From Source To Sauce: African Relish Cookery School

South Africa is fast becoming one of the world’s top foodie destinations. In this article we would like to take you away from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist hot spots, into an area of serene, understated beauty. Prince Albert is a small town, founded in 1762, on the southern edge of the Great Karoo, nestling under the Swartberg mountain range. It is one of the prettiest towns in the veld, boasting no less that 13 National Monument buildings amongst its Cape Dutch, Karoo and British colonial Victorian architecture. It is against this backdrop that the pioneering spirit of three passionate food lovers led to the creation of a unique and inspirational cookery school, African Relish. At The Foodie Bugle we are greedy and nosey in equal measure, so we asked one of the co-founders, Lisa Key, to tell us all about it.

The story of African Relish – by Lisa Key

In the South African outback, the semi-desert rangeland of the Karoo, at the base of the Swartberg mountains, lies the small town of Prince Albert. With fresh running mountain water in pavement canals, farm holdings that border the town, olive, almond and fig groves, vegetable and herb gardens, vineyards and dairies, this community has become a secret mecca for foodie travellers from all over the world.

We are very proud that one of their destinations is our cookery school, the African Relish Recreational Cooking School, established by myself and my husband Philip Key, along with a friend, Jeremy Freemantle, in 2009.

The African Relish story begins some years ago, when Philip and I went on a ‘second honeymoon’ road trip along Route 62, over the Swartberg Pass, and entered the town of Prince Albert for the first time.  Immediately we fell in love with the charm and beauty of this peaceful backwater and within 24 hours we found themselves putting in an offer on an old labourer’s cottage on the main road, 34 Church Street. Once the cottage was ours, we soon planted the olive orchard and saw the potential for a recreational cooking school nestled amongst the trees and abundance of fresh produce. Long time friends, Jeremy and Di Freemantle, joined us for long weekend visits from Cape Town and shared the vision which has since become African Relish. Jeremy left corporate life to live in Prince Albert: he too got the Karoo “bug”.

Mere concepts for the cookery school became real designs from friend and architect Antony Abate and soon detailed building plans were in the hands of town builder Hendrik de Villiers. The culinary hall was built with the kitchen detail, equipment and decor finessed by Jacques Erasmus. African Relish bought a cottage for the purpose of creating guest accommodation, called Deurdrif, and it was renovated by Piet Koot and decorated by Jacques and design student Olivia Train. Olivia and I organised the rebuild and decoration of two more guest cottages, Akkedis & Doringbos with heritage plans and applications from resident architect John Whitton, and two dip pools were also created. The cookery school is now managed by Virna Gouws. The team was in place, and our dreams were now a working reality, as we welcomed our first cookery school students and guests.

We are often asked by visitors about our food philosophy and programme structure. African Relish has been developed to embrace the simple magic of cooking, as a unique, life-enhancing  opportunity for visitors to this part of South Africa to spend time in our kitchen with great local chefs. Courses include dishes that reflect the numerous influences of South African cuisine such as Dutch, Indonesian, British, Asian and Jewish. Our ingredients are fresh, organic and governed by the changing seasons, which in this part of the world include really hot summers, but, thankfully, relatively mild winters, and fresh, rainy springs. Moreover, they reflect the core and heritage of South Africa’s diverse gastronomy including Cape Malay, Afrikaner and Pan African recipes. Students are encouraged to explore the ancient landscape, gather fresh ingredients and flowers for the next cooking lesson from the kitchen garden and, of course, spend time with good company over leisurely meals.

We offer a range of themed and seasonal cooking courses for foodie explorers. Products include a 5-day Food Lovers course and a culinary cycle experience (with partners, Bike & Saddle). Developing and marketing the cooking school has entailed a great deal of work, and numerous themed weekend cooking courses, master classes and demonstrations have taken place to spread the word.

Our own restaurant for fine Karoo dining has proved popular with locals and visitors who want to eat the traditional dishes of this area. Executive chef Vanie Padayachee spent two years with African Relish from before it opened until February 2011, assisting in the development of the school, establishing the kitchen and training staff.

Our most popular courses include: “Indian Fusion in the Karoo” with British personality chef Reza Mahammad showing his take on contemporary Karoo cuisine; chocolate making; artisan bread making in our wood fired oven; “True Karoo” with local gourmand Bokkie Botha and a celebration of seasonal, local dishes with Jeremy Freemantle. Jeremy also introduces guests to the recipes of C. Louis Leipoldt, author of the seminal work “Cape Cookery”, describing the the veldkos (wild plants) of the Khoi. Ancient biblical dishes and stories are shared with food historian Oded Schwartz who is also renowned for his lessons in pickling & preserving. Master classes include pastry making and sauce making with Jacques Erasmus. Visiting chefs and cooking celebrities include Ciro Molinaro for “An Italian take on the Karoo”, food blogger extraordinaire Andy Fenner (Twitter: @JamieWhoSA) who brings a new sense of fun and innovation into our kitchen.

We also make sure that all our guests partake in the activities of the town: the Saturday morning market; visits to Gay’s Guernsey dairy with its award-winning cheeses; the numerous olive groves and oil presses, the fig farm, vineyards and many food producers that stock our pantry are happy to share visits with guests.

These excursions along with a ghost walk around town, and guided archaeological and botanical walks, hikes and cycling in the Swartberg mountain range mean that there is something for everyone, particularly if one member of the family does not wish to take part in the cookery school, but prefers outdoor activities.

Winter in the African Relish kitchen produces dishes like bobotie, Venison pie, skilpadjies, bredies and Cape Malay curries. Early spring vegetables include peas, broad beans, artichokes, fennel bulbs, salad and mustard greens sprouted with such abundance that we battle to keep up. Many creative dishes are conceived to ensure that all this spring bounty is not wasted. Our shelves are full of blatjang (chutney) and konfyt (jam). Summer sees an abundance of grapes, figs, stoned fruit and plentiful vegetables for recipes such as tomato consommé, fig frangipane, slow cooked lamb shank, summer soups and salads, seasonal vegetables, ripe figs, Boeremeisies (apricots in syrup) pork and grappa plus exotics such as ostrich or indigenous African ingredients like Maroggo and Madumbis.

There are many events lined up for the future. We are really excited that Reza Mahammad will be returning to African Relish for two consecutive weekends in July 2011. We have also been invited to participate in a South African Tourism publicity campaign showcasing our culinary heritage. We will participate in the Eat & Style food and lifestyle exhibition in Cologne and Munich in November 2011, and we are thrilled to be attending the FoodWineDesign Fair in Johannesburg later this year to celebrate our towns’ food heroes.

African Relish will be launching a wine-kitchen and food shop this year that will stock a range of kitchenware, deli-style products and boutique wines. We will also serve alfresco bistro meals during the day. This month we are honoured to be hosting an event with Renata Coetzee, South Africa’s doyenne of culinary heritage and research. She will be talking about the origins of the Khoi-Khoin culinary culture and ‘veldkos’. We also have the brilliant Roxanne Floquet coming to conduct a masterclass in cake decorating.

The whole team at African Relish looks forward to welcoming you to our little corner of paradise, and to sharing with you our passion and enthusiasm for Karoo cookery, right from our garden gate to your dinner plate.

Enquiries: [email protected] or [email protected]

Reservations: [email protected]

Address: 34 Church Street, Prince Albert, 6930 South Africa.

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