Baklava & Bacalhau: A walk with Sloppy Sam and Porra Sheila

Baklava & Bacalhau: A walk with Sloppy Sam and Porra Sheila
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Our Greek and Portuguese compatriots brought us many things, not least the food cultures they generously share with us. They’re not just the clans whose generations toil from their shops on street corners, or whose sons leave the harbours every morning to bring us our tuna and yellowtail. They enrich our lives, and our palates.


Nico was the drummer in our band. And he was a mean drummer. Could wield a lead guitar with aplomb too. Nico was Greek. Or Greek South African. That’s a thing, just like Portuguese South African. Greek South African is not Greek as in from Greece. And Portuguese South African is not Portuguese as in from Portugal. More like Madeira, or Mozambique.

Nico was — actually still is, we recently found each other again on Facebook — the son of Sloppy Sam. The actual son of the actual Sloppy Sam. If you hung around in Three Anchor Bay, Sea Point or Green Point in the Seventies, you’ll understand the import of that. The Sloppy Sam of the Sloppy Sam’s. Not that either Sloppy, or Sam, were his dad’s name. Knowing Nico was like knowing Father Christmas’s kid. And if you went into Sloppy Sam’s in Main Road, with Nico, chances were you’d score a slice of Baklava from his dad. The Baklava.

One night someone in Nico’s family turned 21 and had a big party in a house in a back road in Green Point. Nico had somehow gleaned that I was somewhat timid of palate (I know — me! Now I’ll eat a snake); that I had never eaten garlic. And I was 19. That’s what happens when you grow up in a Yorkshire family; garlic is not trusted. It’s too strong. Your breath will stink. (Not if you all eat it.) But I didn’t know that. Then.

There were long tables at one end of the room, groaning with platters of wonderful-smelling things. “Tony, you won’t avoid eating garlic tonight, my friend! There’s garlic in everything!” With a broad grin and wild intelligence. (Nico was very bright. Still is.) I was looking for the Baklava.

But I fell in love that night. Her name was Garlic. Our passions were consummated over courgettes me feta and Spanakopita, Youvetsi and Moussaka. The last was to become a staple of my own kitchen repertoire; I’ll post my recipe alongside this column.

Our Greek and Portuguese compatriots brought us many things, but chief among them is the food cultures they generously shared with us. Every Greek or Portuguese restaurant we know is testament to this. They’re not just the clans whose generations toil from their particular perspective in shops on the corners of our streets, or whose sons leave the harbours every morning to bring us our tuna and yellowtail, although there is that too.

Our family fell in with one such clan in the Nineties, and we became aware, over time, of this thing that hangs over the head of the Cape Portuguese community in particular; doubtless the same applies in Port Elizabeth where the Portuguese history goes right back to its settlement. Fishing for a living is a big part of the culture, and with that comes the ever-present threat that the fishing boat might not come back. I remember us discussing this late one night after a dinner party at our house. It was the Nineties. We were in Tamboerskloof. A young man, Manny, was there with his girlfriend. He and I fell into conversation. He told me he goes out every day in his boat, and he knows, always knows, that one day he might not come home. His girlfriend looked across at us on overhearing this. The room fell silent for some seconds.

Manny was a part of a Portuguese family — I say family but we’re talking brothers, aunts, cousins, grandparents here, a great clan — in the City Bowl, at the centre of which is a fabulous woman as earthy as they come. Sheila, now there’s a character. Olive-skinned and topped by a mop of black curls, she can dance, that woman. Voice like a revving-up V8, swears like a Portuguese sailor. Throws her head back and laughs, and then her eyes twinkle to silence as melancholy overcomes her. It’s a hard life but, you know what, there’s no point in letting it all get on top of you. Now light the fire, marinate that hunk of tuna, and open that bottle of Vinho Verde. That’s my Porra bestie, our Porra Sheila.

Our local was the ever-humble Villa Tavern on the verge of Gardens and Vredehoek. No matter how cool and pretentious almost every other restaurant in Cape Town got, Villa never gave in to the temptation to be anything but its simple, honest self. A pub with good Portuguese grub, with a few unsteady barflies thrown in at no extra charge. At Villa I’d invariably order the espetada, great chunks of beef skewered with bay leaves, garlic and coarse salt. I’ll share my recipe for it alongside this column, though mine is skewered on actual bay branches.

Only a short walk away was (is) Maria’s Greek. It’s much posher now, fits right in with the cool Cape Town where-to-be-seen scene. Wasn’t always like that. Maria’s takes us back to the Eighties, though the venue, on Dunkley Square, goes way further back than that. In the Eighties Maria herself still ran the place, then a modest corner spot facing a square that was just hard, uneven earth that you parked on and risked a flat tyre. In the Nineties, when so much of Cape Town started going all zhoosh on us, the square was flattened and paved for (proper) parking, leaving a broad strip along one side for the hoped-for new restaurants and pubs to put out their tables and chairs for us all to spend evenings there sipping wine or craft beer and nibbling the various wares. And that’s exactly what transpired over time. But it was borne of that age-old custom of a Greek, or it could just as easily be a Portuguese, person deciding to turn a corner shop into a lekker place redolent of the Mediterranean (in the postcard-like wall murals of Greek islands and the like of the old Maria’s Greek).

Such are the restaurants to look for, I find. Family-run, the menu made from Ma’s dog-eared old recipe book typed out on an Olivetti on which the R doesn’t work. If the restaurant is Portuguese, let real, actual Porras — don’t worry, it’s not seen as an insult, even if it is tongue-in-cheek — be right there in the kitchen making your Trinchado (a South African Portuguese dish, by the way, not actually Portuguese from Portugal), or Ma in the kitchen cooking your Bacalhau with her own hands. You can even talk about guavsh and tomatsh with a Portuguese South African with no offence taken, because these are people comfortable in their own skin and humble to the bone.

If the restaurant is Greek, let it be someone called Constantinides or Papathanasiou making your dolmades or your bougatsa. Marika, say, from Marika’s in Vredehoek, virtually upstairs from Villa Tavern as it happens. Portuguese downstairs, Greek upstairs; what’s not to like? Perfect. Or the old Zorba’s in Sea Point, where I first broke plates and stomped on them; I felt like I was Zorba the Greek, spouting Nikos Kazantzakis quotes like the man himself.

And if it’s from the seas off the Cape, let it be yellowtail or tuna from Manny’s boat or maybe his cousin’s or his uncle’s. And I want Porra Sheila to cook it for me, there on the braai in her back yard in Gardens.

Only it won’t be tuna from Manny’s boat. Only a few years after that late night in our Tamboerskloof house, the great fear that was in the room came to pass. Manny’s boat was lost, and he never came home, and the girlfriend, by then a wife and mother, was now a widow. So here’s a nod to Manny, and all like him, who toil the seas for our tables and our dinner parties; and a nod of respect to these communities who enrich our lives, and our palates. DM

Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), a cookbook-cum-memoir with essays about life, food, living, family and even grieving and illustrated by 60 recipes, was nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (2018) in the category for best food writing. Book enquiries: [email protected]


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