Milk tart

February 27, 2017 § 3 Comments

The trouble with eating milk tart made by one Lettie Stevens, is that you are ruined for life. No wobbly, cornflour infested, namby-pamby sweet pastry concoction – even from the local tuisnywerheid – stands a chance. It has to be Lettie’s milk tart or nothing.
Lettie, my grandmother, baked the kind of milk tart you’d change an RSVP for – the most objectionable company or gathering could be tolerated for a slice or two with a cup of coffee: proper moerkoffie, hot and milky and sweet.

Her tarts began with puff pastry, which she made herself. I remember marathon sessions grating butter into slabs of cold pastry, folding them this way and that, her fingers deft and slick. Puff pastry’s savoury flavour provides the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the filling, the crisp layers complementing its milky smoothness.

Next, the pastry was rolled out, blind baked in enamel pie plates, and piled into tall cake tins, ready to be called into service at any time. And the tarts were so in demand, before you knew it, it was pastry making time again.

There was none of the wobbliness you find in today’s milk tarts. My granny used flour in hers, not cornflour, which gives it a different mouthfeel, and a dollop of oomph and grit that perfectly represents an Afrikaner woman of a certain era. 

And it’s the milkiness that makes milk tart so distinct from its relatives – English custard tart or Portuguese pastéis de nata. Here the egg doesn’t take centre stage; it’s all about the comfort of sweetened warm milk when you can’t sleep, or the scent of cinnamon warming the air on a wintry day. Which is why it’s at its very best at room temperature or slightly warm.

My grandmother left me her handwritten recipe books, still among my greatest treasures, so when I heard today was National Milk Tart Day, I had to whip up a crustless version for dessert – in honour both of the day, and the woman I miss so much: a five-foot-nothing dynamo of wisdom and sass, of discipline and old-fashioned common sense, the toughest will, and the softest cheeks.

It’s been years since she died, but the sight of that handwriting still brings both a smile and a tear to my face. Tonight my kitchen smells of cinnamon and milk, and I’m warmed by the comfort of a childhood made sweeter by her capable hands.


Dress code

February 22, 2017 § 6 Comments

I remember that it was turquoise – a small, turquoise, rectangular box that epitomised glamour for me. It lived behind the rows of brown envelopes where my mother kept the cash she had allocated to various items for the month’s budget, each envelope meticulously labelled: chemist, groceries, bus fare, school fees… 

The tiny box only came out on special occasions, containing as it did my mother’s mascara. This was not the tube and wand affair of today’s mascara, however. One compartment held a black substance that required a drop of water to be activated, the other a miniature brush, like a fairy toothbrush, for applying the moistened mascara.

My mother’s idea of everyday make-up was minimalist. Most days, a slick of lipstick was all she wore. But on nights when she and my father were going out, out came the mascara box. And I, just four or five years old, in my nightie and fluffy pink slippers, hung around in the doorway to their bedroom, enthralled by her preparations.

My father wore a suit, always; my mothera long, brightly patterned dress, marcasite at her throat and ears, a dab of Chanel at her wrists. One blue curler provided just the right amount of lift for a section of her short, dark hair, and she dab-dab-dabbed at her eyelashes with that teeny tiny toothbrush. And then they would leave in a cloud of perfume and cologne, while I sat in Granny Bridger, the babysitter’s lap, for one last story before bed.

Today, going out is a much more casual affair. Go to the theatre, and you’ll find people in shorts, jeans, even slip slops. Some restaurants only permit long trousers and closed shoes, but you can wear a good pair of jeans. It’s a far cry from the formality of dress codes gone by.

Even the workplace is a lot more casual. As a freelance writer, I most often resort to a uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, but it’s not just me – many offices I visit seem to have a similar dress code. And while I love the comfort of casual clothes, sometimes I miss dressing up.

I know performers and chefs can do their jobs just as well regardless of what we wear, but there was something respectful about putting on something special for a special night out; a sense that this was a treat, a small celebration in the midst of an otherwise mundane life. And I think, in some small way, you behave differently when you’re well-dressed. There’s a sense of decorum that prevails.

I know those distressed jeans and T-shirt are more comfortable, but I wonder sometimes if we haven’t become a bit too comfortable in life as in our theatres and restaurants. I wonder if we couldn’t do with a bit more decorum, a bit more discomfort, a bit more of a sense of occasion.

Maybe one day the pendulum will swing back to a more respectful, more genteel, more gracious way of navigating the world. In the meantime, I’m putting my mascara on, just in case.

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