9. Nembwe, Mukuyu and Mad Bob

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” – Voltaire.

The place

The Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya ("Smoke that Thunders") in local parlance, on the Zambezi river is one of the world’s great sights. At more than 1.7km wide and around 100m high, it is arguably the biggest curtain of water in the world. It is a World Heritage Site, and one of Southern Africa’s biggest tourist attractions. The Zambezi forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and hence the Falls can be accessed from either the town of Livingstone (in Zambia) or Victoria Falls (on the Zimbabwean side). The memorable meal described below occurred on the outskirts of the latter.

Zimbabwe in general, and Victoria Falls in particular, will always have a special place in my heart. My sentiments about this wonderful, sad country are paradoxical – an African yin/yang, I suppose. While I will always feel particular affection for its gentle, long-suffering people, my loathing for the thugs who have ruined this African paradise will probably last just as long. And I will always resent Robert Mugabe’s apologists in the region who have condoned, nay tacitly encouraged, his obtuse brutality.

Mugabe has managed to turn a country that used to be viewed as the bread basket of Africa into merely another African basket case. The causes are varied: first the genocidal suppression of civil unrest in Matabeleland province that probably cost 20 000 lives, then his ill-advised intervention in the Congolese civil war, followed by the destruction of his country’s commercial farming sector (through officially sanctioned land grabs by his cronies) and then his refusal to abide by the outcome of elections which the official opposition had clearly won. Despite widespread condemnation of his tyranny (and targeted sanctions) on the part of the West, the ageing strongman survives because of the reluctance of most of his African peers to be seen as "undermining African solidarity".

Encouraged by the tacit support of most of his neighbours, Mugabe brazenly fiddles on while his country burns. The remaining viable businesses and farms belong to his political cronies and top securocrats. His much younger wife is now one of the country’s biggest dairy farmers. Mineral concessions are sold to unsavoury foreign bidders as if they belong to Mugabe, and not the country. Worst of all, despite losing the 2008 election fairly and squarely (notwithstanding massive fraud and coercion) Uncle Bob continues to rule the country as his personal fiefdom. Although forced into a coalition government with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) with its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, Mugabe mostly scorns his partners – making unilateral appointments, locking MDC leaders up on bogus charges and ignoring protests at his more egregious actions. 

Two of the most tragic outcomes of Mugabe’s reign are a worsening of the AIDS pandemic and a Zimbabwean diaspora. The widespread disruption of family structures and collapse of the public health care sector have conspired to raise the incidence of the disease while simultaneously diminishing the country’s capacity to treat sufferers. Given the economic meltdown, it is no wonder that several million Zimbabweans have left the country. As tends to be the case with economic refugees, many of the émigrés are well-educated people of working age who now contribute to the economies of neighbouring countries instead of their own. One can only hope and pray that, when the old tyrant eventually departs for warmer climes, Zimbabwe returns to the rule of law and is able to lure back its brightest and best.

Outwardly, the Victoria Falls area has escaped the worst of the carnage unleashed by Mugabe and his henchmen. It is relatively isolated, and its population is small enough not to represent a threat to the regime. Another explanation could be that the tourism revenue it attracts is one of the few remaining sources of foreign exchange for the Zimbabwean exchequer, and that it would be bad for business to have foreign tourists take home tales of ZANU-PF pogroms.

Appearances can be deceptive, though. Spend some time in the streets of the little town, and it becomes clear that the population have not escaped the twin cancers of grinding poverty and despair. To make matters worse, the turmoil and oppression in Zimbabwe have caused foreign visitors to start avoiding the country, leading to a tourism boom in neighbouring Zambia. The calamitous drop in tourist numbers has further depressed the scope for employment and income in VicFalls. The situation has become so desperate that informal traders started accepting payment in kind (T-shirts, caps, slops etc.) rather than the all-but worthless Zimbabwe Dollar a long time ago.

The most ubiquitous curios on sale in VicFalls are soapstone idols called Nyaminyami. The Nyaminyami is the mythical river god of the BaTonga people who have lived along the Zambezi for centuries. In appearance it resembles a coiled serpent with a fish-like head. Tonga craftsmen also fashion beautiful sculptures of various African animals out of wood and even scrap metal.

The various hotels and lodges on the Zimbabwean side are battling on gamely. Whereas they used to hold all the trumps (the Zimbabwean side commands many of the best views of the Falls) the bad press of the past decade, hyper-inflation and the Zim Dollar’s free fall have taken their toll. Because so many of their inputs are imported from South Africa, their profit margins have been squeezed badly - hence the many special offers to tourists who pay in "hard" currency.

Another challenge the local hospitality industry faces is that tourism is largely seasonal. During the drier months (September to December) the great river shrinks significantly, which means that the Falls are also far less spectacular. First prize is therefore to go there in autumn (March to May) when the river is high and the heat less oppressive. To try and mitigate the contrast between "high" and "low" season, the hotels and resorts in the area offer incredibly cheap fly-in packages during low season.

One positive side-effect of the margin squeeze has, in my view, been that meals have become more authentic. Vic Falls menus now contain mostly dishes based on Zimbabwean ingredients, and I when I am served barbecued meat in Zimbabwe I would much rather have impala chops than South African lamb chops. The same applies to fish – who needs imported hake or kingklip when the Zambezi teems with bream, chessa and nkupi? Even the wine lists – previously dominated by Cape wines – now give pride of place to local wineries like Mukuyu and Stapleford, with the former’s wines my favourites. The estate, named after the wild fig tree prevalent in Mashonaland, is situated in the Ruzawi river valley in the cool Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and produces decent white and red wines.

I only discovered that Zimbabwe had a wine industry when my father-in-law returned from a vacation there in 1999. While out souvenir shopping, he came across some Mukuyu wines and promptly bought a white and a red as gifts for me. The wines were very much drinkable, and led me to research their origins, and I discovered that wine has been made there since the early 1960s! The chaos and oppression of recent years has unfortunately set the industry back, with soaring input costs and plummeting demand for quality wines. 

Getting there

One of the perks of my position as an analyst with an investment administration house was that I was frequently invited to conferences and "think tanks" hosted by various asset management companies. Because the real aim of these get-togethers was to win hearts and minds, the hosts would typically hold them at popular venues to ensure a good turn-out. Because of the great value for money to be had in Zimbabwe, the conference in question was held at Vic Falls in October 2004. As many of the invitees had never visited the Falls, the organisers had no trouble getting together a full house of delegates.

Because of legislation governing conflicts of interest and buying of business these types of events could only be held in Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, and include no more than two nights’ accommodation. We therefore flew in on a Friday morning, and were driven to the game lodge where we were to stay. After a quick finger lunch, we headed for the conference venue and the start of proceedings.

Our hosts arranged a semi-formal dinner on the first evening, with a buffet lunch served at the conference venue the next day, and a "bush braai" (an open-air barbecue) that evening. While I appreciated their trouble and expense, I had other plans! I duly attended the first evening’s dinner, but the next day I excused myself at lunch and dinner time and headed for the Lodge’s a la carte restaurant for grilled fillets of Nembwe, as the Olive Bream is known locally. Some empirical research on available wines led me to conclude that Mukuyu Chardonnay goes down particularly well with it.

The meal

As a nation, South Africans consume relatively little fish and seafood, and most of that consists of deep-fried battered hake fillets. Many people of my acquaintance will eat fish, as long as it doesn’t taste too much like fish… I suppose the explanation for this state of affairs is twofold. Firstly, we are a water-poor country. South Africa is not blessed with an abundance of large rivers and lakes, and - with the majority of the population always having lived in the interior – none of our major indigenous cultures took up fishing and the utilisation of aquatic fauna to any great extent. 

If one studies our geography, the second major reason for our national indifference to fish becomes apparent. Although we have a very long coastline (nearly 2 800 km long) most of the west coast is arid, and – apart from small bands of nomadic Khoisan people - it was never densely settled. While the east coast used to teem with fish, and has a much more hospitable landscape, the Nguni tribes that settled there were pastoralists who were mainly interested in finding grazing for their cattle. The only real enthusiasm for fish is therefore to be found among whites (whose ancestors brought it with them from Europe), so-called "Coloureds" (among whom European, Asian and Strandloper influences combined to create a community with a maritime affinity)and South Africans of Indian descent. Even among these groups, fish is by no means a universal favourite, and red meat is often preferred.

If the appetite for the fruits of the sea is limited, fresh water fish is almost beyond the pale. South Africans generally agree that, while fresh water fishing can be great fun, fresh water fish should either be caught-and-released or fed to the cat. This attitude is not without merit. The few large rivers that we do have are for the most part sluggish and not particularly clear. Many of our dams and reservoirs are consequently murky as well, a state of affairs exacerbated by rampant pollution. Hence the common complaint that our freshwater fish have a "muddy" taste, or worse.

The exceptions to this rule are exotic species. Thanks to the habit of Anglo-Saxon settlers to transplant their favourite fauna and flora to the colonies, European brown trout (Salmo Trutta) and North American rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus Mykiss) have been established in the cooler parts of South Africa for more than a century. Today trout are not just caught by an elite group of sportsfishermen; farmed fish have become readily available and are eagerly consumed by the bourgeoisie.

Unbeknown to both the abstainers and the trout snobs, Southern Africa is home to some of the tastiest freshwater fish anywhere. Hard core fisherman in the warmer parts of South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia simply love Cichlids like the Olive Bream (Serranochromis robustus), Largemouth Bream (Serranochromis altus), Blue Kurper (Oreochromis mossambicus) and Redbreasted Tilapia (Tilapia rendalli). The Zambezi system is probably the best place to look for them if you appreciate the dogged fight they produce on light tackle, and enjoy the taste of their firm white fillets. Since I belong to the minority of South Africans who genuinely love fish, I had every intention of using every opportunity the conference afforded me to tuck into "bream", as all Cichlids are known in Zimbabwe.

The restaurant where I was to indulge myself was more or less al fresco, with plenty of fans suspended from its thatched roof to keep the subtropical heat at bay. It provided a panoramic view over the savannah towards the Zambezi, with a large water hole about 800m away attracting plenty of thirsty animals.

Being by myself, I struck up a conversation with Enoch (for obvious reasons not his real name), my waiter, who was actually a History and Geography teacher by profession. He had, however, resigned and moved to Vic Falls where he stood a better chance of earning a living wage as a waiter than as a senior teacher in Masvingo. While the salary he earned at the lodge was substantially lower, he at least he stood a chance of supplementing it with tips in hard currency. Like most educated urban Zimbabweans, he was a supporter of the MDC, but it was clear that he was wary of criticizing the regime too explicitly – after all, I could be an agent provocateur. The only growth industry in his country, after all, was informing on real or imagined enemies of the regime.

No one I know has come back from Zimbabwe without raving about the people – the general population, that is, not the surly officials who owe their jobs to ZANU-PF patronage. My waiter was no exception. He spoke English with a very slight accent, was exceptionally well-read, and had a wonderful sense of humour. When I complimented him, he winked and said, “Black humour takes on a whole new meaning in this country!”

My food was all I had hoped it would be. The bream fillets were an enticing golden brown on the outside, yet succulent on the inside. When I enquired about the interesting crispy coating, Enoch explained that the chef rolled the fish in sadza (maize meal) prior to frying it in very hot oil. Being coarser than wheat flour, it gave the fish a delightfully crunchy texture. The flavour was simply superb – no question of a "muddy" taste there!  The presentation was totally no-nonsense; just the two fillets side by side, some tartare sauce, crispy French fries and some tomato-and-lettuce garnish. It doesn’t sound like much, but my mouth waters just thinking back. 

Dinner was a repeat performance, except that my glowing feedback after lunch had caused a few of my fellow delegates to abscond from the braai as well. I had warned Enoch that this might happen, and he had prudently stashed several bottles of the Chardonnay in the fridge. By the time we were joined by some more acquaintances returning from the bush braai, we were in agreement that a) Nembwe was the tastiest fish ever, b) Mukuyu the top winery in Zimbabwe, and c) Enoch a future president of his country.

Amidst all the good cheer, I couldn’t help feeling sharp pangs of guilt. Here we were, citizens of the country which had done more than any other to ensure that Mugabe could be president-for-life, flaunting our wealth and tipping a grown man who, had he been a citizen of another country, would surely have been solid middle class. It was like giving a man the proverbial fish instead of teaching him how to fish! If only our leaders could experience an epiphany and force Mugabe and his kleptocrats to accept the rule of law, the Enochs of this world would soon be able to stand on their own feet. 

From the plane on the return flight, I said a quiet prayer that the Nyaminyami (and any other deities thus disposed) would come to the aid of Enoch and the millions of other Zimbabweans who simply want to be allowed the freedom to follow their own dreams. And I toasted their good health with a dinky of Mukuyu Chardonnay.

Making it at home

Although Nembwe is well-nigh impossible to find in South Africa, the technique I use to cook it works equally well with our local freshwater bream species, members of the sea bream family (Sparidae spp.), black bass or any other fish with firm, flaky white flesh.

Preparation time: ½ hour.

Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Serves 2 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a crisp, well-chilled Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

1 x 300 g (or 2 smaller) filets of fish per person.

Sunflower or canola oil for frying.

100 g Fine white maize meal, or – for a more delicate texture - white bread flour.

  • Fillet the fish (approximately 1 x 300g fillet per person).
  • Remove the skin by placing skin side down on a wooden surface, holding the fillet by the tail and slicing away from the tail with a very sharp knife.
  • In a large frying pan, heat enough oil to cover the bottom to a depth of about 1 cm.
  • Slice the fillets in half lengthwise.
  • Roll them in the flour.
  • When the oil is piping hot, fry the fillets for 3-5 minutes (depending on the heat) on each side until golden brown.
  • Drain the excess oil from the fish on a serving plate covered with paper towel.

Serve the fillets with lemon wedges, French fries and a garden salad. A tartare sauce is also an excellent accompaniment.

“An empty stomach is not a good political advisor.” - Albert Einstein.

The author and a big mate at Vic Falls

A craftsman at work in the curio market

The view from the Game Lodge's dining area

The author with a Nembwe

Sundowners on the Rail Bridge

10. Shellfish and salt marsh lamb in a citadel

“The shepherd always tries to convince the sheep that their interests and his are the same.” – Stendhal.

The place

Destinations are like women. Some understated beauties (like Juliette Binoche) grow on you over a period of time, while others (like Catherine Deneuve) just need one glance at their sheer perfection to make you a life-long fan. Approaching a sprawling city like Paris is the former – like peeling the layers off an onion.  In order to enjoy the charms of the Left Bank or the inspiration of the Sainte-Chapelle at its inner core one has to penetrate a perimeter of drab, graffiti-blighted banlieues via either heavy traffic or overcrowded public transport systems. Iconic, stand-alone destinations like Mont-St Michel have no such hurdles to overcome. Halfway from the village of Pontorson the island citadel reveals itself in all its splendour, and the awe it inspires stays with you right until the last glimpse in your rear view mirror.

Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky outcrop more than an island, located about one kilometre off the French North-West coast. It is almost directly opposite the Couesnon river, which forms the border between Bretagne and Lower Normandy. As a redoubt against attack in days gone by it had the benefit of not only virtually impregnable fortifications, but also that it could be re-supplied by sea during high tide. Most notably, it had endured prolonged sieges by the English during the Hundred Years’ War and more recently the Huguenot (Protestant) rebels in the seventeenth century.

Before the present-day causeway was built it must have been well-nigh impossible for an aggressor to gain a foothold on the island. Not only does the area have some of the greatest tidal ranges in the world (at certain times of year, spring tide can mean a difference of up to 6 m between low and high tide), but the soft underfoot conditions would have prevented the use of heavy siege guns and battering rams. Assault from the sea was not an option either: the luckless Huguenots did not possess naval forces either!

The rest, as they say, is history. For the Protestants this reverse was the beginning of the end. Their cause went rapidly downhill from there. Mont Saint-Michel shook off its violent past and became better known as a place of pilgrimage and contemplation. Over the past century it has become one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, and it now boasts a number of excellent hotels and restaurants. Because of its location and medieval look and feel, the island has also featured in numerous films and TV series in recent years.

The entire island is a world heritage site. It contains a Benedictine monastery dating back to 966 (founded by Richard I), built on the site of an oratory founded in the 8th century by St Aubert, the bishop of Avranches - after the Archangel Michael had reportedly appeared before him in 1708. Ramparts encircle the monastery and a three-tiered building aptly called the Marvel of the West, which, together with the pointed spire of the abbey church, forms the tip of the island’s chevron-like profile. Mont Saint-Michel is one of Europe’s most important (and best-preserved) Gothic monuments. Other attractions include a small theatre and a number of museums.

As can be expected, the island has to cater for all tastes. The Grand Rue (the main street) is home to some of the fanciest hotels and restaurants in Europe, as well as ice-cream-and-candy-floss parlours and American-style fast food joints. If post cards and commemorative key rings float your boat, you will not be disappointed either!

Getting there

When, several months earlier, my brother had suggested that our families visit France together, Mont Saint-Michel had been near the top of his list of places to visit. I must confess that Jakki and I had been unaware of the place’s existence, but a quick search in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (this was well before the advent of Google) was enough to make it part of our itinerary. Not only was the island an incredible sight; it also appealed to us because of its long and fascinating history.

Some of our more cynical friends felt that it was a bit odd that we were so keen to visit the site of a famous Catholic victory during the French religious wars. Our family’s Huguenot ancestors had, after all, finished a poor second in these and most of the survivors had been forced to emigrate – some to lands as far-flung as America and South Africa. Fortunately South Africans of Huguenot stock are a hardy lot – notwithstanding our unfortunate knack for being on the wrong side in the civil war in the Old Country, the Great Trek, the two Anglo-Boer wars and numerous rugby and cricket World Cups (or, more probably, because of it) we do not discriminate against places and people just because they featured in our kind’s less joyous moments.

The two families decided to first do their own thing before joining up in Pontorson (the Norman town nearest to Mont Saint-Michel) – Jakki and I, Francophiles both, opted for a week in Burgundy and three days’ worth of visits to the châteaux of the Loire valley. Pierre and his family (more partial to all things Teutonic)  decided to spend the same period in Germany, and then to fly to Charles De Gaulle, where they would collect a rental car and head west. After our visit to Mont Saint-Michel, we would undertake a canal cruise in a house boat in Brittany, and then spend a few days in Paris before heading home.

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.

On arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport (or Roissy, as all non-Gaullist French persons seem to call it) we struck it lucky once more. I had reserved a smallish rental car – an Opel Kadett I think it was – to save money, since we would be driving ourselves over long distances for two weeks. Due to a logistical problem, Hertz was fresh out of compact cars and we were upgraded two classes. We ended up driving away in a spacious silver Skoda Octavia (an ersatz Volkswagen Passat) and feeling decidedly upper middle class.

The Octavia gave us much pleasure, but also landed us in a slightly awkward situation. During our time in the Loire Valley, we drove from our hotel in Blois to the imposing château of Chambord late one afternoon. There, among literally thousands of cars and buses, it so happened that we ended up parking right next to a director of the company I was working for! It turned out that he was visiting his French fiancée, and that they, too, were sightseeing along the Loire. What detracted from the genuine pleasure of meeting up with Sunil was that he was driving a miniscule Twingo rental car. Being a bean counter by profession, I could see him mentally adding up the cost of a vacation in France and the rental on a luxury sedan and thinking: “we are paying our salespeople way too much!” 

The meal

During our first day’s exploration of Mont Saint-Michel, we not only familiarised ourselves with the place and its atmosphere; we also kept beady eyes open for good eateries. Over a light lunch we compared notes, and agreed that La Mère Poulard was the place that had impressed us most. A table was duly reserved, and after a short and sharp siesta we headed back to the island for dinner.

What a good choice it turned out to be! French haute cuisine is often derided as pretentious, smothered in sauces based on butter and cream and (needless to say) hideously overpriced. What we got that evening was completely unlike the stereotype – superb ingredients, lovingly prepared and allowed to speak for themselves. We all opted for local favourites, with a shellfish platter and roast salt marsh lamb being the favourite entreé and main course respectively.

The shellfish plateau consisted of a variety of molluscs, all either raw or simply steamed, and served with a mayonnaise de maison. There were small, firm Norman oysters, whelks, cockles, mussels, razor clams, scallops and winkles – all either alive or steamed just to the point where a good vet could still revive them.

Pride of place, however, went to the local salt marsh lamb. Dainty racks of succulent rib chops were accompanied by toothsome seasonal vegetables and new potatoes. The lamb was barely seasoned, so that the naturally imparted flavour of samphire and estuarine sorrel reigned supreme. Unlike the lamb chops we grew up eating (South Africans like to barbeque lamb and mutton to a crisp) the meat was juicy and simply melted in the mouth.

Salt marsh lamb (called agneau de pré-salé in France) is highly prized for its unique flavour – not just in France, but also in parts of England and Wales where huge tidal fluctuations allow grasses and herbs to grow on the flats. Apart from samphire and sorrel, other desirable grazing plants include sparta grass and sea lavender. Because salt marshes occur in different localities and climates, the mix of flora eaten by the lambs will vary considerably and hence – like most French food and beverages – chefs place a lot of emphasis on the terroir whence your lamb came. A quick and easy way of provoking a heated argument between a Breton and a Provençal is to enquire politely whether Bretagne or the Camargue produces the better agneau!

Having fallen in love with Aloxe-Corton wine in Burgundy, Jakki and I insisted that we consume enough of it to negate the cholesterol from the rich meal. Having gorged ourselves on shellfish and lamb, Pierre and I were not keen on a rich dessert, and – keeping with the local is lekker philosophy – opted for espresso and Calvados. A fine choice this was too, and the combination stood us in good stead on a number of later occasions as well. Call us unimaginative, but the Rossouw clan decided unanimously to have dinner at the same place, same time, the next evening.

We spent the next day exploring the old corsair town of Saint-Malo, and discovered that buckwheat galettes and apple cider made for a festive lunch on a blustery day, particularly when finished off with coffee and Calvados. Despite the inclement weather, we came away exceedingly impressed with this well-preserved walled city. Okay, not well-preserved – well-rebuilt. The Allies had bombed the town back into the Stone Age during World War II in an effort to destroy the German submarine pens scattered about its large natural harbour. Saint-Malo first achieved infamy when French privateers based there captured or sunk numerous British vessels during the wars the First Republic, and later Napoleon fought against their insular neighbour. It again became a nuisance when Dönitz’s U-boats took up residence there during WWII.

The next evening I employed the old dictum that, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and ordered the same two courses I had enjoyed so much the previous evening. It turned out to be the right decision. While no one had any complaints about their food, I did have to share some of my bounty with my fellow-travellers. They all had iconic French dishes, ranging from onion soup to rare duck breast, and while their selections were feasts for both the eye and the palate I couldn’t help thinking that these were things you could order in any decent French eatery. The shellfish and lamb, both locally sourced, to me represented the essence of Mont Saint-Michel’s coastline and hinterland. 

After dinner we reluctantly took our leave, with lots of backward glances, taking of photos and solemn undertakings to return some day. There was also that strange sadness I often feel when leaving a really special place – mixed with the joy of having been privileged to experience it. Being a rugby-loving South African, I must confess that I am not always in touch with my feminine side. I hate chick flicks and other forms of schmaltz, and I have difficulty relating to overly sentimental people. Leaving places with the beauty and the legacy of Mont Saint-Michel, however, brings out the cry-baby in me.

I suppose the red wine and Calvados did play their part as well, but when I stared back at the dimly-lit silhouette of the abbey church reaching heavenward I had great difficulty fighting back the tears. I shall cherish that image as long as I live, and whenever I am reminded of that magical place I get a fleeting taste of salt marsh lamb in my mouth…

Making it at home

Although most of us are not fortunate enough to have regular access to real salt marsh lamb, a juicy rack of free-range lamb is a firm favourite in our family.

 

Preparation time: 40 minutes.

Cooking time: 35 minutes.

Serves 2 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or red blend.

One rack of lamb, consisting ideally of 8 chops (this should weigh about 600-700g if the lamb is nice and young).

Salt, pepper and coriander for seasoning.

6 Twigs of rosemary (optional).

  • Start a charcoal fire about 40 minutes before you intend cooking the lamb.
  • When the coals are ready, spread them evenly across the bottom of the barbecue. Allow to settle down.
  • Set the braai grid about 20-30 cm above the coals, and allow to heat up.
  • Trim the rack of lamb of all loose bits of fat and gristle.
  • Rub all round with salt, pepper and coriander.
  • Wrap the bone ends in heavy foil to protect them against burning.
  • Sear for 2 ½ minutes on each side to seal in the juices.
  • Raise the grid, or move the lamb to a cooler part of it for the remainder of the cooking process.   
  • Cook on the slower heat for 15 minutes on each side. For extra flavour, consider placing a few twigs of rosemary on the coals to provide a smoky dimension to the flavour.
  • When cooked (this should take about 40 minutes) allow to rest for about 10 minutes before carving.
  • To carve, stand the rack up on the meaty side, with the bones curving away from you. Slide a sharp, sturdy knife between the bones and carve gently through the meat.
  • Serve with roast potatoes and stir-fried seasonal vegetables. 

“I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick, not wounded – dead.” – Woody Allen.

One of the world's most stunning sights

The "main street" of MSM

The Rossouws at large

Here Be Delicacies...

The former corsair town of St-Malo

11. Chenin and Kermit in a Cave

“If you have to eat a frog, don’t look at it too long.” – Mark Twain.

The place

At just over 1000 km long, the Loire is France’s longest river. Its source is in the Ardèche district in northern Provence, whence it flows north all the way to Orleans, where it veers off to the east. It reaches the Atlantic at St-Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay. Along its course are cities and towns which featured prominently in French history, among them Orléans, Amboise, Tours, Chinon, Angers and Nantes. The river is also a natural dividing line between the warmer south of the country, and the harsher climate typical of the north.

Along or near the river are more than 300 castles and stately homes that are classified as châteaux, the bulk of them situated between Orleans and Angers. There are some truly breathtaking structures among them, ranging from massive fortifications in places like Chinon and Angers to beautiful stately homes at Azay-le-Rideau and Ussé. Between these two extremes are numerous huge palaces like Chambord and Chenonceau. The Loire experienced the equivalent of a property boom between the 10th and 15th centuries. At first mostly fortified castles were built to defend the area against Moorish and Norman invaders, and later - when King François I moved the seat of government to Paris - the region became popular with the French nobility as setting for their country retreats.

Wine-making in the Loire Valley started in Roman times, and is still going strong. Some of France’s best-known white wines are made there, including Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray and Muscadet. Since the Loire is near the northernmost limits of French wine country – and therefore cooler and less sunny – it lends itself to the production of high-quality wines with high levels of acidity. The paucity of sunlight has also led to most of the region’s top vineyards being on south-facing hillsides, where there is maximum sun.

One of these is Vouvray. This small commune, just east of Tours on the right bank of the Loire, is to the Chenin Blanc cultivar what Chablis is to the more illustrious Chardonnay. The major difference between the two is that the term Vouvray denotes origin and cultivar, but not style. Depending on the prevailing climatic conditions during a given vintage, the Chenin Blanc grape is used either for dry or sparkling wines (in cool years) or sweet and Sauternes-style noble rot wines in warmer years. Because of the relatively cool climate and the innate acidity of Chenin Blanc, the dry wines produced here have unparalleled aging potential, and are highly prized all over the world. Vouvray is not normally wooded, and is renowned for its freshness and hints of figs, apples and white flowers on the nose.

Almost directly opposite Vouvray, on the left bank of the river, lies a smaller and less well known village called Montlouis-sur-Loire. It, too, is a producer of fine white wine made from Chenin Blanc, but has remained relatively obscure when compared to its more illustrious neighbour. Locals are quick to point out that Vouvray has become over-hyped, and that their wines offer far better value for money. I must confess to having mixed feelings on the matter. While the best Vouvrays are undoubtedly in a class of their own, it is certainly possible to find better Montlouis wines at any given price class below the grand cru level.

The Central Loire Valley, from around Amboise to Saumur, is home to whole villages of latter-day troglodytes. The left (southern) bank of the river consists mainly of soft limestone and tufa rock, which is easy to quarry. When villages and towns developed along the river, the soft rock formations were exploited to provide building material. The quarries became mines as the developers followed the veins of sandstone and tufa deeper and deeper into the hillsides. Once a particular vein was exhausted, a man-made caves were left behind, which could then be used as cellars, barns and even houses.

The upshot of this is that, as in Champagne, many wine cellars are literally in caves – albeit man-made ones. The absence of sunlight and the cool, stable temperature of these cellars are ideal for the making and storage of wine. Some cellars have adjacent tasting rooms and restaurants, and these are very popular with tourists. Another popular tourist attraction is an entire troglodyte village between Chinon and Saumur.

The Loire Valley is often referred to as the Garden of France because of the quality and variety of its farm produce. Apart from grapes and wine, wheat, lentils, deciduous fruit, mushrooms, asparagus and diary products originate there. The river is also home to a number of prized fish species like pike, shad, whiting and Zander. Well-known Loire Valley food specialities include Tarte Tatin (upside-down apple tart), pork rillettes (potted meat), Chavignol and Valençay goat’s cheese, grilled fish au beurre blanc and Petite Friture of small river fish.

Getting there

We first visited the region in April 2001, and realised that it was well worth another visit. This opportunity presented itself when we decided to take my daughter Elouise on a “Tour de France” to celebrate her 16th birthday. She has been an extremely talented artist from an early age, and we felt that showing her some of the beautiful châteaux would help stir her creative juices. As we would be arriving in Paris early in the morning, I calculated that Chinon would be an ideal first night stop. By not having to drive too far, we would be able to stop by some châteaux and get to our destination at a reasonable hour. Before leaving for La Rochelle the next day, there would be time to visit the evocative Château de Chinon and its Jeanne d’Arc museum.

I had planned for us to take the A10/E05 motorway from Paris to Blois, and to then sidestep across the river and take a minor route along the left bank through Amboise and Tours to Chinon. This would allow us to see the châteaux of Chaumont-sur-Loire, Amboise, Chenonceau, and Ussé. As a sop to myself, I also allowed an hour or so for a decent lunch. As I have always loved fish and white wine, it made perfect sense for us to grab a bite in Vouvray, with its reputation for great white wine.

My planning, meticulous as it seemed to me, did not take into account the possibility that we might battle to sleep on the plane and hence be too tired for a hard day’s sightseeing. Pluswe had the Flight from Hell to Paris. We sat just behind a row of bulkhead seats packed with mothers with small babies. They little ones seemed to work in shifts, so that there were very few quiet moments during the 10-hour flight. We got off the plane bleary-eyed and dog-tired, and suddenly getting to our hotel in Chinon and having a siesta became our top priority.

Between Paris and Amboise we had to stop twice at aires, those ubiquitous French filling stations-cum restaurants-cum picnic spots just so that we wouldn’t all fall asleep at the same time. Cups of strong coffee were downed, faces splashed and (in my case) several cigarettes smoked, all in an effort to stay awake and alert. The girls indulged themselves by buying a large bag of divine-looking fresh cherries at our second stop, and the constant munching kept all of us wide awake; they because they enjoyed it and me because the chomping irritated me!

We passed through Bloise without incident and hit the left bank of the Loire. Pretty soon we were out of the Bloise city limits and surrounded by limestone hills and vineyards, with the great river rolling along majestically on our right. We had a brief pit stop in Amboise and marvelled again at its great château, but decided against a tour. Instead we crested the hill behind the town and showed Elouise the Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci (her creative hero) stayed for the last three years of his life as a guest of François I. By now my stomach was telling me in no uncertain terms that it was lunch time!

We drove further along the Loire, and started looking out for signposts showing the way to Vouvray, which I knew to be just short of Tours. In my over-tired state I was somehow under the impression that it was on "our" side of the river. When we eventually entered Montlouis, which I knew to be situated opposite Vouvray, I surprised both the ladies by doing the unthinkable – I stopped and asked for directions! 

As luck would have it, I reached this decision as we passed a sign that said Restaurant/Degustations. This was, needless to say, one of the region’s many cave/cellar/restaurants. My enquiries as to the whereabouts of Vouvray seemed to annoy the rather attractive middle-aged lady at the entrance. She lost no time in pointing out that a) Vouvray was a little town that made over-priced plonk, b) it would require a time-consuming detour to get to the far bank, c) that Montlouis’ wines were far superior to Vouvray’s, and d) that they had just opened the restaurant for lunch, and that there were numerous specials to be enjoyed.

The meal

The cave-restaurant certainly looked cosy, with soft lighting reflected off the pale limestone interior. After being seated and ordering mineral water and a local wine recommended by the maitre d’hotel, I got down to perusing the menu while my crew went to powder their noses. There was good and bad news. The bad news was that the restaurant had run out of freshwater fish, and could only offer me a choice between sea bass, sole and monkfish. While all three are good eating, I knew there would be plenty of opportunities to enjoy fish and seafood in the weeks to come. I therefore turned my attention to other white proteins, and narrowed my search down to either quail or frogs’ legs. Since I had already had quail in France on a previous occasion, the scales tipped in favour of the latter. I also knew that - although cuisses de grenouilles is not a speciality of the LoireValley - the further south we went, the less common it would become.

When Jakki and Elouise re-joined me, Jakki decided to follow my example, but young Ms Rossouw refused to consider eating what she called “Kermit’s friends.”  She opted for the familiarity of lamb chops instead. Having ordered, we sat back and sipped our drinks. I was more than happy with the wine, and knew that it would complement the tender white frog meat perfectly.  What was it, I asked myself, with the French and unusual food?

There is no doubt that Frenchmen invest considerable effort and expense in obtaining, and then preparing and eating with gusto, certain foods which to less adventurous palates are plain outlandish. In many parts of the Anglo-Saxon world, frogs’ legs in particular will probably always be associated with France and its cuisine. Older Britons still refer to the French as “frog eaters” or simply as “frogs”, and regard the fact that they eat frogs and snails as proof that they are deranged Papists who will eat anything.

Despite the stereotype, the French are actually not nearly as keen on frogs as, for example, the Slovenes, Macedonians, Vietnamese, Cantonese or inhabitants of Extremadura in Western Spain. Annual per capita consumption is only around 60 g (2 oz) for France as a whole. Even in America’s Deep South more frogs’ legs are consumed per capita than in France, and Florida and Louisiana have thriving frog farms. 

There are of course huge differences between the various regions of France as regards their appetite for these amphibians. In the cooler, damper north-eastern parts (Burgundy, Franche-Comte, Alsace and Lorraine) where the edible frog (Rana esculenta) is endemic they are highly prized, while in (say) Provence they are regarded with just as much disdain as in the East End. Frogs are now protected by French law, and as a consequence most of the frogs’ legs eaten there nowadays are actually imported from countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.

The food arrived just as our wheels were starting to fall off. Elouise’s lamb certainly looked and smelled lovely, while the aroma of our cuisses got me and Jakki wide awake in a flash. The dainty legs were clearly those of authentic French rana frogs, and not the outsized imported Asian bullfrogs. They were batter-dipped, golden-brown and served with plenty of persillade and lemon slices. The obvious enjoyment with which we polished our food clearly sowed the seeds of doubt in my daughter’s mind, but – as could be expected of a loyal “Muppets” fan – she steadfastly refused to eat any of Kermit’s kinfolk.

After the (inevitable) crème brûlée dessert, we hit the road once more. We were now far too sleepy to contemplate a full-on tour of the Château d’Ussé, and merely stopped for a Kodak Moment. We made it to our hotel in Chinon in the nick of time, and enjoyed an epic siesta. We may have missed out on some remarkable sights, but we had kicked off our French road trip in the best possible style.

Making it at home

In South Africa, frogs’ legs are quite hard to find outside of the major metropolitan areas. We are fortunate to have a top-notch deli near our home, where they are readily available. I have also discovered that thin (2 cm wide) strips of crocodile tail – which is actually more common in our neck of the woods – make a perfectly good substitute.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

A starter for 2 adults

Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled, unwooded Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay

12 Skinned frogs’ legs.

½ l Milk.

2 Eggs.

150 g Cake flour.

Salt.

Black pepper.

8 Sprigs of broad leaf (Italian) parsley.

3 Large cloves of garlic, crushed.

Sunflower oil for frying.

  • Heat a 5 cm depth of oil in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan.
  • Pour the milk, salt and pepper into a bowl and mix.
  • Beat the two eggs in another, smaller bowl and sift the flour into a third dish.
  • Dip the frogs’ legs first into the milk, then into the beaten egg.
  • Next, roll them in the flour.
  • Fry the frogs’ legs in the oil until golden brown.
  • Drain the legs on kitchen paper and keep them warm.
  • Make the persillade by finely chopping the sprigs of broadleaf parsley, and mixing it with the crushed garlic.

Arrange the frogs’ legs on a hot dish and sprinkle with the persillade. Serve with lemon wedges and tartar sauce.

“Three million frogs’ legs are served in Paris – daily. Nobody knows what became of the other frogs.” – Fred Allen.

Amboise-sur-Loire

A cave cellar in Vouvray

Magical Chenonceau

The cave-restaurant in Montlouis-sur-Loire

Yummy!

12. Egli for three

“Fish in the hands of a skilled cook can become an inexhaustible source of gustatory pleasures.” – Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. 

The place 

One soon runs out of superlatives when visiting Lucerne (or Luzern, as it is known in German). It is not one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations for nothing! Take a picture-postcard pretty walled town, complete with immaculately restored medieval ramparts and towers, and plonk it down on the shore of a crystal-clear lake. Add magnificent views of some of Switzerland’s highest mountains to its quaint architecture, cobbled squares and numerous museums, and it becomes clear why more than five million tourists pass through it every year. The famous Kapellbrücke (chapel bridge) is one of the most photographed structures in Switzerland, as is the famous Löwendenkmal (lion memorial) which commemorates the courage of the Swiss Guards who were slaughtered defending the royal family with leonine courage during the French Revolution. 

The city has its origins in a Benedictine monastery which dates back to the eighth century . The opening of the Gotthart pass to the south in the thirteenth century turned the lakeside town into an important trade terminus. This new-found prosperity made the area an attractive target for Austria’s Habsburg rulers, who attempted to incorporate the German-speaking north-east of what is today Switzerland into their empire. The citizens of Luzern allied themselves with the rebellious cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden against Austrian hegemony in 1332, thereby sowing the seeds of the Swiss Confederation.  

Luzern was clearly built with defence against powerful aggressors in mind. The old town is wedged in between the northwestern corner of Lake Luzern (Vierwaldstättersee in German) on one side, and the right bank of the swift Reuss river (which drains the lake) on another, with high ground commanding the rest of its perimeter. Due to its location, the city fathers only had to build a defensive wall along the high ground to achieve near-impregnability. Today it is a much bigger city, but the old town and its walls have been lovingly preserved. 

One of my other favourite places in Luzern is the fish market, located on the riverside in the heart of the old town. Here shoppers are able to obtain not just fresh seafood, but also the bounty of Switzerland’s rivers and lakes. Apart from the usual suspects like salmon, cod and various crustaceans, stalls offer a variety of farmed or wild-caught freshwater fish like trout, bream, perch and carp. A multitude of quayside restaurants serve the market’s produce cooked in a variety of styles, and in summer the best way to enjoy one’s meal is from a table on an upstairs balcony overlooking the river and lake. 

Because of the region’s mountainous topography, one of the quickest (and most pleasant) ways of getting around is by mail steamer on the lake. These ships (don’t dare refer to them as "boats" when their crews are within earshot) date back to the early part of the 20th century, but are maintained with Swiss pride and precision and are affordable, reliable and charming means of exploring the area. And make no mistake – the skippers of these magnificent vessels are just as punctual as the rest of Switzerland. If the sign says departure at 13H08 you will be left behind if you arrive at 13H09! 

Luzern is the gateway to a sizeable hinterland, which includes the industrial towns of Kriens, Horw and Stans (where the well-known Pilatus planes are built). Higher up in the mountains, at the foot of Mount Titlis, lies the popular winter sport resort town of Engelberg and its many and varied slopes. Engelberg is also a feature on the FIS ski jumping calendar. En route to Engelberg is the (fictional) setting of part of Johanna Spyri’s much-loved children’s book, Heidi. Her grumpy grandfather’s home was supposedly near the village of Dörfli, which one passes on the way. 

Getting there 

We got to know Luzern almost by default. While on vacation in Switzerland in the mid-1990s, my brother and his family discovered the charms of Engelberg. It soon became their regular Christmas destination, and when we started discussing a special venue for Y2K celebrations he was adamant that this was where we had to go. It was an inspired choiceOver and above the wonderful time we had in the mountains (described in Chapter 15) the train journey from Zurich took us through Luzern. Despite arriving on a grey, bleak day, we immediately fell under the spell of this unique place. We only had a few minutes to take in the lovely setting before we had to board another train for the final leg of our journey. Knowing what we did about Swiss punctuality, we did not tempt fate and decided to rather return on a day visit during our stay in Engelberg – the trip takes less than an hour. We duly did so on a rainy day when skiing was impossible, and had a whale of a time.  

The sequence of events that led to the lunch in question started in mid-2004, when I was invited to deliver a paper at a hedge fund conference held in Frauenfeld, near Zurich. Since the proceedings ended at lunchtime on a Friday, I arranged to fly back to Johannesburg on the Sunday evening. This left me with an entire weekend to explore the surrounding areas. Having only experienced Luzern in winter, where to go was an easy decision for me. I booked accommodation in a charming hotel overlooking the Kapellbrücke, and thanks to the legendary efficiency of the Swiss rail network I was in looking at the bridge by late afternoon. 

I used the next two days to explore the city and its surrounds, with the highlight undoubtedly a cruise to the little town of Weggis on the vintage steamer Stadt Luzern, which has been service since 1921. I had also scouted the various jewellery stores in Luzern, since I was secretly planning to buy Jakki a Swiss designer watch. By Sunday lunchtime, I had made my choice, and – since the store that stocked it was quite far from the quayside pub/restaurant where I had ducked in to escape a sudden rain shower – I decided to have a quick bite to eat while the rain subsided. 

Since I was sipping a glass of well-chilled white wine from the Vaude, the decision to order fish came naturally. My favourite Swiss food is their indigenous fresh water fish. It is probably not surprising that a country with literally thousands of crystal-clear rivers and lakes should produce toothsome fish. At the time, I rated the pike perch or Zander (Sander lucioperca) above all, so that I was initially disappointed to hear that they didn’t have fresh Zander. I was, however, encouraged by the maitre d’hotel’s obvious enthusiasm for the true European perch or Egli (Perca fluviatilis) which he recommended as Plan B. Suffice to say, he was not exaggerating! 

Suitably fortified by the tasty meal, I set out to buy Jakki’s watch. Then, disaster: although all the other shops in the vicinity had re-opened after lunch, the one with the watch did not! My mind did a fast-forward through feelings of disbelief, anger, sadness and acceptance. Since time was running out, I had to make a big decision – look for something else, or give up? In the end I did neither. Although I refused to throw in the towel, I decided not to settle for second best, and to rather use my time at Zurich airport to check out the shops in the duty-free area. 

Having deferred the shopping, I suddenly had time on my hands and in the back of my mind a cunning plan was forming. After taking a few last photos, I headed back to the restaurant where I had had lunch, and – to the surprise of its staff – ordered another helping of fried Egli! It goes without saying that the brisk stroll to the railway station afterwards was rather challenging on a very full stomach. I (just) made it to the train on time, and I am sure I caught way more than forty winks on the way to Zurich!  A lovely watch was eventually identified and bought in duty-free, and my journey home went smoothly. 

My account of the two lunches made a deep impression on the lady of the house; so much so that I promised to treat her to the same meal at the same restaurant. She had to wait more than three years, but I finally delivered in December 2007, once again en route to Engelberg with the rest of the clan. This time I had arranged for us to spend a night in Luzern, which left us with two lunches and a supper during which to savour Luzern’s culinary delights. 

The meal 

Despite all the negative stereotypes depicting Swiss cuisine as bland and their brand of hospitality as impersonal, Jakki and I have mainly experienced the opposite. Not only are Swiss chefs very good, but – because of the country’s heterogeneous population – they are versatile, and can cook dishes from a variety of ethnic cuisines equally well. 

Next to the codes to their famous bank vaults, Switzerland’s best-kept secret has to be its excellent wines. The Swiss and the Argentines both like their local wine so much that they drink most of it themselves! Less than 1% of the country’s annual production is exported, and most Swiss wine is actually consumed within its canton of origin. My favourite white cultivar is Chasselas, with which wines in a wide variety of styles are made in the Francophone cantons, with Fendant and Vaudois particularly highly regarded. Among the reds, Merlot from the Italian-speaking Ticino region are also well worth a try while Dôle (a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay) from Valais goes beautifully with hearty meat dishes. 

On arrival in Luzern, we made our way to our hotel, and – since it was too early to occupy our room – we left our baggage in the care of the concierge before heading into town. Coming from a country where crime is a massive problem, we were gobsmacked to see that the left luggage room was not even locked! We had however had enough experience of Switzerland and its people to trust that our things would be safe. 

As it was not quite lunch time yet, we strolled around the cobbled streets and alleys of the old town. While I indulged in a cup of Glühwein and a furtive cigarette (I had officially quit, but still enjoyed an occasional puff) Jakki immersed herself in a Christmas market in one of the squares. Since our year in Chile, we have made a point of buying at least one piece of decoration for our Christmas tree in every country we visit over the festive season. It was time for lunch. I had already popped into the restaurant to reserve a table and confirm that they had ample stock of fresh Egli. 

Because this was meant to be a special (and long overdue) treat for Jakki, I ordered a bone-dry Riesling which I knew would complement the fish perfectly. As is often the case in Europe, waiters are professionals who work at the same establishment for many years, if not for their entire working lives. Our waiter was one of them. When I placed our orders, he seemed to ponder for a moment and then his eyes lit up. He had recognised the gourmand who could polish two plates of Egli in one afternoon, and his voice suddenly took on a more respectful tone! 

The meal he served us was simply superb. Having grown up a country boy, I have a special appreciation for really good food served without pretensions. What we got was honest-to-goodness simplicity – fresh fish caught in the lake less than 24 hours before, accompanied by new potatoes with parsley butter, garden salad and a crunchy tartare sauce. The perch fillets had been subdivided into thin goujons, which meant that they required very little cooking. The chef had basically just popped them into the fryer for long enough to crisp up the tempura batter. The delicate Egli portions reminded me of Lao-Tzu’s dictum: “Ruling a large kingdom is like cooking a small fish – handle it with a light touch and never overdo it.” 

The term "goujon" is French for "gudgeon" or "minnow". It originally only denoted the tiny freshwater fish which are rolled in flour and deep-fried whole as petite friture – hence the English term "small fry" which is derived from this famous French dish. Nowadays goujon is also used when referring to larger fish cut into gudgeon-sized strips. 

I could honestly not tell who was more ecstatic, Jakki or me. She agreed that this was a dish fit for royalty, and commiserated with me for having gone without Egli for three years! We were tempted to order seconds, but since we were planning to try the seven-course tasting menu at a well-known restaurant that evening we decided to rather return for lunch the next day before leaving for Engelberg. 

His years of serving patrons had clearly honed our waiter’s ability to judge people. When he showed us to our table the next day, he enquired mischievously whether I would be game for two sittings again. “No,” I said, “we have a train to catch at two. Rather bring us Egli for three, but divide it into portions…” He clicked his heels and nodded graciously – how could a proud Luzerner not respect the wishes of people who so obviously loved one of the city’s signature dishes?  

Making it at home 

Although the technique I described for cooking bream could be used for Egli as well, the latter is so delicate that I prefer to fry them in a batter so as to keep them whole and moist. Those not able to get hold of this wonderfully tasty little fish could also try this recipe with small- or largemouth bass (Micropterus spp.), fillets of red line fish (particularly Slinger or Panga) or baby kingklip or hake – it works a treat! 

Preparation time: 30 minutes.

Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Serves 2 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a crisp, well-chilled Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. 

4 Small (or 2 larger) fillets of fish per person; approximately 300 g per person.

1 Cup of cake flour.

1 Egg yolk.

1 Cup of ice-cold soda water.

100 g White bread flour.

Baking soda and Kosher salt.

Sunflower or rapeseed oil for frying. 

  • Fillet the fish.
  • Remove the skin and cut the fillets into goujons of no more than 5cm wide.
  • Make a Tempura batter by mixing the flour with the egg yolk, the cold soda water, and a pinch each of baking soda and Kosher salt.
  • Start by adding the egg and half the water to the dry ingredients, and stirring until a thick, smooth paste has formed and then whisking in the rest of the water.
  • Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat enough oil to cover the bottom to a depth of about 5 cm.
  • Roll the goujons in the flour.
  • When the oil is piping hot (but not yet smoking), dip the fish into the tempura batter.
  • Fry the fish for 3-5 minutes (depending on the heat) on each side until golden brown.
  • Drain the excess oil from the fish on a serving plate covered with paper towel.
  • Serve with lemon wedges, French fries (or boiled new potatoes with parsley butter) and a garden salad. A tartare sauce is also an excellent accompaniment. 

“Last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.” – Stephen Wright.

The famous Kapellebruecke

Small, but seriously tasty - the Egli (Yellow Perch)

The emotive Loewendenkmal

A lake steamer departs Luzern

Zum Pfistern - home of the perfect Egli goujon.