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Sunny South Africanism

If South Africans were congratulating themselves in the wake of the contaminated meat scandal in Europe about the absence of horse – and, indeed, unlabelled pork – in their red meat, then their self-congratulation appeared misplaced. A couple of weeks ago, scientists at Stellenbosch University revealed that certain processed meat products contained donkey, water buffalo, goat, and even kangaroo meat.

It’s perfectly legal to sell these meats in South Africa, as long as they’re labelled correctly. But what is so disquieting about this local scandal is that it suggests a failure – even collapse – of South Africa’s food safety regulators: no South African abattoir is licensed to slaughter any of these animals, and it seems that this meat was trafficked into South Africa by criminal syndicates.

As I wrote last month, as the world’s food chain has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, so this link between crime networks, poor regulation, and food adulteration is nothing new. I was also struck by the snobbery of so much of the response to the presence of horse and other meats in fast food and ready meals: that people who bought cheap, processed meat only had themselves to blame for inadvertently consuming horse, or other ‘taboo’ animals.

I have very little patience for the self-satisfied smuggery of middle-class foodies who advise eating less and more expensive meat to people who would never be able to afford even this shift in their eating habits. But I was amused by South African commentators who noted that nobody would notice if they had eaten water buffalo in their boerewors because, well, nobody really knows what goes into it in the first place.

I was thinking about this recently because a few weeks ago I had supper at Gourmet Boerie, a new restaurant which has opened at the bottom of Kloof Street, in the hub of Capetonian cool. There is something profoundly oxymoronic about a gourmet boerewors roll – or boerie – restaurant. If there is one item of fast – or street – food which unites the vast majority of South Africans, it is the boerewors roll.

Boerewors – which translates, literally, as farmer’s sausage – is a kind of coarse, highly-spiced sausage, sold in coils similar to Cumberland sausage. Strongly flavoured with salt, cumin, cloves, allspice and, particularly, dried coriander, it’s usually barbecued over smouldering wood, and then served either in a hotdog roll with All Gold tomato sauce, for preference, or with maize meal porridge and a spicy tomato and onion relish, also known as chakalaka.

The aroma of barbecued boerewors is the smell of suburban summer evenings, but it’s to be found in townships, at weekend football matches, with their largely black crowds, and at mainly white cricket and rugby games. The boerewors roll stand is a fixture of church bazaars, school sports meetings, festivals, local supermarkets over weekends, and even political party rallies. It is the South African hotdog, but, I think, much more delicious.

It’s also reflective of the country’s own complex social and cultural history. Its flavouring is borrowed from the southeast Asian slaves brought to the Cape Colony between the late seventeenth century and 1807, when the slave trade was abolished. But the sausage itself is part of a northern European tradition of meat preservation and sausage making. Indeed, it can be eaten dried as well. (Many a dog has been trained on bits of droëwors.)

The butcher in Sutherland.

The butcher in Sutherland.

Today, it can be bought in every supermarket, but also at butchers around the countryside. Supermarkets will carry at least two or three different ranges of boerewors, and it also differs from from region to region – the most popular local version being the slightly milder Grabouw sausage. Some of the nicest boerewors I’ve had recently came from a butcher in the Karoo village of Sutherland – best known for its astronomical observatory – but my local Pick ‘n Pay sells perfectly good boerewors too.

And although supermarkets are required to list the ingredients of each pack, there’s always a chance that a local butcher may add fairly unorthodox meats to his particular – usually secret – blend. Curious about what the standard recipe for boerewors is, I turned, inevitably, to my copy of that Mrs Beeton of South African cooking, Kook en Geniet. The recipe recommends a mixture of beef and pork, at a ratio of 5:1. Having marinaded the meat in a mixture of salt, pepper, vinegar, and ground dried coriander, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg, it’s all minced together along with some cubed lard and then stuffed into sausage casings. This is not, admittedly, the most overwhelmingly healthy meal.

Mutton is a frequent addition, and the sausage can vary in thickness and spiciness. The overwhelming flavour, though, is of ground coriander. A few winters ago, I upset a butcher in a farmers’ market held in a Marylebone car park, when I pointed out that his approximation of boerewors was too finely minced and not particularly faithful to the original, being fragrant with cumin and fenugreek.

My point is that although boerewors may vary significantly from region to region, and even from shop to shop, it’s still recognisably the same product because its texture and flavour tend to remain broadly similar.

I was, then, deeply curious about what Gourmet Boerie would do to the boerewors roll to make it ‘gourmet’. I was lucky enough to take Jeffrey Pilcher and Donna Gabaccia – brilliant, US-based historians of food and immigration – with me, and we puzzled over the purpose of the restaurant.

I had the ‘classic’ roll, with traditional boerewors in a hotdog bun with caramelised onions. Despite a softer-than-usual bun, this didn’t differ substantially from similar rolls I have eaten at festivals and friends’ barbecues. In fact, I think I could have eaten as good a boerewors roll at a Boland cricket match.

Jeffrey, though, as befitting a specialist in the history and politics of food and cooking in Mexico, tried the Mexicano roll, which came with tomato salsa, guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños, and fresh coriander. It was interesting – and it’s in the variety of boerewors rolls that the restaurant seems to position its ‘gourmet’ status. Not only can punters choose between different kinds of sausage (traditional, mutton, even vegetarian) and rolls, but they come with a selection of toppings, ranging from a breakfast boerie with bacon and eggs, to a ‘sophistication’ with goats’ cheese and basil pesto.

So the rolls themselves are fine, but not astonishingly, eye-poppingly revelatory. What interested us more was in the way the restaurant reframes South African cooking and, indeed, ‘South African-ness.’ It sells local beers, and versions of traditional puddings. It has proteas arranged in jars on the tables. The lampshades and soft furnishings are covered in fabric designed by Cape Town-based Skinny LaMinx.

Gourmet Boerie in Kloof Street, Cape Town.

Gourmet Boerie in Kloof Street, Cape Town.

Clearly, the owners of Gourmet Boerie are part of an international trend which transforms street foodhamburgers, ramen, Chinese dumplings – into a ‘gourmet’ experience to be eaten in restaurants. There was even, I am told, an episode in the South African series of Masterchef which required contestants to transform the boerewors roll into fine dining. The irony implicit in this refashioning of what was, originally, cheap snacks meant to be cooked and consumed quickly, is that their gourmet incarnations insist upon their ‘authenticity’. That it is, somehow, possible to eat ‘authentic’ Japanese or American street food in a London or Melbourne restaurant.

But what Gourmet Boerie is doing, is not only the recreation of a South African street food into a kind of ‘authentic’ and ‘gourmet’ experience (whatever we may mean by ‘authentic’ and ‘gourmet’), but a refashioning of South Africa itself: Gourmet Boerie is as much about boerewors rolls as it is about being South African. And the South Africa that Gourmet Boerie touts is one which ignores the country’s fractured, contested past and present – it is cool, beautifully designed, and emphasises South Africa’s easily depoliticised natural landscape with the presence of so many indigenous flowers.

But with an overwhelmingly black cooking and serving staff overseen by a white manager, the inequalities of contemporary South African society really can’t be elided in this sunny vision of South Africa.

I don’t argue that Gourmet Boerie should rethink its representation of South Africa – of course not, it’s a restaurant and not a museum – but, rather, that we should pay attention to how it links a version of South African street food to an attempt to create a depoliticised South African-ness. And one that is equally palatable to both locals and the legions of foreign tourists who visit Cape Town every summer.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve never sampled a boerewors but am well familiar with Cumberland sausage which in Europe is now an EU protected food name:
    (http://archive.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/food/industry/regional/foodname/products/documents/cumberland-sausage-pgi.pdf)

    People should know or could readily find out what goes into Cumberland sausage. I suspect the comparison is more for the appearance, although the seasoning is rich by British standards – white and black pepper, salt, thyme, sage, nutmeg, mace and cayenne – I wouldn’t describe it as highly spiced. It is nonetheless a very traditional sausage with a heritage that dates back to the mid-19th century at least and a strong connection with the county of Cumbria. It was originally made from the now extinct Cumberland pig. Both tradition and heritage play a big part in this humble sausage’s story. While Cumberland sausage is not known as a street food, it undoubtedly makes the occasional appearance.

    Boerewors sound closer in tradition to Spanish chorizo where amongst all the variations you come across – fresh, cured or dried – pork and paprika appear to be the only essential ingredients. Notwithstanding this, pretty much any European these days would recognise chorizo even if they did not know its actual name. A fixed formula is not essential to a tradition, it is the story which any food that has been around for a generation and more could tell.

    Cumberland sausage, Spanish chorizo and, I think I would include, Boerewors are what they are. They have a story to tell and you can either conclude that this gives them ‘gourmet’ status already (incidentally, there’s already plenty of gourmet street food around in the UK) or that the concept is an anathema to these foods.

    Lack of respect for the story means you create something entirely different, choosing to call it by the same name will fool some, not least foreign tourists who will see ‘gourmet’ Boerewors as the real deal when this is self-evidently not the case. At best they are derivative and a food inspired by a tradition at worst a misleading abuse, not least where this misrepresents a country’s cultural identity.

    But hey, when all’s said, surely they are only sausages?!

    March 12, 2013
    • Interesting. I think I’m just deeply sceptical of the need to ‘respect’ food by not changing it. It changes over time, as we rethink and refashion our attitudes towards food, eating, produce, shopping etc etc. Trying to ‘fix’ particular food products forever through EU directives seems deeply odd to me, although I do understand the impulse behind it.

      Also, the idea of ‘gourmet’ is heavily contested – as is ‘authentic’ food.

      March 12, 2013
  2. Saskia #

    “…it’s usually barbecued over smouldering wood, and then served either in a hotdog roll with All Gold tomato sauce, for preference, or with maize meal porridge and a spicy tomato and onion relish, also known as chakalaka.”

    Think you’re conflating the boerie roll with boerewors itself. Most of the time boerewors is actually just braaied and then plated with chops and sides, either mieliepap with sauce or braaibroodjies or stokbrood and then salads according to preference. It’s generally only put in a roll when meant to be eaten as a takeaway, at the various locations you mention, and only then becomes a boerie.

    March 13, 2013
    • Yes – you’re entirely right. I do need to distinguish more carefully about boerewors-as-meal (braai, salad, bread), and boerewors-as-takeaway (in a roll).

      March 13, 2013

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