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Spilling the beans on the essential broth of the Karoo



Spilling the beans on the essential broth of the Karoo

Gordon Wright's boontjiesop, from his book Veld to Fork. Photo: Sean Calitz

A culinary journey to save a soup that is quite possibly the essence and soul of Karoo food.

Boontjiesop (bean soup) is one of the ultimate and most traditional winter soups in the Karoo; full of protein power and goodness. It freezes superbly so is great to make in one big batch at the start of winter and freeze in smaller containers to take out and reheat on those cold wintry evenings.

I fell in love with this soup on my first visit to the legendary Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet in the late 80s; it was rich, fortifying and comforting and I have always associated it with cold, wintry evenings and a feeling of sublime foodie happiness.

When I opened my first restaurant in the Karoo, I hired a lovely, cantankerous yet soft lady by the name of Maureen Jacobus who came to us via the kitchens of the Drostdy Hotel and had exceptional food knowledge but absolutely zero people skills. What she lacked in diplomacy and industrial relations, she made up tenfold with a natural knack of marrying flavours and an innate understanding of how to cook virtually anything you asked her to. And I loved her for it.

One of the gems Maureen brought with her was the famous boontjiesop recipe from her old hotel and tales of how Gary Player was rumoured to have been so enamoured by the dish that he ordered his chef to learn to make the recipe so he could eat it whenever he was longing for home, while conquering the golfing world in far-flung corners of the world.

Maureen and I took the basic recipe that time nearly forgot and deconstructed it to its constituent parts. As much as I loved it, I felt that it had a massive 70s vibe to it and wanted to give it a more authentic Karoo/African feel to suit my new restaurant’s international clientele as well as jack it up a notch, while staying true to its “boerekos” roots.

There was also the issue of the rather flatulent and potentially awkward after-effects that needed to be dealt with if I was to sell it in vast quantities to my methane averse patrons.

By this stage, too, the venerable old Drostdy had closed its doors and its long tradition of fine Karoo food and grand dinners was a thing of the past, as was its boontjiesop.

With rumour and conjecture about its future rife, yet far from clear, I felt it my duty to try to preserve (and possibly even improve upon) this legend of the Karoo culinary scene by way of the humble boontjiesop.

I realised that in order to save it, I needed to reinvent it.

What started out as an idea to freshen up an old classic and save a great recipe ended in an epic food journey that came full circle 12 years later in the same and now re-opened Drostdy Hotel, a lot more refined and posh, at a dinner with my foodie editor last Saturday, where he asked me casually what I thought of the boontjiesop that the young team of chefs had added back to the eclectic menu. Was it true to the original and how did it compare to my version (in my book Veld to Fork) and, more specifically, was it the real deal?

The student was now being asked to be the master. Eish.

The key to a great soup is to have a good base stock (ideally a chicken stock), good-quality fresh ingredients and a Sunday afternoon to spare, as these babies do not like to be rushed. This is comfort food of the highest order and takes time, love and devotion if you want to do it right.

The best thing about this, and most soups, is that you can make them either vegetarian or meaty. If, like me, you like a bit of meat, go with the full recipe. For a vegetarian version, just leave out the meat and use vegetable instead of chicken stock. The nice thing about most soup recipes is that it is really easy to chop and change, so you can add whatever extras you fancy or leave out bits you don’t.

For my version of this classic I pushed the boat out and went in search of a mix of classic sugar beans and a range of African and lesser-known ones too. I added venison, marrow bones and pork trotters for richness and texture and a then a sprinkle of mustard seeds to help negate the post-dinner methane issues. It all added a complexity of flavour and mouthfeel that is hard to beat, yet stays true to the simple tradition of this hearty and fulfilling dish.

It was also a great food journey, travelling to strange places and obscure backstreet stores to find my elusive Jugo beans and cowpeas, hunting and working a springbuck on the Camdeboo plains, convincing my wife that pig trotters, really, are a delicacy…

Most challenging of all, waiting painfully for Maureen’s final tasting and potential nod of approval or disdain after all these efforts and adventures.

Did I finally get Maureen Jacobus’s approval to continue the legacy of this humble yet very important soup? Yes I did.

Did the young chefs at the Drostdy manage to live up to the weight of expectation by being bold enough to put this bastion back on to their menu after all these years of absence?

I think you should visit the Drostdy and decide for yourself…

Go hungry. DM


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