Fine fare and tales of near culinary calamity from a catering veteran

Fine fare and tales of near culinary calamity from a catering veteran
Rosemarie's Salade Nicoise. (Photo: Rosemarie Saunders)

The anecdotes are as delicious as the food in a delightful book produced by Rosemarie Saunders, whose adventures and near-misadventures while catering events in Cape Town and the South of France offer many a dinner party tale worth telling.

Rosemarie Saunders is deceptively sweet and mild, which is not to say she is not those things but that, despite being a small package of smiling charm, underneath it she is as tough as they come. I used to encounter her at chefs’ tables and other foodie functions in the Nineties when I was editor of Top of the Times in The Cape Times and spent several nights a week being fed marvellous food by Cape Town’s best chefs.

I used to send her up relentlessly about her posh accent and the way she pronounces “jus” as if it were almost three syllables. The word went on forever. I liked her tremendously and have often wondered what happened to her. 

Last week a new book came my way, and lo, there she was. A Sprig of Rosemarie, a petite cookbook by the petite Rosemarie Saunders. Perfick, as Pop Larkin would say. So, Rosemarie, this one’s for jus…

And perfick more than adequately describes her approach to cooking and catering. Even when things go wrong. The book is laced with delicious tales of near disasters in South Africa and France when aspects of her plans would be upended by a faulty oven or a refrigerated truck on the fritz, yet in every instance she’d think fast, act even faster, and triumph would be plucked from the jaws of potential calamity.

She has lived an extraordinary life. To illustrate this, consider this outtake of an earlier time in her culinary journey: “I am known in bridge circles in Monaco for my carrot cake. We lived there for almost a decade in a small, one bedroom flat of 75 square metres. There is no exaggerating the challenges of baking and cooking in our ‘airline galley’ kitchen. I’ll leave you to imagine the dated colour scheme. It had an oven that once caught fire, burning the top of the washing machine on which it rested. It resulted in the arrival of six burly Monégasque firemen in their fire-fighting kit and two policemen…” Who lives in Monaco? That’s one hell of a bucket list tick. Anyway, the rest of the story is in the book.

My favourite faulty oven story of Rosemarie’s happened in the South of France, where requests to cater weddings would spring forth from her culinary tour clients. This story illustrates the potential pitfalls of a life in catering for a crowd, and how to deal with it.

“For a location wedding you are building a restaurant for one night; so it was, one glorious July evening, when a couple of hundred guests were arriving from around the world to celebrate a wedding on a gravel terrace which the family had extended for the big event.

“The hired ovens had come up from Nice. My daughter had flown in to help and locals had been engaged to service the occasion. With 32 legs of lamb to slow-roast, I checked the hired ovens, which tripped the power supply – faulty ovens. An urgent call was made for replacement ovens to be sent.

“The next day, the hiring company arrived, swapped the ovens, and returned to Nice. I loaded the legs of lamb into the hot ovens; everything was going well, or so I thought. As soon as the party began, the music started, lights came on and the ovens went off.

“Time to think on one’s feet. After rapid phone calls to friends in the area to please switch on their ovens, my driver loaded his van with trays of half-roasted tapenade legs and drove around the countryside dropping off roasting trays to continue the cooking. The legs returned beautifully slow-roasted, just in time for the guest chefs to carve at their tables on the lower terrace. When the host popped into our garage kitchen to check on his Ferrari, he declared, ‘Fantastic lamb, Rosemarie, never had anything like it.”

And that is how to retrieve triumph from disaster. The cherry on top: the wedding was featured in Italian Vogue.

Tapenade lamb. (Photo: Rosemarie Saunders)

That recipe for her tapenade lamb is given on the facing page in her book. It involves scoring a shoulder of deboned leg of lamb and rubbing tapenade into it made of black olives, garlic, anchovy fillets, capers, olive oil, parsley and milled black pepper. She leaves it to stand at room temperature for a few hours and then slow-roasts it at 160℃ for 3 or 4 hours. (I’ll be borrowing that one, Rosemarie, thank you.) That’s the slow-cooked and consequently well done method, but for what she calls “summer pink legs” the cooking method changes to rubbing the butterflied leg with tapenade then roasting on a bed of rosemary (not Rosemarie) for 20 minutes at 220℃ followed by 30 minutes’ resting and then putting it back in the oven for 20 more minutes. That’s a cooking lesson right there, and yes, Rosemarie, I’ll be borrowing that one too, thank you very much.

In Cape Town, she says demurely (not quite), “I was known as the Queen of Wedding Catering.” Often they’d be in a garden, and the most important thing, she writes, was “reminding the host to switch off the automatic watering system but to leave the garden lights on”.

“At one such event all the setup went smoothly, which is not always a good sign. As the guests started to arrive, welcome trays of champagne flutes were circulated. It was then that we noticed the crystal flutes were leaking. The engraving of the glasses had created tiny holes in the flutes. At the same moment I was called into the main marquee to discover that a large candle had cracked in half and a beautifully decorated table was alight. Then, as we were dowsing the flames, the automatic watering system came on and the power supply tripped.”

Everything – everything – had to be redone.

Her Greek lamb. (Photo: Rosemarie Saunders)

There’s plenty more of that ilk in her cookbook, but I’ll leave most of her quirky anecdotes for you to find there. Most of all, the book is about the recipes she has cooked in her decades of catering. There’s a Greek lamb casserole with almonds and feta that she was given by a Greek friend; a simple but perfect tutorial on how to make your own pasta; her Osso Buco Milanese; Moroccan chicken kebabs with tzatziki; prawn chowder, and, among many other recipes including a slew of desserts, a dish called “Salmon Inheritance”. It comes with a story.

“Majestic white villas can be seen all along the coast in the South of France. Where a century ago Britons and White Russians would board trains and head south to escape their harsh winters. At one such rambling villa on a hot afternoon, we were at a luncheon party, and while being introduced to the panama and sunhat guests, small talk arose. ‘How did you end up down here?’

Inheritance salmon. (Photo: Rosemarie Saunders)

“After being looked over by one guest, he replied, ‘Inheritance!’, rolling the ‘r’, and promptly turned away. I decided to circulate to find more convivial company which proved to be a challenge since almost all the guests were from a bygone era, living on dwindling inheritances. Just after a whole poached salmon was served I noticed one of the inheritors slip a rather large portion into her napkin. ‘For my dog!’”

Your eyebrows raised then, didn’t they? I know mine did, and so did Rosemarie’s. That was always the thing about her: she lived in a world populated by very rich people, but remained somehow aloof from the worst of it. Even if she could turn “jus” into a three-syllable word. DM/TGIFood

A Sprig of Rosemarie, A Journey of Culinary Memories and Recipes, by Rosemarie Saunders, is published by Print Matters Heritage. Contact [email protected] or visit Rosemary Saunders to buy the book for R300, or buy it from book stores at R345.

Tony Jackman is the Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

SUBSCRIBE: There’s much more from Tony Jackman and his food writing colleagues in his weekly TGIFood newsletter, delivered to your inbox every Saturday. Subscribe here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options