TGIFOOD

KAROO SECRET, UNEARTHED

The night I discovered the most perfect lamb chop in the land

The night I discovered the most perfect lamb chop in the land
Master of the lamb chop: Chef Herman Fick with that day’s skaapstertjies (lambs’ tails) and his perfect lamb chops (left), at Die Blou Nartjie restaurant in Calvinia, Northern Cape. 15 April 2024. (Photos: Tony Jackman)

In a Hantam Karoo town huddled between two ancient mountains, a modest chef happy to live the small-town life is cooking some of the simplest but best Karoo food to be had.

It isn’t only the famous chefs who turn out some of the best food. The best thing in a food writer’s life is that rare moment when you randomly pop into a restaurant for a bite, just because it’s there and you’re hungry, and it dawns on you that what’s on your plate is the best of its kind that you can remember eating. Anywhere.

When what you’re eating is a lamb chop, and lamb is your thing, and you’ve been cooking and eating lamb chops all your life, it’s more than a surprise, or even a shock. It’s astounding.

Most lamb chops are just another lamb chop. Even most of the delicious lamb chops you encounter are, here we go, look, another delicious lamb chop.

But moments of surprise are possible in any part of life. Even in the Hantam Karoo.

Because, where am I but in Calvinia in the Northern Cape, and yes, this town is pretty much the heartbeat of the country’s meat industry. I’m at a veteran restaurant called Die Blou Nartjie, the naming of which is a story worth telling, but I’ll get to that. Because this lamb loin chop is the king of all lamb loin chops. This is lamb chop perfection. Lamb chop heaven.

These chops are very particular, as I am to discover a few nights later when I go back to chat to chef Herman Fick, because I want him to tell me the secrets of his way with a lamb chop. In fact, not ‘it’, but ‘they’. Not that this lamb chop prefers to identify as ‘they’. But because there are three of them on my plate. And each of the three is cut really thick. That, says Herman, is the first rule of His Way with a lamb chop. It must be thick-cut. So, it starts when you visit your butcher to buy them.

Second, and here’s one in the eye for the thousands of braaiers who love to douse their lamb in everything from Worcestershire sauce or rosemary and garlic to lemon and coriander or, heaven forfend, the feared ‘steakhouse sauce’. Because what does Herman Fick, who is most likely the greatest lamb chop chef in the land, cook a lamb loin chop with?

Salt.

Nothing else.

But not just any salt. Maldon salt.

His other secret? “You have to cook it on all five sides.”

A chop has five sides? 

Not three? 

Yes, it does. Both of the flat sides, most obviously. Everyone knows that, and, Herman says, with few exceptions most people cook them on only those two sides.

At this point I admit to being a three-sides-lamb-chop sort of man. “I always cook the fatty side first,” I say, triumphantly.

And yes, that is key, he does that too, but, he asks quizzically, what about the other two sides?

The narrowest side, right at the end. “You need to cook that too, if it’s going to be perfect.” Right.

Which leaves? Well, there’s only one possible side left.

The bone edge.

In fact, he says, this is where he starts. “People always forget about that edge, but because the bone is there, it definitely needs the cook’s attention.” Because there is meat on the other side of that bone, and even as he tells me this now very obvious fact, I’m thinking, of course you need to cook that end too.

Now, about that salt. He swears by Maldon, but of course there are many other kinds of salt so this aspect can be varied. But Herman is adamant, adamant, that good lamb that has lived on a diet of karoobossies (the low slung bushes that Karoo sheep graze on) must not have its flavour ruined by the addition of anything other than salt. It has already been flavoured by what it eats.

In a nutshell, his advice for cooking a lamb chop is this: “Mess with it as little as possible and braai it on all five sides. One rule, especially for a loin chop, is that it has to be cut thick enough to stand on its bone side by itself.”

A door worth entering: The entrance to Die Blou Nartjie in Calvinia, Northern Cape. 15 April 2024. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

In 1997 his dad, also Herman, bought the old building, which was once the meeting hall for the Jewish community (there was once a little altar where the kitchen is now), the last of whom left the town in the Seventies. Herman Junior was 22 and had trained under the wing of the legendary Peter Veldsman at Emily’s in Woodstock, Cape Town. Buying the 200-year-old building, which was then a trading post, Hermans senior and junior sat down and tried to think of a name, the night before the restaurant was to open. They debated all manner of possibilities. At one point, exasperated, Herman junior said, “Anything, dad, just not Hantam” (the mountain at one side of town) or Rebunie (the berg at the other). Finally, as we were leaving he said to his dad, “Just call it anything, dad, call it the Pienk Piesang or the Blou Nartjie if you like, I don’t care”.

And said good night. And the Blou Nartjie it was, and is.

Now, I have eaten Karoo meals in a lot of restaurants in many small towns and with few exceptions, there’s a sameness about the cuisine in almost every one of them. A so-so steak. Okay lamb chops. The dreaded chicken schnitzel, its white meat almost invariably dry. The even more feared “cordon bleu”, more often than not misspelt and misunderstood as “Gordon Blue”.

But there’s other excellent fare on the menu. Skaapstertjies are a staple, and he had made a batch just before I arrived this week. You get a portion of them, cooked twice (boiled, left to cool and dry, then grilled), served with salt and lemon, a perfect Karoo starter. Brilliant. (I also cook them, like this.) In flower season, he says, “we sell 15kg to 20kg of skaapstertjies a week.”

The Blou Nartjie also serves one of the best lamb pies I’ve eaten, made very simply with lamb fynvleis, a Karoo tradition, and again, with no herbs and spices to interfere with the meat’s intrinsic karoobossie flavour. “It’s a pot pie, like the Americans make. Just meat with a little bit of dough on top. Salted lamb meat, that’s it.”

To make his fynvleis, he orders in what is known as a “skaap pak”, a whole carcass that’s been “put through the saw. I put it in a big pot and cook it down.”

In the past week, I’ve also eaten Herman’s biltong and mushroom soup, a magnificent lamb shank (yes, only salted), which I chose to have with mashed potato, and last July I had that lamb pie, which, to my horror, was sold out by the time I walked in on Monday evening.

I haven’t tried their pofadders yet, or their butternut soup, or their steaks, but I saw one hefty sirloin being sent to a table and it looked very desirable, massively thick-cut, which is usually a sign that a chef is paying attention. But I have 10 more days here, so I’ll be back.

In his 25th year at the Blou Nartjie, the young man who decided that marketing wasn’t for him, and headed back to Calvinia, has been cooking some of the Karoo’s simplest but finest food ever since, with a family happy to have the charms of small-town life. There’s a lot to recommend that.

Locals say his steaks are just as good as his lamb chops, so that’s what I’ll be ordering for my birthday this weekend. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: What’s cooking today: Salt and pepper leg of Karoo lamb

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