In our first instalment of our #LocalisLekker series we look back at the creation of one of South Africa’s most iconic brands, Ouma Rusks, with writer Julienne du Toit. Read on to find out how this small home industry went on to become the largest employer in the small Eastern Cape town of Molteno. If you have a favourite South African product tell us about it and you could win a weekend away for two worth R20 000 and many more prizes.
This story was first published in the March 2011 issue of SA Country Life and was updated on 27 May 2019.
🕒 9-minute read
Rusks, large biscotti with attitude, are part of South Africa’s history and psyche. The best-known brand is still made in the small Eastern Cape town of Molteno, says Julienne du Toit.
This is a tale of the two bakers of Molteno. One of them was my great-grandmother. The other became so famous you’ve probably got her products in your kitchen cupboard.
My father told me stories about our origins in the Eastern Cape, and about the ‘vetkoek incident’, as my family still ruefully calls it. My great-grandmother Johanna Maria van Wyk (née Cloete) was ‘a baker of bread and of cookies to die for,’ my father Pierre du Toit likes to boast.
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Apparently during the Anglo-Boer war, soldiers from both sides would visit to enjoy home-cooked meals and some of my great-grandma’s famous buttermilk rusks and vetkoek as take-aways.
My father takes up the story, “Now, it happened that a British detachment arrived one morning on horseback with a new subaltern in charge, who thought that he was superior to everyone present.
“Grandma had given them breakfast and was busy baking vetkoek when Subaltern Snotnose ordered her to hurry and told her to bring the ‘fatcooks’ because he was in a hurry to carry on with his patrol.
“Grandma’s reply was that they were nog te wit (still uncooked). The Subaltern thought he heard something about General Christiaan de Wet, the nemesis of the British forces.
“The Brits took off in a cloud of dust, heading for Jamestown where they had a District HQ, and immediately laid charges against my grandparents for harbouring enemy spies and entertaining General De Wet.
“Two days later Lt Snotnose arrived on my Grandpa’s farm with about 50 soldiers armed to the teeth, to take the ‘enemies of the state’ in custody and to take the farm over.
“My Grandma told us that it was the only time she saw my Grandpa in tears, when he was forced to watch the soldiers kill every animal on the farm with lances, rifles and clubs, and then set the homestead, stables and workers’ huts alight.
“Grandma and the children were carted off to a concentration camp and Grandpa was taken to Jamestown. He and another farmer were sentenced to death, but managed to overpower the two soldiers guarding them. They took their rifles and ammo, stole two horses and headed north to join the rebel army in the Orange Free State.”
The Great Molteno Bake-off
Nearly 60 years later, another farmer’s wife from Molteno had far more luck with her baking talents.
You’ll find the gist of it on all Ouma Rusk boxes – in 1939, when the Great Depression was biting hard, a dominee in the little Eastern Cape town of Molteno made an offer to a number of women at a church meeting.
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Inspired by the gospel story of people using their talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), he offered them a half‑crown (two shillings and sixpence), challenging them to use the money and their abilities to generate more.
One woman, Elizabeth Ann Greyvensteyn of Friedenheim farm, known by all as Nannie, succeeded beyond that dominee’s wildest expectations. With the money she bought ingredients and used a family recipe to make rusks, which she put on sale at a church bazaar. Legend goes they sold out in minutes, and the orders started to pour in.
A Runaway Success
Nannie’s rusks became more and more famous. She sold them at rugby games, at other church gatherings, at bazaars. But would they sell further afield? Handily, her husband Thys Greyvensteyn had the Ford dealership in town. Her son Leon decided to take one of the Ford bakkies on the road to test out the market for his mother’s rusks up north.
The trip was a great success, and he came back with many orders. That’s when the family turned the barn into the country’s first rusk factory, with home‑made rusk dryers and extra clay ovens.
Nannie first sold her rusks under the brandname Uitspan, then Outspan. Eventually they became Ouma Rusks, and she became known as Ouma Nannie. Her husband was well-respected and became mayor of Molteno for a record-breaking 21 years. In the tradition of South African small towns, where people are nicknamed by their profession, everyone called him Thys Beskuitjies
When the Greyvensteyns needed bigger premises, Ouma Nannie applied for a loan of R3 000 from the newly created Industrial Development Corporation. The IDC’s archives state that their first loan of 1941 went to a certain Mrs Greyvensteyn of Molteno, who had great faith in her rusks.
The barn at Friedenheim became a factory, which unfortunately burnt down in 1952. A new, better one was built in its place – probably a good thing, because by then the little farm outside Molteno was something of a player in the dry foods market.
This was where Taystee Wheat breakfast cereal was first made, and a new kind of snack – Simba Chips. Both brands were eventually sold off.
Ouma to Molteno
But Molteno remains the home of Ouma Rusks. It’s the town’s most important industry, and the biggest employer for a radius of 150km.
The factory still stands on the original Friedenheim farm, surrounded by tall trees like any other farmhouse, with distant sandstone mountains, open veld and grazing sheep.
As you approach, the fresh Stormberg air is scented with the smells of grandma’s baking, along with aniseed, caramel, marmalade and buttermilk.
Gerrie Brand, who is now the former general manager, and his wife Erika (who heads up the grocery division) live in Ouma Nannie’s original old house, with its high ceilings and wooden floors. He showed us around the side, where Ouma Nannie’s old wood-fired outdoor oven still stands.
Chris and I never travel without rusks and coffee (the classic photographer’s breakfast) and much good-natured banter followed on the subject of flavours. Gerrie and Erika rave about the marmalade range. We love the muesli, but promise we’ll try their favourite, plus the new range of breakfast rusks studded with pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
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Today the factory employs just under 193 permanent employees, but all that changes in winter. Then, it seems, the whole of South Africa wants to wrap its collective hands around a cup of coffee and dip an Ouma. So they have to bring in another 86 contract workers to handle the demand.
Inside the delicious-smelling factory huge machines mix ingredients together and clusters of women deftly scoop buttermilk mosbolletjies off a conveyor belt and put them into baking pans. Further along, the freshly baked rusks are split apart before going into another oven for drying. I find my hands twitching for a cup of coffee.
For more on the Ouma Rusks story, read about how RCL put R46 million into the Molteno Factory at Farmer’s Weekly.
045 967 0152, rclfood.com
The rusks of war
Rusks have been popular in South Africa since the first restless Dutch trekboers headed away from the Cape. Double-baked, they last for months, even years. Rusks really came into their own during the Anglo‑Boer War. British prisoners of war, when released, reported with some awe that the Boers seemed to survive solely on rusks dipped in boeretroos (coffee), with a stash of biltong on the side.
In fact, a law was passed saying each Boer soldier had to supply his own biltong, and boerebeskuit (along with a horse, tack, rifle and 30 cartridges). Of course when the British embarked on a campaign to burn the farmhouses (and with them, the rusk ovens), it dealt a crippling blow to the Boers.
Did you know?
- Borstol is another famous brand that started in Molteno.
- Ouma Rusks are now owned by RCL Foods, which has its headquarters in Randfontein.
- The Ouma in the photograph on every box of rusks is not Ouma Nannie. The photographs of the real Nannie in the factory’s scrapbook show a youthful, rather beautiful woman.
- Ouma Greyvensteyn remained very involved in the business for a long time. She died in 1989 at the age of 98.
- Leon Greyvensteyn, Ouma Nannie’s son, started Simba Chips in Molteno after meeting Herman Lay – the pioneer of the potato crisp in America – during the 1950s.
- Molteno is one of the coldest towns in the country, with temperatures regularly plummeting below -10˚C in winter.
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Words Julienne du Toit
Photography Chris Marais
I was the editor of a Joburg-based environmental magazine called Keeping Track before moving to the Karoo, sharing the dawn with meerkats, fighting the frackers-to-be and celebrating the joys of the platteland with all its people. Now I publish Karoo books with my husband Chris Marais, write for SA Country Life, run karoospace.co.za and teach travel writing to students on-line.