CRADOCK DINNER CLUB
The Big Move to the Deep Karoo and what happens next
First you move to the Platteland, then life unfolds before you. This is the story of how everything played out after we first made that move nine years ago.
When you move to the Platteland, to borrow a phrase from my friends Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit, you wonder what lies ahead. Last weekend seemed like the ultimate culmination of our journey far away from the city, when the Cradock Dinner Club was born, the first of a series of pop-up restaurants for which three chefs pool their talents.
Nine years ago, I packed the car from top to bottom and one end to the other with all sorts of goods from our flat in Gardens, Cape Town, loaded the two cats in a basket on the passenger seat, and set off for a new life in the Karoo. I was going ahead of my wife by a week.
We were moving to the Platteland. And our lives have never been the same since.
We were exceptionally lucky, because two people, also journalists, had arrived there several years before us and were about to become close friends. We took our first steps on the journey of adapting to life in a small town with advice from two experts on the subject, Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. This was years before they brought out their wildly popular book, Moving to the Platteland, which has been partially serialised in Daily Maverick recently and read many thousands of times.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Decoding the Platteland – the Social Magic of a South African Dorp
And now, over time, our own story has developed too.
Chris and Julie had been in Cradock for eight years when we pitched up. We have now just passed the nine-year mark. Through all of those years, we have become very close, braaing and partying in each other’s houses, playing guitar and singing together, or just singing along to whatever music the appointed DJ for the night has chosen (we take turns), and sticking up for each other when one of us has needed a helping hand. Friendships are dear, and in a small town you’re always near one another.
They have produced book after book during those same years, not least their Moving to the Platteland, a small part of which is about our own story in following in their tracks eight years after they set out from Joburg to see what a new Karoo life would be like.
Back in late 2014, everything nearly came adrift. The redoubtable Sandra Antrobus had warned me: Tony, the last 20 km of a journey is always the most dangerous, that’s when accidents happen. Please be very, very careful.
A few hundred metres past the “Cradock 20” sign on the road from Graaff-Reinet, after rounding a bend, the weight of everything in the car and the speed at which I was driving were suddenly at odds with one another, and I started veering off the road while the car wobbled and skidded. The cat box tipped over accompanied by wild yowling. With my left hand, I pulled the box upright again while my right hand steered the car back onto tar. I could hear Sandra in my ear. My breathing normalised. The cats were dead quiet and wide-eyed. The car was steady again. Everything could have ended right there and I might not have been writing this now.
Driving into town as the sun was setting, I cruised towards the Victoria Manor Hotel, looking left and right at closed shop fronts, wondering: how long will we be here? What will our lives be like here?
Last weekend proved to be the perfect example of exactly what the answer to that last question is.
In a sense, it was the culmination of something that had been brewing for most of those nine years. Friendships had formed and slowly deepened. But with the friendships come associations too. With storekeepers and butchers, with gas suppliers and electricians, restaurateurs and builders. And those boundaries are crossed too. The fledgling, distant relationship you had nine years ago with the Antrobus family of hoteliers would grow into deep friendship. The journo couple you first met would become a part of your everyday life. Heyla Meyer, the hotel chef, would go out on her own and become a valued friend. The Sense of the Karoo jams, preserves and relishes she makes are now sold at farm stalls throughout the country.
What we hadn’t expected was to have more of a social life in Cradock than we’d had in Cape Town.
Many of those people have been guests in our dining room over the years, and us in theirs. The hotel is virtually our second home in town. The staff call us “family”. I do the braaing when we’re at Chris and Julie’s (at his request and I’m always happy to oblige). On Friday evenings, Sandra might pop in for a whisky and a chat, Ludi our builder-friend might deliver gas bottles (his new sideline) and have a brandy or two. On my own front, since leaving the city for the Karoo I’ve had nearly nine years in the employ of the fabulous Daily Maverick, am nearing five years of my TGIFood platform in DM, have had a book published and another in the offing, and my play about Emily Hobhouse is readying for a return season in 2024. I could not have imagined any of this on that day when I drove out of Cape Town with the cats in 2014.
This is not braggadocio. It’s gratitude and relief, because I had expected exactly none of this. Zero.
Many of us are part of the annual festivals in the town, the Schreiner Karoo Writers’ festival in June, and the earlier Karoo Food Festival in April. Later in the year we find ourselves invited to be part of the writer Etienne van Heerden’s wonderful annual Veldsoiree in the town. Etienne is an old friend of Cradock and a frequent visitor to his old haunt. We always look forward to his visits. Similarly, the mild-mannered, boek-beddonnerd academic Darryl David is also a familiar face and friend to all at the various festivals, and has even bought a house in the town. These towns take a hold of you.
Then there are the unlikely friendships which in turn are associations too. Let me explain: Heyla was the chef at the hotel for our first few years here, but slowly over time it developed into mutual appreciation and ultimately friendship. The Cowboy (who’s not keen on the limelight so let’s just call him that), by contrast, was a friendship waiting to happen: he is a qualified chef who happens to be a farmer too, and he is old-fashioned, a throwback to an earlier time. We became friends largely over food and cooking, often having got together in our kitchens to cook for friends over the last five years.
Last weekend, some of these strands came together for three chefs who are now friends.
The three chefs, Heyla, the Cowboy and the Food Editor, encouraged and aided by The Foodie’s Wife Diane Cassere, formed the Cradock Dinner Club, and last Saturday we had our first pop-up in our big street-facing dining room. Twelve people booked and paid in advance, we put in the hard work, and the big day arrived.
It was Curry Night, the first of regular themed dinners for which people can book, for a set rate, with all three of us cooking for them. The second, on an Italian theme of love, is lined up for February. We plan to do a game night in the winter of ‘24. Chinese or Thai might be in the offing; and a Karoo Kuisine night is a shoo-in. Nose to Tail has been discussed. We’re likely to do one a month, possibly more depending on demand. But the first outing had to be about curry.
Put three chefs in one modest kitchen and you could be asking for trouble. But each of us just got on with everything a step at a time, no one getting in the way of any other, all helping one another with this and that, chatting all the time so that we were all on track. We cooked for all of Saturday and yes, backs were sore, knees were taking strain. But we were happy, and in our element. It worked, and we proved that it could.
We shared tasks fairly evenly, though the Cowboy inadvertently ended up doing the most work, because there was a lot of dough involved in one way or another, and he’s expert at that.
The menu offered a trio of starters, all deep-fried: puri and patha, which was new to two of the chefs; bhajias (chilli bites), and samoosas. The Cowboy-Chef gamely made the samoosa pastry and the puri pastry from scratch, never having made either before and never even having seen a puri. Both turned out wonderfully.
I made the batter for the spinach bhajias, using spinach from my garden. I had bought the patha (layered yam leaves with a spicy paste filling) from the Royal Delhi restaurant in Gqeberha. It comes in a compact loaf: you slice it and fry the slices in ghee or oil, then put them between two of the puris, like a little burger. It’s very popular in the country’s Indian community and a personal favourite. And there were these two chefs turning them out perfectly, for the first time ever.
Heyla made the curried mince filling for the samoosas. I deep-fried the puris, the samoosas, the bhajias, the lot. The Cowboy and Heyla plated up, we all took the plates to the table. The Foodie’s Wife played front-of-house and attentive host with aplomb.
Being the cook of hearty, meaty meals that I am, I took charge of the two main courses, a richly spiced Durban mutton curry and butter chicken, also known as murgh makhani. I made the rice too, in the way that I learnt from John Torode’s book, which he in turn learnt in Chinese restaurant kitchens.
Heyla made a splendid mint, coriander and yoghurt sauce for the crunchy starters, a traditional carrot sambal for the Durban curry and sundry other sauces and relishes.
The Cowboy had made a litchi and lime palate cleanser at home the day before, and he and Heyla scooped that into little glasses and they went out between the starters and the curries. He was also OC of the cardamom ice cream, made to my basic recipe for a classic French custard-based ice cream. We served that with diced spanspek macerated in hanepoot fortified wine, and crunchy tuiles also made by the Cowboy. Yes, his work was cut out for him that day, yet he was unflappable.
There comes that moment when the last plates have gone out and you pull up a kitchen chair, pour drinks and look at each other and smile broad smiles. I can’t tell you how special that moment was. Could we pull it off? In that moment, we knew the answer.
You may be planning a Karoo trip for next year, and your interest might be piqued if so. We need to plan well in advance, so if you would like to book a Cradock Dinner Club night with Heyla, the Cowboy and me cooking dinner for you, be in touch with Diane Cassere at [email protected] or let me know at [email protected] and we can start to make plans for it.
Short of that, I’m sure to write about future dinners too. Maybe I’ll even write about yours one day.
Those two cats, Chai and Sean, have left us in the past two years, and we now have two other little girl kitties to love. The close-knit circle of Karoo friends remains intact. In fact, we need to plan for next weekend… DM
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.
Dinnerware in these photographs by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.