Passing on the Potjiekos

Written by Jaco Prinsloo // @EndsOff

Illustrated by Rebecca Frost // @rebeccafrostillustration // rebeccafrost.net

‘It’s not possible, you don’t have enough time,’ said my maternal grandfather on the other end of the line, sounding decidedly doubtful.

It was a miserably blowy and cold morning in early July, I was on a frenetic supermarket-run for ingredients, and was saving precious time by phoning him from the meat counter while haranguing the butcher to hurry with the portioned lamb shanks. I’d never made one on my own before, and desperately needed Granddad to dice 60 years of ‘potjiekos’ experience into a few digestible sound bites. My coals were already reaching the optimal temperature that I’d seen him gauge with the back of his hand those many times, but the old man wasn’t budging, and thickening his sauce with scepticism.

‘You need at least four hours of cooking time alone, and you’ve not even begun chopping your vegetables, or seasoning your pot. It’s pointless, you shouldn’t even attempt it. Also, have you looked outside?’ There was no time to argue, or calculate if he was attempting to protect me from the embarrassment of disastrous failure, or simply being coy with his method. Already an hour had lapsed since the head of our varsity residence belatedly realised we didn’t yet have an entry for the campus-wide potjiekos competition, and twenty minutes since I, the first year student with no choice in the matter, had been assigned the task. The judges (three popularfemale 4​ year students who were appointed that morning) were set to begin the initial round of tasting in two and a half hours, the rain was getting heavier, and time was wasting. I ignored my grandfather’s stoic cynicism, and forged ahead with a technical question. ‘What goes in first, the carrots or the potatoes, and how do you make your sauce?’

‘Sauce?!’ he cried incredulously. I could hear his dentures clattering in contempt. ‘No, my boy, you ​never​ add sauce. Perhaps a swig of red wine, if you have it, but that’s the whole point of the bulbous shape of the pot. As the fat in the meat renders, and the moisture in the onions, butternut, mushrooms and marrows cooks out, the meat braises to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, and the resultant broth creates the flavour. You reduce that broth by removing the lid for the last half an hour of cooking time, but not too much. You need glacially slow heat, and therefore time, and without either you simply don’t have potjiekos, you have stew.’ His scepticism regarding my chances hadn’t improved, but his lecture had given me the concise recipe synopsis I needed upon which I could riff. ‘Thanks Grandpa! I’ll let you know how it turns out,’ I said, and rang off. I slung into the shopping cart a packet of tomato-stew cook-in-sauce in lieu of four hours of flavour development. If grandpops didn’t see me taking a shortcut it clearly didn’t happen, I reckoned, and rushed to the checkout.

About 45 minutes, a fortifying glass of Pinotage or two and a handful more improvisations later, my pot was whispering away in the prescribed manner, with steam vapours escaping the lid of the pitch-black cast iron pot, over precisely the kind of elevated heat that my grandfather had warned so stridently against. Wrapped snugly against the cutting Southeaster, I leaned back in a lawn chair beside the crackling, dancing fire, thankful for its radiating heat on such a grey day. It wasn’t long before I was reminiscing about the countless winter evenings on which I’d do much the same, in the boma at the side of my grandfather’s home in Cape Town during family holidays.

W.D Basson was the pater familias, the consummate host and entertainer regardless of wind or weather. In between stacking wood, lighting the fire and preparing the coals, he would handle the most important preparation for the expansive meals he served, keep wine glasses replenished, tend his sacred orchids, and tell and re-tell all his tales of a life spent in service of law, order and his fellow man and woman. I was too young then to be given any consequential responsibilities myself, and he was fussy about control. During summer holidays, when the sun in Cape Town sets after eight at night and days are long and languorous, we cousins would play cricket in his backyard, with scant regards for the flavours wafting from the boma. But in winter, while my sister would read and my cousins argue over video games, I would quietly take my place in the warmest corner of the boma, wrap a woolly scarf a little tighter, and simply watch.

Often it was snoek, the quintessential Cape Town fish, smoked in a special compartment at the side of the multi-levelled brick barbeque pit he had built by hand. Depending on the weather, it could be lamb chops and ‘boerewors’ sausage, always served with garlic bread, a variety of fresh salads, and a spicy, alarmingly red dipping sauce the secret of which he took with him to the grave. But after mid-May, when the first cold fronts began thundering in from the stormy Atlantic and shroud Table Mountain in its famous cloudy tablecloth, it would invariably be potjiekos.

Literally translated from Afrikaans to simply mean ‘food from a small pot’, potjiekos is a widely popular South African type of stew with as many variations as the country has cultures, but invariably involves a protein (more often the cheaper cuts of beef or poultry, preferably some form of game-like kudu or springbok during the mid-year hunting seasons) browned in onions, then covered with individual layers of vegetables (hard ones at the bottom, softer ones on top) and fresh herbs, and left to bubble away over slow coals for a long time. The result, hopefully, is deeply satisfying comfort food, for the kind of brooding night when the rain batters its ceaseless rhythm against the windows, and the wind whines melancholically around corners.

As my grandfather so adroitly explained, the key lies in the fat-bellied, three-legged pot, which circulates heat in a manner similar to a Moroccan tagine and produces complex, robust flavours from the most strikingly simple ingredients. If seasoned properly and maintained correctly, the pots are virtually indestructible, and often become family heirlooms. As do family recipes and methods. As it turns out, the severely time-constrained method I’d followed in flagrant disregard of my (very traditionalist) grandfather’s advice didn’t cause a crushing disappointment. After a mere hour and a half on the coals, my competition entry won an entirely respectable second, and having tasted the winning effort, I am unmoved to this day that the judging process was rather less transparent than was ideal. On that wet, blustery day those many years ago, I’d used only the elements of his method that were utterly essential, and when I phoned him back later to tell him of the result, he remained unconvinced. He mumbled something barely audible about heresy and pyrrhic victories, but conceded at last that as long as the meat was tender the rest might be forgiven.

It wasn’t so much the technique, or even the specific recipe, that grandfather Basson bequeathed to me, as it was the tradition of the meal, the pleasure of meticulous preparation and execution, the ceaseless joy in sharing a meal with loved ones, and the satisfaction in hearing the scrape of the serving spoon against the empty bottom of the pot.

In recent years, I’ve increasingly begun to take after him, apparently, in posture, pose and mannerisms. To the surprise of no-one in my immediate family, potjiekos has become my calling-card dish. Once the leaves turn brown, and the first cold fronts begin to roll in over the Atlantic, my pot is hauled out. Thoughts turn to adapting and tinkering with my recipe and toying with various elements of ingredients, heat and time. On each occasion I’ve made it, once the meat was properly browned and the layers of vegetables stacked, I’ve toasted my long-passed grandfather by adding a swig or two of red wine, whenever I’ve had it. The more I’ve prepared it, the more I’ve realised that, in order to produce the best potjiekos, you need glacially slow heat, and at least four hours of cooking time.

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