Baking under the Ash

Posted on December 09, 2016 by Cape Rebel

From Leipoldt's Cellar & Kitchen
by C Louis Leipoldt
First published in Die Huisgenoot on 28 July 1944


The old way of preparing food, by baking or roasting it under the ash, is not, as many assume, a genuinely Afrikaans custom. It is found in the cooking of every nation. Some of those who take the trouble to investigate the habits of our forefathers maintain, albeit with some reservations, that a certain ritual meaning used to attach to the custom of preparing food ‘under the ash’. It originated, they say, from secret gatherings of the druids, who used to roast human flesh at clandestine meetings in the lanes of the priests – always lanes of oak trees. If this were true, the custom of ‘roasting under the ash’ would have come to us from England. In fact, it came direct from France, where in the district of Perigord, it is today still regarded as one of the noblest ways of preparing food. Historically, we have inherited many customs from the border area that used to be English and where, during the time of the English occupation of the south of France, English customs became deeply entrenched.

But the historical aspect is not our primary concern. We are interested in the method by which it is done.

Baking or roasting under the ash used to be easy on a traditional, open fireplace. Today it is very difficult. So please do not try to ‘roast under the ash’ with electricity – I take it that my reader is serious enough about the culinary art to regard it as something noble and edifying, and would therefore not wish, thereby, to dry out his food.

As we no longer have open fireplaces, we have to make do with the dry heat of the oven. Yet roasting under the ash is something we can do on an outing in the veld – food prepared in this way is also at its best in such an environment. What is more delicious than a lamb chop, braaied on a grill over renosterbos smoke? Or what is juicier and tastier than a pheasant roasted beneath the warm ash? Not to mention a meat dish roasted in an anthill oven. Many of my readers may never have the opportunity of experiencing something like that, but should they get the chance, leg me beg them to roast a sheep’s head, a large Muscovy duck, a turkey or a little lamb in it. One of my not-to-be-forgotten memories is of the first time – it was on the occasion of a Dingaan’s Day feast – I tasted an ox-head that was roasted whole, with the horns and skin intact, in an anthill oven. The meat of the cheeks and the palate – well, I can only make a gesture like that of the Coloured Elder when he spoke of the juice of the vine in his sermon.

Despite our current difficulties in the kitchen, we do not have to deny althgether the rightful place of ‘baking under the ash’. In a good Swedish oven, even the expensive kinds in fashion these days, you can bake very well. I find potatoes baked in an oven like that just as tasty as those baked under the ash, and the same goes for sweet potatoes. The connoisseur will perhaps claim that it depends on the kind of ash you use. I am prepared to concede this when it comes to taaibos ash, which may have a real, although minor, influence on the taste of a sweet potato. But that could simply be one’s imagination, for when you roast or bake beneath the ash, you do not get the direct blending of food flavour with smoke flavour that you do, for example, when you braai a piece of meat on the grill over a wood fire. By roasting in an anthill oven, you can, of course, influence the food being prepared in it. I know of an old tannie who, after the oven was nice and warm, cast a handful of the leaves of a certain bush into it – the bush had a strong herb-like smell, and the meat roasted in that anthill oven was particularly delicious. I never managed to find out what the bush was, however, as the tannie was very secretive about it.

We should ‘roast under the ash’ much more than we do.

One can use this method of cooking for potatoes, sweet potatoes and a number of other vegetables, and – of course – for any kind of fish or meat. Larger fish do not even have to be wrapped in paper or dough – just as in the case of the ox-head, its skin can be used to temper the heat.

Possibly the best galjoen I ever tasted was one – an enormous one – that had just been caught and was baked, there and then, on the beach, under the ash of seaweed lying on the beach. Time and again I have tried to make as delicious a galjoen in my own kitchen, but always without success – perhaps because it is only under such conditions that one able to achieve the same taste, flavour and juiciness.

The serious preparation of food under the influence of dry heat from above, below and around is what ‘roasting or baking under the ash’ is all about.

It is one of the noblest and finest methods of preparing food.