On the menu: Flavours from our garden
We visited La Colombe after their recent refurbishments, and particularly enjoyed this spectacular finale to a very fine lunch. We asked Executive Chef James Gaag to tell us the story behind this unique sweet ending.
Chef James Gaag: The way we do the menu at La Colombe is more of an evolution than changing everything in one go. So this idea actually started a few seasons ago, when we had stumbled across a cork log, which we filled with chocolate soil and plated our petit fours on.
Oh, yes, we remember that (including one of our dining companions also eating most of the chocolate soil!).
James: [Laughs] Yes, so that’s where the idea started… Since our move from Constantia Uitsig, the restaurant has had quite a forest-y, botanical sort of feeling to it, and our food has always been presented with a garden theme (we used to have a little “garden” that would be sent to the table; we had the “garden room” before our refurbishments, and the restaurant is after all situated in a forest). So we wanted to carry on with that theme, and one day we started imagining what else we could do with the small cork logs that we were using as plant holders around the restaurant, for example sticking a branch rather than an orchid into them, and hanging some candy floss on that branch, and so on, until we came up with this, filled with live little plants that we re-plant every few days, and ground covers, and fynbos.
So you hollow it out yourselves?
James: No, and it’s quite difficult to come across a cork that’s hollow like that, which is part of what makes it so unique. You need to find cork which has actually started decomposing (as we were lucky enough to do in the cork forest close to the restaurant), so the inside has rotted away, leaving you with a hollow sleeve of cork.
When you walk into the restaurant as you first arrive, there’s also a cork log from the same area with small palate cleansers to welcome guests. That one’s also full of live plants and fynbos that are foraged from around the estate. That’s the kind of theme that’s followed through everywhere – we use the same fynbos in our house gin – so it all comes full circle.
Lovely! And tell us about how the petit fours represent “flavours from our garden”?
James: Just below the front of the restaurant we have a “chef’s herb garden”, and so the petit fours are inspired by what’s available there at any time: the little one on the stick is a marshmallow flavoured with lemon thyme; then we have a rose geranium macaron (rose geranium is one of my and Scot [Kirton]’s favourite herbs), and the last one’s candy floss, which is just kind of fun. Having candy floss takes you back to your childhood, but this is flavoured with mint, menthol, and cocoa, so actually the effect is that of an After Eight, which just made sense to us as the final thing you eat when you visit La Colombe.
That’s a fun way to evoke childhood memories (the only problem we experienced at our table was that most of the cocoa powder ended up on the table, which was a bit of an embarrassing mess to make as diners!).
James: No, no, no! It’s meant to be fun – presenting diners with a little garden with bits and pieces and candy floss hanging on twigs after a long meal, it’s really nice to see the slightly bemused reactions – even elderly people start smiling at the candy floss. And anyway, you’re leaving the restaurant after that, so nothing to worry about!
And the little mushrooms – what kind of wood are they made from?
James: Those were specially made, because the original idea was to have the cork log with the mushrooms on it, and we wanted the macarons to look like toadstools (which is why they have little white dots on the top). The tops of the mushrooms are made of olive wood to resemble a porcini cap, and the base is maple. So we have enough of these for the dozen or so of these wooden logs that we have, all filled with different plants, which we can shift around according to what suits different table sizes.
How long can diners expect to find this on the menu?
James: We’ll change as the seasons change. When my lemon verbena grows back nicely, then I’ll probably put lemon verbena on there in some form, perhaps to replace the rose geranium when that runs out (it’s a small herb garden, just for the desserts). But we’ll have some version of this on the current spring menu, which will take us into summer.
Where to find it (or something equally creative and delicious!): La Colombe, Silvermist Wine Estate, Main Road, Constantia Nek. 021 794 2390.