I write and photograph for print & digital media. I favour food, drink, music and roadtrips.
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Text & photos © 2017
Colleen A Thompson
All Rights Reserved
Monkey Weddings & Summer Sapphires was inspired in part, by one of my fondest childhood memories. In Johannesburg, when it rains and the sun is still shining we called it a “monkey’s wedding.”
As a child I would be enchanted by the thought of the wedding – where exactly would it be taking place? Who would be invited? What would they eat? Mangoes, guavas, mulberries, granadillas and juicy sugar cane sticks for sure. The feast at the wedding would conjure up vivid make believe menus consisting of all of my favorite childhood foods.
In Nova Scotia our lives are now surrounded by blueberry bushes that grow wildly – in thickets on the edge of our forest, alongside our regular walking trails, beside the winding paths down to the beach and in abundance in the valley where the blueberry festival is celebrated each summer. These little blue-black jewels with star shaped crowns on their heads are the sapphires of summer. Their tart, distinctive flavor has found a place in our daily lives and their place at the table of the feast would be most welcomed by the monkeys.
My name is Colleen Thompson and I am the author and photographer of this blog.
I have lived long enough to allow things to settle in my life and my memory. For most of my adult life, I have kept journals of my everyday life — a motley pile of hardback notebooks, the details of my life scribed within in spidery black ink. On their pages are lists, meals shared, places traveled, food loved, recipes and ideas collected, wines tasted, and lyrics to songs remembered. It is clear to see on these pages that food and music have largely shaped my life and that two places have given me the greatest sense of place. I have traveled the world, and as my journals attest, I have loved most and been influenced by almost all of my destinations in some way. Two places, however, have rooted me — one, from my past, is Johannesburg, South Africa, and the other, from my present, is Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I am raising my young son with my husband.
Much of the food I cook is influenced by these two places. But Monkey Weddings & Summer Sapphires is not strictly about cooking: the recipes are in some way an act of subterfuge. This is a collection of stories, recipes, anecdotes, and bits of narrative from my life. They blend my past life growing up in the heaving, urban African metropolis of Johannesburg to my present-day life lived along 4,700 miles of Nova Scotia coastline; where much of life here begins and ends with the sea.
In December 2005, I got the opportunity to move to Nova Scotia when my husband was offered a position at an ad agency. Just one month later, we packed up our lives, left South Africa’s summer, and moved with our baby son and two dogs, Oscar and Obi, to start our new life in a -15° blizzard. We flew north across the 45th parallel and plonked down halfway between the equator and the North Pole—five time zones and 7,496 miles from Johannesburg.
It’s an odd place to end up, urban, African, and cold-hating as I am. In my old life, I was impatient and intolerant, and interested in city things, like politics, music, culture, and expensive wines. I had tried — mostly unsuccessfully— to stop rushing through my life.
In my new life, I’m more fascinated by the changing of the seasons and the twenty-two species of wildflowers growing in my backyard. Gone were the Afrochic fashionistas; the strangely imposing view of the Hillbrow tower at night from my bedroom window; and the multicultural rhythms of a city of 4 million people.
In contrast, I ended up living by a lake with water that is emerald in the summer and a mesmerizing, translucent blue in the winter, when it freezes over. I can see a forest outside my kitchen window; its birch, maple, fir, and spruce trees are always the first hint of the changing of the seasons. By my front door is a giant wild rose bush whose tiny white flowers perfume our cat Harry when he lies beneath it, watching the blue jays flit about.
Surrounded by seas — the Gulf of St Lawrence to the north, the Bay of Fundy to the west, the Atlantic to the south and east—this slender piece of land has unfurled in an easy grace. Years after living here, I discovered that most of mainland Nova Scotia was once connected to Africa. The supercontinent Gondwana connected it to Morocco 180 million years ago, and so it is, even in my new life, that I am living on chips of Africa.
Nova Scotia is a strange and quirky place, and the longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve delighted in uncovering its hidden gems. I've made peace (sort of) with blizzards and icy sidewalks.
Gradually, we have grown to love this place, with its endless beaches, rugged coastline, pristine lakes, massive bays, intimate coves, and isolated islands, as well as its eclectic mix of English, French and Gaelic languages. Country music and fiddles have quietly crept into our soundtrack.
We have found our favorite everything and have figured out where to get the best lemon tarts and coffee, where and when to buy lobster, where to pick the best apples and wild blueberries, and who mixes the best Old Fashioned.
Nova Scotia has shaped my grown-up sensibility as a wife and a mother, and also, inevitably, it has changed the way I cook. I have learned to appreciate the detail in everyday life, to stop and notice the four distinct seasons and the ebb and flow of a life lived in sync. This land has opened up my awareness of new ingredients, flavors, traditions, and techniques.
We've befriended people who love food as much as we do, and cooking has allowed us to share our table and create new traditions with these friends. At the same time, it has also given me something to cling to when homesickness has been unbearable and has kept me connected to my roots while allowing a new culture to wash over me. As I’ve found myself searching for a sense of place, cooking has forced me to pay attention to detail.
I started writing a book when we first arrived in Canada to document our journey and to keep me sane while I stayed at home with my baby son, trying to adapt to freezing temperatures, a new culture and country. The book grew and changed over the years, until a I finally realised that the story I needed to tell was through food and recipes.
Far away from the place where I was born, I’ve embarked on a journey into self, and it has sparked within me the realization that heritage is the force that shapes us and brings us to where we are right now.
Amidst these recipes that have been passed down through generations, you’ll find a compendium of stories from my childhood and from the tapestry of my life. From the neighborhoods of the Johannesburg I grew up in, past the anguish I felt upon leaving my country to finding an identity in a foreign land and a sense of place in Nova Scotia.
My main desire with the book and this blog is to share my stories and recipes and encourage you to seek your own sense of place. It may be where you are right now, or it may be in some far-flung place by the ocean. Cooking is a window to the world, and a lens through which we examine others and ourselves. I hope that my stories and recipes resonate with you in some way.