96 Winery Road. 26 April 2006

Today there was a great deal that was discussed “off the record”. But I can tell you that the Hungry Man declared that he does not like balsamic reduction. Regrettably, he forgot this detail, remembering only after his order of guinea fowl with said reduction on mash arrived as his main course. Given this global dislike (it’s too sweet he says) I would have preferred to have his main course in front of me instead of my happiness-threatening eland potjie.

It’s only a few days later, as I write this, that I realise our meal resembled some butcher’s sampling of the ark. Eland, guinea fowl, ostrich, duck – we ate them all. Eland is probably the biggest of the big antelope that roam the Southern African countryside, and it’s a very rich venison meat. A potjie (say “poi-key”) is both a black cast iron pot that’s used on the open fire to make a stew, and a style of cooking – slowly, with the various ingredients layered in said cast iron pot and never stirred during the cooking process. The secret to a good potjie is something that certain individuals take very seriously, a legacy passed through generations like a lace coverlet for a sugar bowl or a ceramic poodle on a mantelpiece. The secrets are usually revealed around the fire after a few too many, but then the listeners tend to have forgotten the next morning, so the potjie arts tend to remain dark.

My potjie on this day was dire. I was plunged into something of an instant depression, since this was a very sad event at a restaurant that I had looked forward to returning to for months now. I felt uneasy as soon as I tasted the rice – basmati that was wet and soft, not steamed, and a strange blue colour as if there was copper in the water. The venison had that powerful liverish smell that comes of an antelope that has not been shot at rest but rather in a state of agitation, with the adrenaline surging acridly through its veins. Plus it was tough and dry. Plus the stew was unrelentingly and only meat, with nary a bit of colour or vegetable to relieve the palate. Only the inedible rice. Now call me a sissy, but I like my meat stews to have a bit of colour besides the various shades of animal protein.

But let’s take a few steps back to a happier time. To the ordering of the wine. There is a moment in every visit to a restaurant, my favourite moment, when you sit down and the menus are in front of you, unopened. The potential lies in wait, the prospects of a good wine, of a fine meal, and the anticipation. That first order, the wine, is a serene beginning, a hopeful step into the field of pleasures. The first sip, the first physical interaction, is exciting every time. The eating has begun. From here things tend always to happen too fast, conversation and the timed arrival of the food pushing you through the hours at a pace that you often want to slow down.

For us a glass of the Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc was perfect – delicious on its own but especially good with my shredded duck in pastry, with bit of spice and sweet-sour onions. They called this dish a duck triangle firecracker or something along these lines and it was tasty but by no means anything pyrotechnical. The Hungry Man ate some ostrich carpaccio that had a tuna sauce on top with capers, similar to a tonnato. Menu envy was already circling me like the vultures of ennui.

Then a bottle of The Foundry Syrah 2003. This is one of the best exponents of Cape shiraz around (which is why it’s called Syrah?). Elegant, lithe, fruity but not cloying. No tarriness, no jamminess, no over-powering oak sweetness. Hallelujah. But little did we know that this, the mid-point in our lunch, with so much still to look forward to, was actually the zenith. The vultures descend.

We had reached the climax and did not know it, because fate, on this day, was about to deal us those above-mentioned main courses, the poor eland, the balsamic-besmirched guinea. Our beautiful syrah at the ready for the main event, we were sliding inexorably towards disappointment. Ain’t that a lesson in life.

Not even our crude attempt at making ourselves happier with the dessert platter worked, for this was a pedestrian selection of dainties, perhaps lifted by the crème brulée, but by then I was too sombre to be kind. Plus the Hungry Man’s next sudden phone call announced that he was late for a meeting and my hopes of pepping myself up with an espresso and grappa in his company faded into the reality of bills to pay and roads to iron.

I hate to leave it there. Let me at least say that the company was great. Let me also add that the Hungry Man furnished me with great tales of derring-do at tables across the city of Durban and the east coast. Socket-searing curry and serenely tailored waiters. The distant call of meals still unrealised feels like the stirrings of hope.