Food for Thought: Fiona Ramsay

Johannesburg-based actress and voice coach Fiona Ramsay, who this evening took Cape Town’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for best actress (for The Glass Menagerie). She is a vegetarian with a penchant for dinner parties and high tea.

BILLY SUTER talks to award-winning South African actress and voice coach FIONA RAMSAY about food and drink likes and dislikes, and what she gets up to in the kitchen

On a scale of one to 10 how good a cook are you? And why do you rate yourself so?

My mother was a wonderful cook and took great delight in giving established recipes the ‘Ramsay’ twist. As a young girl I loved helping with preparations – chopping and dicing, sifting and stirring. I think her unique talents impressed me – and although I was not gifted with her patience and commitment to the ideal entrée, think I am about an 8/10 when it comes my cooking skills.

What has been the meal you have had most during lockdown? Also, who are you in lockdown with – and have you personally cooked or baked a lot more than usual during lockdown?

I am a vegetarian and experiment with a wide variety of ingredients to add a flavour or colour to an existing recipe – on which I base meal, but I enjoy adding my individual touch.

Prior to lockdown I entertained a lot – on Friday nights and weekend lunches mostly – either around the dining table or al fresco on the deck. When I discover a range of complementary dishes, the selection becomes my ‘go to’ menu!

But during lockdown my usual fare is steamed veggies with soya proteins in various forms, stir fry veggies with chickpeas, or dahls or salads.  Meals tend to be cooked rather quickly and take a jiff to prep.

I live with my housekeeper Onica, and we share the cooking. I get treated one eve to her culinary skills and I do the honours the next.

I live with my trusty and beautiful Canis Africanus Blanche du Noir, who does not approve of my veggie button food offerings and, of course, she is the only one in the house who gets carnivorous pleasures.

Your most embarrassing/awkward moment in a restaurant?

When I was younger, fewer restaurants catered extensively for vegetarians – in fact, some maitre D’s were quite obviously offended at the thought of having a ‘meatless repast’. The general stigma was that vegetarians were either ‘poor’, ‘dead boring’ or ‘wildly unexciting’.

As a recently graduated actrine at dinner at the Mount Nelson with a theatre impresario and visiting actors ‘from abroad’, I ordered a fresh artichoke and, never having eaten one before, on its arrival I picked up my knife and fork and tried to coax the leaves off by deftly pinning between the two utensils.

Anyone who has eaten one before knows this is nigh impossible. Being polite no one uttered a word, continued eating delicately while I ploughed on – of course, the leaves slipped from my grip several times – and while others were sated and ready for their next course, I had managed to eat about five leaves.

Finally, a kind waiter brought a finger bowl and whispered discreetly that it was ‘quite appropriate for madam to use her fingers’. As I eschewed my cutlery and tucked in – the table applauded and someone commented they were having visions of being there all night. Needless to say, I now enjoy cooking artichokes at home!!

Favourite take-away meal order? And what are you unlikely to never order?

Easy this – I never order anything but veggie fare as a takeaway. Mostly Indian cuisine – dahls, sag aloo, dosas, naan breads, etc. I used to be a pizza fiend for takeaways, but now prefer making my own base and toppings . Well, I have more time to hand!

What is your first food memory?

My first memory of food is that I had an aversion to meat and, oddly, the white of an egg. The latter I recovered from and enjoy them poached or omletted, but the former distaste has never left me.

I spent most of my childhood at the family dinner table with two robust, carnivorous brothers devouring mounds of food, pushing chicken, veal, chops or silverside around the plate – and either offered to a brother or the trusty hound, who hovered beneath me at every meal.

Your favourite meal – and also the meal you don’t enjoy much?

My absolute favourite meal is seared haloumi cheese and artichoke hearts, on a bed of freshly steamed asparagus and served with a coulis of chilli avocado! Someone once noted I had not got far along the alphabet of food as my favourites are artichoke, asparagus and avocado – and suggested I move on to ‘B’! I enjoy most meals as I am particular in what I make and order – but have never been fond of rice or pasta as it is so often served in huge portions. However, once when I was invited to friends for dinner, and though always careful to mention my vegetarian tastes, this had slipped the hostess’ mind and she proudly presented a tureen of rice and a large casserole of chicken and veg in one dish!

Discovering her faux pas she dashed to the kitchen and came back with garden fresh peas – saying this was all she had in her larder. We folded them into the rice with lashings of black pepper some garlic flakes and a dollop or two of butter. And it was terrific – risotto a la Ramsay!

Something you loved to eat or drink when younger, which you can’t find today?

I do remember on Sundays, if we had done our Sunday School duty, we would be treated to an ice cream on the way back, by way of bribery I imagine. My choice was always an Eskimo Pie – simple vanilla ice cream on a stick covered in chocolate. I know there are all sorts of more exotic versions on offer now, but none match the super creamy vanilla ice cream taste of my memory!

As a child did you ever develop a taste for unusual foods or unusual combinations of foods?

I think my primary concern at every meal as a child was how to jettison any meaty thing that came my way. I recall that when the cook went on hols, my mother donned her apron and, trying to engage us in the task, suggested we draw up a menu for one night of the week.

My brothers’ menus included exotic barbeque chicken followed by apple crumble and steaming custard, or fillets of steak with pepper sauce followed by trifle laced with sherry and topped with cherries.

Being less adventurous, I chose more basic fare: Vienna sausages and chips, which clearly indicated an early pension for soya (as most Viennas are just that). My dessert was equally unimaginative, being ice cream and hot chocolate sauce.

What is the dish you tend to cook most often?

I tend to cook stir fry or steamed veg as ingredients are always fresh and both are very quick to prepare.

What do you like and/or dislike about attending dinner parties

I enjoy entertaining – table décor and design in advance and usually a theme in some way: Greek evening or Italian. But it is the conversation, laughter and enjoyment, and ritual of eating around a table en famille of friends. I love attending dinner parties too – but often tend to eat less than I should and make up for it with lashings of gin and tonic!

What has been your biggest kitchen disaster?

I had a basset, the beautiful hound Babette – well known for their kitchen theft. When hosting a dinner party in honour of a guest visiting from the UK – a resolute carnivore that ate little else – I had a leg of lamb prepped by a local delicatessen and just had to warm it through in the oven.

As it rested and I tossed the salad, dear Babette, known for her considerable athleticism when it came to snaffling food, leapt on her short but powerful hind legs and ran off with the full leg of lamb in her mouth, her tail indicating her joy and success.

I chased her, hissing through my teeth – not wanting to draw attention to the lamb’s fate – and eventually managed to retrieve only one or two slices. I proudly reheated them, adorned them with garnish and served them to my guest, who, thankfully, was blissfully unaware.

What has been your biggest culinary success?

Some of the loveliest lunches have been champagne parties, with a constant buffet of salads and tapas or mezze dishes.  I am queen of a good potato salad, a great caprese princess, minted haloumi and lemon salad duchess, and follow with a round of rich, creamy, brie drizzled in honey and nuts. The joy is you can quaff champagne throughout the repast.

How serious a wine-fundi are you, and what is your favourite tipple?

I used to drink wine, but as a penurious artist in London, where I could only afford wine by the glass in pubs, swiftly developed an allergy to wine. Being in the land of gin and tonic, at the time, it became my tipple of choice and remains so today.

My parents used to host dinners three times a week, as my father was the editor of the Rand Daily Mail at the time and enjoyed entertaining journalists and political figures and writers from near and far.

I have fond memories of helping my mother with the menus for the parties of the week and this was where I learnt the art of table decor with napkins fashioned into swans or twirls; and how to ‘plate up’ with garnish and add finishing touches to the dessert with saffron and vanilla.

Looking back on those days, at dinners folk started with an aperitif, moved onto sherry with soup, followed by white wine, then red wine, then port or brandy with cheese, and finally a liqueur at the end of it all.

What three people would you most like to invite to dinner?

Governor Andrew Cuomo of the State of New York has become hugely popular for his daily media briefs on the coronavirus. He supplies facts and detail, explaining carefully each step of the ‘pause’ or ‘lockdown’ – unlike the federal government that bumbles along behind their leader, who makes preposterous suggestions.

Andrew is charismatic, interesting and easy on the eye, so would be a brilliant dinner table companion and would contribute to and generate fascinating conversation.

I’d also invite Dame Judi Dench, a global treasure, who I have watched on stage and screen since first wanting to act. I had the good fortune to meet her, where she gave me some of the best advice I have ever received and it remains with me today.

She is fiercely intelligent, searingly honest, has a wickedly infectious sense of humour, loves to laugh, is known for her ribaldry and ripe conversation, and she has a litany of anecdotes she could pepper the evening with.

I’d also invite Sir Keith Richard, who must be the coolest dude around despite his silver bullet status. The Stones are still touring well into their 70s! Having seen them perform – having played Marianne Faithful; necessitating loads of research, watching endless footage of the band, interviews, news reports – Keith emerges as witty, laconic and hip. Apparently he also loves playing the guitar, so there’s the entertainment sorted.

What kitchen utensil can you simply not live without?

A lemon squeezer – the hand-held type.  I have a glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice every morning and most of my favourite dishes – haloumi, avo, asparagus and artichoke – all require fountains of lemon.

And I have a prized grater, a present when performing in Cape Town. It is in the shape of a woman dressed  in turquoise blue *the colour of my kitchen accoutrements). The large skirt is the grater!

What’s the most kitsch thing in your kitchen – and why is it there?

An artist once asked me to pose for a sort of Andy Warhol-esque print sequence and while interesting, it hangs in the kitchen, which was christened the Kitschen palace when I first moved into my Auckland Park home – as it an eclectic mix of the ancient and some splashes of colour.

What are some foods you simply refuse to try?

I am no fan of the mushroom – the texture is unpleasantly slimy –  but porcini cooked with pasta in a swish Italian restaurant are delicious. My answer is pretty obvious: I would never eat meat or fish as I eat nothing with eyes.

What is your favourite restaurant in Durban or KwaZulu-Natal and what do you usually order there?

When on tour and staying in Coastlands as most thesps did in the ’80s, I would have long, lingering buffet lunches on The King Edward Hotel verandah, looking out at the sea.

Later I loved Bean Bag Bohemia, but think that had more to do with the outrageous times one enjoyed there and the wonderful people one met, I also have memories of their Green Olives Stuffed with Feta and Marinated in Lemon and the wondrous vegetarian pizza option with Italian Cherry Tomatoes, Black Olives, Parmigiano Reggiano, Avocado and Basil which was equally acclaimed for taste and freshness of ingredients.

A lovely extravagance was dressing up for high tea at Umhlanga’s The Oyster Box Palm Court – with a glass of bubbly on the Ocean Terrace to begin the indulgence.

Favourite restaurant in South Africa and/or abroad?

It seems so long since I have been to a restaurant during this lockdown period! Almost forgotten what they are!

I believe ambiance and setting are more important than the food. although both are optimum. I am a member of the Johannesburg Country Club and its setting for terrace dining is lovely. Recently they upgraded their menu, although there is something lovely and comforting about traditional club fare – wholesome.

The fairly new Marble Restaurant in the trendy gallery quarter in Rosebank is lovely, and when in Cape Town I always have lunch on the deck at the Twelve Apostles, overlooking the sea, where, in the right season, one can spot whales.

But, honestly, I have so many fairly recent memories of wonderful meals in new restaurants that it is hard to single out one. London has brilliant but vastly expensive restaurants – the Wolsley is one. It is in Piccadilly and used to be the Showroom for Wolsley car.

High tea at The Ritz is always a massive treat, and in New York I found a lovely Greek Taverna called Nick’s – which served flaming haloumi and became a regular haunt for its relaxed atmosphere and cheer when I was on tour.

Favourite cooking ingredient/s?

Capiscums  add colour and tang and I love fresh coriander (but have to be careful to check with guests as some have aversion/allergy to it). I  also love olive oil, seeds (sesame, pumpkin, etc) and chives. Green cardamom seeds are wondrous in coffee. I also enjoy sweet chilli sauce and soy sauce.

What marks the most memorable meal you’ve had?

It was while working at Tiffany & Co in London, where I worked as a temp while acting in the evenings – quite one of the best retail jobs to have! I learned so much about gemology, the history of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the store, where I met the rich and famous – and was present at a Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Princess Diana.

Tiffany’s was well known for treating their staff well in return for loyalty and hard work, and for holding the best Christmas Party in town. I went to many but the most memorable was in the city in a sumptuous ballroom. Spectacular architecture with looming arches, an abundance of floral arrangements, candelabra, and all the table ware was from Tiffany!

Glorious food and plenty of it, paired wines for each course and a lavish array of desserts, pavlovas and petit fours… and all manner of confections.

We all received a Tiffany gift engraved with the date of the party – and the crème de la crème was that we could all bid for the tableware after the dinner. I landed a lovely Elsa Peretti flatware set for a song!

Who is your favourite celebrity cook? And who is your least favourite?

Jamie Oliver is really clever. His recipes are novel and fairly easy to russle up – and the relish with which he talks about and handles food is palpable.

I also applaud his initiatives, like cooking healthy for school dinners; and his concern about quality and fresh ingredients. Many friends think he is overrated and has become very commercial, but you can always rely on his recipes.

I love Masterchef – but don’t really have a least favourite chef – and Two Fat Ladies was great fun and amusante, even though their gastronomic bent favoured dishes I would never eat or be interested in serving.

Your fave tipple and meal on a hot, humid day? And on a freezing day?

A salad buffet with lashings of crisp fruit and vegetables, baguette, cheeses served al fresco with a good gin and slim-line tonic! On wintry days I love a potato dauphinoise and lots of fresh al dente, but hot ,veggies drizzled with olive oil. Followed by malva pudding and hot cream!

But on either hot or cold day – a plate of earth-shatteringly fattening nachos is always a treat: corn chips smothered in pinto beans, sour cream, guacamole, chives and grated cheese.

What is the sexiest of all foods?

Artichokes. The ritual of peeling the outer leaves, drenched in lemon butter sauce, slowly getting to the heart and the taste is sublime and sensual. A very special and particular taste and the texture of the heart is heaven!


What do you tip in restaurants?

It does depend on service – but no less than 10% for basic service, 12 % for pleasant service and 15 to 18 % for outstanding service

Have you/would you send a dish back at a restaurant if you were not happy with it?

I have often sent food back to be further cooked. I like pizza that is crispy, so have sent them back to be reovened. I have also sent back salads that have anchovies in them when not specified on the menu. I once had to send back a plate of enchiladas in a lovely Mexican Restaurant as the dish contained sausages instead of beans.

Favourite dessert/s?

Crème Brulee is my favourite dessert, but needs to be so expert in the making and just the right texture. I also love Kneffa, a dessert made by the legendary Gramadoelas Restaurant at the Market Theatre Precint. It is a delicacy from Morocco – fine filigree pastry layers alternating with a delicious crème custard, nuts and honey, dusted with Turkish rose sugar.

I used to love Bee Sting cakes and I often serve strawberries and dark chocolate with a cheese platter or single brie.

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