My kitchen table: With the arrival of autumn ...

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I just love this early autumn weather - the extreme heat of the Cape summer is a thing of the past, leaving us with champagne days; April breezes kick up flurries of early dried leaves on the pavements; and there is dew on the lawn early in the morning when I let the dog out and drink my cup of steaming Assam tea, listening to the olive thrushes proclaiming their territory and drinking in the fresh morning air.

After the hectic summer it is time in the evenings, with our legs under our kitchen table, to reflect on food and the simpler, almost biblical things, like figs, olives, grapes, cheese, bread and wine.

As little boys Geoff, my brother, and I picked the first flush of tight baby green figs for whole fig preserve which we ate sliced on steaming hot buttery scones for tea, the unctuous green syrup running down our chins. Later we covered the second flush with brown paper bags while still on the tree to keep the white-eyes and starlings off them and the reward was to eat them, sweet, pink and bursting warm from the tree. When we had an embarrassment of figs, they were chilled, peeled, sliced and served in a cut-glass dish, Leipoldt-style, sprinkled with a little sweet wine. Or they were laid out on boards in the sun and allowed to dry with the usual battle to keep the ants, fruit flies and bees at bay.

In adulthood and the onset of food channel television and its fashionable cooks, figs have undergone a change. Now they are filled with mascarpone and wrapped in prosciutto drizzled with the ubiquitous and very overrated balsamic vinegar or stuffed with gorgonzola, enveloped in pancetta and baked (yes of course, in a wood-fired oven!). Now we buy them from supermarkets, a dozen or so in a plastic punnet, at some outrageous price, this gift of Prince Albert.

And we eat them reminiscing about the figs of our youth (didn't they taste better?) after supper with a glass of Landskroon Port of the 2002 vintage, such an exciting wine blended from the classical Tintas, Barocca and Roriz, Souzao and Touriga Nacional. The old vines on Landskroon Estate, and the 45-month rest in oak barrels, Paul de Villiers uses to pay homage to his predecessors with this soft and rich wine with its vapours of spicy plump prunes, fine cigars and essenced berries. It has a beautiful aroma of spicy black prunes and tobacco with a smooth but lively palate ending in an attractive dry finish. Chunks of 12-month matured Cheddar from Simonsberg - their latest innovation, sweet nutty, full flavour with a peppery nip at the end. Great partner to the port.

Talking of Simonsberg Matured Cheddar, I had a seriously delicious plate of ravioli made by überchef Pete Goffe Wood (my knees tucked under his kitchen table) filled with this cheese and served with a puy lentil and apple salsa - such a superb combination. He served it with a delicate appley dry cider made by Flagstone Winery's Bruce Jack, James Mitchell's Gone Fishing Cider, typical Jack quirkiness - named for his grandfather.

A matured Gouda – six months aged – was released at the same time, a denser cheese, though nutty and smooth, he baked with soufflé style and served with melted onions and a rocket salad.

I couldn't help but think how well the newly released Stellenzicht Shiraz 2004 would go with this cheese. Winemaker Guy Webber speaks of it as being "modern in style with a classic edge in terms of its longevity", which means that it will last for the next five to eight years if cared for – but who would want to wait that long for a wine that, after 16 months in French and American oak, is so smooth already? Full-bodied with food-friendly grippy tannins and a sweetness imparted by the American oak, it has bags of berry fruit, touches of mocha chocolate and the pepper we expect in a Shiraz. On sale at specialist wine shops for R65 a pop – excellent value.

And talking of reds from the Golden Triangle of the Helderberg, the much bemedalled Eikendal Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 – a Gold medal at the prestigious German 2006 Mundus Vini Awards and a silver at the 2006 Canadian Port of Wine Festival - has seen the light of day. 2002 was a year of lots of rain in summer and bunches hung long on the vine in the cooling breezes up the Helderberg, ripening slowly and building up deep colour and layers of flavour on the way. Rich fruit, forest floor and fynbos spice on the nose and such yummy berry fruit on the palate.

I know I gave you a risotto recipe in my last article, so forgive me if I do it again. Risotto, to me, is like a savoury rice pudding, bowls before the fire in the chilly autumn evenings. It's comfort food in a grand style.

Risotto Vesuvio
With the arrival of autumn, the pine forests of the Cape are filled with an exotica of wild mushrooms. Cèpes (boletus edulis), also known as penny buns in English and Steinpilz (stone mushrooms) in German, abound. Pine rings, so yummy just cooked with cream and served with pasta, are a magical autumn comfort food.

This risotto I devised after thinking about sofrito, the Holy Trinity, finely diced onion, carrot and celery and garlic for some added flavour. It is named Vesuvio after one of my favourite South African extra virgin olive oils. (Look out for it in supermarkets and speciality food shops. Gert van Dyk makes superb oil - like a fine estate wine when compared with the industrial European oils available here. The price difference makes it so worth it to spend a bit more for a truly great oil.)

You'll need …
1 large onion,
3 fat cloves of garlic,
2 sticks of celery and two medium carrots - all finely chopped,
100 ml Vesuvio Extra Virgin Olive Oil,
300 g arborio (risotto) rice,
250 ml red wine,
1,5 litres very hot vegetable stock,
250 g fresh cèpes or portobello mushrooms chopped into chunks,
sea salt, and freshly milled black pepper,
3 Tbs butter,
6 Tbs finely grated Parmigiana Reggiano (use the real stuff).

Prepare the vegetables and heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and fry until quite soft. Add the carrot and celery and continue stirring until well heated through and the vegetables become transparent.
Add the rice and stir while the rice heats through and is well coated with oil and starting to look transparent.
Add the wine in one go and allow it to evaporate almost completely. Add the vegetable stock ladle for ladle, stirring well over a low heat while the liquid is absorbed. About halfway through, add all the mushrooms.
Continue adding the stock until all is absorbed and the rice is cooked.
Season well to taste.
Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and cheese, put on the lid and allow to stand for ten minutes. Stir through and serve.

Serves 4 for a main course with ciabatta and a dressed leaf salad.

The Van Loveren Light White 2007 – a Semillon-based blend - beat the rest of the pack by being the first 2007 wine on the shelves almost before the presses had been washed out and many grapes on many vines not even ripe yet. I enjoyed it as a late morning cooler, well chilled with some ice tinkling in the glass.

The honours for first 2007 Sauvignon Blanc on the shelves - and in a screwcap too, hooray - go to Du Toitskloof Wines, the well-known cellar near Rawsonville. Without doubt one of the more popular SBs, especially at its great value price point. Sauvignon Blanc has become South Africa's number one white wine varietal and Du Toitskloof's Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular with local Sauvignon Blanc fans. Great value wines from Du Toitskloof.

Let me finish on a more mature and charming note. The 1998 Pinot Noir Rosé Méthode Cap Classique vintage from The House of JC Le Roux is a classic made in Stellenbosch by the equally elegant and charming catwalk beautiful Melanie van der Merwe in her early days at JC. She's moved on, but the stellar results of her labours and expertise still shine. Handpicked grapes, the best of French Champagne yeasts and long maturation have resulted in a wine which shows its age well, like Catherine Deneuve yet still has the elegance of youth, soft and round. Delicious berry flavours in this subtle smoked salmon pink wine redolent of the yeastiness of baked Almond brioche.

This is the wine of romance.

Well, let me scrub down the old oak kitchen table. I'll keep my notebook and pencil handy so I'll have lots to talk about next time. Please visit my website – there's a mine of information there about books, wine, places to stay and good food.

Till next time, eat and drink well.


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