Gorry Bowes-Taylor does a great job for Wordsworth in ‘pairing’ authors of recently published books with good wines and meals at restaurants around Cape Town and the Winelands.  However, the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront in Granger Bay let her down badly on Saturday, with the most over-promised and under-delivered lunch ever experienced, for the launch of Melanie Verwoerd’s book‘The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied‘.

It was commendable that Verwoerd came to the lunch, having flu, but she was witty for most of the talk about her book, until it came to the sad part about her losing her partner Gerry Ryan (she had divorced her Verwoerd husband Wilhelm some years before).  The ‘talk’ was in the form of a question and answer session, with a witty and sharp summary of key phases in Verwoerd’s life by actress and writer Marianne Thamm (currently writing Helen Zille’s biography, and author of ‘I have Life’ about attack victim Alison, which sold 85000 copies), who clearly was very well prepared and knew the book well.

The book was launched in Ireland and the UK as ‘When we Dance‘ last year, and was subject to an interdict in Ireland for a while, brought by Ryan’s friend David Kavanagh, her South African book containing a statement at the back of the book confirming the state of the relationship between the two friends.  She had been warned against speaking out, but always a rebel, she felt she had the ‘right to write’ her book, and was surprised that despite the court action it became a best seller in Ireland. Verwoerd traces her history, from growing up in Fochville as a Van Niekerk, and then in Stellenbosch, after she was adopted as a Fourie in her late teens.  She met Wilhelm Verwoerd at the University of Stellenbosch, and got married to him at the age of 20, giving up her studies in Theology to join him at Oxford, where he was studying on a prestigious Rhodes scholarship, to the shock of his parents, given that he is the grandson of the late Prime Minister HF Verwoerd, said to be the architect of apartheid. She did however graduate with Honours and Masters degrees. His parents feared that he would be ‘corrupted’ by England’s liberal values, and did not want him to be linked to Cecil John Rhodes either!  In London they met many ANC officials living there in exile, hearing about a South Africa they had never experienced. Returning to South Africa, they met President Mandela, and Wilhelm wanted to apologise to him for what his family had done to him, but Mandela told him that his surname could be a burden or a blessing – it would be Wilhelm’s choice as to how he would use it, in true Madiba style, Verwoerd said.  They became ANC members, under the radar initially, but eventually the news leaked, and it caused mayhem when his family found out, his father banning him from the house and disinheriting his son. Verwoerd ensured that her children stayed in touch with their grandparents.  She spoke fondly about ‘Ouma Betsie’, Wilhelm’s late grandmother, who lived in the all-White enclave of Orania, where she was visited by Mandela, described by her as a visit resembling that of a ‘foreign head of state‘.

Her book reminds one about the country’s conservative past, and we laughed when she related that she could not open a bank account in her own name, earning more than her husband as an ANC Member of Parliament (the youngest ANC MP ever), as it could endanger their marriage, the bank argued!  She did ultimately get her way with the bank.  Having achieved what she wanted as MP, she requested then-President Mbeki if she could head the South African embassy in Dublin, which he agreed to.  She laughed when she said that she was not ‘a born diplomat’ (much too direct, much like her ‘colleague’ Tony Leon, who headed the embassy in Buenos Aires). She fell in love with Ireland from the first day. She saw her challenge as ambassador to give the government a return on its investment in the embassy, and focused on tourism (130% increase) and wine promotion in the period 2001 – 2005, to great success in part due to the rise of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, she said, the demise of which she experienced too.  She then became UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) Ireland Executive Director, travelling in Africa on a number of occasions, working with Sir Roger Moore, Bono, Vanessa Redgrave, and Liam Neeson.  She was voted the Irish Tatler International Woman of the Year in 2007.  It was in this time that she met renowned radio presenter Gerry Ryan (with 500000 listeners, and a daily three hour show which ran for 25 years), and fell in love with him within half an hour of her first date with him, despite initially resisting his advances.  He was separated, but could not divorce before four years of separation had passed, as per the Irish divorce law.  They were a couple for two years, when he suddenly died alone in his apartment three years ago, and she became the shunned ‘other’ woman, who was told that she was lucky to be able to attend his funeral!  She and her children were hounded by the media, and Verwoerd ultimately lost her job at UNICEF due to the controversy surrounding Ryan’s death, and her relationship with him, her dismissal settled out of court.  All the VIP supporters other than Bono resigned from UNICEF Ireland to protest her dismissal! She denied that Ryan was a cocaine and drug user, but is open about his financial problems, in that he relied on Verwoerd for his living expenses, despite his big salary, which appeared to have been spent on his five children and an extravagant lifestyle.  Despite being divorced from Wilhelm, she retains his surname, she told me, quite contrary to her self-proclaimed feminist nature.  She still lives in Dublin, having dual citizenship now, and she loves the ‘softness of the country’, and how ordinary people will stop her in the street and give her a hug. Her two children are students at Trinity College.  She visits ‘home’ regularly though!  She is looking forward to the next 45 years of her life, which will include her coming back to live here, she said to conclude her talk.  In reading her book, it is clear why Ireland is so important to her, the memorial bench which she had erected for Ryan in a park in Dublin being an important link to him, despite the terrible treatment she received in Ireland as a result of her relationship with him.  Her children studying in Dublin must be another important reason.

The bookings for the Literary Lunch were taken by the hotel’s event co-ordinator Carmen Jansen, who followed up despite the paperwork having been faxed.  She was abrupt on arrival, and chased the payment after the first course, usually done at the end of the meal.  I discovered afterwards that she had left to go home, hence her eagerness to receive the payment!  The menu sounded fantastic on paper, but what was presented differed vastly from the description.  We had to Google most of the descriptions, to know what to expect on our plates!  Baguette and rye bread was served, with what looked like butter curls but was margarine. I asked the waitress for some real butter, and she brought branded Floro.  Another request led to branded butter arriving at the table!  The same waitress filled the water jug with so much ice that she poured most of it over the table, wetting my notebook.  Service had to be requested, nothing being done proactively, such as refilling the water jug.  Each table had a central display of a hand with flexible fingers holding an exercise book, to tie in with the literary theme, one assumes, but the naughty men at the table had fun in changing them to rude signs!  The venue was most unsuitable, a long rectangular room that had more than a hundred guests squeezed in, meaning that guests had to get up to let others get through.

The starter was ‘Baby Chicken 2ways‘, described as ‘confit leg cannon, grilled maize sage beurre (which must have been the wheel of pap), courgette roulade (which must have been the loosely wrapped vegetable strips), supreme pan seared (the other chicken style, we assumed) with napage (sic) of port wine spuma‘ (no foam was visible).  The pink mayonnaise was not included in the menu description!  For the main course ‘Crisp Salmon Scaloppini’ (thin slices of scallop with the salmon) was served with ‘crumbed aromatic fresh gremolata (lemon zest, garlic, parsley, olive oil), salsa di burro bruciato (appears to be burnt butter salsa), caper berries, gentle braised fondant potatoes and carcisfo frito (sic – the closest wording we found on Google was ‘carciofo fritto’ – fried artichoke!). We could not see the caper berries, but we found olives!  An elderly gentleman at our table asked the waitress if she could put the leftover salmon in a ‘doggie bag’, to spoil his cat, but she refused. I called the Deputy GM (they do not have a F&B Manager in this hotel), and I got the company policy talk (mainly for health purposes, and thus legal reasons, should the customer get ill if he ate it at home). Very kindly, after some persuasion, he relented!  The vegetarian eaters at our table had a rough time, their risotto being burnt.  For dessert we were promised a ‘Decadent Tasting Plate’, being anything but decadent, consisting of ‘Dark chocolate no bake cheese cake (tick) with angel hair (none to be seen), coconut crème brûlée with caramel crackling (curdled, no caramel topping!), coco rico (coconut soda?) jelly (tick), pistachio ice cream (tick) on coffee shortbread soil’ (tick).  No feedback was sought about the meal during the function. We were shocked to hear that Chef Grant Kennedy had not been on duty, and unfortunately it showed!

Allée Bleue sponsored the wines for the lunch, its MCC Brut Rose being a welcome drink if one did not want to start the lunch with a glass of decadent Hendrick’s Gin, served by dapper young men at a table with an interesting table display with cups.  Ansgar Flaatten, brother of Wesgro CEO Nils, heads up the wine division at the wine estate, and will be taking over as MD from Wolfgang Leyrer shortly.  He reminded the audience about the herb production, and their newly introduced herb tours and lunches on Friday mornings. The Starlette range was offered with the different courses, including a Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Rouge, and Shiraz Rosé, all sold for around R40 a bottle.

The Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront has such a wonderful location at the water’s edge near the V&A Waterfront, and one wonders why they would have handled the book launch Literary Lunch so badly, with poor and over-promised food, and poor service!  We requested Gorry to not use this venue for her lunches again.  Verwoerd’s story ends sadly, yet bravely, in that she wrote the book, thereby fulfilling her promise to Ryan to tell his story, warts and all, and corrects many of the terrible things that were said about him after his death. she explained, Ryan appearing to be more controversial after his death, yet having had such a large following for so many years.  The book combines her love story with Ryan with her (and her ex-husband’s) story, using a local title that does not do this brave lady justice, with an odd typeface, and may not encourage book sales as much as the original title may have done.

POSTCRIPT 28/5: We posted our feedback about the lunch at the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront on Saturday on this blog and on Twitter only.  Today we received the following reply from the hotel’s Executive Assistant Manager Marcel Eichenberger:  ‘Dear Cherissie (sic), I would like to thank you for the feedback regarding your lunch experience in Harbor View, this is a vital aspect of our business and without feedback such as yours we would not find a platform to grow and improve our quality of product and standards. I would like to apologize for your experience as this is certainly not our standard of food quality, presentation and service. We pride ourselves on what we serve and the personal service which our team provide.  By your feedback this was not the case and I am disheartened by our actions. I have and will address these issues with my team both service and kitchen to ensure we up our game to make sure this does not happen again. I have spoken to chef regarding the execution of the menu as per the menu and he too is very apologetic with regards to the outcome of his menu.  Our team is well trained and we invest a lot of resources to ensuring we serve the highest quality produce so that each guest has a great experience, our lack of execution is with great regret and I do apologize for this.  I have spoken to Mark our banqueting manager and he too will ensure that service delivery is executed on every function according to our standards.  With regards to the “doggy bag”, I do apologize that it was so difficult to arrange but it is to safeguard us as a global brand to ensure food safety is adhered too and I know at times exceptions can be made and we will look into this going forward.  The venue is a fantastic venue for functions and weddings up to 120 guests but we did go over our capacity and therefore making the venue very full, we are however are looking to make some changes to the venue and we hope to see this happen in the following year.  I am confident that this will make functions such as the lunch a more comfortable venue.  We get allot of our business via word of mouth so I would like the opportunity to make this up to you and if you would consider coming for a lunch or dinner to our Tobago’s restaurant I can assure you we will meet and exceed your expectation in both food quality and service. To my understanding you will also be joining us for the Chaine des Rotisseurs dinner and we hope to change your perception of our abilities.  Should you wish to take me up on my offer please contact me directly.  Once again my sincere apologies‘.

Melanie Verwoerd: The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied’, Tafelberg Publishers.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: WhaleCottage