Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Christmas Eve, South Africa Style

Turns out, I am a pretty terrible blogger, sorry! Here's a short piece about our Christmas Eve dinner in Nelspruit, originally submitted as an assignment for my MatadorU travel writing class.

My husband and I, Peace Corps volunteers in a rural South African village, had decided to celebrate Christmas in style. One luxurious week in the mid-sized, leafy city of Nelspruit at a lovely guest house perched on a high hill overlooking town. I dreamt of hot showers, gourmet breakfasts, movies in an actual movie theater, and my favorite restaurant, Saffron. Finally, our holiday week arrived. On a hot and languid Christmas Eve, we descended from our guesthouse aerie, anticipating with relish a six course Christmas Eve dinner. Saffron is a maverick. Co-owners Steve and Vincent serve lovely Mediterranean style tapas and home-smoked meats while the others peddle braaied meats and the ubiquitous “ served with creamy sauce.”

Steve, the front-of-house owner, is at the door to greet us because we're the only oddballs expected at this hour. I requested a reservation at 6, and no self respecting South African eats this early. We enjoy Steve's undivided attention, though, because he's nice to be around. At the trailing edge of middle age, he has a kind smile and an open, friendly manner. “Merry Christmas!” he exclaims, “Would you like a kir?” A champagne bottle, dripping with icy condensation, is opened with a dull “thwock” almost before we answer. “Absolutely,” I reply. I raise my glass - the tart and fruity smell of the festive drink envelops me – and toast my husband, whose broad smile radiates contentment. The cold bubbles pop refreshingly in my mouth. It's still strange, as a northerner, to be celebrating Christmas when it's so...tropical.

South African Christmas also throws Steve a bit off balance. A relocated Britisher, he shares memories of his own English traditions as he leads us to our table. “I've brought a bit of it to this dinner,” he explains somewhat wistfully. We reach a corner table near two open windows admitting a welcome breeze as he continues. “I've insisted to chef Vincent,” he tells us conspiratorially, “that brussels sprouts be served with our Christmas quail.” I am truly joyed at this news. I haven't even seen a brussels sprout in almost two years. “I love brussels sprouts!” I blurt loudly. My slightly embarrassed husband nods his head. “So do I!” he agrees.

Our festive table is brimming with an abundance of silver and stemware, and nestled on our crisp white napkins are two sparkling silver and white Christmas crackers, a new tradition for us. The welcoming table shouts “Christmas!” as if to defy the sticky, humid weather. Steve, gently rocking on his heels with his hands clasped behind his back, is tenderly describing our meal. I drift into a reverie imagining the saffron smoked ham bruschetta topped with a quail's egg. I'm pulled back to the moment when Steve starts describing the pi├Ęce de resistance. “Vincent and I found this little farm nearby that raises quail,” he's saying. Each little quail will be swaddled with bacon and stuffed with sage dressing. Alongside will be roasted traditional vegetables, included the promised brussels sprouts. My mouth waters. I look over at my husband. His mouth waters, too. Steve, who has cultivated our happy anticipation, leaves to start our meal.

When the first course arrives, so do more diners. It's one large, ebullient group, another backdrop of the season much like a Norman Rockwell illustration, except for one small boy who truly stands out. He's a slender boy with white blond hair, wearing a thigh-length scarlet elf tunic and a triangular red cap trimmed with white ruff. Watching him, I feel as though I've been transported into a Rankin-Bass Christmas special. He's a busy elf. While Vincent's delectably smoked ham melts seductively in my mouth, Santa's little helper is climbing out the window. When the pungent salted cod with potatoes arrives, he's dashing around the corner of the building outside. As I nibble on shrimp with classic British Marie Rose sauce, he's trying to drag his nana out of her chair. “Come, nana, come!” he pleads. By the time the vaunted quail arrives, he's sitting up on the table with his new Christmas toy, a microphone. “I love you mommy,” his high piping voice rings out, “I love you daddy. I love you aunty. I love you nana. I love you!” My husband chuckles and smiles.

The small elf's Christmas sentiment echoes as I take my first bite of tender quail with sage dressing. Suddenly, it's memories I'm tasting. The rich, roast-y fragrance of the bacon wrapped quail. The earthy, sweet smell of roasted potatoes and brussels sprouts. The quintessential aroma of sage. It may not be what we're used to, but somehow South Africa has made it work. I look up at my husband. I suspect he's thinking the same.

- Elizabeth