The Khoi were the first people here. The Xhosa’s and the Zulu’s made their appearance then and so nations arrived until the arrival of the Dutch, the English and the many Europeans that populate South Africa. This gives us something few countries in the world can boast with – an exciting and varied cuisine. Today the Afrikaners carry the scourge of the cruel and murderous regime that ruled for forty years – like many other citizens of many other nations have had to. In recent history Germans, Croats, Bosnians, Rwandans, Haitians, Lebanese and Asians have had to face what we have to face now, but ours is the shame that burns within us. We are all South African but we have an advantage over all of them because we have the support and the love of most of our fellow countrymen who help us heal our shame whilst they heal their pain.
I pay tribute with the only way I know how – with food.
Food always brings peace and tranquility and a lack of it always results in rage.
The food of my mother is the food of her mother and her mother before her. It has the soul of her ancestors and is born out of the love of a myriad of women of all cultures. Herbs from the Khoi, versatility from the women of the Groot Trek and exotic spices from the slave women form the basis of the food of the Afrikaners.
My mother grew up in Barrydale, a tiny town carved from the rocks of the Swartberge (Black mountains). She was born there, grew up there, married there and moved to a jungle in Northern Rhodesia (Now Zambia) where she started her married life in a freshly constructed raw round hut and then, finally to the Winelands of the Cape where she moved into the burnt down shell of a Cape Dutch farmhouse, now our family home. At first we ate dinners cooked on a little blue gas stove or on a fire outside and it was always made with love and carried in it my mother’s unarguable dignity. It was always an experience.
My awareness of food began in Barrydale when I was very little. My aunt used to say that the town looked like a nest filled with eggs and each time my father drove over the mountains I looked for that big bird. Today I still lift my gaze to the Swartberge as I drive in, to see whether she is there, hovering protectively above her nest. I realize now that I belong there and one day, if fortune smiles on me, I will go home.
Ouma’s tables were laden on Sundays. Lunch was three meats and three deserts. Tea was after church (pictured above) lunch was after tea. This happened only on Sundays. Fortunately ouma lived across the church and she hurried over the street after Sunday service to have tea and cake ready for those who needed refreshment before going home to their own families. Sliced meat or egg sandwiches packed snugly into triangles, konfyttertjies (small jam tarts),
herzoggies (coconut and jam squares), klapper koekies (coconut cakes) and scones with cream and jam bearing witness to English influences was the order of the day. There was always a cake, a savoury quiche and a sweet tart. That was before lunch. I was allowed to sit on the piano stool then, so that ouma (and my mother) could keep an eye on me even if, in ouma’s eyes I could do no wrong. Occasionally I dived down and grabbed what I could from the table, but by the time I sat down again, there was no evidence of this.
Sunday lunch was typified by roast lamb and roast chicken and was supplemented by beef, venison or pork. Meat was perfectly carved by the Appointed Male and served with gravy of deglazed juices, crisp strips of fat arranged expertly on each slice. Vegetables consisted of boontjie bredie (braised string beans, flavoured with onions, potato and a lamb rib or two), soet wortels, soet pampoen or soet patats (carrots, pumpkin or sweet potatoes cooked with cinnamon, butter, cardamom and a sprinkling of sugar), golden, crispy potatoes, gem squash halves – swollen with butter and yellow rice. White for weekdays, yellow for Sundays. Yellow was cooked with turmeric, raisins and cardamom. Desert was souskluitjies (dumplings in cinnamon and sugar with masses of butter), asynpoeding (vinegar pudding), brandewynpoeding (heavy with dates and brandy) and a myriad of others. All deserts were accompanied by ouma’s custard, made in the shiny black pot on the Aga or layers of thick yellow jersey cream, piled high in a serving dish. Little wonder my grandfather died from a heart attack at age 52!
Weekdays food was simpler. Meals always contained meat, a yellow vegetable, a green, one and only one starch. Meat arrived on the table in many different forms and styles but was always braised, simmered or flash fried on the stove or baked and roasted in the oven.
*Koolbredie, tamatiebredie, osstert, kerriekos, afval, niertjies in suur sous and lewerkoekies to name a few, were regulars at weekday lunches. Till today I prefer the cheaper cuts of meat for the taste and the versatility – especially in winter. Suppers were much lighter and an experience in itelf.
Salad was prevalent in the summer when cucumbers were peeled and sliced into paper-thin wafers, smothered in cream or peeled, cubed and served in sweet sour dressing. Tomatoes were chopped with onions or sliced with herbs or stuffed with left over rice. Potatoes were turned into rich creamy salads with onions, parsley or spices and carrots were grated into lemon juice and sugar – meat often prepared outside on a grill over a fire, the braai. Or eaten cold sliced or portioned, like chicken. All meals had one thing in common, it was a celebration of life. I have no memory of fish, with the exception of the piles of viskoekies that made by Kaloon in the kitchen. Kaloon was always there and I often wondered what happened to her. After she got married she disappeared from my life, but I still remember her with fondness and warmth, remembering all too well the ache when she turned down my insistent offer to be her bridesmaid.
Often ouma would lift me up and put me on the counter of the spenskas (pantry cupboard) to let me taste a walnut from the tall tin or a fat dried peach and send me on my way with a single beskuit (dried rusk).
Beskuit – a reminder of the days of the Groot Trek when mothers had to bake in hastily assembled wood ovens along the way. It was baked with the bread, then allowed to dry in the ovens as they cooled down overnight. Precious yeasts traveled well to be used over and over again. Much was packed into the wakis (a storage kist at the front of the wagon upon which they sat as they guided the oxen through the mountains) but I know only of the beskuit dipped into cups of early morning coffee serving to sustain when cooking was difficult.
Food preparation and preservation was vital to ouma’s existence. She fed all those she loved and she loved most people, so she fed anyone she could. Green coffee beans were roasted daily before the family woke up and potato yeast bread baked for the daily use. Once a month meat arrived whole, hung and ready for portioning. She salted or dried and stored it in the cold room where the nuts, coffee beans and dried fruit was stored. Always a karmenaatjie (a gift of meat products) was given to someone. The rugstring (backbone) left intact, it was lightly salted then hung from the ceiling of the coldroom, which was next to the chicken pen. Biltong (dried meat strips) hung from the ceiling too. Even the peels of lemons and the oranges were used, boiled in sugar and spices and dried in the sun to be saved for future use! A tiny orchard in the back provided the fruit as the garden did vegetables in season.
My mother’s cooking began there and her travels into Africa and contact with other nations added more depth and excitement, a remarkable maturity developing in the Cape Winelands on the slopes of the Helderberg mountain, where my own lessons began. The fusion of the old and the new, her inquisitiveness and gift for cooking gave her children an Aladdin’s cave of food with which we could begin our own journey
And so I will go though her experiences, leaving mine for my children to tell and will travel from streek to streek to hear the tales of other mothers or other daughters to tell you this story of me, my food and my people. The story of the food of the Afrikaner.
It may take a while but, eventually, I will get there.