The Burglar Proof Table

Languages aren’t my strong point...

...but for some reason I can remember the very first word I learned in Latin - mensa meaning ‘table’. The whole class was puzzled by the declamation of that noun - it went Mensa, Mensa, Mensam or a table, o table and so on. Aged 13 we thought it was bonkers to be learning how to speak to a table. Well, it has been some 40 years but at last I have found a reason to address that table!

Tables are at the very heart of Feather Edge - places where friends and family gather to share great food and silly stories and enjoy beautiful things. Our big old African teak table sits in our barn and I wanted to share its origins with you.

It was the mid 80's in South Africa and I had just bought my very first house in a new suburb on the edge of Johannesburg - a very cool (I thought) split level town house. Since I was working seven days a week at my restaurant, I didn’t spend much time there and it was very sparsely furnished. However, as a chef and thinking I would one day be entertaining using the open plan kitchen dining area, a table and chairs was one of the first things I bought. Hah! A couple of months later I got home at midnight to find I had been burgled and my table and most other things were gone.

Being pretty resilient, I did the South African thing and fitted burglar bars and a security gate (which I made myself) and carried on. Of course the 18 hour a day work habit made my house a pretty easy target so, a short while later, I was burgled again - not that there was much left to take but they had away the bed! Having had enough, I doubled the size of the burglar bars and decided to build all of my furniture out of railway sleepers - my theory being that if they could physically carry it away, they probably deserved it!

At the time...

...old railway sleepers were dirt cheap and were not creosoted softwoods but rather hardwoods that were retired from service looking battered and bruised but - with a bit of love and care - could be made to look fabulous. Many different types of wood were used but African teak - creamy yellow, brown and jarrah (deep warm shades of red) - were pretty common. So with the judicious application of a chain saw and huge amounts of sweat, I made the dining table you see here.

Sophisticated it is not! Light-weight it is not - the top alone needs four strong guys to carry it. Durable it is - sorry, I have drifted into my Yoda mode here - and it’s still gracing our home three decades later, probably the only possession I can point to that has lasted. So when we say 'inspiration for your table', this is the table we had in our mind’s eye to showcase some of our wonderful makers.

Over the years...

...it has seen many different dishes as I experiment for my long suffering family and friends who pitch up and take pot luck or rather ‘potjiekos’ - literally (cast iron) cauldron food - as we say in South Africa. I’ve chosen one of my favourite rustic recipes to share with you - something a bit different that you may not see elsewhere. Bobotie (which is pronounced ba-boor-tea) is a Cape Malay dish that is similar in some ways to shepherd’s pie but served with a baked omelette topping rather than mashed potatoes. It’s savoury and comforting - great for the time of year.

Bobotie - Serves 6

For the mince:

1 tbsp olive oil

2 medium onions finely chopped

½ tsp crushed garlic

0.8kg/1lb 7oz lean beef or lamb mince

250ml/9fl oz beef or lamb stock

1 cup milk

2 thick slices of bread brushed with butter and garlic, lightly toasted and crumbled

½ cup raisins

½ cup chopped dried apricots 

1 tsp apricot jam

1 tbsp hot chutney

½ tbsp curry powder

1 tsp salt and ground back pepper 

For the omelette: 

2 large eggs

½ cup cream

1 pinch salt and pepper

1 bay leaf

Method

1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees C. and lightly grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish.

2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and cook the onions until soft. Break the mince into the frying pan and cook until brown.

3. Place the milk in a shallow dish. Soak the breadcrumbs in the milk. Squeeze the excess milk from the breadcrumbs and add them to the beef mixture. Stir in the raisins, dried apricots, apricot jam, chutney, curry powder, garlic, salt, black pepper and stock. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish, ensuring that you pack it down well and leave a flat surface.

4. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour.

5. While the bobotie mince bakes, whisk together the cream, eggs and seasoning. After an hour, remove and discard the foil and pour the egg mixture over top of the dish. Lay the bay leaf on the top of the mixture.

6. Return the bobotie to the oven until the top is golden brown and has a slight wobble - 20 to 25 minutes. 

Serve with savoury rice, fresh vegetables and a bottle of red.

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