All you need is the Karoo
Sometimes the most important ingredient of a perfect meal isn’t even in the dish. It’s all around you.
Take one Karoo farm. Add one or two Karoo dawns, a lamb, some olives from that tree over there near the windmill, and a few of those chickens near the old farm dam. Gooi in some of the kapokbos twigs from the bush growing next to Tannie Hester’s rusty 1962 Morris Minor, stir in a handful of wild garlic flowers, and simmer all day. Or for the rest of your life. You’ll be rewarded with serenity and that feeling of well-being you get when you’re standing midway between the past and infinity.
Out of the window in Richmond, the Northern Cape one north of Three Sisters, not the KwaZulu-Natal one, are low-slung Victorian houses, mission olive trees and no sign of human life. It’s too cold to go out of doors; temperatures fell to -10℃ during the night and it’s -6℃ right now. We had delicious Karoo lamb curry for supper last night with slices of preserved quince and flatbreads made from stone ground flour.
Before that they’d brought us thick slices of crusty homemade bread and a bowl of tomato and sliced onion salad in a dressing of balsamic vinegar and something hard to discern; I thought it might be caraway. It puzzled me at first, then I saw the reasoning. It’s a natural lead-in to a mild curry, sambal-like and Karoo-friendly; you take chunks of bread and dunk it in the juices, and scoop some of the tomato and onion along the way. Brilliant. There were fat wedges of yellow farm butter too for the rest of the bread. No way could we finish it, knowing what was to come.
This is the Richmond Café and Rooms, the last stop of our first holiday since pandemic blindsided us all. We’d stopped by for supper one night a few years ago during one of Darryl David’s wonderful book festivals, and decided to stay here next time in one of the smallest yet most accessible of Karoo villages, right on the N1 about halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Everything’s been painted white since last we were here, with peace-seeking olive branches stuck in vases everywhere. It’s a place of happiness and owner Klaradyn Grobler’s peace and light. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of calling it a Karoo “oasis” but, well, it is. This is far from a mere stopover; it’s a little mini world of its own, drenched in serene character.
Also brimful of warm and fuzzy things is Prince Albert’s Dennehof guest house, where we had breakfast the previous morning. We’d known Dennehof since Elaine Hurford bought it in the early 90s and turned it into a beautiful Karoo guest house. Way back then, she cooked us the best leg of Karoo lamb with lots of garlic and lavender and we ate it under the pepper tree near the main house, next to the old stone bread oven. That was where one of the earliest thoughts came to me about what has happened to us since: that we should live in the Karoo. Elaine went there for two years in 1994. She’s still there. That’s how the Karoo takes you.
Dennehof has had other owners since Elaine sold it many years ago, but the present owners have best captured and understood the spirit that Elaine Hurford imbued it with from the outset. Now she lives just up the road and the new proprietors, Inga and Albert Terblanche, had wanted to have her over to see what they’ve done to her old place, so we all went along.
And what do I find but the best breakfast I’ve had anywhere, in ages. I don’t remember when I had anything at that time of day anywhere near as delicious. Everyone else went the safe bacon and eggs route but I was captivated by the first item on the blackboard menu which Albert told me later is Inga’s signature dish, “herby avocado butter on sourdough toast topped with poached egg and toasted sesame, blistered tomatoes on the side. Bacon optional”. Of course I had the bacon on the side. As for the bacon and eggs option the others chose, well, that was the “country breakfast with two eggs made to order, blistered tomatoes, bacon and sourdough toast”. So, everything I had, then, but without the centrepiece that brought all the smiles. It pays to box clever when selecting from a breakfast menu.
But the best ingredient of this breakfast, for all its deliciousness, was the setting: a glass-encased greenhouse which was beautifully heated within, against the icy nip of the morning outside. I could see Elaine’s old bread oven and the pepper tree and could picture her and us devouring that herbaceous lamb; there’s always a tinge of sadness when we reminisce, but there’s a glow of serenity and happiness too. And here we all were again under the Big Karoo Sky, after having been Elaine and Neil’s guests up the road the night before. She’d cooked us a wonderful chicken pie with a splendid crumbly crust. For afters there were crunchily delightful fig-filled samoosas with crème fraïche, and a glass of chocolate liqueur we’d taken along.
Let’s not say too much about the midday snack at the Spur at the northern end of Beaufort West while we were driving north-east to Richmond, but it was fun to drive out of that end of town for the first time in decades (the route to Cradock takes you east via Aberdeen and Graaff-Reinet). I could picture my small self in the back seat of my dad’s old 1964 Ford Cortina GT, going round that famous circle at the north end of Beaufort West, and passing the “Johannesburg” sign.
At the end of that Richmond meal at the end of that drive there was a slice of the biggest, tallest melktert I’ve ever seen. It looked like cheesecake, yet other than its depth, a precipice off of which a small creature could hurl itself to an early but delicious death, it was just as melkterty as melktert could be; just more of it. The recipe, I was told, had simply been doubled.
En route towards Hanover before turning south-east to Cradock and home, we stopped at the Karoo Padstal, owned by Klaradyn Grobler of Richmond Café and Rooms fame. Budget by now was tight, so I gazed at the many beautiful things I wanted to buy riddled with the regret of a covetous sinner; not regret for the ‘sin’ so much as that I could not afford to buy anything. But these things stay in memories. The fine breakfast made up for it in great measure and included skaapstertjies. It was here that I bought frozen sheeps’ tails for this recipe.
For all the delicious perfection of that lamb curry, the sambal-salad and crusty bread, the precipice of a melktert, and Elaine’s yummy chicken pie, the stylish little avocado breakfast at Dennehof was the hero of this mini Karoo journey home, so I phoned Inga and asked if she would be kind enough to share it with us. Which she did. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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