Topsi Venter – Heritage Champion

The significant mark made on our culinary tradition by foodie extraordinaire Topsi Venter became all the more visible when industry friends banded together to pay tribute and raise funds for her much-needed operation.

This ‘Bloemfonteiner’ from an arts background, who was most recently chef-patron of Topsi & Co in Franschhoek, says she ‘grew into’ her profession but had a fortuitous start.

‘All my family were excellent cooks, but my mother was the last of the great entertainers, always serving lunches, picnics and dinners with magnificent food,’ she says. Meanwhile, her father took the family to the town’s open market every Saturday morning to buy ‘amazing produce’.

Renowned for her culinary innovation and respect for ‘South Africa’s unique flavours’, Topsi quickly found fame with regular dinner parties for artists and entertainers at her Joburg home. She worked for the Dried Fruit Control Board for 20 years before moving to the Cape, where she cooked at restaurants like Hatfield House and The Wild Fig at Valkenburg Manor House, along with stints in the kitchen at Paarl guesthouse Roggeland and celebrated wine estate Meerlust, before settling in Franschhoek.

Topsi’s beautiful cookbook, Fooding about with Topsi, illustrated by artists like Beezy Baily who watched her at work in the kitchen, has become a collectors’ piece.

But the highlight of her career, she says, was cooking with elBulli chef Ferran Adria in Cape Town. ‘We created food with superb tastes that we haven’t forgotten. Ferran’s Catalan heart understood my South African heart,’ she smiles.

What makes SA cuisine unique?
The fact that we can still buy ingredients with flavour and taste.

Your favourite SA foodie destination?
The farmers and producers in the Franschhoek area are natural cooks who produce amazing food, so it’s always a pleasure to be invited around.

Most iconic SA brand?
Dried fruit, of course – it’s a very versatile product, it’s healthy and it’s available the whole year round.

Your foodie secret?
The quantities of red chilli jam we produce for Nataniel’s Kaalkop label every year.

Who are your dream dinner guests and what would you cook for them?
The late heart surgeon Chris Barnard, performers Nataniel and Elzabe Zietsman, and languages lecturer and journalist Rita Elferink, who’s a mentor to me. To see us through the evening, we’ll have Dr Charl du Plessis from Franschhoek’s Dutch Reformed Church playing on the grand piano. We’ll eat beetroot soup, whole baked kabeljou with champagne aioli and Dalewood brie with our preserved green figs.

Five ingredients you could never do without?
We’ll leave that to the element of surprise!

* This interview appears in the 2010 issue of Eat In.

To read more interviews with iconic foodies check out the new issue of Eat In.

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