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South African cookbook musters international award

Paul Murray

Leipoldt's Cellar and Kitchen translated from C Louis Leipoldt's Polfyntjies vir die Proe by Dr WL Liebenberg (Bredie translated by TS Emslie), adapted for publication by TS Emslie and published by Cederberg Publishers (2005), has recently received the International Gourmand World Cookbook Award for 2005, in the category Rest of the World.

This is a considerable achievement considering that there were 6 000 books competing for the award!

Cederberg Publishers has done justice to a great South African whose vision for writing might not have been rewarded internationally as it should have been. One thinks of C Louis Leipoldt's trilogy The Valley (Stormberg: 2001), in which the reader can gain an amazing perspective on South African history for the period 1820 to 1930, in the context of world affairs at the time.

Leipoldt's Cellar and Kitchen/ is a collection of essays on food and history written by Dr Leipoldt during the 1940s for publication in Die Huisgenoot. The exception is Bredie, which was written in 1933. In addition, there is an essay entitled "My Life with Doc", compiled by TS Emslie, on the latter's return from having interviewed Dr Peter Shields at Berkhamsted in August 2003. Peter is the only surviving of the two adopted sons of Dr Leipoldt. The essay is a gem for its personal insights into the life of a great South African.

Leipoldt's column in Die Huisgenoot bore the title Kelder en Kombuis (Cellar and Kitchen), which the title of the publication captures. He wrote under the pseudonym KAR Bonade, which, when said, is a pun on the word carbonade, the name for a slowly-cooked stew or casserole. This is an apt way of naming himself as writer, since he was the master of slow cookery in South Africa, having learnt the art from the aya in the kitchen of his Clanwilliam home in the 1880s.

Leipoldt would turn in his grave - his ashes lie scattered in a cave in the Cederberg, the font of his love for nature and the area where he acquired rare wisdom - at the prospect of fast food.

The Introduction to the book, by TS Emslie, captures the essence of a universal man, talented in so many areas - cookery, botany, medicine, literature and history. It was the latter for which Leipoldt had a rare feel, since his writing always reflected an urgent sense of time and place. Whether it be in his historical or his literary work, the reader can be assured of walking away with a feel for destiny.

In his essays on food and wine in this publication, C Louis Leipoldt engages the reader from the start. Take the essay on "The Governor's Bean", for example, which opens with the engaging words: "It would be hard to find something more genuinely Afrikaans in a vegetable garden than the good old goewerneursboontjie, or hereboontjie, as it is also called."

A gem is the essay entitled "Jakkalskos-Soufflé". The writer tries desperately to think up something indigenous to serve a food connoisseur friend, concluding there was "no such thing as an authentically Afrikaans dish …". Speculating whether it should be waterblommetjies or klipkous (perlemoen/abalone), the writer settles for jakkalskos.

This rare, guava-like fruit/vegetable is found in the shade of the indigenous melkbos, living off its roots. Ants carry its seeds to the root of the milkwood, where the parasite lays its foundation. Miraculously, the flower of the jakkalskos plant surfaces. The writer ends the essay with a challenge: "The taste of jakkalskosjakkalskos. And have a glass of muscadel with it! Then you will truly be able to say: 'Now I've really eaten something indigenous to our own South Africa!'"

The writer's unique style makes the essay "Sherry" interesting, not only from the historical but also from the dietetic perspective: "The excellence of sherry is due to the quality of its various components, the most important of which are the oils, fatty acids and amino acids, and the least important of which is the alcohol content." One cannot resist the beautiful Leipoldtian style: "Therefore enjoy it as a pimpeltjie before the meal - preferably not the sweet variety - or as a drink on its own, for which the oleroso, darker or semi-sweet varieties are best'.

How can any book on South African cookery be complete without mention of biltong?

The writer's essay on the subject is informative and amusing. He closes with: "Let me add this. Of all the meats, biltong is possibly the easiest to digest, and the best food … This makes biltong, if it is first-class, one of the best foods for sick people. But then a bad, and especially dirty, fly-bespeckled biltong is an inferior food, and much more so if a quarter of it consists of indigestible sinew."

Michael Olivier, gourmet and celebrity chef, read the essay "Oysters" at former Cape Grace's Bruce Robertson's dinner with the theme "Leipoldt with a Twist". Omie (Uncle) decides to treat nefie (nephew) to oysters. Nefie really struggles with the idea of having to down the slippery creatures and consequently utters: "Please … no … Omie … Omie must excuse me. It looks … it looks just like dermskraapsels (scrapings of gut)."

The publication features not only a glossary but also a list of scientific names and their modern equivalents. In this regard Barbara Knox-Shaw has been acknowledged for her botanical and culinary expertise contained in notes to the text. The book has been finely indexed, which must have been a Herculean task, especially because KAR Bonade (aka C Louis Leipoldt) is scientific in his writing.

A further feature is the publication's black-and-white full-page photographs, taken from the Elliott, Jeffrys and University of Cape Town Collections (with the addition of one current photograph). The selection of photographs adds to the nostalgic feel the book has, taking one back in time. A photograph of Leipoldt's culinary mentor, August Escoffier, appears, as does the old White House, seat of many a fine meal had by Leipoldt and friends and associates at the time.

The publishing house, Cederberg Publishers, should be commended for the enterprise it has shown by evoking a strong interest in and revitalising South Africa's cooking history, which forms part of the palimpsest of a rich and diverse cultural-culinary history.

LitNet: 31 January 2006

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