. Tea, Tartelettes & Yellow Cape Cobras


On Saturday it was my great Aunt’s 70th Birthday. Her choice of celebration was for all the girls in the family, with an age range from her 3 score year and ten down to Ella who is a tiny blond pixie-like six, to go to the famous Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town for afternoon tea.

Now the ‘Nellie’ is the grande dame of Cape Town Hotels, harking back to the colonial days of my great aunt’s childhood. And they still serve a truly decadent High Tea. In fact, Michael Winner (Times critic) voted it the best tea in the world.

It’s become the tradition in our family for the girls to find an excuse to go there every year or two. Birthdays, engagements, baby announcements have all been celebrated within the hallowed walls of the Pink Lady.

Children are warned to be on their best behaviour, and no bare bellies, shoulders or feet is the general unspoken dress rule. Refined is the word that springs to mind.

My mom had informed me of their intentions, and promised to raise a glass of Cap Classique (our local methode champenoise) to me and the handful of other ‘girls’ who were not there. And I was left with my visions of them all wafting around in colonial splendour, complete with white glove, pearls and little Queen Elizabeth handbags. Well this was how it was when I was a child.

On Saturday evening, my slightly unrealistic (I admit) image was shattered when I had the report back on the day from my mom.

She arrived at her sister’s house to collect her, her daughter and granddaughter.  Only to find that the calm serenity she had expected, with maybe a little suppressed excitement from Ella had been usurped by, well by a snake.  A 1.5m yellow Cape Cobra, to be exact.

Snakes are to be expected in Africa, and in Cape Town, anyone who lives on or near the mountain has the number of the local ‘snake man’.  In False Bay this happens to be Sean, who is on speed dial, or whose number is at the very least taped next to the phone, in a large proportion of houses.  Sean was duly called, but could not get there in under an hour.  As a general rule, Sean likes to capture and relocate snakes, which is great because most people don’t actually want to kill them, but they definitely do not want to just wait for them to go away, because you can’t be  sure they have. 

The last thing you want to do is wander out into your garden, not knowing if  one of Africa’s deadliest snakes is lurking under a log.  Or in this case not lurking, but actively patrolling the garden.  This snake was actually after one of the seven guinea-fowl chicks who had hatched in my aunt’s garden.  Birds and rodents are it’s natural prey but they will still strike at a human if pushed.  The sensible thing to do would be to wait for Sean to arrive, but then they risked ‘losing’ the snake, to make matters worse, nobody has ever accused my family of being sensible.  

There ensued a Fawlty Towers like hour with Misty, their fluff ball Persian cat tailing the snake, literally stepping on it’s tail, causing the cobra to rear and hood up.  Cue screams from everyone watching and sobs from Ella.  My uncle, meanwhile was contemplating trying to catch it in a bucket.  Cue more screams.  Now my uncle is no fool but is rather fond of the women in his house, who are rather fond of the cat, and who are still near hysterical.  My uncle, who I have never heard raise his voice, is now yelling: ‘Will you just all go away so I can catch this snake.’  Things are getting a little fraught and my mom calls my dad.  He hotfoots it down to my aunt’s house with our housekeeper (who hates snakes but still insisted on coming) , my nephew and his friend, and their next door neighbour who keeps snakes and has a pole and hook for catching snakes.  Sometime during the journey to my uncles house the neighbour admits that he’s not actually very good at catching snakes.  Great.  Are you all still with me?

My dad arrives with his entourage, the cat is still faced off with the snake, and another one has been spotted.  They think it is a black cobra. 

They are now very late for the birthday tea, and as the cavalry has arrived, the womenfolk decamp for the Nellie, where they allow the sumptuous repast to calm their shattered nerves.  Ella is soon soothed by the stuff of childhood fantasies when she is confronted by the staggering table, laden with every kind of tea and cake imaginable.  She thinks the tea has all been laid on for my Aunt’s birthday and all the guests are there for her.  She proceeds to make close to 20 trips to the tea table (my mom was counting) swanning back and forth with plates piled high with berries, bite sized chocolate eclairs, lemon meringue tarts, coconut ices, chocolate hazelnut scones and the list goes on.  Her mother is not oblivious.  “Kassie,”  Ella leans over and whispers to my mom, “I’m very disappointed in my mother, she keeps telling me to sit still and not to eat anymore!”

 My Great Aunt?  She’s not phased in the least.  In 70 years of African living she has seen it all, and she thoroughly enjoys her birthday feast.

The ‘boys’ never caught the snakes, and my aunt is now threatening to move into a flat on the 7th floor of some hermetically sealed high rise.  My mom reminded her of the father of a teenage friend who was bitten by a scorpion on the 7th floor of the ultra exclusive Johannesburg Carlton Hotel, back in the day.  My aunt remains unconvinced.

And my mom hasn’t even told me about the floods yet.  Another day in Africa…

Happy Birthday Val, these mini Grapefruit Meringue Tarts are my ‘Nellie’ inspired contributions to your birthday tea.  With love.

They are also my entry to this month’s WTSIM…topless tart.  Now, I’m not sure if Cooksister is going to accept this as topless tart, but I maintain that the meringue is not a top, but an integral part of the filling.   

Check the Vanielje Kitchen Cook Book for recipes, or go straight to the Grapefruit Meringue Tartelettes


33 Responses to “. Tea, Tartelettes & Yellow Cape Cobras”

  1. on 27 Nov 2007 at 7:48 am Julie

    Eek, what a story! I’m glad I’ve yet to run into snakes here, though there are rattlesnakes all around. I’ve always wanted to go to a formal tea. Perhaps I will someday. And your tarts look wonderful!

  2. on 27 Nov 2007 at 7:50 am Paul

    I’m so glad you never harmed the poor snake.

    Remember, whenever you are confronted with such a fearsome snake, just chant your mantra:

    -Snakes are our friends
    -Snakes mean us no harm
    -We mean them no harm

  3. on 27 Nov 2007 at 8:28 am african vanielje

    Julie, I’m not a snake fan, although I don’t wish any creature harm. I saw enough in my youth to remain very wary.

    Paul, that’s a good mantra but not always what you remember when you are face to face. A Cape Cobra can deliver ten times the venom it takes to kill a grown man in 2 – 5 hours. Scary stuff, but we have to remember that we’re in their territory, encroaching as we are on the mountain.

  4. on 27 Nov 2007 at 12:14 pm Sheltie Girl

    I’m glad no one was hurt by the snakes. I guess the guinea chicks were their version of “fast food.”

    My family home is on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida (USA). We have to watch out for pygmy rattlers and scorpions as well (although they are very tiny).

    Your tart is very lovely and I agree…the meringue is a layer of filling.

    Natalie @ Gluten A Go Go

  5. on 27 Nov 2007 at 12:35 pm Tartelette

    All I am going to say is: Lemon.Yum.Me.Happy…! Beautiful tarts!

  6. on 27 Nov 2007 at 1:00 pm Maryann

    I would build Sean a house on my property :) I’d also cook and clean for him so he would never leave.

  7. on 27 Nov 2007 at 1:33 pm african vanielje

    Natalie, snakes, scorpions are all scary. I guess you get used to the possibility that they are always around but when confronted with one unwilling to back down it is a different story alltogether. I guess the whole day just illustrates the dichotomy that is Africa to me. The gulf of Mexico sounds beautiful, and is a part of America I’ve always wanted to visit.

    Tartelette, you just like any tartelettes, although I admit mine aren’t as good as yours.

    Maryann, I take it you don’t like snakes?

  8. on 27 Nov 2007 at 4:51 pm Ann

    Oh, those tarts look delicious! As for the snake… I’m glad nobody (including the intrepid kitty) got bitten.

  9. on 27 Nov 2007 at 7:56 pm Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy

    Wow, I started the post expecting something about your lovely meringue….cobras, eek! :)

  10. on 27 Nov 2007 at 8:34 pm african vanielje

    Thanks Ann, they were delicious, and the tiniest kitten seems to think they he is a lion when confronted by a snake. It’s inbuilt I guess, although a little nervewracking for the humans who live with them.

    Sara, sorry to take you off guard. I guess it was just a reminder of how even frightening things are taken in stride when living in Africa, yet they are no less frightening for being commonplace.

  11. on 27 Nov 2007 at 9:30 pm Callipygia

    What a great story. I love the contrast of high tea with the ladies and the fright of the cobra with its hood up. I think I’d stick to the tart and tea!

  12. on 28 Nov 2007 at 1:04 pm Kit

    There are cobras on our farm too. Periodically we have to remind the children not to go bushwhacking in the summer. Apparently there’s one hanging out near the strawberry patch at the moment – I’m making apricot jam rather… (to tell the truth we had a meagre strawberry harvest anyway this year, not enough for jam!).

    I’ve never done tea at the Nelly, but their breakfasts are also stunning. I haven’t been since we got married, but my husband sometimes sneaks a breakfast meeting with a friend there!

  13. on 28 Nov 2007 at 1:50 pm Mrs.W

    Oh! That recounting of the snake scene made me chuckle!

    When I lived in the Atlanta area, do you know what we did when there was a snake? Shoot it. Call me a madwoman if you must, but the only good snake is a dead one.

  14. on 28 Nov 2007 at 3:34 pm marye

    O.k…first let me say…as soon as I can catch my breath….uh…no wait…:::gasp:::snort:::hysterical laughter:::
    That was a most wonderful and entertaining beginning to my day. Luckily I had no coffee in my mouth.
    I tend to let snakes go too, unless I know they are dangerous. My son and I had an arguement over a copperhead..by our barn..he said it was, I said it wasn’t and to let it go..He took some pictures and I saw that, indeed, it was a copperhead…and I apologized profusely.
    I will leave any snake alone that stays away from my turf. A copperhead on a property with small children is asking for trouble and we kill them as humanely as possible but we do kill them.
    The tart looks beautiful. As always. I used to do teas at my cafe…and they are so much fun to arrange! I agree meringue IS a part of the filling. :)

  15. on 28 Nov 2007 at 8:38 pm african vanielje

    Calli, I’d take the tart & tea too.

    Kit, I prefer apricot jam anyway. Maybe you need to sneak a breakfast meeting too.

    Mrs W. Not everyone agrees that you just need to relocate snakes. But my husband and daughter are quite fond of them and my husband wont even let me put spiders outside in winter in case they freeze to death. At least there are no highly toxic spiders in Somerset.

    Marye, Copperheads are very poisonous too aren’t they. Cape Cobras apparently account for more deaths than any other snake in Southern Africa and are as toxic as the more feared Black Mamba. I think this is because mambas are so fast and they say if you see one you’re already dead. The ones that most creep me out are puffadders. They have none of the snakes beauty and are squat, fat and venenmous. They lie in paths, in piles of wood, generally wherever children might find it interesting to play. Wow, in retrospect it’s amazing I survived my childhood years!

  16. on 29 Nov 2007 at 12:17 am Jessica

    What a nightmare! i too have been hearing stories of snakes where my sister lives in country NSW australia. I am glad i haven’t seen around around sydney!

  17. on 29 Nov 2007 at 5:51 am Jeni

    Bella, you weave stories as interesting as your recipes! That must be the African in you. :-)

  18. on 29 Nov 2007 at 4:54 pm ejm

    I don’t know… that meringue is pretty sumptuous and looks like a topping to me! 😉 (it looks fantastic!)

    I adore lemon meringue tarts and absolutely love the sound of grapefruit meringue tart.


    P.S. What a thrilling story! I like the vision of the cat facing off with the snake.

  19. on 29 Nov 2007 at 6:42 pm african vanielje

    Jessica, we should all go and live in Ireland (no snakes)

    Jeni, thanks, it must be

    Elizabeth, whose side are you on anyway. It’s supposed to be a topless tart.

  20. on 29 Nov 2007 at 7:45 pm myfrenchkitchen

    Well, I just laughed and laughed…sorry no sympathy here! I know about our Cape sweeties and they actually make for pretty interesting, funny stories, like yours do. Unfortunately, I also know of a sad ending from an encounter…but, let’s enjoy this story for the fun it gave us, especially unloading the stress afterwards at the teatable. thanks for a lovely tale and a happy birthday to a wonderful 70 year young aunt…she sounds full of spirit.
    PS: Got so caught up in your story…forgot the sexy topless tart…beautiful!

  21. on 29 Nov 2007 at 10:25 pm Robert

    That was a fantastic write up and thanks for it. Was laughing out loud at the description of your family’s reaction to the snake. I have very fond memories of similar episodes with my own family involving snakes (rinkhals usually and berg adder as well), fresh water crabs (used to invade the house very summer when the ditch dried up) and spiders (baboon spiders especially).

    I have to admit I really miss the wildlife…

    Never had high tea at the Mount Nelson, must make a plan next time I am home…

  22. on 29 Nov 2007 at 11:50 pm african vanielje

    Thanks Ronell. Unfortunately too many of Africa’s ‘africanisms’ and stories have sad endings. Yet still we live, laugh and loveour country.

    Robert, thanks, I’m glad you had a laugh. Are you a new visitor? Baboon spiders are my least favourite except for the black widow we found living under my mother-in-law’s coffee table. That was fun.

    Fortunately I live in Somerset now where the most dangerous thing around is the cider.

  23. on 30 Nov 2007 at 6:30 am Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah)

    There is nothing quite like Sunday afternoon tea at the Nellie! I’ve not been for ages because I often think it’s the sort of outing that is best saved up for a special treat – which is probably a silly idea but there you go.

    As for that cobra, I’m reminded of a story I heard about my great grandmother – a cook – who had, back in those days, recently arrived in Cape Town from Vienna. She was living in Hout Bay and had entered her kitchen to start the days work when she spotted a huge snake slithering towards her. Her response was to wave her apron at it and tell it to “shoo, shoo” from her kitchen. The snake took one look and left. They did always say that great-grandma had gypsy blood – so maybe she was threatening the snake with a vile curse!

  24. on 30 Nov 2007 at 3:07 pm Christy

    Ha! I guess living in frigid (winter) humid (summer) flat central Illinois has its benefits, one of which is the paucity of scary snakes. As Marye said, I’m so happy to not have had anything in my mouth while reading your post, or I would be attempting the keyboard in the dishwasher trick right now. 😉

  25. on 30 Nov 2007 at 6:36 pm Jeanne

    Oh what a great, great post! Your family sounds as crazy as mine – God forbid they should ever meet! My parents’ house (where I grew up) is right on the edge of the Baakens Valley in the middle of PE. We often had snakes come slithering through, but I’m afraid my father was more of the “shoot first, ask questions later” variety with snakes. When I was younger I remember many a puff-adder gettign bashed with a spade. And even after I had already come to live in the UK, I used to get these slightly deranged stories. Like when he pulled the car out of the carport and discovere that there was a puff-adder curled up underneath it – one of Africa’s deadliest and most dangerous snakes centimetres from his ankles! As this was all breathlessly relayed during our next pone call, I asked him “so what did you do then?” He replied “well, of course I called for my fowling piece and dispatched it!” Bear in mind that this is a man over 80 living in the suburbs, not some pioneer settler!! I just shut my eyes and said a little prayer of thanks that nobody had been bitten – or shot!

    Your tarts look fabulous – the Nellie would be proud to have them! Love the idea of the grapefruit curd to add a twist. And although I think you are sailing close to the wind with the topless definition, in the spirit of patriotism I’ll accept them 😉

  26. on 30 Nov 2007 at 8:00 pm african vanielje

    Vanilla, your grandmother sounds like one of those indomitable pioneering women. We have a few o f those in our family.

    Christy, a paucity of snakes is one of Somerset’s attractions as well. And I wouldn’t do the keyboard in the dishwasher trick. I think you have to be a trained professional.

    Jeanne, can you imagine, it would be the meeting of Fawlty towers and the Life of Brian. Although I’m rather drawn to a man who ‘calls for his fowling piece to despatch something’

    PS. I was counting on your patriotism.

  27. on 30 Nov 2007 at 9:41 pm Pasticcera

    Late for the tea party, but glad I made it as the story was great. I’m still smiling, and the tartlette is awesome.

  28. on 01 Dec 2007 at 6:17 pm african vanielje

    Thanks Pasticcera. I can envisage you sitting in your garden at Bella Baita tucking in to one of these

  29. on 02 Dec 2007 at 5:15 am Elle

    Beautiful, beautiful tarts, but the post is even better! Both the snake story with all the players, and the thought of that wonderful birthday tea with the little one eating so many little plates of goodies. You must tell us about the floods.

  30. on 02 Dec 2007 at 3:01 pm african vanielje

    Elle, thank you, and I too loved the picture of a typically hectic day in my family’s life. There have been awful floods in and near the mountains where my parents have a holiday cottage. Greyton has been flooded as has much of the surrounding area and thousands have been rendered homeless. The dams cannot cope with the excess water, yet the new dams they are supposed to be building are not ready and the population now exceeds the amount of water our current dams can supply. Seem backwards? DIA (Dis is Africa). My mom has blocks of time when I cannot contact her because they have no electricity and she has woken up 3 mornings this week to no electricity, no hot water etc. This is because they do not have enough power on the national grid so have to ration it. My mom is philosophical as she knows that not too far away live people with little or no electricity, no bathrooms, let alone hot water….

  31. on 05 Dec 2007 at 11:38 pm Susan from Food Blogga

    What’s better–the post or the tart? They’re both fantastic! What a stunning photo; I’m so glad I discovered your beautiful blog at Jeanne’s round-up. -Susan

  32. on 06 Dec 2007 at 10:05 am african vanielje

    Susan, thank you. That’s the great thing about roundups, now I’ve discovered you too. The christmas cookie collection is looking fantastic

  33. […] cobra snakes and a family tea at Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel, before sharing with us her grapefruit meringue tartelettes. Wonderful! Antonia of Food, Glorious Food! right here in London decides to come over all […]

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