Adrienne Southey is a farm-based classically trained chef with an international take on the best of Heartland food.
When Adrienne Southey was a tot growing up on Hillston Farm between Middelburg and Steynsburg in the Eastern Cape Karoo, she used to have a play-play restaurant under the pepper trees.
She arranged chairs around an old wooden table and invented starters, mains and desserts for her dollies, teddies and somewhat less than willing siblings.
Now here we are with Adrienne decades later, sitting on garden chairs at the very same table, under the old pepper trees around the homestead, photographing and devouring her courgette fritters. And we are far happier to partake than her childhood teddies ever were.
More Than Just a Chef
Adrienne has just returned from catering for 140 well-satisfied guests at a wedding on a nearby farm. If she’s not cooking or taking pictures – usually of food or Karoo landscapes – she’s sketching in ink or pencil, or shooting videos for weddings.
“And creating meals for visitors,” she tells me. “Or plotting how to restore derelict farm buildings here and do them up as guest accommodation.” She did this with an abandoned old house called Northmead, five gates and two valleys away. “They used it as a set for a movie called Stuur Groete aan Mannetjies Roux,” says Adrienne. “With the money I earned from catering for the film crew I bought a set of fantastic cooking pots.”
Try Adrienne’s recipe for courgette fritters.
Adrienne’s childhood dreams of working in a restaurant have been fulfilled several times over. “I’m happy just as long as I’m doing something creative,” she says. She was classically trained at Silwood Kitchen in Cape Town and then employed by restaurants like La Colombe, the Old Mutual Executive Kitchen and Ellerman House. She also explored food-product development for Pick ’n Pay and was a food stylist for a major woman’s magazine.
“I think the reason I love cooking is that it involves both art and science. So you can make it as complicated or simple as you want. Plus it’s the only industry that involves all five senses.”
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It was, however, her world travels and exposure to the culinary secrets of foreign kitchens that brought her back to the Karoo with a fascination for Moroccan, Italian, Mediterranean and Indian influences.
“I love spices and the clean, simple flavours of the Middle East,” she tells me. “I spent some time in a deli in Abu Dhabi, surrounded by 80 varieties of cheeses, whole truffles, dozens of olive oils, every kind of delicious food. My job was to show customers how to cook with all of this.
“Before that, I stayed with a foodie family in India, who introduced me to all those exotic tastes, but it is the honesty of Middle Eastern and North African foods that I love, partly because they meld so well with Karoo kos. Also, like us, the people there eat a lot of lamb.”
Try Adrienne’s Venison Pies recipe.
Just then the aroma of Moroccan lamb-neck tagine wafts out of the farm kitchen, redolent with cumin, coriander, paprika, ginger and cinnamon. “Sometimes I use those same spices rubbed all over a leg of lamb instead of the usual rosemary and garlic. I generally keep spices in the freezer to retain their flavour. My all-time favourites are cumin and coriander, fortunately easy to find in local shops.
Try Adrienne’s Moroccan Lamb-neck Tagine Recipe.
“Middle Eastern cuisine also involves chickpeas, lentils and other legumes that last well in the storeroom. All this suits the ‘Boer maak ’n plan’ innovations you have to come up with when living in a comparatively remote place like a Karoo farm. “In fact, I’m probably at my most creative when I have some kind of restriction, like a limited number of ingredients. It’s a bit odd. When I’m boxed in, I tend to think out of the box more.”
Vegetables are a major part of Middle Eastern cuisine, but are not always an easy proposition in the Karoo because of extreme weather and long distances for transportation. “But radishes are really easy to grow and toss into a salad with cucumber, tomatoes and onions.”
Finding New Flavours
Over our lunch of the lamb, and a delicious Moroccan bread called Kisra, flavoured with aniseed, Adrienne explains how, for all her trotting about the globe and tasting exotic foods, it wasn’t all Eat, Play, Love.
“After India, a long illness left me temporarily intolerant of all kinds of foods, including sugar, dairy and gluten. Initially it was really difficult because I love baking and I adore bread. But it spurred me on to explore other ‘flours’ made from coconut, almonds, chickpeas, potatoes and rice, and I discovered an alternative world of vegan and vegetarian cooking. I got into plant proteins like chia, hemp seeds and various nuts, long before they became trendy.
Try Adrienne’s Shakshuka for a different spin on breakfast.
“I’m better now, but I became rather fond of the different flavours. I still prefer chickpea flour for things like pancakes. Rice flour adds a great snap-crackle-pop crispiness to batters. And potato flour thickens stews like cornflour does, but it tastes so much better.”
Adrienne has a slight obsession with keeping up with the latest trends, “even if it is in a slow Karoo kind of way”. When the world went through a spasm of fascination for molecular gastronomy, Adrienne did too, although it was truly impractical for the platteland because of the exotic ingredients like agar-agar, and strange implements.
“But I ordered a kit online and started experimenting. It really took me back to my childhood when I used to cook with my grandfather, viticulture scientist Dr Danie Joubert in Rawsonville. I remember being only eight years old and sitting in the kitchen of his house planning a dish using a recipe book. Instead of the usual measuring cups, he had test tubes and pipettes. It was a bit crazy but I suppose that’s why I’ve retained a fascination for the scientific side of cooking.”
Then there’s Auntie Chrisna. “Because of my culinary interests, my mom’s sister has always made a point of taking me to restaurants with the best chefs, and to food and wine pairings. I was amazed at how beautifully a Shiraz complements chocolate or a cinnamon-rich dessert.”
This hearty red lentil and carrot soup by Adrienne is a great meat-free option.
As we say our farewells, Adrienne blurts out, “You never had any pears!” Well, no, we hadn’t. She dashes off and returns with a takeaway serving of her roasted cinnamon pear and chocolate Pavlova, which should by rights be served as one’s first dish on entering Heaven.
We only get as far as the farm gate before diving into the exquisite pudding in blissful silence. As we devour it, we watch a family of ground squirrels fossick among the Karoo bossies, one of them gazing back at us with envy.
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Words Julienne du Toit
Photography Chris Marais