CRADOCK - Cold here is not the same as cold in Cape Town.
If I say it’s a little warmer here than Sutherland, the supposedly cold heart of South Africa, I mean it in a relative way. Whether it’s 2ºC or 4ºC , or for that matter 7ºC , it has pretty much the same effect, and you have to get on with your day no matter what.
Sure, it will get to below zero here in the weeks to come, but that doesn’t scare me, because cold is cold, and you can fend off the worst of it by three layers of clothes topped with the zip-up rainproof camping jacket you bought for a New York winter two years ago. And after standing with your shoes in snow in Central Park having woken on your first ever morning in America, and the thrill of seeing the skyscrapers rising through the barren trees under a clear blue Manhattan sky, it takes more than a bitter chill to destroy your spirits.
The icy climate at this time of year in the Eastern Cape has made me think of the many times friends in Cape Town have complained that “it’s freezing” outside. Seriously, guys, 12ºC is not anything like what this feels like. Unless, that is, you add the wind factor, as anyone who has taken a stroll along the Sea Point promenade on one of those blustery deep winter days can attest.
But one of the things we do miss here is those gorgeous June days in the Mother City when the Weather Gods bestow a blue sky, no detectable wind and surprisingly friendly temperatures. You can’t deny it, but you may have forgotten it – and you’re in for lots of those this month. Not that I’m envious or anything.
I also remember the four years of living in West Sussex, England, at this time of the year. It wasn’t the cold that I found depressing. It was the seemingly endless ceiling of grey above your head that suppressed my southern spirit. Those days in Manhattan and Cape Town come instantly to mind. The brilliance of the blue sky provides another kind of warmth, and happily that is something we have in Cradock in winter too. There’s relatively little by way of a grey ceiling, mostly it’s sunny or at least partly sunny. Or partly cloudy, depending on whether you’re a sky-half full or sky-half-empty sort of person.
The house we’ve bought in Cradock is big and lovely, with floors that we found buried under nasty 1970s carpets and restored with three coats of varnish and a good deal of other people’s elbow grease. But the downside of these large, high-ceilinged rooms is that they hold the cold, just as they stave off the worst of the summer heat.
So it’s the time of year for turning on the oven and getting a casserole into it for slow cooking over many hours.
To warm us up this week I decided to make a good old-fashioned casserole, in a big ceramic Liebermann crock pot we’ve had forever and which no longer has its lid. I improvised with foil tucked tightly beneath the rim.
I had bought some rounds of lamb neck, perfect for a curry, but decided to do something different. I was going to cook brinjals as well, but a series of electric shocks changed my mind. We’d had the stove moved from the restaurant kitchen to my home kitchen that morning, and something had gone wrong with the installation. Seven shocks later, including one from touching the side of a metal pot which was on a hob which wasn’t even turned on, I finally turned the entire appliance off.
I know that having waited for the seventh electric shock seems mad, but six of them were from parts of a stove from which you just would expect that. Like the white top. And the bit of metal you didn’t know was concealed on the underside of the Bakelite handle. I could almost swear I got one from the wooden spoon too – I must have brushed the edge of the metal pot without realising it, all this while trying to quickly finish cooking spinach I had started cooking before getting the first shock.
So anyway, I survived, and so did the casserole dish, which somehow I had managed to cook for three hours before getting the first sudden tingle in my right hand.
Greek lamb neck casserole
1 large onion, chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped
Juice and zest of 2 very ripe lemons
3 Tbs olive paste
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tomato can red wine
4 or 5 sprigs oregano
1kg lamb neck
Splash of sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
Greek yoghurt to finish
Braise the onions and garlic in olive oil on the stove top, adding the lemon zest (but not the juice) and simmering for the flavours to develop, then put it in the casserole with the olive paste (any tapenade of your choice, or otherwise a handful of kalamata olives), the chopped tomatoes, oregano, red wine, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Then add the slices of lamb neck and cook in a 180ºC oven for half an hour, turning the heat down to 150ºC and cooking for two to three hours more.
Half an hour before it’s done, add sherry to sweeten it up to taste – I added about a wine glass of it. This balances the potentially bitter flavour of the olive paste, but won’t be necessary if you use whole olives instead. Finish it off by stirring in 100g of plain yoghurt.
We had ours with creamed spinach but not with brinjals. Shocking, I know.