We were still at the polo farm* and the unaccustomed exercise along with the heat and the wine were beginning to make me hallucinate. At one point I could have sworn I saw Baroness Thatcher slip into the house behind us. And yet… that unmistakeable hair, the power suit, the pair of sensible yet elegant heels disappearing through the door… I moved a little closer and could hear a distinctly low-pitched, enunciated voice giving orders. Surely it couldn’t be?
But it was lunchtime at last and we were summoned into the house, to the joy of my rumbling tummy. I was a tad dismayed then to find myself in front of a plate that held a bizarre and frankly sparse assortment of nibbles from a kebab stick of cherry tomatoes to a stick of shortbread. What was this, some kind of twisted health farm? I glanced around for a quick means of escape and caught my breath. There was Margaret Thatcher, taking her place at the head of the table. Was this the diet that was keeping her young? That Spitting Image sketch of many years ago ran through my head, where Thatcher is seen dining out with her Cabinet:
Waitress: Would you like to order, Sir?
Margaret Thatcher: Steak, please.
Waitress: How would you like it?
Margaret Thatcher: Raw
Waitress: And what about the vegetables?
Margaret Thatcher: Oh? They’ll have the same as me…
We were in fact in the presence of Katinka van Niekerk who, not unlike Mrs T, is a leader in her field – a driving force behind South Africa’s emergence as a wine-and-food pairing capital of the world. The term ‘wine-and-food pairing’ is heard increasingly often, but I’d always suspected it was just a new-fangled reference to meal times. I mean, honestly, how complicated is it to drink wine at the same time as eating?
But when we got stuck in I have to confess that a whole new world revealed itself. We had five wines in front of us, to each of which Katinka gave a lively character; the Sauvignon Blanc was a ‘maiden aunt on the verge of a nervous breakdown’, the Pinotage a ‘slutty neighbour with a big cleavage’. Each of the nibbles epitomised one of the five taste sensations: bitter, sweet, salt, sour and savoury (or strictly ‘umami’). The taste of a single wine changed dramatically according to the food munched on beforehand. One combination was described as “depressingly wonderful”, another as “like floodlights coming on in your mouth”. This was fun.
Needless to say we had to sample a few different wines and, on a relatively empty stomach, this led to an increasing amount of opinionated heckling from the floor. Katinka, ever the Iron Lady, took it in her stride, relishing our comments like a lively Prime Minister’s Question Time where she had all the answers on the tip of her tongue.
Within a short time she had us eating out of the palm of her hand. She didn’t go as far as walking on water or even boosting the economy of a small-but-great nation, but believe me – the woman could turn cheap plonk into a decently quaffable beverage simply by pairing it with the right food. And that won my vote, even before our huge farmhouse lunch came steaming to the table.