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Posts tagged ‘South Africa’

Observations

I’ve been in Johannesburg for nearly a month now. And although I’ve hardly even begun to explore one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s beginning to feel like home. Despite being a comparatively young city – it’s the product of the discovery and mining of the significant deposits of gold beneath the Witwatersrand during the late 1880s – partly because it’s had such a transient population since its founding, and has changed so profoundly over the past century (and continues to change), the city feels composed of layers of work, and experience, and change. In other words, for a newish city, it has a lot of history.

The city itself is often a strange – and rather ugly – mishmash of old and new buildings, businesses, houses, and developments. But I like how older ways of living often exist side-by-side with the new. What I mean is that for all of Joburg’s malls – and there are a lot of malls and they are very, very big – for instance, there are still surprising numbers of small, independent shops which seem, to me, to be very well patronised.

In Braamfontein.

In Braamfontein.

So here are a few food-related observations, made by a new, often ignorant, and probably over-optimistic resident:

1. There are so many lovely cafes and places to eat. I can’t comment about the fine dining scene – I don’t have enough money to eat in those kinds of restaurants – but it’s easy to eat well here, I think.

At the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein.

At the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein.

2. Also, as is the case all over the world, these cafes and restaurants are agents of change and gentrification. I spend a lot of time in Braamfontein – I work near there – and have been struck how much this inner-city suburb has changed since I visited at the end of 2011, when it still felt distinctly dodgy during the day. There is now a hipster café with either flat whites or burgers (obviously) on practically every corner.

Debating the gentrification of Braamfontein.

Debating the gentrification of Braamfontein.

3. I’ve yet to visit Arts on Main in the city centre. Just about every person I’ve asked about it has a different opinion of the development. Broadly, half say it’s a deeply problematic gentrification of a desperately poor area which serves only further to marginalise the residents of inner-city Joburg. The other half argue that it’s bringing the middle classes back to old Joburg, after the long flight northwards to Sandton.

4. The Spur in Braamfontein, a quick stroll from Cosatu House, must be the most politically influential steakhouse in South Africa.

Debating the gentrification of Tyrone Avenue in Parkview, on a public noticeboard.

Debating the gentrification of Tyrone Avenue in Parkview, on a public noticeboard.

5. There are so many markets. So far, I’ve been to the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein (and I’m still trying to understand how that stands in relation to Braamfontein’s gentrification) and the organic market in Bryanston. But there’s also the boeremark in Pretoria, the market at the Pirates Sports Club, and the farmers’ market in Fourways. And others.

6. In this city of malls – and I have yet to visit that ur-mall, Sandton City – it’s more possible for me to shop locally and from independent businesses than it was in Cape Town. There’s a butcher in Parkhurst, and my amazing fruiterer in Tyrone Avenue – one of dozens across the city – sell fresh produce, meat, cheese, milk, flowers, polenta, pasta, tinned tomato, and fish sauce. And the FT Weekend. And soap. I love it with an intensity which borders on the unreasonable.

The fruiterer on Tyrone Avenue.

The fruiterer on Tyrone Avenue.

I have yet to sample the delights of Fordsburg, Rosettenville, and the new and old Chinatowns. There are still the vast, sprawling worlds of Soweto, and the East and West Rand to explore. But as the city changes, I know I’ll enjoy visiting and revisiting areas that feel at once familiar and new.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Political

Last week I wrote a post outlining the threat to the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) in Cape Town, asking why the city’s food bloggers and foodies – its chefs, restaurateurs, and writers – seemed to have such little interest in the proposed development of a piece of land which grows half of Cape Town’s fresh produce.

The response has been fantastic: Food24 picked up the post, and some magnificent people got in touch with ideas. (I’ll tell you more about them in due course.) More importantly, and not related to my post, the campaign to save the PHA has stepped up. Other than signing the Avaaz petition, do please watch and share this excellent short documentary about the PHA:

Anyone keen to help out with the Save the PHA Campaign should email Nazeer Sonday, nasonday@gmail.com, or Rob Small, rob@farmgardentrust.org.

With a few exceptions, though, the majority of people who have expressed dismay at the development of the PHA and who have offered to do something about it, have not been involved in Cape Town’s food world. In fact, again with a few exceptions, it seems to me that the city’s foodies remain unmoved about the issue – which is quite an achievement given the amount of coverage the development of the PHA has received.

As I wrote last time, considering that these are people with an unusually intense interest in food and where it comes from, I would have thought that they’d be lining up to condemn the development of land which produces their vegetables. Moreover, some of them have such enormous readerships and access to the media, that their ability to communicate with large numbers of people would allow them to be exceptionally helpful to the campaign.

If a blogger with a fairly small readership (and I love each and every one of you) sitting in Joburg can help to get two projects off the ground in Cape Town, imagine what someone with a massive audience and the odd TV appearance could achieve?

In this post, though, I’m interested in why the city’s bloggers – and there are lots of them, and they wield some power – have displayed such little concern for the PHA. One of the excuses that readers of my post offered for not wanting to become involved in the campaign is that it’s toopolitical.’ This is an interesting comment, and worth unpacking.

I think that by ‘political’ respondents meant that they did not want to be associated with a campaign that confronts Patricia de Lille, the Mayor of Cape Town, and the members of the Mayoral Committee who took the decision to develop the PHA.* It’s more likely that bloggers would mobilise to raise funds and awareness around poor children or abused animals. My point is not that we shouldn’t support the SPCA or Nazareth House – far from it, and please do because they do vital work – but, rather, that these causes are more easily depoliticised.

The irony is that all food writing is political: it’s all implicated in the ways in which power works in society. There are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. Some of the most evocative reporting on the effects of Europe’s austerity regimes has focussed on the rise of food insecurity: from the organisations which have emerged to feed people in Greece, to the increasing numbers of food banks in the UK.

As a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s excellent Food Programme reported, austerity eating has been reflected in a shift in food blogging too. Jack Monroe has documented, eloquently, her struggle to feed herself and her young son on almost no money at all:

Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix and says ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.

Part of the appeal of Monroe’s blog is that she is able to connect her delicious, nutritious, and incredibly cheap recipes with, as she says to Sheila Dillon, ‘a political spike’: an awareness of the connection between what she eats and the social, political, and economic context in which she and her audience operate.

What Monroe, as well as the brilliant Skint Foodie and North/South Food, is doing is not anything new: there have been other attempts to describe budget cooking (I think of Catherine Whitehorn’s altogether frothier Cooking in a Bedsitter (1961)), and the best food writing and reporting connects what people eat with the circumstances in which they buy, cook, and consume food.  What these bloggers are achieving – articulately, effectively – is to demonstrate how the UK government’s attempts to dismantle the welfare state are causing an increasingly large number of people to go hungry in the eighth richest nation in the world.

Vegetables ready for packing at Harvest of Hope in Philippi.

Vegetables ready for packing at Harvest of Hope in Philippi.

I would not be surprised to see other, similar blogs being established over the coming few years. And I’m interested in answering why South African food blogging has not demonstrated a similar awareness of the country’s vast inequalities. A cursory reading of most South African food blogs would not reveal that they are written in a country where one fifth of children have stunted growth and one in ten children suffer from severe malnutrition.

I don’t want to suggest that every blog must be a worthy condemnation of the gap between South Africa’s very poor and very, very rich – continue to eat your cupcakes with impunity, please – but I’ve often been struck by just how incredibly unaware so many bloggers are of their privilege: that their ability to buy their food from upmarket supermarkets and cute urban markets is a very rare thing indeed in South Africa.

In some ways, this lack of awareness among Capetonian bloggers is particularly obvious because of the city’s affluence and its ‘whiteness’: because, unlike other South African cities, its middle-class suburbs, expensive food shops, farmers’ markets, and top-end restaurants remain overwhelmingly white.

I’m not really sure how to end this post. I think that some bloggers’ unwillingness to engage with the politics of cooking, eating, and growing food are probably the product of a range of anxieties around race, class, and an uncertainty about where to fit into post-1994 South Africa. But this is pretty obvious.

All comments welcome.

*I’d point out that one of the chief joys of democracy is that you can criticise the DA and still vote for it.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Eating Nando’s in Gaborone

I spent most of last week at the biennial gathering of historians organised by the Southern African Historical Society. The conference at the University of Botswana was fantastic. Gaborone was, well, less so.* I think that the city is best summed up by an exchange between a conference delegate and her husband, who had spent the morning exploring downtown Gaborone. When asked what he had discovered, he answered: ‘There’s a Nando’s.’

This comment is interesting for many reasons. One of the most striking features of Gaborone – other than the many posters for visiting gospel choirs and the absence of any form of newspaper advertising – is its malls. Having had lunch and dinner at two of them, it seems to me that most of the major shops and restaurants in the city are branches of South African chains: from Spur, that staple of middle South Africa, to the relatively upmarket Primi Piatti. Given the hostility which locals appear to reserve for South Africans – and relations between the two countries became particularly tense during the late 1980s, when ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe exiles in Gaborone became the target of the apartheid state’s raids – this felt deeply ironic at the time.

Nando’s is an odd addition to the pantheon of South African culinary exports. In his speech delivered at the University of Cape Town during his recent visit to the country, Barack Obama referred to Nando’s – alongside the vuvuzela and Freshlyground – as prime examples of South African institutions. But like so many cultural icons which seem to embody national identity, Nando’s was founded by immigrants.

When I mentioned to friends in the UK that Nando’s is South African, I was often greeted with expressions of confusion. Surely, they argued, it’s Portuguese? Well, yes and no. Before its devastating civil war, Mozambique was a popular destination particularly for young, white South Africans. They visited its pristine beaches, its fun capital Maputo (Lourenço Marques before 1975), and ate its excellent and distinctive cuisine. Indeed prawns from Mozambique are still a regional delicacy. Radio Lourenço Marques – which could be picked up in South Africa – played the music banned by South African broadcasters. Mozambique represented, for young whites at least, relative freedom from the restrictions of a repressive and oppressive South African state.

For part of its civil war (1977-1992), South Africans escaping the country travelled to Mozambique to join up with the exiled ANC. Moving in the opposite direction, legions of whites migrated southwards to South Africa after Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Two of these exiles founded Nando’s in Rosettenville, a Johannesburg suburb with large ex-patriot Portuguese populations from Mozambique and Madeira. Although by no means the first or only chicken fast-food restaurant in South Africa – local Chicken Licken (opened in 1981) and foreign KFC (introduced in 1971) do a roaring trade – Nando’s distinctiveness lies partly in its adaptation of the hybrid Afro-Lusophone cuisine which developed in Mozambique.

The chain is probably best known for popularising peri-peri – a sharp, spicy sauce which is a feature of both Portuguese and Mozambican cooking. Its name derives from the Swahili word for the African bird’s eye chilli – the pili pili – which was taken back to Portugal by traders who had been present along the east African coast since the sixteenth century. Portuguese piri piri sauce entered Mozambique with the advent of white settlement, where it was re-adapted by Africans.

Nando's comments on the Protection of State Information Bill.

Nando’s comments on the Protection of State Information Bill.

Following the first wave of white South Africans to leave the country during the transition, Nando’s opened its first overseas branch in Australia in 1990. Franchises in the UK (1992), Botswana (1993), Canada (1994), Malaysia (1998), Pakistan (2001), and elsewhere followed. It now operates in the United States and around southern Africa. It doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have a branch in Mozambique.

Nando’s menu is very obviously the product of the long interaction between Africans and Portuguese interlopers over the course of around four centuries. It purveys a global cuisine, and one which has become increasingly globalised as it adapts itself to the tastes and expectations of new countries and new customers. The restaurants in the UK, for instance, are noticeably more upmarket than the Nando’s outlets in South Africa. It’s also the product of the geopolitics of late twentieth-century southern Africa. It was founded as a result of white Mozambicans’ migration to South Africa in the mid-1970s, and catered to local enthusiasm for Mozambican cooking both among migrant Mozambican mine workers as well as those whites who had holidayed in Mozambique. Its first attempt at opening an international store accompanied white South Africans’ migration to Australia.

And yet, for all its hybrid identity, Nando’s identifies itself as a distinctively South African brand – and particularly through its advertising campaigns. Nando’s has a reputation for responding quickly and wittily to political controversies – like blacking out its ads during protests against the potentially oppressive Protection of State Information Bill in 2011. Although this is a strategy which backfires occasionally, it means that Nando’s can cash in – quite literally – by siding with (middle-class?) South Africans’ exasperation with the government and the country’s politicians.

Nando's expresses support for the Springboks, the national rugby team. 'Moer hulle' translates roughly as 'fuck them'. You wouldn't say this in front of your grandmother.

Nando’s expresses support for the Springboks, the national rugby team. ‘Moer hulle’ translates roughly as ‘fuck them’. You wouldn’t say this in front of your grandmother.

It was this which made Nando’s presence in Gaborone feel incongruous. Despite its expensive PR campaigns, Botswana has a deserved reputation for being one of the most secretive states in southern Africa. It’s particularly intolerant of dissent, and has expelled those who have challenged the political status quo. As a recipient of the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Golden Padlock award in 2011, the real country is worlds away from Alexander McCall Smith’s sanitised and gently patronising depiction of Botswana’s people and politics. I doubt that Nando’s advertising would be legal in Gaborone.

*Never, ever trust the taxi drivers of Gaborone to get you to the airport in time for your early flight to Joburg. And particularly not those who congregate at the Gaborone Southern Sun at 4am. Trust me on this one.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Let them eat burgers

Earlier this month, Patricia de Lille – the former firebrand stalwart of the radical Pan Africanist Congresshanded over the key to Cape Town, to a man dressed up as a hamburger.

Now the mayor of the opposition-controlled City of Cape Town, De Lille met with the senior management of Grand Parade Investments, as well as the hamburger, to celebrate the opening of the first branch of Burger King in South Africa.

Since selling its first burger on 9 May, queues have snaked all the way down Heerengracht Street – not Cape Town’s loveliest quarter – as punters wait hours to try Whoppers and the chain’s other products.

So far the only controversy that the chain seems to have generated is a call from People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) to boycott Burger King because Grant Parade Investments also owns Grand West Casino – to which Pagad is opposed on the grounds that gambling further impoverishes the poor communities which surround Grand West.

There has been a lot of chatter about the opening of a new fast food chain in South Africa: will the 120 planned Burger King outlets contribute to the country’s increasingly high instance of obesity? How will existing brands respond to this new competition? And is Burger King’s arrival part of a ‘McDonaldisation’ of South African food? In other words, is a kind of globalised junk food changing the ways in which South Africans eat?

All of these are complex questions which are impossible to answer less than a month after the opening of one branch of Burger King. But we can begin to address the last because South Africa’s experience of global Big Fast Food is fairly similar to what has happened abroad, and in the past.

In the weeks preceding the opening of Burger King, Grand Parade Investment’s CEO, CFO, and Chairman lovebombed the South African media. In the several radio interviews that I heard, they reiterated over and over again that although the product they’re bringing into South Africa is the same as that served in the US – and of the same quality – it will be produced by well-trained South African employees, and made using ingredients processed locally. (Burger King will open a factory in Philippi.)

The flagship Burger King has a mural of Table Mountain and the Grand Parade in a prominent place. For all the fact that Burger King’s appeal is based on its status as an exotic foreign product, it’s been modified to appeal specifically to South African customers.

This, however, is not unique. One of the main reasons for the incredible success of McDonald’s all over the world is that while it maintains the pretence of selling precisely the same product in India, Belgium, and Argentina, each of those countries has both a menu and a dining experience which is – more or less – tailored to the expectations and preferences of local diners.

For instance: recently, there has been some coverage of McDonald’s attempt to add pasta to its menus in Italy. Although this has been greeted with derision, the chain has done similar things elsewhere. It tried to introduce falafel to its menu in Israel, and yak burgers in Mongolia.

One of the reasons for Taco Bell’s relative lack of success outside of the United States is its inability to adjust its model to local tastes. Indeed, McDonald’s isn’t the only chain to allow its menus and, even, restaurant design to be fairly flexible: Subway, for example, sells a Chicken Tikka sandwich – flatbread optional – in the UK.

In France, despite sustained opposition from anti-globalisation activists and the food movement, McDonald’s has more than 1,200 branches. In contrast, South Africa – considered to be one of McDonald’s most successful ventures – has only 161. Why? Because it uses ingredients popular with French customers – cheese, Dijon mustard – allows for diners to stay longer in their restaurants (French customers are more likely to eat full meals at McDonald’s rather than to snack), and it opened the McCafe, which sells patisserie.

I use the example of France deliberately, because it’s usually described as having an admirably distinct and healthy food culture (whatever we may mean by ‘food culture’). McDonald’s success there not only suggests that this reputation is based, to some extent, on myth and a lot of PR, but also that the implications of the presence of Big Fast Food for people’s diets, are complex.

Although the ‘South Africanisation’ of Burger King is interesting to explore, I think it might be more useful to understand the arrival of the chain in relation to the country’s shifting demographics and economic development. Arriving almost two decades after the dawn of democratic government, Burger King has certainly taken its time to get here.

McDonald’s opened its first branch in 1995, and, initially, exerted the same appeal in South Africa as it did in Russia during the late 1980s.  Similar to South Africa’s participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, it symbolised the end of the country’s isolation.

In 2013, Burger King has arrived to take advantage of the growth of South Africa’s middle class. As Jonny Steinberg notes in a recent article:

It is true that our politics is increasingly corrupt, that people express discontent by throwing stones and burning things, that yawning inequalities cause much resentment. Less well known is that the income of the average black family has increased by about a third since the beginning of democracy; that 85% of homes are electrified compared with just over half on the last day of apartheid…

Despite the slowing down of economic growth – despite the fact that at the moment R10 will buy only $1 – there are still more South Africans to spend cash on fast food, and other consumer goods, than ever before. It’s telling that the malls and other locations at which the new Burger King branches will open tend towards the upper end of the market – and that the chain will focus its operations on the Western Cape and Gauteng, the country’s two wealthiest provinces.

In his study of the exponential success of McDonald’s in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, James L. Watson argues that McDonald’s took off at the same time that family structures in these countries changed: as the size of families shrunk, as women began, increasingly, to work outside the home, and as it became more common for nuclear families to live separately from grandparents, so McDonald’s found a market in these comparatively wealthy families with children to spoil. He writes:

American-style birthday parties became key to the company’s expansion policy. Prior to the arrival of McDonald’s, festivities marking youngsters’ specific birthdates were unknown in most of East Asia. … McDonald’s and its rivals now promote the birthday party – complete with cake, candles, and silly hats – in television aimed directly at kids.

As in China, Burger King is a treat for South Africa’s newly-affluent middle-class families, and not (yet) associated with absolutely cut-priced eating. The association of big fast food chains with poverty seems to remain limited to wealthier nations.

My point is that the arrival of Burger King now – in 2013 – says far more about South Africa than it does about Burger King.

I think one of the best examples of the massive change which the country has experienced, is the rise and rise of the current Deputy President of the ANC – and future Deputy President (and President?) of South Africa. In 1994 he was known as a founder of the National Union of Mineworkers, arguably South Africa’s most powerful union, and as a key figure in the negotiations which ended apartheid. Now Cyril Ramaphosa is one of South Africa’s wealthiest people. And, until recently, the owner of the local franchise for McDonald’s.

Sources

Ian Brailsford, ‘US Image but NZ Venture: Americana and Fast-Food Advertising in New Zealand, 1971-1990,’ Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 22, no. 2 (December 2003), pp. 10-24.

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’
Theory and Society, vol. 24, no. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 201-243.

EU Igumbor, D. Sanders TR Puoane, L. Tsolekile, C. Schwarz C, et al., ‘“Big Food,” the Consumer Food Environment, Health, and the Policy Response in South Africa.’ PLoS Med, vol. 9, no. 7, (2012), e1001253.

John W. Traphagan and L. Keith Brown, ‘Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns,’ Ethnology, vol. 41, no. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 119-134.

James L. Watson, ‘China’s Big Mac Attack,’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 3 (May-Jun., 2000), pp. 120-134.

Jianying Zha, ‘Learning from McDonald’s,’ Transition, no. 91 (2002), pp. 18-39.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Scandalous

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.

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:

The respective departments probably don’t have the manpower to sustain a firm hold on compliance of the requirements, so the policing is not what it should be.

Another factor that can make policing more difficult is the fact that slow, expensive and expert analysis is necessary to establish whether the meat claimed to be in the product actually is, and whether it could be contaminated by other meats.

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:

According to the department, South Africa’s Brazilian meat imports included 61 tons of horse meat in 2011, 150 tons in 2012 and 49.8 tons this year. More than 460 tons of poultry and 45.5 tons of beef were imported from Brazil from 2011 to 2012.

South Africa imported 1 175 tons of water buffalo from India in 2011 until imports were suspended in May, 2011.

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:

The crime intelligence report says the syndicates are also involved in money laundering, bribery and, in some cases, narcotics and trafficking.

The report was compiled after South Africa’s red meat industry bodies apparently warned authorities that water buffalo meat was being smuggled into the country.

The report, called ‘Criminal syndicates and the meat market’, reveals that an Interpol investigation has found South Africans are members of syndicates that smuggle meat from Asia, South America and our neighbouring states into the country.

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?

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Beet the System

Omnivorous readers! This week’s blog post is over at Eat Out magazine, and it’s on urban farming in Cape Town.

Part two – longer, in greater detail – follows next week.

The Cult of Authenticity

Last weekend I went to a wedding in Napier, a village in the rural Overberg, about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I saw a family of baboons sunbathing on the Akkedisberg mountain pass; went to a church bazaar and bought jam; and saw a shop (alas closed at the time) which sold ‘piesangs, psalmboeke en dinamiet’ (bananas, prayer books, and dynamite).

It was a very good weekend indeed. And made even better by the quantities of excellent food which I ate. I was struck, though, by the numbers of restaurants in Napier which advertised their menus as being particularly ‘authentic’. Napier is experiencing a kind of low-key gentrification at the moment, so this isn’t really all that surprising. But it was amusing how the idea of what is authentic was stretched beyond all recognition.

I had lunch at a place which specialises in ‘authentic tapas’ and was advised to order two items, as tapas are, well, small plates. I doubt that the vat of curried sweet potato soup and mound of salad, which included the best part of a head of butter lettuce and two avocados, I was served bore even the remotest resemblance to the tapas of Barcelona. But they were delicious.

I was wondering why, though, a café in a remote South African village would stake so much on serving authentic tapas. There is, I suppose, a kind of thrill in eating exotic, ‘real’ tapas. Even so, most of its clientele are unlikely to have sampled the real thing or, even, to care about the authenticity of their supper. (I don’t mean this in a patronising way. Travel abroad is expensive.)

This is part of a wider cultural trend, where people who describe themselves as ‘serious’ about food (I’m not entirely sure what that means) claim to be able to distinguish between those dishes which are really authentic – which are absolutely true replicas of the ‘original’ dish  – and those which have been adulterated through adaptation.

For instance, Cape Town’s best Mexican restaurant El Burro advertises itself as ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine, and local reviewers go out of their way to emphasise just how authentic its menu is: here is no inauthentic Tex- or Cal-Mex cooking, but, instead it is the Real Thing. (How many of them have actually visited Mexico is open to debate.)

There is, really, no such thing as ‘authentic’ Mexican – or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, or Indian, or Thai, or Norwegian – cuisine. These, and other countries, have a range of cuisines, which differ from region to region, and which have also changed over time. As Jeffrey Pilcher argues in his recent book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, it is more accurate to refer to a number of Mexican cuisines which exist simultaneously both within and without the borders of the country.

The problem with trying to identify ‘authentic’ cuisine is that it’s rather like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The same dish will vary from area to area – from household to household – in one country. I have seen recipes for ‘authentic’ risotto which assert, with equal vehemence, that it should be so thick that you can stand a spoon in it or, equally, that it should be liquid and flowing. My mother’s recipe for bobotie – a South African delicacy – contains grated apple. My friend Carina’s mother’s recipe has no apple, but, rather, raisins. Which is the authentic version? Both. Neither.

Food changes over time. In the early twentieth century, the medical doctor, poet, Afrikaner nationalist, and Buddhist C. Louis Leipoldt recorded a recipe for bobotie which, in today’s terms, would be understood as a meatloaf: it was not the dish that, today, we think of as being bobotie – a layer of spiced, slightly sweet minced meat underneath a buttermilk and egg custard. Although according to the European Union, authentic Cornish pasties may contain only beef, swede, and potatoes, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Cornish miners in the past had a range of ingredients in their pies – and not only this holy pasty trinity.

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There is also the problem of anachronism. Mexico became an independent state in 1810 and its borders changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Should only those dishes which were made within the country’s present boundaries be considered ‘Mexican’? The state of Texas remained part of Mexico until 1836, and significant numbers of Mexicans settled in the United States – particularly in New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Should we consider Texan cuisine to be Mexican? And, surely, it would be churlish somehow to consider the cuisine developed by Mexicans in the United States as somehow being of less value than that prepared by Mexicans in Mexico (whatever we may mean by ‘Mexico’)?

So which version do we accept as being the ‘real’ version of a dish? Which one is ‘authentic’? More often than not, a range of factors not particularly linked to food influence our decisions over what is considered to be properly authentic. There is a connection, for instance, between nationalism and cookery books. During the nineteenth century, middle-class Mexicans living in the United States used food both to maintain links with Mexico, as well as to assert the sophistication of Mexican culture. Encarnación Pinado’s El cocinero español (The Spanish Chef), published in 1898, described a Mexican cuisine made using modern technology, and incorporating dishes from Mexico, European, and the Mexican-American borderlands.

Something similar happened in Italy, as Tim Hayward explains:

‘Authentic’ Italian food has an even odder story. Pellegrino Artusi was a writer with a political desire to unify the regions of Italy into a single country and thought, quite logically, that food might be a way to do it. In La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), 1891, he combined all the regional recipes he could find and in doing so artificially assembled what we regard today as ‘Italian’ food.

In fact, a lot of what we consider to be ‘real’ Italian food today, was created in a dialogue between Italian immigrants in the United States and Italians at home. Even relatively poor immigrants could afford the tomatoes, dried pasta, olive oil, meat, and dairy products which constituted the feast dishes of the homeland. This invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

Authentic cuisines are, then, heavily constructed. There is no direct, unmediated way of accessing the food of the past. Indeed, it is also pretty difficult to replicate the cooking of foreign countries at home. Rachel Laudan notes that if she were to write a cookbook on ‘authentic’ Mexican cooking, she would have to take into account the difficulty of finding many ingredients outside of Mexico:

I’d probably leave out the spinal cord soup, the sopa de medulla so popular in Central Mexico (fear of mad cow disease makes that a no-no) and I’d leave out quelites, the mixed wild greens sold already cooked in the markets (too difficult to get hold of in the States). I’d probably also leave out tripe, sugar milk and fruit confections and aroles, the family of thick gruels that warm Mexicans on cold winter mornings (not at all to my conception of Mexican taste).

Also, she argues that she would be constrained by middle-class Americans’ own ideas around what should constitute Mexican cuisine. The cult of authenticity is informed not only by snobbery (being able to identify and cook the ‘real thing’ is a marker of sophistication), but also by a powerful nostalgia for a pre-industrialised food past where all cooking was done from scratch:

I’d include photos of colourful fruit and vegetables stalls but not my neighbourhood supermarket shelves stocked with Danone yogurt and cornflakes.

I’d ignore my friend’s mother’s recipe for lemon Jell-O with evaporated milk. I’d pass over dishes that used Worcestershire sauce, pita bread and Gouda cheese, as well as recipes for Cornish pasties, hot cakes and biscuits, even though all of these are commonplace in Mexico.

This is a nostalgia produced by anxieties around change and a perceived homogenisation of the world’s diets. It is partly as a result of this concern that old ways of cooking and eating are being ‘lost’ that the EU introduced a protected geographical status framework in 1993, which provides legal protection to certain dishes and products in the EU, preventing them from being copied elsewhere. So only sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called ‘champagne’, and only Prosciuitto Toscano made in Tuscany can be called Prociutto Tascano.

For all that this is an attempt to preserve a food heritage, as the philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point, the EU actually decides what is authentic and what is not:

For instance, ‘traditional stilton was a raw-milk cheese up until the late 80s,’ says Dominic Coyte of Neal’s Yard Dairy. But when the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association got PDO protection in 1996, they stipulated that it be made with pasteurised milk. Hence the irony that the raw-milk stichelton, first produced by traditional methods in 2006, is arguably the most authentic stilton available, but it cannot carry the name.

Similarly, UNESCO’s recognition of Mexican cuisine, the French ‘gourmet meal’, the Mediterranean diet, and the gingerbread craft of Northern Croatia as the ‘intangible patrimony of humanity’ in 2010, fixed these culinary traditions in aspic. Also, the Mexican application focussed on only one regional cuisine, the ‘Michoacán paradigm,’ which, interestingly, happened to feature the home state of the President, Felipe Calderón

This recognition from UNESCO will boost the region’s tourism, and EU appellations have helped many small producers in Europe to continue to work in difficult economic times. The mania for ‘authenticity’ helps, inadvertently, to force our attention to how people cooked and ate in the past – to look at methods, ingredients, and cultivars which we may have forgotten. We shouldn’t try to return to the past, but we can certainly learn from it.

My problem with the cult of authenticity – other than its tedious pedantry – is that it conflates eating ‘authentically’ with some ability to make a meaningful difference in the world. More often that not, peasant food is labelled authentic food. Even the most passing familiarity with what most poor people eat will demonstrate that people’s diets improve as their disposable income increases. Peasant food in Italy before the mid-twentieth century was nutritionally inadequate: it consisted of bread and polenta with onions oil and, occasionally, cheap fish and vegetables.

There is nothing wrong with eating peasant food, but it is deeply problematic to believe that eating ‘real’ peasant food represents a solidarity with the struggles of the poor. In fact, it’s a distraction from the ways in which food and big agricultural companies exploit labourers and put small and peasant farmers out of business.

Food is political. Particularly if it’s ‘authentic.’

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One Nation?

One of the oddest features of the transition from apartheid to democracy was the slew of beer advertisements, proclaiming the unity of the nation on the grounds of a shared enthusiasm for Castle Lager or Carling Black Label. There is a generation of South Africans who can chant South African Breweries’ slogan, ‘One Nation, One Soul, One Beer, One Goal,’ based entirely on having watched the 1998 Soccer World Cup on television.

This use of beer as a unifier which cut across boundaries of both race and class – although not, interestingly, gender (these advertisements celebrate a kind of hypermasculinity associated with the mining or construction industries) – was supremely ironic given the apartheid state’s attempts to control Africans’ consumption of alcohol, and particularly beer.

I’ve been thinking about the long, fraught politics of beer in South Africa as a furore has erupted over new attempts to limit alcohol sales, particularly in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Because municipalities and provinces control the terms according to which alcohol can be sold, rules around buying alcohol are complex. In the Western Cape, the new regulations will outlaw the sale of alcohol to be consumed offsite on Sundays and on all days after 18:00. No alcohol may be consumed at school functions, and in vehicles, and no person may buy or possess more than 150 litres of alcohol (that’s around 200 bottles of wine).

In Gauteng, draft legislation will make all sales of alcohol on Sundays illegal. Although these two provinces have received most attention from the media – partly because the country’s national newspapers and broadcasters are based in Cape Town and Johannesburg – there are attempts all over South Africa to limit how South Africans buy booze: the George municipality is considering outlawing the sale of all alcohol after 20:00 on Sundays; KwaZulu-Natal province may ban anyone under the age of eighteen from liquor aisles, and require supermarkets to devote a cashier specifically to alcohol sales. The Minister for Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, has even floated raising the legal age of drinking from eighteen to twenty-one.

This is all very confusing, and some shops have complained that this legislation hinders their business, and it’s doubtful that the police will be able to enforce these regulations. Many South Africans have questioned the efficacy of this legislation in reducing violent crime and road accidents – which is what these new regulations are intended to do. Although provincial governments and municipalities have cited studies which demonstrate the social and health benefits of limiting alcohol sales, there are, equally, others which suggest that higher liquor prices and taxes have little effect on the buying habits of heavy drinkers (meaning that they’re more likely to spend less on food or other essentials). Indeed, it’s probable that a black market may develop for illegal alcohol – causing drinkers inadvertently to consume poisonous liquor.

Beer

This impulse to control how much people drink in the name of preserving order and protecting the vulnerable is nothing new. The global temperance movement which emerged during the final decades of the nineteenth century, lobbied for limiting alcohol sales to men to reduce levels of domestic violence. The Cape Colony’s chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, established in Wellington, in the heart of the Cape winelands, in 1889, encouraged children, in particular, to take the temperance pledge, opened coffee shops to lure men away from canteens (or bars), and petitioned the colonial government to raise the price of liquor and reduce its availability. The WCTU distributed pamphlets, describing the apparently appalling consequences of the ‘demon drink’ for physical and mental health. People who drank had low morals, the ladies of the WCTU argued, and were at risk of falling into destitution. Members of the Myrtle branch, a temperance society for children in Wellington, were informed in 1896 ‘that strong drink leads to anger, debt, despair, destruction, and death’.

Although the WCTU encouraged middle-class men to become teetotal, its efforts were aimed overwhelmingly at men who were working-class and poor. These men – less ‘civilised’ then their middle-class betters – were characterised as uniquely prone to violence and, thus, in greater need of supervision.

Other than the fact that prohibition has never really stopped people from drinking, I think it’s worth thinking twice about limiting access to liquor because this has usually been the product of wider, social anxieties rather than of any real concern about the effects of alcohol on human bodies.

The 1928 Liquor Act was an attempt to shape how African men would consume alcohol. But, as Anne Mager explains, it was a nightmare to implement:

Exemptions to prohibition were granted in the Cape Province and Natal to African men deemed to have attained a certain ‘standard of civilization’. Permits were conditional on two years of good behaviour under the Liquor Act, a clean criminal record and permanent employment. African permit holders were limited to eight bottles of malt beer, four bottles of natural wine or two fortified wines and one bottle of spirits per month. Nevertheless, the privilege of education, property and professional status did not entitle exempted African men to enter bars and public houses frequented by whites or to drink in a friends’ home. Beyond the Cape and Natal, Africans were restricted to ‘kaffir beer’.

This was legislation driven by fear of ‘subjects perceived as immature and dangerously close to barbarism.’ However, they were also subjects from whom the state could profit. From 1937 onwards, a model of municipal beer production pioneered in Durban in 1908, was adopted around South Africa. Municipal beer halls, which had a monopoly on the sale of beer in these areas, with were established in townships and other informal settlements, providing intense competition for the existing shebeens. The profits raised by the halls went back to the municipality, and this was why so many towns and cities adopted this very lucrative scheme. It not only controlled African consumption of alcohol, but it made municipalities rather a lot of money. By the mid-1960s, more than sixty municipalities were operating beer halls.

These beer halls posed a significant threat to African brewers. CM Rogerson writes:

The introduction of municipal beer monopoly and beer halls occasioned considerable response from the community of shebeeners and home brewers, whose livelihood was threatened by the ending of prohibition and competition from municipal beer. Resistance towards municipal monopoly was manifested in various ways, including mass organised boycotts on new beer halls, rioting and the destruction of beer halls and the spreading of rumours by women shebeeners that municipal beer was making their menfolk sterile. For example, at Welkom in the Orange Free State the opening in 1956 of a municipal brewery and the withdrawal of home brewing permits sparked township rioting and attacks on the new beer hall.

As Rogerson implies, the people who had the most to lose from the municipal beer halls were African women, who controlled much of the production of beer in the ‘locations’ on the edge of towns and cities. Women were at the centre of beer production and selling. They tended to be unmarried, and could become relatively powerful. The figure of the ‘shebeen queen’ recurs in many of the novels depicting life in South African cities during the first half of the twentieth century.

It was women, too, who controlled the flourishing illegal production of alcohol. At the end of 1960, there were 30,000 illegal brewers in the Western Cape, and more than 10,000 shebeens in Soweto. But this was a business carried out in constant threat: women bore the brunt of police crackdowns on the trade. Unsurprisingly, then, women brewers and shebeen owners were often on the forefront of anti-government protest too. Most famously, they had a key role in the Cato Manor Beer Hall riots in 1959. Not only did these women berate men for drinking at municipal beer halls, but they resisted police raids on their shebeens.

Illegal beer brewing became, then, for African women both an act of political resistance, as well as a means of supporting themselves in a heavily patriarchal society.

All of this changed in 1962 when the apartheid state agreed – partly as a result of intense lobbying from industry – to open up sales of alcohol to Africans. However, this sale was still tightly controlled by the state, as Mager writes:

Since they were permitted to purchase but not consume liquor in town, Africans were effectively restricted to buying liquor at outlets (on- and off-consumption) run by the Bantu Areas Administration Boards (BAAB) in prescribed African townships. These outlets were built adjacent to the beer halls that supplied sorghum beer to working men. They comprised bars for women and men and ‘off-sales’ bottle stores. The consolidated infrastructure facilitated government monopoly in the distribution of European liquor. Local BAABs retained 20 per cent of the profits on liquor sales for the development of township amenities; 80 per cent went to the Department of Bantu Administration (BAD) head office for the financing of apartheid.

African alcohol consumption helped to fund the apartheid state. It also swelled the profits of South African Breweries, which supplied both state-run outlets as well as the illegal shebeens.

The sale of alcohol in South Africa has, then, a complex and fraught history. It is intertwined with anxieties about the control of black people in ‘white’ cities: by bringing alcohol provision within the ambit of the state, Africans’ consumption of alcohol could (in theory) be regulated, but they were, unwittingly, contributing to their own continued subordination by the apartheid regime.

Trying to manage people – either as a result of fear or out of a desire to eradicate social ills – through limiting the control of alcohol will never be fully successful. In fact, trying to stop people from drinking on Sundays or in the evenings just prevents them from drinking on Sundays or in the evenings – it doesn’t actually address the problems which cause people to drink in excess, or which cause men to beat up their wives and children.

Sources

Iain Edwards, ‘Shebeen Queens: Illicit Liquor and the Social Structure of Drinking Dens in Cato Manor,’ Agenda, no. 3 (1988), pp. 75-97.

Anne Mager, ‘“One Beer, One Goal, One Nation, One Soul”: South African Breweries, Heritage, Masculinity and Nationalism 1960-1999,’ Past and Present, no. 188 (Aug. 2005), pp. 163-194.

Anne Mager, ‘The First Decade of “European Beer” in Apartheid South Africa: The State, Brewers, and the Drinking Public, 1962-1972,’ Journal of African History, vol. 40 (1999), pp. 367-388.

Gary Minkley, ‘“I Shall Die Married to the Beer”: Gender, “Family” and Space in the East London Locations, c.1923-1952,’ Kronos, no. 23 (Nov. 1996), pp. 135-157.

CM Rogerson, ‘A Strange Case of Beer: The State and Sorghum Beer Manufacture in South Africa,’ Area, vol. 18, no. 1 (1986), pp. 15-24.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 06.03.2013

The crime syndicates illegally importing meat into South Africa.

Why it’s difficult to eat well on a tight budget.

Eating for a week on a food stamp budget.

The rising cost of pistachios in Iran.

An interesting new study on malnutrition, diet, and microbes.

What it’s like to work at Applebee’s.

An interview with the CEO of Whole Foods.

How cocaine was removed from soft drinks.

Such a lovely charity: Free Cakes for Kids.

School lunches in Japan.

McDonald’s all over the world.

Vegetarians suffer from lower rates of heart disease than meat eaters.

The meaning of breakfast.

MacMunch – apartheid South Africa’s McDonald’s.

Lunch with Ed Balls.

Fikile Mbalula praises his wife’s meatloaf…

How to write a good recipe for muffins.

Sales of Nutella are improving.

Now’s the time to buy El Bulli’s wine cellar.

A recipe for mushroom and taleggio pie.

Eating in Naples.

Where Chefs Eat.

In case of fryer.

The best recipes for milk tart.

Build your ice box.

Recipes for stew.

Looking for a supper club?

Coffee.

Thoughts on South African restaurants.

Seventeenth-century food markets.

Cooking with snow.

Taiwan’s Barbie-themed restaurant.

Haggis is eaten all over the world.

What is a flat white?

Photographs of vegetarian street food in Shanghai.

Jay Rayner on why he hates dishwashers.

Cabbage in…bread.

Where to eat ramen in Toronto.

The future of the Jewish deli.

Virginia Woolf‘s recipe for bread.

Kama Sutra cookie cutters.