Home sweet food, food sweet home

Home sweet food, food sweet home
Potbrood and Kasselshoop cheese in Stilbaai. (Marita van der Vyver)

How do you know you’re home after a long absence? You feel it, you hear it, you see and smell it, and – above all – you taste it.

In the good old BC days (Before Covid) I used to travel to my birth country a few times a year, so the longing for people and places, sounds and tastes never became too severe. But in the past two years of lockdowns and restrictions I managed to touch the soil of Mzansi only once. And that was such a sad and stressed visit – saying farewell to my dad in a Covid hospital, spending most of the time in isolation to make sure I pass the health tests to fly back to my family in France – that it couldn’t possibly still my hunger.

Now, after touring all over Europe and the USA for six months, and passing so many PCR tests and lateral flow tests and self-tests that my nose is feeling as invaded as that of a cocaine addict, I am finally back for three months of kuier-ing with family and friends. And as always, as in the BC days, these kuiers are fuelled by food, glorious food. And drink, of course.

Still, this visit is different.

There was no one to meet me as I stepped off the plane at Cape Town International Airport, which made me realise, with a dull thud of finality, that my dad was dead. In years past Pa was usually there to meet his children and grandchildren at the airport, or we would rent a car and drive straight to the West Coast where he was waiting for us. Ever since his death a year ago I was probably subconsciously convincing myself I would see him again if only I could get to South Africa.

And then it hit me at the airport. I will never ever see Pa again. One of the daughterly duties I have to fulfil while I’m here is to place his ashes in a wall behind the church of his village, next to my mother’s ashes, in a little niche he bought decades ago.

But up to that sad day – and surely on that day – and until I fly back to France I will be getting my tongue around this country again. Chewing my way through childhood memories, rediscovering favourite flavours, textures and tastes, jolted by culinary souvenirs, in a Proustian voyage to remembered food.

And the fact that my French travelling partner doesn’t know many of these tastes makes the journey even more of an adventure.

So after I’d shed a few quiet tears on Alain’s shoulder while waiting in the passport queue at the airport, I led him to a little shop selling biltong and droëwors. Even before we picked up our rented car for a trip to Stilbaai, where I had to participate in a writers’ festival the next day, we needed padkos. Dried meat to snack on as a cure against sorrow, while simultaneously wallowing in nostalgia, recalling many other road trips to Stilbaai since my earliest childhood.

These snacks were just to keep us going for the first hour. Once we crossed Sir Lowry’s Pass we stopped at Houw Hoek Hotel – scene of youthful indiscretions and partying since my student days in Stellenbosch – to order a good old South African toasted cheese sandwich with chips. The local cousin of the French Croque Madame with frites, and although comparisons are supposed to be odious, I’ve always preferred the cousin I’ve known since childhood.

In Riviersonderend we stopped again, to stock up on some of Ou Meul’s delicious pies for our evening meal. I really miss meat pies in France, where they bake fabulous big tartes salées and tourtes, but nothing that comes close to the small and simple meat pies for one person that you can buy anywhere in South Africa. We couldn’t choose between the fillings, so we bought a whole selection: mutton, venison, chicken and of course the traditional steak and kidney.

Rusks from Riviersonderend. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

I was also overjoyed to find wholewheat rusks (with pecans and almonds) for my morning coffee. Yet another South African delicacy I miss so much in France that I’ve resorted to baking my own rusks – although my home-baked beskuit never tastes as good as the rusks I buy in this country. I blame the French ingredients I have to use, but perhaps it is simply because food tastes better in the place it comes from?

Once we reached Stilbaai, the feast of food continued in the company of friends. The crayfish and kabeljou we had in the Anchor Restaurant in the harbour almost had me in tears, each mouthful bringing another happy memory. The next day the bobotie pancake in Coffee and Cream – with Appletiser and Grapetiser, oh joy! – had the same effect. Ditto for the roosterkoek prepared in the tent outside the Baptist Church Hall where the writers’ festival was held.

After barely a week in the country, I know once again that I’m not looking for fancy food when I’m here. I’m looking for “lost time”, for remembrance of things past, and the range of food that can trigger this remembrance is astonishingly large.

Sweetie Pie, now advertised with the slogan Everyone’s Favourite Soft Spot. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Ordinary brand names like Appletiser and Sweetie Pie (another kind of pie I used to love, now advertised with the slogan “Everyone’s Favourite Soft Spot”) and fresh fruit like mangos and pineapples and pawpaws (Alain swooned when he had a sliced mango for breakfast, declaring that he’d never tasted a mango so perfectly ripe and sweet in Europe) and vegetables like sweet potatoes with bright yellow insides (in France they have orange flesh like pumpkins) and corn on the cob. Among my most treasured Stilbaai memories are the mealies that a farmer used to sell under a tree next to the river during Christmas holidays in the Sixties and Seventies, so of course we had to buy mealies while we’re here.

And how could we not try the boerewors of the local butchers whose fame has spread far beyond Stilbaai? We grilled the boerewors outside on a fire and ate it with braaibroodjies – what else? I often make braaibroodjies in France and my French family-in-laws adore this simple sandwich (once again, only a distant relative of their elegant Croque Madame or Croque Monsieur), but eating a braaibroodjie here, under the Southern Cross, with the unique herbal smell of the veld around Stilbaai hanging in the night air, is a culinary experience on a different level. Ask my French partner if you don’t believe me.

We’ve also had a soft round potbrood (another bread I had to explain to the Frenchman) with a selection of handcrafted cheese from Kasselshoop, belonging to the Kasselman family of Stilbaai, apparently related to me on my maternal grandmother’s side. And although I’d never met these family members, their cheese made my homecoming taste even sweeter.

There have been some delightful meals shared with friends on a stoep, the kind which starts off as lunch and continues until evening because everyone is too lazy to leave, so you just sink lower and lower in one of the comfortable stoep chairs. By sunset the whole company is more horizontal than vertical, and you don’t even need to talk much any more, you simply wallow in being here, among people you’ve known forever.

Skilpadjies made with chicken instead of traditional lamb’s liver. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

On Elna’s stoep we enjoyed a sumptuous spread of dishes from long ago (for me) which were an exciting discovery for Alain. He tasted skilpadjies for the first time, and although it was a modified version (chicken rather than the traditional lamb’s liver wrapped in the fatty membrane surrounding the kidneys) it was love at first bite. Now I can’t wait to show him the real McCoy. As a true old-fashioned Frenchman he loves liver and kidneys and tripe and other unmentionable parts of dead animals, so I’m sure he’ll appreciate these little liver parcels with the poetic name of “small tortoises”.

There were also huge bowls of kerrieboontjies (curried green beans) and kerrieperskes (curried peaches) and corn on the cob and potbrood and more Kasselshoop cheeses (Cheddar or Gouda with olives, with nettles, with chilli peppers, with red or green peppers) and dishes that we didn’t even get a chance to taste. Because the eyes are so often bigger than the stomach, as my Stilbaai ouma used to warn us in her Calvinist way.

Corn on the cob, curried green beans and curried peaches. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

But we’ll be touring under the Southern Cross until May, so there should be more than enough time to acquaint my French beloved with my favourite home-sweet-home food. And through his enchanted reaction to food I’ve been taking for granted for as long as I can remember, I fall in love with this food all over again.

Something as ordinary as hot cross buns, for instance, suddenly becomes exotic as I try to explain the tradition to a Frenchman who has never tasted these spiced sweet buns. Originating in England centuries ago and part of Easter celebrations in Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada and South Africa, they are still largely unknown in France. I tell the Frenchman about the many superstitions surrounding the buns, such as giving a piece to a sick person to help him recover, or taking a few buns on a sea voyage to protect against shipwreck, or hanging a bun in the kitchen to ensure that all breads baked in the kitchen turn out beautifully.

Hot cross buns with Stilbaai cheese and Montagu biltong. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

If you bake and serve these buns on Good Friday, according to folklore, they won’t get stale or mouldy and will last until next Easter.

Alain looks deeply sceptical when he hears this, so I cease explaining and give him a fresh hot cross bun to taste. The expression of pure pleasure on his face convinces me to eat one too. And voilà, it is as if I am tasting it for the very first time.

Fortunately there is more than a month left until Easter. I’ll be able to taste quite a few hot cross buns with him, through him, as if for the first time. DM/TGIFood

Follow Marita on Instagram Faking French.

The author supports Ladles of Love, an NGO feeding the hungry and providing healthy food in Cape Town. You can support them here Ladles of Love.


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