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Tales From The Foody Karoo

There we were in 43C, sitting in Calvinia drinking moerkoffie and munching koeksisters. Which is pretty much what one does in Calvinia unless, of course, you`re there for the August Hantam vleisfees where the farmers prepare some pretty incredible edibles with Karoo lamb. Every vestige of the carcass is used, including those parts you never imagined in your wildest dreams would be fit for human consumption. But that`s another matter entirely. Back to the koeksisters.

Now these were serious koeksisters, perfectly plaited, crisp to an inch of their lives, and dripping from their recent dunking in syrup. Tannie Anna van Wyk makes them, and gets up at 2 am to prepare the dough. She told us with a straight face, so we believed her. It`s lovely and cool, she said, which is what dough likes best, and the time-honoured procedures of kneading, resting and fashioning it into that familiar quaint plait is accomplished in an aura of cool and quiet.

Tannie Anna Boonzaaier makes the skuinskoek for the restaurant - they`re rather like soft-centred doughnuts cut skew. We tried one of these as well, still oven-warm, dangerously delectable, and undoubtedly enormously fattening. There being no point in counting the kilojoules (brainpower is seriously diminished at such high temperatures), we pondered the pleasures of traditional food and the special folk that perpetuate the recipes handed down from mother to daughter.

Alta Coetzee, renovator of the restaurant and a series of Hantam houses in the village that she has transformed into guest houses, and an expert on local cuisine, prepared a typical Karoo supper for us: dumpling-domed rugstringpastei, veldkoeel, carrots from her garden, and vinegar pudding. She`s also known for her grilled porcupine skin, kambro preserve, and homemade ice-cream with prickly pear syrup.
The previous evening, still foolishly operating in city-time, we had tried to get a meal at the local steakhouse tucked away behind the Hantam Hotel. It being Monday, the place was closed, and the hour approaching eight, the hotel`s dining room had long since shut. Someone in the pub suggested we might get a bite to eat at the Commercial Hotel, so off we trotted.

The dining room was empty, the solitary waiter welcoming, the owner happy to cook us a steak, provided that, next time, we let her know if we want to eat later than 7 pm. We decided to push our luck and ask for soup to start, and along came steaming bowlsful of the best boontjiesop ever. We sent compliments to the chef via our waiter, only to discover that he and the soup-maker are one and the same! We made his day.
On a farm near Williston, Elsa van Schalkwyk trotted out the best fare from her area - pannas (spiced offal made into `cakes` and fried), offal bobotie, sheep rib braaied between scorching hot rocks, and a cake made with mealiemeal and mealie rice for which she once won a R10 000 prize in a cake-baking competition. Tannie Elsa cooks up a storm of dishes like these that were once termed transportkos, sort of olden-day food-to-go perfected by the trekboers who seldom stayed put for long as they searched for grazing for their sheep.

In this neck of the woods, you won`t find hotels with more stars than one over their front doors (and country dorp menus are still along the lines of soup, fried fish, a bord kos (probably Karoo lamb, rice, soetpatat, fried potato and cabbage), followed by half-forgotten comfort zone puddings like jam roly poly and custard. But hearts are big, the welcome is genuinely warm, and the hospitality is honest. Pretty much like the honest, down?home food heart of the Karoo.

Serves 8
Any type of dried beans may be used in hearty boontjiesop, an ages-old recipe that is believed to have its roots in northern Germany and which was introduced to the Cape via Holland. It is still a favourite on the winter menus of many homes and country hotels. Early recipes called for white sauce to be stirred in, while the Cape Malay version is served with dumplings and includes a small green chilli and a sliver of root ginger in the line-up of spicings. Croûtons of fried bread are a more modern topping.

250 ml dried beans
2 litres weak beef stock
500 g beef shin (on the bone)
100 g rindless streaky bacon, chopped
1 each onion, turnip and carrot, finely chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, blanched, skinned and finely chopped
salt, milled black pepper, freshly squeezed lemon juice

Rinse the beans, place in a large saucepan, cover generously with cold water and set aside for about 12 hours to soak. If you`re pressed for time, bring to the boil, then set aside for 1-2 hours.
Drain the beans, return them to the saucepan and add the stock, beef shin and bacon. Cover and simmer gently for 1 hour. Add the onion, turnip and carrot and cook for 1-1 ½ hours more until the beans are nice and mushy.

Drain the soup over a bowl and discard all the bones and bits of fat. Push the beans, vegetables and soup through a sieve into a clean saucepan. If you prefer your soup a bit smoother, puree it in a food processor, but don`t make it too fine, for the texture should still be quite rough.

Add the chopped tomato. Check the flavour and season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes more. Add a squeeze of lemon juice just before serving.

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A house in the Karoo
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