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Karoo Potjie Master: Tough, tight and vrot with tension

Karoo Potjie Master: Tough, tight and vrot with tension
Clockwise from top left: Team Black Sheep’s winning dish; Charles Garth’s team’s offal potjie with mutton and lamb shoulder; Judges Nan Tam, Heyla Mayer and Tony Jackman; and the Team Phoenix potjie. (Photos and composite: Tony Jackman)

There needed to be a challenge and it needed to be tough, tight and vrot with tension, as we say in the Karoo. There would be laughter, fun and maybe even a few tears. And it would start with a kitchen pantry just like they do it on MasterChef Australia.

There are things you learn when you organise a potjiekos competition. People are very nice, to a man and woman, despite everything. And it’s okay for an Ingelsman to organise a potjiekos competition as long as it’s done properly.

But let’s scroll back a bit. It had almost begun two years earlier when, near the end of that year’s Karoo Food Festival, I mentioned to festival organiser and dynamo Lisa Ker that I’d had an idea to do a potjie competition, “maybe next year”. A year later, a potjie event was put together rather speedily and I was roped in at the last minute to judge. Mea culpa: I had not really followed through, so I’d lost out. But no matter: I decided that this year I would step forward and offer to take charge. My offer was taken up and we threw much more into it; what we have now is the makings of an annual event. We are already planning for the 2024 edition.

Welcome to Karoo Potjie Master, the 2023 edition of which took place at a venue called Jenkins Creek on De Doorns farm outside Cradock on the road towards Hofmeyr. It took place on a Sunday, as did the previous competition, but in 2024 we’re shifting it to the Saturday when many more punters pitch up for the scores of food stalls and others selling everything, from furniture and clothing to idiosyncratic Karoo stuff, of the kind that we decorate our braai patios with. And cheese, lots of cheeses from Langbaken, and those wonderful sweet and dry wines of the Orange River region that are so underrated. Really, you need to try their wines, they’re one of the great secrets of the South African wine industry.

Tams SuperSpar in Cradock agreed to stock a pantry of meat and vegetables so that we could all gather in the Jenkins Creek kitchen at the start of the festivities to pep-talk the teams, explain the order of the day and send them on their way.

A section of the Karoo Potjie Master kitchen. There was a vegetable pantry as well. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

To add a bit of drama and give things a nice bit of edge, ingredients were limited. Only two packs of offal/afval which included tripe, sheep cheeks and unknown bits and pieces (“I hope there’s eyes,” said fellow judge Heyla Meyer with a mischievous grin. “Eyes are delicious.”) Co-judge Nan Tam and I averted our gaze.

Two teams were bok for offal and grabbed packets of it, stuffing it into their baskets alongside cuts of mutton and game. This turned into a tournament-within-a-tournament with one team cooking potjie with mutton rib, offal and a whole lamb shoulder in it, and a second team doing something similar but with the lamb shank cleverly wrapped in foil to cook gently on top of the other goods inside the potjie. I love discovering bright ideas such as this.

Team Phoenix, Alette Schoon and Graeme Germond. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Team Phoenix from Grahamstown were the jokers in the pack but took their cooking seriously; Graeme Germond and Alette Schoon, art teacher and journalist-academic, donned Hungarian attire to cook an intriguing goulash in a “potjie” that was modelled after an upturned soldier’s helmet. Their dancing twirls and stomps had everyone entertained.

Graeme Germond’s intriguing Hungarian goulash. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

I’d told every team that they could bring a secret ingredient. Theirs was the “potjie” itself plus a layered spice mix. Charles Garth’s team brought special spices, while Deon Bonnet’s gang used an unusual ingredient cleverly, adding mussels to a Malaysian spicy chicken potjie.

One man team the Black Sheep, in the person of self-taught Zimbabwean chef Nelson Guyo, turned out the best performance of the day all round, with a winning dish, perfectly presented, and all this on his lonesome while other teams had a small gang bustling around the pots and plates.

Best thing about the day was the spirit and camaraderie. There was fun and there was competition; everyone wanted to win. But no one wanted to win at the expense of behaving decently and wishing the others all well. Teams wandered over to the stations of their competitors to say hello and see what they were doing, not in a prying way but in the spirit of geselligheid. They wished one another good luck and went back to their stalls. In a national milieu with so much strife and fighting among us all, something as simple as this carries more weight than it might otherwise.

Lopke Nigrini’s excellent mutton shank potjie, ready for the judges. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

If there were disappointments they were only mine. I had hoped someone would take my challenge to roast a whole chicken in a potjie, but understandably this was strange terrain for teams who had never tried that. Next year I plan to have a mini competition with a special prize for best roast chicken potjie, as an incentive. It’s one of the best things you can cook in a potjie, and one of the best ways I know of to cook a chicken. Now to explain that to the potjie cooking world. I’m on a mission. (Try my ginger chicken roasted in a potjie.)

Potjie cooking has come a long way since the 1980s when the old Voortrekker method of cooking on the wagon trail turned mainstream as ordinary South Africans took to it as a weekend alternative to the braai. Back then, meat and vegetables were layered, a bottle of wine was poured in, and it was left untouched for three hours when you would take the lid off and tuck into the mush. We can, and we do, do better than that today.

I was disappointed too that no one grabbed the packets of beef shortribs, as they, like any meat on the bone, make a superlative potjie ingredient. Next time.

There was no disappointment in any single dish that was cooked, however Omitafel’s mutton shanks were sublime, that Malaysian potjie was a potential winner, and though Black Sheep was the overall winner chosen, Charles Garth’s alternative, also with offal and a whole lamb shoulder, came very close to winning.

Everyone walked away with a prize, no hand left empty. That was the plan and we’re grateful to sponsors including Jan Braai, who sent a merchandise hamper, Richard Bosman for his hamper of charcuterie, the Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet for generous accommodation, the Foodie’s Wife’s Rose and Olive in Cradock for accommodation, Tams for their donation of a MasterChef pot, and not least Stirlings at the Ibis in Nieu-Bethesda for their superb Karoo Food Experience. Daily Maverick also donated two of their superb books, and everyone also went home with a copy of my foodSTUFF book.

Nelson Guyo was a worthy winner, but every other contestant and teammate was no less of a champion on a truly splendid, sunny autumn day in Cradock.

Winner Nelson Guyo with the judges. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

My friend Jan van Heerden even kindly put together a live feed video of the day, which you can view here for a taste of what we put together this year, and a foretaste of what to expect a year from now: 

Tears? The tears were mine. Being the big old softie that I am, I teared up when presenting the awards and had to try to cover the choke in my voice with overt laughing. (I cry in movies.) Ah well, nothing wrong with having a heart, hey. The next edition of Karoo Potjie Master will take place at Jenkins Creek on Saturday 27 April 2024. Contact me at [email protected] if you’d like to find out more. Till next time… DM/TGIFood

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  • Tracy Smith says:

    That looks like it was such fun, makes me seriously homesick and spurs me on to get my friends to dig the poitjies out for our own mini competition!

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