The Karoo is a place for fabulous roadtrips with pitstops for the best of local food. Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit give us a tasty tour to whet our appetites for more.
Words: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais
Consider the little trekboer family of the 1700s, as they made their way across the vast Karoo with livestock and covered wagons. They were the original storm chasers, watching for lightning flashes in the distance and moving their animals towards the rain and greenery.
Likewise, trekboer cuisine was all about mobility and opportunism. When they found themselves on the fringe of one of those legendary springbok migrations (trekbokken) that suddenly filled the horizon with endless protein, they hauled out the voorlaaiers and blazed away.
Everything of the bok was used: the hide for tanning, the horns for digging up roots and the meat for biltong. They baked bread on the move, either in small cast-iron stoves (potbrood) or on the griddle (roosterkoek). They also hollowed out the odd termite mound, turned it into a natural oven and baked boerebeskuit (rusks).
Whenever there was access to fruit, sugar was added and preserves were made. And when a trekboer family stayed on a farm for more than a year, the enterprising ones set up a little still and, voila, how about a dram of peach brandy?
Fast-forward 300 years to a modern-day South African clan on a meander through the Karoo. Karoo trekboer flavours remain the root of South African comfort food – boerekos, and for that matter padkos. So popular are they, that Karoo cooking courses are becoming something of a trend.
Slow-food chef Gordon Wright of Graaff-Reinet often runs Veld to Fork courses in winter, covering charcuterie, boning and biltong and the lost art of cooking with tripe. Venison is also a major food trend, but how does one cook with it?
On a Kom Kook en Kuier in die Karoo course, Annatjie Reynolds teaches you exactly that on her farm Nieuwefontein near Richmond. She is one of the authors of that perennially reprinted book Karoo Venison, and is passionate about it.
“Venison can be used in so many ways, but it is important to know how to use various cuts,” says Annatjie. “I teach people how to do anything from salami and cabanossi to venison pâté, sausage and stuffed fillets. I also teach people how to debone and smoke meats. We even make jams and things like green fig preserve. For me, it’s about sharing with people how we live, what we eat and how we do things in the Karoo.”
Remember the days when you scoured the platteland for a decent place that sold biltong? That’s all changed. Bare little butcheries have now been replaced by upmarket meat retailers like Kamdeboo Slagtery in Graaff-Reinet, De Wilge in Cradock and the Farm Butchery in Bedford. All sell swathes of Karoo lamb and biltong to visitors passing through on their way to the coast or the inland national parks.
Karen Morgan of Bedford’s Farm Butchery (she also runs the pop-up restaurant The Butcherbird) says, “Obviously we do a lot of game in the winter season.” And warthogs, which are considered a pest by farmers and conservationists (because they never occurred here naturally) are quite delicious. Their meat is lean, perfect for pickling and roasting, or making into cheesy sausage. Then there are intriguing deli-restaurant-gift shops like, for instance, Sophie’s Choice in Willowmore or True Living in Cradock. True Living owner Lani Lombard is part of a formidable multi-generational cooking dynasty. If you’re looking for those classic old-time sosaties made with a family recipe, this is where you’ll find them. Lani is also an artisanal baker, using stoneground flour and natural yeast. There are always fresh pies, biscuits, rusks and preserves – all made on her farm or in the shop.
There are interesting eateries popping up all over the Karoo, although it still remains a challenge to find one that is open for Sunday lunch. Tiny little Philipstown has one, though, at the Bokskryt building on the main road. People happily drive for an hour to get there.
And restaurants that cater for locals seldom offer Karoo lamb, because the farmers slaughter their own and they’re far more interested in steaks and pizza. But if it’s egte traditional Karoo kos you’re looking for, don’t miss out on a supper at Calvinia’s Hantam Huis – just opposite the giant postbox. This is where you can dine on waterblommetjie bredie, bobotie, traditional lamb pie, gestoofde patat or curried tripe. Followed by a choice of melktert, apple tart or home-made ice cream and prickly pear syrup.
Down south again on the N1, it’s time to dust off that jacket for a traditional Karoo dinner at Matjiesfontein’s newly-refurbished Lord Milner Hotel. The ambience is historic and head chef Tronette Dippenaar prepares traditional meals with a modern twist, often eaturing classic Karoo lamb. Sit back, enjoy and order up the red wine.
Karoo food is in increasing demand, and it’s not always necessary to travel for it. Based on a farm between Cradock and Graaff-Reinet, Derek Carstens’ supply company, called Taste of the Karoo, is growing stronger by the month. He’s bringing the Karoo to the city, deli by deli.
Sit down and talk venison and mutton with Derek. He’ll tell you some surprising things about the delights of the tweetand (two-teeth) sheep. In fact, like many locals, Carstens prefers a tweetand to regular Karoo lamb. At eighteen months old (the teeth refer to emerging adult molars), the tweetand has the flavour of mutton, with the tenderness of lamb.
Roadtrippers through the Karoo will delight in the padstal really morphing into something special. We used to drive past those sad little stalls at the roadside – but now it’s almost impossible not to stop.
Kuilfontein Padstal outside Springfontein has the best lamb and mint pies, Smitswinkel near Oudtshoorn has epic omelettes, and the folks at Daggaboer Padstal 50km south of Cradock still welcome you with a home-made ginger beer or lemonade sopie (a wee dram), even if you’re just browsing. They never seem to have any dagga though…
Then there are the various food festivals happening around the Karoo. These include the Karoo Food Festival in Cradock and the Bedford Soul Food Festival in April and May, and the Calvinia Vleisfees in August. Great occasions to come out, meet the locals and experience food of origin.
You can meet and learn from some of the Karoo’s best cooks and chefs at these gatherings, including Veld to Fork chef Gordon Wright of Graaff-Reinet, Bedford-based Marelise van Niekerk (former head of hospitality studies at Boland College), Janet Telian (who used to run the Savoy Cabbage restaurant in Cape Town) and Janet Moolman, who was one of the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel’s youngest sous chefs.
Of course, this is also where you come to purchase authentic Karoo Slow Food like Langbaken or Simply Natural cheese, craft beers, kudu salami, the best meat in the Karoo, pecan nuts, pomegranates and olives. If you love food, join us here in the heart of the country. The only requirement is: come hungry…