The Hearth of the Home – In Karoo kitchens of a hundred years ago, the cook had elegant little devices to peel peaches, grind coffee and sieve flour. And weren’t those peach pip floors something?
Words: Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais
Across the Karoo, there are ‘house museums’, and most fascinating is always the kitchen. This is where you’ll discover cunning little peelers, raisin pip removers, nutmeg graters, sugar-cane cutters, eggboxes, coffee roasters, candlemoulds, mincers and copper water-heaters that used to fit neatly next to the hearth. Urquhart House, part of the Graaff-Reinet Museums, has one of the best old-time kitchens, a monument to Victorian ingenuity and Karoo practicality. But the first thing to notice is the floor.
Across the Karoo, peach pips used to be embedded in the clay, to strengthen floors, according to the late Helena Marincowitz of Prince Albert. In her book Karoostyle: Folk Architecture of Prince Albert, she writes, ‘They were placed in rows and beaten down with a wooden board to obtain a smooth surface. After six months, the floor was coated with a layer of aloe juice; this was to keep the insects away’.
These days, designers the world over sing praises to this uniquely South African looring technique. So interesting to the eye, so easy to clean, so therapeutic to walk on, beetle-resistant, eco-friendly and warp-free, they enthuse. Yet it’s hardly used these days. One of the rare exceptions is the Elandsberg Wilderness Camp in Tankwa Karoo National Park, which features peach pip floors in the open-plan kitchens.
Of course, when the trekboere first started travelling across the Karoo in the 1700s, there wasn’t anything as modern and convenient as a kitchen, open hearth or even a proper floor for that matter. These migrant farmers, following the rains with their animals, would live in their wagons or build corbelled houses from stone – the only available building material in the western Karoo. Any cooking happened outside in the kookskerms (cooking shelters), usually created by piling up semi-circles of asbos, a succulent that grows in profusion in the dry land.
Elna van Schalkwyk, who runs a B+B in Williston, often takes people on tours that include the various corbelled houses in the region, and has compiled some of the old recipes of that time. One of the favourites (and just as good when reproduced today, she swears) was to heat up flat pieces of ironstone over a fire. When red-hot, one would be knocked flat onto the embers, and a thick mutton rib laid on it, topped with another hot rock.
Later, outside ovens were created with clay, where bread was baked and meats were roasted. Some of the very first were hollowed-out anthills. Historian Marincowitz recounts that a thornwood fire was made and stoked inside and the cook would check the heat by holding her hand inside. If it could be held in the oven for the count of ten (but no more), the temperature was just right. Then the waiting bread mixture, leavened with sourdough, was pushed in, usually in earthenware pots. A stone was placed in the opening, and everything sealed with clay. Only later were metal doors introduced.
Of course, while on trek, there was no time for ovens. Dough was baked in the ashes for asbrood, or on griddles for roosterkoek. Meat was mostly turned into biltong. And then, of course, there was the traditional old boeretroos or coffee, for which the Boers developed a powerful addiction after the Dutch East India Company started importing it in the 18th century.
You’ll find all kinds of coffee roasters in museums. But coffee, coming from tropical countries across the seas, was sometimes difficult to obtain deep in the Karoo. Undeterred, the Boers made a plan. The root of the shepherd’s tree – the witgatboom – was one of the most popular (if somewhat purgative) alternatives until the tree became a protected species.
Author Lawrence Green records farmers adding roasted peas to coffee. Others would mix in roasted peaches or prickly pear peel, carrots or dried figs for flavour. During the Anglo-Boer War, Boer soldiers had to make do with roasted mielie coffee.
Actual kitchens were an addition to old Karoo houses, says Marincowitz, usually leading off the voorhuis (lounge). It was only from the 1930s onwards that stoves like the Aga, Union, Dover and Esse took their place in the fire hearth.
Keeping food fresh and free of pests was another issue. If you visit the kitchen in Olive Schreiner’s old house in Cradock or the Hantam Huis kitchen in Calvinia, you’ll notice the walls are a distinctive blue-green – the result of adding arsenic to the paint to repel flies.
The kitchens always faced south to keep food cool. But in the heat of summer, more refrigeration was needed. Sometimes you’ll see a small box-like building outside an abandoned Karoo farmhouse kitchen or a deserted railway station. These were evaporative fridges, the walls made with charcoal or pumice trapped between chicken wire. Water trickled down the walls and the evaporation made for a discernibly cooler storage space.
People tend to think that, as time goes by, we become more modern and sophisticated, and that the old folk were clunky. Not so. Any time spent in a Victorian kitchen museum will show you just how smart and innovative people really were – and completely ‘unplugged’ to boot.
Museums of the Karoo
There are wonderful old kitchens to explore in the museums of most Karoo towns. Here are a few notable ones:
- Graaff-Reinet Museum
- Schreiner House museum, Cradock
- Burgersdorp Museum
- Somerset East Museum
- Richmond Horse Museum
- Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein
- Calvinia Museum
- Williston Museum