Philosophical perspectives on bagels, books and culinary Durban
Among a handful of city gems, one is a bookstore. Another is a bakery. Add a bagelry making soups, simits and blintzes. Throw in a couple of legendary chefs for good measure. Nothing stale here.
It’s last week, Friday, and Carin Robinson is talking bagels. We’re sitting at a table on the pavement outside her New York-style bagel bar in Durban. It is almost closing time on her third day in business. “It seems we subscribe to the most traditional view of what a bagel should be.” In the “we” she is including her husband, Adam Robinson. “A bagel must be boiled, then baked. A lot of people make fake bagels, more like bread. But bagels are dumplings, really. And a bagel must ‘stale’ very quickly. If a bagel stays fresh, you know you haven’t made it properly.”
So there’s no point in buying one today for tomorrow? “No point in buying one now for later in the afternoon. You should buy it and eat it and in fact some people believe they should be eaten straight out of the oven. Of course you can’t manage it quite like that. But we’re set up to bake a batch every 20 minutes.”
If you’ve had them hanging around for longer? “You can toast them. A different experience, like toasting bread. Can be good too.”
There has been expectation. Anticipation. Excitement. To explain, for those who don’t live in Durban, there’s a sprinkling of places that qualify to make it onto a list of city gems. One is a bookstore. Another is a bakery. So now it was coming to pass that said bakery would open a kind-of branch – this bagelry – downstairs from the bookstore. A literary and philosophical fusion.
In fact, simple logic given that the bookstore, Joanne Rushby’s Ike’s Books, independent and known for its second-hand, out of print and antiquarian stock, has an eclectic collection of cookbooks. And the bagel-maker? She who is also making soups, simits, blintzes, pretzels and whatever needs to be prepped to schmear and layer inside the bagel, is philosophically infused. Dr Robinson, to distinguish her from Robinson, the baker, is a philosophy PhD. For the past two years she has been lecturing – things like fashion semiotics, history and theory – in the fashion school at Durban University of Technology. She left that job at the end of April to do this one. Food to eat. Food for thought.
The anticipation and expectation for me had little to do with the bagels per se. Although, spoiler alert, this would change. It had more to do with the impending arrival of Glenwood Bakery Bagels. This heralding the coming into being of a delicious food-focused node at the bottom end of Florida Road, Durban’s prime stretch of restaurant and entertainment real estate. Which, let’s just say, doesn’t offer much to truly whet the appetite.
At the top there is the well-thought-out mix of casual and informal dining, outdoors, indoors and with art, that is Florida Fields, which we wrote about in TGIFood soon after it opened. You can read the story here.
Half-way down there is the fabulous #258 Mozam, housed in historic Hollis House, where a restaurateur and politics professor from Maputo is sharing the authentic flavours, art and culture of Mozambique. Read our #258 story here. Tucked away in 8th Avenue, all but on Florida Road, also previously written about in TGIFood, is Durban’s Italian-flavoured charcuterie, deli and eatery, the delectable Col’Tempo, which you can read about here.
Besides these, the only place worth going out of one’s way to eat at since it opened a couple of years ago is the extravagant and exotic Dukkha. This down in the bottom stretch of Florida, part of the “new node” that has come into being with the arrival of the bagel bar.
Dukkha, currently with star chef Dan Evans, running the kitchen. He and his partner in and out the kitchen, Angie Handley, having been obliged to leave the Caribbean island of Nevis, where they were cooking when Covid came. They made it back to Durban where both have family via cooking stints in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.
For a taster on Evans, here is a quote from an old New York Times magazine article: “Dan Evans trained under London’s wunderkind of the ’80s, Alastair Little and Joël Robuchon of Paris. His food reaches beyond the portmanteau ‘eclectic’; it’s eccentric. This man cooks what he wants to eat and half of London seems to share his tastes.”
I caught up with Evans in the kitchen where, for a pork belly dish, he was teaching one of the line cooks to gently brown and braise cored peeled apples using a technique that Evans learned 35 years ago from Michelin 3-star master chef, founder of nouvelle cuisine, Michel Guérard, this during 10 years Evans spent early in his career working in Michelin-starred restaurant kitchens in France.
Sous chef at Dhukka is Sgazo Ngubane, 1000 Hills Chefs School graduate and Huletts Sweet Young Chef in 2017. The title refers to a national culinary student “best dessert” award, which he won. Prior to Dhukka, Ngubane was in the kitchen at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, Kentucky, hangout of presidents, celebrities and the notorious Al Capone.
Lucky me, I got to try a Michel Guérard apple, studded with crispy bacon flair, when Evans whipped me up a “Northern Europe inspired” sublimely flavoured and textured lunch of salmon on lentils, these nestled beneath the fish and drizzled with a light mustard sauce.
Okay. So back to the bakery and the bagel story, where Evans serendipitously features.
When we wrote about The Glenwood Bakery two years ago in TGIFood, our focus was on Adam Robinson. In a nutshell, we shared the story of this man who back in the late 1980s was one of London’s pre-eminent chefs. That was before he and his then-wife “retired” in 2003 to the KZN Midlands.
Six years later, yearning to cook again, Robinson opened a restaurant in Howick in collaboration with, yes, fellow-British star chef, Dan Evans, who is credited with having opened London’s first “gastropub” in the 1990s. They served exceptional seasonal, imaginative, produce-driven fare. A few discerning palates regularly drove great distances to bliss out on it. But those they had hoped to please in “shit hole Bible Belt Howick”, to quote the roguishly playful chef-turned-baker, would rather have had them flipping burgers.
After living through this low in both their culinary careers, Evans and Robinson shut the restaurant and went their respective ways. Adam Robinson, by then married to Carin Robinson, moved to Durban and on January 1, 2013 opened The Glenwood Bakery. You can read the story here.
In that story we have the game and gutsy Dr Robinson as an equal, if different, partner in the bakery business, bussing tables among other “owner” jobs, like doing laundry deliveries and putting whacky, witty, entertaining messages about the bakery on Facebook and Instagram. Which became more part-time when, shortly after our story, she immersed herself in fashion academia.
“I haven’t slept for three months,” she with the ballet-dancer posture and a kind of, sort of, beguiling wide-eyed intensity, says. Still three days into her new life. Sitting outside the new bagel shop. Ike’s Books upstairs. Round the corner from Mamma Luciana’s, a long-time neighbourhood favourite for some. The place that makes the pizzas for Ike’s book launches. Across from a small electricity substation from where a sudden blast emanates, ejecting us from our seats. “Someone, call the fire brigade,” calls Robinson before, having noted black smoke drifting and the acrid smell of burning wires, but no-one hurt, we return to our conversation.
“So for instance I would wake up in the middle of the night and think, if they order soup and bagels and a toasted sandwich, what part of the slip do I send to what part of the kitchen? What part do I keep? And how are we going to make sure all those things come together in one bundle and at the same time? The logistics of things. I haven’t been doing it for years like Adam has. And also some people love service and some, even experienced chefs, would prefer to cook in a quiet kitchen and experience just the food.”
The end of April was her last day in academia. “Adam had been wanting to expand the Glenwood bakery for a long time. He hasn’t been able to because he really needs my help with that.” While there was satisfaction being able to teach and see results, for months it had all been online. Working from home. Frustrating. Teaching via WhatsApp much of the time.
The Robinsons’ had moved house from near the bakery in Glenwood to near Mitchell Park. Hence the location of the bagel shop. “I said let’s open a shop in Morningside because I’m available now and can manage it, run it, make sure everything is up to scratch. Our business is very idiosyncratic. We have the kind of businesses that don’t run well under management.”
From her previous schedule of sitting at a computer for hours on end she is, suddenly, 12 hours a day on her feet. “Academia is hard work but it is not physical.” She goes in at 5am to take the dough out the fridge, where it has been gently fermenting overnight; to turn on the ovens and to check the soup.
After the dough has been pulled, cut, rolled into long tubes, formed into bagel circles, these are left to proof. “When at the right proof, they are boiled for two minutes on each side. They get all puffy, then you flip them in the water. When you take them out they’re quite robust. Like a floury dumpling.” At which point they are ready to be brushed with a bit of butter, sprinkled with poppy, sesame seeds or whatever. Ready to bake.
“Bagels have egg in them. The simit, you say chimit, almost like Charlie – Turkish bagels although probably the only similarity is they are both circular – are good for vegans. And a lot of Hindu people don’t eat eggs. And because Morningside has such a large and increasing Muslim community and historically a large if lessening Jewish community, we’ve decided as a gesture and because we want to welcome everyone, to be halaal. Not as in doing the rights and rituals, but not having any pork on the premises and we source all our meat from a certified halaal butchery.”
From The Glenwood Bakery – husband Adam – they have two daily deliveries of breads and deli-items: a limited edition of all that is available there.
Saturday morning, day four of Dr Robinson’s bagel career, I return to “the node”. To browse Ike’s Books cookbook collection for inspiration. And to sample a Durban bagel. Without much enthusiasm. At this point, having never met a bagel I’d liked. And having given up on them after repeated stodgy, uninteresting bagel encounters in San Francisco. Trying a couple in New York, too.
Although not in Krakow, Poland, where I now know bagels originated. But I didn’t then.
And okay, so while the main reason for going to the Glenwood Bakery is Adam Robinson’s gift with flavour and his alchemy with bread, there is added charm and appeal. If you go there and hang out, in time you get to see anybody in and around Durban you might hope to see, such is the ambience.
Not surprisingly, the bagelry is having the same draw. I am choosing my bagel filling, ordering the smoked salmon classic “with whatever” from Dr Robinson, when sculptors and keen breakfasters Andries Botha and Jessica Bothma come in. We sit at a table together to sample what we’ve ordered. “My best bagel ever was in Amsterdam,” Botha shares. “It should be crisp on the outside when you bite in; chewy on the inside. Is it?”
Indeed. Warm to the touch. Straight out the oven. Crispy. Chewy. I eat my bagel and realise every other bagel was either – not a real bagel – or a stale bagel.
I become an instant bagel convert sitting there while we shout at each other. Because this is Durban. No exploding substation today. But the municipality, as if to welcome the new bagel bar, has sent out its team of tree cutters with electric saws and gobbling mechanical tree-to-sawdust converters. They’ve closed off the streets and are attacking every bough in christendom. Of course on a Saturday, overtime-pay day. Being Durbanites, nobody complains. Well, just one person. Because we’re an adaptable bunch. Have to be. We live with small mercies, legendary chefs and bagels that are not stale. Let’s go back for another. DM/TGIFood
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