By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
The first thing you need to know about coming to Cradock for the Karoo Food Festival is this: we like to kuier.
Kuier entails far more than just ‘to visit’. Kuier has a broad meaning in Afrikaans, which is why people in the Karoo Heartland region don’t even bother to translate it. Kuiering is a leisurely, pleasant way of getting to know one another. In the Karoo, maybe especially in the Heartland’s region (Eastern Cape Karoo) kuiering almost always involves food.
Which brings us to the second thing.
This Eastern Karoo region has some notable food and drink producers. Here you’ll find a clean and bracing climate, high altitude and frost in winter, good ground water and rivers that flow most of the year round. Crops include raspberries and blueberries from the mountains, pomegranates, quinces, pecan nut trees, walnuts, prickly pears, olives.
More and more people are producing deli-type foods on farms around here: roasting coffee, making cheeses, brewing craft beers, spicing nuts and creating salamis, cabanossi sausages and the like, much of it made from venison. This is a land of hunters in the winter.
Some of the best lamb and mutton in the world comes from the Karoo, and this part of the Heartland is no exception. People are also farming game animals and hardy cattle breeds like Ngunis, Tulis and Borans.
There are many family businesses on farms here that add value to the food they produce. Charles Lord and his son near Middelburg make sheep’s cheese and his brother Michael Lord’s wife Lesley makes the best relishes in all the Midlands. The Murray family of Roode Bloem farm near Graaff-Reinet pickle agave buds.
Pierre van Vuuren and his son Deon make biltong and pepper venison salami out at Schoombee near Middelburg. Dominie Charl du Toit of Nieu Bethesda is milling stone-ground flour in the restored old village mill. Paula Kingwill and husband Easton North near Nieu Bethesda offer grassfed beef from cattle that have not been exposed to antibiotics and steroids.
There are growing numbers of ethical and progressive farmers. Cheesemaker Nicky Prudhon near Bedford allows cows and calves to be together during the day and only separates them at night so she can take the morning milk. Nieu Bethesda farmer Dougie Stern and dozens of others in the Eastern Karoo have turned the tide of erosion around and have increased the region’s grass cover dramatically after decades of degradation.
Innovative minimum-harm solutions are being tried out against predators like jackals and caracals.
This, then, is the background to the Karoo Food Festival, and maybe an indication of why it is becoming such a popular event.
The 2014 festivities began on Thursday night 20 March – appropriately enough with a serious bout of kuiering and stoep stories at Karookraal.
The next morning the Masterclasses and cooking demonstrations kicked off, all in private homes except for Pieter de Kock, who naturally hosted people in his restaurant Mila’s.
In Elsje Taljaard’s kitchen there were nearly two dozen people there for a private class with Heyla Meyer, chef at the Victoria Manor Hotel. She worked at a table with the basics of ‘hartskos’, as she called it (heartfood, if you translate directly).
From a table full of flour, butter, cinnamon, vanilla essence and egg, she created milktart (the right way!), souskluitjies, boerebeskuit and melkkos.
In Lisa Antrobus-Ker’s kitchen was Annatjie Reynolds of Kom Kook en Kuier in die Karoo based on a Richmond farm. Annatjie is also co-author of that iconic cookbook Karoo Venison (Karoo Wildsvleis). The explicit aim is to hunt with respect, prepare food with respect and eat with respect, said Annatjie.
Around Cradock, farmer’s wives routinely handle a carcass of ‘twee-tand’ lamb or a kudu every few months. In a day or so, with the help of family or neighbours, it will be turned into haunches, chops, sausages and offal. It’s a rare farmer’s wife that doesn’t know how to make boerewors. Nothing goes to waste.
But many locals were enchanted to learn from Annatjie how to debone ribs and make their own stuffed springbok roll for baking. They also learnt how to make flambe rump and venison pate.
Annatjie’s class included some serious chefs, like Jeffreys Bay’s InFood founder, Jayne Davies.
Graaff-Reinet Chef Gordon Wright of Veld to Fork cookbook fame gave his class in Melina Smit’s kitchen. He wore an apron that proclaimed “Danger Man Cooking” and appropriately enough his class was mostly filled with guys and a few women learning the secrets of making sausages with Karoo and Italian influences.
Wors is serious business and they enjoyed it so much that Gordon ended up leaving more than an hour after schedule.
Mila’s owner chef Pieter de Kock, meanwhile, was teaching an avid class how to make pasta from scratch and how to create ravioli from leftovers. They came away with all kinds of skills, including making Pieter’s trademark smoky baba ganoush.
The wine and chocolate and coffee pairing session went so well that the Karoo Fusion Party got off to an early festive start, with a great band from PE and stands selling everything from sushi, Pieter de Kock’s mutton boerie with Mediterranean relish, Angora goat pies to springbok haunch roast, umnqusho and stew, vetkoek, roosterkoek, Portuguese chicken, springrolls, breyani, with decadent pavlovas, tiramisu, chocolate mousse and pecan nut pie for dessert.
The Saturday market brought everything and everyone together. While cooking demonstrations happened on stage at the Cradock High School, crowds filtered through the stalls, buying up olive oil, salami, biltong, stoneground flour, quiches, bobotie pies, prickly pear milkshakes, induction cookers, jams, fresh bread, pomegranates, relishes, plus Roger Jorgensen’s artisanal vodka, limoncello and Sauvignac.
The African Angels did a roaring trade massaging people’s sore feet, and there were pony rides for the children.
And in the evening, chef Heyla Meyer and her team at the Victoria Manor Hotel cooked up Karoo Heritage Food – springhare pie, marrow bones on toast, kaiings (crispy mutton fat), springbok tongues, lamb shanks and more.
The Festival finished up with some white water rafting on the Fish River rapids, and a leisurely lunch under the trees at Lowlands Country House near Fish River.
“What an excellent event for Cradock, especially on the occasion of the town’s Bicentenary,” remarked Brian Wilmot, head of Cradock-Middelburg Tourism, a major sponsor of the event.