Acorn TV's newest offering, Recipes for Love and Murder, is a delight. Episodes 1 and 2 dropped on Monday, Sept. 5, and the remaining eight episodes will air, two per night, every Monday, for the next four weeks. It's the first production from Acorn TV set in South Africa, directed by Christiaan Olwagen (The Seagull), based on Sally Andrew's Tannie Maria novels, adapted by writer Karen Jeynes (Africa and I). Except for the lead character, everyone in the excellent cast is from South Africa, and some dialogue is in Afrikaans or Xhosa. And there are lots of great foodstuffs.
In some ways, the series is very familiar. The scenery of the Karoo Region of South Africa is spectacular, and the small town setting is predictably awash with cute, idiosyncratic characters. There's plenty of humor and wit, and the mystery elements fairly snap along. The handsome, reserved police chief, Khaya Meyer, possibly a transplant from the big city, is played with brooding intensity by Black Sails' Tony Kgoroge (everyone, even the butcher, fancies him). The heroine of a certain age? That's Tannie (Aunty) Maria (Maria Doyle Kennedy), a quirky, gifted cook, author of the local newspaper's cooking column, and eventually, reluctant amateur detective.
We meet Maria leaving her house, clad in mismatched floral garments, a chicken under her arm. She picks up an ax as she makes her way to an outbuilding. There's a thud and an alarmed squawk. But the chicken appears (its name is Morag), and so does Maria, munching watermelon. The titles run over an astonishing series of food preparation vignettes, beautiful and visceral, with more than a hint of violence, crushed fruits, pools of red juice, and a bloody knife sluiced clean. For Maria, food is a philosophy, her view of the world. It can change moods, evoke love, bring unity (there are echoes of Chocolat in this series), and reveal emotional truth. It's no coincidence the entrance to the town's newspaper office is through a butcher's shop.
Maria, bearing an ostrich mince pie (mince in the sense of ground meat), arrives at the office, introducing up to her sidekick, Jessie September (Kylie Fisher). Jessie, young, ambitious, and intelligent, wants to pursue a career as a crime journalist, condemned to write fluff pieces on town life, such as the farmers' market and profiles of teenage entrepreneurs. However, both are informed they are fired. Editor Hattie Wilson (Jennifer Steyn) explains the conglomerate that owns the newspaper has demanded an advice column, not a cooking feature, and advises Maria and Jessie to battle it out for the position. They are each assigned a letter to answer.
Jessie is painfully frustrated at this, having witnessed the arrest of the so-called "Tractor Terrorist" that morning, an elderly man driving a tractor, oblivious to police presence and probably drunk. Life in the town is not all cutesy and quaint. It is a community coming to terms with the lingering effects of apartheid, and Jessie believes the arrest may be racially motivated. The suspect has been hospitalized and won't talk, but Jessie's mother, nurse Charlene September (Khadiya Heeger), very much on the community's radar, identifies him as Bertes Chanchis. He's only drunk once a year on the anniversary of his mother's death. Tellingly, he works for his half-brother, a white man.
Jessie represents a new generation, born after apartheid was officially ended and able to achieve a better future for herself. She resents having to juggle her professional life and looking after her younger siblings while Charlene works nights. Jessie feels exploited, and her mother feels hurt. She's a great counterpart to Doyle's older, privileged white lady Maria, who wants to solve all the world's problems with food, and who, upon being given this assignmen6, immediately starts trying to figure out what would be best to eat in this situation.
Hattie is irritated by Jessie and Maria's advice samples but has to publish something. Jessie has presented a reading list (definitely not) and Maria a recipe (what did you expect?). Maria's letter is from Martine Burger (Tinarie van Wyk Loots), who describes her life in an abusive relationship, talking straight to the camera with some disturbing violent interactions. Her only respite is the pleasure from her pet ducks and her relationship with her friend Anna Pretorius (Daneel Van Der Walt), which she is determined to keep platonic. The last straw is when her husband Dirk shoots her ducks.
According to the letter, Dirk has blamed his behavior on Martine's cooking. Tannie Maria writes a recipe for mutton curry, and despite Hattie's annoyance, at least it works, even if it's not following the brief. (Tannie Maria is not that naive. Further on in her piece, she advised Martine to leave Dirk.) Maria is shocked to receive fan mail from her first column and horrified her full name, Maria Purvis, is used on the piece in print and online. Worse, a letter from a family member in Scotland is vaguely threatening. What is Maria hiding from, and why did she leave to reinvent herself?
Tannie Maria's next letter is from a lonely farmer who wants to find love, the object of his desire being a veterinarian who visits a sick ostrich. He talks to the camera, and they both long for each other but can't find the words. Maria responds with a cake recipe, and the first-time bachelor-baker produces a cake worthy of the Great British Baking Show. (Chocolate! Ganache! Fruit garnish!) Meanwhile, Martine does as Tannie Maria suggests, and Dirk comes home with flowers, enjoys the curry, and there appears to be a reconciliation.
But the cycle continues, and Martine is found dead. Ever the intrepid reporter, Jessie follows the police to the house. Did Dirk kill her? Maybe not. His alibi holds up. Hunky detective Khaya Meyer warns the two away from meddling with the case; as we'd expect, she and Jessie ignore him. Anna, who claims she was the only person who truly loved Martine, is devastated by her death, but she's arrested when her fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. A crowd gathers outside the police station as she's brought in, and Dirk is among them. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he's armed, and it's only then he's arrested.
The police find a line of concerned citizens wanting to give evidence. Bearing another chocolate ganache cake, Maria joins the line and is allowed to take a slice to Anna. Anna tells Maria she found Martine's body in the house, but Dirk was there too, having lied about his activities that night, and at that point, Maria is told their time is up. No one, including Maria and Anna, thinks to mention this to the police. In another wrong move, Dirk and Anna are released on bail, and there's a shootout between them with minor injuries witnessed by Jessie and Maria, who hunt down Dirk at a Seventh Day Adventist boarding house.
Maria is disappointed no one will eat the cake because they're either bleeding or vegan and shocked that Khaya seizes the cake as evidence because a bullet passed through it. It's becoming apparent the implications of Martine's death will spread throughout the community and beyond, and Maria and Jessie are in danger. We can look forward to four more weeks of this quirky, clever series and lots of luscious food. Maybe Detective Meyer will succumb to pastries and love (Maria? Jessie?). What could be better?
Recipes For Love and Murder continues on Acorn TV with two new episodes streaming every Monday through Oct. 3, 2022.