Famed chef Valentine Warner forages in East Cape this week

FOOD FIRST: British celebrity chef Valentine Warner is visiting the Eastern Cape. Picture: Jake Gavin

By Louise Liebenberg

HE IS known around the world and in South Africa for his hit British series What to Eat Now, but Valentine Warner’s mission this week was to discover what Eastern Cape folks are eating right now.

The celebrated British television chef and author of several cookery books – including best-selling titles What to Eat Now and What to Eat Now: More Please! – arrived in Port Elizabeth on Monday.

Known for his passion for seasonal cooking and “foraged food”, he spent the week at  Mantis establishments the Oceana Beach and Wildlife Reserve, and Shamwari Game Reserve, where he explored traditional cooking techniques like baking bread in a disused termite mound, and tried his hand at local ingredients like warthog, impala and guinea fowl.

Anyone who has watched his shows will know Valentine is a keen “outdoors man” who is as happy in the kitchen as being out and about a basket or, more probably, a fishing-rod.

Recognising Valentine’s passion for wilderness, fresh produce and foraged food, Mantis and the Shamwari Group challenged Valentine to create a sumptuous feast at Oceana and Shamwari this week. Valentine is also visiting Shamwari Townhouse in Port Elizabeth to share culinary stories with the head chef there.

His food journey began in early childhood already. The Warners always had strong links to the land but interestingly, Valentine’s father, Sir Frederick Warner, was also British ambassador to Japan in the early to mid-1970s, which exposed his young sons to an exciting world of interesting and unusual ingredients and flavours.

Valentine himself initially trained as a portrait painter before “putting down the brush to pick up the spoon”.  He worked in restaurants in London for eight years, including under the likes of one of my old favourites, Alastair Little, as well as Rose Carrarini, before setting up his own catering company called Green Pea.

Today he is a familiar face on television. His What to Eat Now series was popular in South Africa as well when screened on BBC Lifestyle, and it led to his first two cookery books which were a sell-out success.

He recently filmed Ration Book Britain for a UK television channel, and we hope it will head to South Africa before long. Valentine’s third book, The Good Table, is due to be published by Penguin in September 2011 and, like the other titles, will also be available in South Africa.

Valentine has contributed to UK titles The Times, The Observer, The Telegraph, The Mail and writes regularly for delicious and Country File magazines.

He lives in West London with his wife & daughter.

Scroll down on the blog below for Valentine’s recipe for “Dad’s Prawn Curry” from his forthcoming book, and for a Q&A with this down-to-earth chef.

HEARTY: Val Warner is making “Dad’s prawn curry”. Picture: Supplied

Recipe: Dad’s prawn curry

Valentine’s father was British Ambassador in Laos during the 1960s and this is a curry influenced by the cooking of French-colonised Asia that he passed on.

“He used to make it with packets of standard-issue peeled Atlantic prawns when it was just us three mice and the cat was away,” Valentine recalls in The Good Table. “My brother and I would literally count the prawns on our plates to make sure we had the same amount. One prawn difference guaranteed unrest, a subsequent clip over the ear and a ruined evening. Dad was the only person we did not object to having more – as long my brother and I had the same.”

Valentine says he likes to use Bolst’s brand of curry powder, “in its fetching little tins, which are very handy for fishing weights or picture hooks and the like”. This brand is not available in South Africa, but any mild curry powder would do.

Serves 4

Ingredients

A good pinch of saffron threads; 1 Tbsp hot water; 35g butter; 1 medium onion, finely chopped; 2 small bay leaves; seeds from 10 green cardamom pods, crushed, husks reserved; a grating of nutmeg; flaked sea salt; 1 small hard garlic clove, 
finely chopped;

2 good tsp mild curry powder; 75ml vermouth; 150ml coconut milk; a small handful of flaked almonds; 600g cooked peeled large Atlantic prawns; 75–100ml double cream; buttered rice, to serve

Method

Place the saffron in a teacup, pour over the hot water and leave to one side.

Melt the butter in a heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Cook the onion with the bay leaves, cardamom seeds and husks, nutmeg and a large pinch of salt for 6 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, or until the onion softens and turns golden. Add the garlic and curry powder, stirring constantly for a minute longer so as not to let the garlic burn. Pour in the vermouth and, just before it has all evaporated, tip in the coconut milk and the saffron with its water.

Turn off the heat. Toast the almonds in another pan with no oil over a medium heat, stirring occasionally. When golden, transfer to a small bowl.

Put the prawns into the curry sauce and, returning it to the heat, bring it to a gentle simmer (do not boil it!). Cook for a couple of minutes before swirling 
in the cream. Season carefully and scatter with the toasted almonds.

Make sure it is evenly divided and eat with buttered rice.

Q&A: Valentine Warner

1. When and how did your culinary journey start?

As a child I was always stuffing everything into my mouth, it’s how I understood the world although occasionally it lead to a few problems i.e. eating fertiliser on the farm where I lived. Both my parents were brilliant cooks, my mother never lost for ideas and my father’s kitchen practices being more complicated and operatic. We travelled a lot and food was a major part of our holidays; Warners are the greediest family I know. I also think growing up in the country instilled in me the important link between food and nature. Know what grows in your land and you have more options.

2. What prompted you to change your career path from art to food?

In my bedsit when I was a student on my two-ring hob I would experiment with octopus and goat. I realised after leaving college although my career as a painter was doing reasonably well, I spent far more time thinking about food. One morning sitting in a café I made a very quick decision to put down the brush and pick up the spoon. It was the clearest decision of my life.

3. You place great value on seasonal cooking using locally produced ingredients. Has this ethos always been a part of your life and why is it so important to you?

Yes, it has always been part of my life. My parents were always bringing the outside indoors to the kitchen. We produced a lot of fruit and vegetables and it seemed a totally natural way to eat. Seasonal cooking urges the cook to try different dishes with the same ingredient until the affair is over and the new produce comes in. It encourages adventurousness. The year becomes an endless succession of treats and above all mother nature gives us the very things we need for our climate during the seasons. Why on earth would I want to eat strawberries with snow falling outside? The national fridge seems to have the same ingredients in it week in and week out. I see this as a great shame; it’s no wonder we are losing so much of our food culture. Seasonal produce tastes better than jet-lagged imports.

4. You have a new cookery book coming out in September. How have you approached it this time around and how is it different from what you have done before?

With the new book I have been given a little more free reign as it is not attached to any television series. I have pushed a lot more of the ingredients that I think we have become scared of and also hopefully made people aware there’s so much you can cook from fresh that can feed a family for far less than the equivalent spent on ready meals. Hopefully for al those who say they don’t have time to cook, this book provides options, ultimately I have called it the Good Table because I se the table as integral to family life and symbol of the important role that food plays day to day for each of us.

It’s really about cooking and the idea that a plate of food is also everything involved in it from field to fork – country atmosphere, people and animals. I don’t think recipes should be simply a list of uniform instructions so I’ve really attempted to explain how things should be. If chives need chopping very finely maybe its better to say chop the size of mosquito bracelets, as it’s why I love writing so much.

I do urge you, however, to get away from timings and taste your food regularly.

5. South Africans are familiar with What to Eat Now, but the Ration Book Britain series has not yet been seen here by most viewers. What can they look forward to?

The contributors in the series were amazing, they had some moving stories and sometimes telling them to us I think brought up some really strong emotions. It’s also fantastic to know that in the face of a common enemy we can all pull together and become inventive, ingenious, sharing supporting. It wasn’t so much that food during rationing tasted bad but rather it was difficult to endure it for 15 years. I expected to like none of the food but some if it was really alright.

7. You learnt from greats like Alistair Little (love him, still have some of his books!) What was he like as a man and a chef, and what was the greatest lesson he taught you?

Alastair Little is the greatest cook I have even worked for, to talk to about food with him is absolutely riveting. He was kind and very good at telling you why you were doing something. I think what I came away with was a good understanding of logic when applied to cooking. He really showed me that if something has been pulled form the ground, or dragged out of the sea, or pulled out of the sky, the greatest respect shown is by using the ingredient to all its capabilities.

In that kitchen we wasted very little. He was king of the shortcuts but the shortcuts always worked, as well as showing me that quite often the recipes of others could really lose a few of the steps. Above all his food was utterly delicious, be it stews for cold winter or interesting salads for high summer. He is one of the great heroes of British cooking and why our food is what it is today.

8. Have you visited South Africa before and what do you expect to find on your foodie journey to the Eastern Cape?

Yes I have visited SA before. I went to Johannesburg which I found a very strange place, huge and spread out with no centre like London. I felt lost. I have travelled extensively around the world to some pretty dangerous places, but I felt uneasy in Johannesburg at night. The Cape area was very beautiful and I have friends there which always makes it nicer. Kruger National Park blew me away. Lying in bed with only canvas around you hearing the zebra, lions and hippos is my idea of heaven. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, the stars twinkled, there was no light pollution or people and I felt very happy. In the Eastern cape I do not know what I will find, but I’m excited about finding it.

9. What in your view does South Africa have going for it on the food front?

On the food front SA has so much going for it. A lot of the food that I ate around the Cape town wine areas Franschoek was delicious and I ate some great food in Cape Town itself. Some of the places I visited I ate in Johannesburg were caught in a nouvelle cuisine time warp as I’m not one for stacks or towers or duck in strawberry sauce (a low point). Being a huge lover of street food I went straight to Soweto had some memorable curried goat.

10. Do you know of any South African chefs and does anyone in particular stand out for you?

No, I don’t know of any SA chefs. I have Justin Bonello’s book though. I like his easy-going approach – cook what you find with a big forager element. It’s exactly the kind of food I want to eat when I’m out in the wilds – simple, robust and tasty.

11. What do you consider to be the biggest food myth?

That good food has to be complicated is often a mistake restaurants make. There are a lot of places that try too hard, some parts of a dish being too many and executed badly rather than much less done well. I have also never worked in a kitchen that was violent or shouty, you don’t need to. I can’t bear ego in the kitchen, it doesn’t help people learn.

12. Does your wife share your love of cooking – and what kind of food would you typically cook for your own family at home?

No, being a Kent farming girl she likes simple things. I love the fact that she knows what she likes, although it is frustrating for me at times. She is a very good cook but does not enjoy it. Her pastry she can make with her eyes closed, it’s always fantastic but the recipe is different every time. Having lived in Argentina for four years she makes the best empanadas I have ever eaten.

13. What is a favourite three-course meal you might prepare for your own dinner guests at home?

For Autumn I would say a socking great plate of razor clams grilled with hazelnuts and tomatoes, a dark and inky plate of jugged hare and then an apple snow or some great English cheese – we’ve got very good at it and make more cheese than the French now, apparently.

14. Do you have a favourite kitchen tip, trick or secret that you can be persuaded to share?

Cook only what you have the time to do well. There are many things that can be cobbled together in 5 or 10 minutes, so often you see people trying to do too much in the time given. How easy is a simple lunch of broad beans, mixed with torn Iberico ham, splash of olive oil and sherry vinegar? Life doesn’t need to be more complicated. Tiny amounts of leftover food put in large storage containers drives me bonkers and is such a waste of fridge space. Think about something before you throw it away, because very often it will have another use. Pea pods make a great soup & stale bread makes many good puddings.

15. What are your five essential store-cupboard staples and why?

Vinegar – excellent for seasoning stews, soups and salads. I carry many different types, each one having their particular use. I would never use sherry vinegar on a pickled egg, it’s a very English thing. I would use malt vinegar.

Mustards – essential for suet puddings, mayonnaise etc. Again, if eating with sauerkraut use German mustard, if making Lapine A La Moutarde use Dijon. Steak and kidney pie, it’s got to be English.

Anchovies – I am obsessed with anchovies and love cooking them with meat. They are fantastic with fried eggs and sage, their uses are endless. I eat more than a colony of gannet.

Spices – My spice cupboard is endless, I like to grind my own as well. If I choose to cook a curry I want to have everything I might need and this applies to every cuisine I might want to cook, subsequently I have a lot of spices.

Sugars – Sugars are all so very different so I have everything from caster to very sticky black treacle.

16. What is your most indispensable kitchen tool or gadget, and why? And the most over-rated?

Well, I might argue that’s its my fishing rod or gun as without them my table would not be so varied, but in pure kitchen terms all the utensils I have are highly practical and functional, so really it’s impossible to choose. I do have a square boiled egg maker. I haven’t used it since I was 10 but don’t have the heart to throw it away.

17. Finally, if you could choose a last meal on earth, what would it be and why?

Before I had the blindfold put over my eyes and was guided to the white wall I think it would have to be ham and parsley sauce with all the poached vegetables and a large bottle of cider. It makes me think of home, it makes me think of England and it makes me smile… Good things before you hear the words “Ready, Aim, Fire!”

Useful links

http://www.valentinewarner.com/

http://www.mantiscollection.com/

http://www.shamwari.com/

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