Très Chic: A suspicion of France on the Platteland plains

By Tony Jackman 6 September 2019

French-inspired cookery books by Afrikaans writers who live in France. The odd one out is Robert Carrier's Feasts of Provence. Photo: Tony Jackman

As spring sprouts its early buds in the southern hemisphere, and in France the tables that have stood beneath plane trees in gardens are taken indoors for the creeping winter, a reflection on the little bit of La France that somehow defies assimilation.

They say that the Afrikaner, though he has roots in France or the Netherlands or both, soon left his European ancestry behind him once settled on southern African soil, and has for the centuries that followed remained determinedly African, hence the name of his language, Afrikaans; and hence, you know, all that sociopolitical stuff which is not a part of these pages.

Olive Schreiner wrote copiously about this in her seminal Thoughts on South Africa (published in 1923 after her death, though much of it was written much earlier; she wrote parts of it in Matjiesfontein in the early 1890s), in which she wrote (and please forgive what today would be unsuitable terminology; she was a product of her age):

The Bantu and the Englishman may be found elsewhere on the earth’s surface in equal or greater perfection; but the Boer, like our plumbagos, our silver trees, and our kudus, is peculiar to South Africa. He is the result of an intermingling of races, acted on during two centuries by a peculiar combination of circumstances, and a result has been produced so unique as only to be decipherable through long and sympathetic study.”

Despite Schreiner’s early insight into a still developing nation, there’s evidence that not all of France, at least, has been deleted from the collective psyche. There’s at least a suspicion of France in their descendants’ makeup. (See soupçon, further down.)

While there is scant trace of the modern Hollander in the contemporary Afrikaner – shouldn’t bitterballen somehow have remained in one guise or another as a part of modern Afrikaans cuisine; surely that would have made sense? – something of the French has not been entirely eradicated. When you live in the Karoo, you see it in people’s homes, even in the ornaments and art. A bucket decorated with an olive branch and “Les Champs d’Oliviers”; a brightly-hued poster bellowing “Le Coq en Pâté”, featuring a feisty chicken seemingly oblivious of the imminent fate of its liver. A characterful old black bicycle parked lopsidedly against a wall, as if it were outside a cafe in a narrow lane in a French mountain village. A restaurant in the main road of a Karoo dorp, where French café music plays and everything is trés chic, and they sure haven’t held back on the colour palette.

A French home decor detail at Cinnamon, Cradock, Eastern Cape. Photo: Tony Jackman


And you see it, in the culinary-bookish world that I spend a lot of my time in, in the occasional cookery book brought out by Afrikaners who have made their homes in France. Marita van der Vyver in her books Summer Food in Provence and Winter Food in Provence, Kobus Botha in his book Le Braai (read Bianca Coleman’s story about him); artist Louis Jansen van Vuuren, chef Hardy Olivier and Anet Pienaar in their utterly beautiful tome, Festive France – Reflections and Recipes from the French Countryside, still one of the most beautiful cookbooks anywhere.

Writer Van der Vyver, whose output includes award-winning novels, children’s books and short stories, lives in a village in Provence in a house she and her French husband Alain fell in love with, and she insists that he is the chef, she the sous chef, making the starters and desserts while “the main course is Alain’s domain”. Like the private world that Peter Mayle invited us into in his wonderful A Year in Provence in the 1980s, Van der Vyver makes you see, smell and taste her world (although Mayle had you also smelling the carpenter’s sawdust and the plumber’s boots).

Alain, she says, cooks “au pif”, which is a sexy French way of saying he makes it up as he goes along, which is also what I do in the kitchen. “Measures are often vague – a cup, a pinch, or that wonderful French word a soupçon, a suspicion.

This is how Alain’s mother cooked, and how most French recipes are passed on from mother to daughter (or son), and this is also how we cook in our kitchen.” I couldn’t agree more with her next thought: “As far as we are concerned, this is how every self-respecting cook should go to work. Recipes are guidelines, not religious tracts,” adding, as a wry qualification, that as the baker in the house, “I am more modest, less obstreperous, when it comes to taking direction. Or maybe I’m simply not French enough. No ancestors of mine ever chopped off the king’s head.”

Under the plane tree in their summer garden, the family eat (she wrote before the book’s publication in 2010) “dishes of Provençal, Mediterranean and general French origin that may just as easily be enjoyed under a jacaranda or a kiepersol in South Africa”. And that’s a thought that has me wondering how often, as the sun dips below the horizon as she and Alain are sitting below their plane tree, her mind drifts to the Big Sky far away and her heart yearns to be right where I am right now. And that is something we must never forget, those of us who live beneath the southern sun. The lures of foreign pastures are great – who with a heart wouldn’t want to linger in Tuscany or Provence – but I swear, when you’ve been there for a while, your heart soon turns south again.

In our Karoo yards we yearn for the days when the bite of winter is tamed by the warming sun, and out we go to our yards or gardens for lunches or late-afternoon braais with the sun on our arms and in our hearts. But imagine Van der Vyver’s world as well:

When the purple irises begin blooming along the roadsides and the plane tree starts unfurling its leafy umbrella over our heads, we know it’s time to carry the table outside. We scrub it clean, cover it with a large Provençal cloth patterned with sunflowers or olives and begin to dine al fresco. We continue to eat outside, midday and evenings, twice a day, as long as the weather allows.”

And how sad, we may think, for Marita and Alain and the rest of La France that now is when the night is pulling in again, the chill is returning to the marrows of bones, and the table will soon be carried in again, if it isn’t in already. But it isn’t sad at all, as Van der Vyver writes in her Winter Food in Provence:

Winter is in fact when many of the region’s most famous food products are harvested, picked, dug up or gathered. You only have to think of the traditional vendange or grape harvest in September, the region’s famous olives whose time comes later in the year, and the even more famous truffles that come into their own during winter. Some of the most glorious food traditions are winter traditions, such as the oysters and foie gras knocked back with such gusto at Christmas, the Treize Desserts or Thirteen Desserts that conclude any respectable Provençal Christmas meal, the King’s Cake with lucky charms hidden in the marzipan filling to celebrate the feast of Epiphany in early January, the stacks of Chandeleur pancakes in February…”

Meanwhile, down south, our time under the southern sun, for another season, is upon us, and we could do worse than to choose a spot somewhere in the garden, those who are lucky enough to have one, and choose a table to carry out there, and to find or buy a brightly-coloured tablecloth to adorn it with and then to plan lunches and braais out there, because we’re alive, the sunshine is free, and if we’re well enough to spend some time in the kitchen making wonderful food out of very little – for great food doesn’t have to involve the most expensive ingredients – we’re as blessed as we are with the sun on our necks and the scent of a rose or a lavender bush as we return to our gardens.

Just as I wrote that, Karen Michau, a restaurateur in Cradock, was saying to a customer on the verandah of her restaurant, Cinnamon, “It’s time for a change, it’s spring!” So true. I’m planting lettuce and coriander and spinach and pak choi at the moment, and eyeing the life-saving spekboom that grows wild in these parts – for that is great in a salad too – and dipping into these books is focusing my mind on the spring that is almost here. A spring that I feared, in the thick of winter, I may not see. Spring has always been my favourite season, but crawling your way through a dark tunnel called double pneumonia has a way of focusing your mind and, once the winter’s gone, has you glorying like never before in the simple joys of a flower or a warm breeze.

My modest garden may not be much like those described in that magnificent tome, Festive France – in which the splendid artist Louis Jansen van Vuuren writes of a potager, those little French vegetable gardens – but to me it’s a little paradise. He writes:

A potager isn’t just any old cottage garden. No, this is where the French plant their vegetables, herbs and even some decorative flowers for the household. His was a neatly segmented patch where leeks, carrots and cauliflower all thrived in perfect symmetry. In the furthermost corner there were a few burly artichokes with their distinctive green and purple heads. Just to enforce the sanctity of this little Eden, it was also framed by a double row of marigolds in full bloom. Les roses d’Inde, the French call them. According to tradition, these cheerful yellow and orange flowers are planted to repel dreaded insects from young and vulnerable vegetables. And it works. I too have tried this and, lo and behold, the insects’ spoiling tactics have been averted. Well, sort of. Because, you see, the Afrikaans word for marigolds is Afrikanertjies. I may simply have convinced myself that they would do the job out of a pure and unfailing sense of Calvinist duty.”

(Quick mental note to wander into the plant nursery behind me after I’ve written this and watch Tannie Petro’s face when I ask her if she has any Afrikanertjies.)

Jansen van Vuuren, with chef Hardy Olivier and “stylish woman with boundless energy and vision” Anet Pienaar, first bought a house in a crooked lane in the village of Lapeyrouse, and Louis Jansen van Vuuren is no less entertaining than Mayle in describing the day they moved in and how they nearly fell foul of the law. But that turned out to be only a stepping stone as they finally found the courage to sell up whatever they had back in South Africa and invest in a magnificent Chateau in Auvergne, which they bought in 2001 and turned into a bespoke destination for idylls of any sort, from breakaways to weddings or writers’ retreats.

They may make you pigeon on hay, or roasted quail with dried fruit; rose ice cream or Marie-Thérèse Amichaud-Debize’s lemon tart, maybe they’ll whip you up a tarte tatin. Either way, no matter how sublime it is, and it undoubtedly would be, there will come the time when the southern sun beckons, and you long to be in the big plane flying south. Home. DM

Read about the time Tony Jackman saw Meryl Streep being momentarily blinded at the Cannes Film Festival and other tales of food and life in his book foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), a cookbook-cum-memoir with essays about life and food, illustrated by 60 recipes, which was nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (2018) in the category for best food writing. Book enquiries: [email protected]


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