The biltong, boerewors and bobotie club
This is an extract from ‘My Big Fat Greek Taverna’, the South African bestseller by diplomat turned restaurateur Costa Ayiotis.
“When I dine after a hard day’s work, I like serenity, calm, good food, cold beverages.” – Winston Churchill
When I wasn’t working on weekends, Christine and I explored the city, sampling the tastes of Manhattan. We were spoilt for choice in the Big Apple. In the first few weeks, like wide-eyed, wonder-struck tourists we sampled the iconic American culinary traditions and then feasted like locals on the incredible variety of international and ethnic cuisines the city offered. Manhattan was also the United Nations of gastronomy.
Enjoying the food of a country did a far better job in promoting goodwill and understanding between people than peddling national interests and political agendas. The convenience and easy credit of the American consumer culture quickly seduced us. In the days before online purchases, you could order discounted books, clothes, gadgets or CDs from a catalogue, and the next day a package would arrive at your door filled with goodies.
New York was not just America; it was the world in one city. That’s what made it the most compelling and interesting of all the great American cities. It concentrated the brightest and the best minds in America and the world in every field of human endeavour — food, art, literature, dance, publishing, law, advertising, show business, theatre, music, academia, medicine, science, business or commerce. And all this on an island fifty-nine square kilometres in size, twenty-one kilometres long and nearly four kilometres wide, which once had gentle rolling hills.
The Native Americans called it Manahatta because of its dense thickets and lush forests. But sadly, in the eyes of some militant, right-wing fanatics, Manhattan was not American enough. Left to their own nefarious devices, they would have loved nothing more than to tow the island and the UN out to sea and bomb it into oblivion.
During the week, we attended formal dinners and cocktail parties to celebrate the national days of the various UN member states. We had a generous entertainment budget, so we hosted dinner parties in our apartment for other UN diplomats, or I invited them to work lunches in swanky city restaurants. Cocktail parties were an acquired taste and national days an excuse to get drunk.
The cocktail party must rank as the worst form of human interaction ever invented. You learn to master the art of balancing a paper napkin and canapé in one hand and a drink in the other while trying to have a polite conversation with somebody before flitting off to bore your next victim. And, in the finest traditions of the diplomatic corps, you speak when there is nothing to say and say nothing when there is something to say.
Thankfully, they were usually large events, attracting a lot of people and held in the banquet hall of a Manhattan hotel. The trick was to greet the hosts in the receiving line, mingle for a few minutes, circulate in the hall, nod and smile a lot, make sure enough people spotted you, and then make a discreet exit and disappear into the night to go and grab a cheeseburger and a Budweiser beer in a city bar.
We never forgot the familiar tastes of home and kept certain South African traditions alive. Countries often use food and drink to win friends and influence people. Some of our senior diplomats practised gastro-diplomacy, a form of soft or cultural diplomacy, serving bobotie at their dinners paired with fine South African wines like Meerlust Rubicon or KWV Brandy and with coffee after the meal.
Bobotie has its origins in Indonesia and early 17th-century Dutch recipe books, and it’s the closest South Africa gets to a national dish — although some would argue that braaivleis, biltong, boerewors and mieliepap cut across all cultures and races as the national food. Many families have a cherished bobotie recipe passed down to them from their oumas. It’s meatloaf’s more exotic and colourful cousin, but the two are not on speaking terms and shouldn’t even be compared. In New York, it was a comfort dish that reminded us of home, especially when accompanied by Mrs Ball’s mango chutney.
Nothing, however, beats an old-school braai on firewood where the smoke gets in your eyes and you use a torch at night to check your meat. You can’t keep South Africans from braaiing, whether they find themselves in Manhattan or outer Mongolia. On Friday afternoons, the consulate and embassy staff got together on the rooftop balcony of our office building for sundowners and a boerewors roll. We served South African wines and knocked back a few Castle Lagers.
It was part of the job to showcase some traditional South African delicacies, even if we were not explicitly ordered to do so. Fine dining and fancy hors d’oeuvres have their place, but some of us never lost the more casual touch of home such as serving bowls of biltong and small pieces of boerewors skewered on toothpicks at our embassy cocktail parties. Most of our guests enjoyed the flavour and spices of two of South Africa’s favourite delicacies. Some diplomats won our undying affection by declaring that they were addicted after one bite.
The mission and consulate had an established and wellrun boerewors club, which gathered frequently to make biltong and boerewors. I immediately bought the share of a consulate official who was returning home at the end of his posting. The club had invested in the sausage-making machine and the fans, hooks, spices and other paraphernalia needed to make a high-quality product.
The biltong and boerewors production usually took place on a Saturday in the suburbs, at the Scarsdale home of our admin officer, Mario van Zyl, and his wife, Rene. It took half a day in their spacious American kitchen. Our Manhattan apartment kitchens were well-equipped but tiny in comparison.
We took turns to prepare and wash the casings in warm salted water, mix the boerewors mince, toast the coriander and other spices, and crank the handle to operate the sausage-making cylinder and slowly feed the long coils of wors. We used the Meat Board’s award-winning biltong and boerewors recipe. We added a bit of brown sugar to the wet biltong brine, which was an old Boer recipe that added depth of flavour to the taste of the cured biltong. We also mixed bacon fat into the beef mince for the boerewors, for added flavour.
The wives took care of the packaging, wrapping the finished boerewors in polystyrene bases and plastic wrap, ready to be frozen. The drinking started early, perhaps too early, and carried on throughout the day. Our harddrinking foreign minister would have been proud of us. Our wives, however, were not impressed. They argued that our drinking affected the quality of the final product, so they enforced a rule that we first had to drink coffee and only start drinking once the biltong and boerewors production was complete. Not to be outdone, we brought concealed hip flasks and poured brandy into our coffee.
We needed lubrication to inspire us. We hung the wet, spiced biltong on hooks from the rafters in Mario’s garage and turned the fans on to keep the flies away.
The women made assorted salads, including a delicious potato salad with thin slices of juicy biltong in the mix, and prepared a firm favourite: cheese, onion and tomato braaibroodjies with slices of white bread, to be grilled on the fire. We braaied the freshly made boerewors in the late afternoon after all the packaging was done. It felt good to be making real, honest food and doing something with our hands to relieve the stress of the week. We supplied the final product to the offices of South African Airways and SATOUR. We also gave the biltong and boerewors away as gifts to South Africans working in New York and to other foreign diplomats. It was yet another example of the power of food to make friends and influence people in ways that flattery and flowery diplomatic language could not match.
There were times that I could not resist the temptation to braai a thick coil of boerewors and a couple of lamb chops on my small, portable Weber Smokey Joey kettle barbecue on our tiny, 47th-floor balcony. Lighting a fire in a high-rise condominium was highly illegal and dangerous. The apartment had sensitive smoke detectors in every room, which often went off when we were frying bacon in the tiny kitchen, but none on the balcony. The fire and safety engineers had never planned for mad South Africans making burnt-meat sacrifices 150 metres above the ground in Midtown Manhattan. The cars below looked like Matchbox toys.
The glass-topped coffee table in our lounge vibrated when the wind swirled and gusted around the high-rise building, and the internal drywalls in our apartment creaked like a wooden sailing ship in a squall. Down below on 40th Street, next to the foyer of our building, New York City Fire Department Engine 21 occupied an old, low-rise red brick building. That was reassuring, but it didn’t necessarily make things any safer. Sometimes you just have to break the rules and live Dangerously. DM