MY mother was an English teacher, a proficient farmer's wife and an excellent cook. And she needed all these skills, and a few more, to raise seven children — six girls! — on a working farm in the Klein Karoo where flocks of guests had to be entertained and fed. Because of this, you sometimes ended up in the slipstream of the multitasking side of my mother, times when you knew better than to get under her feet.
But at night before bedtime, the bumps and jolts of the day disappeared in the rearview mirror and my mother would read stories to us. One of these was the children's classic The Secret Garden. My memories of that time are interwoven with the dream world of this book's garden, which is lush and overgrown with its fragrant flowers whose names I could not connect to recognisable plants. All of us children wanted to have such a hiding place — especially from our siblings!
The idea was not merely a flight of fancy, because my great-grandmother had my great-grandfather plant a vegetable garden next to the beautiful house he built for her. It was a biblical garden in terms of the plants and its size. My father took over and left his stamp on it. The garden was constantly evolving, always somewhat chaotic, but the results were never less than surprising and often heavenly.
It was never a real Secret Garden as it suffered too often from the droughts that regularly hit the Klein Karoo. During those times the little water that could be saved went with the bath water to the vegetable garden, and if the rose trees and agapanthus could take the beating, then good. If not, well…
Abundant love made up for lack of water and it grew big and wild, bursting out of rows that always seemed to have been introduced an afterthought. Because after all, Le Roux is a French surname, not German. Vegetables, fruits, nut trees and hardy flowering shrubs grew together in a riotous medley. So you could get lost there if you wanted to.
A deadly combination
But this was no pretty English garden; it was a hardworking garden that had to feed its people and all their visitors. My father loves to eat well and my mother loved to cook: a deadly combination. She built up an Alexandrian food library and from their many travels they brought back not only stories but recipes of distant dishes. This is where my mother earned her reputation as a legendary cook. She amazed many a sophisticated city gourmand with the exotic dishes she put together so seemingly nonchalantly, often with a child on her hip.
And often with the products of plants from overseas. To this day, my father still does not travel without contraband of sorts in his suitcase: tomato seeds from Sicily, limes from India, peppers from Mozambique, “fartichokes" (Jerusalem artichokes) from Marseille… This stuff had to be planted, nurtured until it germinated, then planted out, watched for bugs and pests then sprayed, and finally — and this is where the many Le Roux children were put to good use — harvested .
And because my father's dreams are always bigger than the size of his hands, we usually ended up with an excess of something, which then had to be eaten and processed in creative ways. We also had to help with this, especially later when the Doornkraal farm stall got going and processed products became a way to keep the cash flowing when the rain stopped.
One could almost say the garden was part of our family's culture, which is perhaps more important than having a dream garden. We cultivated it, discussed it, harvested it and ate its bountiful fruits with relish.
My father is still praying fervently for two inches of gentle rain. But the garden's wave broke. My mother now picks heavenly fruits and my father looks at the ground when he walks. Even the workers who take care of the garden are walking more slowly.
Last weekend someone visited us in the city and brought me a box of vegetables and fruit from the farm, the last gifts of a good year: eggplant, lemons, a handful of feijoas, a few peppers and tomatoes, a mango and a jar of green olives. I sneakily ate the mango alone and the feijoas' perfume provides enough pleasure for the moment — they can wait until we have time for each other.
The other gifts are ready for a fragrant autumn dish of baked eggplant and tomatoes that is enough for six people. We had it for dinner with an oven-baked cornbread to sop up the sauces. Simple and so satisfying.
2-3 large aubergines, about 1 kg in total, thinly sliced widthwise
3 teaspoons of salt
½ cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 kg garden tomatoes, peeled and chopped and seasoned with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar, or two 400 g tins of chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon mixed spice or even better Herbs de Provence
2-3 fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon of salt
1 clove of garlic, crushed, to rub the baking dish
½ cup (50 g) grated parmesan cheese or hard flavoured cheese
1 tablespoon of dry breadcrumbs
1 Sprinkle the aubergine slices on both sides with the salt and leave to rest for 45 minutes to sweat a little. (I often skip this step to save time, but this eggplant was the last of the season and I didn't want to risk bitterness.)
2 Dry the eggplant slices, paint both sides with olive oil and fry in a hot pan (or grill on a greased baking sheet) until golden and slightly soft. Turn the slices over and do the other side as well. Eggplant loves oil, so feel free to use the entire amount called for in the recipe. Preparing eggplant takes a little time, so make the tomato sauce in between.
3 Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saucepan and fry the garlic and onion a little until light caramel-coloured. Add the tomatoes, dry and fresh herbs, salt and pepper, and let simmer until the sauce thickens a lot — about 30 minutes, or reduced to one third of the volume. Fresh tomatoes will take longer to make a nice sauce.
4 Smear a baking dish with the crushed clove of garlic then with a little olive oil. Now pack a layer of eggplant slices to overlap slightly on the bottom of the dish. Pour over one third of the tomato sauce and sprinkle over one third of the grated cheese. Repeat the layers twice more and finish with the last third of tomato sauce and cheese. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the dish and season with another pinch of herbs, salt and freshly ground pepper.
5 Put the dish in the oven, set it to 180°C and bake for 40 minutes or until the top is brown. Let it rest for at least 15 minutes before eating.
Make the cornbread while the eggplant dish is in the oven. It's a nice quick recipe and suitable for people who are sensitive to gluten. Strictly speaking it is not a bread, more like an oven-baked polenta made from fresh green corn.
4 green corns, kernels cut off, so that there are 4 cups (top up with frozen corn kernels if the green corns were small)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
⅓ cup cornmeal
½ cup sour milk, yoghurt or buttermilk
pinch of salt
Whirl everything together in a food processor and pour into a greased bowl. Dot with butter and bake until slightly coloured on top and set. If you want to be fancy, you can stir in a handful of feta cubes before baking.
The old vegetable garden on Doornkraal's wave broke, yes. But one can always hope and pray for another wave, like two inches of soft, penetrating rain.
♦ VWB ♦
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