The Karoo a magical place. It’s an endless region (one third of South Africa) of arid semi desert. Fields of sharp rocks as far as the eye can see with scarce, low, dry vegetation. An enormous bright blue sky in the day and billions of twinkling stars at night. A true land of extremes: hot in summer and cold in winter with spectacular floods and catastrophic droughts. This is where the Afrikaans saying “‘n boer maak ‘n plan” (“a farmer makes a plan”) was born. In this vast, scarcely inhabited land you are often left to your own devices and creative thinking when problems need solving. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in this fascinating place and experience the rugged beauty of the Karoo and the great hospitality of its people.
A couple of months ago I met with our friends Francy and Peter Schoeman who own and run Langbaken, a dairy farm east of Williston in the heart of the Karoo. We talked about the farm and the cows, and Peter mentioned that it would be lambing and calving season at the beginning of August. I’ve been at the birth of tiny humans, hamsters and puppies, but I had never seen calves or lambs being born so I quickly invited myself to the farm for some farm activities. When August arrived I packed some wine, soapmaking things and other necessities into the plane and then Markku, my sweetest sweetheart, flew me to the airstrip in Williston.
Landing in Williston the first thing that strikes you is how incredibly dry the land is looking at the moment. The region is currently experiencing a very severe drought. The Karoo is sheep country and under normal circumstances four hectares of the arid land provides enough grazing to sustain one sheep, but after four years of drought there is hardly any grazing left anywhere and the farmers have to buy feed to keep their animals alive. The situation is serious for everybody and many farmers who rely purely on their farming income are facing having to sell or slaughter their livestock.
With the recent drought in Cape Town in fresh memory it’s easy to imagine the raw feelings of worry and despair that the drought is causing. The Schoemans are working hard to keep up morale in their little town. While I was visiting the farm Peter spent a whole day in Williston offloading and redistributing feed donations coming by the truckload from compassionate farmers in other parts of the country. Potatoes, corn husks, pecan nuts – anything that hungry sheep will eat.
At Langbaken Francy and her cheese making are putting the farm on the map. Walk into any top restaurant in South Africa and chances are that there will be Langbaken cheese on the menu. The Langbaken cheeses are artisan products, carefully handmade with fresh Jersey milk free from antibiotics etc.
In addition to meat sheep and Jersey cows Peter and Francy also keep pigs. Cheese making produces considerable amounts of highly nutritious whey which piggies thrive on. For the record the Langbaken pigs are in good international company when enjoying their whey: Parma pigs are also fed on whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Our first adventure was to send off a pair of little bull calves to greener pastures (literally) at a smallholding in Stellenbosch. At the best of times bull calves tend to live short lives on dairy farms. Now, with the drought and no surplus grazing, the two little ‘Jersey boys’ were very lucky to be welcomed to a new home – with plenty of green grass.
At five o’clock on Monday morning the ‘bakkie’ (pick-up truck) was loaded with the two calves, milk for customers in town – plus all the school children from the farm going to back to their boarding schools in Williston and Calvinia for the week.
Back at the farm I got to make something I’ve been wanting to make for years. I made Kalvdans which means ‘dance of calves’. It’s a traditional Swedish dessert made from beest or beestings, i.e. the first milk that the cow produces after calving – aka colostrum. Colostrum sound suspiciously scientific and for cooking I much prefer to call it beest or beestings. Nature designed beest to be the best possible first food for newborn calves, i.e. it’s highly nutritious. The fat content is lower than in regular cow’s milk, but the protein content is much higher. In cooking terms this means that when heated beest will coagulate to a crème caramel consistency – without any addition of eggs.
Under normal circumstances Peter keeps all the precious beest for the new calves, but this time he kindly set aside a little for me to experiment with in the kitchen. This is the Kalvdans recipe I used:
- 1L beest
- 100g sugar
- 10 almonds, toasted and chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 pinch of crushed cardamom
I blended everything, poured it into a shallow dish and baked it in a bain-marie at 150C for about 40 minutes. We had it with some homemade raspberry jam that I had made a few days earlier and it was yummy!.
Once the Kalvdans was in the oven I still had some beest left so I quickly decided to try making some ‘no egg’-pancakes with it. It worked perfectly. The beest contains so much protein that you could dilute it with some regular milk and still make perfect pancakes.
Later that day I got to meet Williston soapmaker and history buff Tannie (auntie) Elsa van Schalkwyk, who had been invited to the farm for a bit of soapmaking talk. Tannie Elsa knows more about Williston and the Karoo than most people and she is immensely skilled and knowledgeable. She mentioned how in times of long-ago droughts soap recipes had been circulated in the farming community to help farmers make some extra income. She told us how in the treeless Karoo lye used to be made from the ashes of Asbos ( ‘ash bush’ aka Psilocaulon junceum). When I admitted I didn’t know what asbos looks like she promptly went outside and brought in a few sprigs to show us. Asbos grows in great profusion in the Karoo so finding it is easy if you know what to look for.
Tannie Elsa also told us about the harpuisbos (‘rosin bush’ aka Euryops abrotanifolius) that gives rosin for drawing salves and other traditional medicinal applications. As I was folding the baking parchment to line my soap mould she remembered how olden day soapmakers would lay out frames on the floor and line them with wet cloth..
Francy had some beautiful white lard from Langbaken pigs raised on whey so I decided to use the lard as a foundation for my soap recipe. I weighed out a little coconut oil for bubbles and some castor oil for creamy lather and then a little Western Cape olive oil for good measure since I had brought it along. Tannie Elsa makes her soaps from tried and tested old recipes so my making up a formula on the go was a little different. I showed her the app on my phone that lets me calculate lye and superfat quickly and I think she found it a little weird but interesting.
Soap and Braiding
I had brought along some essential oils for fragrance and Francy chose a fresh combination of lemongrass and neroli. For colour I added a smidgen of ultramarine blue and coloured a small portion black with activated charcoal. I could have used some cheese whey for liquid but I didn’t want the sugars to distort my delicate blue so I used Karoo water instead. As expected the lard soap was on best behaviour and came to trace nice and slow, in a very ladylike and dignified manner. I used dividers to pour the black soap in the centre of the mould and then a chopstick to make some nice, crisp swirls. “It looks like little fish!”, said Tannie Elsa.
When the soap had been laid to rest in a well-insulated cooler box I showed Tannie Elsa the Marudai or Japanese braiding loom which I had brought along.
She in turn taught me how to make a cord that she had learnt from somebody who had learnt it from somebody else as a small child. A kind of lucet cord made without a lucet. Now I know how to make it too and it’s nice to be part of this chain of local learning and teaching.
The next morning a pig was slaughtered in preparation for sausage making. If calving and lambing are part of farm life, so is slaughter. And while death is an uneasy concept, the unsuspecting pig passed away instantaneously without drama in a familiar environment among familiar people, voices and smells.
Not wanting anything to go to waste I was allowed to collect the pig’s blood to make blood pancakes which is something I’ve often had but never made myself. Blood pancakes is not something you’re likely to come across in South Africa. But I’m from Finland where you can buy delicious savory blood pancakes in every supermarket – it’s a national dish. When I grew up my mother would buy pig’s blood from the neighbourhood butcher and make delicious black pancakes which we would have for dinner with sauce bechamel, melted butter – and tart lingonberry jam. And no, before you ask, I would never add blood of any kind to soap.
Fresh blood coagulates rapidly. It took me less than ten minutes to get my container from the pig pen to the farm kitchen, but by that time the contents were already one big blob. With a big whisk I broke the blob back to liquid and beat it vigorously until it cooled. In the meantime I did some quick googling for recipes and this was the recipe I went with:
Veriohukaiset (Finnish blood pancakes)
- 600ml well-beaten blood
- 600ml beer (I used some of the delicious stout that Peter brews on Langbaken)
- 200ml rye flour
- 200ml wheat flour
- 2 small onions chopped
- 2 tsp salt
- black pepper
Blend everything except the onions carefully. Let rest for 30 minutes. In the meantime soften the onions in a pan. Add onions to batter and fry small pancakes.
I used that fabulous Langbaken lard for frying and my pancakes turned out just like the black pancakes of my childhood. This time we didn’t have lingonberry jam, but locally made apricot chutney worked well as a condiment. I had enough blood to make some for everybody on the farm to taste. One of the men felt that I went a bit too light on the onion and another would have preferred more black pepper. But all in all they seemed to like this strange, foreign food made by the crazy tourist lady because they polished off everything.
Interestingly, this was the second batch of pancakes in two days made without any eggs. Just like beest blood is highly nutritious and rich in protein and will set with heat without the addition of eggs.
After the morning’s cooking it was time to unmould the blue Langbaken soap. I forgot to bring a cutter so I made do with some binding wire for the horizontal cuts. It was a little too thick for neat cutting, but it worked none the less.
The blend of lemongrass and neroli was even more delicious after a night in the mould.
The beehive building in the background is an old corbelled house, a relict from the days of early settlers of European descent. Built entirely from rocks with rock scaffolding it’s cool in summer and possible to keep warm in winter. In South Africa corbelled houses can only be found in this particular part of the Karoo.
In the afternoon I showed Francy how to make Kumihimo braids. This is the kind of braid she ended up making:
If blood pancakes aren’t a South African culinary staple, farm-style sausage is. Known as ‘wors’, fresh sausage in various styles is enjoyed by South Africans across the social and cultural spectrum. Making sausage at home is not unusual in South Africa, but it was yet another first for me.
The Langbaken pork sausage is coarsely ground and Francy adds her special blend of herbs and spices including fennel seeds and smoked paprika, coriander and garlic, as well as generous helpings of chopped jalapinos. The mixture gets loaded into the sausage ‘stuffer’, the casings threaded onto the suffer, and then the stuffing begins. One person cranks the ‘stuffer’ and another feeds out the casings and when their actions are perfectly synchronized you get the perfect sausage consistency. But exclamations of ”Too pap! (soft) or “I want it stiffer!” are common – to the amusement of anybody listening.
Once the sausage mixture is in the casing it’s time to link the individual sausages. Each link is a twist and you twist every second link towards yourself and every second link away from yourself. That way the two links of each sausage can be tightened without undoing other links. Clever!
Again, not to let anything go to waste, all the leftover pork fat was carefully cleaned from meat, minced and slowly rendered down to lard in a big pot on the lowest heat setting. The cleaner the fat tissue and the lower the temperature the less smelly the lard will be. The resulting little bits of crackling known as ‘kaiings’ in Afrikaans ended up as breakfast for Jeff the boerbull dog.
Once the sausages had been hung to dry it was time to make some laundry soap with the rest of the coconut oil I had brought along. South Africa has a long tradition of ‘boerseep’, unsuperfatted all-round soap made from animal fat. Still today the sales pitch for boerseep is often “Cleans well in could water. Gentle on your skin and an excellent stain remover.” Those are lovely notions, but the truth is that soap made from animal fat is high in stearic acid and cleans better in hot water than in cold water – which is why our grandmothers boiled their linen laundry in big cauldrons. And any product that is tough on greasy stains is likely to be very tough on something as sensitive as human skin. While animal fat makes great skincare soap, coconut oil makes soap that is more easily soluble in both hot and cold water and cleans more effectively.
I added some essential oil of peppermint and eucalyptus for scent – other than that it’s just coconut oil giving that beautifully creamy white colour.
100% coconut soap made with a concentrated lye solution gets very hard quite quickly. When the soap had spent a few hours in its insulated cooler box it was time to unmould and cut it.
In the evening I did what I usually do; I put out my soap bucket and utensils to soak overnight. Clearly the night was a little chilly because the following morning the water in the bucket was frozen over. Winter can be severe in the Karoo.
Now it was finally cheese-making day and I had the opportunity to watch Francy make some of her famous Karoo Crumble cheese.
Early in the morning some 300+ litres of finest jersey cow milk was brought up to something close to body temperature. Good thing Cleopatra wasn’t invited; she might have been sorely tempted to take a bath in all that beautiful, warm milk.
Then starter culture was blended in and after a while the rennet was added. The flavour of the milk itself but also the strain of starter culture will affect the flavour profile of the resulting cheese. The rennet makes the milk coagulate so that curds can be cut and whey separated. How fine the curd is cut will have an effect on how dry and hard the cheese will be.
Once the curd has been cut it’s time to press the curds into the cheese moulds. This is done entirely by hand and it’s hard work while bending over the cheese cauldron. Once the finely cut, crumbly-looking curds have been pressed and compacted into the mould they stick together and you can turn out the fresh cheese from the mould in one piece! Like magic!
Then there’s a long wait ahead and eventually these fresh heads will be well-matured, delicious Langbaken Karoo Crumble cheese.
Time flies when you’re having fun and now I had to head back home again. My days on the farm had been packed with interesting and exciting new experiences and Francy and Peter had been so kind to let me tag along on the farm and experiment with all sorts of unusual things in their kitchen. Their hospitality is second to none and their home is filled with love, kindness and laughter.
And with every visit Langbaken and the Karoo etches itself deeper into my heart. The spectacular sunsets and the frosty mornings, the high wind in the eucalyptus trees around the homestead and the succulent garden. The white doves rising like clouds above the rooftops and the tiny, newborn lambs. A magical place indeed.