My husband Peter and I rendezvous with friend and photographer Daniela Zondagh in Piketberg, where we compare notes on roadworks, detours and stop-and-goes. “Thank goodness our roads are being serviced”, all three of us chorus, but we are really looking forward to the next leg of our trip to the Sandveld.
Our gracious host and guide on this culinary journey, Rina Theron, has sent instructions that read ‘Don’t let Tannie Google lead you, just follow the road out of town’. And she is right. From Piketberg, it is perfect roadtripping along the Verlorenvlei to the turnoff into the heart of the Sandveld, defined by the towns of Redelinghuys, Leipoldtville, Graafwater and Aurora.
Triumphs and failures
Rina’s farm, Aan het Berg, lies just outside Leipoldtville, in the middle of the potato-producing basket of the Cape. The Sandveld is also home to rooibos tea and the heerboontjie.
We contacted Rina to lead us on this journey, as she had published a cook book called Sandveldkos, Kosnostalgie en Stories van Gister (Sandveld Food, Food Nostalgia and Stories of Yesteryear) in August last year. When her book took top honours at the Richmond BoekBedonnerd Festival in the category for self-published cook books,
she was blown away.
In Sandveldkos she describes the tapestry of life in the Sandveld. Rina documented the history, wrote about the architecture, the schools and churches, the farming, but the thread that binds her book is also that which weaves together the people of the Sandveld.
The thread is the stories of their daily lives, their triumphs and failures. Most of all, she pays tribute to their ability to make plans to survive and to flourish in a harsh environment. Then she links it all, past and present, with the dishes that still nourish and delight the people of the Sandveld, when the temperature starts hovering around 40 degrees in summer, or when those bitterly cold winter winds cut to the bone.
Fridge full of home-cooked ingredients
Over the next two days we are fortunate to have three Sandveld cooks open their homes to us and treat us with unique and delicious dishes made from the three culinary icons of the Sandveld – potatoes, rooibos tea and
the famed heerboontjie.
Our first stop is the farm Brandenburg, where Madelein and Hennie Visser greet us with the ease of people who always have space for one or two more at their table. Madelein’s kitchen is already busy – she is one of the most productive suppliers of home-made produce in the area.
There is a table laden with rusks, golden and ready to be packed for the orders she has to deliver that afternoon. The churn sits silently waiting for her to turn a big basin of cream into daisy-yellow blocks of butter. Her fridge is adorned with lists of home-cooked dishes that she prepares and supplies to those not as skilled in the kitchen.
Revered by those who taste it
Madelein checks her potato yeast in the enamel koskannetjie, turns on the oven and starts frying up potato fritters. She explains that this is one of her standby dishes for using up left-overs, here left-over mutton with grated potato. The fritters are so delicious and an excellent example of the sensible and frugal way of life that has (mercifully) endured in the Sandveld, and shows an attitude to food that all of us should embrace, as we face great challenges to feed the people of our country.
The yeast is ready and Madelein shows us how to knead, shape and bake a potato yeast bread. And the fragrant newly-baked loaf accompanies us to our next stop.
It is time to meet the heerboontjie. One of the explanations for the name of this dried bean is that tenant farmers used it as tithe, part payment, for their rent and therefore it became known as the ‘master’ or ‘lord’s’ bean. The other name, ‘goewerneursboontjie’ translates to the ‘governor’s bean’. Louis Leipoldt called these beauties herebone but, according to Rina, the Sandvelders refer to them as heerboontjies.
It is revered by those who have tasted it and I believe it is the queen of dried beans, and should receive the status it deserves. Corrie Victor steps up to the plate to ensure that the heerboontjie’s status is kept intact. She and her husband moved to the Sandveld 14 years ago and she clearly embraces the produce of the area. Corrie makes it her own, judging by her rendition of two traditional dishes, a heerboontjie soup and curried heerboontjies with mutton.
In the last days of warmth
With the last days of summer dwindling away it’s the perfect time to haul out your black pot and start cooking these two dishes over the fire. It needs some planning, some pre-soaking of beans, some gathering of spices, but it will also give you plenty of time to relax around the fire, and let the flavours and textures do the talking when the sun sets.
And keep the seeds of that pumpkin you cut this morning to let the children enjoy one of the treats of the Sandveld. Let them toast the pips on the stones in your braai and nibble on them while the potjie is simmering.
On our last morning, Rina serves us a huge breakfast with some of her wasgoedbondeltjies (little washing bundles), her mother-in-law’s recipe. I love their shape, a square of pastry pulled up around a flavoured meat filling and secured with a whole clove that releases its flavour through the whole bundle.
I pick fruit from Rina’s orchard before we take a bottle of her rooibos punch for our last pictures on a koppie with splendid views. And this is where we get stuck in the sand. I am reminded of Rina’s story about Oom Jan-Frans Visser, who warned her that the sand of the Sandveld can trap you up to a point, but then there comes a time when you do not want to leave it. We are sorely tempted.
Pictures Daniela Zondagh