When I was a teenager, my parents hit upon the extravagant and fabulous idea that the family should go to Cape Town every year just before Christmas for a few days. I think on my father’s part, this sprung from a frustrated desire to live there permanently – he and my mom had lived there briefly when they were first married, before he moved to where I was born and set up his practice there. Although they wanted to return, moving to Cape Town would have meant leaving his practice and all his contacts and starting afresh with two children, so in the end they compromised and said they would retire there. In the meantime, we developed a Cape Town routine. When I was smaller, we used to go every year at about Easter and stay in the wonderful Winchester Mansions Hotel (the hotel is still there and the building is as gracious as I remember, plus the interior had a very successful makeover since then). At some stage, we started going to Plettenberg Bay every Easter and that’s when the Cape Town Christmas trips started.
Oh, how my brother and I would look forward to those trips! We got to stay in our own hotel room, at a respectable distance down the passage from our parents, we got to go to all the cool stores that Cape Town has to offer (like the perennially fascinating Sergeant Pepper’s on Greenmarket Square) and we got to eat out… virtually every meal! Woo hoo!! The venues for eating out were always a subect of some tension in our family, with my mother being of the "let’s try to go EVERYWHERE at least once!" sort, and my father being of the "let’s go to the same place over and over and over – at least we know what we’re going to get" sort. Negotiations were interesting, as you can imagine 😉 So in the end a sort of compromise was reached: there were one or two places we HAD to visit every time we went to Cape Town, and over and above that my mom could pick a couple of new ones to try out.
One of the absolute constants of these visits was a picnic under the oaks at Groot Constantia wine estate, being besieged by squirrels and peacocks and drinking wine produced on the estate. The other constant was a restaurant (sadly, I believe, now defunct) in Oranjezicht called Frieda’s. It was one of the first wave of Cape Town restaurants that started revolutionising the way we ate, serving light and innovative dishes that seemed terribly avant garde in the mid-1980’s. It was set in a little house with wooden floors in a steep street overlooking the Cape Town City Bowl, and contained, amongst other things, a very friendly calico cat that would linger a while at each table (particularly the tables where something fishy was being served!!).
One of the most memorable dishes we had there was a smoked trout pate served wrapped in smoked salmon – I remember my mom and I being in raptures about it! And when we got back home and the time came to decide on a starter for our Christmas lunch, we chose to do a version of this dish. It worked out so well that this became our standard Christmas starter, to be deviated from only when some other dish had been sampled in a restaurant that we deemed worthy of imitation/adaptation. So when I had a pre-Christmas lunch for a few friends over here, naturally this was the first starter that sprang to mind.
The two best things about these (apart from their fab taste and texture) are that a) you can make them the day before and refrigerate overnight, and b) they take far less effort than their apearance suggests. But don’t tell your guests that 😉
INDIVIDUAL SMOKED MACKEREL PATE PARCELS (serves 4)
2 smoked mackerel fillets (or smoked trout if you can get it), flaked
600g Philadelphia cream cheese or similar soft cheese (I use full fat – but I guess the reduced fat ones would work just fine)
Bunch of chopped spring onions, leaving some to garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
Sliced smoked salmon (2-3 slices per person, depending on size)
4 greased ramekins
Flake the mackerel fillets and mix it well with the cream cheese, pepper, chopped spring onions and lemon juice. I usually do this with a fork – no higher-grade equipment needed!
Grease each ramekin and take a long strip of clingfilm and line the ramekin with it, making sure there is plenty hanging over the edges to cover the top of the ramekin later.
Line each ramekin with smoked salmon. Make sure the slices overlap so that the end result is prettier.
Fill each ramekin with the smoked mackerel pate, leaving no gaps. If you have sufficient smoked salmon, you can cut a round to place on the top of the pate as well, but that’s optional.
Fold the remaining clingfilm over to cover the pate completely and press down gently. Stack the ramekins (so that they slightly compress each other) and place a small round tin/bottle on the top one. Refrigerate for a couple of hours if possible.
To serve, unwrap the clingfilm. Upend each ramekin on its own serving plate and gently lift the ramekin, holding onto the clingfilm so that the fish unmoulds. Remove the clingfilm from each mould and garnish with chopped spring onions and a lemon wedge. Serve on mixed salad leaves with crackers of melba toast.