I cannot believe I have finally managed to get a chance to write this post! (My excitement is truly mounting). Things at varsity have been inordinately busy lately to say the least. Last week we started a massive 5-week assignment called ‘Brand Challenge’ where students from second year to Honours get put into teams of 6 or 8 and are given a brief by an outside company to either create a campaign for or rebrand the business. It’s a real brief for a real business so that makes it extra stressful (and thus difficult) for me to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I have even started dreaming about my work, only to be disappointed once I wake up and realise that all that productivity was but a dream, and that the graft for the day is still yet to come. But let’s not get into that, I could go on for hours delivering this self-pitiful soliloquy.
Last week Sunday I had the great honour of attending a fundraiser lunch in Drummond where chef Charlie Lakin had prepared the food on menu. Initially I wasn’t going to attend the event, as it was meant to be an afternoon out for my parents and their friends, however when I overheard my father speaking about the Michelin star chef that would be preparing the food I had to get in on that booking. I have not yet had the chance to visit a fine dining restaurant, so this was the perfect opportunity for me to experience the magic of fine food first hand. And I was not disappointed.
Charlie Lakin is an award-winning British chef who moved to South Africa a few years ago. Among his list of many impressive accolades, Lakin has been a guest chef on the popular British TV show ‘Great British Menu’ and was awarded a Michelin star working as a Sous Chef, together with the Head Chef, at The Star Inn in Yorkshire. Lucky for the Drummond community, he lives close-by and is friends with a few of the locals.
I poured over the menu and the exciting ingredients it contained, many of which I had never tasted before including quail, quail egg, impala, Chinese guava, and Spekboom. To be completely honest, I was a little bit nervous, as I was petrified I wouldn’t like these new flavours and would embarrass myself. However, I couldn’t have been more off.
Our starter was a Chicken and Quail Terrine, with smoked quail breast, lightly pickled quail egg, crispy chicken skin, and rocket pesto. The starter was one of the prettiest plates of food I’d ever seen, with brightly coloured flowers encircling the terrine that made the bright green of the rocket pesto pop. The terrine itself was rich and delicious, the crispy chicken skin offering a crunchy saltiness that contrasted delightfully with the terrine’s smooth texture. The quail egg was one of my favourite elements of the dish, the soft yolk and slight vinegary flavour from being pickled went incredibly well with the other elements. When I tasted the quail breast my delight was clearly audible as a satisfied “Mmm…” escape my lips, and the tiny purple potatoes had such incredible flavour for an element so minute. Every element on the plate had something completely different to offer, however it was as if these ingredients were created purely to be eaten together.
After being exposed to the greatness of our starter, I eagerly anticipated our main meal which was an Impala Trio that consisted of braised impala, impala rib, and an impala pastie. This was served with a pine (yes pine!) and Chinese guava sauce and roasted heirloom vegetables on creamed leaves. This was quite honestly one of the most remarkable meals I’ve ever eaten. The impala was cooked to tender perfection, paired with the sticky sweetness of the sauce and flavour of the pine, it was like nothing I had ever tasted before.
Lakin is a forager, and so has an impressive knowledge of the incredible ingredients nature has to offer. Before this meal, I had never experienced pine needles being used to flavour food, however I have been left wondering why people don’t use this plant as an ingredient more often. The flavour was incredible, reminding me of chilly winter days spent cozying up to a fire while something yummy is being cooked in the oven. The rib meat fell off the bone, leaving it clean and the braised impala meat was cooked to perfection. The main event for me however was definitely the impala pastie. The filling was dark and flavoursome, and the pastry was perfectly buttery and flaky, exactly the way I like it. I don’t think any other two things go as well together has beautifully cooked meat and freshly made pastry.
Our table was wild about the vegetables too, which I learned had been cooked in a variety of ways, including being thrown on the braai and cooked in the fire. This is what I loved the most about Lakin’s cooking style – it’s not fussy yet brings a spectrum of flavours to the table that deserves the highest praise. Among the vegetables served were carrots (orange and purple), beetroot, butternut, tiny purple potatoes, sweet potato and fennel. The delicious smokiness retained by the vegetables from being in the fire was remarkable, and left everyone at the table debating for ages about how they were prepared. (I had an opportunity to speak to Lakin at the end of the event, and we were all wrong).
Lastly, we were served dessert which effortlessly made its way into my top 3 desserts of all time. At first, I was skeptical. I’ve never been sure about vegetables in my cake. However, after taking that first bite I was converted, and have been trying to figure out how I can recreate the dessert ever since. Our dessert was a Pumpkin & Nut Cake (which I think might have been a Butternut & Nut Cake?) that was served with lemon grass ice cream, grapefruit syrup, and Spekboom leaves. Oh. My. Word. I can’t actually begin to describe how incredible this dessert was.
The cake was light and fluffy with the perfect balance of flavour between the thinly grated butternut, cinnamon, pecans and macadamia nuts. The soft spongey texture of the cake paired with the crunchiness of the nuts was received happily in conjunction with the cake’s crispy golden top. I’m also the kind of person who LOVES raisins in a hot dessert so I was in my element at this stage. If I had to try and describe the syrup, it was like a sticky caramelised citrus sauce that soaked into the cake giving it a sweet oozy texture. The warm syrup melted the ice cream slightly so that when one took a spoonful of a little bit of everything on the plate it was an explosion of sweet and citrus, warm and cold, sticky and smooth…
The Spekboom leaves were particularly mind-blowing however. A Spekboom is a succulent plant that grows these amazing little leaves that one can eat. The leaves taste just like lemon and finished off the cake and ice-cream excellently. Interestingly, I learned that Spekboom are also some of the greatest oxygenators on the planet. Environmentally friendly and delicious!
This lunch was such an amazing experience and I loved being able to try things I have literally never tasted before. Too often I find myself eating the same things over and over again, so it was great to step outside of my comfort zone. I cannot wait to eat Charlie Lakin’s food again and highly encourage you to do some research on him, his food, and his endeavours.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my afternoon!