A TAIL WORTH TELLING
Throwback Thursday: Skaapstertjies
Sheeps’ tails. Sounds off the wall, left field; who would eat those? But for those in the know, they’re a braai side treat like no other.
Skaapstertjies. The word has so much more impact, more character, than “sheeps’ tails”. I call them by their Afrikaans name, just as I prefer melktert to “milk tart” (which sounds like warmed up milk set with gelatine) and slaphakskeentjies to “braised sweet and sour onions”. Or its literal meaning of “loose little heels”. Nobody ever ordered those in a restaurant or asked for them at the braai. Some words, like trek and fynbos, deserve to cross language boundaries, and have done. Both of those words are in the English dictionaries. We’re not going to call it “fine bush”, are we?
There’s a lot of fat in a sheep’s tail and this fat can be rendered down to skaapstertjie tallow, to be used for cooking other things. I considered doing that, but you have to make a choice: do you want the delicious tail fat to braise your onions in for that curry, or to savour that delicious skaapstertjie meat, which has a flavour all its own? The meat’s flavour is quite different from the rest of the animal, just as the meat from the narrow end of the roasted lamb leg has that spellbinding taste. If you render the fat, you will have tiny morsels of crispy meat, but you’ll lose that soft lusciousness.
First thing to take note of when talking about skaapstertjies is that we’re talking about sheeps’ tails, not lambs’. There’s not a great amount of meat on a sheep’s tail, so the young animal’s equivalent is really not worth the effort. And a little effort does go into preparing skaapstertjies. You need to boil them for an hour in water with aromatics. These could be anything you fancy: the classic style of adding chopped carrots, onions, leeks and celery to the water, and/or bay leaf, lemon or orange leaf, hard spices such as black peppercorns, juniper berries or allspice, fresh herbs, anything that will impart some flavour to the skaapstertjies rather than have them boil in unadorned water. I used peppercorns, juniper and thyme sprigs for mine. All they will do, whichever you choose, is lend an underbelly of flavour to the meat and fat in the tails; you’ll still need a baste to finish them off.
As for where you’ll find skaapstertjies, it’s a delicacy you’ll need to scout for. I found mine this week at the Karoo Padstal on the N1 between Richmond and Hanover. It’s a brilliant farm stall, one of the best I’ve seen in the entire country. You could store this recipe for whenever you’re planning a country trip, then pop into small-town butcheries and farm stalls, and you will get lucky. But certain city meat suppliers may have them too – specialist meat palaces may well order them in for you – so shop around.
Don’t be daunted by that thought. Developing a relationship with a butcher is a sweet thing; they get to know what you tend to look for and you’ll find after a while that they’ll keep you in mind next time they come across something interesting or unusual. “Hey, Tony, I’ve got some sweetbreads for you.” Or, “Hey, fancy a sheep’s head today?” kind of thing.
You cook skaapstertjies twice. First that boiling, then, when they’re drained and dry, they go into a marinade to turn golden brown and crispy on the braai. Here’s how I did them…
10 to 12 skaapstertjies (sheeps’ tails)
Water to cover
6 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
8 juniper berries
12 black peppercorns
100 ml tomato paste
1 Tbsp each soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, honey, brown vinegar, mustard
Dash of fish sauce
Dash of whisky
½ tsp garlic powder
Salt and black pepper for finishing them on the coals for grill
Boil the tails for 1 hour in water with the thyme, bay, juniper and peppercorns. Tip them into a colander in the sink and leave them to drain thoroughly. Pat dry if still wet.
Mix the baste ingredients together in a bowl and toss the tails in it, using your hands. It’s gonna get messy.
Cook them slowly over hot coals, for skaapstertjie perfection, or grill or fry them, until golden brown. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
Mervyn Gers Ceramics supplies dinnerware for the styling of some TGIFood shoots. Mervyn Gers has expanded the base for his ceramic ware to New Zealand and Australia, through the Sydney-based iKhaya Collections. For more information, click 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.