffered some major smoke withdrawal! So in the spirit of adventure, why not try these chicken satays the next time you light the fire. If you’re a true Georgian, the fish sauce will scare you. But give it a bash anyway! If you don’t like it, you can just have sosaties again tomorrow. And you know Wimpy will always be there with an old faithful standby.
See more Thai recipes from Darlene Schmidt here.
- 12 skinless chicken thighs, or 6 chicken breasts cut into thin strips or 2cm cubes
- package wooden skewers – soak in water for an hour or so before use
- ¼ cup minced lemongrass (If you don’t have one of these in your garden, plant one as soon as possible! They grow with no attention whatsoever and make a fabulous addition to iced tea, sparkling wine and of course all things Thai.)
- 1 small onion, sliced
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1-2 fresh red chillies, sliced or to taste (I omit this cause I’m a sissy)
- 1 thumb-size piece ginger, thinly sliced
- ½ tsp. dried turmeric
- 2 Tbsp. ground coriander
- 2 tsp. cumin
- 3 Tbsp. dark soy sauce
- 4 Tbsp. fish sauce (Essential! Don’t leave it out.)
- 5-6 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- Place all marinade ingredients in a food processor or blend with a stick blender until smooth. Now sniff it. Seriously. It smells sooooo good! And sommer dunk your finger in there too for a taste.
- Place the chicken in a bowl, pour the marinade over the meat and stir well to combine. Allow at least 1 hour or longer for marinating (up to 24 hours).
- When ready to cook, thread meat onto the skewers, leaving the bottom quarter of the skewer open for gripping. Grill the satay on the braai or on a griddle pan on the stove. They should take about 15 minutes.
- Serve with rice and satay peanut dipping sauce. I am yet to find one that conjures memories of Thailand, but this one, also by Darlene Schmidt, is pretty good.