Food is layered with complex emotion. We use it to nurture, to comfort, to celebrate and to bond with others. My happiest memories often involve food: my mother's flapjacks drenched in syrup during an afternoon Joburg thunderstorm, eating pain au chocolat after school when I was on exchange in Bordeaux, and waiting patiently for my Granny's tomato spaghetti during holidays in Cape Town. If there was any moment where all the emotion and expectation around food intersects, it would be a wedding.
In South African culture, removing meat and dairy from a menu is synonymous with lack. The catering for my wedding was a topic for heated, uncomfortable family discussion, but something we would not relent on. Kindness to animals and a plant-based diet is central to who we are, and we weren't going to start our lives together backing something we didn't believe in, all for the sake of appearing 'normal'.
I associate vegan food with abundance, creativity and many joyful nights spent with Rhys in the kitchen. I wanted our guests to somehow feel the same. Before we got engaged, I had heard from the owner of a B&B in the Natal Midlands that the Fern Hill Hotel was the place to go for incredible food and that their curry nights were becoming something of a mythology in the area. When I saw Keri, vegan foodie extraordinaire, posting some incredible pictures of Chef Alex Poltera's vegan creations for Fern Hill, I decided to investigate.
Alex is not a vegan chef, he just happens to be a chef that is incredibly good at coming up with elegant, heart-warming meat-free meals that don't look or taste like rabbit food. For me, this is the mark of a true chef - someone versatile enough to find joy in creating amazing food out of any ingredients. After all, restriction often results in the most inspired work.
I mailed him and he took on the challenge of catering a a vegan wedding for a family of paranoid meat-eaters. He tolerated my outlandish requests (more potatoes! more carbs!) and created the most decadent spread of food I have ever seen at a wedding. People went back for seconds and thirds and there were still leftovers! Best of all, I received compliments from a number of die-hard meat eaters. My grandad, who often starts his day with steak for breakfast, is still talking about the mini vegan burgers! The food was made with care, creativity and love, which had an impact on everyone there.
I often struggle with the conversation around veganism as it usually becomes territory for misunderstanding and attack. Vegans get a bad rap for throwing around uncomfortable information, so I often hold back what I really want to say in response to comments such as "where do you get your protein?," "what do you eat?" or "have you heard of the food chain?" Serving incredible vegan food at our wedding, with the right chef, turned a conversation about lack into one of abundance. It made a big, bright vegan feast a central part of the happy memories of the day for my family and friends. Alex is such an authentic, talented guy, and I know he is destined to go from strength to strength in his career. From now on, Rhys and I will be visiting Fern Hill whenever we find ourselves in the Midlands. Whether you're keen to try some meat-free food, or you're just looking for an awesome meal, I suggest you stop by there as well. Here are a few pictures of the amazing food on the day.
All photos were taken by the magnificent Katie Wisdom of Summertown Pictures.