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On the road with Tannie Maria, gun-toting Zaba, and pad...

TGIFOOD

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On the road with Tannie Maria, gun-toting Zaba, and padkos. Lots of padkos.

Tannie Maria's world-famous Pineapple Butternut Cake. Camagu! Photo: Vanessa Brown

If you saw Tannie Maria at the Spar shopping for flour, eggs and castor sugar, you wouldn’t guess at the escapades she gets herself into. Or that in her ordinary life she writes an agony aunt column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. And that’s just her ordinary life. Never mind when she has to flee for her life.

I feel as though I know Tannie Maria. A bit plump, quite cuddly. Given to blushing. Not very fast on her feet until she has to be. The unlikeliest of action heroes. If an action hero is an aunty shuffling very fast down the main street of the dorpie in her red veldskoene in pursuit of a bad guy. Or slashing the tyres of some up-to-no-good foreigners at the top of the Swartberg Pass.

The more I get to know about Tannie Maria, the more I wish I could invite her around for a braai or a potjie in the backyard. With her red veldskoene on. She must have endless stories about the people she’s helped through her work in Ladismith, the Klein Karoo town where she lives. Where there’s always something going on, even if you wouldn’t notice anything odd when passing through. In the Ladismith Country Manor hotel, for instance. You never know what may be going on there. And who may be sitting at the next table to you at the Roadkill Cafe at Ronnie’s Sex Shop on Route 62, or who those people are in the car parked next to the Ducati at the Rose of the Karoo in Calitzdorp or at Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen just up the drag. Or that guy in the Cango Caves.

If you saw Tannie Maria at the Spar shopping for flour, eggs and castor sugar, you wouldn’t guess at the escapades she gets herself into. Or that in her ordinary life she writes an agony aunt column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. And that’s just her ordinary life. Never mind when she has to flee for her life.

Tannie Maria thinks about food and cooking wherever she goes. Even if she goes to Limpopo or finds herself in a tricky situation on top of the Swartberg Pass, aka the world’s most dangerous pass. Or at least the most dangerous pass in the Karoo. In other words, in Tannie Maria’s world. Which happens to be her creator Sally Andrew’s world too, coincidentally.

As with so many people, there is much more to Tannie Maria than meets the uninformed eye. Those ladies pushing their trolleys at the Shoprite and Kwikspar all over the Karoo? You never know what they’ve been up to. Just ask Tannie Maria. She could hazard a very shrewd guess.

If you’ve reached this point not knowing who Tannie Maria is, you haven’t been reading Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria mysteries. Until a few weeks ago, I fell into the same category of people who were missing out on this lively lady and her wild exploits. The book I have just read is her latest, Death on the Limpopo, a Tannie Maria Mystery. The novel was sent to me by Andrew herself, who is a fan of these food pages in Daily Maverick. But there’s more to it than that. She is a fan of all of Daily Maverick, to the extent that the main character in the new novel (other than Tannie Maria herself of course) is a Daily Maverick investigative journalist. But a fictional one, lest you think Pauli du Toit and Marianne Thamm run around the veld revolver at the hip. (Did I mention that her three Tannie Maria novels are published in 14 languages all over the planet?)

So Zaba is not really, really a Daily Maverick investigative journalist. Though I can imagine that editor-in-chief Branko Brkic would hire her, were she an actual person and not merely a figment of Sally Andrew’s vivid imagination. Although Branko might have to say, “… erm, just one thing… you’ll have to lose the revolver”.

But I wouldn’t lose the revolver in this work of fiction. It’s as much a part of Zabanguni Kani’s sharply drawn lines as her head-to-toe black leather, moonbag, boots and the gleaming Ducati she rides (I don’t think the actual, actual DM investigative journos could afford that). Zaba, the Modesty Blaise of South African investigative reporters. Zaba who, when she first arrived in town, “headed straight for the Gazette like an eagle swooping onto a dassie”. Such is Tannie Maria’s way of describing life according to the things around her, whether the wildlife, the Karoo trees and bossies, and the things people eat. I have never seen Marianne Thamm swooping onto a dassie, but I have no doubt she could do it if called upon.

The things people eat. Food is always somewhere front of mind no matter what plight Tannie Maria might be in. Which she frequently is in. So she thinks about food a lot. And she loves butter. And cream. Lots of cream. She’s always adding more cream to things, just in case. She might be in a high-speed chase yet somehow her mind will find a place for a nice slice of melktert or a lekker stukkie droëwors. Even if chased by an enraged bull, somehow she would find herself able to mull over whether to put mace or bay leaf, or both, into the broccoli soup tonight.

And when she writes her wry, gentle replies to letters readers have written to her Love Advice and Recipe Column, food always finds a way in, just as it does in life for those of us who see food and life as first cousins, joined from birth unto death. Like “Embarrassed Lady”, who wrote asking Tannie Maria for some advice apropos her husband’s rather embarrassing bedroom requests. “Dear Embarrassed Lady,” she replied. “I understand that you don’t want to lose a man who can cook… (and after some advice) … But maybe you could cook up something spicy together. Here is a recipe for a spicy tart, laced with brandy, with lashings of whipped cream and hot chocolate sauce. Just one taste of this, and he will be begging for more.” Tart. She means tart.

And the two unlikely partners in adventure set off on the road together with joint quests in mind. Punctuated with food. At Polka Café in Graaff-Reinet, Zaba and Tannie Maria order slow-roasted lamb followed by Bella’s Divine Loaf, “made with dried figs, almonds, hazelnuts, mixed peel, and chunks of dark chocolate”. On the road, there’s always padkos in the car or bakkie. She even thinks about them when she is in a tight spot in the freezing cold with a bad guy called James. “I had poppy-seed beskuit in the bakkie, but I didn’t think I should share rusks with this man. Coffee might already be going too far.”

Tannie Maria’s favourite Poppyseed Buttermilk Rusks. Photo: Bowen Boshier

Tannie Maria’s wry, self-deprecating, even shy humour must surely reflect her creator’s. It’s a delight all the way through the story. Near Prince Albert they camp overnight:

Cheese and Beer pot bread. Photo: Bowen Boshier

Zaba braaied our lamb chops on a little grid, and we ate them with harissa paste and butternut, and avo and tomato salad. The planets came out, and then the stars. First one by one, then in groups of ten or twenty. After a while, there were too many to count. Even if you counted all night long.

That’s a beautiful evocation of a Karoo night sky and what it means to live under it. But there’s more. Food, I mean.

Tannie Maria also has a very soft spot for her beloved Henk, with his twirly moustache. One can imagine how much love she put into the Venus cake she made for him.

Henk’s Venus Cake. Photo: Andre Kruger

 

That is, when she’s not making her favourite pineapple butternut cake, sommer right there in the coals:

There was a lot of butternut left over. Just the right amount for a pineapple butter cake, with cream-cheese vanilla icing…

The cake gets baked on the coals, in a pot. Who knew.

Much later, in the Camdeboo National Park, near Graaff-Reinet, Zaba and Tannie Maria check in at another campsite. Zaba finds Imifino growing in a dry riverbed. Maria takes up the story:

I joined her and said, ‘Oh, it’s pigweed!’ which sounded rude, so I said ‘wild spinach’.

‘We’re lucky to find it in winter,’ she said. ‘Umama wam has sent it to me.’ She bent down to pick some. ‘Camagu,’ she said, thanking her ancestors. I wish there were amakhowa. But we won’t find wild mushrooms at this time of year.’

We worked together and set up our camping kitchen: fire, table, chairs, pots and pans. There was a tap under the thorn tree and Zaba rinsed the samp and beans, then put them in a pot on the fire.

She asked me to get some things from the fridge. [They have a camping fridge.] Milk, mushrooms, beer and cheese, while she took out food from the boxes: sorghum, peanuts, garlic, rosemary, onions …

‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘The milk’s gone sour. But there’s some long-life in a box.’

‘Amasi,’ said Zaba. ‘Sour milk. Perfect. Another gift from my ancestors. Camagu.’

‘I thought you didn’t drink milk?’

‘No, I’m lactose intolerant. But when milk sours, it becomes digestible.’

Zaba seems to challenge Tannie Maria’s inventiveness as a cook as their adventure deepens. Further on, Zaba accompanies her dish of umngqusho (samp and beans) with sorghum risotto made with mushrooms, walnuts, thyme and Parmesan. These two do not slum it when on the long, scary road. This meal also has creamed wild spinach cooked in sour milk and butter, Tannie Maria’s beer and cheese pot bread, and figs roasted with honey, butter, almonds and coconut. Note the butter, butter everywhere. My mind’s-eye picture of a cherubic Tannie M adds another kilo or two.

Sally Andrew and gwarrie tree, Karoo. Photo: Bowen Boshier

What would I cook for Tannie Maria if she could step off the page and into my braai area? Apart from butter and cream. I’d be quite awed to begin with. Her recipes are colourful and inspiring, with clever use of unlikely ingredients or unusual combinations of aromatics.

On the page Tannie Maria will remain, but also in my imagination. Maybe Sally Andrew herself will suffice, when she passes through town one day with Tannie Maria in her head, her delicious literary creation unwittingly about to set off on a new adventure on another long road. Maybe she can bring Zaba with her too. I might organise a dassie for her to swoop onto. I will also insist that Tannie Maria makes her pineapple butter cake. With cream. Lots of cream. Just in case. DM

Death on the Limpopo, a Tannie Maria Mystery. Published by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House
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