NEW LIGHT ON TANNIE HELEN
A journey into Helen Martins’ world, one spoonful at a time
Helen Martins couldn’t have imagined that, 47 years after her death in 1976, a woman not even born then would be cooking recipes from her private collection for paying customers. Right across the road from her world famous Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda.
The Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda is compelling in disparate ways. It may bind you in its spell, enthralled, or it may bring a frown of bewilderment. To one eye, its lively prism of multicoloured light is an enchantment. To another, as a friend remarked, “I feel like I’m inside Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of Hell.”
What the Owl House is not, is something ever to be forgotten. Like all art, remarked the same friend at the end of the day, “Helen’s is great art precisely because no one can walk away from it saying it left no impression on them, for better or worse. It provokes thought and emotion.”
I am in two minds about her work and presence in that house, whether real or imagined. The first time I went into the house, in 1993, there was a stirring in a cold breeze on a hot, sun-still day. Orange sunfilter curtains in a room with no open window shifted and swayed for no reason, and I felt a chill to the bone. More recently I have visited twice in a year, to show friends. I’m never inclined to linger. Yet, every time, there is something I have not noticed before. Was it even there?
My best experience of the Owl House, just this week, was something quite different. Diagonally across the road from the bizarre art museum relic is the Ibis Lounge guest house and its Stirlings restaurant. It is named for one Stirling Graham Louw Retief who used to own the general dealership on the corner next to Tannie Helen’s home. Johan Weitz, co-owner of the Ibis and Stirlings with his wife Barbara, is Stirling’s grandson.
Johan and Barbara named it in his grandpa’s honour. They both loved the man and had a very close relationship with “Oupa”, who knew the reclusive and complex creature called Helen Martins well, and would order the cement she needed for the making of her now world-famous garden sculptures by a succession of assistants.
Casting new light on the Owl House
Martins was a keen cook, and Barbara Weitz finds herself heir to her hand-scrawled collection of recipes. And Weitz is casting new light on the Helen Martins Owl House story through her clever ways with crafting fine ideas into fine food. Her monthly Karoo Food Experience menus are one of the best culinary secrets in the country.
For lunch this week we were treated to her latest Karoo Food Experience menu (there is a new version every month), entitled simply, Tannie Helen. If you want to experience it, you need to get there fast, as it will be replaced in May by the next experience, yet to be formulated. But that iteration will be no less enthralling.
Barbara is a very fine cook. Her imagination is boundless, her thoughtfulness key to what she creates in her modest country kitchen. Nobody I know takes greater care to create a dish fit for purpose, and her purpose is always beautiful and her vision crystal clear.
So, to start with, there was her now famous “veldtroos”, a shot glass of her latest concoction of essences of karoobossie herbs, both medicinal and culinary. This version contained balderjan (wild mint), wilde-als (African wormwood), veldtee, kankerbos, and lemon verbena. It’s a perfect way to prepare the palate for a feast to come, and reminded me of a milder version of a digestif such as Fernet Branca.
The first formal course was This is My World, a phrase you will remember from your visit to the Owl House if you go there before lunch or dinner. There was an element of Martin’s persona that felt barricaded; this was her private space, designed for no one but herself, and therein lies the irony that, after her death, her private space would become free game for anyone in the entire world who seeks it out. And they come from all corners of the planet to this strange and oddly enchanting village in its high mountain valley with an ironic river running through it.
“We called it My World because Tannie Helen created this beautiful world for herself to enjoy and to feel happy in,” Barbara says. She had mirrors in her house of different shapes, just as the stained glass has a world of shapes and hues.
“And three were gifted to Oupa and Ouma at a stage. And I always remember seeing these mirrors on the walls when I used to go visit them. They’re so cool. And these are the shapes of the mirrors that Oupa and Ouma had on the wall.”
With intricate care for detail, Barbara has shaped the words “My World” into an oblong cheese biscuit made to Helen Martins’ recipe for cheese straws. Another is a half moon, another a rectangle. On a cheese straw “flower” is a luxurious goat’s cheese from Paardekraal near Graaff-Reinet, and slivers of Barbara’s take on the late eccentric’s preserved pears.
Our next course was Forbidden Fruit.
“The story behind the Forbidden Fruit is that one of the first sculptures that I fell in love with in Tannie Helen’s Camel Yard is Eve. And Eve is so beautifully posed with a snake going around her and holding the apple in the Camel Yard. I was always fixated on this sculpture and every time I went back I always just went to go and admire it and think about different things.
“And Eve is holding the apple, which was the forbidden fruit, and on my research over the years, cooking and reading, I read that in the Middle Ages, or in the Dark Ages, tomatoes were seen as poisonous, and they weren’t allowed to eat tomatoes because they were worried that they were going to poison people, so it was labelled as a forbidden fruit. So I chose Tannie Helen’s stuffed tomato recipe to do my forbidden fruit course.”
Barbara mills her own flour “at the old mill up the road” and makes a wholewheat sourdough from it with lots of seeds. This, she mixed with herbs (“bossies vannie Karoo vlaktes”) and onion to make a stuffing for fresh tomatoes, and topped it with fresh sprigs of wood sorrel for a hint of sour to counteract the tomato’s sweetness. No ordinary stuffed tomato dish, this; refined and as light as day.
All over the Owl House are Tannie Helen’s suns. Cheerful, or some may say watchful, orbs that follow you from room to room in a disconcerting way. As Barbara describes them, they’re “made with broken glass, coloured glass, so that when the light reflects, then it’s very colourful”.
Shine Your Light, the next course, is an old-fashioned Afrikaans souttert, which is a very satisfying and warming dish, pure boeretroos. In Helen Martins’ scrappy recipe book, in tiny spider-crawl hand, was written the recipe for these eggy tarts with cheese, mustard and ham. In Barbara’s version, the ham is replaced by 18-month-aged pancetta, and garnishing the “tert” is a curried tuile bearing a happy sun face.
It may be surprising to learn that, despite her tendency to a hermetic existence, Miss Helen was rather sociable. She was often given things, food especially, and when she was given food she believed in sharing it, so that there is a big round dining table in one room of the Owl House is not at all inappropriate.
“So the next course,” Barbara picks up the story, “is Dinner with Friends, and what we have is Tannie Helen’s potato pancakes at the bottom and what we have on top of it is some slow-cooked lamb shank that I pulled, made with lots of red wine, and some wild mint to add in a bit of smokiness. And then Tannie Helen was mad about quinces and you’ll still see on her shelves that she has quinces in bottles and bottles and bottles and bottles (they’re behind a door with a ‘no entry’ sign), so these aren’t actually Tannie Helen’s quinces, they’re mine.” On the side was a carrot purée with wilde-als.
Oupa, she says, would often gift Helen with a lamb shank or “boud” (leg), and off she would go with another dinner for her friends.
Then came two sweet courses.
“Our first sweet course is Hoo Are You,” she says, this being a reference to an owl’s hoot, and I’m not making this up: right across the road when we were eating this was an owl, high in a tree, right next door to the Owl House. As if as an illustration.
Somehow, Barara sourced owl moulds so she could make owl-shaped condensed milk jellies to Martin’s recipe. Surrounding it was a moat of Crême Anglaise. It was like eating your childhood again. How’s it made? “Lots of condensed milk and jelly,” smiled Barbara.
The final course could only be impressive. And it was. Moonlight Through My Window. It’s simplicity itself, it might seem, until you realise that it isn’t.
“This course is Tannie Helen’s Maanlig Tert that she used to make. And it is a shortbread and then there’s our homemade apricot jam that we’ve put on, made from the fruit from our trees. And then a mixture of coconut and egg whites and lemon peel with lemon juice. So it’s nice and zesty and refreshing.”
And then, on top of it, were Barbara’s edible glass shards. “Because she was so mad about glass and working with glass and I thought I had to bring in a glass element.”
They really do look like shards of coloured glass, to the extent that you hesitate to crunch into them. But do, and they dissolve readily into sweet sensation.
You may have to miss this particular repast, but fear not. There is a Karoo Food Experience menu every month, and each is no less enticing than the last or the next one to come.
But spend time in the Owl House first to get a taste of Helen Martins’ world, like it or not. The art will stay with you, as will your memories of Barbara and Johan Weitz’s hospitality and extraordinary food. DM/TGIFood
Contact Barbara Weitz on 072 110 6254 or make a booking at www.theibislounge.co.za