Bring me a cup of boeretroos

Bring me a cup of boeretroos
‘Lekker moerkoffie’ in Hell (Die Hel, Gamkaskloof). (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

One of the reasons I’m revelling in our extended road trip through the Karoo and the platteland is because it has become possible to find a decent cup of coffee even in the most remote places. This is a recent development, I assure my astonished French partner. This is not the platteland of my youth.

I am not a culinary snob. I’ll swallow plonk as easily as prize-winning wines, I’ll eat whatever you offer me, as long as it’s lovingly prepared or enthusiastically presented. But I draw the line at bad coffee. I refuse to drink weak coffee, instant coffee, chicory coffee and other abhorrent imitations of the real thing. I’d rather stay thirsty.

That’s why I often stayed thirsty during our recent travels in the USA.

In big cities like New York or San Francisco there are more than enough trendy coffee bars with tattooed baristas and single-origin bean menus, but once you hit the highways and byways outside the cities, your choice dwindles dramatically. How I yearned for a small cup of strong black filter coffee, no milk, no sugar, nothing added to spoil the taste of freshly ground beans. Yes, I believe really good coffee deserves to be tasted for what it is, not disguised by cream or almond milk or vanilla flavours or artificial sweeteners.

You wouldn’t pour ketchup over a chef’s meal in a good restaurant, would you? So why would you pour anything into a perfectly decent cup of coffee?

Okay, I’m probably a coffee snob. All I can say in my own defence is that I wasn’t born this way. I achieved coffee snobbery the hard way, mug after mug, cup by cup, through many decades.

Boeretroos and mebos (sugared dried apricots) at Stirlings, Nieu-Bethesda. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

So imagine my joy – as undiluted as I like my coffee – when I realised that nowadays you can find better coffee in the South African platteland than in huge stretches of rural America. It was not always the case, I tell Alain, who is as delighted with this development as I am. Not so long ago most South African coffee drinkers were rather unsophisticated, and the last place you would look for good coffee would be a village in the countryside or a small seaside town.

Coffee with a view at Columbine & Co in Bokkom Laan, Velddrif. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

But the times they are a-changin’, I mutter with every cup of tasty coffee I sip, from Stilbaai to Cape St Francis to Velddrif on the coast, or inland from Cradock to Richmond to Loxton. And thank heavens some things actually change for the better. We even found good strong filter coffee, flaunted as lekker moerkoffie on a sign in front of the only shop in Gamkaskloof, better known as Die Hel.

We instantly decided that Hell couldn’t be such a bad place after all. 

Coffee and an enormous slice of milk tart at Richmond Café & Rooms. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

My own long journey to coffee enlightenment started with instant chicory coffee in a mug every morning before school (with lots of milk and three spoons of sugar), and led me into quite a few dead-ends along the way. As a suburban child visiting family on farms, I would sometimes be served boeretroos brewed on the stove, moerkoffie made with the help of an old flour bag hung in an enamel pot. This was a bit too exotic for a girl raised on Ricoffy, so I added even more milk and sugar.

Most of the time I didn’t actually drink the coffee, I would just dump a homemade rusk in the mug and slurp the liquid from the rusk until it disintegrated. It was all about the rusks. The coffee, whether instant chicory or weak moerkoffie, was almost incidental.

‘Lekker moerkoffie’ in Hell (Die Hel, Gamkaskloof). (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

In my insecure adolescence the milk and sugar got less, mainly because I was always on some ridiculous diet, and in my boarding school years the coffee turned blue, the result of milk coffee being kept tepid in huge stainless steel containers for too many hours. As a student I finally graduated to coffee without sugar and swopped chicory for “real coffee” – one small step that felt like one giant leap in my coffee education. Although it was still instant coffee. Powder coffee mixed with boiling water from an electric kettle.

Iced coffee with something sweet on a very hot day at Aardvark Eats, Riebeek Kasteel. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

It was only when I started working in Cape Town that I discovered German filter coffee and potent Italian cappuccinos in places like Zerbans in the Gardens Centre and Giovanni’s in Green Point. Always “foreign” places, with owners coming from faraway countries, which convinced me that my own people don’t know about coffee. We might call it boeretroos, but I found my consolation in European coffees.

Coffee and scones at Veldskoen Padstal just outside De Doorns. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Until a boyfriend introduced me to African coffee. Initially I bought a commercial brand from Kenya for my new filter-coffee machine, but as I got more and more hooked, I began to experiment with coffee beans from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda…

I’ve long since reached a point of no return. Wherever I travel in the world nowadays, I always look out for African coffee.

Pots of Ethiopian coffee ready to be poured. (Photo: ammarhreib on Pixabay)

The best cup of coffee of my entire life I tasted in a small Ethiopian restaurant in the heart of Paris about 30 years ago. The owner, tall and proud and dressed in a flowing robe, roasted the beans on the table in front of us, ground them until the odour drove us dizzy with desire, then almost teasingly slowly poured the steaming smooth black liquid into small cups. I knew, on the spot, that this was a life-changing sensual experience. Coffee as good as very good sex.

From that moment on I would inevitably compare all coffee with the heavenly Ethiopian ambrosia I’d tasted in Paris. Nothing has beaten it, so far. I suspect nothing ever could.

Vietnamese coffee. (Photo: Irish83 on Pixabay)

Although the coffee in Vietnam came close. Vietnamese iced coffee or cà phê đà made from dark roast local beans with a small metal drip filter which releases drops of coffee slowly into a cup, after which the hot coffee is immediately poured into a glass full of ice – is an irresistible drink in a humid climate. While I was in the country, I also tried the traditional iced coffee mixed with condensed milk, and coffee into which beaten egg yolk is poured, throwing all caution to the wind and forgetting my own strict rules about not adding anything to good coffee. When in Rome, after all, so when in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City…

Kopi Luwak beans from Indonesia. (Photo: SaraJanssen on Pixabay)

I even tasted the famous kopi luwak, apparently the most expensive coffee in the world, known by American tourists as “cat’s poop coffee” because the beans are defecated by civets. This truly exotic drink, originally from Indonesia, is now frowned upon by animal rights activists, because the civets are kept in cages and force-fed to produce the desired faeces from which the beans are plucked. I’m slightly ashamed, therefore, to admit that I really liked the taste.

Then again, I’ve been living in France for more than two decades, where geese and ducks are still force-fed to produce foie gras. And I’m just as (slightly) ashamed to admit that I still love foie gras. So who am I to jump on a moral high horse because of kopi luwak? Fortunately, due to the outrageous price, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience even as I was sipping the precious drops of black gold.

Coffee and vetkoek for breakfast at Adley House Guesthouse, Oudtshoorn. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

And Vietnam will retain a special place in my coffee lover’s heart, even without its iced coffee and egg coffee and poop’s coffee. Each time I enjoyed a cup of “ordinary” strong black coffee from local beans, it was an extraordinary experience.

But now that I’m back on the African continent, I’m more convinced than ever that we produce the best coffee beans. The Italians and the Vietnamese and other nations might have taken the fine art of drinking coffee to fabulous heights, but we have the most fabulous basic product right here on this continent. I now know that I will always prefer coffee from African beans to any other coffee.

Of course not all the good coffee I enjoy on this journey through the platteland is made from home-grown beans. I am nevertheless delighted each time I taste an excellent cup of coffee in an unlikely rural setting. Because unlikely has become perfectly likely, even in a place called Hell, and I’ve come a long way to discover this. 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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