WALKING ON CLOUDS
There’s a Vegan on my Verandah, and other stories
Artist Louis Jansen van Vuuren hasn’t come down yet from the thrill of having a world-beating cookery book. Join him in his home in France where he lets us into the life of a vegan Afrikaner abroad.
An Afrikaner in France and his BFF on the Cape’s West Coast were walking on clouds a week after their joint book had been chosen as the best vegan cookbook in the world for 2023 at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, presented at a lavish event in Sweden.
“We’re still walking on clouds,” Louis Jansen van Vuuren said this week, though even up to the minute of its announcement, Louis and Isabella Niehaus (or Bella Isabella) were convinced that they had missed the boat. Bella is the owner of her famed Duinhuis on the dunes at Langebaan where she feeds happy punters at her popular “langtafel”.
“We were devastated because we had been so certain that something would happen”, Louis told me during a virtual face-to-face from his home in France this week. What had transpired was they had won in three regional categories, and then the book was named among those up for a lesser, self-publishing category, but didn’t win. They presumed it was all over.
“So I had already posted on social media and it was already on Facebook with me saying, thanks guys for all the support and I’m sorry to let you guys down but we didn’t make it. Then suddenly our names were called out and they had shifted to the best vegan book in the world, which is a big category. So we were ecstatic. Our book was the best vegan book in the world.”
Jansen van Vuuren is an internationally acclaimed South African artist in pastel and oil whose work has been exhibited all over the world for decades and who has lived in France since the turn of the millennium. I first knew him in the 1980s when he was lecturing in art at Michaelis in Gardens, Cape Town, and he would often visit the arts department of the newspaper I then worked for, ever smiling and super friendly. Face to face on our computers on different continents, he was just as smiley as ever, and it was more like old friends catching up than a formal interview.
One of the most prized works in my collection of cookery books old and new is Festive France, a magnificent work he brought out in 2009 with Hardy Olivier (his partner) and Anet Pienaar. The book documents, in words and fabulous photographs, their lives at Château La Creuzette in the village of Boussac in the French countryside, a sumptuous palace of taste and refined opulence which has subsequently been sold.
The new book is a slim affair by comparison and marks a later tangent when Louis’s eating life took a turn towards an entirely vegan diet. But this book, amusingly titled There’s a Vegan on my Verandah — spelt with a colonial ‘h’ — is refreshingly lacking in the prescriptive tone of much vegan and vegetarian book publishing, nor does it have the sanctimonious, worthy air that often goes with the genre. It simply celebrates the food he prefers to eat (Bella is not vegan or vegetarian, and nor is Louis’s partner Hardy) while explaining why he chose this path.
More to the point is this: for even this carnivore (oui, moi), virtually every recipe looks to die for, marvellously desirable. It is the only time a vegan cookbook has truly captured my attention. (Which is not to suggest I might consider such a lifestyle change.)
A matter of live and let shoot
Louis is a healthier man, and feels it. He’s slim, brimful of energy, and retired, sort of. He and Hardy sold La Creuzette, though they still run some of the events there, and their new home, Le Rembucher, is a hunting lodge on the edge of a shooting forest, in the village of Lépaud, the only aspect of their new life that worries him, for understandable reasons. It’s a matter of live and let shoot, as he respects the rights of those who hunt game in the forest even though it is anathema to him, as long as they steer clear of his land. Once, when hunters encroached, they got the sharp end of his tongue.
Rembucher, their new home 19 km away, “has a bit of stature, it’s big. The grounds are actually bigger than La Creuzette. There’s a dam and park and a forest area that belongs to us. It’s all kind of 70s with salmon hues and is very comfortable but not pretty in the way of La Creuzette.”
He and Hardy drive the 19 km to La Creuzette regularly to run events there.
“Yes, and it’s a hunting forest which is very sad because of the whole vegan number. But luckily they don’t come close to the house because there’s a law, French law, that they may not. But in the beginning, when we’d just moved in, it’s a large area that we have and it wasn’t fenced, and one hunting season there were just dogs everywhere and the hunters came onto the land and I threw my toys out of the cot. I had this big shouting match with them. And in the end, the fox got away.” He smiles at that, wryly.
‘If I was 18 I would have been militant’
It was eight years ago that Louis became vegan. “It was a strange thing down here, because it first started as a health thing because I got quite a lot of rheumatism in my hands and I wanted to eat less alkaline or less acid and more alkaline.”
He changed his diet and “started feeling so much better”, and gradually his diet became vegan. But he’s far from militant about it. “If I was 18 I would have been a militant, anti-everything.” Not so much now.
I tell him that while I’m not about to become a vegan, his book does make me want to try the recipes; that they look like “grown-up recipes for real people, for real foodies”.
“Exactly. Yeah. And that’s the thing because my co-writer Isabella is not vegan either. My partner is not vegan either. We have a barbecue every now and then and I just kind of go upwind so that I don’t get the smell, because that thing that was once appealing actually now does not smell that good any more. It’s horrible, it’s like burning flesh; it’s terrible.”
That intrigues this carnivore as it would any other; the thought that that delicious, mouthwatering smell of cooking meat can turn in on itself over time once you’ve given up eating any meat at all. Yet it’s clearly true from the emphatic way this former meat eater explains it. (The second recipe in the Festive France book was for a seven-hour leg of lamb, one chapter was titled “From Van Gogh to the perfect steak”, and main courses include autumn turkey and chestnut pie, pigeon on hay, rabbit in charroux mustard, and suckling pig. That last dish is designed for a serious meat eater.)
‘I had to give all my Italian shoes to my partner’
They have dinner parties where there’s plenty of meat on the table and Louis works his way around it. But he felt he had to go the whole hog, if that’s the best expression. “I had to give all my bloody Italian shoes to my partner. Luckily Hardy is the same shoe size exactly.”
He recounts meeting a friend, an activist who saves seals entangled in plastic. “He said he’d checked my shoes before he bought the book because if I had worn leather boots he wouldn’t have bought it. So I said, do you want to see my belt? So he says, ‘Non, non.’
“My health changed immensely when I stopped eating dairy products. I cannot tell you the energy levels and what-have-you that I have now. You know, if (as a carnivore) I had a mousse, then fillet steak and butter and this, that, and the other, I’d have to sleep like a python. So now once I’ve eaten, I don’t, though I still would like a nap on a Sunday. But I mean, I’ve got energy.
“So I am a vegan that tolerates all meat eaters, but I plead for looking for small anti-factory food production when buying meat.” When they buy meat for Hardy or for guests, whether Bella or their many local friends of whom some are Afrikaans expatriates, they prefer to “go back to the farmer”, to buy meat “from a butcher who names his animal, they actually put the animal’s name on the butchered meat”.
He and Hardy also have a home on the Cape’s West Coast at Britannia Bay. “It’s called Cape St Martin. It’s right on the sea and we spent five months of the year there. Yeah, so we come out often and so I get to see Bella often. And then she comes here.”
When they drive there from Cape Town for their annual sojourn, “we go past some of those hangars [batteries for chicken production] and there are armed people there. That is not because they’re scared that people are going to steal the chickens or the eggs. It is to keep reporters and other people away.
‘Go to the farmer, it’s the way it should be’
“I think the time for these huge stockpiled meats and things are over. I think after Covid we’ve had such a wake-up call of reconnecting with nature and just with ourselves and other people instead of these huge anonymous food emporiums where things lie on the shelves and get injected so that they’ve got shelf life. I mean, go to the farmer, it’s fantastic, it’s the way it should be.”
There’s a new French edition of their book too, translated by Alain Claisse, husband of writer Marita van der Vyver.
“It was so sensitively done,” Louis says of Alain’s careful translation. “It’s one of my pride and joys. It’s going to start launching in France now. Bella is doing a cooking thing with me at La Creuzette in July. We’re doing stuff out of the book.”
The Afrikaans and English versions are in certain bookstores in South Africa including Bargain Books on the West Coast and Graffiti in Pretoria but generally, it is sold directly by order (details at the end of the story). There’s a discussion at the moment about the possibility of pushing it onto the international market, including America.
We talk about hands, how they tell the story of a person; it’s a mutual fascination for him and Bella.
“I first met Bella when she was fashion editor for Sarie. She was their first fashion editor. So she had that kind of calm life and then she was married to Danie Niehaus, the singer. And she had a previous Gourmand World Cookbook Award about three or four years ago for her book Duinhuis, the name of her house on the dunes in Britannia Bay. She has a lunch every Sunday called Langtafels at the Duinhuis.
“I met her when she had a gallery in Green Point and I was between Michaelis and going overseas trying to be an artist and I had my first exhibition with her prior to going to France, and it was a sellout, and then I went to France and I was very hungry, I didn’t make it as the new Picasso …”
They lost touch. “And then about 20 years ago we remet at a wedding.”
Once settled in France and finding their way, he and Hardy learnt quickly that you have to be able to conduct yourself in French, and decided to not only hang around with English and Afrikaans people in their region, even if, as a result of their years there and their influence, many Afrikaans people have since bought there and are neighbours.
“There’s no way. You cannot [ignore French], you have to speak French and we didn’t dive in on the deep side. We had dinner parties, we didn’t just kind of stick to the etrangeres or to the English people in the country.”
He had first had an exhibition in Paris in 1999. It went well and he was offered a second in 2002. Back then they still lived in South Africa.
They had bought a house on the West Coast and started spending holidays there and ultimately enjoyed it so much that Louis decided to resign from Michaelis and UCT. Before long he had gone to France and then Hardy decided he was going to quit banking and go as well, “and then we needed a project and we looked and found La Creuzette and that’s how it all started.
La Creuzette is very glamorous, in Festive France, but was nothing like that at first. “You cannot believe the state it was in. I actually wrote a small little book called Almost French which deals with the entire saga. It’’s actually quite funny. It came out just before Covid started and it did very, very well.
“When we went to go and see the place, we started downstairs and we thought it looked quite nice.”
They went up a floor, and up to the third level, and things only got worse. Something resembling a tree branch was evident in the gloom on the third storey.
“Whoa, we’re not quite sure,” Louis replied when asked for their first impressions. Was the price negotiable? Ah, non, non, the owner had seven children as heirs and the price divided neatly by seven.
“So we went back and spoke and I said to Hardy, okay, let’s give it one more time. We started at the top floor, and we said ‘no way’. On the middle floor we said, ‘perhaps’, and downstairs we said to the old countess, ‘where can we sign?’”
Yes, they’re all related
We’ve all met a Jansen van Vuuren somewhere along the way. The name seems to be everywhere. And yes, they’re all related.
“It’s a fascinating story. There was the original Jansen van Vuuren that came out on a boat in the 17th century and on the boat was a French Jewish family that fled together with the Huguenots, and a Huguenot son fell in love with this French Jewish girl. They got married and they were allocated Bellingham wine farm.
“And that was the first Jansen van Vuuren in South Africa; sadly, he divorced the French girl and then lost the farm so I can’t claim any part of Bellingham. I think he was married four times afterwards and just had children.”
Back to the present, and There’s a Vegan on my Verandah, with its recipes for nut butter and condensed milk that isn’t condensed milk, and much more besides. The nut parmesan is made from cashews, nutritional yeast, smoked sea salt and garlic powder. Condensed nut milk is made of coconut milk, sugar and vanilla extract. They have an umami sauce made of tamari (an alternative soy), dried shiitake and enoki mushrooms, shallots, garlic, dried seaweed, mirin, balsamic vinegar and peppercorns. No surprises that that all adds up to umami, Japanese for “essence of deliciousness”.
They turn tomatoes into a powder
They turn tomatoes into a powder that can keep for a year, make dandelion honey and preserved lemons, and ferment the hell out of all sorts of vegetables. This is not a household that fobs off vegetarians or vegans with a stuffed tomato or bland pasta dish.
“I promise you, you will not necessarily want to have normal parmesan at all” after tasting their nut parmesan, Louis says. “It’s amazing. It tastes fantastic.”
While we’re talking, I can see my vegetable garden in my Karoo town and Louis can see his vegetables growing out of the window in rural France.
“I really love my garden. I just spent this morning, because we’ve been away, just checking my tomatoes and things and how it’s growing, everything that we eat every day.”
A true and natural taste of a festive life in France for this refined and accomplished Afrikaans boy abroad. DM