5. Elouise and the Maine Man

(English)

“A truly destitute man is not one without riches, but a poor wretch who has never partaken of lobster.” – Anonymous.

The place

Bruges (Brugge – literally Bridges in the local Flemish) is one of those must see destinations. It is frequently referred to as the Venice of the North because of its many canals. What makes the town so special is the fact that its old centre seems suspended in time. Formerly a major trading port during medieval times, its access to the sea silted up to such an extent that by the mid-16th century Antwerp replaced it as the trade emporium of Flanders. Despite a brief rebound as the hub of Flemish lace manufacturing, Bruges gradually ossified and its population dwindled.

Largely because the Industrial Revolution had passed it by, Bruges became Europe’s first dedicated tourist destination during the Belle Epoque. Because of its proximity to both the rich of Britain and France, they started vacationing amidst its picturesque scenery. Impressionist painters loved to depict its canals, towers  and Flemish gables. In 1907, another attempt was made to breathe new life into the region with the construction of a modern port at Zeebrugge (Bruges-on-sea) some 10 km to the north. The two towns were connected by a canal. Soon after the port was finished, World War I erupted and delayed commercial use of its facilities. After Germany’s occupation of most of Belgium, its navy was quick to utilise Zeebrugge as a base for its U-Boat campaign.

Because Flanders is so flat, it has had an extensive network of canals for centuries. The canals often serve a dual purpose: apart from serving as waterways to transport people and goods they also help to drain the marshy soil. One of the reasons why the Flemish theatre of operations in World War I is universally associated with mud is that the heavy artillery shelling typical of the era quickly destroyed the intricate canal network. This meant that, apart from the heavy rain from above, trenches were also flooded by water seeping in from below!

I have often pondered the swings and roundabouts of fate. If Earl Haig and his plodding clique of equally dim generals had had a bit more imagination, they may actually have achieved the original aim of the "push" that ended in the capture of the fittingly named hamlet of Passchendaele ("Passion Dale") – to eject the Germans from their U-Boat bases in Oostende and Zeebrugge. While this could have changed the course of the war, it may well have ended up ruining Bruges. As it turned out, they sent hundreds of thousands of men to their death for a territorial gain not much greater than the distance they would walk in the course of a round of golf. The only good thing about their failure was that it left Bruges intact. 

Thanks to major expansion in the 1970s and 1980s, Zeebrugge is today a major container port. The setback caused by the Great War has however meant that the integration of the sister cities never occurred. Fate had again intervened to ensure that Bruges proper remained a living museum, with all its charms intact. The centre of Old Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, and will therefore, hopefully, be preserved in its current form for future generations.      

Old Bruges has several architectural claims to fame. The spire of its Catholic Church of Our Lady (i.e. the Notre Dame de Bruges) makes it the second-highest brick building in Europe after the cathedral in Siena. Its Belfort (belfry) has inspired millions of photos and thousands of paintings, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood (where relics of the Cross are allegedly kept) attracts thousands of Catholics every year. Other major attractions include the Old St John’s Hospital, the old city hall and St Saviour’s Church. The town sports numerous museums devoted to Flemish art and culture (including one devoted to beer brewing), as well as four well-preserved city gates and several traditional windmills along the Zwin Canal. One of its quintessential sights is the "Minnewater" (lake of love), which used to be the town’s harbour in medieval times. Nowadays it serves a purely ornamental purpose, with swans cruising its tranquil waters. The lake takes its name from a legend that spinsters will find true love if they dropped a coin in the water and prayed sincerely for a husband.  

The best way to experience Old Bruges is from canal level, on a boat cruise (weather permitting). It is not only less strenuous than walking the cobbled streets, but there are no stop signs or traffic lights. Since the town centre is relatively compact, it is a great way to orientate oneself and appreciate the aesthetic aspects of the waterside buildings and the many bridges after which the town was named. It is also possible to undertake longer cruises; particularly to the new port at Zeebrugge, and the picturesque Damse Vaart along the tree-lined Reie river to the quaint village of Damme. Another charming mode of transport is to tour the old town in a horse-drawn coach, or by bicycle.

Lovers of good chocolate (and waffles) will think that they have died and gone to heaven soon after their arrival in Bruges. Numerous speciality shops offer a vast variety of artisanal chocolate. A particular favourite in our family is "Kriek" – whole fresh cherries dipped in dark chocolate. The locals are also extremely adept at making candied fruit, while the lace and pottery produced in the town’s many studios are of exceptional quality. 

Getting there

We first experienced Bruges on a bitterly cold December day in 1997. It was our first proper European vacation, and – like many first-timers - we had opted to visit France and England. Since Sabena (the now-defunct Belgian national carrier) offered great specials on airfares via Brussels, we decided to include a few nights in Belgium in our itinerary. The fact that the majority of Belgians speak Flemish (a Dutch dialect very similar to our Afrikaans) was also a consideration, although we were in for a bit of a shock when we arrived in Brussels. Brussels is a staunchly Francophone island surrounded by Flanders, and while all signposting is bilingual, the people are not!

We spent the first couple of days orientating ourselves, and brushing up on our extremely limited French. Having seen most of the city’s tourist attractions, we embarked on a day trip to Bruges via Ghent. Everyone of our acquaintance who had been to Belgium was unanimous – Bruges was the jewel in its crown, and so it was with great anticipation that we got onto the tour bus. As a student of military history I had an added interest in visiting Flanders, and that was to see the fields in which a generation of young men were sacrificed in the Great War.

Ghent itself turned out to be a place of considerable beauty, and its cathedral a veritable treasure trove of Flemish art. As we made our way further west, we passed more and more immaculately maintained war cemeteries - true "gardens of stone". Sadly, these were not part of the itinerary, and so we did not stop at any of them.

Despite the cold and continual rain, Bruges took our breath away. None of the professional photos or video we had hitherto seen could prepare us for how beautiful the place was in real life. Unfortunately, guided tours have to stick to a prescribed itinerary, and we were unable to skip certain parts or spend extra time on others. The day was therefore a succession of quick Kodak moments. We did break away from the group once: at lunchtime. My globetrotting brother had warned us that the restaurant where tour groups were invariably taken for lunch was not nearly as good as the one next door. Thus started my family’s long love affair with Maximiliaan van Oostenrijk, named after a lord of Buges in its heyday.  The ambience and great food added to our determination to visit Bruges again.

The first outing had made such a deep impression on us that we decided to devote our last full day in Belgium to a DIY excursion to Bruges. This time we knew what we wanted to get out of our visit, so there was no need for guides – essentially, we wanted to have another Maximiliaan lunch and the opportunity to soak up the Bruges vibe! We were not disappointed. Familiarity did not breed contempt; on the contrary, we enjoyed our second visit even more than the first. Staring out of our train compartment’s window on the way back to Brussels, Jakki repeated the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back…”

By early 1998 my move into the private sector had boosted our finances sufficiently for us to embark on a long-cherished dream: to take my daughter on her first European vacation. Bearing in mind that she was only 10 years old at the time, we planned to include maximum fun for her sake while still doing things we would enjoy. We used the previous December’s trip as a template, cut down on time in transit by omitting the English leg, and added a couple of nights in Bruges. As a treat for Elouise we set aside a day to visit Disneyworld Paris, and a day trip to Amsterdam to experience its famous canals and flower market.

We had specifically opted to spend a few nights in Bruges because the old town is generally overrun by day-tripping tourists by day, and we wanted to explore the place in (relative) peace and quiet, and to take some photos and video of its beautiful buildings reflected in the canals. Since the Soccer World Cup in France would be in full swing at the time, we did not have to worry about entertaining my soccer-mad daughter after dinner – ESPN would take care of that! 

We were not disappointed. Bruges in summer was even more special – the weather was balmy, the trees were green and the flowers in bloom. We were therefore able to go on boat cruises, picnics in the gardens along the Minnewater, and a bicycle excursion to Damme. Elouise soon became a chocolate junkie, and ended up losing one of her milk teeth on the pip of a chocolate-coated cherry. She also had a blast with the lake’s many swans, feeding them anything edible she could lay her hands on.

The meal

Patience is not a common virtue in our family. We were keen to resume our acquaintance with the Maximiliaan, and so our very first dinner would be there. Since my daughter loves horses passionately, we travelled there in style – in a carriage. The ride was good fun, and our cabbie was a knowledgeable, if somewhat reserved, Flemish student on summer break. The only downside was that poor Elouise (ironically, given her love for horses) is allergic to horse hair, and suffered an allergic reaction before we even got to our destination. Fortunately we always take antihistamine tablets with us on vacation, and could treat her timeously.  

Having stabilised the youngest Rossouw’s condition, we got down to business. I had reserved a table in a quiet alcove where we could engage in our favourite pastime of people-watching, unobserved. The only other party in this quiet corner was a family who sounded like they were Americans from somewhere in New England. For Yankees they were surprisingly quiet, and their accents were softer on the ear than those from further south.

After ordering aperitifs we consulted the menu. Jakki and I were planning to share a pot of Mosselen van’t Huis (Moules Marinières Maximiliaan-style) and all that was left to do was to help our young guest of honour decide on a dish. It was then that I realised again how often perfectly good intentions lead to unpleasant and unintended consequences. During our first dinner in Brussels, Elouise had been shocked to hear how much more expensive the food was than in South Africa, but wanting to make her enjoy her first proper meal overseas, I had encouraged Elouise to have whatever she wanted, irrespective of the cost. Since she had spent her formative years on the West Coast with a father who spent his weekends fishing and diving for crayfish and abalone, she was very fond of seafood – crustaceans in particular. Since I insisted she had carte blanche, she promptly ordered a lobster.

My generosity came back to bite me in Bruges. En route to our table we passed an aquarium filled with live lobsters, and – since she had recently been reassured that her dad could afford it – she did not hesitate over her decision. A lobster it was. My goose was cooked – I couldn’t bring myself to confess that we were in no position to indulge in lobster whenever we dined out. I placed the order but made a mental note to a) revise our budget urgently, and b) stop dining in places that served lobster!

Our food arrived, and we got stuck in. The mussels were just as succulent and sweet as the previous time, and the chips just as crispy. When I complimented the waiter and enquired as to how the Belgians got their chips so perfect, he explained that the secret lay in frying them twice – once in medium-hot oil until they were done but still pale, and then in piping hot oil for the crispiness. Jakki had her usual Kriek cherry-flavoured beer. I opted for a Lambic, a completely natural beer, with the malted water left uncovered in large tubs where it is attacked by wild yeast cells. The resultant beer is slightly tart, and goes very well with foods that would normally be accompanied by white wine – seafood in particular.

Meanwhile, Elouise was trying her best to display impeccable table manners while eating lobster. Gingerly trying to extract its sweet flesh with the use of the cracker, knife and fork, she made little headway. As I was about to offer help, our ageing American neighbour got up and strolled over to our table. He introduced himself, and immediately established his credentials by announcing that he was from Maine, the lobster capital of the States. “Where I come from” he said, “we don’t waste food!”  He explained that it was perfectly acceptable to break the lobster apart using one’s hands and to suck out obstinate bits of flesh. Hugely encouraged, my daughter abandoned her inhibitions and polished off her lobster in no time.

We thanked our American friend for his advice, and adjourned. Although it was after 10 PM, it was still light enough for Elouise to go and feed the swans of the Minnewater. Jakki and I then dropped her off in our suite at the hotel and went for a last walk to admire Bruges by night. It was lump-in-the-throat lovely, and we vowed to include this magical town in future European itineraries whenever possible.

The splendid evening had been worth every cent, and it would have been daft to spoil it by being miserly. Money can't buy everything, I thought to myself, that's what we have credit cards for... 

Making it at home

Although some readers might disagree, Moules Marinières is actually a very easy dish to make at home. The key is to obtain good quality mussels. Some cultivated mussels are large, flabby and too strongly flavoured. Smaller mussels tend to be sweeter – an essential precondition for a successful dish.

Preparation time: ½ hour.

Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Serves 4 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a Belgian Kriek or Lambic beer. Alternatively, a crisp white wine like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc will do nicely.

2 kg Black (or New Zealand greenback) mussels.

4 Shallots, or 2 onions, chopped.

2 Celery stalks, chopped.

4 Sprigs of flat leaf parsley, chopped.

150 g Butter.

300 ml Dry white wine.

  • Wash and scrub the mussels, and pull out the beards. Discard any broken or open ones.
  • Melt the butter in a large pot, and stir in the shallots and celery. Simmer on medium heat until soft.
  • Turn up the heat, and add the wine, parsley and mussels.
  • Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and cook for 7 minutes.
  • Shake the pot regularly during the cooking process.
  • Using a large slotted spoon, remove the mussels from the pot and place in a large bowl. Discard any mussels that have not opened.
  • Meanwhile, return the cooking liquor to the heat and reduce over high heat for 2-3 minutes.
  • Whisk in another 50 g of butter.
  • Arrange the mussels into individual bowls or soup plates, and pour over the liquor.
  • Garnish with chopped parsley.

Serve with crispy French fries (or should it be Belgian fries?) and mayonnaise to dip them in. We sometimes substitute fresh baguette for the chips – this enables us to mop up the tasty sauce.

“If you work on a lobster boat, sneaking up behind someone and pinching him is probably a joke that gets old real fast.” – Bernie Mac.

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(Afrikaans)

My begroting gaan die kreeftegang

Die plek

Brugge (Bruges in Frans) is een van die wêreld se bekoorlikste toerismebestemmings. Dit staan informeel bekend as “die Venesië van die Noorde” danksy die talle gragte wat die Ou Stad deurkruis. Gelukkig is die skippers van Brugge se kanaalbote nie Italianers wat verplig voel om passasiers in vals tenoor toe te sing nie! Die middestad is ‘n lewende museum; die uitleg is nog dieselfde as 500 jaar gelede. Brugge was ‘n belangrike hawe in die Middeleeue, maar teen die 16e eeu het die waterweg na die Noordsee tot so ‘n mate toegeslik dat Antwerpen Vlaandere se primêre hawe geword het. Ten spyte van ‘n kort herlewing as die sentrum van die Vlaamse kantbedryf, het Brugge stelselmatig gekwyn en ontvolk. 

Die een se dood is die ander se brood. Omdat Brugge nie saam met die res van Europa geïndustrialiseer het nie, het sy ouwêreldse bekoring behoue gebly. Gedurende die Belle Epoque aan die einde van die 19e eeu het die stad Europa se eerste gededikeerde toeristebestemming geword. Omdat dit gerieflik naby was, het die rykes van sowel Brittanje as Frankryk daar begin vakansie hou. Die Impressioniste het in groot getalle gevolg en die kanale, torings en Vlaamse gewelhuise kom skilder. ‘n Verdere hupstoot was Koning Leopold die Tweede se droom om weer ‘n groot hawe in Wes-Vlaandere te hê. ‘n Moderne hawe is toe vroeg in die 20e eeu by Zeebrugge, 10 km noord van Brugge gebou, en die twee is met ‘n kanaal verbind.

Kort na die moderne hawe voltooi is, het die Eerste Wêreldoorlog uitgebreek en verhoed dat dit ‘n vername handelsdepot kon word. Na die Duitse besetting van die Noorde van België het die Kriegsmarine gou Zeebrugge se uitstekende fasiliteite omskep in ‘n basis vanwaar sy duikbote Geallieerde skeepvaart in die Atlantiese Oseaan en Engelse Kanaal kon bedreig.

Wes-Vlaandere is letterlik so plat soos ‘n snoekertafel, en boonop net-net bo seespieël. Ten einde kop bo water te hou, het die Vlaminge oor die eeue heen ‘n ingewikkelde netwerk van kanale gebou om die kleierige grond te dreineer. Die kanale was ook nuttig as verbindingsweë, en kanaalbote was die vernaamste medium om vrag van allerlei aard te vervoer. Die hewige kanonvuur wat ‘n kenmerk van die Eerste Wêreldoorlog was, het korte mette met die kanaalnetwerk gemaak, en die oorlog in Vlaandere word sedertdien allerweë met modder vereenselwig. Die voetsoldate aan albei kante het nie net deurgeloop onder die swaar Noord-Europese reën van bo nie; hulle misrabele loopgrawe het boonop van onder oorstroom weens syferwater!  

Die noodlot het van die begin van ‘n belangrike rol in die geskiedenis van Brugge gespeel. Een van die oogmerke met die groot Britse offensief in Vlaandere in 1917 was om die Duitsers uit hulle duikbootbasisse in Oostende en Zeebrugge te verdryf. In die proses sou Brugge sekerlik ook enorme skade gelei het. As Lord Haig en sy ewe verbeeldinglose generals meer dinamies was, sou dit bes moontlik gebeur het. Die Britse Leër het helaas volgens Genl Ludendorff bestaan uit “leeus gelei deur donkies”. Na ‘n bloedbad wat maande lank geduur het, was die “Tommies” se diepste penetrasie van die Duitse front omtrent so ver as wat Haig tydens 18 putjies gholf sou stap. Die enigste pluspunt omtrent hierdie tragiese gebeure is dat Brugge ongeskonde gebly het.

Zeebrugge het in die doldrums gebly tot die 1970s, toe dit in ‘n belangrike behoueringshawe omskep is. Die knou wat Belgiese nywerhede deur die Eerste Wêreldoorlog toegedien is het veroorsaak dat die twee susterstede nooit aanmekaar gegroei het nie, en Brugge het ‘n lewende museum gebly. Die Ou Stad is in 2000 deur UNESCO tot ‘n Wêreld-erfenisterrein verklaar, en dit sal hopelik verseker dat hierdie unieke plek in sy huidige vorm vir toekomstige geslagte beware sal bly.

Brugge spog met verskeie beroemde geboue. Die Katolieke Kerk van Onze Liewe Vrouw (Frans: Notre Dame de Bruges) se toring is die tweede hoogste baksteengebou in Europa naas die Katedraal van Siena in Italië. Die stad se Belfort (kloktoring) pryk in miljoene fotos en duisende skilderye, en die Kerk van’t Heilig Bloed (waar oorblyfsels van die Kruis volgens oorlewering bewaar word) lok jaarliks tienduisende Katolieke pelgrims. Ander besienswaardighede sluit in Oud St Jan-hospitaal, die oorspronklike stadhuis en die St Salvador-kerk. Daar is talle museums (o.a. gewy aan die kantbedryf, sjokolademaak en bierbrou). Die vier oorspronklike stadpoorte het perfek behoue gebly, asook verskeie outentieke windmeulens langs die Zwin-kanaal. Een van Brugge se mees bekoorlike erfenisse is die “Minnewater” wat in die Middeleeue as die stad se hawe gedien het. Deesdae is dit bloot ‘n ornamentele swanemeer soos die Serpentine in Hyde Park, met ‘n asemrowende mooi park wat dit omring. Die naam verwys na ‘n stokou legend dat oujongnooiens liefde sal vind as hulle ‘n muntstuk in die water gooi en hard genoeg bid vir ‘n man.

Die beste manier om Ou Brugge te beleef is om dit uit ‘n kanaalboot te besigtig – mits die wispelturige Vlaamse weer dit natuurlik toelaat! Dis minder veeleisend as om die nou, geplaveide straatjies te trotseer, en geen perdemis om in te trap nie. Omdat die stadskern baie kompak is, help so ‘n vaart ‘n mens om jouself te orienteer en kan jy binne ‘n halfuur of wat so te sê al die beroemde geboue en brûe besigtig. Daar is ook langer vaarte, onder meer tot by die nuwe hawe in Zeebrugge, en die “Damse Vaart” op die Reie-rivier, wat deur skilderagtige platteland vloei na die nabygeleë dorpie Damme, die beweerde geboorteplek van die poetsbakker Tyl Uilspieël. Koetsritte is ook baie gewild (onder passasiers, nie noodwendig voetgangers nie!) en fiksheidsbewuste toeriste kan die omgewing op gehuurde fietse verken.

Liefhebbers van goeie sjokolade en wafels skuld dit aan hulself om ‘n draai in Brugge te maak. Talle spesialis-winkeltjies verkoop artesanale sjokolade in ‘n magdom vorms en geure, en die geur van warm wafels is alomteenwoordig. Die Rossouws het gou saamgestem dat ons gunsteling-sjokolade “Kriek” is – heel, vars kersiesgedoop in donker sjokolade. Die gesuikerde vrugte is ook eersteklas, en my twee metgeselle het ook heelwat tyd in kant- en keramiekwinkeltjies deurgebring.

Die okkasie

Ons eerste kennismaking met Brugge was op ‘n bitterlike koue Desemberdag in 1997. Soos die meeste groentjies, het ons besluit om Frankryk en Brittanje te besoek. Aangesien Sabena (destyds die Belgiese nasionale lugredery) het destyds by verre die goedkoopste retoerkaartjies Europa toe aangebied het, het ons besluit om via Brussel te vlieg en ‘n paar nagte in België te spandeer. Die feit dat Vlaams baie nou aan Afrikaans verwant is, was ‘n verdere trekpleister, maar dit het ons bloedweining in Brussel gehelp. Kort na ons aankoms was dit duidelik dat die stad ‘n Franssprekende eiland in die middle van Vlaandere was. Ofskoon alle openbare kennisgewings in albei tale was, was die voertaal deurgans Frans.

Ons het die eerste paar dae gebruik om die stad te verken, en hard te werk aan ons uiters beperkte Frans. Na ons die meeste van die belangrikste besienswaardighede besoek het, het ons besluit om op ‘n daguitstappie na Gent en Brugge te gaan. Al ons kenisse wat al in België was, het ons verseker dat Brugge die land se kroonjuweel was. Ons het dus met hoë verwagtings op die toerbus geklim. Vir my as Krugsgeskiedenis-fundi was daar die bykomende trekpleister om die velde van Vlaandere te sien, waar bykans ‘n hele geslag jong mans hulle lewens opgeoffer het tydens die “Groot Oorlog”.

Gent was ‘n aangename verrassing. Dis ‘n mooi stad, en die Katedraal van St Baaf bevat verskeie van Vlaandere se beroemdste kunswerke. Na ons uurlange halte het die bus weer die hoofpad wes geneem, en ons het by al hoe meer pragtig-versorgde oorlogsbegrafplase verbygery. Ongelukkig het dit nie deel van ons reisplan uitgemaak nie, en het ons nie by enige van hulle stilgehou nie.

Brugge het – ten spyte van snerpende koue en gietende reën – ons voete onder ons uitgeslaan. Geen poskaart, brosjure of video wat ons vooraf gesien het kon ons voorberei oor hoe verruklik mooi die ware jakob was nie. Omdat ons op ‘n geskeduleerde toer was, kon ons nie wegbreek en net ons eie koppe volg nie. Ons moes verlief neem met ‘n reeks “Kodak-oomblikke” – met een belangrike uitsondering: middagete. My broer Pierre het op sterkte van persoonlike ondervinding my vooraf die wenk gegee om die restaurant waar die toergroepe altyd heen gaan te vermy, en eerder by die een langsaan te gaan eet. Só het my gesin se lang geskiedenis met die “Maximiliaan van Oostenrijk” begin. Die warm atmosfeer en outentieke kos het ons so beïndruk dat ons besluit het om nog ‘n besoek aan Brugge te bring as ‘n saak van prioriteit. 

Die volgende besoek was sommer kort daarna. Na ‘n week elk in Parys en Londen is ons met die Eurostar terug Brussel toe vir ons vlug huis toe. Ons was dit eens dat die beste gebruik van ons laaste vol dag in Europa ‘n selfdoen-besoek aan Brugge sou wees; hierdie keer sonder gidse en tydsdruk. Eintlik wou ons net gaan “chill” – ‘n lekker lang ete by Maximiliaan en vir oulaas weer al ons gunsteling-plekke besoek. Die tweede besoek het ons stoutste verwagtings oortref. Brugge is ‘n plek waar ‘n mens jou nie van een besienswaardigheid na die ander moet haas nie – dis veel lekerder om net die geheel in te drink, en daarvoor moet jy rustig wees. Toe ons trein uit die stasie trek op pad Brussel toe, het my vrou vir Arnold Schwarzenegger aangehaal: “I’ll be back...”

Teen vroeg 1998 het ons geldsake genoegsaam verbeter dat ons ‘n lank-gekoesterde ideal kon verwesenlik, naamlik om my dogter Elouise op haar eerste Europese vakansie te vat. Aangesien sy destyds net 10 jaar oud was, het ons beplan om ‘n meer “kindervriendelike” roetine te volg, en so veel moontlik plekke en aktiwiteit in te sluit wat haar sou geval. Ons reisplan was soortgelyk aan die vorige een, behalwe dat ons Londen weggelaat het, en ‘n paar nagte in Brugge sou tuisgaan. As spesiale bederfies vir Elouise het ons ‘n dag opsy gesit vir Disneyworld in Parys, en ook ‘n dagbesoek aan Amsterdam ingesluit om die beroemde gragte en blommemark te beleef. 

Ons het veral daarna uitgesien om in Brugge te oornag, want die ou middestad is bedags propvol toeriste op dagbesoeke. As “veteran” wou ons die plek in rus en vrede verken voor en na die massas “Kydaas” op hom toesak. Brugge leen hom ook ten beste tot fotos en video na donker, wanneer sy magdom pragtige geboue en bûe in die kanale weerkaats. Die Sokker-Wêreldbeker in Frankryk sou in volle swang wees, so ons sou nie nodig hê om my sokkermal dogter saans na ete te vermaak nie – ESPN en ‘n kardoesie Kriek-sjokolade sou daarvoor sorg!

Ons plan het bo alle verwagting gewerk. Brugge in die winter was ‘n belewenis, maar in die somer kan woorde kwalik reg laat geskied aan hoe spesiaal dit is. Die weer is heerlik matig, die bome groen en die blomtuine vol kleur. Ons het op bootvaarte gegaan, piekniek in die Minnewater se tuin gehou, en met gehuurde fietse Damme toe gery vir middagete. Elouise was gou ‘n sjokolade-junkie, en het haar laaste melktand gewissel met die hulp van ‘n kersiepit. Sy en die Minnewater-swane was gou goed bevriend, en sy het hulle enigiets eetbaar wat sy in die hande kon kry gevoer!

Die ete

Die Rossouws is nie ‘n geduldige familie nie. Ons was angstig om weer by “Maximiliaan van Oostenrijk” ‘n draai te maak, en het sommer die eerste aand daar gaan eet. Omdat Elouise versot op perde is, het ek vir ons ‘n koetsrit van die hotel na die restaurant gereël. Dit was groot pret, en ons koetsier was ‘n goed-ingeligte en welsprekende Vlaamse student wat dit as vakansiewerk gedoen het. Soos bykans alle Norde, kon sy vlot Engels praat en ons vergas met allerlei interessante brokkies oor haar tuisdorp. Ongelukkig is Elouise (ironies vir ‘n perdeliefheber) allergies vir perdehare en iets aan ons koetsperde het ‘n meer hewige reaksie as gewoonlik ontlok. Gelukkig gaan ons nêrens heen sonder antihistamine nie – weens haar pa se ewe ironiese skaaldier-allergie - en kon ons haar onmiddelik dokter.   

Na hierdie vinnige bietjie noodhulp kon die ete begin. Ek het vir ons plek bespreek in ‘n relatiewe stil hoekie vanwaar ons ons gunsteling-tydverdryf, naamlik mense dophou, kon beoefen sonder om aanstoot te gee. Die enigste ander geselskap naby ons was ‘n familie Amerikaners wat oënskynlik New Englanders was, want hulle aksente het vaagweg soos die Kennedys s’n geklink. Synde Yankees was hulle ook genadiglik minder luidrugtig as hulle landgenote van verder suid en wes!  

Na aperitifs het ons die spyskaart bekyk. Jakki en ek het beplan om ‘n pot “Mosselen van’t Huis” (Moules Marinières Maximiliaan-styl) te deel, en al wat oor was om te doen, was om ons jong eregas te help besluit op ‘n dis. Dit was toe dat ek opnuut besef het hoe die beste bedoelings soms tot onaangename gevolge kan lei. Die moeilikheid het die eerste aand in Brussel begin, toe Elouise geskok was om te hoor hoeveel duurder kos en drank daar was as in Suid-Afrika. Ek wou natuurlik hê sy moes haar eerste ordentlike ete oorsee geniet, en het haar aangemoedig om te bestel net waarvoor sy lus was – ongeag die koste. As ‘n Weskuskind was sy van kleins af versot op seekos, maar kreef was nog altyd bo aan die lys. Nodeloos om te sê was haar eerste keuse ‘n kreef!

My grootmoedigheid sou my in Brugge my rieme laat styfloop. Op pad na ons tafel het ons verby ‘n akwarium vol lewendige krewe geloop. My kind het hulle een kyk gegee en breed geglimlag. Siende dat haar pa blykbaar geld se baas was, was haar besluit ‘n maklike een: “Ek dink ek sal vanaand ‘n ou krefie eet...”

My doppie was geklink – hoe kon ek na my relaas in Brussel oor hoe pryse nie saak maak nie nou bieg dat ons nie kon bekostig om wild en wakker kreef te eet nie? Ek het ons bestelling geplaas en my in die stilligheid voorgeneem om a) dringend ons begroting te hersien, en b) so ver moontlik restaurante met kreef op die spyskaart te vermy! Ten spyte van die wete dat die rekening ‘n stywe een sou wees, was die ete een om te onthou. Die mossels was net so soet en sappig as die vorige keer, en die Belgiese tjips net so bros. Toe ek die kelner  uitvra oor die heerlike skyfies, het hy verduidelik dat die geheim daarin lê om hulle tweemaal te braai, eers in medium-warm olie tot amper gaar, en dan na ‘n verposing in baie warm olie tot hulle bros en goudbruin is.

Jakki het haar gebruiklike Kriek (kersiebier) saam met die ete gedrink, en ek my persoonlike gunsteling – Lambic. Albei is totaal natuurlike biere, en word gemaak deur die gemoute water in oop kuipe te laat waar dit deur wilde gisselle aangeval word. Die bier uit hierdie proses voortspruit, staan bekend as Lambic (afgelei van ‘n ou Spaanse werkwoord wat “behendig gemaak” beteken). Die smaak is effens “droog”, wat beteken dat dit maklik in plaas van wyn saam met seekos of hoender gedrink kan word. Kriek is bloot Lambic wat verouder word in vate wat stukke swart kersies bevat om dit ekstra vrugtegeur te gee.  

Elouise se aanvanklike pogings om haar Homard met Emsie Schoeman-tafelmaniere te eet, het egter in frustrasie geëndig – ‘n kreef het net eenvoudig te veel lekker happies wat nie met ‘n mes en vurk bygekom kan word nie! Uitkoms was egter op pad: die patriarg van die Amerikaanse familie het haar te hulp gesnel en aangekondig dat hy uit Maine, die hart van New England se kreefbedryf, afkomstig was. Waar hy vandaan kom, sê hy verder, mors ‘n mens nie met die beste dele van die kreef nie – jy breek hom oop met jou hande en suig die laaste flentertjies uit die knypers en pote. Bemoedig deur die raad van ‘n kenner, het my meisiekind onmiddelik haar inhibisies afgeskud en ordentlik met haar kreef klaargespeel.

Die ooglopende genot waarmee Elouise haar kreef verslind het, het my kommer oor ons finansies vinnig laat vervlou. Ons aand se samesyn was te spesiaal om deur ‘n argument oor kostes bederf te word. Natuurlik kan geld nie alles koop nie – dis waarvoor ons kredietkaarte het...

 

Love at first sight...

The Lake of Love ("Minnewater").

Mixed Grill: Lobster AND mussels.

Bruges by night.

6. Hanging out with Scotsmen

“Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can theirs… The Scotsman would shake his head and say:’ Where’s your haggis?’ and the Fijian might sigh and say: ‘Where’s your missionary?” – Mark Twain.

The place

Ever since Mel Gibson immortalised the Scottish struggle for independence in the movie “Braveheart” I had been keen to visit the land of William Wallace, Rob Roy and Johnny Walker. Scotland has much to offer the traveller: history, amazing landscapes, beautiful castles, wonderful sea food, famous salmon rivers, authentic links golf courses and the odd sea monster lurking in her many lochs. Of course, the weather is not the greatest. As Billy Connelly once put it: “Scotland has two seasons: June and Winter.”

Less well known is the fact that - probably because of its harsh weather, stormy seas and inhospitable landscape - Scotland was one of the last remaining havens of Christianity during the Dark Ages. As a tsunami of pillaging heathen tribes swept across Europe, the monks trying to keep the flame of their embattled religion alive had to seek refuge in monasteries like Iona and Lindisfarne. Among the men of God who kept Christian civilisation alive during those terrible times, St Columba, the patron saint of Scotland, looms large.

Once an independent country, Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since 1707. Its name is derived from the Latin Scoti, a term that referred to the Gaelic tribes of Ireland and Scotland. It is a place crammed with Kodak moments. Apart from its castles and lochs, there are evocative memorials, men in dresses, women in pants, hairy cattle, salmon jumping up fish ladders, The Forth Bridge, The Old Course at St Andrew’s, John O’Groats and Roslyn Chapel.

Despite the many jokes about kilts, Scots have traditionally commanded enormous respect for their manliness and bravery. Long before their epic resistance of English encroachment, they put the fear of God into the Romans who were attempting to colonise all of Britain. So fierce were the Scots that the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall across the breadth of England’s northern border to try and keep them out!

For many years I couldn’t understand why the Scots, who have so much in common with their Irish kinfolk, have not produced great writers, actors and musicians on the same scale. Apart from Sir Walter Scott, Robbie Burns and Sean Connery the cupboard is rather bare. They seem to be much more of a left-brain nation – Scotsmen were renowned as the engineers, doctors and accountants of the British Empire. I suppose the explanation lies in the reserved, unemotional influence of the Presbyterian Church and the frugal nature of the Protestant work ethic. It says something about a nation when the best-known book written by one of its members is “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith…

For such a tiny nation, the Scots have indeed chalked up a formidable list of major inventions. John McAdam gave us the tarmac road surface, John Boyd Dunlop the pneumatic tyre, Alexander Graham Bell the telephone, John Logie Baird the television, Sir Robert Watson Watt radar and Alexander Fleming penicillin. And lest we forget, our lives would have been much less interesting had the Scots not given us fly fishing, whisky and golf!

Despite not being as verbally expressive as the people of the Emerald Isle, the Scots quickly grow on you. One of their endearing qualities is their ability to laugh at themselves. While the English and Americans have built a comedy industry out of mocking the way other people speak, Scots are forever taking the mickey out of themselves. Although not overly warm or talkative, I can recall numerous instances where Scotsmen have been hospitable and kind to me in a “don’t mention it” kind of way. I also respect their self-discipline and obedience of laws. Don’t try and bend the rules in Scotland, be they the closing times of pubs, the number of passengers in a taxi or the minimum age at which people are allowed consume alcohol. 

In a country with so much history, there are lots of special places. However, because of its association with Scotland’s resistance of English domination, StirlingCastle commands a unique place. Situated on a rocky outcrop with very steep sides, it has been fortified since Roman times. Not only was it fought over many times, but it overlooks the nearby battlefields of StirlingBridge, Falkirk and Bannockburn. On a nearby hillock is the striking Wallace Memorial, which commemorates the contribution Sir William Wallace made to the defence of Scottish independence.

Getting there

My first experience of Scotland took place at the time of the 1999 Rugby World Cup, hosted by Wales. In those days financial services companies still laid on lavish overseas incentive trips for brokers who gave them lots of business. They were aided and abetted in this by asset management companies, who were also beneficiaries of such business. I was fortunate enough to be my employers’ account manager for a company which was taking a large group of financial advisors to the World Cup Final, followed by a week-long trip to Scotland. As co-sponsors of this trip we were entitled to send two representatives along, and so the MD and I were among the group winging its way to Heathrow on the Thursday night before the big game.

There were some legendary party animals among our number: One broker, who will remain nameless, had a hot dog and twelve beers prior to our departure. When we arrived in London, he was suffering from gout. He promptly blamed the hot dog! Nor was he the last delegate to suffer ill-effects caused by over-indulgence. There were numerous functions, sponsored by the various asset managers, each with a different theme. These included a Roman-style banquet in the spa complex in Bath the night before the Final in Cardiff, a whisky and cigar evening, a “prom night” and a Braveheart dinner. 

The day after the Final, we returned to London and flew to Edinburgh. From there we were transported to Pitlochry in the Highlands of Perthshire. This enchanting town is home to the famous Blair Athol whisky distillery (owned by Bell’s) and the Blair Castle Hotel, where we stayed for two nights. The organisers of the trip had arranged a fun day of Highland pursuits for the guests, but I opted out and went fishing instead. A local outfitter fixed me up with the necessary permits, tackle and wader, and pretty soon I was standing waist-deep in the Tummel river casting teams of weighted nymphs to (unco-operative) Grayling. Unfortunately for me, the salmon season had already closed, and even though I saw several large fish porpoising upriver they were out of bounds. Despite not being able to fish for them, just seeing these magnificent creatures was a thrill in its own right. As Henry David Thoreau once remarked, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

Our stay in Pitlochry culminated in a visit to the whisky museum at Blair Athol, after which we hit the road back to Edinburgh. After a guided walking tour through the supposedly haunted sewers and alleys of the old town, it was time for the Prom Night party in a night club off Princes Street. By the time we finally called it a night, most of us were in serious need of some R & R. Fortunately the next day was left open to allow people a breather and to enable those that wanted to, to go on excursions of their own. Needless to say, several die-hard golfers had arranged to go and play a round of golf at St Andrews while the majority just took it easy and explored the city centre. Since Edinburgh is a relatively compact city, we were within easy walking distance of the Calton Hill, the EdinburghCastle, the whole Royal Mile and the shops of Princes Street.

My most poignant memory of Edinburgh is of a pub lunch in “Bobby’s Bar” in the Greyfriar’s precinct. The Bobby in question was a Skye Terrier whose owner, one John Gray, passed away in 1858. He mourned at the gravesite continually until his own death 14 years later. Mr Gray had been a regular at a nearby bar, and Bobby would only leave his post at lunchtime to beg some leftovers from the publican. I went to the pub with two very macho friends who were not exactly known as cry-babies, and we ended up having our meal in near-silence – after reading the story on a plaque, all three of us were too choked up to say much…

My boss and I were to be the hosts of the Braveheart evening. When the various functions had been on offer, we had reasoned that – based on how people remember – we had to either host the first or last event. Since the venue (Stirling Castle) was so well-known, we had opted for it in a flash. We had already commissioned an events company to arrange entertainment, but during the maudlin lunch at Bobby’s Bar I hatched what Baldrick would undoubtedly have called a “cunning plan”. While gift shopping on the Royal Mile I had seen an outfitters’ that offered kilts and accessories for hire. I rushed back to the hotel and suggested to my boss that we dressed up in traditional Scots attire for the grand finale. He liked the idea, and in next to no time we were kitted out and counting the hours till the big night.

The meal

On arrival at Stirling Castle we found that our events people had done sterling (sic) work: The guests would be escorted through the entrance gate by two large, bearded guards and their massive wolfhounds. The two kilted hosts would then be on hand to greet everybody. In the castle’s courtyard, actors dressed up Braveheart-style would be staging mock sword battles between clans while the onlookers sipped warming glasses of whisky liqueur. Others, dressed up as Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace would mingle with the crowd and a lone piper played background music. 

Everything went according to plan. The guest were suitably impressed by the magnificent setting and the realistic props. The only false note was that the two hosts quickly became the butts (sic) of numerous jokes and chirps about men in kilts… My standard riposte was to quote Billy Connolly: “It’s only a skirt if you have underwear on!” 

A fine five-course meal awaited us in the banqueting hall. There were sweet scallops au gratin, barley soup and loin of Angus beef. These, while tasty and beautifully presented, were but the opening skirmishes. After clearing our palates with a refreshing sorbet, we sat back and watched the haggis piece de resistance being piped in and “addressed” by a kilted sergeant-major. We strained our Sassenach* ears to follow the immortal words of Robbie Burns as he praises that “Great Chieftain of the sausage race” in his “Adress to a Haggis”. I realised then why the badly outnumbered Scots of old were able to keep the armies of several English kings at bay. They were strong, bloody-minded patriots. Listen to how Burns, after dismissing foreign food as “trash, feeble as a withered rash”, extols the pride and strength of the haggis-eating Caledonian peasant :

“But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his ample fist a blade,

He will make it whistle;

And legs, and arms, and heads will crop,

Like tops of thistle.”

The haggis was then ceremoniously sliced with a sabre, and served to guests with varying appetites for it. Being an adventurous eater, I fortunately didn’t suffer from any preconceived prejudices and tried the dish with an open mind. I have to say that, to me, haggis belong squarely in the “acquired taste” category. While there was nothing foul or gross about it, I simply found it bland. That seemed to be the general reaction among my fellow diners. Fortunately the wine list was more than adequate, and I have yet to come across a red meat dish that does not become more palatable when accompanied by a good Bordeaux blend!

A whisky-flavoured trifle rounded off proceedings. This was followed by coffee, whisky and cigars for those who partook of them. For the more energetic there was a crash course in Scottish square-dancing, and many couples used the opportunities to try and burn off a few calories to the tune of some live (and lively) folk music. After dinner, we braved the bitter cold outside to listen to a local pipe band perform in the courtyard. They were obviously used to performing in front of foreign tourists, and played all the old favourites we were hoping for as well as the inevitable requests. The band was excellent, and their effect was enhanced by the wonderful acoustics of the venue. I lost count of the number of “encores” they had to play – none of us wanted to allow the evening to end!

I am not ashamed to admit that, to this very day, I still get a huge lump in my throat whenever I hear tunes like “Amazing Grace” or “Highland Cathedral” played on the bagpipes. This obviously has a lot to do with the haunting sound produced by the instruments themselves, but in my case I know that the main reason is that they take me back to that magical night in StirlingCastle…  

Making it at home

I love Scotland and its people, but I am not wild about haggis! Like most members of my family, I really enjoy offal and tripe, but the oatmeal in haggis sticks to my pallet and the boiled stomach reminds me of walrus blubber. To me, a much more appetising dish featuring sheep organs is a traditional Afrikaner favourite, the “skilpadjie” (baby tortoise). While certainly not endorsed by the Heart Foundation, it is a tasty treat that should be enjoyed in small doses.

Prepation time: 1 hour.

Cooking time: 25 – 30 minutes.

Serves two adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a full-bodied red. I prefer having it with Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

 

1 Lamb’s liver (kudu, springbok or blesbok make fine substitutes).

Caul fat (the thin, webbed body cavity fat) – enough to cover an A3 area.

1 Medium onion, chopped.

Salt, ground coriander and black pepper for seasoning.

12 Toothpicks.

  • Soak pieces of caul fat (enough to cover an A3 area in total) in hot water to soften them.
  • Mince or finely chop the liver. Some people like to include a few kidneys as well, although I prefer the sweet taste of liver.
  • Mix with the chopped onion.
  • Season with the ground coriander, salt and black pepper.
  • Cut the caul fat into rectangles of about 6 x 10 cm.
  • Spoon the onion mixture onto the squares, wrap up in the caul fat and secure with tootpicks. Avoid stuffing too much liver into the parcels.
  • Start a charcoal fire about 40 minutes before you intend cooking the meat.
  • When the coals are ready, spread them evenly across the bottom of the barbecue. Allow to settle down.
  • Set the braai grid about 30 – 40 cm above the coals, and place the parcels onto it.
  • Cook slowly, turning the meat frequently, until the fat is brown and crisp. This should take about 25 - 30 minutes.

Serve as a hot starter with chutney or piccalilli, or together with other barbecued meat as a main course.

* - Sassenach = Englishman (to a Scot, the worst insult possible).

"When I first saw a Haggis, I didn't know whether I should eat it or kick it. Having eaten it, I realised that I should have kicked it." - Henry Miller.

 

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(Afrikaans)

Ek hang uit saam met die Skotte

Die plek

Mel Gibson se dramatisering van Skotland se stryd om onafhanklikheid in “Braveheart” het my – soos sekerlik baie ander fliekflooie – vervul met die behoefte om die land William Wallace, Robert Burns en John Walker eerstehands te beleef. Skotland het selfs voor die vrystelling van Gibson se Oscar-wenner oor baie trekpleisters beskik: skilderagtige landskappe, geskiedkundige kastele, beroemde salm-riviere, “links”-gholfbane, fantastiese seekos en selfs ‘n legendariese seemonster. Die weer is weliswaar nie na almal se smaak nie; soos Billy Connolly dit op ‘n keer gestel het: “Skotland het twee seisone – Junie en Winter.”    

Dit was juis Skotland se afgeleë ligging, stormagtige see en ongure weer wat die land – tesame met Ierland – tydens die Donker Eeue ‘n toevlugsoord vir die Christendom en brandkluis vir Griekse, Romeinse en Hebreeuse geskrifte gemaak het. Terwyl barbaarse stamme uit die Noorde en Ooste Europa soos ‘n sprinkaanplaag gestroop het, kon voortvlugtige monnike in veraf abdye soos Iona en Lindisfarne skuiling vind, hulle kosbare dokumente dupliseer en die woord van God mettertyd onder die heidene uitdra. Tussen die Keltiese sendelinge staan twee figure uit: St Patrick, die legendariese Ierse monnik, en St Columba, wat die Skotte gekersten het. Meer onlangs het Skotse leraars ook ‘n belangrike rol gespeel in die verkondiging van die Woord in Suider-Afrika, met Drs Robert Moffat, David Livingstone en Andrew Murray die mees bekendes.       

Nog ‘n Skot wie se geloof hom ‘n legende gemaak het was die naelloper Eric Liddell. Hoewel hy die oorweldigende gunsteling was, het hy tydens 1924 se Olimpiese Spele in Parys geweier om aan die eindrondte van die 200m deel te neem omdat dit op ‘n Sondag sou plaasvind. Die film “Chariots of Fire” (wat ook ‘n Oscar gewen het) beeld ontroerend uit hoe Liddell – wat slegs deelgeneem het om steun vir sy familie se sendingwerk in China te werf – toe aan die 400m deelgeneem en verrassend gewen het Hy het onmiddelik daarna uit atletiek getree, en vir die res van sy lewe in China sendingwerk gedoen. Hy is in 1941 in ‘n Japanese konsentrasiekamp oorlede, maar bly een van Skotland se mees geliefde seuns.

Na meer as nege eeue as ‘n onafhanklike koninkryk, het Skotland in 1707 deel van die Verenigde Koninkryk geword. Die woord “Skot” is afgelei van die Latynse Scoti, ‘n versamelnaam vir die Keltiese stamme van Ierland en Skotland. Die plek wemel van Kodak Moments: behalwe vir die talle kastele en lochs is daar aangrypende gedenktekens, manne in rompe, vroue in broekpakke, wollerige beeste, akrobatiese salms op vislere, die Ou Brug oor die Firth of Forth, Roslyn-kapel, John O’Groats en natuurlik die Ou Baan op St Andrew’s.   

Ten spyte van die talle grappies oor mans in “kilts” is Skotte nog altyd bekend vir hulle manlikheid en dapperheid. Lank voor William Wallace en Robert Bruce was hulle voorsate een te veel vir die Romeinse garnisoen in Engeland. Skotse invallers het soveel verlies aan lewens en eiendom in die Romeinse Protektoraat veroorsaak dat Keiser Hadrianus ’n muur dwarsoor Brittanje gebou het om hulle te probeer uit hou! 

Ek wonder al vir baie jare hoekom die Skotte, anders as hulle mede-Kelte die Iere, relatief min beroemde skrywers, akteurs en musici opgelewer het. Hulle is op die oog af meerendeels “linkerbreiners” – Skotte was die ingeneurs, dokters en rekenmeesters van die Empire. Heel moontlik lê die verklaring in die invloed van die Presbiteriaanse Kerk met sy terughoudende, beheersde kultuur en die Protestantse werksetos, wat harde werk en spaarsamigheid veel hoër ag as ‘n Boheemse lewenstyl. Dit spreek boekdele (sic) dat die bekendste boek deur ‘n Skot nie fiksie was nie, maar ‘n akademiese werk: “The Wealth of Nations” deur Adam Smith.                   

Vir so ‘n klein volkie het die Skotte buitengewoon baie uitvinders opgelewer. Danksy John McAdam het ons vandag teerpaaie, motors word in massas vervaardig op produksielyne wat die nalatenskap van Henry Ford is, en John Boyd Dunlop het motoriste se lot vergemaklik deur die opblaas-rubberwiel te ontwikkel. Alexander Graham Bell het aan ons die telefoon gegee, John Logie Baird televisie, Robert Watson-Watt radar, Alexander Fleming penisilien en Sean Connery die vodka-martini. Ofskoon hulle glo in ‘n dag se harde werk, het die Skotte ook belangrike bydraes gemaak tot vryetydsbesteding: ons lewens sou baie armer gewees het sonder kunsvlieghengel, whisky en gholf!

Hoewel die Skotte nie met gladde monde geseën is soos die Iere nie, raak ‘n mens gou geheg aan hulle. Net soos Boeremense beskik hulle oor die vermoë om vir hulleself te lag. Terwyl die Engelse en Amerikaners die kuns om   met ander mense se aksente en lewenswyses te spot vervolmaak het, vertel die Skotte met groot smaak grappies oor hulle eie mense. Hulle is ook oor die algemeen hulpvaardig en gasvry sonder om praterig of opdringerig te wees. En moet dit nie waag om - soos die meeste Suid-Afrikaners - landswette met ‘n knippie sout te vat nie – die deursnee-Skot het groot respek vir die gereg en verwag dit ook van andere. Die term “die reëls buig” bestaan nie in hulle woordeskat nie; of dit nou oor kroegure, die maksimum-aantal passasiers in ‘n taxi of die bedien van alkohol aan minderjariges gaan.  

In ‘n land met so ‘n lang en dramatiese geskiedenis is daar ‘n magdom spesiale plekke met fassinerende verhale. Tog beklee een ‘n unieke plek in Skotland se geskiedenis: Stirling Castle, wat ‘n ewige simbool van Skotland se stryd teen Engelse dwingelandy is. Die kasteel is geleë op ‘n rotspunt met bitter styl wande, en weens sy onaanvegbare ligging word dit al sedert Romeinse tye as ‘n fortifikasie gebruik. 

Maar dit was die kasteel se rol in die Skotse stryd teen Edward (“Langbeen”) die Eerste en sy nasate, wat vir 60 jaar sou duur, wat dit beroemd gemaak het. Nie alleen was die kasteel self verskeie kere die toneel van gevegte nie, maar was dit ook ‘n stille ooggetuie van die belangrike veldslae van Stirling-brug, Falkirk en Bannockburn – almal binne loopafstand daarvan. Die kasteel bied ook ‘n pragtige uitsig oor die William Wallace-gedenkteken op ‘n nabygeleë koppie.

Die okkasie

My eerste kennismaking met Skotland was net na 1999 se Rugby-Wêreldbekertoernooi in Wallis. Destyds – voor Konflik van Belange-regulasies - kon beleggingsadministrasiehuise nog na hartelus geld spandeer op bemarking en verkope. Een van die wapens in hulle aresenale was die berugte “Incentive Trip”: finansiële adviseurs wat groot volumes van hulle produkte verkoop het, kon kwalifiseer vir rojale oorsese uitstappies met alles op die huis. Die effektetrust-maatskappye was altyd ‘n integrale deel van die proses. Hulle het die kostes help dra in ruil vir die geleentheid om verteenwoordigers saam te stuur om bande te smee met die mense wat die besigheid inbring.

Ek was op daardie stadium verantwoordelik vir ‘n Kaapse batebestuurder se verhouding met ‘n maatskappy wat ‘n groot groep adviseurs na die Wêreldbeker-eindwedstryd sou neem, gevolg deur ‘n weeklange uitstappie na Skotland. As mede-borge was ons geregtig op twee “sitplekke”, en ek en ons Besturende Direkteur was die maatskappy se afgevaardigdes. Twee aande voor die eindstryd het ons dus saam met ‘n geesdriftige groep makelaars en hulle gades die lang vlug Heathrow toe aangepak.     

Daar was ‘n paar legendariese “partygatte” in ons geledere. Een makelaar – wat liefs naamloos sal bly – het voor ons vertrek uit Johannesburg twaalf biere en ‘n warmbrak verorber. Toe ons in Londen aankom, kla hy steen en been oor die erge wyntoon (“gout”) wat hom beet het, en blameer terstond die warmbrak! Hy was maar net die eerste van baie gaste wat onder die gevolge van oormatigheid sou deurloop. Daar was so te sê elke aand ‘n funksie met ‘n tema wat deur die deelnemende batebestuurders geborg is. So was daar onder andere ‘n Romeins- geïnspireerde dinee in die historiese spa-kompleks van Bath, ‘n whisky-en-sigaar aand in Pitlochry, ‘n “prom night” in Edinburg en ‘n formele ete met ‘n Braveheart-tema.      

Die dag na die Eindwedstryd is ons terug Londen toe, van waar ons na Edinburgh gevlieg het. Toerbusse het ons toe oor die Firth of Forth na die vakansiedorp Pitlochry in die Hooglande van Perthshire vervoer. Hierdie poskaart-mooi plekkie is die tuiste van die beroemde Blair Atholl-whiskykelder, asook die Atholl Palace-hotel, waar ons twee nagte tuisgegaan het. Vir my was die hoogtepunt van die eerste middag se stappie deur die dorp die “visleer” langs die hidro-elektriese kragstasie op die Tummel-rivier. Die migrerende salms – wat andersins deur die hoë damwal gesnoeker sou gewees het – kan dit nou systap deur “trappe te klim” van een trog water na die volgende. Veral indrukwekkend is dat die stelsel nie alleen kan tel hoeveel visse daardeur gaan nie, maar dat elkeen ook geweeg word deur hulle waterverplasing te meet!

Die volgende dag is gaste getrakteer op ‘n prettige dag van tipiese Hoogland-tydverdrywe, maar ek het – ten spyte van ‘n “deurnagdiens” – verkies om eerder te gaan hengel. Ofskoon die salm-seisoen reeds gesluit het, kon ‘n mens nog wettig vir bruinforel en grayling hengel. Die plaaslike sportwinkel het aan my uitrusting en vlieghengelgerei verhuur en my ook gehelp om die nodige lisensie te bekom.

Kort voor lank het ek my halflyf in die Tummel-rivier se yskoue water bevind, en my sterre gedank dat ek die duurder neoprien-waadbroek gehuur het! Omdat die stroom so sterk was, het die uitruster my aangeraai om met nimf-nabootsels met loodkoppies vir gewig te hengel, en te konsentreer op plekke waar rotse of opdrifsels die vloei ietwat vertraag het. Ten spyte van ure se harde werk, was die dag se eindtelling Tummel 1 – Rossouw 0. Ek was egter nie dikbek nie; inteendeel. Tydens my tyd op die water het verskeie groot salms dolfynstyl by my verbygeswem – iets wat ek al van kindsbeen af gedroom het om eendag te sien. Soos Henry David Thoreau tereg  opgemerk het: “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

Die volgende dag het ons die whisky-museum by Blair Atholl besoek (en van hulle produkte geniet) en toe in die pad geval na Edinburgh, vir die laaste skof van ons toer. Ons blyplek vir die laaste drie nagte was die Balmoral Hotel, loshande die weelderigste (en duurste) waarin ek tot op daardie stadium gebly het – nie dat dit juis saak gemaak het nie; die meeste van ons het nie veel tyd in ons hotelkamers spandeer nie! Ons eerste aand se program het afgeskop met ‘n begeleide “spooktoer” van die antieke deel van die middestad, waar talle geeste volgens oorlewering nog ronddwaal. Dit is gevolg deur die “Prom Night” in ‘n nabygeleë nagklub. Na dese het almal ‘n lekker nagrus nodig gehad, en die meeste het dit gekry... 

Gelukkig was die dag daarna ‘n “rusdag” en elkeen kon dit volgens eie smaak deurbring. Nodeloos om te sê het verskeie van die manne vooraf gereël om op St Andrew’s te gaan gholf speel. Die res van ons het die dag rustig spandeer en ons batterye herlaai. Edinburgh is ‘n kompakte stad, en danksy ons hotel se puik ligging was ons binne loopafstand van die Scott-monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh-kasteel, die “Royal Mile” en Balmoral-paleis.

Terwyl ek die stad te voet verken het, het ek ‘n ontroerende ondervinding gehad: middagete in “Bobby’s Bar” in Greyfriar’s. Die Bobby na wie die kroeg vernoem is was ‘n Skye-terrier wie se eienaar, Mnr John Gray, in 1858 oorlede is. Die troue hondjie het dag en nag sy baas se graf opgepas tot sy dood 14 jaar later. Mnr Gray het gereeld by dié kroeg in Greyfriar’s middagete genuttig, en Bobby was ‘n ou bekende daar. Bobby het alleenlik sy pos verlaat om smiddags by die kroegeienaar ‘n bietjie oorskietkos te gaan bedel.

Ek en my baas was die gashere van die Braveheart-dinee in Stirling-kasteel. Toe die organiseerders ons genader het om ‘n borgskap, het ons summier hierdie funksie gekies; nie alleen was die kasteel en die tema ‘n trekpleister nie, maar dit sou ook die laaste onthaal van die toer wees. Ons was vasberade om dit ‘n onvergeetlike aand te maak, en het plaaslike spesialiste getaak om die verrigtinge haarfyn te beplan en organiseer. Die spyskaart sou outentiek Skots wees, daar sou akteurs in historiese kostuums wees, en – uiteraard – doedelsakmusiek.

Tydens ons middagete by Bobby se kroeg het ek ‘n ingewing gekry wat “Blackadder” se Baldrick ongetwyfeld as ‘n “cunning plan” sou beskryf het. Ek het vroeër die dag in die Royal Mile ‘n kostuumwinkel teëgekom wat tradisionele Skotse uitrustings vir funksies soos Burns-aande uithuur. Hoekom, stel ek toe aan Pieter voor, kan die gashere nie soos die ware Jakobyn lyk nie?  Hy het van die idee gehou, en voor jy kon sê “Sassenach”* was ons uitgerus en reg vir ons missie. Die enigste vals noot was toe ek grappenderwys vir die Skotse snyer vra of hy nie dalk my kilt se soom effens kon uitlaat nie...  

Die ete

Ons het ‘n rukkie voor die toergroep per trein na Stirling vertrek te einde die voorbereidings te inspekteer en ter elfder ure ons “speelpakkies” aan te trek. Die organiseerders het hulleself oortref en ‘n voortreflike ervaring aangelê. Die gaste sou deur twee enorme Skotte in tradisionele drag, vergesel deur twee enorme Hoogland-wolfhonde, deur die ingang begelei word. Die twee gashere sou hulle op die balkon van Koningin Mary se suite welkom heet, waarna almal ‘n verwarmende whisky-likeur sou geniet en kyk hoe akteurs in die binnehof gefynsde swaardgevegte tussen Hooglanders uitvoer. Ons is ook kamma-kamma betrek in intriges deur ander toneelspelers opgemaak as onder andere Koningin Mary van Skotland, Robert the Bruce en William Wallace. In die agtergrond het ‘n doedelsakspeler vir stemmingsmusiek gesorg. 

Die aand het op ‘n hoë noot begin, en daarna net van krag tot krag gegaan. Die gaste was sonder uitsondering meegevoer deur die pragtige kasteel, die geskiedenis daarvan en die moeite wat gedoen is met die vermaak en dekor. Die enigste kwelpunte het albei te make gehad met ons uitrustings: eerstens was dit snerpend koud, en ‘n Skotsie rokkie is nie daarteen bestand nie, en tweedens was daar die attensies van die agies wat eerstehands wou seker maak of ons eg Skots geklee was!  

In die banketsaal was ‘n eersteklas-vyfgangmaal gereed. Daar was vars, soet Skotse Kammossels (“scallops”) au gratin, gortsop, en Angus-lendeskyf. Na ‘n verposing oor ‘n verfrissende sorbet was dit tyd vir die piece de resistance – Haggis – wat met al die tradisionele rituele voorgesit is. Die heel dis is op ‘n silwer skinkbord ingedra deur ‘n tamboermajoor, op die maat van ‘n doedelsak-skirrl en kompleet met ‘n “lyfwag” van twee fris Skotte. Ofskoon buitestaanders oor die algemeen nie mal oor hierdie mees egte van Skotse disse is nie, beklee dit ‘n belangrike plek in die Scoti se kultuur en tradisie. Dit bevat eg Skotse bestanddele: gemaalde skaap-orgaanvleis en hawermout, en word in ‘n skoongemaakte skaappens toegeknoop en gekook.

Die deugde van die “Great Chieftain of the sausage race” word besing in Robert Burns se alombekende “Address to a Haggis”. Terwyl ons luister hoe die tamboermajoor die “Address” voordra, het ek besef hoe ‘n handjievol Hooglanders dit reggekry het om die magtige leërs van Engeland telkemale op hulle neuse laat kyk het. Luister hoe Burns uitheemse kos afmaak as “trash, feeble as a withered rash”, en dan die veglus en krag van sy Haggis-etende landgenote prys:

“But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his ample fist a blade,

He will make it whistle;

And legs, and arms, and heads will crop,

Like tops of thistle.”

Die Haggis is hierna seremonieël met ‘n sabel opgesny, en bedien aan die gaste. Reaksies het gewissel van afsku na ekstase, met die groot meerderheid êrens tussen-in. Ek ly nie aan vooroordele as dit by kos kom nie, en het my porsie met ‘n totale oop gemoed aangepak. My eerlike opinie? Haggis is ‘n aangeleerde smaak – dit is allermins afstootlik of onsmaaklik, maar dit het my aan hospitaalkos laat dink. Gelukkig was die wynlys uit die boonste rake, en ek moet nog ‘n rooivleisgereg proe wat nie baat vind by ‘n paar glase Bordeaux nie! 

‘n Koekstruif met ‘n whiskygeur was die nagereg. Dit is gevolg deur koffie, whisky en sigare vir diegene wat ‘n dampie na ete geniet. Vir die meer energieke gaste was daar ‘n blitskursus in Skotse volkspele, en heelwat paartjies het die geleentheid aangegryp om ‘n paar ekstra kalorieë te verbrand. Die lekkerste het laaste gevolg. Na die Skotse danse is ons buitentoe, waar ons vergas is op doedelsakmusiek deur ‘n plaaslike orkes. Hulle het al ons gunsteling-deuntjies meesterlik vertolk, en ook geduldig probeer om alle versoeke te speel. Die orkes was uitstekend – hulle doedelsak-voorman was die heersende wêreldkampioen – en die pragtige musiek is gerugsteun deur die kasteel se uitstekende akoestiek. Ek het later ophou tel hoeveel encores hulle moes speel; niemand wou hê dat so ‘n wonderlike aand moes eindig nie!

Ek is man genoeg om te erken dat ek tot vandag nog ‘n groot knop in my keel kry wanneer ek deuntjies soos “Amazing Grace”, “Flower of Scotland” of “Highland Cathedral”, op die doedelsak gespeel, hoor. Natuurlik speel die hartverskeurende klank van die instrumente self ‘n rol, maar ek ken myself goed genoeg om te weet die wortel van die kwaad is eintlik die herinneringe aan daardie wonderlike aand in Stirling Castle...

* - Sassenach = Engelsman (die ergste belediging wat ‘n Skot iemand kan toesnou).    

 

A statue of Bobby of Greyfriar's - Scotland's Hachiko.

Stirling Bridge, with the Wallace Memorial as backdrop.

The main entrance to Stirling Castle.

The Coronation lairds await their guests.

Our Haggis is piped in.

7. Sausages in the shadow of St Stephen

(English)

"The noblest of dogs is the hot dog. It feeds the hand that bites it.” – Lawrence J. Peter.

The place

Vienna (Wien in German) is a city with a long history and a rich cultural heritage. It is synonymous with great coffee and cakes, classical music, prancing Lipizzaners, crumbed schnitzel, and – of course – its famous sausages. The city and its history are inexorably linked to the Danube River, which springs in Germany’s Black Forest and empties into the Black Sea in Romania. In its heyday, the capital city of the Republic of Austria used to be the seat of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany, and subsequently the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

At its peak, the Habsburg Empire was a mini-EU. Before World War I it contained all or parts of modern-day Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Poland and north-eastern Italy. Although Austria itself has always been a rather puny state, the Habsburg family managed to create and maintain a vast empire through strategically astute arranged marriages, diplomacy and military alliances. Today it is a small, German-speaking, nation-state, but it still punches above its weight class as the financial doorway to the ex-communist states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Vienna is also home to numerous international organisations, including OPEC, the International Atomic Energy Agency and several UN bodies.

The Habsburgs rose to prominence by leading the fight against Ottoman invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries. Vienna was twice the scene of decisive battles that halted further Muslim expansion into Central Europe. The Austrians’ victories left them with some unexpected spoils of war – while looting the encampments of the fleeing Ottomans, they found some items which were to become household names in Europe: Coffee, paprika, chocolate and croissants (named after the crescent moon on the Ottoman flag).

Vienna is a graceful city dotted with landmarks that attest to its former glory. Buildings like the Schönbrunn, Liechtenstein and Belvedere Palaces, the Gothic Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral) and the Baroque Karlskirche (St Charles’s Church), the Rathaus (City Hall), the Hofburg Palace, and the Spanish Riding School are all well worth a visit. The city is home to numerous theatres, with the best known the State Opera, the Burgtheater (where mainly symphonies and other orchestral works are performed) and the Volksoper (People’s Opera House) where mostly Viennese operettas are performed. The historical city is encircled by the Ringstrasse (Ring Road) which was built on the foundations of the old city wall.

One of my lasting memories of Vienna is the omnipresence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the old city. Mozart, who lived there from 1781 until his death 10 years later, was undoubtedly the classical composer with the most modern touch. His music is very catchy compared to that of his peers, with a graceful and melodious style that has kept him popular to this very day. He was the original child prodigy, and although he died poor and indebted at the age of only 35, he was immensely influential and well-respected. Even giants like Beethoven and Haydn openly admitted that they were deeply in awe of him. Apart from the museum in his house in the Domgasse, he features prominently in all tourist material, and performances of his works are among the favourite tourist activities.

While certainly not as great an all-round composer as Mozart, Johann Strauss Jr. is a much-loved son of Vienna. Despite composing prolifically in a wide variety of styles (including some excellent operettas), he is today mainly remembered for his waltzes, of which The Blue Danube is probably best known. Johann Strauss the Younger was of course not the only notable composer in his family. His father, Johan Strauss I, was also a successful composer of dance and chamber music, and his brothers Josef and Eduard also composed keenly, if less successfully. It is hardly surprising therefore, that in the city of the Strausses more than 300 balls are held each year. 

Getting there

It all started as part of our plans to go and celebrate the Millennium in Switzerland. We had never been to Austria, and in those heady dotcom days all the flag-carriers were competing aggressively for business. It so happened that Austrian Air offered a particularly attractive package on flights from South Africa to Central Europe, provided one spent at least three nights in Austria along the way. All we needed to do was to visit Vienna en route, and we could then fly directly back to Johannesburg from Zurich.

The package included sizeable discounts on hotel accommodation in Vienna, and this enabled us to stay in a cosy, family-run hotel in the heart of the city. It was just off the Grabenstrasse (where all the chic stores are) and a stone’s throw from the Stephansdom. The city was beautifully decorated, with both Christmas and the Millennium just around the corner, and Christmas tree vendors were doing brisk trade. We arrived at the hotel early in the morning, and were expecting to only be allowed access to our suite after lunch. The concierge must have noticed how bushed we looked, and sent a chambermaid to get a suite in order straight away. I took Jakki and Elouise for Cappuccinos and cake in a nearby coffee shop, and when we returned our suite was ready. We lost no time diving into our beds and catching up on some lost sleep.

By the time all three of us were awake and respectable, lunchtime was around the corner. My brother had advised me to visit the Naschmarkt, and while there to have lunch at a seafood franchise restaurant called Nordsee. I therefore decided to combine seeing the famous market with lunch, and off we went in the U-Bahn (Metro). We had hardly got to the market when something special happened…

For Elouise, by far the trip’s biggest draw card had been the prospect of playing in real snow for the first time. We tried to temper her expectations by explaining that Vienna was situated in a low-lying area, and that – while we would see plenty of it from the air – we would only experience it first hand in the mountains of Switzerland. I was to be shown up spectacularly; not that I cared! As we strolled down the alleys of the open-air market, snow started falling softly. We promptly lost interest in our surroundings and started catching and admiring snowflakes. Locals who saw us nodded sagely – we were probably not the first tourists to lose the plot the moment a bit of snow fell!

After a lovely lunch, we headed back to the hotel for some more R & R. We decided to take the rest of the day off, as we were all still tired and battling to acclimatise. We had a light dinner of Gulyas soup and rye bread in a nearby restaurant, and after a stroll to admire the Stephansdom all lit up we headed straight back to bed.

Day two was spent on a hop on, hop off bus tour of the city, and we visited landmarks like the Schönbrunn Palace and its famous zoo, the Hofburg Opera House and various museums. We also toured the Stephansdom and took in the stunning view of Vienna from the observation deck on its roof. In the midst of so many things that intrigued us as adults, Jakki and I could see that it was all becoming hard work for our young companion. We resolved to put together a more child-friendly last day.

Another perk included in our package from the airline was dinner vouchers for a restaurant reputed to serve the best Wiener Schnitzels in all of Vienna. We therefore decided not to touch anything resembling a schnitzel until we had been there, lest it spoiled our appetites. On the second evening we duly set out to go and experience the real thing in loco. We came away with mixed feelings. The schnitzels were something to behold – not just tasty and perfectly cooked, but enormous! The restaurant used plates that are much bigger than standard dinner plates to prevent the meat from drooping over the sides. On the down side we had the Waiter from Hell. He was a surly middle-aged guy who was in desperate need of a Dale Carnegie course, and clearly disliked ausländer, particularly the budget-conscious, voucher-toting ones who were unlikely to tip generously. Well, his conduct turned his view on tips into a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Our waiter’s conduct stood in stark contrast to that of the owner of the hot dog stand near our hotel, where we had enjoyed lunch earlier. This gentleman had positively radiated good cheer despite the bitter cold, and patiently explained the various menu options to us. Between our rusty high school German and his basic English, we struck up a pleasant conversation about his beloved city, during which we made light work of a couple of hot dogs each!

We spent our last day in Vienna exploring places that we knew Elouise would also enjoy. First stop was the Spanish riding school, where Lipizzaners are trained. This impressed my horse-mad daughter no end, and she started dropping hints that a pony ride would be such a cool idea… Her wish was about to come true, because our next stop was the Prater fairground, home to the famous Riesenrad (giant wheel). This Ferris Wheel – the oldest in Europe – featured prominently in the black-and-white spy thriller The Third Man. On our way to it, we noticed a stall where children could undertake pony rides. In a nice change from the usual fairground organ, Strauss and Mozart accompanied the ride!

Our penultimate stop for the day was at the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) outside the City Hall. Jakki and I used the opportunity to shop around for Austrian Christmas decorations, and to fortify ourselves against the cold with a quick Glühwein. For Elouise there was a Kinderpunsch (an alcohol-free version for kids). Having thawed somewhat, I led the two ladies to our last stop – a real treat, and one they were not expecting. Among the vouchers we had received was one that entitled each of us to a coffee and a slice of their world-famous chocolate cake, the Sachertorte, at the Hotel Sacher. I went from zero to hero in sixty seconds when I ushered them into the café and explained what we were about to experience. I went all the way back, however, when I took some video of them tucking in and was promptly ordered to cease and desist by the maitre d’hotel. He explained that the hotel was a popular meeting-place among diplomats, UN functionaries and other power brokers, and that privacy and discretion were thus essential.

The meal

That evening I offered to treat the ladies to a proper dinner. I must confess that I had a hidden agenda: I wanted to go and have some more of the scrumptious fish I had had at the Nordsee on the Naschmarkt. There was another outlet near the hotel in the Grabenstrasse, but it was more of a fast food/take-out place. Jakki and Elouise seemed strangely lukewarm about my plans, but didn’t give me any clues as to why.

As we got out of the U-Bahn at the market, I got a nasty surprise – the restaurant was closed! It obviously only operated when the market did; something that I should have figured out for myself. For a moment I was stumped. I had been so keen on the dinner I had envisaged that I had not bothered to think of a Plan B. Disappointed and embarrassed, I turned to my entourage and asked whether they had any suggestions. Beaming, they said in unison: “Hot dogs!”  Now that the die had been cast, they freely admitted that this would have been their preference had I bothered to consult them in the first place…

So back we went to our hot dog stand in the Grabenstrasse. With the benefit of hindsight it was the right thing to do. There we were, munching away at authentic Viennese hot dogs within sight of the magnificent cathedral amidst the happy Yuletide hustle and bustle. It was a more fitting end to a day intended to be a treat for a young girl than a sit-down, watch-your-table-manners affair.

Hot dogs originated in 13-Century Germany, and were handed out at large public ceremonies like coronations and religious festivals. As the sausage and condiments were contained inside a bun, the meal could be eaten standing up. An enterprising butcher from Coburg in the Frankfurt district, one Johann Georg Lahner, is said to have introduced the people of Vienna to the Frankfurter Würstchen in the 18th Century. The Austrians, at the time the masters of the German Empire, became so fond of this delicacy that it would become indelibly associated with them and their capital. This sequence of events resulted in the self-same sausage being called a Frankfurter in Vienna (because of its origin) and Wiener (because of the Imperial connotation) in the rest of the Germanic world!  

Viennese hot dogs are to the common-or-garden variety as a crème brûlée is to a bowl of custard. The sausage is inserted into a hollowed-out (not sliced!) bun, and served with either sweet or hot mustard. Unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries, ketchup is a definite no-no. The bun is hollowed out by impaling it on a heated pike, which serves a dual purpose as it also toasts the inside of the bun instantaneously. The Viennese hot dog aficionado has a choice between a number of sausages, the best-known of which is of course the Wiener. It is much heftier (and tastier) than the wienies Americans love so much. Then there is the white Bratwurst, the coarse Burenwurst and our undisputed favourite, the Käsekrainer or Cheese Griller.  

Although hot dogs and beer are generally considered a winning combination, I believe there is no shame in having a glass of decent red wine with your meal. The Austrians are no slouches in this department, either. Most Austrian red cultivar wine is made from the indigenous Blauzweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St Laurent varieties, while French icons like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are often used in red blends. Almost all the country’s wine is made in the lower-lying east of the country, with Nieder-Österreich (the state that surrounds Vienna), Burgenland and Styria the top producers. The Wachau area along the Danube (downstream from Vienna) does not just produce good wine; it is also worth going on a boat cruise through it just to admire the wonderful scenery.

A fun way to spend an evening in the Vienna area is at the numerous Heuriger wine bars that serve only the most recent vintages of wines made in their own vineyards. Light meals are served to complement the wine, and live traditional Austrian music is also a standard feature. 

After a shaky start, it turned out to be an enchanted evening. As if to place the proverbial cherry on the top, a church choir started singing carols and hymns just around the corner from us. We finished our hot dogs and strolled onto the Stephansplatz. They were part of a fund raising drive in aid of the ongoing renovations the cathedral needs. Apart from the buskers hats on the ground, funds were being collected in another, equally civilised way: stalls selling glühwein. This was served in ornamental mugs displaying a picture of the imposing building and the slogan Save the Stephansdom! We promptly combined a nightcap (which we were planning to have anyway) with charity and sipped our steaming toddies while listening to the choir.

As we stood there in contented silence, I realised once again how much more important listening skill is than eloquence. We still have our mugs, and vivid memories of another special chapter in our life stories. And I still try to listen more than talk.

Making it at home

Hot dogs, Austrian style, are frequent and popular part of our weekend diet. What we found works particularly well is to use a variety of sausages, with different textures and flavours.

Preparation time: ¼ hour.

Cooking time: ¼  hour.

Serves 4 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a medium-bodied red  Bordeaux or Rhône blend. An ice-cold lager or Pilsener beer also works a treat on a hot summer’s day. Be sure to have plenty of serviettes at hand – this often turns out messy!

4 Cheese Griller sauges.

4 Frankfurter or Bockwurst sausages.

4 Spicy sausages, like Longaniza or Debriziner.

12 Fresh hot dog buns.

German-style mustard (Grill-senf). Dijon mustard is an excellent Plan B.

Sweet mustard sauce.

Note: Tomato ketchup is a non-starter in Austria, but your kids may force you to include it!

  • Place the sausages on a grill rack in a cold oven. Turn up the heat to 1200 C.
  • Hollow the buns out by cutting off one tip and hollowing it out with a hollowing tool. Alternatively, slice them in half lengthwise.
  • Each guest can then spread and/or pour the condiments of his/her choice into his/her 3 buns.
  • After about 15 minutes, the sausages should be warm enough. Switch off the oven.
  • Insert the sausages into the buns with tongs.

Serve the hot dogs with sauerkraut. 

“The dog’s kennel is not the place to keep a sausage.” – Danish proverb.

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(Afrikaans)

Warm brakke in ‘n ysige Wenen

Die plek

Wenen (Wien in Duits) is ‘n stad met ‘n lang geskiedenis en ryk kultuurerfenis, en is sinoniem met knus koffiehuise, walse, Lipizzaners, gekrummelde schnitzels, en – natuurlik – seker die beroemdste wors in die wêreld. Die stad en sy geskiedenis is onlosmaaklik verweef met die Donau-rivier, wat ongelukkig deesdae – anders as in die dae van Johann Strauss - alles behalwe blou is. Die Donau, wat in die Swart Woud ontspring en in die Swart See uitmond, is vir bykans sy hele lengte bevaarbaar en dus ‘n belangrike verbindingsroete vir die lande van Suidoos-Europa.

Op sy dag was die hoofstad van die hedendaagse Republiek van Oostenryk ook die setel van die Heilige Romeinse Keiserryk (ten spyte van die naam eintlik die Eerste Duitse Keiserryk) en daarna dié van Oostenryk-Hongarye onder die heerskappy van die Habsburg-familie. Dié adellike familie het beroemdheid verwerf as die leiers van die stryd teen Ottomaanse oorheersing in die Sestiende en Sewentiende Eeue. Wenen was by twee geleenthede die vesting wat die Moslem-invallers gestuit het. Die Oostenrykers se oorwinnings het benewens grondgebied en rykdom ‘n paar interessante ander meevallers opgelewer. Onder die buit wat die Turke in hulle haas agtergelaat het was items wat spoedig huishoudelike name in Europa sou word: koffie, paprika, sjokolade en croissants (na aanleiding van die Moslem-sekelmaan). 

Die Habsburgs het teen die begin van die Twintigste Eeu oor ‘n mini-EU geregeer. Ofskoon Oostenryk self nooit ‘n magtige land was nie, het die Habsburgs deur ‘n kombinasie van diplomasie, militêre bondgenootskappe en (veral) slim-gereëlde huwelike met lede van ander lande se koninklikes ‘n enorme ryk saamgeflans. Hulle vlag het teen 1914 oor die hele Oostenryk, Hongarye, die Tsjeggiese Republiek, Slowakye, Slowenië, Kroasië, Bosnië-Herzegowina en groot dele van Pole en Noord-Italië gewapper.   

Vandag is Oostenryk ‘n klein, Duitssprekende nasiestaat, wat egter nog steeds ‘n belangrike rol in die internasionale gemeenskap speel. Wenen is die finansiële sentrum van waar baie maatskappye hulle aktiwiteite in die voormalige Oosbloklande van Oos-Europa en die Balkans bestuur. Die stad is ook die tuiste van heelparty  internasionale organisasies, insluitend OPUL, die Internasionale Atoomkrag-Agentskap en verskeie VN-liggame.   

Wenen is ‘n mooi stad met talle landmerke wat van sy gloriedae getuig. Die Habsburgs het benewens die Hofburg (die setel van die Ryk) drie imposante woningpaleise nagelaat, te wete Schönbrunn, Liechtenstein en Belvedere. Die Gotiese Stephansdom (St Stefanus-katedraal) en Rathaus (stadsaal) se Barok-eweknie is die Karlskirche (die kerk van Karel die Grote). Daar is ook verskeie beroemde teaters, waarvan die bekendstes die Staatsopera (hoofsaaklik opera), die Stadsteater (meestal simfonië) en die Volksopera (meestal Weense operettes) is. Die ou stad word deesdae deur die Ringstrasse omring, wat op die fondamente van die oorspronklike stadsmuur gebou is. 

My mees blywende herinnering aan Wenen is die bykanse alomteenwoordigheid van Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Hierdie tragiese figuur het tussen 1871 en sy dood 10 jaar later hier gewoon en van sy grootste werke gekomponeer. Ofskoon hy op slegs 35 brandarm en gebroke oorlede is, was hy waarskynlik die mees invloedryke klassieke komponis en die een wat die hoogste deur sy mede-komponiste aangeslaan is. Selfs groot geeste soos Beethoven, Haydn en Mahler het hulle bewondering vir hom openlik uitgespreek. Sy komposisies is tydloos; nie te lank nie, strelend en met temas wat ‘n mens bybly. Geen wonder so baie van sy werke word vandag nog tot popmusiek verwerk en in klankbane of advertensies gebruik nie – dink maar aan die klarinetkonsert in “American Gigolo”, die Figaro-overture in “Trading Places” en die klavierkonsert (oftewel “Elvira se Tema”) in daardie Badedas-advertensie. Mozart en sy nalatenskap is groot trekpleisters; uitvoerings van sy musiek lok vol ouditoriums en die museum in sy huis in die Domgasse word druk besoek.   

Wenen se beroemdste plaaslik-gebore komponis is ongetwyfeld Johann Strauss Jr. Ofskoon hy nie in Mozart se klas was as “ernstige” komponis nie, was hy ‘n meester van ligte, populêre musiek – veral walse en operettes. Werke wat vandag nog gewild is sluit die “Blou Donau”-wals en die operettes “Die Vlermuis” en “Die Sigeuner-Baron” in. Strauss die Jongere was nie die enigste talentvolle komponis in sy familie nie; sy vader Johann I was self ‘n gevierde komponis wat onder andere vir die “Radetzky-mars” verantwoordelik was. Sy broers Josef en Eduard was ook geesdriftige, maar minder suksesvolle, komponiste.  

Die okkasie

Die gebeure waaroor ek hier skryf was die gevolg van my plan om die Derde Millenium in Switzerland te gaan inwag. In daardie dae het die “dotcom”-bulmark almal ryk en optimisties laat voel, meer mense het begin reis en lugrederye het dus aggressief vir besigheid gekompeteer. Die aantreklikste paket vir ‘n besoek aan Switserland was Austrian Air s’n; die enigste voorwaarde was dat ons in die proses ten minste drie nagte in Oostenryk moes oorbly. Nie een van ons was al daar nie, en dus was die “vereiste” vir ons eintlik ‘n pluspunt.  

Die pakket het onder andere stewige kortings op hotelverblyf in Wenen ingesluit, en dit het ons in staat gestel om in ‘n knus middelslaghotel in die hart van die stad te bly. Die hotel was in ‘n systraat van die Grabenstrasse, Wenen se chic inkopiedistrik, en ‘n klipgooi ver van die Stephansdom. Die stad was sierlik getooi in Kersversierings, en oral was smouse druk besig om denne-kersbome te verkoop – Oostenrykers het nie veel erg aan “Fong Kong”-plastiekboompies nie. Ons het in die vroeë oggenddonker in Wenen aangekom, en verwag om eers na middagete ons hotelkamer te kon betrek. Die concierge het hom egter oor die uitgeputte Ausländer-familietjie ontferm, en onmiddelik ‘n kamermeisie gestuur om ‘n leë suite vir ons gereed te maak. Om die tyd te verwyl het ek Jakki en Elouise by ‘n nabygeleë Stube op koffie en koek getrakteer, en terug by die hotel was ons suite reg. Minute later was ons aldrie in droomland. 

Teen die tyd dat ons almal wakker en respektabel was, was dit al amper tyd vir middagete. In sy advies aan my vooraf, het my broer my onder andere aangeraai om die Naschmarkt (vars produkte-mark) te besoek, en ook genoem dat hulle verskeie klere heerlik by ‘n seekos-kettingrestaurant genaamd “Nordsee” geëet het. Siende dat daar ‘n Nordsee op die mark was, het ek besluit om twee vlieë met een klap te slaan en daar te gaan eet. Danksy die U-Bahn (Metro) het ons vinnig en warm op die mark aangekom. Hier het ‘n spesiale belewenis op ons gewag...  

Vir Elouise was die vakansie se grootste enkele treikpleister die vooruitsig om vir die eerste keer in regte sneeu te speel. Ons het ons bes gedoen om haar verwagtings te temper en verduidelik dat Wenen laagliggend is, en dat – alhoewel ons baie sneeu op ons vlug oor die Alpe sou sien – ons dit waarskynlik eers in Switserland eerstehands sou ervaar. My geloofwaardigheid is dus ‘n nekslag toegedien toe ons uit die moltreinstasie stap, en dit sneeu! Ons het summier belangstelling in die mark verloor, en sneeuvlokkies gevang en bewonder. Die Oostenrykers wat ons kapperjolle gesien het, het maar net hulle koppe geskud – ons was sekerlik nie die eerste toeriste wat die kluts kwyt geraak het die oomblik toe hulle sneeu sien nie...

Na ‘n voortreflike middagete (Zander was liefde met die eerste proe) is ons terug hotel toe vir ‘n broodnodige siesta. Ons aand is deur besigtiging van die Stephansplatz en die talle boetieks in die omgewing in beslag geneem. Ons het nie een ‘n vreeslike aptyt gehad na die middag se feesmaal nie, en sommer by ‘n oulike restaurantjie oorkant ons hotel trooskos gekry in die vorm van Gulyas-sop met rogbrood.

Dag Twee is gewy aan ‘n bustoer van die stad, en ons het besienswaardighede soos die Schönbrunn-paleis en sy geskiedkundige dieretuin, die Hofburg-paleis en –operahuis asook verskeie museums besoek. Ons is ook deur die Stephansdom, en het die stad vanaf sy observasiedek besigtig. Te midde van soveel dinge wat ons as grootmense aangegryp het, kon ek en Jakki sien dat Wenen vir ons jong reisgenoot harde werk begin word het. Ons het derhalwe besluit om ‘n meer kinder-vriendelike laaste dag saam te stel.  

Een van die bederfies in ons lugdiens-pakket was ‘n koepon wat goed was vir ‘n gratis aandete in ‘n restaurant wat glo beroemd was vir sy Wiener Schnitzels. Ons het dus besluit om doelbewus enigiets wat kalfsvleis of krummels bevat te vermy tot ons daar geëet het. Die tweede aand is ons toe by die hotel weg gewapen met groot verwagtings en ‘n gesonde aptyt. Ons het met gemengde gevoelens teruggekom. Die Schnitzels het ons verwagtings oortref -  hulle was nie net heerlik en aantreklik voorgesit nie; hulle was enorm! Ofskoon die restaurant se borde aansienlik groter as die norm was, het die schnitzels steeds oor die kante gehang. Die diens was egter ‘n perd van ‘n ander kleur. Ons kelner was ‘n middeljarige suurknol wat ooglopend “Fawlty Towers” as ‘n opleidingsvideo beskou het. Sy afkeer aan Ausländer was ooglopend, en die feit dat ons met ‘n koepon daar aangekom het, het hom seker laat aanvaar dat ek suinig sou wees met die fooitjie. Sy houding het hierdie suspisie in ‘n selfvervullende profesie laat verander...   

“Manuel” se optrede was in skelle kontras met dié van die eienaar van die warmbrakstalletjie naby ons hotel, waar ons vroeër middagete geniet het. Hierdie hartlike ou heer het lewensvreugde uitgestraal ten spyte van die snerpende koue, en ewe geduldig sy “spyskaart” aan ons verduidelik. Tussen my en Jakki se verroeste Hoërskool-Duits en sy bietjie Engels het ons land en sand gesels oor sy geliefde stad, en op die koop toe ‘n tweede Würstel elk verorber.

Ons laaste dag in Wenen is gewy aan plekke en dinge wat meer in Elouise se smaak geval het. Ons eerste stop was die Spaanse Ryskool, waar die beroemde Lipizzaners afgerig word. My perde-mal dogter het die uitstappie terdeë geniet; soveel so dat sy begin skimp het dat sy enigiets sou gee om self perd te ry terwyl ons in Wenen was.

Ek wonder vandag nog of my slim kind nie heimlik ‘n bietjie navorsing van haar eie gedoen het nie, want ons is van die Ryskool na die Prater-pretpark waar daar toe sowaar ponieritte aangebied is.

Die Prater se grootste besienswaardigheid is beslis die beroemde Riesenrad (“reusewiel”) – die oudste mallemeule in Europa. Ouer lesers en fliekflooie sal onthou hoe die konkelaar Harry Lime in die swart-en-wit spioenasieriller “The Third Man” sy vertroulike gesprekke in een van die Riesenrad se kajuite gehou het. Na ‘n statige omwenteling in die groot wiel was dit tyd vir Elouise se groot oomblik. Die ponieritte het in ‘n kloktent plaasgevind, en die ruitertjies het op die maat van musiek ‘n paar rondtes om ‘n arena getrippel. Genadiglik was dit Wenen, en in plaas van die geykte draai-orrelmusiek is ons op Mozart en Strauss vergas.  

Ons voorlaaste bestemming vir die dag was die Weihnachtsmarkt (Kersmark) voor die Stadsaal. Jakki en ek het die geleentheid gebruik om tipiese Oostenrykse Kersversierings te koop – iets wat ons op al ons Desembervakansies doen – en onsself te verwarm met ‘n koppie Glühwein. Vir Elouise was daar Kinderpunsch (‘n alkoholvrye weergawe vir kinders). Na dié welkome verversings het ons in die pad geval na ons finale besoekpunt – een wat ek doelbewus (en met moeite) vir die twee dames geheim gehou het tot die laaste oomblik. Een van die waardevolste Austrian Air-koepons het ons gemagtig om gratis by die Hotel Sacher koffie en ‘n sny van hulle wêreldberoemde sjokoladekoek, die Sachertorte, te geniet.

My aansien in die gesin het blitsig gestyg toe ek Jakki en Elouise gallant die koffiekamer inwys en meedeel wat die doel van die besoek was! Ek het egter blitsig weer aarde toe gekom. Pappa Spielberg het net begin om die groot oomblik op video vas te lê toe die maitre d’hotel uit die niet verskyn en my vriendelik maar ferm aansê om my kamera te bêre. Hy verduidelik toe dat die hotel ‘n gewilde ontmoetingsplek onder diplomate, VN-ampsdraers en oliebaronne is, en dat privaatheid en diskresie ononderhandelbaar was.

Die ete

Ek het belowe om ons tyd in Wenen af te sluit met ‘n ordentlike aandete. Daar was ‘n verskuilde agenda: ek wou vir oulaas weer Nordsee se heerlike vis gaan geniet. Dit sou nog ‘n uitstappie Naschmarkt toe verg, want die takke nader aan ons hotel het almal net wegneemetes verkoop. Tot my verbasing was Jakki en Elouise nie vreeslik entoesiasties oor my voorstel dat ons weer daar gaan eet nie. Hulle was egter die taktvolheid vanself, en het ingestem om te gaan.

By die mark het ‘n nare verrassing vir my gewag: die restaurant was gesluit! Ek kon myself skop toe dit tot my deurdring dat die restaurant se besigheidsure ooglopend met die mark s’n sou ooreenstem. In my teleurstelling en verleentheid kon ek nie dadelik aan ‘n Plan B dink nie, en vra die ander twee toe maar of hulle enige voorstelle had. Die antwoord was onmiddelik en in ‘n koor: “Hot dogs!” Nou dat sake na hulle sin verloop het, het hulle vryelik (en met verbasend min selfvoldaanheid) erken dat dit van die begin af hulle eerste keuse was, maar dat ek nooit gebodder het om hulle insette te vra nie...   

Sonder verdere seremonie is ons terug na “ons” Würstelstube in die middestad. In retrospek was dit ‘n veel meer beter manier om vir oulaas in Wenen te kuier. Ons het binne sig van die pragtige katedraal tussen die opgewekte burgers van Wenen gestaan en outentieke Weense worsbroodjies verslind met die parfuum van vars dennenaalde in die lug. Vir ‘n jong meisie op haar eerste oorsese vakansie was dit ‘n meer gepaste einde aan haar bederf-dag as ‘n linne-en-silwer ete in ‘n restaurant.

Die worsbroodjie se oorsprong was in Duitsland, waar dit so vroeg as die 13e Eeu uitgedeel is aan skares by plegtighede soos kronings van vorste, omdat die brood-omhulsel dit moontlik gemaak het om die worsie staande te eet. ‘n Slagter uit Coburg naby Frankfurt, Johann Georg Lahner, het volgens oorlewering die Frankfurter Würstchen in die 18e Eeu in Wenen bekend gemaak. Die Oostenrykers, wat destyds die Duitse Keiserryk oorheers het, het so versot geraak op hierdie lekkerny dat dit mettertyd met hulle, en veral hulle hoofstad, geassosieër is. Hierdie sameloop van omstandighede het daartoe gelei dat dieselfde worsie wat die Weners weens sy herkoms ‘n Frankfurter noem, in die res van die Duitssprekende wêreld weens sy konnotasie met Oostenryk as ‘n Wiener bekend staan!

Weense warmbrakke het soveel in gemeen met die Amerikaanse-styl “hot dog” as crème brulée met ‘n bakkie vla. Die verwarmde wors word met ‘n tangetjie in ‘n uitgeholde (nie deurgesnyde nie!) broodrol ingedruk, en die eter het ‘n keuse tussen soet of warm mosterd. Anders as in die Engelssprekende wêreld is tamatiesous streng verboten.

Die broodrol word uitgehol deur dit met ‘n vuurwarm ysterstafie te deurboor, wat boonop die binnekant van die brood rooster. Liefhebbers van Weense warmbrakke het ‘n keuse tussen ‘n aantal tradisionele worsies, waarvan die bekendste ooglopend die Frankfurter/Wiener is. Dis groter, dikker en veel geuriger as die “wienies” waarop Amerikaanse sportkykers so versot is. Ander gewilde worsies onder die Weense publiek is die wit Bratwurst, die growwer Burenwurst en ons gunsteling, die Käsekreiner (kaaswors).  

Ofskoon worsbroodjies en bier gewoonlik met mekaar vereenselwig word, verkies ek ‘n glas goeie rooiwyn saam met enige rooivleisdis. Ons “gasheer” het gelukkig voorsiening gemaak vir Filistyne soos ek en Jakki, en so kon ek vir oulaas ‘n paar Oostenrykse wyne probeer. Alhoewel patriotiese wynmakers verkies om hulle rooi cultivar-wyne van die plaaslike Blauzweigelt, Blaufränkisch of St Laurent-variëtyte te maak, word Franse ikone soos Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah en Merlot toenemend in versnitte gebruik. So te sê al Oostenryk se wyn word in die laer-liggende oostelike deelstate gemaak, met Benede-Oostenryk (waarin Wenen geleë is), Burgenland en Steyrmark die grootste produsente.

Wyn is ‘n integrale deel van Wenen se bekoring. Die Wachau-distrik langs die Donau (stroom-af van Wenen) produseer nie net uitstekende wyn nie; dis ook die moeite werd om op ‘n bootvaart daarheen te gaan ter wille van die pragtige landskap. Nader aan die stad is daar die Heuriger: klein wynplase wat gesellige etes aanbied, vergesel deur hulle eie wyne en lewendige tradisionele Oostenrykse musiek

Ten spyte van ‘n stadige begin, het ons aand met die verloop van tyd al hoe lekkerder geword. Net toe ons klaar geëet het, het ‘n koor op die Stephansplatz begin Kersliedere sing. Hulle het opgetree ten bate van ‘n fondsinsameling om vir restourasiewerk van die katedraal te betaal, en het – eerder as om bloot kollektes op te neem – geld ingesamel deur glühwein te verkoop aan die gehoor. Die drankies is bedien in ornamentele keramiekbekers (ook te koop) met ‘n prent van die imposante gebou op, asook die slagspreuk “Red die Stephansdom”. Ons het terstond ons beplande “night cap” gekombineer met liefdadigheid, en ons glühwein staan en geniet terwyl ons na die koor se pragtige sang luister.    

Terwyl ons daar staan en wens dat hierdie wonderlike aand nie moet eindig nie, het ek opnuut besef dat die vermoë om aandagtig te luister veel belangriker is as om welsprekend te wees. Ons het vandag nog ons Stephansdom-bekers, en elke keer as ek uit myne drink herinner ek myself om meer te luister en minder te praat.

"Nordsee" is a really cool restaurant...

The Christmas Market at the City Hall.

The Big Wheel keeps on turnin'...

Sachertorte at the Sacher.

Eating "Frankfurters" in Vienna.

8. Slow food in a Château

“France has a unique way of controlling its population of unwanted critters. They have done this by giving snails, pigeons and frogs fancy names, thus transforming common backyard pests into expensive delicacies.” – Chris Harris.

The place

Burgundy is one of the French regions where the locals do not necessarily enjoy being described as “French”. Despite the Fifth Republic’s best efforts at presenting La France as one, unified country, it is actually a collection of very distinct nations. The Basques, the Provençals, the Bourguignons and Bretons (among others) have ancient and proud cultures that precede a united France by centuries. Burgundy is special in many respects, but two stand out. Firstly, despite its people having resisted French expansionism fiercely until as recently as the 17th century, its cuisine and wines have subsequently been adopted so enthusiastically by the region’s Parisian masters that they are seen as epitomising France, rather than Burgundy. Secondly, as a direct consequence of Burgundy belatedly and reluctantly becoming part of France, central governments were traditionally stingy when it came to infrastructure spending and industrial development in the region. As a consequence modernity has not crowded out its historic places to the extent that it has in many other parts of the country.      

There is little doubt that Burgundy has contributed more to French cuisine and wine than any other region. Think French food, and boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, entrecote de boeuf, quenelles de brochet, Dijon mustard, garlic snails and frogs’ legs come to mind. While it is true that the region has produced some classic recipes, these dishes rely heavily on the quality of the ingredients used. The beef dishes would just not be as good if it weren’t for the meat of Charolais cattle, nor are there finer chickens than those from Bresse. Because so much of Burgundy is relatively pristine, boar and deer are abundant, and the rivers and lakes produce fish and crayfish of the highest quality. The forests and copses also yield a variety of extremely tasty mushrooms, most notably morels and chanterelles.

Think wine, and Chablis, Sancerre, Beaujolais, Santenay, Beaune and Aloxe-Corton are household names whenever connoisseurs get together. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the flagship grape cultivars of Burgundy, are accorded special status wherever good wine is made and enjoyed. What is less well known is that Burgundy is actually one of the lowest-yielding wine regions of France, with less than 2% of the country’s total production originating there. What makes viticulture viable in such a low-turnover environment is the fact that the region produces only premium wines, which command much bigger profit margins. Talk about adding value!

Burgundy is where the concept of terroir came into its own. The winemakers of the region were the first to understand that making great wines takes more than just good soil. Other important influences include the slope of the land, the altitude and prevailing winds. In Burgundy, all grands crus are produced at an average altitude of 270 m on east-facing ground.

The Catholic monks who established viticulture there in the Middle Ages seemed to have a supernatural ability to lay out vineyards to best effect; without any geological knowledge or chemical analysis they positioned their vines so well that even today’s boffins cannot improve on their placement. As a famous French expert on the wines of Burgundy, Martin Cantegrit, puts it: “…they must have tasted the earth, in the same way we now taste wine. On these fallow lands, covered with forests, they positioned their crus to the centimetre. Burgundy’s vineyards were built with the same exactitude as cathedrals.”

Because its economy is still predominantly agricultural, Burgundy has retained a great deal of its original natural beauty. Much of it can truthfully be described as “La France Profonde” or “France’s hinterland” where modernity has not yet obliterated the character of the region. Not only is the landscape picture-postcard pretty, but the man-made infrastructure is also relatively antiquated by European standards. This heightens the sense of history and tranquillity one gets when travelling the region.

Vézelay, along with Avallon to the east and Autun to the south, forms a triangle that encloses the beautiful MorvaneForest. The town, which was immortalised by the paintings of Georges Hosotte, made a lasting impression on us when we stayed nearby some years ago. In medieval times it enjoyed far greater status than today, as can be imagined when looking at its magnificent basilica of St Mary Magdalene. The church is one of Europe’s largest and best-preserved Romanesque houses of worship. It was an important pilgrimage destination because of the relics preserved there (claimed to be of the saint herself) and its location on the route to Santiago de Compostela. The Second Crusade was in fact launched from there by St Bernard of Clairvaux.

Getting there

When we planned our 2001 trip to France, the intention had been to see parts of the country we had not been to before. After the initial thrill of committing to a trip that would take us to places Jakki and I had long dreamt about, we suffered a bit of a reality shock. This was clearly going to be our most expensive overseas vacation to date, and we were not exactly cash-flush. I was working for an asset management company at the time, and the dotcom bubble had burst a few months before. With equity markets on the retreat, marketing unit trusts was not a lucrative line of business. The South African Rand was also steadily sliding against the currencies of most industrialised countries, including the French Franc.

Hope springs eternal, however, and we refused to abandon our plans. We agreed that, if we were going to proceed, it would not be on an El Cheapo basis. Visiting the land of opulent châteaux, Michelin stars and Pinot Noir and then staying in youth hostels and eating road kill would be defeating the object.

Then fortune smiled on us. In mid-2000, South Africa got its own version of the popular game show “Who wants to be a millionaire?” and I immediately decided to audition. I had previously won one minor and one major TV quiz show, and my decision was initially based on ego needs, rather than wanting to earn extra money. It did however dawn on us that – if I did manage to bring home some cash – it would give our holiday plans a big boost. I got onto the show, made it into the hot seat straight away, and got off to a good start. The R62 000 question (“Who created the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck?”) clean bowled me, however. Luckily R32 000 (worth about US$4 000 at the time) was guaranteed, and this ultimately covered about two thirds of the cost of our French vacation.

As we were still on a fairly tight budget, I had made a conscious effort to economise on accommodation in order to leave us a reasonable amount of money for important things like food and drink. There was one big exception to the norm, however: while surfing the internet for places to stay in rural Burgundy, I came across a stunning boutique hotel housed in a real château near Vézelay. Although its rates were far more than I had planned to spend per night, I decided to take the plunge and book a room there for our first two nights in France. To soften the blow to the fiscus, I planned for us not to have lunch or dinner there, but rather to have picnics (weather permitting) or cheap plat du jour-type meals in nearby cafés. 

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle in the pre-dawn gloom of a mid-April morning, tired and stiff after an overnight flight in cattle class from Johannesburg. As we had a fairly long drive ahead of us, I needed a couple of strong black coffees and a nicotine fix before collecting our rental car. Fortunately we got a really nice car and the trip south was at least undertaken in spacious comfort. Although I had had previous experience of driving on the right-hand side of the road, I had never driven on roads as busy as Paris’ ring road. With white knuckles I steered us through the morning rush hour traffic, all the while imploring Jakki to keep her eyes peeled for the off-ramp that would take us onto the A6 motorway towards Dijon and Lyon. There was no way I was going to allow a wrong turn to suck us into the maelstrom that is Paris traffic!

I have suffered from a phobia about driving in Paris ever since a colleague told me how he had been dared to drive from the Place de la Concorde to the Grande Arche de La Défense. He had made it as far as the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe, where it took him two-and-a-half hours to make his way out of it!

St Christopher was kind to us that morning. We took the right exit, and soon the rather drab suburbs and grim banlieues of Paris were replaced by bucolic countryside. As we left the Ile de France region, and entered Burgundy the surroundings became even more picturesque. We were struck by how neat French farmers keep their properties, and how every square centimetre seems to be put to productive use. EU subsidies might be wasteful, but at least they seem to help keep the French countryside beautiful…

As we passed Auxerre, I decided that I was now sufficiently au fait with the French rules of the road for us to leave the highway and follow a more scenic route to Vézelay. Not only was my driving improving, but we had also made good time and no longer needed to hurry. What an inspired decision that was. If pastoral scenery is your thing, then rural Burgundy is a must. There are surprisingly large forests in areas with broken terrain, fields with wheat and canola, plenty of vineyards and meadows where impossibly plump Charolais cattle graze. The tiny hamlets we passed through seemed stuck in a different, more peaceful era than ours, and the people looked highly unlikely to die from stress-related diseases! 

After a late-morning snack and a glass of wine at a café straight from ‘Allo, ‘Allo in a village just north of Vézelay, we approached the château (near the village of Lugny) just after noon. We had been informed that check-in was only possible after 2 p.m., and upon arrival we discovered that here it was not just an administrative arrangement – it was physically impossible! The château was enclosed by a moat, and the entrance gate was firmly shut. We therefore spent the remaining 30 minutes or so strolling down a country lane and admiring the verdant spring landscape. We were delighted to come across numerous feral tulips in full bloom in the pastures along the way. 

On returning to the château, my wife’s eagle eyes spotted the table d’hôte menu for dinner that evening displayed next to the gate. Having read and heard so much about the exalted cuisine of Burgundy, we had a look and were immediately tempted. All my good intentions melted like a lollipop in the sun when we saw what was for dinner. And on top of everything, the price was reasonable! I decided there and then, when in Rome, do as the Romans do – we were going to have a proper dinner in the château’s dining room that evening. And, so I reasoned, at ₣72 (R100) a pop, we might as well do it the next night as well.  

If only I had checked all the facts of the matter! We had been to France twice before, and the ZAR/₣ exchange rate had been relatively stable at about R1.25 to the Franc. Even though the Euro had been launched in January 1999, it had remained a notional currency for some time after that and Europeans still did their cash transactions in their national currencies. What I had overlooked in my haste was a) that the Euro had recently become the only legal tender in the Eurozone, and b) the price of a dinner in the château was quoted in Euro, not Franc. This meant that the meal would cost roughly seven times more than I envisaged.

By the time I realised my mistake, we had already reserved seats for dinner. Male ego got in the way of my doing the obvious and cancelling. We had the rest of our trip to economise, after all. The maitre d’hotel, a dead ringer for Monsieur Alphonse, had informed us that there were two seating options: either around a large communal table, or at two smaller private tables in an alcove. We opted for the former, since the alcove was clearly ‘Plan B’. Neither of us is exactly a chatterbox, so we did have some misgivings about supping with a crowd of complete strangers – and there was the real possibility of language being a problem to boot.

For once, having Americans stay in the same venue had its advantages. We had barely sat down when one of our fellow diners enquired in a Rhett Butler-type twang: “I suspect y’all speak English?” And we did! There was a young couple who were refugees from Silicon Valley, and had sold their dotcom start-up at the eleventh hour and were now considering their options from the safety of a Mayfair apartment. Then there was a Danish investment banker from the City with his wife and two teenage children. The Southerner who had broken the ice turned out to be a prototype ‘Dr Phil’ who had his own syndicated radio and TV shows, and came to France every year to speculate in Bordeaux futures.

The meal

A witty observer once described the typical Burgundian as someone who is both a gourmet (someone who has refined taste) and a gourmand (someone who eats a lot). Our experience bears this out. Although many of the fundamentals of French cuisine hail from Burgundy, it is not a place where one is served nouvelle cuisine - microscopically small, portions of overpriced food. Helpings in this part of the world are generous, and the food is big-hearted and rich. As St Francis of Sales is rumoured to have said: “The body must be nourished well, so that the soul can be happy there.”

Many meat and poultry dishes are prepared à la Bourguignonne (cooked in a rich red wine, mushrooms, shallots, carrots and lardons) or à la meurette (a similar sauce, but without mushrooms). Mustard and cream also feature prominently in many sauces. Since the Romans introduced mustard to the locals, it has become a pretty ubiquitous condiment. Dijon has become as synonymous with it, as Porto with port wine, Modena with balsamic vinegar or Cognac with brandy. Mustard from Dijon comes in a bewildering variety of flavours, which vary from fiery hot to mild and sweet. Our favourites, apart from the Real McCoy, are the cassis and tarragon flavours. Although not home to any of the real big-ticket French cheeses, an exceptional Chèvre (goat’s cheese) is produced in the Morvan hills south of Vézelay, and the blue-veined Gex (similar to Roquefort in flavour) has many fans.

Burgundy is snail country. These gastropods flourish in its cool, damp climate, and simply love the leaves of the noble grape cultivars in its vineyards. Unfortunately for the snails, the people of the region love them even more! Due to the large and growing demand, the over-exploitation of the indigenous Burgundian vine snail (Helix pomata, a.k.a. Gros Blanc) has brought it close to extinction. As a result, two-thirds of the snails consumed in France are actually imported, and the smaller, less tasty Petit Gris snail is now often substituted for its larger cousin.

The enjoyment of the region’s cuisine is enhanced by the wonderful wines available to accompany each dish. Although mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are used, the different districts produce wines in a wide range of styles. Chablis is synonymous with crisp, acidic Chardonnay; Macon light and fruity whites (notably Pouilly-Fuisse); the Cote d’Or full-bodied, oak-matured reds and Beaujolais light, youthful reds made from the Gamay cultivar. One of the region’s best-kept secrets is Crémant de Bourgogne, a superb sparkling wine, while its Marc (grappa) is a potent after-dinner drink.

Our first dinner in the château was one of which I can still remember the detail without having to consult diary notes. The first course was actually served before we even got to the dining room – over aperitifs (Kir Royal made with Crémant or still Aligoté wine) in the anteroom we were served Gougères (petite, freshly-baked cheese scones). This cleared the palate for what was to follow.

Our first sit-down dish was, as we had hoped, snails à la Bourguignonne which were accompanied by a Petit Chablis with a clean, steely character. This was followed by a quail and grape salad, with dainty de-boned quail quarters and Muscat grapes arranged artistically on top of a garden salad. We were somewhat disappointed with the fish course, which was Sandre (pike-perch) au beurre blanc. The fish was slightly overcooked, but I must confess that the sauce was probably the best I’ve ever had with fish. The pièce de resistance was undoubtedly the slices of cuissot de sanglier rôti (roast haunch of wild boar) with pepper corn sauce and seasonal vegetables. It was accompanied by a powerful Pommard Epenots, which had an unusual hint of autumnal undergrowth on the nose and made it a fitting companion for the slow-roasted boar. And just to make sure that we didn’t go to bed on an empty stomach, crème brûlée was served for dessert.

I felt like a real Philistine giving the wonderful cheese tray a miss, but I had eaten like a king and could really not do justice to any more food. ‘M Alphonse’ did, however, manage to convince me that a strong black coffee and a small Marc were essential for good digestion. He was right, too. Jakki and I went to bed in a blissful daze that night. The meal had been worth every European cent. As my brother likes to say: “They can make it more expensive, but they can’t make it nicer than this!”

Making it at home

Making vine snails burgundy-style yourself is actually quite easy, and the dish has much more flavour and depth than the clichéd garlic snails served in millions of eateries worldwide. It looks particularly attractive when served in real or replica shells – we were fortunate enough to come across a jar of sterilised large Burgundian vine snail shells in the historic town of Autun, and still use them regularly nearly 15 years later. Alternatively, use snail dishes with holes to hold the individual snails. 

Preparation time: 12 ½ hours.

Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Serves 4 adults as a light main course, or 6 as a starter.

If you want to splurge, a Petit Chablis works wonderfully well with this dish; alternatively a similar-styled unwooded Chardonnay.

4 Dozen boiled, tinned snails

Coarse sea salt

Savoury butter:

250 g butter, 2 finely chopped shallots (or pickling onions), 4 large cloves of garlic (chopped), 1 bunch of finely chopped flat leaf parsley, a smaller bunch of chopped chervil, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp ground black pepper and a pinch of allspice.

Court bouillon:

1 celery stem (chopped), 2 sliced onions, 1 carrot, 1 bouquet garni consisting of thyme and sage, 2 cups of water, 2 cups of dry white wine

1 tsp of freshly ground black pepper

  • Sweat the snails in 250g of coarse sea salt for 10 minutes.
  • Rinse in fresh water, and allow to drip-dry in a colander while preparing the court bouillon.
  • Heat all the court bouillon ingredients until just boiling softly.
  • Add the snails and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the snails to cool in the bouillon.
  • Meanwhile, mix the savoury butter ingredients.
  • Before putting the snails in the shells, put a knob of the savoury butter in each. If you don’t have shells, roll the snails in the butter and put them in a deep bowl.
  • Keep in a cool place for 12 hours so that the butter mixture can flavour the snails.
  • Warm them up in a medium oven without letting the butter boil.
  • Serve, either in the shells or snail dishes, with cubes of crusty bread to scoop up the butter.

“The hand that reaches to the bottom of the pot will eat the biggest snail.” – Wole Soyinka.

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(Afrikaans)

Escargots in ‘n château

Die plek

Boergondië is een van ‘n paar streke (“provinsies” in Suid-Afrikaanse terme) in Frankryk waar die plaaslike bevolking nie noodwendig gevlei voel wanneer hulle as “Franse” bestempel word nie. Ten spyte van die Vyfde Republiek se visie van La France as ‘n verenigde, homogene land, bly Frankryk maar eintlik ‘n versameling van volkere met diskrete kulture. Die Boergondiërs, Baske, Provençals, Vlaminge en Bretons (om maar net ‘n paar te noem) het ou en trotse kulture wat al floreer het lank voor daar iets soos ‘n Franse nasiestaat was. Boergondië – wie se kookkuns deur baie mense as la cuisine Française beskou word – het tot so onlangs as die 17e Eeu verbete geveg om onafhanklik van die Bourbon-koninkryk te bly.

Een van die slagoffers van hierdie eeue-oue stryd was die heldin Jeanne d’Arc, wat deur die Boergondiërs gevange geneem en aan hulle Engelse bondgenote uitgelewer is. As ‘n direkte uitvloeisel van Boergondië se laat (en teensinnige) integrasie met die res van Frankryk het die sentrale regering oor die jare doelbewus die minimum geld aan die ontwikkeling van infrastruktuur en nywerhede in dié kopsku streek spandeer. ‘n Onvoorsiene gevolg hiervan is dat Boergondië sy karakter behou het, en dat selfs die groter sentra soos Dijon nog met Middeleeuse en Barok-boustyle en keisteenstrate spog.

Boergondië het ongetwyfeld meer tot die hedendaagse Franse kookkuns bygedra as enige ander deel van die land. Dink maar net aan watter disse ‘n mens onwillekeurig met Frankryk verbind: boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, entrecote de boeuf, quenelles de brochet, Dijon-mosterd, knoffelslakke en paddaboudjies. Ofskoon die streek heelparty van Frankryk se klassieke resepte opgelewer het, is die geheim met almal van hulle die gebruik van voortreflike bestanddele. Boeuf bourguignon is nie dieselfde sonder die smullekker vleis van die Charolais-bees nie; net so min kan ‘n batteryhoender uit Camperdown met ‘n “Tricolor” poulet de Bresse kompeteer. Omdat groot dele van die Boergondiese platteland nog relatief ongeskonde is, kan jagters nog damherte en bosvarke vir die pot plattrek terwyl die riviere en mere forelle, varswatersnoek (“pike”), baars en varswaterkrewe oplewer. Die talle woude bied ook ‘n tuiste aan wilde sampioene, veral van die morel- en chanterelle-families.    

Onder wynkenners is Boergondiese wyne soos Chablis, Sancerre, Beaujolais, Santenay, Beaune en Aloxe-Corton huishoudelike name. Pinot Noir en Chardonnay, die vlagskip-kultivars van die streek, word tereg as van die edelste druifvariëteite van almal beskou. Minder algemeen bekend is die feit dat Boergondië eintlik baie min wyn produseer: minder as 2% van Frankryk se totale jaarlikse produksie. Die rede hoekom wynmaak desnieteenstaande daar ‘n belangrike bedryf bly, is dat die streek slegs topklas-wyne produseer, waarop die winsmarges  groot is. Praat van waarde toevoeg!

Boergondië is waar die konsep van terroir sy beslag gekry het. Die streek se eerste wynmakers – monnike uit Italië – het begryp dat goeie wyn meer verg as net ryk grond. Ander belangrike invloede sluit in klimaat, helling, sonlig, hoogte bo seespieël en heersende winde. In Boergondië word al die grands crus gemaak van druiwe uit wingerde op ‘n gemiddelde hoogte van 270 m, op hellings wat aan die Oostekant van heuwels geleë is.

Die Rooms-Katolieke monnike wat wynbou hier gevestig het, het oënskynlik oor ‘n bonatuurlike vernoë om wingerde te plaas beskik. Só presies het hulle wingerde uitgelê – sonder die geologiese of bio-chemiese kennis van vandag – dat die top-kundiges op wingerd- en wynboukunde kwalik op hulle plasing kan verbeter. Die Franse wynboukundige, Martin Cantegrit stel dit as volg: “... hulle moes die aarde kon proe soos ons vandag wyn proe. Op onbewerkte grond, bedek met woude, het hulle wingerde tot binne sentimeters van perfek uitgelê. Boergondië se wingerde is gebou met dieselfde presiesheid as haar katedrale.”

Omdat die plaaslike ekonomie nog steeds grootliks op landbou gebaseer is, het Boergondië baie van haar oorspronklike natuurskoon behou. Die term wat die streek die beste beskryf is La France Profonde, oftewel “die Franse hinterland”. Nie alleen is die landskap self verruklik mooi nie, maar selfs die mensgemaakte infrastruktuur is relatief outyds gemeet aan Europese standaarde. ‘n Mens word as’t ware teruggevoer na ‘n ouer, rustiger era wanneer jy die Boergondiese platteland invaar.

Vézelay, tesame met Avallon na die Ooste en Autun aan die Suidekant, vorm ‘n driehoek wat die pragtige Morvane-woud omring. Ersgenoemde dorp, verewig in die skilderye van Georges Hosotte, het ‘n diep indruk op ons gemaak. Tydens die Middeleeue was dit ‘n veel belangriker sentrum as vandag, te oordeel aan die manjifieke Basiliek van Maria Magdalena. Die kerk is een van Europa se grootste en bes-bewaarde plek van aanbidding in die Romeinse styl. Die Basiliek was ‘n belangrike oorstaanplek vir Katolieke pelgrims op pad na Santiago de Compostela, en boonop die afspringplek vir die Tweede Kruistog; van daar geloods deur St Bernard, Aartsbiskop van Clairvaux.

Die okkasie

Toe ons begin beplan het aan ‘n vakansie in Frankryk in 2001 was ons doel om plekke te besoek waar ons nog nie voorheen was nie. So opwindend as wat die vooruitsig was om Boergondië, die Loire-vallei en Normandië eerstehands te ervaar, so intimiderend was die koste-implikasies. Dit sou ongetwyfeld ons duurste oorsese vakansie tot op hede wees, en ons het op daardie stadium nie juis in die geld gerol nie. Ek het destyds vir ‘n batebestuursmaatskappy gewerk, en die “Dotcom”-seepbel het pas gebars. Met aandeelmarkte aan die agteruit boer, was die bemarking van effektetrusts nie juis die bes betaalde beroep nie! Om sout in die wonde te vryf was die Rand besig om aanhoudend te verswak teenoor die geldeenhede van die nywerheidslande, insluitend die Franse Frank. 

My ouers het nie bang babas grootgemaak nie, en ons het ons nie laat afskrik deur ons skraps begroting nie. Ons sou óf reg laat geskied aan ons ekspedisie, of by die huis bly. Wat, het ek vir Jakki gevra, sou ons bereik deur na die land van châteaux, Michelin-sterre en Pinot Noir te reis net om dan in jeugherberge te oornag en kits-noedels te eet? Ewe braaf het ek toe maar begin beplan en bespreek, al het my sommetjies nie mooi uitgewerk nie!

Wie nie waag nie, sal nie wen nie, lui die ou gesegde. Kort daarna kry Suid-Afrika toe sy eie weergawe van die gewilde vasvraprogram “Who wants to be a millionaire”, en ek besluit summier om in te skryf. Ek het voorheen een obskure (“Take Note”) en een “groot” (“Flinkdink”) vasvra op TV gewen, en hierdie was my beste kans om ons begrotingstekort uit te wis. Die gode was ons genadig: ek is gekies as deelnemer, en het dit met die eerste probeerslag tot op die podium gemaak. Dit het aanvanklik voor die wind gegaan, maar die R62 000-vraag (“Wie het die strokieskarakter Scrooge McDuck geskep?”) het my uitgeknikker. Gelukkig was R32 000 (destyds omtrent $4 000 of €3 600 werd) gewaarborg, en dit het uiteindelik amper twee derdes van ons Franse vakansie befonds!

Ten spyte van die tydige meevallertjie, was ons begroting nog steeds knap, en kon veranderings in die wisselkoers ons kaarte nog steeds lelik deurmekaar krap. Ek het dus my bes gedoen om maksimum-waarde vir geld te kry so ver dit akkommodasie betref het; ons prioriteit was om belangrike items soos kos en drank te kon bekostig. Daar was egter een uitsondering op hierdie reel: ‘n verruklike boetiek-hotel naby Vézelay, gehuisves in ‘n egte Renaissance-château. Hoewel die tariewe heelwat meer was as wat ek andersins bereid was om te spandeer, het ek besluit om ons vakansie op ‘n hoë noot te begin deur vir ons daar ‘n suite te bespreek vir ons eerste twee nagte. As teenprestasie het ek beplan om nie middagete of aandete in die château te nuttig nie, en eerder piekniek te hou of goedkoop plats du jour in bistrots te eet. 

Op ‘n grou April-oggend land ons toe dou voor dag op Charles de Gaulle, moeg en lyfseer na ‘n lang nag in “cattle class”. Ons het ‘n redelike lang pad voor ons gehad, en ek het myself dus probeer opkikker met ‘n paar sterk swart koffies en Gauloises voor ek die Avis-kar se stuur moes vat. Gelukkig het ons ‘n ruim Renault Laguna gekry, en kon ons in gerief die pad Suide toe vat. Ten spyte van heelwat ondervinding van aan die regterkant van die pad bestuur, was Parys se “ringpad” ‘n intimiderende ondervinding. Terwyl ek my bes doen om ons in een stuk deur die oggend-spitstydverkeer te kry, het ek Jakki aanhou vermaan om haar oë oop te hou vir die afrit na die A6-snelweg wat ons na Boergondië toe sou neem. Die een ding wat ek ten alle koste wou vermy, was om in Parys se stadsverkeer vasgevang te word! 

Ek lei aan ‘n fobie oor bestuur in Parys sedert ‘n kollega my vertel het van sy poging om van die Place de la Concorde na die Grande Arche de La Défense te ry met die Champs-Elysées langs. Hy het dit net tot by die sirkel om die Arc de Triomphe gemaak, waar dit hom twee en ‘n half uur gevat het om uit die sleurstroom te ontsnap!

Die geluksgodin was aan ons kant: ek het die regte afrit geneem, en kort voor lank was ons deur die banlieues wat die Groter Parys soos ‘n mynveld omring. In plaas van grafitti-bedekte woonstelblokke is ons nou deur digte woude omring – die beroemde reservaat van Fontainebleau, waar Franse konings en keisers vroeër jare gejag het. Daar is klaarblyklik vandag nog herte in die woud, te oordeel aan verskeie padtekens wat motoriste waarsku om op die uitkyk te wees vir hulle!     

Die landskap was pragtig groen, en die plase intensief bewerk. Na ‘n uur of wat op die A6 het ons die Ile-de-France verlaat en ons in Boergondië bevind. Die landskap het meer heuwelagtig geword, en ons kon gou sien wat bedoel word met die term “Die Boergondiese Drie-Enigheid”. So te sê oral was die landskap in derdes verdeel; woude bo-op die heuwels en teen steil hellings, wingerde teen egalige hellings en weivelde in die laagliggende dele. Dit het ons opgeval hoe netjies Franse boere hulle eiendomme hou, en hoe hulle haas elke vierkante sentimeter produktief benut. Die Europese Unie se landbousubsidies mag dalk oordadig wees, maar dit help beslis om die Franse platteland mooi te hou...    

Toe ons eers verby Auxerre is, het ek besluit dat ek genoegsaam au fait met die Franse padreëls was om van die snelweg af te draai en die Boergondiese hinterland te beleef op pad na Vézelay. Ek het nie net meer vertroue bestuur nie, maar ons was voor schedule en kon ons tyd vat. Dit was ‘n wyse besluit. Vir mense met ‘n liefde vir pastorale landskappe is Boergondië ‘n moet. Dis ‘n landstreek van groen woude, kabbelende riviere, koring- en canola-lande, presies-uitgelegde wingerde en piepklein dorpies reg uit Chocolat. In geil weivelde het enorme Charolais-beeste rustig gewei, of sommer net gelê en dagdroom. Die boustyl van die gehuggies was uit ‘n ouer, meer vreedsame era as ons s’n, en die inwoners het beslis nie gelyk of hulle aan stresverwante siektes sou sterf nie!      

Ons het in ‘n dorpie net noord van Vézelay “oggend-tee” (bestaande uit croissants en ‘n glasie Beaujolais elk) in ‘n café geniet wat net so wel Café René in ‘Allo, ‘Allo kon gewees het. Ons was net na 12 by die château (naby die dorpie Lugny). Die bemarkingsmateriaal het benadruk dat ‘n mens eers na 2 NM kon intrek, en by ons aankoms blyk dit toe nie net ‘n administratiewe reëling te wees nie, maar ook fisies onmoontlik. Die toegangspoort was bot toe, en ons het toe maar tyd verwyl deur vir ‘n wandeling te gaan. Een van die mooiste herinneringe aan ons uitstappie was die talle wilde tulpe wat ons langs die paadjie raakgeloop het.  

Terug by die château het my vrou se arendsoë ‘n table d’hôte-spyskaart vir aandete langs die hek opgemerk. Ons navorsing vooraf het ons so opgewerk gehad oor die befaamde cuisine van Boergondië dat ons die versoeking nie kon weerstaan nie. Ons het die spyskaart bekyk, en was onmiddelik in die versoeking. Al my goeie voornemens het soos mis voor die son verdwyn toe ons sien wat die aandete behels het. Boonop was die prys nogal billik! Ek besluit toe daar en dan: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” – ons sou dalk nooit weer die kans kry om ‘n volwaardige Boergondiese ete in loco te geniet nie. Aandete in die château se eetkamer sou dit wees, en – teen ‘n skamele ₣72 (R100) per kop, kon ons dit maar net so wel die volgende aand ook doen.  

Haastige hond verbrand sy mond, het die ou mense altyd gesê. ‘n Oomblik se kalm beredenering sou my ‘n klomp geld gespaar het, maar die oomblik was te groot. Op ons vorige besoeke aan Frankryk was die ZAR/₣ wisselkoers redelik stabile rondom R1.25 per Franc. Die Euro is in Januarie 1999 geloods, maar aanvanklik net as ‘n “tegniese” geldeenheid. Europeërs het ‘n “afkoeltydperk” van twee jaar geniet, waartydens hulle nog in hulle nasionale geldeenhede kon handel dryf en gewoond raak aan die nuwe transnasionale valuta. In my haas het ek vergeet dat a) die Euro, en nie die Franc nie, nou die enigste wettige geldeenheid in die “Eurosone” was, en b) die prys van ‘n aandete in die château dus in Euro gedenomineer was. Ons aandete sou dus ongeveer sewe maal duurder kos as wat ek in gedagte gehad het...

Teen die tyd dat ek my fout agterkom, het ons reeds plek bespreek vir aandete, en my manlike ego het my verhoed om die logiese ding te doen en eenvoudig die bespreking te kanselleer. Ons het mos per slot van rekening die res van die vakansie gehad om te spaar! Die maitre d’hotel, wat Monsieur Alphonse (die begrafnisondernemer in ‘Allo, ‘Allo) se tweelingbroer kon gewees het, het aan ons verduidelik dat daar twee sitplek-opsies was: hetsy aan ‘n groot gemeenskaplike tafel, of aan een van twee kleiner tafels in ‘n privaat hoekie. Ons het op die eerste opsie besluit, want die alternatief was duidelik daar as ‘n Plan B vir antisosiale mense of wittebroodspaartjies. Die Rossouws het aandete met wit kneukels afgewag, want ons is nie een sosiale vlinders nie. Ons sou nie alleen ‘n tafel deel met ‘n klomp vreemdelinge nie; boonop was daar die moontlikheid van Babelse taalverwarring.  

Vir die eerste keer in ons lewens was ons opreg bly om spraaksame Amerikaners oorsee raak te loop. Ons het skaars aangesit toe een van ons mede-gaste in ‘n Rhett Butler-aksent vra: “I suspect y’all speak English?” Dit was toe ook so! Daar was ‘n jong Kaliforniese paartjie wat ter elfder ure hulle “dotcom”-besigheid vir ‘n goeie prys van die hand gesit het en nou in Mayfair (Londen, nie Jozi nie!) hulle volgende skuif aan’t beplan was. ‘n Deense beleggingsbankier uit die City of London, met sy vrou en twee opgeskote kinders het langs ons gesit, en skuins oorkant ons was ‘n “posh” Engelse paartjie wat die begunstigdes van groot familietrusts was. Die “good ole boy” wat die ys gebreek het was ten spyte van sy Diep Suide-aksent ‘n uiters gesofistikeerde man; ‘n kruising tussen Dr Frasier Crane en Dr Phil. Hy blyk toe ‘n sielkundige met sy eie radio- en TV-programme te wees. Hy en sy vrou het glo elke jaar Frankryk toe gekom en in Bordeaux se wyn-termynmark gespekuleer.

Die ete

‘n Pittige waarnemer het op ‘n keer die tipiese Boegondiër beskryf as iemand wat sowel ‘n gourmet (fynproewer) as ‘n gourmand (smulpaap) is. Ons ondervinding staaf beslis hierdie seining. Alhoewel Boergondië in baie opsigte die bakermat van Franse kookkuns is, is dit nie ‘n plek waar nouvelle cuisine – mikroskopiese klein porsies astronomiese duur kos – die norm is nie. Porsies in hierdie geweste is stewig, en die kos is verfynd, maar vullend. Soos St Franciscus van Sales volgens oorlewering opgemerk het: “The body must be nourished well, so that the soul can be happy there.”

In Boergondië word die innerlike inderdaad gul gevoed. Baie vleis- en pluimveedisse word à la Bourguignonne (in ‘n ryk sous van rooiwyn, sampioene, shalotte, wortels en stukkies spek) of à la meurette (‘n soortgelyke sous, maar sonder sampioene) gaargemaak. Room en mosterd is ook algemene bestanddele. In die twee millennia sedert die Romeine die eerste keer mosterd aan die “barbare” van Boergondië bekend gestel het, het Dijon so sinoniem daarmee geword as Champagne met vonkelwyn, Cognac met brandewyn en Condom met, wel, Armagnac. Dijon-distrik produseer nie net baie mosterd nie, maar ook baie soorte daarvan – vanaf soet en gekrui tot vurig warm. Benewens die tradisionele Ware Jakob, is ons twee ander gunstelinge die Cassis- en Taragon-geure.

Een gebied waarop Boegondië nie eintlik in die Franse eerste liga speel nie, is die maak van kaas. Danksy ‘n geskikte klimaat is daar nie ‘n tekort aan suiwelprodukte nie, maar behalwe vir goeie Chèvre (bokmelkkaas) uit die Morvan-heuwels suid van Vézelay en die blou-beaarde Gex (soortgelyk aan Roquefort) is daar nie juis kaas om oor huis toe te skryf nie.

Boergondië is slakwêreld. Hierdie smaaklike weekdiere floreer in die koel, klam klimmat en vreet hulle knuppeldik aan die sappige blare van die edel wynkultivars in die streek se wingerde. Ongelukkig vir die slake, is Boergondiërs ewe versot op hulle! Die enorme vraag na die inheemse wingerdslak (Helix pomata, oftewel die Gros Blanc) het hierdie spesie tot op die rand van uitwissing gebring. Gevolglik word byna twee derdes van die slakke wat jaarliks on Frankryk verorber word ingevoer, en die kleiner, minder smaaklike Petit Gris word toenemend in plaas van sy groter neef bedien.

Die lekkerte van Boergondiese kos word verder verhoog deur wonderlike plaaslike wyne, met genoeg verskeidenheid om enige van die streek se disse te vergesel. Die term “verskeidenheid” mag dalk paradoksaal klink in ‘n streek waar slegs met twee cultivars wyn gemaak word. Alhoewel Chardonnay en Pinot Noir vir Wyn van Oorsprong gebruik mag word, is die terroirs van die verskillende Boergondiese distrikte genoegsaam verskillend dat dit in hulle wyne weerspieël word. Chablis is sinoniem met vars, kurkdroë Chardonnay, Macon met vrugtige witwyne (veral Pouilly-Fuissé), die Cote d’Or met volmondige, eikehout-verouderde rooiwyn en Beaujolais met ligte, verfrissende jongwyn. Minder bekende juwele is Crémant de Bourgogne, ‘n heerlike vonkelwyn en Boergondiese Marc (grappa) – ‘n na-etedrankie met die skop van ‘n muil.

Ons aandete in die château was een van daardie ervarings wat ‘n mens in detail kan onthou sonder om notas te raadpleeg. Die eerste gang is bedien nog voor ons aangesit het – oor aperitifs (Kir Royal, bestaande uit Crémant en Cassis-likeur) in die sitkamer – is ons getrakteer op Gougères (petite, vars-gebakte botterbroodjies). Hierdie kombinasie het ons verhemeltes voorberei vir die plesiere wat sou volg.

Aan tafel was die voorgereg heel gepas Escargot à la Bourguignonne. Die delikate smaak en geur van die slakke is gerugsteun deur ‘n kraakvars, kurkdroë Petit Chablis. Ons entréee was ‘n groen slaai met ‘n ontbeende kwartel en Muskaat-druiwe, en ‘n liggies-geposjeerde kwartel-eiertjie bo-op. Na twee sulke heerlike geregte was ons effens teleurgesteld met die daaropvolgende dis: Sandre (snoekbaars) au beurre blanc. Die vis – een van die heel lekkerste varswaterspesies – was ongelukkig te goed gaar, maar die sous was die lekkerste wat ek nog ooit saam met vis gehad het.

Na ‘n verfrissende sorbet en ‘n kort verposing vir asem skep was dit tyd vir die pièce de resistance: skyfies cuissot de sanglier rôti (geroosterde bosvarkboud) met ‘n peperkorrelsous en groente in seisoen. Die hoofgereg het gepaard gegaan met ‘n kragtige Pommard Epenots, met ‘n sweempie herfsblare en truffel op die neus – perfek saam met die murgsagte vleis en ryk sous. Net om seker te maak dat niemand honger gaan slaap nie, is ons op crème brûlée getrakteer vir nagereg.

Dit het my soos ‘n regte Filistyn laat voel om nie die verruklike kaasbord te probeer nie, maar ek het teen daardie tyd al soos ‘n koning geëet en kon eenvoudig nie meer reg laat geskied aan nog kos nie. “M Alphonse” het my egter oortuig dai ‘n sterk swart koffie en ‘n glasie Marc presies was wat my oorwerkte spysvertering nodig gehad het. Hy was reg. Ek en Jakki het daardie aand soos klippe geslaap en gedroom van ons lekkerste ete ooit. Dit was elke Europese sent werd, en ons sou die volgende aand weer so maak, Soos my broer lief is om te sê: “Hulle kan hom duurder maak, maar nie lekkerder nie!” 

Burgundy: a land of vineyards, pastures & copses.

Is that your final answer?

The Château by night.

A truly memorable meal!

The medieval cathedral town of Vezelay.