The Cow Shed at Spier was the dramatic setting for the first of the Toffie Food Festival's secret dinners, where TASTE'S Abigail Donnelly dazzled diners with a surprise feast.
When it launched three years ago, The Toffie Pop Culture Festival was a niche event with a sprinkling of in-the-know followers. It’s now a popular highlight on Cape Town’s cultural calendar, attracting a slew of forward-thinking local and international speakers in the design, art, culinary and publishing fields.
This year, the two-day food fair is happened at Spier Wine Farm in Stellenbosch and the theme was The Secret Festival.
As with previous Toffie festivals, an esteemed bunch of chefs and foodies revealed fresh perspectives and innovative ideas in a series of presentations, talks, tastings and workshops.
Not only were there some very high-profile international food designers and artists, like the Jellymongers from London and the OFF MENU team from Barcelona, but exciting hands-on outdoor activities were also on the agenda.
In addition to the Saturday wine-and food market and the Sunday Eat Out braaioff, age-old family recipes were divulged by some of the country’s top chefs.
But what we were most excited about were the 20 secret dinners, which were hosted – in association with TASTE – at private homes around Stellenbosch.
It’s quite something to find yourself in a stranger’s home, breaking bread with 10 people you’ve never clapped eyes on!
The first secret dinner at The Cow Shed, specially filmed for an episode of Pasella, offered a revealing glimpse into what guests can expect. Considering the theme, I knew we were in for an evening of surprises.
My curiosity was piqued when, upon entering the venue, we were handed a pin and greeted by a roomful of white balloons that completely concealed the dining area.
“Pop the balloons with your pins,” instructed the evening’s hostess and chef extraordinaire Abigail Donnelly. And just like that, our dinner table was exposed.
When the first course arrived, my fellow diners and I leaned forward simultaneously to try and make out what was hidden beneath the smoke-filled glass domes we had been presented.
As we lifted the cloches, the smoke wafted upwards, exposing a delicate portion of perfectly smoked mussels.
WATCH THE BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO OF THE FIRST TOFFIE FOOD FESTIVAL'S SECRET DINNER:
For mains, we had to crack a dome of rock salt to reveal ostrich tartare served with a deep-fried quail egg. Ingeniously, the salt shield doubled as seasoning. Spier’s 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2010 was the perfect accompaniment to our meal, not only because its well-balanced fruity nose complemented the ostrich superbly, but also because this lesser-known varietal is one of the Cape’s best-kept wine secrets.
Conveniently, Spier’s marketing manager Marina Vermeulen, a qualified winemaker herself, was seated next to me, so I quizzed her about South Africa’s most widely planted grape.
Previously only used for cheap “box” wines and brandy, Chenin Blanc received a status upgrade in the late 90s, when winemakers started using it to make rich, heavily oaked wines.
SA is currently recognised as one of the best producers of Chenin Blanc, on par with France. Diverse styles of this wine will be revealed at the festival by the Chenin Blanc Association.
Hidden inside a caramelised-sugar pillar, the peanut-butter crème brûlée was a revelation in more ways than one.
Soft and creamy on the inside, with a crunchy shortbread crust on the outside and a dab of salted strawberries on the side – you had to see and taste it to believe it.
By that stage, I’d guzzled more than a polite quantity of Chenin Blanc, so when a fellow diner couldn’t eat hers due to a nut allergy, I helped her clear her plate, which she passed to me, secretly, of course.
By Malibongwe Tyilo, for the August 2012 issue of Woolworths TASTE magazine
MORE INFO ON THE SECRET FESTIVAL: