In the winter of 2012, freelance writer Sue Derwent drove all the way from Durban down through Kokstad and deep Transkei to Cradock. Being a food journo, she was nosey about the local cheese-makers, pickle-makers, butchers and bakers of the Karoo.
With the help of willing locals, she discovered sheep’s cheese-makers near Middelburg. There was a pickler of agave flower buds just north of Graaff-Reinet. There was a beer brewer in Nieu-Bethesda. There was a man making wonderful smoky kudu salami in a suburb of Graaff-Reinet and a manic olive grower from a wild stretch of land between Alicedale and Bedford.
And there was Slow Food chef Gordon Wright, who has written a runaway hit cookbook called Veld to Fork and who runs a restaurant at Andries Stockenstrom Guesthouse in Graaff-Reinet. Gordon is the Karoo’s current answer to Jamie Oliver. (That’s if Jamie Oliver ever wore camo and wielded a hunting rifle).
Sue dashed about the Karoo in the depths of an icy cold winter, wrapped in mohair, discovering preserves, tasting veld-raised Karoo lamb and generally eating her way in a circle around the heartland. When she departed a week later, quite replete, it became clear that very interesting foodie things are happening in the Karoo, things both retro and progressive.
It was also clear a Karoo Food Festival would be a very good idea.
The skills of pickling, preserving, cheese-making, cooking in great big old Agas, feeding large groups with effortless grace may have died out in the cities, but they remain the skills of many Karoo women and men, of all colours, classes and ages.
The profile of the Heartland’s food has been raised with the certification of Karoo Meat of Origin, which puts its distinctively flavoured lamb on the same level as Parma Ham.
In addition, new high value foods suited to the Karoo’s arid climate are being planted these days: pomegranates, pecans, walnuts, berries, artichokes, olives.
Alongside this is a growing parallel trend of nostalgia for Karoo food, one of South Africa’s defining root cuisines.
Something that celebrated the region’s food and legendary hospitality was way overdue. But there was no precedent, no sign one way or the other that a Karoo Food Festival would attract anyone.
Never mind. On Saturday morning, as the sound decibel levels rose with excited chatter in Cradock High School’s Hockly Hall, it became clear that the Karoo Food Festival was going to be a great success.
Arrayed around the sides of this atmospheric old hall were the food-growers and cooks of the town and its district. There were people selling pecan nuts harvested along the Great Fish River; fresh raspberries, juices, jams and vinegars from Winterberg berries; delectable lamburgers in pitas with local relishes made by Mila’s owner-chef Pieter de Kock; naughty lime mojito-, strawberry daiquiri- and cherry martini-cupcakes by local baker Lucinde Roux; takeaway prickly pear milkshakes and lemon meringue tarts by Alida Schulze of the Schreiner Tea Room.
The Lord family of Beaconsfield sheep’s cheese near Middelburg and Nicky Prudhon of Simply Natural Cheese near Bedford did brisk trade. So did Frans and Melina Smit who had just started a Coffee Roastery in Cradock. One of the fastest sell-outs was baker Elsje Taljaard’s cranberry and pecan nut pies.
Biltong and kudu salami from Taste of the Karoo and Pierre van Vuuren of Schoombee were practically sold by the metre. Elna van den Berg of Gourmet Goats from Jansenville had a constant stream of visitors to try her charcuterie. There was prickly pear syrup and ginger beer and strawberry jam and Lesley Lord’s very popular Karoo Mud relishes.
Joan Saaiman of Braemore Farm just outside town had her freshly picked vegetables on sale, plus intriguing rolled milktart balls.
In the middle of the room were chairs and tables, where people retired to eat what they’d bought, or to sit and watch the swirling, laughing, good-natured crowd.
Author of Karoo Kitchen, Sydda Essop, and the Karoo’s other culinary rock star, Gordon Wright, were present, and both praised Cradock for the authenticity of the festival and for seizing the initiative to celebrate the region’s food.
There was a large and supportive contingent from the nearby town of Bedford, with fabulous jams, preserves, handmade breads and cupcakes.
By sheer serendipity Bedford people began planning a Food Festival at the same time as Cradock conceived of its own, and were to hold theirs just over a month later.
The organisers of both festivals did a typically Karoo thing – they pledged to work together, to support each other in a spirit of sisterly co-operation. (Bedford’s Food Festival was also a roaring success, and perfectly complemented Cradock’s.)
This year the Karoo Food Festival will be held from 20 to 22 March, and the Cradock High School will again be the centre of activities. The school’s Old Scholars will host an evening of stoep stories and a spitbraai on the Thursday evening 20 March.
Friday will see masterclasses from various chefs, including Gordon Wright and Annatjie Reynolds to be held in kitchens around town. That night will be the first Karoo Nights fusion evening, to be held at the Cradock High School. It will be held on a tapas basis, where people can buy vouchers and pick and choose what they’d like to eat: Karoo food with influences from around the world.
On Saturday, the food market will be open again. This time, the event will spill out into a courtyard and culminate in another Karoo Nights fusion food event at the Victoria Manor Hotel, showcasing traditional foods like kaiings and springbok tongues, some of them with a modern twist.
It is Cradock’s 200th birthday too and most restaurants in the town will be offering a special festival menu.
And Professor Paul Walters of Grahamstown will be back with his spectacular Spode collection.
- For more information, contact Lisa Antrobus-Ker of the Tuishuise and Victoria Manor 048 881 1322 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Like the Facebook page to be kept abreast of developments.
- Algoa FM will be broadcasting the latest news on the Festival.