Skaapstertjies & Potjiekos: Snapshots of a true Karoo food festival
The sun seems to bless the Karoo Food Festival every year, even if the clammy grip of early winter has kept us indoors for two weeks before the event. But there it was again, blue skies and warm air for three days in a row, the last gasp of the dying summer before the inevitable chill.
Of course it’s autumn, but it felt like summer, traipsing around in T-shirts and shorts and trying not to indulge in everything in sight. Venison salami and biltong dust by Kwando Karoo, from Schoombee between Middelburg and Hofmeyr. A groaning table of wheels of Langbaken cheese from Williston in the Northern Cape. Koeksisters from even further north in that province – reputed to be the best in the nation. The redoubtable Sandra Antrobus says so, so it must be true. Sunkissed colombard from the banks of the Orange River. Spirit/gees supplied by Cradock. It happened at the long weekend just passed, on a farm 15 km from town, and in Market Street in the town centre.
This edition of the Karoo Food Festival was such a far cry from the first we attended soon after arriving in Cradock. That was in a quad in the grounds of Cradock High School, just a few stallholders and barely more punters. We took a stall, or stalletjie as they’re called here, and I cooked springbok sosaties. Did quite well but nothing to get excited about. By 2021, at a venue called The Palms, it had grown immensely. I braaied tandoori chicken sosaties and sold out. Invited to take part again this year, I spoke to Cradock Wagyu farmer Jacques le Roux and we agreed we’d mount a Wagyu beef burger stall. His Wagyu beef, my cooking. As time went by I was stressing over it and one day I sat myself down and gave myself a talking-to: If it’s stressing you, why are you doing it? So I spoke to Jacques and he was perfectly cool with us stepping aside.
A year ago I had no time at all to check out the other stalls. You’re bound to the spot. Free of that, I could savour the smells, the sights, buy some of this and some of that, taste all sorts, maybe have a drink later in the day. But this Ingelsman did get roped into judging a potjiekos competition.
At Jenkins Creek farm venue with its massive marquee flanked on four sides by stalls selling, making, baking and braaing delicious Karoo food, I left at the end of the first day with eight wedges of Langbaken cheeses in the car boot alongside a massive venison salami from Kwando at Schoombee in the triangle between Hofmeyr, Steynsburg and Middelburg, a six-pack of The Hedgehog Colombard from Oranjerivier Cellars (currently my favourite dry white) … oh and a little Victorian drawer table. There were things like that too.
On Friday night there had been a street market in Market Street, home to the Tuishuise and Victoria Manor. We devoured True Living’s skaapstertjies, boerewors rolls and beef burgers, though I did also have a taste of spit-roasted wild boar that was heavenly. It’s a food festival; you eat too much, like you do at Christmas.
At their stall selling skaapstertjies and skilpadjies by Cradock’s own Lani and Wentzel Lombard, the redoubtable Wentzel was straining at his apron to reach the sheep tails and thick, moist beef patties he’s turning and turning and turning in the naked flame. They’re finger-licking morsels, which would be hard to eat were they not fall-apart tender. You almost suck the meat from the centre of the little connected bones. It’s as meaty as it is fatty, but they’re slim, not a lot on them. They’re the perfect braai snack to nibble on while the main event is cooking, washed down by a cold beer, a glass of wine or Klippies and Coke; the last is not a bad idea at all, given the fatty nature of sheeps’ tails. As Leopoldt wrote, “Possibly the frequent use of wine in Cape cookery was an attempt to counteract the abundance of lard and sheep’s tail fat so commonly used in farm cookery.”
Across the road in Market Street there were potato and chickpea rotis from a civil society organisation shining a light on the darkness of gender based violence. As if by way of flippant contrast, parked right in front of them, braai sauces and funky attitude are blared from the gaudy trailer of braaikie.co.za with their cheeky legend and their none-too-subtle products emblazoned on the back and sides: “Please report bad braaing!” There’s nothing like a food festival for diversity in messaging.
Trekking to Jenkins Creek next morning, barely a kilometre off the Hofmeyr road, I first find the Oranjerivier Cellars stall and lose myself in the moment. How can you not buy a bottle of brandy named Ver in die ou Kalahari? Only when I get home that evening do I open it and have a taste; it’s glorious. It’s branded Die Mas brandewyn and the label attributes it to “the Hanekom family since 1970”. There’s something about the Northern Cape sun that creates something special in still, cask and bottle, and its Wine & Spirit Challenge gold medal attests to that. But my inner liquor demon is not sated. Also into the boot goes a wax-sealed bottle of Omstaan Wit Muskadel XI. That means you will uncork it to find golden soeters made from 11 vintages. It is still sealed. Its time will come.
At the Langbaken cheese table, I’m drawn by my recent memory of a course at Epice restaurant in Franschhoek entitled Ages and Degrees of Langbaken. I buy wedges of eight cheeses, because how do you choose? I had tasted them all. My palate has developed a will of its own, placing orders of its own accord; all I can do is hand my wallet over meekly and hope for the best.
That night we’re in the dining room at the Victoria Manor for their festival dinner. Wonderful soutribbetjies (salted lamb ribs), and skaapstertjies again, this time curried and served with chutney. If I say the hotel’s curried tails were better than the ones Wentzel Lombard had made the previous evening, his were superb to begin with, juicy and tender and a lesson in how good they can be. These were just, well, even better. Note to self to source some sheeps’ tails this winter and cook them for you all. Always ready for a new learning curve to bring you a fresh recipe.
The main course from the Karoo buffet offered mutton bredie, salt beef (a popular dish in this part of the world, where it also comes out for Christmas), and chicken pie with a traditional sour sauce. The chicken or venison pies at the Vic are one of the Karoo’s best kept secrets. They’re brilliant, every time. On the side: pumpkin pie, potato and green beans, sweet potato rolls, and slaphakskeentjies. Samp and roast potatoes too for a true bord kos in the Midlands Karoo style.
There had to be malva pudding for dessert, alongside two other options: moerkoffie panna cotta topped with Amaretto, and my choice of souskluitjies served with a melktert liqueur shooter and a superbly crunchy and syrupy koeksister. The souskluitjies were new to me; I don’t recall eating them before. So that’s decades of missing these utterly yummy little cinnamon dumplings. Best I catch up fast and turn some of those out for you soon too. I sense a Throwback Thursday piece coming up.
Sunday morning saw me back at Jenkins Creek for the potjiekos competition, with six teams competing for prizes and glory. I was aware of my Ingelsman status, as most of the contesting people were Afrikaans and though my taal has improved a lot since living here it’s far from perfect. One oke even said, smiling, between stirring the pot, “How can an Ingelsman judge a potjiekos competition? It’s not in your gene pool.” My answer was swift, also smiling: “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll send you links to all my published potjiekos recipes.” We both laughed; that was the spirit of the day.
Earlier I’d grabbed a copy of my book foodSTUFF from the back seat of my car as I needed something to rest the score sheet on, and when I was done with the judging I offered it to Karenza to add to one of the prizes; and she and sponsor’s representative on the judging panel, Nan Tam, elected to add the book to the main prize. The chirpy dude and his buddy ended up winning after we’d blind-tasted all their dishes in the kitchen of Jenkins Creek’s Karenza Maskell Liebenberg, so now he owns a copy of my book. He might like to try his hand at my All-Day Venison or One-Man Hantam Karoo Lambs’ Neck. In a potjie.
What goes into a potjie? Almost anything you like, but preferably including meat that needs slow cooking. In one potjie was lamb’s neck – the winning duo from Makhanda in fact; a bit awkward, that. The other five teams were all local Cradock guys. Lucky for us that they did make the tasting blind and numbered.
Another team cooked Karenza’s goose. Her surviving geese, in an adjacent field, kept staring at the potjiekos area. I was convinced they were saying, “Has anybody seen Frikkie? Haven’t seen him all day?” If it’s any consolation, Frikkie was most delicious.
Just one thing that needs airing. Shifting the event out to a farm 15 km from town effectively cut it off from the greater Cradock community. It is a Karoo festival, and people come from all over to attend, but next time they really need to have a bus shuttle between key points in town and the venue, at various times throughout the day. A park-and-ride system would be ideal.
For next time, let’s have a shisa nyama competition in tandem with the potjiekos competition. They could even be positioned in rows, back to back. Each of those competitions produces a winner, with an additional overall prize, with judges voting again, but this time only for the Shisa Nyama and Potjiekos competition winners. Another prize can be offered for best/wittiest chirping (you know, like the Vida E guys do?). Contestants from both arenas can be encouraged to wander along and taste the others’ wares. There’s great opportunity for rivalry, chirp and fun in that.
This festival has grown exponentially and it appears to be on the brink of much more growth in the next few years. Time to start planning your visit for late April 2023. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.