Errieda du Toit’s love affair with South African food
A special meal would not be complete without Ma Inez’s chicken pie, a recipe passed down and held dear; an ordinary pie filled with symbolism.
The older I get, the more nostalgic I become. Today I am thinking about those highly desirable boxes of Crayola crayons in 64 colours we were lucky to get when we were children. With the sharpener. The soft shades of cornflower and periwinkle; the subtle difference between yellow green and green yellow; the range between blue, violet and blue violet, red orange and orange red. I’m beginning to think maybe they were having a laugh there in the crayon factory.
Even the shades of brown, my least favourite palette because of the colour of my school uniform, held delights like mahogany and bittersweet, whatever that was. Copper was one of my favourites.
And burnt sienna. That’s the one that comes to mind now when I think of the tray of malva pudding kolwyntjies perched on a pile of books, on the kitchen table which was a wedding gift to Errieda and Ian du Toit 39 years ago. It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived at their Welgemoed home for the lunch I had instigated.
My motives were both pure and selfish. I’ve known the Du Toits for many years; more recently Errieda’s television work – In Die Sop, MasterChef SA – has brought her prominently into my life, for various food stories. She is incredibly generous with her time and expertise, and kind. There could not have been a better choice for the Duty Of Care role for MasterChef – a house mother to the contestants – and Du Toit was also a content creator for the show. With decades in the food industry, 10 cookbooks, television, PR, and radio, I thought it was time to bring her out of the background and put her into the spotlight.
But I was also highly influenced by Du Toit’s social media posts, on Facebook and Instagram (follow @huiskok). These are a regular stream of gorgeous photos (often taken by photographer hubby Ian) and beautiful descriptions in English and Afrikaans. How could I wangle myself an invitation? Now you know.
Once we’d set the date, Du Toit messaged me to ask what I’d like her to cook for me. “Is there anything you would enjoy particularly?” she said. “I love feeding the people with the things they love.”
By way of example she added she had once made 72 pumpkin fritters for a friend who was missing his mom’s. Like when someone asks what your favourite song or movie (or restaurant) is, you immediately forget everything you know, the best I could offer was that I like saucy things, and nothing burny. The night before our lunch, Du Toit sent me a video of her and Ian busy with oxtail, and the chicken for her late mother’s pie.
Ma Inez Espost would always make something significant for each family member, something they enjoyed. But whether it was a birthday or Christmas or a Sunday get-together, if it didn’t have that chicken pie on the table, somehow it was not quite as celebratory.
“It’s just a very ordinary pie,” said Du Toit. “It’s one of the things that in terms of my food life is a symbol. When you’re 12, when you’re 16, when you’re 21, you enjoy your mom’s food but you’re definitely not asking for the recipe, or wanting to remember it. That was me.
“By the time I was falling in love with South African food and the food of my roots, it coincided with the stage where my mom couldn’t remember. It was the start of her forgetfulness.”
One day, the chicken pie didn’t taste as it should. “I knew this wasn’t my mom’s. I expected it to taste like every Sunday, and it didn’t. Not that it wasn’t pleasant but it was not quite right,” she said.
“It dawned on me then, and I started noticing she no longer cooked it herself. It was something sacred for me, and I realised I had to face that I am the custodian of these things and try to find out what I can. I called her and asked her for the recipe. Nat King Cole was playing on the radio on her side, and it’s unbelievable the power of music and the conversation we had.
“As I started asking questions, things would come back to her and she’d start saying the ingredients. It was very specific, and ‘never forget the vinegar’. I’m now a purist when it comes to her chicken pie.”
The recipe has become quite famous and is easily found at multiple sources on Google. Purist as she is, Du Toit warns that if you get it wrong there’s nothing to add later to fix it. “My mother might have added a few rashers of bacon, if she was feeling reckless, but she never would have added mushrooms – which I did this morning. I might have forgotten something. Bay leaves? She would make the most beautiful patterns with leftover pastry. Not precision work but it was her moment of creativity.”
Du Toit told me she had made me things that are part of their life, which in itself is a love language. “We’re also having pampoenkoekies today, also very symbolic for me,” she said. “They are one of Ian’s favourite things in the whole wide world. The first time I took him to visit my parents, my mother immediately really really liked him a lot, and the next time we came, we sat at a round table similar to this one,” (she taps the table which was a wedding gift) and she made him pampoenkoekies and that was the affirmation.”
Pampoenkoekies are pumpkin fritters, the flat ones, with no raising agent, not to be confused with pampoenpoffertjies, or pumpkin puffs. The liberal dusting with cinnamon sugar defines the fritters for the South African palate, and in the 1970s they caught on as a dessert and not only a side dish at the main meal. Personally I love the incongruous sweetness alongside savoury dishes. I also like pineapple on pizza, fight me.
In Ma Inez’s twilight years, Errieda and Ian began having her over to their house for Sunday lunches. She’d lost interest in eating but Du Toit always made sure there was something on the table she hadn’t had before. “I’d tell her we were going on a ‘trip’ to somewhere exotic, and explain the dish,” said Du Toit. “It would pique her interest and she’d eat like an ox. So my repertoire of new things and adventurous eating was also part of my relationship with my mom. I made some of my greatest discoveries in that time.”
One of those Sunday trips was to the East, to China, for a crossover dish, from summer to autumn or winter to spring. And it was a way to bring in the sauce I’d asked for. “This oxtail is not the South African oxtail. This one is typically lighter and if you yearn for oxtail but don’t want the heaviness, this is the one,” said Du Toit.
It had been made the day before, and is pitch black, very dark, because of the soy sauce. It has ginger and orange and star anise, brown sugar and Chinese cooking wine, and garnished with orange zest and spring onions. “Ma couldn’t believe I would serve something so dark it looked burnt,” said Du Toit.
Side dishes besides the pumpkin fritters were stewed fruit which had been soaked in port and rooibos overnight (again the sweetness), beetroot salad with candy-striped sour cream dressing, and mustard dressing, and one more thing extremely close to Du Toit’s heart: heer bone, or herenbone, from the Sandveld district on the West Coast, the only place they grow, in inhospitable sandy soil. They’re poisonous when they are raw (good to know), so they need to be cooked twice, in different water. There’s no satisfactory English translation but it’s thought the name refers to the early Dutch governors in the Cape. Fat white beans with a black “navel”, heer bone are classified as an heirloom vegetable in South Africa.
“I sometimes make hummus or a mash. They’re also beautiful with sweet and sour mustard sauce,” said Du Toit.
And so, finally on to dessert, those burnt sienna kolwyntjies I’d had my eye on from the beginning. Again, no suitable English word. They’re not cupcakes. They’re not muffins, although they were baked in a muffin tin. “I grew up with kolwyntjies and that would have been our birthday party treat as a kid. I love the name,” said Du Toit.
These were individual malva puddings, the ultimate brown pudding, sort of. A brown pudding – sticky toffee, vinegar – is one in which the syrup is added to the batter before baking. For malva pudding it is added afterwards.
“I love the traditional malva with brandy in the sauce, and I support malva pudding because it’s the closest we have to a national pudding. I have much respect for it,” said Du Toit.
“The only thing I made different today is I made it in muffin pans because it’s a big recipe and I didn’t want to halve it. I made the batter slightly more cakey. The one drawback is being dome shaped, when you throw over the syrup, it doesn’t soak in.”
No problem. Du Toit lifted each malva kolwyntjie out its mould and then replaced it in its bath of sauce, allowing it to be absorbed from the bottom, all rich and gooey and delicious, with ice cream.
Du Toit’s most recently published book is Share (Saam in Afrikaans), a community cookbook compiling recipes from fellow home cooks from across the country, from the past 100 years. I swear I can smell the Peppermint Crisp tart, and those jam squares may have their roots in this country but my British granny made them too, a childhood favourite.
If you’re not Afrikaans you possibly don’t know what a noorsie is but you’ll recognise them instantly. One pot wonders, skilpadjies, Lettie’s seven-layer salad, recipes for electric frying pans and microwaves, and the famous Cremora tart – this book belongs in your collection alongside Cook & Enjoy and The Complete South African Cookbook. Food porn is great and all, but to master the basics and cook for comfort, these are the ones to turn to.
Du Toit said she is done with books now: “I love the social media side, the immediate reaction. You have that conversation, and you can respond. I don’t do sponsored posts; I’m not an influencer, it’s not what I want to do. It’s not paid. It’s not business. That’s probably why I enjoy it so much, because I don’t feel obligated.” DM/TGIFood
The writer supports Ladles Of Love, which in six years, has grown from serving 70 meals at its first soup kitchen, to one of the most prolific food charity organisations in South Africa.
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
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