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.)
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.
Clearly, the owners of Gourmet Boerie are part of an international trend which transforms street food – hamburgers, 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.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Just as it appeared that the meat contamination scandal in the UK had come, if not to a resolution, then to a point where there were no new revelations of unlabelled horsemeat in ready meals, fast food, and other processed meat, the Guardian has released a report on the employment practices of one of the Dutch firms implicated in food adulteration.
Not only does the investigation reveal the appalling conditions in which a group of poorly-paid Polish immigrants were forced to work, but it demonstrates the extent to which the Willy Stelten factory mixed horsemeat as well as old and rotting meat into meat sold as beef. The owner of the business – the titular Willy Stelten – was arrested earlier this week for allegedly selling 300 tonnes of horsemeat as beef.
As the Guardian’s handy timeline of the scandal demonstrates, for all of the recent lull in new developments, it’s been in the news for nearly half a year. In contrast, South Africa’s contaminated meat scandal was reported widely in April but has since then largely disappeared from the headlines.
I think that it’s worth comparing the two scandals. These are my observations about the similarities and differences between them. If you’ve any to add, list them in the comments, below, and I’ll incorporate them into the post.
A butcher in Edinburgh.
The most striking difference between the British and South African scandals was the ways in which they originated. In January, the Irish Food Standards Authority reported that it had found unlabelled horsemeat in burger patties sold by Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl. It implicated ABP Silvercrest, one of Europe’s biggest meat processors, in selling unlabelled horsemeat and pork to a range of factories and supermarkets, including, even, upmarket, ethical Waitrose.
As the UK Food Standards Authority began its investigation, an increasing number of food producers, supermarkets, and fast food chains have been accused of passing off horse- and other meats in food products labelled, usually, as beef. In fact, it now seems to be easier to identify those retailers not linked to the scandal, than those who are.
The South African food scandal was the product of a study carried out by meat scientists at Stellenbosch University. In February, they announced that they had found traces of horse, donkey, goat, and water buffalo meat in a range of products in supermarkets and butchers around the country. Because the researchers were unwilling to make their list of retailers public, City Press submitted an FOI request, and, in April, named all of South Africa’s major supermarkets, Food Lovers’ Market, and smaller, independent shops as guilty of mislabelling meat products.
In many ways, the two scandals are very similar. They occurred because of a failure of regulation; the contamination of meat was widespread (it wasn’t limited to one or two supermarkets, but occurred across the food industry); and there is evidence to suggest that some illegal meat entered both food chains because of criminal activity.
Also both scandals hit poorest customers the hardest: those people who buy the budget burgers and processed meat sold at massive, bargain supermarkets. Possibly because poverty is so obvious in South Africa, local commentators managed – mercifully – to avoid making silly, snotty arguments about having no sympathy for people who had been duped into buying horsemeat.
Indeed, it’s striking how frequently the South African scandal has been described as a crisis of mis-labelling. Retailers argued that the traces of donkey, horse, and other meats in products were very, very small, and probably the result of cross-contamination. The Department of Trade and Industry ordered the National Consumer Commission – an agency of the Department – to investigate the issue.
South Africa has very strict laws which regulate the length of the food chain – from the slaughter of animals to the labelling of meat products in shops. In fact, the Consumer Protection Act is one of the strictest of its kind in the world. The problem lies in enforcing these rules. The three departments responsible for patrolling food safety – health, agriculture, and trade and industry – have, collectively, failed to do so adequately. Herman Blignaut, an attorney with copyright experts Spoor & Fisher, said to City Press:
But this focus on food labelling, while important, obscures some other, more fundamental questions. Most of the cases of contamination identified by the Stellenbosch report related to unlabelled chicken, mutton, and pork, and these can be dealt with through the enforcement of labelling regulations. But the report does not explain how and why water buffalo, donkey, and horsemeat entered the food chain.
Answering questions posed by the opposition Democratic Alliance in Parliament, Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson admitted that South Africa imported horse and water buffalo, as well as other meats, from Brazil and India:
The reason why imports were suspended from both countries was because of the ‘significant risk’ their products posed to South Africans. Unfortunately, the Minister ‘declined to disclose the names of importers or give a reason why the department considered meat imports from these countries to be potentially harmful.’
In addition to this, a confidential police report from 2012 alleges that crime syndicates illegally import meat – including water buffalo meat from Asia. Jacques Pouw explains:
It is not clear if police are currently investigating these syndicates. So the South African tainted meat scandal has not been resolved. Crucial questions have yet to be answered: what are the authorities doing to prevent the illegal import of meat? And why were legal meat imports from Brazil and India halted?
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.