A weird thing happened to Andriette de la Harpe when she was retrenched in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown last year. For a solid week she couldn’t get out of bed, desperately trying to hold on to the one thing that no longer existed: her job title.
Fast forward to a few months later, and she has successfully reinvented herself as the owner of ’n Mondvol (“a mouthful”), a Stellenbosch-based cakery that she simply describes as “home-made therapy”. Like many others before her, she now knows that suffering can lead to transformation and marvellous mystery.
“Retrenchment came knocking on my door, and with it came doubt, depression and a good bunch of failure,” she tells Food For Mzansi. “Finding myself in my bed, not moving for an entire week, kind of told me that I might have placed my identity and worth a little bit too much on my job title.”
Today, her daily routines look a lot different from her old job. And she gets to create layered cakes that not only helps her to heal her own wounds, but ultimately also to overcome the fear of failure.
“My identity was perfectly woven into my previous job title, and starting from the bottom in a completely different industry was humbling, to say the least. It is within this liminal space that not only I find myself in, but the whole world, that I have started the journey to find out what is really important to me,” De la Harpe explains.
Within this journey, the part-time singer realised that despite her track record of success, she was not the work that she did nor the possessions that she owned. No, her purpose was much, much greater.
She says, “I am what I give to the world. Kindness to the stranger, loyalty to my friends, laughter to the table, joint silence with the one who is crying, love for the lonely and patience with myself.”
After all, baking relies on precise measurements and temperate conditions, and also loads of patience and dedication. Slowly but surely she is turning cake decorating into an art form, often leaving clients gobsmacked with her eye-catching confections.
Life’s greatest gifts
In hindsight, the turmoil caused by the pandemic has actually gifted her with the time and creativity she needed to give birth to one of her 2020 resolutions – to learn how to bake cakes, never mind turning it into a business.
“I have a weird addiction of watching a ton of baking videos, and I thought that perhaps I can use this guilty pleasure to my advantage. When the first lockdown hit, I moved in with my family, and they became my cake testers. Every day, for tea time, the whole family would come sit around the table, enjoy a piece of cake while debriefing the day and, in a way, have some home-made therapy.”
Her interactions with her family, friends and the many strangers who discover ’n Mondvol on social media, have made her realise that the pandemic, isolation and lockdown “forced many of us to pull back the curtain on many problems, issues, doubts and fears we seemed to have been able to ignore by living our fast-paced pre-Covid lives.
“Self-reflection and self-awareness is hard work, and sometimes quite frightening. Starting my own bakery during a pandemic, with only self-taught experience, was and still is hard to wrap my brain around.”
In moments of doubt, De la Harpe simply has to remember that her parents taught her to finish whatever she started.
“Music lessons, projects and commitments were something that we could not easily get out of,” she reminisces. “Except my dancing lessons! My mom quickly realised that I have zero talent in that department and when I begged her [to] stop, there was no resistance.”
Growing up, she remembers that their home in the Mother City was filled with lots of noise and movement.
“My favourite memory will always be Sunday mornings. My dad would get up with passion, playing his favourite classical music on full volume while getting started on our Sunday roast.”
Food has always tasted better when it was eaten with family.
And when De la Harpe and her two sisters went to visit their grandparents for school holidays, there was always something sweet.
“I remember my ouma and oupa taking an afternoon nap, and we had to be so quiet! It was torture, until my ouma woke up and we knew we could get her famous crunchie cookies! I have inherited her Kenwood mixer and I really believe that it has played a big role in my discovery of love for baking.”
As her “dad’s favourite daughter”, De la Harpe says that she still enjoys cooking with her father. For Christmas lunches, he is still in charge of all the meats while she would prepare the side dishes and dessert.
Life of an entrepreneur
She describes being an entrepreneur as overwhelming, exciting and stressful. “I’m learning a lot about the business side of things, and hopefully growing. One thing that I have learnt during this journey is that people are kind. Friends, family and neighbours are so supportive.
“I don’t think I would have been able to do Mondvol if it wasn’t for all the incredible support I am receiving. Words of encouragement, constructive feedback and supporting my small business are what carries me through the day.”
Make no mistake, there has already been a number of hair-raising moments in the kitchen.
“I try to turn my terrifying moments into fun and games, otherwise I probably would have had a ton of meltdowns by now! I have thrown away quite a few batches of cake, I can’t count how many eggs I have dropped on the floor, people are worried about the amount of scars on my hands and my ouma’s Kenwood mixer has a life of its own, mixing itself onto the floor, adding even more battle scars to its frame. I’ve learnt a lot of patience and also that there is no such thing as shortcuts in baking.”
3 questions to Andriette de la Harpe
How would you describe yourself to a total stranger?
’n Mondvol. (“A mouthful.”) Lover of people, food and wine, drawn to sunshine and filling spaces with joy. Passionate about life and our beautiful country, honest, real and always has an extra seat available at her table.
As a believer, do you see the hand and mystery of God in your Mondvol creations?
As I bake and create a cake [for someone], I can’t help but hope that it will bring joy to the person’s life. A cake always goes with a new memory being made, and being a part of a memory that could have brought joy, value, meaning and love to a person, gives me purpose.
I believe that in these uncertain times, we could easily get lost in the opportunities missed and isolation replacing relationships.
I believe we need to find the beauty in the ordinary. Even if it’s just you treating yourself to a piece of cake, being present in the moment and feeling loved. God is in the business of taking the “ordinary” and changing it into something extraordinary.
What would you bake to soothe a beautifully broken country called South Africa?
It’s not necessarily what I would bake, but with whom. Our country is so rich with vibrant cultures, so many traditions and stories. I want to bake with people who are different from me, who can teach me the beauty of their culture.
I want to open up my kitchen, actually listen to others and learn. I want to celebrate this rainbow nation and our colourful diversity, and what better way than sitting around a table enjoying a piece of cake?
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