A true Karoo repast, from lewerkoekies to Japie se gunsteling

A true Karoo repast, from lewerkoekies to Japie se gunsteling
Charles Garth is the little boy to the right, with his Oupa Charles Jordaan and sister Jeanne Vorster, in this treasured family portrait which hangs in their dining room. Right: the menu/spyskaart. Below: the persievet (Persian sheeps’ fat) and Colleen Garth’s beautiful table. (Photos & composite: Tony Jackman)

Skaapstertjies and kaiings, poached saddle chops and salt beef were only half the story of this traditional Karoo dinner.

The tiny square of jellified meat looked very French in the way that liver pâtés and duck terrines look very French. But it also reminded me of my dad’s potted meat, a recipe he learnt from his father in Yorkshire where it is a tradition as ancient as the black-and-tan Yorkstone their houses are built of.

My dad made his potted meat from scratch. The big pot of meat, bone and sinew would boil for hours and finally there’d be a unified mélange of fine meat and the jelly the bones had made. He’d pour it into an octagonal enamel dish and set it in the fridge. I’ve never forgotten the wondrous taste and texture of that cold potted meat spread on buttered bread. I can taste it and smell it even now, 50 years later.

But this brawn was made of beef trotters and stomach, yet had the same effect on the palate as my dad’s potted meat. It was the first of eight courses of a traditional Karoo food dinner my friend Charles Garth lavished on us, and everything was homemade. The butter. The mayonnaise. The sausage. The rendered (Persian) sheeps’ fat. The salt beef. The mustard. Everything.

It’s a window onto a life I have not lived, like peering through a window into someone else’s dining room, fascinated as to what it is they’re eating. Yet there is an unexpected familiarity too. The food traditions of the Karoo turn out to be not far removed at all from those of my northern English roots.

In fact, the dining table at which we were to be spoilt that night once belonged to Sir Abe Bailey, the late gold tycoon, Randlord, cricketer and politician. Bailey had been born in Cradock in 1864. He must have dined finely and generously, as there were 12 of us seated around it for this extraordinary eight-course Karoo feast. Somewhere in the mists of time Charles’ oupa had bought the table on a sale, after it had been owned by Sonny and Edi Thal. Edi had taught Hebrew to the children of Cradock’s then sizable Jewish community. We might surmise that the Garth dining table was once the communal table of the young Bailey’s family.

Charles, a true Karoo character with a big heart, is well suited to such a fine table, given his prowess in the kitchen and his entertaining social skills, which are perfectly counterpointed by Colleen’s own cooking skills and sunny nature, and aided too by their daughter Roslynne’s helpful hand; the two women were run off their feet the entire evening with not a word of complaint.

Charles and Roslynne had even made a spyskaart for the repast (spyskaart, not menu; sien jy, Charlize, die Afrikaanse woord is heelwat meer interessant, nê?)

Clockwise from top left: Kerrie afval, salt beef, brawn, and Ouma Lukie’s boerewors. (Photos & composite: Tony Jackman)

The homemade brawn was nothing like the processed kind you find at the supermarket. If all brawn was like this we’d all be eating it every day. On the table to share were the bread Colleen made, butter by Charles’ hand, and kaiings and quince jelly, so you ate the brawn with homemade bread, a few kaiings on top and a dab of quince jelly.

Kaiings are the tiny hard residue at the bottom of the pot when you render sheep fat, little bits of meat that have crisped like crackling. But not just any sheep fat; everything on this table was made from the meat and fat of Persian sheep. As for the fat, there were small bowls of it to spread on bread just as my mom would keep the beef drippings from the Sunday roast to spread on bread during the week.

His daughter, Roslynne, fried the little liver patties, traditional lewerkoekies that are so delicious that I asked for the recipe. They seem to be made only of meat but as well as liver there are green beans, onion, potato, tomato and spinach in the mixture. Everything is minced until you have a runny paste, and you drop spoonfuls of it into shallow hot fat and cook them on both sides quickly.

Charles’ daughter Roslynne fries the liver patties (lewerkoekies), also right and plated up below. (Photos & composite: Tony Jackman)

Skaapstertjies are next and these are very familiar to me now. The little sheeps’ tails are a favourite Karoo delicacy eaten with the fingers. You pull out strips of succulent, fatty meat with your teeth, a joyous delight to those who appreciate them.

There’s a taste of boerewors next but this is better than the average. Also made from “Persie” (Persian) meat, this is Ouma Lukie’s treasured recipe and a real treat.

But it’s the “opgekookte vleis” that has me most intrigued. The technique is really poaching: Persian saddle chops are poached in water after being seasoned with brown vinegar. Once simmering, you sprinkle flour and crumbled bread on top. They poach for precisely seven minutes, less and they will not be done, more and they toughen. There was much checking of stopwatches on cellphones while Charles cooked them, and then the gas ran out, throwing the timing off. They were wonderful though Charles felt they’d gone a bit over time. For any meat lover, that’s a technique worth trying. I know I’m going to. I’d never imagined poaching a chop.

Mein host Charles Garth cooking the opgekookte vleis (poached Persian lamb saddle chops) against the clock. (Photos & composite: Tony Jackman)

Curried offal was probably the dish that some at the table were the most wary of, especially when Charles turned to me with a mischievous twinkle and said, “there’s a couple of eyes in there too”. Then, when he saw my face, quickly added, “but you won’t see them”. Ja, I said, but they might see me.

The curry was meaty and delicious, and whatever worrying bits and pieces were in there, you wouldn’t know it to look at or taste it. It was served with samp, an ingredient we might consider using more of.

Salt beef is another firm Karoo tradition and is eaten at Christmas time. There was much discussion at the table about the fat component, regarded as key to fine salt beef. Charles’ own mustard was served with it, the perfect match.

Japie se Gunsteling, another fierce tradition in the Karoo, couldn’t have been a better end to this very meaty repast; a citrus pudding that is lusciously comforting. Just as this entire meal had been. Raise a glass to Charles, not Charles Glass who once struck gold in Johannesburg, but Charles Garth, who strikes gold whenever he cooks in Cradock. (Find my own recipe for liver patties here.) DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is regional Vodacom Journalist of the Year (Lifestyle) Eastern Cape for 2022 and Galliova Food Champion 2021.

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.

SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.


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