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Bagels, blintzes and the best cheesecake in Durban

TGIFOOD

CIRCLE OF LIFE AND FOOD

Bagels, blintzes and the best cheesecake in Durban

Pumie Tshapa, baker, with two favourite Circle Café cakes. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

The café at a centre of memory for Holocaust and genocide victims. A haven of tranquillity less than five minutes from the city’s North Beach tourism office. A restaurant where the cheesecake is sublime and a mashgiach holds the lettuce to the light.

How to write this story to make it both tasty, seeing the expressed focus is food and an unusual Durban eatery, and at the same time weighty — in contextual not calorific terms — given the unique little restaurant’s reason for being?

One thought was to start with the three Shabbat dinners. My only Shabbat dinner invitations ever. Asked not so many years ago by a friend who, every so often, would host what I think back on as wonderful Friday night “happenings”. She would invite good company, as in people she liked, to eat the many courses she had spent the day preparing and to drink what we brought and added to her stash. The conversation, inspired and led by her, was always interesting, animated and the evenings satisfyingly long.

During those evenings we would share with her, all of us seated around the dining room table, and without any ado, the lighting of candles, the breaking (eating) of challah bread, and various observances, as were her tradition. In a world where the rituals of “religion” can be so exclusionary, pedantic and proselytising, I was grateful – remain grateful for the embracing non-invasiveness and the inclusiveness of these gatherings.

My breakfast latke served with avo, cream cheese and an egg. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Another thought was to start with a scene-setter. Couches, comfort, cookbooks, cheesecake. Legendary cheesecake. By reputation, the best in Durban. Because these all come to mind, thinking of The Circle Café, a haven of tranquillity less than five minutes, strolling at a gentle pace, from where the double-decker sightseeing Rickshaw Bus departs from the city’s North Beach tourism office. Also blintzes, blinis and potato latkes. My breakfast latke last week, at what is Durban’s only kosher-kitchen restaurant, served with avo, cream cheese and an egg.

Oh. And the order-in-advance boxed Friday Shabbat dinners, these introduced during Covid. Hearing about them stirred those Shabbat dinner memories.

My third option was to start at the point where I am sitting behind 40 or so Durban High School learners, uniformed, who are seated in rows facing a screen. “We are a centre of memory,” Claudia Blythe, education manager at the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre (DHGC), tells us all. Then says, “If I ask you guys, what is genocide? What does that make you think of?” There are some hesitant comments. Rwanda is mentioned. “And what pops into your head when you hear ‘Holocaust’?”

The DHGC opened in March 2008, smaller back then and housed at the Durban Jewish Club a.k.a. Durban Jewish Centre. It expanded in 2011 to its current permanent home, in a remodelled section out back at the same location. The DHGC is home to the Circle Café, which like my friend’s Shabbat dinners is embracing and inclusive. On good-weather days when the café’s large glass doors are thrown wide, the breakfast and lunchtime venue opens out into a Garden of Remembrance. This has a jungle gym for the kids, a water feature, and feels like an oasis of harmony.

The cheese blintz is on the ‘something sweet’ menu; for savoury, try the tuna filling. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

I guess I should disclose at this point and hang my head… While I have been many times to the café, indulged often in the cheesecake and their blintzes, met my friend there who will only drive in from Umhlanga Rocks and cross the great divide of the Umgeni River if Circle Café is our meeting place, I haven’t ventured deeper. I have escaped there from the crowded beachfront for calm, coffee and to quietly write. But last week was my first time inside the DHGC’s museum, which is world-class, indeed, by any measure. A place of remembrance for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and all other victims of Nazism; as Blythe tells the boys, “the most documented genocide”.

With the expressed commitment “never again” and a broad education programme, the focus of the DHGC includes human rights abuses and, of course, apartheid. There is a picture of Nelson Mandela at the entrance to an Anne Frank room, where Mandela’s message reads: “During the many years my comrades and I spent in prison, we derived inspiration from the courage and tenacity of those who challenge injustice even under the most difficult circumstances… Some of us read Anne Frank’s diary on Robben Island and derived much encouragement from it.”

Okay. So now you perhaps have an idea of my aforementioned dilemma on where and how to start this story, given the different facets. And we can take it from there.

The garden setting and stuffed monkeys and crunchies, sold by the bag. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Two weeks ago was my first time back at the Circle Café since the start of you-know-what, when that initial hard lockdown saw them shut for five months. Then limp back into action with a reduced menu and some take-out add-ons, the Shabbat box that people order via Facebook or Instagram postings (the weekly menu) being one of them.

The café previously had a well-curated decor and gift section. Now gone.

“Mary Kluk’s vision from the start (Kluk is director of the DHGC) was to have the museum, a kosher café that would appeal to everybody and a gift shop,” says café manager, Carol Strous.

Lining the shelves now is a library of cookbooks. Some are left over from the old gift store stock, she says. Many have been donated. The range, to browse and get inspired by, is eclectic and vast. Jamie Oliver of course. Ina Paarman. Marlene van der Westhuizen. Madhur Jaffrey. A monster Larousse Gastronomique in the well-represented French section alongside an enticing Italian culinary collection. Thailand there? Sure! California and Alice Waters are represented by way of a Chez Panisse cookbook. Titles including The Taste of Morocco and Aromas of Aleppo.

Yes, and a Taste of Israel; and Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food. And Strous lends me a well-thumbed copy of a cookbook called Class Act: Elegant Eating, Easy to Achieve, by mother and daughter cooking and teaching duo, Judy Druck and Linda Nathan. The same Judy Druck who devised the recipes, oversaw the kitchen until shortly before Covid and created the menu at Circle Café.

The Circle Café breakfast bagel, which is served all day. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

A menu that includes all-day breakfasts, like the breakfast bagel with both halves piled with tomato, fried onions, mushrooms, grated cheese and scrambled eggs. The three-egg omelette selection where you get to choose your filling. Toasted sarmies, crispy and “you can taste the butter”, says my friend who went for the egg mayo.

The fish, fried or grilled and served with chips, is the most popular item on the menu, says Strous.

“All the hotels know we have a kosher kitchen as do the hospitals and conference centres, so if they have kosher guests, they will order from us.”

A popular item now off the menu is the corn fritters. “Cost,” says Strous. “We’re increasing, adding back items, as things improve.”

Theirs is a milk kitchen. “We have no meat in the kitchen. Otherwise we would need two kitchens, a meat and a milk kitchen, separate.” Kosher requiring that meat and milk are never combined, separate utensils are used for each, and a waiting period is observed between eating them, among other things.

Mashgiach is not a career term I came across when working, way back, as a school counsellor. In fact it only did, for the first time, when I probed Strous about the dynamics of the kosher kitchen. “The mashgiach (who has to be Jewish and observe the Sabbath; the café is closed on Saturdays, open on Sundays) has to come in every day, in the morning, to wash the lettuce. He holds it up to the light to check there are no bugs.” Aha. Meat.

Strous tells me they get their challah bread for the Shabbat box from Pick n Pay Musgrave. “It has the only kosher bakery in Durban. The mashgiach goes there too. He’d sift the flour. We can do that here ourselves. As long as what we are using has the kosher stamp, it’s okay.”

Sliced any way, fans say it is the best cheesecake in Durban. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Pumie Tshapa is the Circle Café baker. In the kitchen since the café opened, she had studied food prep at a TVET college in Cato Manor then worked in the kitchen at the Suncoast Casino previously.

About 10 years ago, when Druck asked if someone would like to be trained as a baker and take over the baking, Tshapa put up her hand. And has been doing it ever since, with commitment and enthusiasm. (She tells me she loves it.)

She makes the cheese cake with its Tennis biscuit base, baked for 20 – 25 minutes, “depending on the oven”. The moist carrot cake, where a tin of crushed pineapple is one of the formerly secret ingredients. The stuffed monkeys, which I’d never heard of but apparently everyone else has, where she spreads the buttery and rich biscuit dough with jam and raisins, rolls, cuts and bakes.

To eat herself, the chocolate cake is her favourite. Among those who stop in, it is the chocolate and the cheesecake, neck and neck.

The DHGC is a place of learning, reflection and remembrance. The museum is dedicated to creating a more caring and just society in which human rights and diversity are respected and valued. The café focus, says Strous, is on simple food. Fresh and generous. “Lovely food that just happens to be kosher.” All circling in on many good reasons for being. DM/TGIFood

Visit The Circle Café on Facebook, on the DHGC website and on Instagram

Follow Wanda on Instagram wanda_hennig

The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.

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