Wholesome Country Grub
As you’ve realised by now, there’s much more to Sutherland and the Karoo than sheep. But when dinner time rolls around, it’s those sheep you’ll be thinking of.
Enter the noble Merino sheep breed, which has long been the backbone of Karoo agriculture, producing wool and all manner of crafty by-products … and of course the truly, utterly, famously delectable, toothsome Karoo mutton and lamb.
Interestingly, people in this area don’t traditionally have the same culture of baked goods as do many other rural South African communities. This stems directly from the fact that wheat does not grow well here and in the early days importing enough wheat to mill flour was expensive and difficult. Over time, tastes adapted until rice and potatoes became the staples in meals. Nevertheless, the women of the area bake delicious rusks, biscuits and sweet treats like skuinskoek and koeksusters. Despite the history of bread as a luxury, most of the older generation bake their own bread almost every day, often using sheep fat instead of butter.
Rich traditional food culture is alive and thriving in Sutherland. Local cuisine is rooted in traditional boerekos, that is, big portions of hearty country food built around mutton and game, with the use of quince providing an unusual touch. The food you will enjoy here is closely linked to the town’s agricultural setting. Due to Sutherland’s remoteness, fresh fruit and vegetables are limited. Main meals revolve around ‘rys, vleis en aartappels’ (rice, meat and potatoes). Many vegetables are preserved in some way, like curried green beans, or beetroot preserved in vinegar and sugar. But if you ask a local about vegetables, chances are they’ll say they mainly eat meat but occassionally have vegetables – by which they mean chicken and pork! But don’t panic. Local restaurants prepare a variety of foods, from chops to lamb shanks, to bobotie, curry, schnitzels, good old steak and chips and a variety of home-baked meat pies. An interesting local treat is preserved quince pieces (quinces are common in Sutherland) served with lamb or game.
But getting back to the sheep, Karoo lamb is a delicacy much sought after by meat-loving South Africans as well as foreign visitors. The singular flavour of all Karoo meat comes from the unique vegetation grazed by animals ranging freely across endless tracts of wild veld, drinking pristine water and breathing pure air. The experience of warming your hands at an open fire while the sun sets over a spectacular Karoo landscape and the aroma of sizzling lamb chops rises into the clear air does something profoundly good to the soul.
Before you leave you’ll have many opportunities to taste, enjoy and buy an abundance of local produce. Feel free to chat to the people who make and sell these items – they know the best recipes and traditional cooking secrets and are delighted to share them with visitors. To get you started, here’s Ouma Mieta van der Merwe’s recipe for preserved quince: Peel the quince and boil it in 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar until a fork can pierce right through. Cut the quince in half and then cut each half into three pieces. Wait for the fruit to cool and preserve in an airtight glass jar. Delicious with roast lamb or venison or as a sweet treat after a meal. For more receipes you’ll have to come to Sutherland!