In a pickle about keeping up with the Karoo’s domestic goddesses

In a pickle about keeping up with the Karoo’s domestic goddesses
Can’t say I’ve ever tried my hand at making biltong but I’m a pro at eating it. (Photos: Jeff Siepman on Unsplash | Collage by The Foodie)

Domestic goddesses have raised the bar way too high, and after a decade of living in the Karoo, I am on the verge of being thrown out of the domestic sisterhood. I still cannot produce a scone, pickle an onion or bake a koeksister. It’s all too reminiscent of those school reports: ‘Must try harder.’

The domestic goddesses of my life owe nothing to Nigella Lawson. They are women born and raised on farms or of farming stock who learn from a very young age to tame the universe by pickling it or turning it into a jam.

I did learn one thing from my mother – if you don’t want to do something, never learn how. Consequently, I do not sew, clean windows, iron clothes or raise chickens. These things can be accomplished by other people and I applaud their skills. 

There is no point in all of us becoming domestic goddesses – how would those who embrace it continue to celebrate their superpowers and smirk about their virtues?

Living in cities and working in newsrooms, my lack of such skills became invisible. I was among like-minded people who saw no reason to domesticate themselves when Woolies could roast them a chicken, shop-bought food was readily available and the splendid bakery at the Gardens Centre in Cape Town provided all the necessary accoutrements.

And, of course, there was the simple ruse of marrying The Foodie.

Your table groaned with good grub, wine flowed and all was right with the world.

But out here in Cradock, a different universe holds sway. Women can do anything in the kitchen from preserving plants foraged in the wilderness to cooking offal – things that make me faint.

It’s a question of survival. They came out here to these far-flung parts, all nationalities and creeds, in wagons with just the basics of domestic requirements and learned to preserve fruit and herbs where they found them, bake bread on a fire and, I imagine, make biltong for the long treks.

Once settled on farms, there were no shops: everything had to be cooked and preserved. And some beautiful magic entered their kitchens along the way where fine foods, cakes, breads and preserves made their way into popular culture. Skills which were passed down through the generations.

And speaking of biltong, that was a shock in my young life. It came in packets and was enjoyed by South Africans across the board. But then I discovered how it was made… 

I visited a school friend at Roadside Inn in Thornville outside my home town of Pietermaritzburg and her father was curing biltong in the eaves of their thatched cottage. There was this raw meat, attracting flies and just hanging there to dry. It was years before I ate biltong again. I had no idea that it was salted, dried, raw meat.

I have different survival skills. 

Within hours of arriving in a city, I know how to find a taxi, what the opening hours are of all the bars, where to find theatre tickets, how to find cheap and cheerful restaurants and how to pick out buildings as landmarks to find my way home.

None of these impressed my peers in the Karoo. For a start, there are no car taxis in Cradock, and if you haven’t got the drinks in before 8pm, the establishment is going to close for the evening anyway.

So I adopted the “can’t beat them, join them” philosophy.

I started with bread. I had some success in this department because my Irish grandmother showed me how to make soda bread and I cunningly adapted what I could.

Emboldened by this modest success, I moved on to other homemade stuff. I have a small guesthouse so I thought this might impress. And the very welcome hostess gift of choice in our town is something pickled or homemade.

But biscuits immediately became a source of bewilderment to me. I often think how pleasant it would be to place them in my guests’ bedrooms. 

Typically, though, the recipe starts something like: 2 cups of flour, three cups of sugar, 500g butter, four eggs… very often some sort of spice or seasoning I have never heard of.

You read down to the instructions which involve either rolling them into balls and placing them precisely 4mm apart on a baking tray or flattening out your dough on a very large board and using those cookie cutter things to shape them.

Then comes the shocker: recipe makes 7 biscuits… or some equally daft amount.

So you start doubling up to achieve at least 20 biscuits… but how many cups of flour and sugar is that? And eggs? When you calculate the butter needed, your biscuits become very expensive indeed. It always feels like a good moment to take to strong drink.

Equally, homemade rusks would find favour with my guests. I can now confess: I never mention that mine are shop-bought. I try to find interesting ones, like with raisins or chocolate chips. Because we are in the Karoo it is automatically assumed that I made them.

I find recipes for rusks totally intimidating. A friend – perhaps I should say a like-minded friend – told me that rusks were really just dried cake… cook the mixture long enough and you get the makings of rusks. Then you just cut them up and put them in a jar.

I did try once, if memory serves me, using buttermilk. When it got to the cutting-up stage I had to use a hammer and chisel. So I gave up on that. All I had was crumbs. I put them in the bird feeder where they remained until rain turned them to mush. I couldn’t even interest our feathered friends in them.

Jam. That sounded like a doddle. A friend gave me figs from her abundant crop that year and told me ominously that “they make lovely jams and preserves”. So out came the recipe books again. Surely I could make jam?

“You’ll need an apron for this,” she warned (in the end I used three and don’t even ask where they are now).

After what seemed like days of boiling jam jars, stirring obscene amounts of sugar in a pot and dealing with rapidly deteriorating fruit, I came up with precisely three jars of fig jam.

Nevertheless, I was proud of my harvest and put the jars away in the cupboard where we store everybody else’s jams and pickles. They were in there for a month until family came to stay and I proudly produced the jars with breakfast. All seemed to be going well until they were opened – to reveal the cultivation of something green and ghastly under the lids.

So you will understand how I fail to grasp this homemade anything movement when I have Tam’s Supermarket down the road. They have large airy aisles, aircon and all the jam and pickles I could require. Even little trolleys to push them around in.

And no apron is required. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jill Gribble says:

    How I can relate to this. Although I come from a large extended family of great cooks and bakers, the gene seems to have passed me by. And starting married life in a small town didn’t really improve matters for me. Thanks Diane Casserie.

  • Marianne Nicol says:

    I loved this article! I am likeminded to Ms Casere’s take on the preparing of produce and spending time in the kitchen. I even buy my kale at Woolies, and not at a farmers market, because on the Woolworths packet it says “washed and destalked for your convenience”.

  • Annie Conway says:

    My daughter through and through …… darling thing

  • Russ C says:

    Thanks for a huge belly laugh!!! A breath of fresh air sorely needed.

  • Lo-Ammi Truter says:

    Girl, I feel you. And I grew up on a farm 🫣!

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