From Leipoldt’s Cellar & Kitchen
by C Louis Leipoldt
In the good old days, when she still bore the hallmarks of a true mother city, nurturing western civilisation, Cape Town was home to genuinely old-fashioned Afrikaans cooking at its outstanding best. No nation’s culinary art can really be appraised from what is served in hotels and public eateries: to fully appreciate the finest cuisine, the connoisseur must have special friends with exceptional cooks, for excellent traditional food is invariably found in private homes, not restaurants.
This was no less true of Cape Town. Fifty years ago, the food in our hotels and fashionable cafés, such as that of Kamp, was generally prepared and served in accordance with European guidelines. There were, of course, notable exceptions, one being the highly regarded White House in Strand Street, which had a good collection of game in its backyard – I particularly remember a young camel that, alas, didn’t survive very long. The White House was renowned for its excellent table. Even at eight in the morning, one could relish sosaties with fried bananas and no less than six different sambals. Lunch was especially enjoyable, and from time to time the menu would contain such delicacies as turnip and tomato bredie, curried crayfish soup, saffron bobotie with almonds and raisins, and stewed veldkool. A dessert that was particularly savoured by plattelanders and Capetonians alike was the thin, juicy, fragrant pancakes with a delicious sauce made from eggs, cream and Van der Hum. Another hotel with excellent food, and a really impressive cellar, was the Old Royal in Plein Street. Queens in Sea Point was, in later years, also well known for its first-rate table, although not for authentic Afrikaans cooking.
The best traditional Afrikaans dishes were to be found in private homes and small boarding houses. There you could enjoy really outstanding traditional fare, properly prepared as it should be, over the moderated heat of a wood fire – we would not have considered scorching our food with a hot wire! The best of the Afrikaans boarding houses was probably that of old Miss Wahl in Queen Victoria Street, the popular home-from-home of many platteland Members of Parliament. The hostess was herself an excellent cook, with the knack of being able to prepare simple yet exceptionally delicious food. Some of the house recipes, such as her crayfish salad, crayfish frikkadel, bean soup and milk tart, were as traditional as you could get. And one of the simple delights there was her coffee, served with plain cake and a really good preserve.
Traditional Afrikaans cooking can be compared to that found in the area south of the Ardour River in France. There you find the closest relative of our boerewors. There too you encounter the habit of serving up, in all its grisly splendour, an ox head, complete with horns and skin, slow-roasted in a huge oven. This is decidedly out of favour in these parts, but I nevertheless encountered it in the Transvaal. The last time I tried it – and it was absolutely delicious – I was in the company of General Botha. He declared, pertinently and with relish, that the cheek of an ox head, slow-roasted in this manner, was the tastiest meat a human tooth could ever chew.
The culinary art is essentially the art of making food tastier and more nourishing, and additives are both useful and necessary for this purpose. A dish without salt is not only tasteless, it is less nourishing than one that has been properly salted. Salt is a spice that must be used carefully, but just as boldly, as ginger, fennel, or cinnamon. I know a species of sage that improves the taste of a potato bredie twentyfold, and a geranium leaf – one from somewhere in the eastern districts – that considerably improves the taste of a chop. If we were more serious about our culinary art, we wouldn’t hesitate to harness the treasures of veld and kloof, for one thing is sure: without experimentation there will be no progress.
7 August 1942