29 July 2013

Deconstructed Chocolate Ice Cream

Ed had been sick the past week and was ordered by the doctor to rest at home. In need of a perk-me-up after a miserable lunch of instant noodles (albeit two packets worth), he rummaged through the refrigerator and found some Chocolate Sorbet I made using a recipe from David Lebovitz, as well as a packet of Hokkaido milk we bought on a whim because we were curious about its taste (and whether it was worth its cost). Thinking of an affogato, I suppose, he combined both and voila - Deconstructed Chocolate Ice Cream. He excitedly shared this bit of news with me while I was buried in emails at work and I couldn't wait to try it when I returned. 

It was indeed delicious down to the very last drop of chocolate milk it ended up in. Although I'm not sure if the Hokkaido milk made much of a difference. I think some full cream milk would work just as well. 

Deconstructed Chocolate Milk

2 1/4 cups (555 ml) water

cup (200 g) sugar

3/4 cups (75 g) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
ounces (170 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Full cream milk

  1. In a large saucepan, whisk together 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the water with the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Bring to a boil whisking frequently. Let it boil, continuing to whisk for 45 seconds.
  2. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until it's melted, then stir in the vanilla extract and the remaining 3/4 cup (180 ml) water. Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend for 15 seconds. Chill the mixture thoroughly, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. If the mixture has become too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it vigorously to thin it out.
  3. To serve, scoop as much chocolate sorbet into a glass, and pour as much milk as you like. (I find the ratio of 2:1 of chocolate sorbet:milk works well.)

Where to Go in South Africa - The Land of the Truly Beautiful

South Africa, oh South Africa. Where should I even begin? Ed and I left for our honeymoon more than a year ago today. It was such a special, unforgettable experience that lifts the edges of our lips everytime we talk about it. And I know I must thank my lucky stars for landing such a gem of a husband who planned the entire trip on his own, with some help and advice from a sweet lady called Amanda from Travel for Life.  

In brief, we started our trip from Johannesburg, travelled down to Cape Town before doing a self-drive down the Garden Route towards Port Elizabeth. From Port E, we flew into Kruger National Park for 4 straight days of the not-to-be-missed safari experience before flying back home. If I could redo the whole trip, would I have wanted to change any part of it? None. With some careful planning and under Amanda's sound tutelage, Ed had created an itinerary that wasn't too rushed, had just the right balance of sight-seeing and eating (if I had a larger appetite, I swear our holidays would be all about the eating).

There's a reason why 'sight-seeing' had never been high on my agenda during vacations. Not being a culture-buff meant museum hopping did not call out to me. And as spoilt as it sounds, destinations that promised 'beautiful scenery' hardly excited me past the first hour. To put it bluntly, they don't change much. Yet, South Africa has changed my world view. Everywhere I turned, it was a postcard calling out to me. Neither my Leica X1 nor my trusty Canon 400D could capture what my eyes were drinking in pixel by pixel. So what have I been recommending as must-go places to friends who have since travelled to South Africa as well?

Pretoria - Cape Town

Stay and Eat: The Rovos Rail 

Our cheery waiter would chime 'cheese time!' to signal the onslaught of a delicious selection of cheeses that punctuated the end of every lunch and dinner in this charming, Victorian-styled train. We spent 3 days and 2 nights on this train, journeying from Pretoria (just over half an hour from Johannesburg airport) to Cape Town, stopping by Kimberly town along the way. While they were strict about mealtimes and where the meals could be served, there was a never-ending supply of beverages and snacks, including my favourite biltong (dried beef), throughout the rest of the train. Apart from the rooms, the train had a dining car (pictured), a lounge car (for many lovely hours of scrabble) and of course an observation deck to enjoy the always evolving scenery. The first morning I woke up in the train, I could not help but marvel at the sights. Even though there were no televisions or internet access, there was never a dull moment on the train. Being mushy and gross honeymooners, of course, this was the perfect start to the trip to allow us all the time we needed to just bask in each other's presence.

Incredible Ostrich Salad
And the food was incredible - it would have amazed me in any restaurant and simply floored me considering this was on a moving train. (Don't worry, they slow down after dinner to ensure a good night's rest.) We're working towards their 28-day Cape-to-Cairo train ride perhaps 20 years later. 

Eat: La Colombe

Having received top place in San Pellegrino's 50 Best Restaurants in the World (and many other awards since then), we booked a spot at the restaurant the moment we arrived in Cape Town. We were fortunate to snag a couple of seats as the restaurant was booked out the rest of the week. If not for that fact, Ed and I would probably have revisited the restaurant while we were still in Cape Town - this would have been very unusual for us given the limited amount of time and calories we could spare. 

Unlike a couple of other renown restaurants that we tried in South Africa, which were quite tasty and adventurous but perhaps just a tad bit too adventurous for our comfort, La Colombe delivered stunning dish after stunning dish in their set menu that pleased our tummies as much as they pleased our palates. They were each beautifully and thoughtfully presented, with incredible flavours in every bite. When they call it a Smoked Chocolate Torte (pictured above), they really mean it - when you try it, you'll know what I mean. The best part? It wasn't even as expensive as you would expect of a place which has been accumulating so many accolades.

See: Boulders Beach

On your way to Cape Point - which I reckon must be the most popular tourist attraction - you just have to stop by Boulders Beach. Having lived in a densely populated city all my life, where the only animals I see are the usual domesticated pets or the animals in the zoo behind glass confines, it was truly a delight seeing penguins frolicking (or more like ambling) with seagulls in their natural environment. 

See: Two Oceans Aquarium

Photograph by Sven Lennert
Kelp Forest (taken from the aquarium's official website)
That being said, I've always been quite proud of our Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, Bird Park and Underwater World. So when Ed suggested going to Cape Town's Two Oceans Aquarium, I did not have high expectations. But it was money well spent. I loved the touch pool with marine creatures like coral, sponges and starfish; and the microscope exhibit. My favourite was undoubtedly the Kelp Forest exhibit featuring kelp plants growing as tall as trees, and swaying gracefully in harmony with the movements of the water


At Muratie Vineyard, snacking on their house salad and Springbok Carpaccio

Stay and Eat: Majeka House and Makaron

As we travelled along the Garden Route, our travel advisor wisely planned pit stops along the way to break up the long drive which would culminate at Port E. One of these pit stops was at Stellenbosch, which turned out to be the perfect base for more culinary adventures. Apart from the wide variety of vineyards to visit (some research beforehand is they had advised) and farms for olive oil tasting, there are plenty of highly recommended restaurants (some situated within vineyards) nearby to try as well. 

But we really didn't have to travel far because it turned out that the beautiful hideaway we stayed at - Majeka House - had a highly acclaimed restaurant called Makaron that we naturally had to try. And try we did. The seafood we ordered were impeccably fresh, and the risotto done perfectly. However, we probably most enjoyed the Baileys Milkshake (pictured above) we ordered to end off the meal on a sweet note. It had a generous amount of Baileys, was thick and rich without being too cloying. We couldn't have asked for a better end to any meal.

Drink: Melissa's

When it rained, Melissa's hot chocolate was all we needed to soothe our dampened spirits. 'Nuff said. 

Eat: De Oude Bank Bakkerij

And when in the vicinity of Melissa's, this bakery/cafe is not far. Despite the fact that it was almost always crowded when we dropped by, it was still a pretty good spot to relax after browsing the nearby shops for antiques and interesting knick knacks. Ed had their salad, which he enjoyed thoroughly and declared his all-time favourite salad. 

Eat: 96 Winery Road

But speaking of tasty salads...... Quoted from Frommer's South Africa travel guide, 96 Winery Road is 'one of the most unassuming and unpretentious restaurants in the Winelands... (with) informal atmosphere; unfussy, delicious food'. I was instantly hooked with the description and knew we had to pay it a visit even though it was slightly off the beaten track - thank goodness for the GPS. True to the description, our lunch was delicious. Ed had a steak with a rich cream and brandy sauce while I had a duck and cherry pie with the addictive port and black cherry sauce. Both dishes were incredibly comforting and made the drive out there entirely worth it. But even if they didn't have steaks or pies, I would return.  Just for their salad. (Pictured above.) It hit all the right notes in texture (crisp greens with crunchy pine nuts and tender roasted peppers) and flavour (saltiness from shavings of parmesan and olives with refreshing cucumber slices and peppery rocket leaves). It was truly the most perfect salad I'd ever had and would return in a heartbeat when we return to Stellenbosch one day.

Eat: Dornier Bordega

Dornier Bodega Restaurant was another unpretentious spot featuring uncomplicated food prepared with the freshest ingredients. Set against a backdrop of mountains, with children wrestling each other barefoot, it was difficult not to relax and just enjoy the moment. They had a problem with fairly large bees at the time (which would occasionally land on our food), but assured us that they were handling it and that it was getting better.


The initial plan was to drive straight from Stellenbosch to Plettenberg Bay. It would have been a five and a half hour journey by car, but Amanda knew better. She arranged for a pit stop at Jan Harmsgat for a night, so that Ed wouldn't have to drive all 500 KM (!!) in a day. As we alighted the car after an almost three hour drive, and were greeted by three adorable dogs that belonged on the property, I silently thanked Amanda in my heart.

Stay: Jan Harmsgat

And I didn't thank here merely for the fact that we didn't have another three-hour long journey ahead of us, but also because she helped us choose a stunning guest farm to break at. When Ed first told me we were going to be staying at a 'guest farm', I imagined a nice quaint little spot for us to rest for the night. Quaint definitely didn't cut it. Surrounded by lush and never-ending greenery, and greeted by a wild peacock that tended to snooze in the warmth of the chimney top as well as three dogs that roamed anywhere anytime, I fell in the love with the place. They were also so kind to book us into the Wine Cellar Room when they knew we were on our honeymoon. It was a little far out away from any nearby town, so we took our meals at the in-house restaurant and were not disappointed.

Plettenberg Bay

Stay and Eat: Emily Moon River Lodge

Did I ever mention that very often during this trip in South Africa, Ed and I found our mouths open in awe of the landscape? The view from Rovos Rail, from our car, and definitely from the restaurant at Emily Moon River Lodge (pictured above) floored us at every turn. Every morning and evening, we drank this view in bit by bit, trying to lock it into our memories. (Emily Moon proved a little more difficult to find even with our GPS, because it somehow had a different name in the GPS.) We were constantly spoilt for choice with their extensive menu. When we felt like having something more Asian one night, we took a risk and ordered sushi, which proved to be pretty decent and satisfying. 

The room we had was spacious yet cosy and had a fireplace which entertained Ed for about 15 minutes each night (there's something about starting a fire that most men seem to enjoy). The room was not far from the restaurant, and they provided room service at no extra charge. 

Eat: Bramon Wine Estate

Delicious, delicious, delicious. Set in the vineyard (we were literally sitting among the vines) and overlooking mountains, we ordered a wide variety of tapas for our lunch. Each bite was delicious, and don't miss their homemade breads. Oh and of course, pair it with a glass of something. Their bubbly was perfect.

See: Cheetah Walk at Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre

We didn't know this until we arrived, but it turned out there were many sanctuaries (I may not be using this term the right way) based in Plettenberg Bay, which made our stay there incredibly memorable. A pamphlet featuring a morning walk with a cheetah caught Ed's attention at the lobby of Emily Moon. Looking at the glee in his eyes, I knew this was something I wasn't going to be able to run away from. So we booked ourselves a spot for the next day and I dragged myself there in the morning by 715am (I suppose cheetahs are early 'birds'). And what an experience. I must say we definitely weren't leading the way - during the pre-walk briefing, we were told specifically to just take the cheetah's lead and ensure the leash was slack at all times. At no time were were allowed to pull on the leash, although even if we were allowed to, I wouldn't dare risk my life doing so. In fact, we were also told never to stand in the way of the cheetah, especially not squatting down. So it was certainly dangerous taking the shot shown above. It was a thrilling experience that while I'm not sure I would want to go through again, I would recommend to anyone who hasn't done it before.

See: Close Encounters with Birds of Prey at Radical Raptors

This too, was an incredible experience. We happened to drive by near the time the next flying display was going to happen, and hung around for longer than we initially intended. Thank goodness we did, because we did not expect what was to come. Radical Raptors is a rehabilitation centre for people to deposit birds of prey who were too injured or who were domesticated. While they aimed to release all the birds back into the wild, some were either too injured or too domesticated to survive in the wild. That's when they would be kept at the centre for educational purposes. The person in charge of the flying display was a passionate guy called Dennis, who would release the birds in the mornings for them to have a good stretch of their wings. Including us, there were only about 5 adults and one child watching the flying display (although the child and his parents left halfway after the child seemed too scared by the big birds to continue). Dennis stood only about five metres away from us, and gave us a glove each to take turns letting the birds perch on our fists. This meant seriously close encounters with each bird, and a truly educational and memorable visit.

See: Monkeyland and Birds of Eden

Other good spots in Plettenberg Bay to visit are Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, which are right next to each other. The tour through Monkeyland is guided and is usually with a group of 20 or so other strangers. If you're lucky, you'd be the only persons in the group. And if you're even luckier, you'll have a black howler monkey tailing you the entire journey. Birds of Eden is a large (I believe the largest) aviary where the birds roam free. It took us more than an hour to cover the entire area (and we didn't really stop much either), which was really a pleasant surprise. Up till that point, I thought the Lory Loft in the Singapore Bird Park was an excellent aviary to visit. But I must admit that the Lory Loft pales in comparison to Birds of Eden. 


To Stay: Birkenhead House and Villa

Our final stop before reached Port E was at Hermanus. Ed booked us into the Birkenhead House and Villa, which was situated right at the edge of a cliff and had an insane view of the beach to the left, sea to the front and the mountain to the right. I'm not sure what I had done to deserve such a treat. We had half-board, which meant breakfasts and dinners were arranged for us in the hotel, and free flow of any beverage (including alcoholic ones). They served good food, but even if they didn't the town which was about a ten-minute drive away had many other options. We spent our days visiting the shops in town and lazing in our luxuriously spacious room, soaking in the views.
To See: Shark Cage Diving

A shot I took of the shark lurking around the cage of divers,
while Ed was hovering over the toilet bowl feeling nauseated
Oh, and we also went shark cage diving. Or at least we tried to. It was a very popular activity among the tourists in the area, and no lack of companies offering the activity. Ed had pre-booked two slots for us so that we could do it the day after we arrived. We woke up early to drive about forty-five minutes down the road to the jetty, and were quite excited although groggy at the same time. In the first few minutes on the medium-sized boat, we were still riding on the adrenaline in anticipation of what we would see. But twenty minutes later, Ed and I were nauseous. Ed, more nauseous than I, had to be persuaded to call for a skipper to come rescue us from the ever bobbing boat. Back on land, and many sips of ginger ale later, we felt guilty about the money we had paid for the experience we never had. But if you asked me, we did not leave the boat a minute too early. If we didn't feel so seasick though, we would definitely have wanted to get into that cage. 
Kruger National Park

Before South Africa, I had only enjoyed a safari drive once - at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. We rode in a jeep, were driven around to look for leopards (we were lucky and spotted three), and had to speed out of the park by 6pm or the driver would be fined and suspended from entering the park for three months. We enjoyed ourselves and that experience guided my expectations for the safari experience Ed had planned for us in Kruger National Park. Oh how wrong I was. 

See, Stay, Eat: Singita Sweni

The safari experience at Singita Sweni (just steps away from Singita Lebombo) was incredibly different. Being situated on a private concession within the national park meant that all 33,000 acres of the concession was ours to explore, anytime of the day. No need to speed out by 6pm. We could go out on two drives each day - one at 6am to about 11am and one at  5pm to 8pm - these were when the animals were more likely to be out and about. The drives were not mandatory of course, but Ed and I went for every single one available. And unlike the safari in Sri Lanka, the jeep could go off the roads and onto the rough terrain to get closer to the animals. We had a guide (Nico) and a tracker (Glass) to both answer all the questions we had about the flora and fauna in the area, and to ensure we got to see the Big Five. As leopards were the most elusive of the Big Five, it seemed Glass spent most of the time trying to spot a leopard. 

The picture above shows Glass (extreme right) with two other more junior trackers trailing some fresh tracks they spotted. What is not obvious in the photo is that they were also carrying rifles to protect themselves - a must when on foot. After much hard work by Glass, we did spot the leopard in the end, guarding her most recent but already rotting kill - a Waterbuck. And we were only about 10 metres away. We also observed her as her ears pricked up suddenly when a gust of wind blew across her (apparently because she smelt an animal nearby) and as she quickly dragged her kill to the nearest tree, all ready to pounce up on the tree with her kill if any other animal came too close. Incredibly exciting.

We were certainly rewarded for diligently going for each drive as we spotted some of the Little Five, and new creatures on every drive. There was such an amazing variety of game to see, every drive was unique in their own way. On the last night, we were treated to a star gazing session. The South African night sky is most clear and gorgeously speckled with stars. 

Photo taken from Singita's website
Of course, all this wouldn't have been possible if we did not check ourselves into Singita Sweni. Sweni is one of many luxury lodges under the Singita brand. While pricier than other safari-based lodges, I thought it was well worth the price after experiencing their utmost tender (yet inobtrusive) care. Apart from the daily morning and evening drives, the package included all the food and drink you need (similar to the Rovos Rail ride described earlier). They had a Caesar Salad that was so good we ordered it three times throughout our stay there and even asked for the recipe, which the chef very kindly typed out for us. And they had a duck dish that was so good Ed had two portions in one sitting. We found out that they had their ingredients literally air flown into the resort regularly because it took a half a day's journey just to drive out of the park and reach the nearby town. Given the restrictions (no driving in the public areas after 6pm), all the staff would book into a hotel in town on their days off and return to the park only the next day. Basically, we never felt in want - we were constantly offered a drink or a snack, even out on the safari drives. 

Photo taken from Singita's website
The 'room' itself was really beautiful. It really wasn't so much a room as it was a luxurious wooden house built to fit seamlessly with the nature that surrounds it, and designed to allow full view of the river below and the skies above. I couldn't have asked for a better setting to admire the scenery and end our honeymoon. 

I'd always felt guilty for putting off writing about South Africa, given how much I had enjoyed the trip. It took me a whole year to get down to it, and I never understood why since I obviously had so much to share. Having completed this post, I now understand why - there was just so much I wanted to share, so much that was beautiful and had to be shared, that it was mentally overwhelming. Reading the travel guide again, I know there is plenty more to see, and I'm confident Ed and I will return one day.