Pictures: THEANA BREUGEM
Chef Rachel Botes is all about brilliance. DIANE DE BEER mourns the loss of her much loved Carlton Café Delicious which recently closed its doors after 16 years of excellence but celebrates the potential this unleashes for this genius food mind in the future:
Looking back, moving forward was the title of something described as an inspirational discussion presented by Weylandts Kramerville on design and lifestyle trends recently. And the person I was really focussed on was the woman responsible for all the magic at our dearly departed Carlton Café Delicious in Menlyn a few weeks back.
And while mourning all round happened in Pretoria café circles, Rachel junkies like myself, though sad about the demise of this particularly delicious deli, also knew that perhaps the universe was having its way with this forward-thinking chef whose talents were sometimes overlooked by those who should know better. Not only has she been busy writing her first cookbook with venison the topic du jour but she is also knee-deep in studies on the historical background of the iconic melktert (milk tart).
And it was specifically the future venison book that was the topic of her conversation on the day; the fact that it is the cleanest and most sustainable meat available. “Food is my design and my colour; venison is my passion.” That’s how this chef, butcher and future author describes her focus and it’s clear that this is a talent that refuses to go away.
Tapping into the topic of the day, she explained that memories and nostalgia have always been an inspiration for her food. But just in case you think you can pin her food choices down, her recipes for the day and in advance of the venison book to come, include leg of venison with pineapple peels and banana, wrapped in fig leaves; venison rusks; and biltong cheesecake with preserved quinces and goat’s cheese. She also notes that the recipes will all be interchangeable with beef, lamb and pork if venison is not your choice or perhaps not available.
It is to hear her speak about the individual recipes to understand where her food brain wanders. Sheep-fat rusks, for example, is a Karoo special and she wanted to include a version of this in the book. What she has done, because venison doesn’t boast the kind of fat necessary for the rusks, was to include shredded impala in the dough mixture. “It pairs magnificently with coffee,” she says.
Using the pineapple skins and banana as a tenderiser for the meat in her leg of venison and then wrapping it in fig leaves, she loves the way all the flavours permeate the meat. And in case you’re wondering, when your fig tree has leaves, that’s when you preserve them, to have their availability all year round.
The biltong cheesecake was a no-brainer. As South Africans we’ve always liked something sweet with our meat, she confides, so this cheesecake straddles that savoury/sweet conundrum and it could go either way.
This is exactly who Rachel Botes is. She cannot call halt when it comes to imagination and innovation. It is her goal to turn venison into the star she and her sponsor, Sollie Potgieter, believe it should be. His wife (Elize) and his passion is Burkea Wild where they farm mainly with Livingstone eland, buffalo, sable and oryx.
She met the couple when they started coming to her deli 15 years ago and discovered they had similar food desires and dreams.
She points to days when we all knew where our food came from. “There were trust relationships between a client and her butcher or grocer,” she reminds us, and this is something she believes should be part of our food culture again. And while this cannot happen in the way it did in the past, we could still endeavour to create these relationships where we can in the interest of our health and good living.
While there isn’t a regular supply for venison and we cannot just order a kudu rump or a springbok sirloin at will, with a stronger demand it could be more and better controlled. With her book, which will be titled Antelope, she hopes to start an education process that will inform those interested in food and their health. “I would rather opt for these free-range animals than those injected with hormones,” she adds.
When she first started investigating the recipes available on venison, she turned to what she refers to as “compilation albums”, those recipe books put together by schools and churches and sold to raise funds. Her starting point has always been to respect what she is working with and when it’s venison, that’s not a tough ask. With her first encounter with an enormous kudu carcass, she had to find a bigger kitchen to accommodate this craziness. It was quite intimidating, but she also realised that she loved working with this extraordinary meat. “I have such respect because I know I’m working with something special,” she explains.
If you think venison is not your kind of meat, Botes will be the one to persuade you differently. Those of us who know and have sampled her food often, understand her extraordinary ability to create something completely different from something we thought we all knew.
And in Pretoria, while Cartlon Café Delicious has left a gaping hole in our culinary chest, Botes will be back. That is already clear with what she has been up to this year without knowing that impossible rentals would unexpectedly rush a closure which would have come in the not too distant future anyway. But with venison and milk tart a part of her everyday thinking at present, it won’t take long before she pulls all her dedicated followers into some kind of version of her food fantasies.
She has many. But she is still mulling about her future with many of her ideas in an early state of osmosis. When she returns, it won’t be quietly.
The book titled Antelope is the first to appear – in January 2019. So, watch out for that and follow news on her progress on Instagram and facebook: @rachelsdelicious.