Conversations at the Local Tavern

My best school friend and I put the finishing touches to the taverna. We struggled to bolt heavy steel brackets into the walls to hold the pelmet covering the massive sliding doors that opened onto an equal size veranda and then the garden. We screwed a three split pole planks onto the bracket to hide the industrial rails holding the doors. The pelmets matched the sloping ceiling under the gum pole rafters. The tiles that were laid down on the floor impressed me most, as these were the same as the ones used in the local church. Pity now that the church has recently covered the red unglazed ceramic with a carpet.

My father was very proud of his taverna. He built it in the back garden in front of the borehole reservoir, complete with a small kitchen, storeroom and fireplace. There was a tree growing out each side of the veranda; a willow on the south side and an apricot tree on the north side. Both softened the white Spanish plaster even more and afforded shade for those afternoon lunches that invariably became poker games in the evening.

Taki’s Taverna, as it was christened, replaced an old red wood hut we used to call the kalajuka. This is an Anatolian word that is also used by the Inuit, that no doubt my grandparents and everyone who arrived from the village called an outdoor informal hut. When we used words like this at Greek school, the prim and proper Greek teachers would laugh at us, as if we were real hicks. The taverna was blessed by the local priest when it was completed and a party was held with sheep on the spit, dancing, drinking and card playing. All the guests brought a gift for the taverna; Aunty Penny brought a ceramic name plate, in Greek, which is still proudly displayed on the front wall.

I think Uncle Taki brought a guitar and left it hanging on the wall. When he was there he serenaded everyone and made us laugh. He was a joke a minute, when not seriously serenading while strumming. Someone else left a picture of a nameless villager from Greece. It looked the splitting image of my father’s best friend in Greece, Old Man Vlachos. It hangs proudly in the centre of the main wall. All sorts of Greek trinkets, good luck charms and tourist mementos littered the simple plaster mantelpiece.

My father had special small wooden tables made that matched the ones in Greek taverns. He sourced Scandinavian chairs with rattan bases to match the village chairs. His choice was much smarter than the village chairs but they lasted and weathered to look the part.

My favourite areas of the taverna were on the north side. Here was a huge outdoor pizza oven that could fit two whole sheep for roasting, and also the kitchen. We never ended up using the kitchen to offload my mother’s kitchen in the house. That’s mainly because it was the perfect size for a darkroom. The small windows were easily blacked out and it had power and a basin. I spent many happy hours in there developing films and waiting for images to appear magically on the white papers in the chemical washes.

Dancing in front of the old Kalajuka, Easter circa 1965

Conversations on Pizza Ovens

It was a misty evening at Mbona. The hills were quiet in the fold of the white blanket that covered them. The wattle wood sizzled in the pizza oven as we started to cook our favourites. The first ones are always duds, until you get the fire and timing right. Or this time, until the oven exploded. Rainwater had been accumulating in the base and had become superheated and exploded, launching shrapnel of pizza and volcanic rock through the chimney and oven door…. It was a gut wrenching boom that signalled the end of the oven that my Uncle Arthur had sent down for us.

The first pizza oven I cooked with was the one my father had built at home. It may have been built by a Portuguese tiler, because it was not domed. It was next to his taverna and lay on a base of stock bricks. The base and top were built with fire bricks and grouted with a fine volcanic ash. The length of the oven was half a cylinder. It was big enough to fit a whole lamb inside. My father had devised a complex quarter inch steel sliding door which was heavy and difficult to use when hot. His favourite food to cook in the oven was kleftiko. He had special ceramic pots that he would fill with lamb, feta, tomatoes and oregano. I suppose also some olive oil and lemon juice; after all, we are Greek.

I learnt how to make pizza from Mr Scoutarides. He was a multilingual talented cook hairdresser and storyteller. He was from Egypt, and made divine little babba which he served hot with syrup and ice cream. So I spent a few times at his restaurant downstairs from my father’s office watching him make pizza, taking notes on the dough. The only other homemade pizza I had had at that stage was Mrs Cerrai’s; thick crusted, delectable but made in a kitchen oven.

I progressed from that oven to the one in Greece. My father built a proper village fourno where the old stables used to lie. In the village there is a sense of economy and efficiency. They flash burn thin vine twigs that heat the oven up in twenty minutes and then bake meat and bread in it afterwards. To do pizza you need a hotter oven and one day I used up the whole season’s supply of wood in my attempt to delight the villagers. My father’s cousin, Costa, was not delighted. A shepherd by trade he just sat there, eating nothing, waiting for the meat.

At my home in Durban I have a gas pizza oven. Not quite the real thing, but for the busy suburban doctor it works well. It works better to remind me of the ovens I have cooked in; all those pizzas I have made.

Last year a restaurateur friend took us to the pizzeria in Sorrento. It was where he learnt to cook. I think I should spend a few days there mastering my pizzaiola skills.