STORIES FROM ANTOINETTE’S NAMIBIAN KITCHEN
Text Christine Hugo
Main photographs Hentie Burger
Text Christine Hugo
Main photographs Hentie Burger
In June 2010 My Hungry Heart – notes from a Namibian kitchen was the first Namibian book ever to be entered and awarded at the International Gourmand Cookbook Awards in Paris. Antoinette de Chavonnes Vrugt’s first book was also the only one of the four finalists in the category Best Cookbook in the World for African Cuisine that was actually produced and printed in Africa. Life on a Table, her second book, again combines Hentie Burger’s photography and Christine Hugo’s concept and text with Antoinette’s “love letters to the people and the land she holds dear”.
Food is a language that communicates beyond the borders of words. It is true that we are what we eat. Not only physically, but also emotionally. The Spanish are very much Sangria, tapas and paella people. The French are foie gras, champagne and haute cuisine. The Germans beer and eisbein, the Italians wine, pasta and good slow food.
And Namibians? We are the braai, kapana, lazy afternoons and long evenings around a fire – we are a hearty feast of the very best of meat grilled on real wood fires under an endless sky. It is beautiful to see how people cook and eat the way that they talk, think and live.
But the language of food also has a more private and individual significance. It is a way for us to demonstrate love and compassion when words alone are not enough. Home-cooked meals bring families together around tables, where people sit and talk, make eye contact and connect again. In the kitchens of all our earth mothers and patres familias, meals are prepared to feed bodies and souls, to make memories and to create a legacy of love that is passed on from generation to generation.
So every recipe book becomes a collection of love letters, a recollection of history, stories of times and people and places that were good, that made life better for the people for whom the food was prepared.
In celebration and in mourning, on birthdays and holidays or just simply every day, food is the golden thread, the central theme in the stories of our lives. Our association with food is so powerful that the aroma or flavour of a dish or a spice can instantly transport us to people and places, unleashing a flood of memories and feelings that are buried deep in our hearts and minds, often from a great many years before as if we were right back there that very instant.
It doesn’t matter if you are a mother who knows exactly which dish is the favourite of each of your children or your husband, or if you are a world traveller who savours the exotic flavours of foreign countries and brings them home to share with friends or even if you can’t boil an egg yourself, but cherish the thoughts of meals that were prepared for you – we all have recipes that are roadmaps to our own true selves, a Southern Cross for the soul, that will continue to walk our hearts home until the end of time.
“I love to cook”, says Antoinette, whether it began out of sheer desperation to save us from a potential embarrassment of having my mom cook for dignatories when I was 12, or whether it is the relaxed atmosphere of my farm kitchen, surrounded by my husband Chris and my children Christoph and Marietjie, our faithful dogs, and always as many friends and family we can get together around a table. I love to cook.
“Through the years, through chance encounters with random foodies on my path, I realised that I was called to cook. Lovely flavours, exotic combinations and pungent tastes resonate with me. It was especially during the early time of my marriage to Chris when we lived in Oshakati during the last years of the war, where we met all these interesting and fun people and eating together was the main recreational activity in our lives, that I really fell deeply in love with the art of food.
The older women in our social circles taught me so much about how to make gourmet meals out of limited and erratic supplies. This book is the story of food in Namibia – making the best of what you have, practical and maximal. It is metaphorical of the character of our nation. Who would not be swept away?
Back in Windhoek my career took its course, from cooking demonstrations for food enthusiasts to judging braai competitions for various farmers associations and the odd party catering favour for friends, to a fully-fledged catering business. I became involved in the annual national Tourism Expo, developing the “Chef’s Theatre”, which was an incredible journey. I met many of the giants in the gourmet industry and some of them have become dearest and closest friends. I have embraced every opportunity to travel, to experience new cultures and learn about people through their cooking. I fanatically collect recipes and cookbooks. I love it, especially, when the great loves of my life – my family, my friends and good food all come together, which is what this book is all about.
There is an abundance of “Green Things” to look forward to in Life on a table along with Antoinette’s spectacular Namibian dishes.
This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Travel News Namibia.