Karoo Food, by Graaff-Reinet based foodie, chef and seasoned ‘Karooster’, Gordon Wright, sure is one meaty tome. Launched at the annual Stoep Tasting Wine Weekend in Graaff-Reinet, one of the oldest and most beautiful towns in the country, the book deserves to become a South African classic.
Gordon Wright is as humble as he is talented. That makes him extremely humble. I’m delighted to be able to call him my Karoo Bru and I happily put my hand up to us having become good mates since I too became a Karooster nearly four years ago. His book represents everything that is to love about the food of this vast, seemingly arid terrain. Which, as any true Karoo bru knows well, is far from arid once you get up close and personal with it.
So don’t take my word for it; grab a copy off the shelf and have a browse yourself. When I first opened it, I pretty much wanted to make everything in it, and few cookbooks do that.
In the deep Karoo, we don’t start with calamari or Avocado Ritz. Nah. Where else to start a Karoo cookbook but with Karoo Lamb and Mutton, the title of the first chapter. And right off the bat (he’s a keen cricketer whose cricketing mates call him Lefty) there’s Crispy Roasted Lamb Belly, “such a misunderstood cut” which, Gordon says, which is “usually used for stew or for making mince, or totally disregarded by the home chef. Well, please let me be the first to tell you that you are wasting one of the best bits”. He trims a whole lamb belly/flank and rubs salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon zest all over the meat to marinate for an hour. Then it goes skin-side down on a roasting tray in a 180-degree oven for half an hour. Turn it and roast for another half hour, leave to rest, remove it from the oven, cut into strips and drizzle with lemon juice.
Next up: Karoo lamb sausages. This is one of his specialities; he’s even promised to teach me how to make sausages and I will get to that before winter’s out. Continuing the theme of the less-than-obvious, this is followed by pulled lamb shoulder sliders, roasted lamb rumps, mutton and cardamom pie, mutton burgers and, before we move on to pork and beef, “Lefty’s Mutton Confit”. Intriguing to those of us who think of duck whenever we see the word “confit”. And yes, a whole shoulder of mutton is immersed in a litre of goose or duck fat and baked for six to eight hours. This after it has been rubbed with coarse sea salt, rosemary and thyme leaves and refrigerated for 24 hours.
Wright argues that we all eat way too much meat and that we should eat far less of it but of a higher quality. Veld-reared and grass-fed beef, “once the only type of beef available”. And if most of us do that, he opines, we’ll be “forcing the bullies to change their business models to a more consumer-, farmer- and cow-friendly approach”. Followed swiftly be methods for wet- and dry-ageing beef, a bone broth, and a beef rib rub.
For steaks, he offers grilled skirt steak, “a very thin, nicely marbled cut that cooks quickly on a piping-hot grill”. He says you should insist that your butcher source you free-range, grass-fed or veld-reared steak, and that “if they’re any good, they will be able to sort you out”.
But then, Gordon’s Big Gun recipe: reverse searing. We’re all used to searing a steak on a high heat and then cooking it through. He turns this on its head. You cook it slowly at a very low temperature from the beginning. Only thick steaks (3cm to 5cm thick) work this way, and the process ends with cooking them on a high heat to sear. But the method is pretty particular, and you’ll need a good meat thermometer.
Curried brawn and more ways with sausages lead you into the venison section, and this (no, not mutton or lamb) is Gordon’s true passion and area of expertise in the Karoo kitchen.
“As an ethical hunter who subscribes to the principles of fair chase and sustainable utilisation,” he writes in introducing this chapter, “I love being out under the African sky trying to best my quarry and provide something for the pot. I understand that not everyone is able or willing to do this, but I feel strongly that it is important for everyone to know where their food comes from and to take ownership of that. Whether you are willing to do the deed yourself or prefer to have someone else do it, it is very important to show the due respect and ethics and allow your food source the dignity of a good quality of life and swift despatch.”
That’s as far away from the ilk of the Trump brothers downing a captured lion in an enclosure as their father is from Barack Obama.
A wide variety of venison recipes follows, from a liver pot and venison bobotie to sautéed springbok kidneys, home-made venison droëwors, springbok sosaties, “the best biltong recipe”, venison crisps, venison strips, “Royal Tartare” (made with venison heart), and “the ultimate Karoo venison pie”.
So, if you were doubtful when you read that this is “one meaty tome” up at the top, you’re surely not doubtful any more. There’s even more, in fact: the next chapter is on chicken, poultry and wild fowl (including guinea fowl and partridge which, says mutual Karooster mate Derek Carstens, you do indeed find wild in the Karoo “now and then”); followed by the final meaty chapter, Charcuterie and Curing. This being where the talents of Wright and Carstens combine in the latter’s Taste of the Karoo business, for which Gordon cures various meats, makes sausages et al.
I felt almost let down when I found the “From Water and the Earth” chapter that follows, what with its Green Crab Curry, Drunken Prawns and Fabulous Seafood Curry, but even a Karooster needs something fishy once in a Blue Karoo Moon.
But, wait, there’s more meat… smoking, brining, braaing, soutribbetjie (a true classic, that), Lamb T-bones… we’re virtually into the desserts section and even the figs are bacon-wrapped … beef short rib, reverse-seared tomahawk steak… brisket …
I’m holding out for the Venison Soufflé in his next book.
Okay, there are desserts and they do look good. But I doubt you’ll have room for any. DM
Karoo Food, by Gordon Wright. Photography by Sean Calitz. Published by Struik Lifestyle.